So by a fortunate coincedence, I happened to be crossing paths with Ed, climbing partner of old from Scotland. He on his route home from Croatia/Dolomites in his very shiny new VW conversion, and me still working my way eastwards. So I drove over the pass from Briancon to Valle Susa and across the hot piedmont, and to the granite paradise of Val di Mello.
We rendevoused in the evening and soon realised the restrictions that were hard to gather from Italian online articles (well, unless you read italian well, which I dont). During the summer high-season, there are traffic restrictions in the San Martino area, which is the closest village to the valley, and strictly no random campervan parking. The campsite costs 19 euros per night for a person in a campervan, which would add up quickly, so we opted to park up lower in the valley where it is unrestricted (just downstream from Sasso Remenno). The road from San Martino up to the climbers parking proper is also restricted in July/August (you need a special permit, which you can get by staying in the campsite, but otherwise…). We decided to risk the wrath of the local authorities and winged it in Eds smaller van. Ethically dubious, but it cetainly saved many a slog up the road.
The first day we looked at the looming thunder clouds and decided to keep it simple. The roadside ‘boulder’ of Sasso Remenno holds a good variety of sport routes from 3+ to 8c, and we amused ourselves for morning climbing routes that were too long for our rope while the sun baked the face to a cosy glow, or a sweaty mess, depending on your perspective.
The next day was a wash-out, as forcast, so we took our time perusing Ed’s guidebook and deciding what to do once things dried out. Ed hadn’t been climbing all that much of late, so a whopping great route like Magic Line was out of the question. We settled on the classic pairing of Il Risveglio di Kundalini (E1 5b / VI+ 400m 10 pitches) and Luna Nascente (E2 5b / VII- 340m 9 pitches), which are often climbed as a link-up.
The first route was an grand meander up generally slabby ground, traversing under epic roof systems and even involving a delicate slab down-climb on chickenheads (interesting for the second, unprotected). With Ed’s 80m rope we managed to do it in 8 pitches, the weaving line towards the end preventing further shortcuts, and finished in good time around lunch/nap o’clock on a pleasant terrace reminicent of Upper Cave at Dunkeld! Unfortunately, by this time Ed’s beach-relaxed toes were painfully destroyed by his rock-shoes, so we made the call to descend and do the second half of the pairing the next day. The path access is reasonably well marked, albeit a slog to regain the upper starting point.
The next day we rose early and managed the 90 minute approach to Luna Nascente in the relative cool of the morning, and were first on the route. The initial moves off the ground are the hardest of the route, graded a deceptive 6b (but remember this is 6b bloc, in the confusing european grading system, meaning that shorter passages or boulder problems will be technically harder than a long sustained pitch of the same grade). Lacking a warm-up, and going into what appeared to be a slippery overhanging finger-crack, it took me a few goes, and one fall before I realised the trick. (SPOILER – dont get blinkered into the crack alone, but move quickly left into the hanging offwidth). After that less than glorious start I decided to link through the 6a+ (VII-/A0) pitch to make up time. This too proved harder than I expected, small undercuts (for my chubby digits) vs tenuous smearing under an overhanging wall. The pitons had all been decorated with cord extenders, suggesting frequent use of aid, so I sat on one momentarily to pull out the topo and check I wasnt going the wrong way. It was indeed the route, so I pulled back on and gritted my teeth against the increasingly crippling rope-drag to finish the pitch. I’ll call it the equivalent of taking the belay that I skipped ;). The rest of the route was classic granite crack laybacking and jamming, the money-pitch being 5-6 (I linked since Ed belayed half-way up P5) : a perfect crack gradually narrowing through offwidth, fists, hands, fingers and closed groove over 60m. A little bit of everything, easy enough just to relax and enjoy it – what more could you ask for? Ed linked the last two pitches of slab together as well, although needing about 3m of simul-climbing to reach the tree-belay it left me no time to put on my shoes before leaving the stance. Luckily 3a-5a slab feels pretty much the same with or without footwear! In the end we did the route in 5 pitches (just). Descending the precipitous trail, we had a great view of the upper dome, and the procession of ant-small climbers following each other up. It really does pay to get an early start!
After those two routes, Ed’s toes called time, so on our last day we wandered up to the head of the valley to Placche del Oasi. We both padded up Il Gioco Dello Scivolo (Severe / III+ 150m) and I followed up with Uomini E Topi (Severe / III+ 350m) which quested up predominantly blank slabs with one bolt per pitch, before meeting some corners and a boulder-problem finish. Perfect relaxing slab-fun, the only down-side being the very slippery descent path where-in I lost my Bianco t-shirt off the back of my harness at a point unknown 😦
The rest of the day we spent in the shade of, and very occasionally pulling on, the riverside boulders near the parking. Its easy to see why this is also a bouldering mecca, but its hard not to have one’s gaze drawn inexorably to the huge east face of Monte Qualido, looming over the vally and making even the 400m faces below shrink into insignificance. Here be dragons, and epics, and challenges of another scale. And here I shall return.