The Val Masino, Italy’s version of Yosemite Valley, has a 150-year climbing history and 1,000 reasons to visit today.
“All travellers who find themselves at Morbegno should give a few hours to the Val Masino… From the rugged peaks and ridges that bound the valley on each side there have fallen fragments of granite, that, exceeding 100 feet in height, are scattered about in wild confusion. We were unanimously of opinion that no valley with which we are acquainted surpasses the Val Masino in grandeur and in variety of natural beauty.” —Edward Shirley Kennedy, The Alpine Journal, 1862
In 1862, Edward Shirley Kennedy and three companions marched up northern Italy’s Val Masino, and, as he wrote later in Britain’s Alpine Journal, all of them were astonished by the valley’s extraordinary natural beauty. Kennedy, Leslie Stephen, Thomas Cox, and their guide, Melchior Anderegg, were headed for the first ascent of unclimbed Monte Disgrazia, and they paused frequently to admire the valley’s wonders. The many mountaineers that followed were similarly impressed by the beauty and enormous climbing potential of Val Masino as well as its side valleys, particularly Val di Mello. But as a result of the massive, smooth slabs that defend the valley walls, Val Masino’s peaks were enveloped in an aura of invincibility.
During the first decade of the 20th century, this problem was neatly solved by local guides who discovered that these granite mirrors could be climbed in relative safety by going without their heavy, hobnailed boots and trusting the friction of bare feet. Just imagine the stupor of the clients who watched them take their shoes off and ascend like lizards up rock faces, which, until then, had been deemed impossible to climb.
As techniques improved, the hostile Masino cliffs became less daunting, despite long approaches and a lack of comfortable huts, which rendered these valleys more like Patagonia than the “domestic” Alps. Only the most daring and romantic alpinists made their way up there to test themselves against these wild and ancestral mountains, and these included Giusto Gervasutti—il Fortissimo, the strong one—who did the first ascents of classic climbs such as Spigolo Sud on Punta Allievi.
Gervasutti’s achievements were bettered during the years prior to the Second World War thanks to climbers like Mario “Boga” dell’Oro, who, in freeing climbs up the vertiginous Torrione di Zocca arête and the southeast face of Punta Allievi, introduced the legendary grade VI [roughly 5.9] into this remote area. Climbers from Lombardy left their mark on Pizzo Badile and Pizzo Cengalo, and in 1939 Alfonso Vinci completed his masterpiece, the knife-edge Spigolo Sud arête on Mt. Cengalo, which even today is considered one of the most beautiful routes in the entire Alps.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the immense potential on the extremely high ridges that separated the side valleys was inspected for the first time, in particular those cliffs that pave the way into Val di Mello. Climbers from Lecco, Como, Monza, and Milano were the leading lights of this era, including young Walter Bonatti. The most impressive route, however, was forged by Vasco Taldo and Nando Nusdeo up the steep southeast face of Picco Luigi Amedeo: two bivies in 350 meters were required to establish what would long be considered the hardest climb in the Central Alps.
These routes projected Val Masino solidly into the modern era, and new training techniques and refined gear resulted in routes worthy of those in Yosemite Valley. From the second half of the 1970s onwards, improved friction techniques— related to those used by the ancient mountain guides, though now with smoothsoled, sticky-rubber shoes—meant the climbing game could be played at lower altitudes where the rock is more compact and nearly unprotectable. The sunny cliffs that tumble down onto the alpine meadows in Val Masino and Val di Mello became the garden of wonders for dozens of youngsters.
The fearsome Val di Mello climbs largely ascend unprotectable slabs, but there are also numerous routes following magnificent cracks that require trad gear. The result is high-caliber routes such as Luna Nascente (5.10+, 7 pitches) or Oceano Irrazionale (5.10+, 12 pitches), still regarded as some of the most beautiful in the region.
Around the same time, the hundreds of boulders dotted across the valley floor became a laboratory for experimenting with climbing moves, a new Fontainebleau in which Sasso Remenno—Europe’s largest boulder—acted as the focal point. These boulders come in all shapes and sizes, lying sleepily on green meadows, lapped by clear streams, or shaded by beech and fir. The variety of moves is both incredible and apparently infinite: Overhangs are breached by holding one’s breath and quickly executing dynos; the key ingredients for rounded arêtes are careful balance and a wise distribution of personal strength; while steep faces are ascended via white feldspar crystals.
Those seeking to go one step further home in on the smooth Monte Qualido east face. Despite being vertical, the rock here always offers tiny rugosities that enable free climbing, albeit of extreme difficulty. Routes such as Transqualidiana (5.11 A0, 21 pitches) or Spada nella Roccia (5.12b, 13 pitches) are considered mustdo’s, and the fact that occasional bolts have been placed shouldn’t mislead you: Rest assured, adrenaline is guaranteed.
If instead you love wild places and thin air at 3,000 meters, then ascend higher toward the mountain huts up the side valleys. You’ll be met by hundreds of solid granite towers and rock faces where you can retrace the steps taken by the early pioneers. It was up here that Douglas Freshfield caught sight of the Sasso Remenno boulder, believing it to be a hotel—certainly neither he nor Kennedy could ever have imagined that 150 years later all those boulders would become the arena for the largest, most joyful bouldering festival in the world, Melloblocco, which attracts thousands of climbers every year, including superstars like Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra.
Yet at the end of the 19th century, those great alpinists had somehow already sensed the future of Val Masino. This valley really does offer everything. Want to tackle “impossible” problems in serene stillness on the valley floor? You’ll be spoiled for choice. Want to climb short single pitches of all difficulties, protected by bolts or trad? Hundreds of routes are out there and waiting. Enjoy big walls? Those on Qualido, Torrone, or Cameraccio will put you to the test with vertigo-inducing features such as the 40-meter Meridiana roof high up on Torrone. While many of these climbs were first ascended with ample use of aid, today’s challenge is to climb them free, and local ace Simone “Piri” Pedeferri has been doing just this for many years—but much still remains to be done. There is no other place on Earth that, in such a short distance, offers such a vast variety of climbing venues, both in quantity and quality. Ah! I almost forgot. Dozens of icefalls up to 400 meters high form in winter!
Val Masino is comprised of three small valleys: Val di Mello, Valle di Preda Rossa, and Valle dei Bagni. All three offer an array of activities for climbers, boulderers, hikers, and alpinists. There are an estimated 2,000 boulder problems, 400 shorter climbs, 100 multi-pitch routes in the valleys, 50 bigwall routes (including free climbs up to 5.13b), and 300 alpine rock routes (trad and modern) on the higher peaks.
Getting There: San Martino is the closest town to Val di Mello. Drive there or fly to Milan and take the train to Morbegno in the Lombardy region, and then a bus to San Martino. During the Melloblocco festival, free shuttles run throughout the valley.
Season: May to September is the best bet for rock climbing.
- Masino-Bregaglia–Regno del Granito, Vol. I, by Andrea Gaddi
- Masino-Bregaglia–Regno del Granito (Val di Mello- Sasso Remenno-Albigna), Vol. II, by Andrea Gaddi
- Melloboulder, by Andrea Pavan (summary in English)
- Valtellina Valchiavenna Engadina, falesie e vie sportive, by A. Pavan, G. Lisignoli, M. Quintavalla (summary in English)
- Planetmountain.com has an article in English about four classic long routes in Val di Mello, with topos: http:// bit.ly/LNe5dF. Summitpost.org has good info about the higher peaks.
Accommodations: Campers can choose from three sites: Camping Sasso Remenno at the foot of the famous monolith, Camping Ground Jack in Val di Mello, and Lo Scoiattolo in Valle dei Bagni, close to Bregolana. There are also hotels and B&Bs, as well as several mountain huts. Rifugio Rasega is recommended.
In the evenings, the traditional climber’s hangout is Bar Monica di San Martino (run by top climber Simone Pedeferri), or enjoy live music at the colorful Kundaluna. To indulge in pure relaxation, check out Bagni di Masino and its ancient thermal baths.
Giuseppe “Popi” Miotti is considered one of the fathers of bouldering in the Val Masino area, as well as one of the most respected historians of climbing in the Central Alps.
Vinicio Stefanello of Planet Mountain provided essential assistance with this article, as did Nicholas Hobley, also of Planet Mountain, who translated the stories. Visit planetmountain. com for info about many of Italy’s top crag and alpine routes, often in English.