A Ryanair flight at a civilised time, how unusual! Time for a cheeky lunchtime pint at Spoons before catching a flight to Bergamo. Memories of our previous trip were close to the surface, and I shuddered involuntarily as we passed the desk for Firefly, the Worst Car Rental Company Ever. This time we’d gone with Hertz, which is the same thing but with customer service. We’d opted to buy our zero excess insurance separately for a tenth of the price, but didn’t actually need to see whether this worked this time due to a complete absence of exploded tyres. How novel.
Our car was an Opal Corsa (class C) and it was fine for the kit we had – one rucksack of wetsuits and harnesses, one containing two 60 m 9 mm ropes (thanks to Ben for buying them on the club’s account for this trip). The acceleration was non existent, but the little car tackled everything we threw at it so I shouldn’t gripe too much. Under Sandeep’s careful driving we made good time to Domodossola, the big town at the northern end of Val D’Ossola. On the way, I texted Gerard, our AirBnB host that we were en route, and he replied to say that the entire village of Masera was having a huge party. We assumed it was the sort of ‘giant wicker statue to welcome to outsiders’ party, but were pleasantly surprised to find it was merely a massive piss up in a field.
Gerard turned out to be a forty-something Dutch/Italian guy who was very keen on getting more tourism into the area. He seemed pretty concerned that we were intending to canyon, given the number of rescues in the area, but we tried to convince him we were only mildly incompetent, and he shrugged and went off to the wine festival on his bike. The apartment was great – nice little kitchenette, large overhanging balcony to dry gear under and big front lawn with sage, rosemary and a big fig tree full of ripe figs.
We settled in for the night, eating pasta and sauce and drinking Don Moretti’s most excellent mountain beer. We had Simon Flower’s slightly dubious guide to canyons (did he actually go to all of them, or get someone to sketch it in the pub?) as our main source, and laminated photocopies of the same for the canyon proper. After a little discussion we found a good looking canyon that was nice and short, but looked pretty.
Sunday 11th: Bianca
Up early, we made sandwiches for our big daren drum, and packed the car again. Sandeep drove up the winding mountain roads to the west, tackling some serious hairpins and truly inspired overtaking by the impatient Italians. I accidentally navigated him up some terrible little roads to the top of the canyon rather than the bottom, so we had to drive all the way back down, but I guess it was good training for the later driving. At the bottom we parked by the hydroelectric plant, eyed with suspicion by the man living in the house next door. I gave him a thumbs up and he grunted, so I think I did my bit.
The hike up was easy, and we were quickly by the start, changing into sweaty neoprene and stashing our dry clothes in my soon-to-be-found-to-be-leaky dry bag. By this point I was very excited, and the rest of the group move swiftly through the increasingly deep water towards the first pitch. We adopted the two pairs arrangement that we’d perfected on the last trip – one pair sets the rope, and waits for the other pair to descend, then descends after them and derigs. The other pair goes ahead, rigs the next pitch and waits. This does mean you rarely descend your own rigging, leading to the always funny joke ‘Well, the rope’s probably long enough!’.
Bianca was pretty tame and frankly I remember very little of it, even looking at the pictures. We swiftly got to the final rappel, a 90 m pitch broken into three segments. I derigged the first segment, and half way down I felt myself come to a halt. The rope from the bag on my back had wrapped itself a few times round the straps, holding me in place. I hard locked using a novel technique Tanguy invented, shrugged the bag off and continued. I expected to reach the bottom to the cheers and adoration of my peers, but apparently they hadn’t even noticed I was in trouble. Ingrates.
The final segment was a beautiful long drop down to the road where the car was parked. We packed rope, changed and drove back home for around 3 pm – a very short day, but one that merely wetted our appetite and our wetsuits for the next day. Dinner was a roasted aubergine and lemon risotto and we drank a lot of €1 wine. The festival was still going on, and the thudding house music echoed across the valley as we fell to sleep.
Monday 12th: Mondelli 1 and 2
This is the day where it all went a bit wrong.
Simon Flowers splits this canyon into three sections – the upper two are considered easier, with the second part being ‘the pearl of north west Italy’. So when looking for a longer day, we naturally decided to join these together, and set our watches for 7 am to make an early start. We drove passed the bottom of Bianca from the day before, and continued until we got an abandoned gold mine just by the side of the road, where we parked. This let us avoid some rather sketchy looking hairpins up to the tiny village of Mondelli, and instead we had the pleasure of hiking up a steep hillside, passed ruined walls and cottages until we reached the village. It was beautiful – a small car park outside for the inhabitants, but the village itself only had narrow paved paths between the houses. One house was extravagantly painted on the outside with frescos and fake brick work.
Up through the village we followed the path as it began to ascend the valley. We ignored the turning for the top of Mondelli 2, and instead climbed up on the right, following a barely visible path to a tiny hillside hamlet. From here the instructions were to follow a vague path until you end up in the canyon, which we roughly did, finding the bottom of a tall cascade and changing there. There was no topo for Mondelli 1, but the instructions said we wouldn’t need more than 2 x 45 m rope so we felt quite confident.
Mondelli 1 was good fun. Clean rappels into deep pools, either by or through the water, which flowed fast and clear. The rock was beautifully sculpted, the sun was out and we moved swiftly after the practice of the day before. Without a topo, we had to work out the bolt placements ourselves, or on several occasions decide it was probably a jump or a toboggan. After a few decent pitches the water flowed over flatter ground, splitting up and playing in small swirling pools. We tended to bypass these as the depth was hard to judge from above, which made toboggans unpleasant. One 4 metre jump was very rewarding, and after a couple of hours we abseiled down big pitch with a swirling pool that led to the bridge that marked the beginning of Mondelli 2.
We paused for lunch, getting a bit chilly, and then pressed on. The first pitch was impressive, but entirely bypassable. Faced with an array of bolts I downclimbed on the right, verified the best looking bolts and climbed back up to have a go myself. The canyon began to get more enclosed, and we were often standing in the water. A few pitches followed, and at the bottom of one I felt strong spray hit my face as I waited for Sandeep. He mentioned he was getting cold and wanted to think about escaping the canyon, and I agreed.
Around the corner I found a drop into a deep pool with Rhys and Kenneth rigging the next pitch at the bottom. The water was too loud to shout over, so I gestured whether I should jump. The pool below was turbulent, spinning and swirling and very menacing. Rhys gestured to jump, but then changed his mind, and pointed to some bolts I’d neglected. I rigged the rope and Sandeep went down first. The pitch below looked really tough to rig, a slippery climb right at the lip where the water went over, and I was glad of the handline to pull myself up on. As I prepared to descend, Rhys told me he was sure that the water level had rapidly risen between his jump and my abseil – he could see the bottom of the pool through the clear water, but for me it was a frothy white mess. I said we’d meet at the bottom and have a think about what to do.
I descended, battered by the force of the waterfall, and fell into a large, deep pool with a strong anti-clockwise current. I saw Sandeep circling round and round, and swam over to him, carried sideways by the same currents. He grabbed onto a thin lip of rock at the edge of the pool and told me to grab his foot. From this relative position of stability I was able to wriggle up the slippery slope like a seal, but Sandeep lost his grip and plunged into the next pool. I just had time to call his name before he disappeared and I hauled myself onto the rock, looking for where he had got to.
He was safe, but on the other side of the canyon. Only a few metres away, but impossible to shout across and with a raging torrent of foaming water between us. Below was a long chute and a deep, swirling pool leading to a drop of unknown height. To cross back would be dangerous, so I prepared a belay line. As I did so, Kenneth arrived at the bottom of the pitch, and I hauled him up and got him in position as a body anchor for me. Rhys descended quickly and Kenneth leapt back in to grab him and haul him out, mistaking a loose bite of rope for something tied into anything rather than just wedged under my bum. Fortunately they both managed to crawl back out without pulling me into the water, and though we were all a bit shaken we quickly got the line to Sandeep. I had him on an Italian hitch with Rhys as a back up belayer, and Kenneth as a meat anchor. Sandeep tried to creep his way through the calm bits of the pool to us, but eventually slipped and was caught by the current. We hauled like maniacs, dragging him out of the pool before he disappeared.
Panting, dripping and already shivering, we assessed the situation. It was grim. The water was clearly far higher than it had been for the rest of the canyon, though we weren’t sure why. Simon says there should be an escape on the left of the canyon here, the bank we were on, so I resolved to look for it. Rhys belayed me as I crept along a thin, sloping ledge, covered in moss and weeds, searching for foot holds with my hands and desperately hoping I wouldn’t slip into the fast flowing chute below. Several times I sallied out before losing my nerve, and I began to realise that if there was an escape it was from easy. Even if I had made it, there was no guarantee the others would.
Rejoining the others, we agreed to settle in for a while, to wait to see if the water dropped. I’d left a call out via email with my Dad that morning, so he should do something at 8 pm (our time or his time? We didn’t make that clear) and it was 4 pm now. We huddled together, moved up the slope out of the worst of the draft and waited. I kept almost falling asleep, a dangerous prospect on this narrow ledge. To keep myself awake I looked at the water, but found when I looked up to the rocks afterwards that the canyon wall seemed to shift and morph like the roiling waves below. In desperation, I decided to start a conversation, and hit upon a good source of chat – Sandeep’s many cycling adventures. As we huddled in that deep canyon, uncertain of rescue, he told us about his time in Romania and Moldova, and his foray across the border to Transnistria. We got out the one survival bag (idiots!) and Sandeep and I shared it, me sitting behind him with my arms and legs wrapped around for maximum warmth.
At some point in all of this an hour had passed, and Kenneth and I were sure the water level was a few inches lower. I suggested that I could leap across the other side where there were more bolts which might enable us to abseil into the deep plunge pool without going down the terrifying chute. I was about ready to go when I asked whether or not everyone thought it was a good idea, and apparently they didn’t. Relieved that I didn’t have to do anything stupid, I sat back down again and we resolved to wait until rescue. Sitting there on the rock, shivering even inside the survival bag, I started to calculate. The odds were not good that anyone would reach us before dawn, and we were cold. The light began to fade, and we realised we only had my head torch between the four of us. Faced with a choice of a cold, possibly deadly night by the side of the canyon and a chance to escape with what little light remained, I insisted on going across the canyon. Kenneth argued that the water level may already be at its original level – certainly it had not dropped much further in the second hour of waiting.
We started by trying to throw a rope over a tree at the top, but on the far side, of the canyon. I think we were convinced that if this worked we could prussik up (everyone had jammers) and escape that way. Despite our enthusiasm, we fell far short of this goal, figuratively and literally, and it became clear that we’d have to keep moving down the canyon to find another way to escape.
Rhys belayed me with Kenneth as back up, and I edged down towards the stream. As I got closer, it became less intimidating – sure, it was definitely lower than before, but how much of its remaining flow was enlarged by my fear? I hopped across easily, and rigged a long sling handline down to the next bolt, deviating my belay off the top bolt. My actions became practised and mechanical, and I felt strangely detached from the danger as I clipped krabs and uncoiled slings. The climb down was easy, and quite dry. At the next set of bolts I could see it was a simple abseil into the pool, with ledges on the far side to clamber onto to reach the bolts for the next pitch. The water still looked deep and fast, but I felt I could make it. Waving to the others, I belayed them across in turn, and Kenneth went ahead to rig the pitch for me as Rhys was the last across.
Standing there, we all felt warmer and more confident, but the difficult bit was yet to come. I told the others I would wait for a moment in the cold water at the bottom to acclimatise – they wouldn’t be able to see me for most of the swim. As I abseiled down into the pool the adrenaline hit me hard and I didn’t wait – paddling furiously I reached the other side, resisting the current and I frantically thrashed my way up onto the thin ledge on the far side. Still attached to the rope I waved to the others, exhausted but completely wired. I rigged the hyper-sling (the length of three normal slings!) to the nearest bolt and clambered up. No easy escape here, but the next pitch looked easy at least. I could now see that the escape on the far side of the canyon that I’d been trying to find was completely impossible – thanks Simon Flowers.
Back down to the ledge, and Rhys was arriving. I clipped four slings together to make a huge handline, and grabbed him as he swung by. Leaving him to deal with Sandeep, I clambered back up to to look around, and before I knew it Kenneth was there as well. The four of us were shaken but elated, but the light wad fading very fast. I rigged the the next abseil, hoping for an escape at the bottom, and quickly dropped into the deep pool. At the far side I scrambled up on the left, and found a climbable cliff. As soon as Kenneth came down with the next rope I took it from him to rig a belay off a tree at the top. In the darkness below, Rhys and Kenneth somehow packed the rope as Sandeep climbed up to join me, and the other two quickly followed.
We were out of the canyon, but deep in the dark woods with only moonlight and my fading head torch. Feeling our way along, I tried to cut a rough path towards the village, trying to go neither down to the canyon, or too high and miss the village. At one point I caught a glimpse of a white wall in the distance, and began to head that way. Soon we could see lights in the village, and realised the hour was late – my Dad should be calling the police soon.
We knocked on the first door we found, and the lady who answered was confused by our terrible attempts at Italian. Another man arrived, who asked if we were all out in Italian, which we said yes to – apparently he had heard screaming and had called the rescue himself. We don’t know what this was as we did not scream. At that point, the lady’s English speaking daughter from next door came over and helped translate for us. I called my Dad and told him we were fine. The daughter, Monica, offered us a lift down the hill to our car, which we gladly accepted even though we were worried we’d get her car very wet. She didn’t seem to care, and we were soon changing by the side of the road, unable to express our huge gratitude.
Back at the house, we ate and slept soundly. I didn’t dream, or if I did, I didn’t care to remember it.
Tuesday 13th: Wasenhorn
We woke late and drove to Switzerland along a steep, beautiful valley. Nearing the border we realised that we didn’t have our passports, so I swapped with Sandeep, who was driving, as we’d notice a statistical correlation between being brown and getting pulled over by Swiss border guards on our last trip.
Our target was a mountain on the border of Italy and Switzerland called Punte Terrarose or Wasenhorn. We knew it was too late in the day to get to the top, but the views were stunning all the way up due to a lack of trees. We hiked upwards, passed a huge hospice that looked straight of a Wes Anderson film, and eventually found ourselves at a glacial lake. Never ones to pass up the opportunity for water induced hypothermia, we stripped off and dived in, lasting about thirty seconds before retreating with shrieks.
Back at the house, we had a good chat about what to do to avoid the previous day’s situation recurring. We came up with:
- Check online and with locals for dams above canyons before going in them, and maybe not go to those canyons.
- Everyone should have a head torch.
- Get another new survival blanket.
- More emergency food in the bottom of a Daren drum.
- Firm up what a call out means for my Dad so we know when to expect rescue.
Feeling a bit more confident, we selected an easy canyon for the next day, Antoliva, and ate patatas bravas for dinner.
Wednesday 14th: Antoliva
Only fifteen minutes drive east from our house, Antoliva was supposed to a long, but not challenging, day, which was pretty accurate. We parked by the main road, walked across the narrow bridge to the other side of the large river that paralleled it, and then climbed steeply up to the village. Outsiders were banned from driving on this road, and we quickly saw why – it was terrifying! We crossed over the train tracks just before a train arrived, and then up through the tiny village. The path levelled out after a bit and soon we picked a spot to drop into the canyon.
Immediately it was obvious that the water level was a lot lower than on Monday. We moved quickly, skipping a few of the early obstacles when we couldn’t verify if a jump or toboggan was safe. Very quickly we got to the dam – this one diverted water into a hydroelectric facility below, so could only block up and let more water into the stream below. As we had just been canyoning in the maximum water flow, we weren’t too bothered, and after the dam the water flow was actually disappointingly low.
There were no hard pitches in Antoliva, so it was important to take pleasure from the small things – the beautifully banded gneiss, deep, clear pools that you could jump in or swim across, or leaves dancing over the surface of the still water. Nothing really stands out in my mind about the canyon – after a few hours we were underneath the railway bridge, nearly at the end, and I left the canyon feeling refreshed, not particularly tired but quite happy. A good canyon to do if you need something easy to get some practice in, but otherwise not that worthwhile.
Thursday 15th: Cascata del Toce
The forecast for this day was apocalyptic, and it was well deserved. Thick, lashing rain forced a late start because we couldn’t bring ourselves to get out of bed. I eventually tried to wake Kenneth and Rhys with espresso, but Sandeep was curiously resistant to my caffeinated charms. Eventually we got up and looked blearily at the world. Clearly, no canyoning would be done today, and what else was there to do?
A few days back I’d been playing with google maps and noticed a big waterfall to the north called Cascata del Toce. It was a good drive away, but the drive looked good and it’d get us out of the house. Sandeep took the wheel and steered us north along a relatively good road which featured a 360′ helical loop inside a mountain. The waterfall was pretty good – it had opening hours as the water was otherwise diverted for hydroelectric power, and we arrived with it in full flow. After walking down to the bottom and back we decided to see how far the road went – not very far apparently, as it terminated at the dam above, and the only way on was a footpath to Switzerland. The others went for a walk on the dam as I finished reading ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’.
We’d spotted a fondue set in the house the previous day, and decided to do fondue. Armed with a recipe from the internet, no idea what corn flour was in Italian and a thirst for cheese we descended on the Carrefour, grabbing Emmental, Gruyere and several exciting looking Italian varieties. I’d never made fondue before, but seriouseats came to my rescue as always and I think it was pretty tasty – certainly no one really spoke as we consumed our body weight in cow byproduct. Rhys had made me promise not to add white wine after a bad experience in Geneva, but I snuck some in when he wasn’t looking and he didn’t complain.
The forecast was looking up for the next day, and we targeted a canyon in Switzerland that looked fun. Another early night and some truly surreal cheese fuelled dreams for me.
Friday 16th: Gondo
Just across the border with Switzerland, Gondo is a short but intensely aquatic canyon. It had a dam at the top, but no information about how to ask people not to open it on us. There were, however, a large number of guide outfits that offered trips into the canyon, and this reassured us that the dam didn’t open very often. There were also plentiful escapes before and after every single obstacle that we verified on our way up. Sitting beside the placid river no one seemed to want to be the first to changed, but eventually we got ready, one eye upstream for some half-feared flood pulse.
This fear was forgotten once the canyon began. The first pitch was a classic – nice clean hang right next to a waterfall into a huge plunge pool. The water was cloudy, and it was hard to tell how deep it was from above. I descended first, and floating on my back derigged my descender. Strange, I thought – I’m floating very well! I swam backwards and quickly grounded myself. Standing up, I found the water only 20 cm deep – I’d been lying on my back, not floating! I signalled to the others who came down quickly.
Sandeep and I were ahead, and we found the toboggan quickly. It was meant to be 12 m, but some nasty looking ridges 2/3rds of the way down were quite intimidating. Rhys agreed to go down on a rope, which I rigged off a huge boulder. He went down and signalled it was fine, but for some reason no one believed him, and Kenneth and Sandeep followed on the rope. I was left with a dilemma – I could pack the rope and toboggan down, or descend and try and flick the rope over the boulder. Not wanting to risk my life when I could risk (an easily retrievable rope) I descended as well. The toboggan certainly felt fast even with my pirana slowing me down.
At the bottom of the chute I stopped and climbed out just above the plunge pool. Braced with one leg on the opposite wall and my body slipping down a wet slope, I tried to flip the rope over the boulder. It took a few attempts, but I got it to work – another skill learned! Now I just had to pack the rope, which had been swept down, wrapping around my legs and tangling in the plunge pool. Lying on my back, trying not to slip into the tangled mess, I gradually packed all 60 m as Sandeep watched – I didn’t want to swim over to him in case I became stuck and unable to make progress.
Round the corner was a sweet little toboggan into a very turbulent plunge pool, followed by a huge, open pool to a broad ledge on the left under a wooden bridge. Rhys and Kenneth had rigged already, so I went straight down. It was a bit wet, but quickly the overhang protected me from the worst and I was able to derig my descender at the bottom, standing in a mess of broken wood and detritus. With a jump, I dived through the waterfall and into the pool beyond, smashed downwards midflight by the force of the water.
On the other side was another big pool with a broad ledge. Looking down I could see a big rock bridge over the plunge pool below, and plenty of tat hanging from trees to enable guide groups to climb onto the bridge and jump into the pool below. I let out all 30 m of rope and Rhys went down first, almost immediately out of sight. He took a long time reappear, and when he did so it was on the rock bridge – very odd!
He did some extravagant gestures, we responded with our incomprehensible replies and eventually he convinced us to pull the rope up. We found a small, perfectly formed fig-8 stopped knot at the end. Not what you want to find dangling 3 m off the bottom of the pitch. He’d managed to undo it and jump down – the rest of us could now slide off the end.
I went down last, having attached the other end of the rope to the tackle sack, and donkey’s dick to my harness with the hyper-sling. This was pretty useful, as when I got near the bottom I saw that I’d need to let go of the rope, and without holding onto the other end it would be impossible to retrieve. I dropped, the tackle sack and the hyper sling dragged the other end down and we all plunged into a frothy pool. As I attempted to pull the rope I was swept around by the current, until a red rope suddenly appeared in front of me. Rhys and Kenneth had thrown the other rope to me and were dragging me to safety, a shallow stone ledge just underwater. It was a beautiful moment of teamwork, and a great spontaneous use of equipment to make my descent quick and safer. We paused after unpacking the rope to examine the topo, and then Kenneth went ahead to rig as Rhys took some sweet photos.
This pitch again was rigged from a broad ledge, but never went that near the water. I was a little disappointed, but the others were quickly down and I scrambled to the next pitch head. Simon said there were two routes, one very aquatic and one quite dry. I spotted the aquatic one, a ten metre drop through the full flow to a wet ledge from which the next bolts for the 20 m pitch were quite a stretch. The dry route took a while to find, and when we looked down it was unclear how dry it would really be. Combined with the uncertain free climb promised at the bottom, we decided to bail here – we’d had a good day, and didn’t want to push it. Posing for a group photo I knocked a tackle sack backwards down the ledge towards the waterfall, and only Rhys’ quick action saved our rope and possibly our car keys.