Climbing in Arco

It's a long Easter weekend so we brace the customary traffic jam at the Gotthard tunnel and head South to Italy. Our destination is the village of Arco, at the tip of lake Garda. I haven't been there before, but apparently it's some sort of Italian climbing Mecca. The valley is framed by giant walls of perfect limestone. Even at the village entrance are we greeted by banners advertising a climbing competition. On the way to our campground we pass a climbing arena and stage. The ice cream parlor is decorated with pictures of the owner, a climber himself, posing with world famous climbers. The tourist stands sell postcards with climbing pictures. The campground is overflowing with climbers and every available space along the narrow roads is occupied with people camping wild. You get the picture.

Car camping people.

Tereza is here with a climbing partner from the Czech Republic and the two of them are off on their own, climbing some crazy hard routes, training for the Czech National team. The rest of us mere mortals isn't quite at the level of cruising through 7b roofs with backpacks on, so Vladimir is climbing with Tereza's mom while Sam and I set out to climb the nine pitch "Via Romantica", graded at 6c+.

Sam underneath the crux section of the second pitch.
Me rappelling from our high point.

I'm a bit anxious about the route, since 6c+ is very much the limit of what I can lead outdoors. Luckily the first two pitches are the crux and we can still bail from there. I lead the first 6b+, a few moves to get through an initial steep section, followed by a slab with delicate foot placements. I set up an anchor and start belaying Sam. For the longest time nothing much happens. I can't see what he's doing below the overhanging start, so I just wait. It takes him the better part of an hour to catch up to me, a pace we clearly cannot sustain if we want to top out before midnight.

Lago di Garda.

He brought brand new climbing shoes that are causing a lot of pain. Thus we decide to give the second, crux, pitch a try and then bail to do some cragging elsewhere. The pitch is exceedingly well protected - the bolts are so close together that quickdraws are nearly touching one another. Every second bolt has a loop of cord in it. It is quite obvious that most people aid climb this pitch by pulling on gear. It is of course my ambition to free climb it cleanly. It starts out with an easy traverse that ends with a slightly overhanging section full of two finger drip-holes. I manage to climb it with taking a few rests hanging off the bolts. Definitely doable! Quite encouraging, as I'm now fairly certain I could climb the entire route. Alas, for now I have to curb my ambition and we rappel back down.

Medea, supposedly a 6a+, but we all agreed that the overhanging layback finale was way harder.
Did I mention this area was popular with climbers? The rock is crawling with humans!

We end up climbing a few routes in the "Swing Area", aptly named for the fact that people fall a lot and swing around on their ropes. The routes seem fiendishly hard for their grades.

We join up with Vladimir and Tereza's mom for the next day and explore the "Nago" sector. It offers beautiful vistas over lake Garda and much more reasonable climbing. Unfortunately for Sam and me this is already the last day. I will continue to Germany with Anita to visit family. Thus we leave in the afternoon, driving through the narrow and winding village roads. At some point it is so tight, that our VW Golf barely fits with about two centimeters of space to the buildings on either side. This is funny because a big Audi, that was following us, now had to reverse and find a different route ;-)

Unknown dude stripping on the rock.

I got to climb:

  • Via Romantica, first pitch 6b+
  • Via Romantica, second pitch 6c+
  • Karl Dalle 6b+
  • Greppo Greppo 6a
  • Medea 6a+
  • Guildenstern 6b+
  • Cordelia 6b
  • Iago 6c


Pizol (2844m)

A perfect bluebird day. Andrey and I leave home at around 5:30 with the plan of climbing Pizol. This is a popular destination in summer and in winter because you can cut short the approach dramatically by using a cable car. According to my code a mountain only counts as climbed if you do it entirely under your own power, so we start all the way down in the valley at the small village of Valens. Of course this plan implies that we'll have to ascent a total of about 2200 vertical meters, breaking trail in an untouched valley for most of the way. We certainly have our work cut out for us.

Andrey decided to bring his skies instead of snowshoes, a decision that would backfire soon. The first few hundred meters of elevation gain have too little snow to use the skis and carrying ski boots and skis is cumbersome to say the least. Thus he turns around after only about half an hour of hiking. Bad for me, as soon after there will be a lot of snow, and a strong partner to take turns breaking trail would have been really helpful.

Chamois on the slope.

I share the valley with a few deer and chamois but not a human soul. It is stunningly beautiful and deafeningly quiet. I'm afraid I may unknowingly violate a winter wildlife refuge, but even that thought cannot spoil the moment. I'm breaking trail through virgin snow, arduous work. Wherever I can, I try to choose a line in the shade. It's cooler, which suits me well, and the snow is frozen more solidly, making me sink in less.

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name...
View towards the summit from the Wildseeluggen pass. It's a highway from here on out.

Once the Wildseeluggen saddle comes into view it is clear that my lonely toil will be over soon. The slopes are scrubbed out like groomed pistes from the number of ski tourers heading up the mountain. From the cable car to the saddle of Pizol there is a veritable highway trod out into the snow. While I preferred the serene solitude from before, I have to admit I welcome a bit of easier progress. I was beginning to doubt whether I actually had enough reserves to reach the summit if I had to plow snow all the way up.

People scrambling up to me.
Better not stumble here.

Crossing the Pizol glacier I reach the ridge, just 50 meters shy of the summit. This is where a lot of people stop. For one, it is impossible to continue on skis, so many people just ski back down from here. But the other reason is that the summit tower is very steep and very exposed. In summer, this is defused by a steel cable you can use for protection. Of course the cable is buried beneath the snow now. So I very carefully find my way on icy wet snow. I literally bump my head into the summit cross at 1 o'clock. Yay!

My lonely tracks from the ascent. A lot of sweat went into this inconspicuous line.
Chair lift with a view.
Hmm. I was hoping for easier going at this point. This path hasn't seen much use yet.

I choose a different route for the way down. It's longer, but it takes me through the ski resort area, making for easy progress (or so I thought) and allows me to stop at a hut for a hot soup. I need some calories - at the end of the day I will have hiked for nearly 11 straight hours, worth around 7000 kcal, on a soup and a snickers bar. I hike past the base station of the chair lift, thinking that the trails from here on out should be well used. What a misconception. There are huge accumulations of snow in the forest beneath the trees and nobody has gone there before. So I'm back to breaking trail.

Breaking trail again.
Avalanchy forest.

When I finally emerge back into civilization (defined as a gravel road) and meet another lone hiker, I earn some incredulous looks at my answer to the "where from" question. Very satisfying ;-) I make it back to the car at 6pm after leaving it at 7 in the morning. Great day!

~25.5km ~2277m elevation gain

Cool bridge under construction.
I wonder if they'd admit a smelly hiker to the sauna paradise?
The story as told by my fitbit heart rate monitor.