Written by Maximiliano Piazza
Photos by Camilla Cerretti, Andrea Ciscato,
Driving up the side valley of Valtellina in Val di Mello Italy the road winds upwards in steep hairpin turns. Running alongside the Masino river, you enter an Eden of forests and meadows, but above all, a world of granite as far as the eye can see.
Arriving at the final village of San Martino, the road forks; to the west lie Bagni di Masino, to the east Val di Mello proper. When I was 16, this fork was the marker of my teenage adventures. The point where my father would drop me off on Friday evenings with a tent and backpack and pick me up again Sunday to hear tales of my explorations.
Although only a half-hour from my childhood home, the drive seemed endless in my youthful impatience. I recall closing my eyes and being able to smell the moss and leaves, hear the "c'mon" of my friends and feel the granite beneath my fingertips. Having looked forward to it all week, I would tear out of the car and immediately wander around my "garden of boulders." I would submerge myself into the calm of the forest, study the grain of the rock, watch the climbers and often climb with them too. Back then, they were the "locals." Now, they're friends and loyal companions on my most challenging climbs. From my first forays into the world of climbing to the most demanding levels, this valley, or "the Valley" as we climbers call it, has been a constant in my life.
Now, living only an hour and a half away, you might assume the proximity is the cause of my everlasting attraction. But, Val di Mello's is the destination for climbing weekends because of the unique rock and endless possibilities, something that for anyone who has visited becomes an obsession.
In the Valley, you will find climbing for literally all disciplines and difficulties. Still, the utterly unique rock is what makes it impossible to resist weekend after weekend. The granite is extremely rough, with white crystals at the bottom of the valley and darker finer-grained stone further up. The friction is what you will most notice, though, and as you attempt any one of the countless slabs, you will truly learn what is meant by "to learn to climb, you need to learn to move your feet."
To ensure that you don't get lost in this sea of rock and get the most out of your weekends, here are some unmissable climbs, from the most classic pitches to those I prefer most.
To start, I recommend Uomini e Topi (at the Placche dell’Oasi), a beginner's friction route on sloping slabs with grades up to IV+. Don’t underestimate the grade, though, as long stretches are unprotectable.
Once you've become familiar with the Valley’s style, I recommend venturing out onto at least one of these historic routes:
• L’alba del Nirvana (V+, Tempio dell’Eden): To reach the start, you need to climb the Stomaco Peloso, which begins– and I'm warning you!– with 20 meters of smooth slab without any bolts or possibility for protection. After this, you can enjoy 150 meters of pleasant, mostly friction climbing.
• Il Risveglio di Kundalini (VII-/VI, Dimore degli Dei): This is almost 400 meters of mixed climbing which is extremely varied, including cracks, dihedrals, spurs, and slabs. And although bolted, you still need Friends and Rocks.
• Oceano Irrazionale (VII, Precipizio degli Asteroidi): a stunning vertical crack climb for experts, which requires trad protection.
My favorite sector for multi-pitch climbs is Qualid. And although I don't enjoy walking, the breathtaking views make the one-hour and forty-minute approach worth it. Here I recommend Il paradiso può attendere (VII).
We can't talk about sport climbing in Val di Mello without mentioning the Sasso Remenno. It is the largest glacial rock deposit in Europe. Its walls offer a variety of styles from overhangs to crack, and especially slabs. Climbs here range from grade 4 to 9a. Being right by the street, it is also ideal for a quick session. Here, I suggest:
• Any route on the south face to get a taste of pure granite slab and to "warm up your shoes."
• Kosterlitz (6c+), a historic route on the west face of a slightly leaning rather technical slab. I love to use this as a warm-up.
• Luce di speranza (7b) is a not-to-be-missed line on the north face. Although difficult to read from below, it requires both technique and forearms.
With a 15-minute approach and routes from 6b to 8c, I particularly recommend Strombix for fans of overhanging climbs, with routes from 6b to 8c.
Here I suggest:
• Los fabulosos cadillacas (6c), a perfect athletic warm-up route on an edge with good holds.
• Strombix (7a), a long journey of 35-meters which requires strength and technique.
• Niente oltre al cielo (8a), is the classic if you haven’t had your fill or need a project.
Formaggino is a favorite of mine for slightly overhanging slab with routes from 7a to 8c+.
My top selection for this sector is:
• Kundaluna (7c+) one of the first routes bolted in this sector and still worth the effort.
• Tormenton (8b) is a wonderful 35-meters route of pure endurance.
Lastly, for the most demanding climbers, Grotta del Ferro is an enormous and less popular roof spanning 40-meters in length with routes from 8a to 9a+. To get there takes about 1 hour of hiking through secular beech trees until you reach the second Ferro waterfall. If you’re planning to visit, bring your of strength and endurance and get ready to be upside down.
VAL DI MELLO – AN EDEN OF GRANITE
by Maximiliano Piazza
5.0 minute read
The seasons play a significant role in choosing which sector to visit: the Bagni di Masino, which are higher in altitude and immersed in an "enchanted forest," are perfect for the summer, while it’s best to go to the bottom of the valley in the winter.
Just a few meters from the Centro Polifunzionale della Montagna (the Mountain Multi-Purpose Centre), you will come to the Tarzan sector, with beautiful moves for all difficulty levels and outstanding rock, especially in the winter. Here you can't miss the line Il sogno di Tarzan (7b), the route the block takes its name from. It’s a classic that comes out onto a crack, which, given the height, needs to be tackled with at least three or four crash pads.
Visido is another sector that is easy to reach. Being one of the sunniest parts of the Valley makes it perfect for starting off on winter days. You have a vast number of routes here. However, Il tendine dello Yeti with over 20 lines from 5 to 8b is one boulder not to be missed. Andrea si è perso (7b) is one problem worth trying, which offers fantastic dynamic movements on the prow.
Val di Mello
Once you have scaled the footpath from Piazza di San Martino and crossed through the old town, you will immerse yourself in the magic of the Val di Mello proper. At Melloblocco, one of the first sectors, you will find one of my favorite boulders: Zero in condotta, a traverse on slabs that comes out onto a spur which we can call the 7a+ benchmark in the Valley. For the rest, I recommend wandering around this unique environment to find your own inspiration.
Before departing, stop in the Sasso Remenno area to pilgrimage to the legendary boulder Unità di Produzione (8a+). It is a natural 45° shield of stone with crimps that challenge your wingspan and which some of climbing's top-caliber athletes have tested themselves on.
For more insider tips and stories from around the world, check out the Weekend Warrior dedicated page.
This infinite expanse of granite risks leaving climbers a little disorientated and overwhelmed. To plan and get the most out of your visit to the Valley I recommend the Versante Sud guidebooks. They have recently published books for each discipline in various languages.
To stay up-to-date about new lines and projects, pop into Bar Monica and check in with the living guide Simone Pedeferri. Simone has been one of the strongest and most versatile Italian climbers, the explorer, and "guardian" of the Valley since the early 1990s.
Alongside a stiff set of shoes to navigate slab climbing, I recommend the following for racking on your harness.
On multi-pitch climbs, a complete set of Friends is ideal for tackling most of the lines. Nonetheless, it is always best to look at the description before setting off. The sport routes are never particularly long, so with twelve quickdraws, you can go practically anywhere. Also, many of the more challenging routes have fixed draws, limiting your risk of leaving valuable gear on the wall.
If you're embarking on a weekend of bouldering, make sure to bring a good amount of crash pads (or borrow from friends). This is not so much for the height but rather because the landings are often slopping and rocky.
When to visit
If multi-pitch climbs are what you have in mind, you should plan your trip between April and late October, avoiding the heat of summer and depths of winter, when the Valley becomes the staging place for stunning icefalls.
As for sport climbing and bouldering, although you can find a sector for any season, the best conditions are in winter. With the cold days and a bit of wind, even the most elusive slopers can be tamed.
Where to sleep
Camping Sasso Remenno, located just before reaching San Martino, provides the only campsite with facilities in the valley. Here in the field, you will find a sector of boulders, making it perfect for lazy bouldering. If you prefer a hotel, I recommend the Hotel Sasso Remenno, with a view of the Remenno and the Valley.
Being Val di Mello a natural reserve, wild camping is forbidden. In the winter, though, you can sleep in a van or camper van near the Visido boulder area.
Most importantly, don't forget that the Val di Mello is a nature reserve, so don’t leave any trash behind, don’t light fires outside of designated areas, and only park where you are allowed.
Eat, drink and meet local climbers
Whether you are looking to warm up, reenergize, or raise a toast to success, you can't leave the Valley without stopping at Bar Monica. Here, Monica and her husband Simone Pedeferri warmly welcome climbers to join them and share in routes climbed, beta discovered, or new projects.
Where to sleep
Camping: Hidden Valley Campground, Jumbo Rocks, and Indian Cove are all adjacent to great climbing. Hidden Valley is first-come-first-serve and very busy, so arrive mid-week to snag a spot. Jumbo Rocks and Indian Cove, and the many other campgrounds in the park, are now reservation only and may require booking weeks to months in advance.
Check www.recreativon.gov for availability.
Besides camping in the Park, Joshua Tree has a few hotels, hundreds of cute Bnb’s, and free camping on BLM. You should have your accommodation sorted in advance if you are visiting on a weekend or holiday, especially during peak season.
Eat Drink and Meet Local Climbers
Before Climbing: The Joshua Tree Visitor Center Cafe and The Dez are my favorite stops for coffee and a quick breakfast to go, like overnight oats, burritos, or breakfast pastries.
Climber Café, on weekend mornings, October - April, in the Hidden Valley Campground, is a fantastic way to meet other climbers, learn more about climbing in the park, and enjoy a free cup of coffee. This is hosted by the Climbing Stewards and Friends of Joshua Tree
Midday: Natural Sisters Cafe is great to refresh with a Climber’s Revenge Smoothie! You can also find healthy breakfast and lunch options along with vegan and vegetarian food here. Though, be prepared for a decent weight as it’s a popular place!
Dinner: Pie for the People serves up amazing pizza for carnivores and vegans alike. There can sometimes be a wait, but it is well worth it!
Sam’s Indian Food is another favorite that offers plenty of vegetarian options.
Entertainment: Saturday Farmer’s Market is worth a stroll for fresh food and fun gifts.
Joshua Tree Saloon and the famous Pappy and Harriets offer live music and karaoke.
Showers: Coyote Corner offers hot showers for $5.00 and also has lots of fun trinkets and gifts!