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)
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.