"Alhambra" (6b+, 600m, 18 pitches)

It's early season for rock climbing - the high country is still covered in deep snow. The perfect time to go to Ticino. Switzerland's southernmost canton is frequently too hot for climbing in Summer but perfect right now. Arne and I picked "Alhambra" as our route of choice. Lauded as the longest and most beautiful route in all of Ticino it features a whopping 18 pitches of climbing over more than 600 meters of gneiss. At difficulties of up to 6b+ this is nothing to sneeze at and quite an endurance challenge even when you are fit. Which I am not. A long winter spent mostly sick and little time for training due to the kid left me weak.

Well marked trail turn-off.
Name scratched into the rock at the start of the route.
Starting into the sea of slabs.

We took the car to Locarno late Saturday afternoon and enjoyed good Italian food right at the shore of the Lago Maggiore. Originally we planned to spend the night at the Delta campground where the river Maggia empties into the lake. We couldn't find anyone to register with though and they told us we could only check-in past 8 o'clock the next morning. Too late for us. So we stayed at a nice campground in Ponte Brolla instead where the owner re-opened the reception just for us and we even got served an evening beer ;-)

Maggia valley. Not ugly.
My shoes are not in perfect shape for precise smearing.
Arne cruising up more easy terrain.

We started early on Sunday and after a minor route finding confusion started climbing around 8:30. Conditions were perfect with hazy skies blocking the harsh Italian sun and dry rock to lay our hands on. The route is split into two distinct parts: the lower section is an endless sea of low angle slabs. These require delicate foot placements and a good balance, but are not very demanding in terms of strength. The headwall on the other hand is steep and requires athletic moves to get past a series of small roofs.

Lago Maggiore.
Arne leading one of the 6b+ pitches.
The "Fingerlochplatte" (finger pocket slab) 6a+. My lead. Reach that bolt!

I started and linked the first two easy pitches into a single lead. We could see a single other party in the wall, several pitches ahead of us. It looked like at this pace we'd quickly catch up to them. Turned out this was just an easy warmup and the difficulties would ramp up significantly and slow us down. We kept alternating leads all the way to the top. Luckily for me this worked out so that I got all the tricky slabs while Arne got to lead the most sustained endurance pitches towards the end. At that point we had been climbing for nearly eight hours with hardly a break and my lack of training really showed. Both of us took a few falls but while Arne managed to figure out and execute all the required sequences cleanly I had to resort to cheating and pulled on the occasional quickdraw. Bad style and a sign of desperation.

The last 6b, long and sustained with a tough little roof right at the start.
Arne heading up the final 6a.
Me exiting the same 6a - lots of small downward sloping ledges.

The pitches went as:

  • 5a, Sören
  • 5b, Sören
  • 5c+, Arne
  • 6a+, Sören
  • 5c+, Arne
  • 6a, Sören
  • 5c, Arne
  • 6a+, Sören
  • 6a, Arne
  • 6b+, Sören
  • 6b+, Arne
  • 6a+, Sören
  • 6b, Arne
  • 5a, Sören
  • 6b, Arne
  • 5b, Sören
  • 6a, Arne
  • 3c, Sören

My happy face when confronted with more exposed scrambling while already being dead tired.

You can't rappel over the route, once you've gained the headwall a retreat would be very difficult and dangerous. Thus the only way out is forward. Very committing and only recommended in very stable weather conditions. The descent is a faint trail over steep dead grass following the maintenance route for the local power lines. You follow that all the way to a little rock outcrop and then do a handful of rappels to make it back down to the valley floor.

Looong day. Major kudos to Arne for powering through the final crux pitches!

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