Orco Valley - A Travel Journal
The Wild Country, Orco Valley Tribe comes home for a reunion sharing the insider tips on climbing in their backyard.
Travel Tips & The Gathering Of A Tribe
"Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth; oh never mind; you will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked" - The Big Kahuna, John Swanbeck
The Journal - Friends Coming Home
The term “home” is often used to define a place we feel familiar with and the same applies for those who live there. After all, we say that somebody is “homesick” or that he or she “feels at home”. Well, the Orco Valley is a home for us (The Wild Country Orco Tribe). We know we will never fully master its depths, and perhaps because of this, its allure will never end. This place is a magnet for us and other climbers from all over Europe, drawn to its walls, but also its history. In the 70's several youths tried their hand at being game changers in the climbing scene, and some of them succeed. They formed the Wild Bunch and that time is now known as Nuovo Mattino. It was a few feral years which proved too much for some of them, while others scraped along and reached an unthinkable fate. Mike Kosterlitz is a case in point; he made countless first ascents, among them the iconic crack bearing his name. Then he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2017. But that’s another story altogether; we’re talking about the valley here.
The Orco Valley is our home because we often meet there, though not as much as we’d like. This gathering of our tribe is what happened last April when we climbed together for the first time in far too many months. Up until now the time had been slipping by without a gathering and the excuses were varied; from studying abroad to an injury, from being buried with work to other responsibilities, the things often not so easy to avoid; this was certainly not the case when we were younger. No reinventing of the wheel here though for us, these are just the troubles of life, pretty much like all other climbers. And by climbers we’re referring to those who are not particularly strong and not even that good-looking, in fact, more often than not, tape and patches hold their trousers together. They don’t shout “stoked, or cool” at the end of a route because there are no cameras ready to shoot their actions. Or if they do cry out they just want to let it all out with themselves, their friends, or the belayer of the day. We're talking about common people I’d say, maybe exactly like you. Well, not really "common" because you’ll have to be a little odd if you spend your weekends destroying your fingers, maybe even panic-stricken because you cannot place a Friend but in the world we live in common nonetheless.
In the end, we like to be a little odd – and be honest, you do, too. Your fingertips are burning at the end of the day, you prepare your backpack at night with worn out gear, have disco leg on the crux, go from the cold shadow to the scorching sun in one blink. Arrive late at night, still needing to find a place for your tent in the dark, rinse your wet spare clothes because your flask opened in the backpack, eat with your chalky fingers because you’re starving from forgetting a bar for the route…yet again. All just big and small inconveniences which remind you that your body is alive.
And then there are your friends. Aiming at higher grades, smooth moves and good rock is all very well, but were we to climb with perfect strangers, we’d dance to a different tune. There’s the strong one who, quietly, is always training at the indoor wall. The stressed dude, who always complains while studying, but who’s also smiling on end once he reaches the crag. The workaholic who’s been working nonstop for a and has to plan free days long in advance, which is unknown territory for young guns. The hyper fellow, who can climb on rock, ice, ski, and ride his mountain bike all in one weekend. You’ll find the serious and the lazy ass ones too, the bold soul and the gun-shy chap, the chatterbox and the introverted one, optimist and pessimist souls. They all make up a sort of family, the one you’ll want to hang out with to get away from it all. The ones you send a text late at night to knowing it’s a safe bet they'll be excited to climb: you just need to decide where to go. In the words of Diego Cugiola “A man looking at a wall is alone. Two men looking at a wall are the beginning of an escape.”
That’s it. An escape, the one we carried out in the Orco Valley, once again. We ran from our partners, from weekend commitments, or used-up books in view of a forthcoming exam. Climbing means this, as well: a vertical escape, a way of detaching oneself, literally, from the ground so the rest of the week can be an easier affair.
Beta - Can't Miss Routes
Climbing in the Orco Valley is at the very least…unique. The rock – a type of gneiss similar to granite – imposes a style based on cracks, jams, and slabs which can floor any climber used to limestone, in the same way the protection does (Friends and nuts), considering there are very few bolted routes. If you are new to the area, you’ll be better off learning the ropes in the two bolted crags, Il Droide and Pietra Filosofale, not too far apart, and mastering the art of jamming trying to climb the iconic Masso Kosterlitz: 7 metres of hand jams, whose 6b grade is somewhat one-sided. You may well find 8a climbers huffing and puffing trying to get the hang of that 7 meterpure crack… If trad climbing is your forte already, you can start off with the Sergent, where you’ll be spoilt for choice with slabs, multi-pitch routes, and dozens of exquisite single pitch routes. A little higher up, in a cooler setting, you’ll find the Dado crag, home to some of the best routes in the valley. And then there is… the Caporal. That’s where the Nuovo Mattino started, where the Wild Bunch, led by Motti, Grassi, Galante and others started importing the climbing style of El Capitan, in the Yosemite Valley.
The sunny walls of the Aimonin Tower are ideal in mid-season, as is the Mroz Spur in Piantonetto. Moving up along the valley you’ll find two symbols of alpine climbing in the Gran Paradiso Park: the Becco Meridionale delle Tribolazioni and the Becco di Valsoera. In the parallel small Noaschetta valley, the impressive Monte Castello wall stands out with a few challenging routes.
Warm Ups - Single & Multi-Pitch
Aimonin Tower. Pesce d’Aprile 170m V (IV/A1 obl.): this is the route where nuts were first used in Italy thanks to Mike Kosterlitz.
Caporal. Combination Itaca nel Sole + Tempi Moderni 180m, (6c+/6a obl.): one of the symbols of granite climbing in Italy with a few classic routes, such as the crack called Orecchio del Pachiderma and the subsequent slab, where smearing is a must. The Nanchez Dihedral offers instead pumpy sustained climbing along a 170 meter long dihedral and despite its apparent modest grades, you’ll surely reach the top in tatters. Keep an eye on rainy days as this route is often wet.
Sergent. Nautilus, 270m (6a/5b obl.) : one of the easiest trad routes in the valley (albeit an excellent one) with the typical – and especially troublesome – chimney on the third pitch. You’ll also find several other shorter multi-pitch and individual routes which are themselves a good enough reason to go there, such as Incastromania, the Mystery Dihedral, Legoland and the terrifying Desperation Crack. At the far end of the wall you’ll then find slab routes. If you like this type of climbing then try L’apparizione del Cristo Verde a classic that is often repeated. To access these climbs you usually need to climb an initial approach route so you're best off checking the guidebook to make sure you are using the appropriate gear and ropes.
Dado. This is where some of the most aesthetic routes are: Bianca Parete, Sitting Bull, and the (slightly) easier Cochise. This is a Dragon’s Den of a crag, with the mind-blowing Sitting Bull and Legittima Visione, two routes opened by Adriano Trombetta, which had to wait for the talented Sean Villanueva and the Favresse brothers, followed by Federica Mingolla, to be freed and repeated.
Droide and Pietra Filosofale. These are the only two bolted crags in the valley. This does not mean they are less enticing, quite the opposite. You’ll be able to adapt to crack climbing and you can use friends on many routes to safely get a grip on the art of trad climbing.
Piantonetto Valley. Slightly detached and with more intricate approaches, Piantonetto is the Orco Valley high altitude playground, and it can be accessed only after the snow has melted. You’ll climb at nearly 3000 m, where there’s often no reception and the approaches are measured in hours rather than minutes. That’s why it’s so cool!
• Mroz Spur, Impressioni di Settembre 150m (6b/6a obl.): a modern day bolted/trad route by Maurizio Oviglia, a timeless classic. Slightly to its left, you’ll find the extraordinary L’importante è esagerare where really technical pitches alternate with pumpy ones that require jamming.
• Becco della Tribolazione. Grassi-Re 250m (6a+/5b obl.) the long approach (3.5 hours) pays off with granite only equalled by the Mont Blanc Satellites. The Malvassora route is also popular, while stronger climber should have a go at Gran Finale with an excellent 7a smooth dihedral.
• Becco di Valsoera. Mellano-Perego 350m (6b/5c obl./A0): higher and shadier, you’ll find many routes here, especially on medium to high grades, such as Imagine. The Diedro Giallo is an excellent alternative for lower grades though, it doesn’t get repeated much and it’s truly aesthetic.
Many bouldering areas are dotted around the valley starting from Locana as far as the Mila Hut. There is a small group of aficionados who regularly come here, such as the German Bernd Zangerl who climbed an astonishing 12-metre highball in the Sergent area. We suggest you ask for information at the Mila Hut and the Le Fonti Minerali Pizzeria, the owners are among the best boulder cleaners in the valley and they also put together a guide.
All the mentioned routes require Friends and nuts of various dimensions, so you’ll be better off studying the “Valle dell’Orco” guide for more precise information. Broadly speaking though, you’ll be fine with doubles up to size 4, but some routes will require bigger Friends up to size 6. Don’t underestimate the grades or you’ll soon be punished; suffice it to say that the coveted Desperation Crack is graded 6a.
The only books you’ll find for sale are “Valle dell’Orco” (Maurizio Oviglia, Versante Sud) and “Piantonetto e Valsoera” (Predan, Sartore).You can get them both in local stores.
Insider Tips - Eat, Drink, Sleep
• Massimo Mila Hut. On the shores of the Ceresole Lake, this hut is run by a close-knit group of young friends. Andrea Migliano, one of the wardens, is attending the course to become a mountain guide and it’s worth mentioning that he plays music really well and is quite good in the kitchen too.
• Hotel Gran Paradiso. In the center of Noasca, its bar is one of the required stops before venturing out in the valley. It may not be a smart affair but you’ll feel at home and pay peanuts. You can also walk to the Torri di Aimonin directly from there. You’ll find several reports here, about the valley's bouldering; handwritten by Bernd Zangerl, a really strong German climber who often comes here.
• Camping la Peschera. Its name stems from the trout farm inside the area. Set immediately after the Ceresole tunnel, right under the Sergent wall; the location is convenient for many sport lovers.
• Restaurant Pizzeria Le Fonti Minerali. Run by the same folks of the Mila hut, a strong group of young guns from Valtellina who are mad about climbing and good food.
• Il Casotto. set in a small but quaint chalet on the shores of the lake. The Casotto is the ideal place to go to cheers a triumphant day at the Dado crag, or to get plastered if you could not send Sitting Bull.
• Restaurant Hotel La Cascata. This is another must in the valley. Set in Noasca, it is run by the same owners of the Gran Paradiso Hotel. To set the tempo of who they are before you walk in you will see the exterior has been bolted to allow for climbing. The giant sandwiches are exquisite (in particular the one with anchovies, green sauce, and melted tomino) and the Merenda del Re, strongly opposed by the Order of Nutritionists in view of its high calories and saturated fat content, but some things are not worth worrying over!
• Pontese Hut. A 45-minute walk above the Teleccio Lake, this is the ideal starting point to climb in the Piantonetto valley.
• Locanda San Lorenzo. Piedmontese, hearty cuisine in the heart of the Piantonetto, in the shadow of the Mroz Spur. Just in case you still feel hungry after you’ve been to the Pontese hut it is virtually impossible to leave from here still hungry.
Orco Valley Kit Suggestions
1 ISLAND, 2 MONKS AND UNTOUCHED GRANITE
“Why did James and I pick a small dot on the other side of the planet?”
Because Yuji told us about it. The last time Yuji proposed us a trip, we ended up in Kinabalu, the now oh so famous mountain where untouched granite will overwhelm the climber. The Real Rock tour has thrown Kinabalu into fame, but 5 years ago, when we went there, no climber could even put it on the climbing
Kinkasan is a small island not far from Fukushima, on the north east side of Japan. It has 26km circumference and is inhabited by two monks. From Tokyo it is a six hour journey. Yuji didn’t say that much more: Kinkasan’s coast is covered with granite cliffs, and there is a Shinto shrine on it. Yuji mentioned as well the damages made by the tsunami…
We began our journey with next to no expectations about the climbing, and a big question mark for the rest. 3 days in the trip and I know exactly why we came: for Japan.
2 years ago we spent a week in this unique country and both James and I knew that we had to come back one day: how could I compare it? Well, the first time you taste wine, you have heard a lot about it. But you smell, and you only smell the alcohol, you taste and you can’t put words on it because wine is subtle, complicated and requests an education. You have to go back to it, learn to enjoy, differentiate and remember. Japan is maybe a little bit like wine.
There is this astonishing mix of modernity (the Japanese toilets and their multi jets, music and self cleaning options give you an idea of the immensity of your difference) and spirituality, respect, focus.
We arrived at Base Camp, the gym that Yuji opened 5 years ago in Tokyo, and I oscillate between marvel and shame. I am a pro climber, and most of the boulders are too hard for me, the Japanese climbers around me seem to evolve so effortlessly, like flying cats on the wall. But then you realise: the world championship have just finished in Paris and in the bouldering competition, 3 of the 6 medals are not only Japanese, but from Tokyo, from Base Camp. Yuji and his company helps the athletes become professional and they often climb together. Shall I repeat that? Half of the world’s medals come from one gym! Surely there is no wonder that Yuji owns that gym… But that is only just the very top of the iceberg, because behind this 3 medals, there are a lot of other athletes with an incredible level. I have never seen so many good, extremely good boulderers in one place. And I am a former competition climber, trust me, I know what I am talking about.
“Why are they so good?”
The answer is surely complicated but here are a few elements: climbing has become very trendy in Japan, with over a 100 gyms in Tokyo. The Japanese body type is perfect for climbing; light, powerful and explosive muscles. The Japanese constant pursuit of perfection pushes the athletes to train hard, just like everyone around them simply accomplished every task with perfection.
It was dry for the crossing, and after unpacking our bags at the shrine we bouldered on a nearby beach for 1 hour before the rain came. With so much rock to see and so little time, we hiked out anyway along the coast to search out potential lines. The rain became heavier, we became wetter, and after 4 soggy hours we returned to the shrine, hopes high but spirits low. We’d been preparing this trip since September 2015, putting the team together, finding funding from sponsors, organizing the local logistics, yet it would all be in vain if the weather didn’t brighten up.
A morning of rain gave us the excuse to sit down and record some interviews, though truthfully we had little to say as we’d done little climbing. Toru, ever the silent optimist finally dragged me out to the closest boulder spot during a break between two showers, and we were surprisingly able to climb! Toru lived up to his reputation of boldness and brilliance, making the first ascents of two of Kinkasan’s boldest and hardest problems. Finally things were looking up. The forecast was good for the following days, and group psyche could not have been higher. We began to plan our upcoming adventure and our first trip to the other side of the island – the area with the highest concentration of rock, and the biggest cliffs, but had to cut them short as bad news broke.
With my thirst for climbing temporarily quenched, we left the island in limbo, happy, yet sad, but knowing we’d be back in less than 24 hours. We passed the day visiting some of the worst tsunami affected towns in an effort to better understand what hardships the local people had to live through, and how they are moving forwards towards the future. It is one thing to watch the news from the comfort of your lounge back home, it is another thing entirely to see it first hand, and speak to the people who have lost everything - houses, possessions, loved ones!
Suddenly our troubles with the rain seemed embarrassingly small, and we remembered why we were actually here in the first place.
Our personal climbing desires must come second to the larger goal of showing this place to the world. Rain or shine, we have to get out there. Hike around, document the potential, and if in the end we are lucky, open up some new routes.