(Canyoning pics taken by Brendan Hall)
Journey to Italy
Myself, Chris and James set off from Leeds on Friday 7th July just after lunchtime in James’s VW Polo. This was a minor source of anxiety as I had only driven one car since passing my test which I had crashed into an iron post within 3 months of Chris buying it. Somehow, mine and Chris’s relationship survived me putting a significant dent into his car, but I was under no illusion that mine and James’s friendship would endure a similar incident and so it was with great nervousness that I took the wheel for the first leg of the journey. Fortunately, apart from a few engine stalls and accidentally putting the car into reverse instead of first gear, we made it to Dover where we opted to get the earlier ferry rather than wait around for Anna, Ben, David and Brendan who had gone via Ipswich. The journey through France, Switzerland and finally Italy went similarly smoothly and we rolled up to the campsite where Chris (who had driven the last shift fuelled by about 1kg of sweets) suffered a massive sugar crash and collapsed into the tent. James and I left him to sleep it off and grabbed lunch in a nearby café where we were immediately the epitome of entitled non-Italian speaking English tourists. Despite my attempts to quickly Google some key phrases, we were both too socially awkward to use them and, after paying the bill, fled in shame to await the arrival of the others.
Sunday: Bodengo 2
I have “fond” memories of almost drowning in this canyon on the 2019 ULSA holiday the day after a big storm. We ended up losing a rope and taking a dodgy escape route a whole two pitches in, earning judgemental looks from the many groups that passed us by as we waited. I was excited to give the canyon another shot and determined to not have to endure this humiliating experience again.
The first pitch went by with significantly less drama aided by the much lower water levels and the fact that I was actually wearing a buoyancy aid this time. The second pitch was a toboggan. We threw down a tackle sack which safely made it down and then I volunteered to go first (a bag of rope is really not much different than a living, breathing human being, right?). With Ben’s chants of “Allahu akbar” ringing in my ears and David promising to donate to a short arms foundation if I died, I thought about my PhD and that provided enough motivation to push myself over the edge into a possible death. At the bottom, I swam to the right to retrieve the bag with everyone else mistakenly following my lead. I then realised that I was too rubbish of a swimmer to make it back across the current to the left side where the canyon continued. Seeing me struggle, Brendan swam across to the left with one end of a rope leaving the other end behind for us to pull on once he’d made it. Chris and James followed him, leaving behind myself, David, Ben and Anna plus two of the tackle sacks, one containing the aforementioned rescue rope which Ben ended up holding. Anna was looking like she very much regretted allowing Ben to talk her out of buying a buoyancy aid before the holiday (the frequent wailing about wanting a buoyancy aid was a slight hint), whilst I was becoming increasingly relieved that I had one. The next thing we knew, Ben had disappeared off with the rope dragging a gurgling/drowning Anna behind him (visible only as a helmet bobbing in the water) and thrusting a bag at me as he went past. Thinking he was throwing me the end of the rope, I grabbed the bag, realising too late that Ben had actually just left David and I with more dead weight whilst he zoomed off to safety. Some colourful insults thrown at Ben’s rapidly retreating figure ensued.
Fortunately, Chris swam back over to us with the rope so we could also be pulled to the other side. Reunited, Ben and I bickered about how he had ditched us, Anna reiterated her wish for a buoyancy aid, David complained about the difficulty of swimming with a heavy bag and Brendan had the sinking look of realisation that he had agreed to go canyoning with a bunch of incompetent liabilities for a week. You can watch the entire thing play out from Anna’s POV here (5:44 is where the chaos begins).
The next few pitches were a mix of fun jumps and abseils that were a welcome relief from the slightly deathy experience that we (particularly Anna) had just experienced.
Then we came to a very slippery looking traverse that looked a bit too long to rig a releasable traverse line off with the handline we’d bought. Brendan went first with one end of the rope apparently expecting one of us to tie in the other end that was left behind. Unfortunately, no one paid enough attention (Chris claims that he pointed it out but no one heard him) and when Brendan slipped coming back he almost took out David due to only one end of the traverse line actually being fixed to the wall. We quickly rectified this and Brendan, David and Ben disappeared down the pitch. Left behind, myself, Anna, James and Chris realised that Brendan had completely screwed us over, derigging a hard rigged traverse would be a massive pain (none of us had jammers) and that we should try to rerig it to be releasable. James, who was at the front (and also the least experienced member of our group), took on this task with the aid of shouted instructions. The rope was just short, but on the suggestion of Anna he tied it off to itself about 1.5m from the abseil bolt so that at least it was a closed system. Him and Anna then abseiled off leaving myself and Chris to derig. I was hoping that Chris would be long enough to clip himself into the top of the abseil and reach out to untie the knot where the rope had been tied to itself, enabling us to pull it through. Unfortunately, it turns out that even 6ft3 men have limits. We ended up clipping Chris’s cowstails to me whilst I was clipped into the top of the pitch, and then I held Chris’s hand as he stretched out to untie the rope. It felt like a very sketchy manoeuvre and I was conscious of Brendan’s judgemental gaze, who had perched himself on a rock shelf and was witnessing the entire shit show play out.
After much overall faff, we finally all made it to the bottom of the pitch. The rest of the canyon passed by without incident, and we reached the end where we struggled to find the exit. Fortunately, we bumped into a father and son duo who had come up behind us and I had the joy of witnessing Brendan’s attempts to mime being a car before the man responded in a very posh English accent and found the way out for us.
Monday: Val Brutta
In the run up to the holiday, Brendan had been very keen to do Cormor. When I had mentioned this plan to Rob Watson and Nathan Walker beforehand, they immediately laughed in my face and I became convinced we would die if we went down this canyon. Despite proving ourselves to be complete liabilities the day before, Brendan was still up for trying it (although perhaps slightly less enthusiastic) but with Rob and Nathan’s warning words ringing in my ears and the fact that we had taken over double the estimated amount of time to do Bodengo, I was a bit concerned about the jump in difficulty. As a stepping stone, we decided to go with Val Brutta which was described as similar in style to Cormor, but much shorter at 2-3 hours.
We rolled up to the start of the canyon and immediately were greeted by a sign warning us of flood pulses if the dam upstream was opened. A healthy debate then followed about whether to do the canyon with Brendan attempting to ring the hydroelectric company but no one picking up and David weighing in as our resident water company expert. As it was a hot, sunny day and had been dry for the previous few days, we decided it was worth the risk and went ahead.
The start was largely boulder hopping and in the heat it quickly became very uncomfortable. David, who had developed an ear infection and barely slept the night before, looked like he was about to die. Eventually we came to the first pitch which was one single, rusty looking bolt on a spinning hanger. Once again, a long debate ensued and after about an hour of group dithering where my main contribution was to take pictures of Anna looking increasingly unhappy, Anna, James and David decided to turn back. In the end, this was almost certainly the correct move to make.
Myself, Chris, Ben and Brendan carried on and came to the dodgiest looking piton ever over an extremely full looking waterfall. Brendan does a very good job of describing this situation from a competent person’s POV in his write up, but from an incompetent person’s POV (a.k.a. mine) the main things I gleaned from the situation were that going down the piton looked like certain death, Brendan was looking very stressed, and that as Ben was doing a good job of acting as Brendan’s sidekick, the best thing I could do in the situation was to keep out of their way. So whilst myself and Chris sat on a rock doing our best impersonations of garden gnomes, Brendan managed to figure out an alternative solution where he rigged off a natural (sacrificing a small amount of rope in the meantime) and largely avoided the bulk of the waterfall. I was shitting myself about slipping and drowning as there was still a not-insignificant amount of water we would have to abseil down, but once again I thought about my unwritten PhD thesis and suddenly dying didn’t seem too bad.
We made it down this pitch safely but didn’t have too long to be relieved as it turned out that the pitches afterwards just increased steadily in awkwardness/lack of bolts requiring more and more rope being cut as we went along. To get a gauge of Brendan’s stress levels (σB) throughout, a handy relationship can be derived:
σB α 1/l
Where l = the length of the rope we had with us.
One positive that I took away is that for the first time ever I managed to use my Petzl Spatha for something other than cutting vegetables.
We had been intending to take an escape route but couldn’t find it, and after several more dodgy pitches (including one relying on wedging the rope into a slippery groove to avoid falling directly into a waterfall) and a lot of scrambling to bypass a large section, we finally made it to the last pitch. By normal standards, the bolting on it still wasn’t ideal however the fact that there were bolts at all was a novelty for us and the last pitch was very enjoyable. Brendan came down last and it turned out that the rope was too short and hadn’t been tied to the bag, leading him unable to pull it down. Fortunately, Brendan was able to scramble around and back up to the anchor to derig, meaning that we didn’t lose our second 60m rope of the day.
Upon reflection, we realised that the fact that it was such a hot day was the main factor behind the glacial fed canyon being incredibly full, and it turns out the guidebook recommends only doing it in cool weather, or at the start of spring. On the plus side, at least we didn’t do Cormor that day which was fed by the same glacier and would have been even more of a committing, deathy trip.
The next day (the last of the sunny forecast) we decided to do Perlana. This was once again a 2-3 hour trip (although our track record had been fairly abysmal on that front so far) and was supposed to be easy, hopefully giving Brendan’s heightened blood pressure a chance to decrease back to normal levels. I was initially heckled by Ben and Anna for opting to do the walk in wearing only my bikini and carrying my gear, however I definitely had the last laugh 10 minutes into the uphill walk when Ben and David (who were wearing their wetsuits) almost died of heatstroke. I was impressed that Anna was barely sweating despite it being at least 30oC. We eventually turned off into a forest which was mercifully much cooler but also very slippy. Not for the first time this holiday, I bitterly regretted wearing old, cheap trainers with smooth foam soles rather than the fancy canyoning boots Ben, David and Brendan were sporting. After much falling down muddy hills, we eventually reached the start of the canyon. It felt very reminiscent of the type of Ghyll scramble you’d get in the Yorkshire dales or the lake district, with one cool cave-like section with flowstone walls.
The canyon had lots of little toboggans, although as it was quite dry we had to miss out a bunch of them. Overall, it went very smoothly and we managed to complete it in 2 hours which so far more than halved our record. With Brendan sufficiently de-stressed, we headed off to Lake Como for some gelato and smoothies and then myself, Chris, James, Anna and Ben headed back for some sport climbing next to Acquafraggia waterfall. I threw a strop on a 6a+ I couldn’t do and squeezed in a rant about the injustice of short limbs, so it was business as usual really.
Thursday: Pilotera (Attempt One)
After having taken Wednesday off canyoning due to the rainy weather which had finally hit on Tuesday evening, we were back to it on Thursday. Brendan had grown noticeably silent about the idea of attempting Cormor after the debacle of Val Brutta, and hence it was Pilotera that we set our lofty sights on. The guidebook assured us that it was great to do when all other canyons were too wet.
The drive up involved increasingly tight, steep hairpin bends that were a minor challenge even in James’s nippy VW Polo. We reached the car parking at the top and awaited the arrival of Ben’s 7 seater Volvo. We heard the gearbox grinding long before we saw it, and I watched in amusement as Ben had to execute a 3 point turn to get around the last corner. It struggled into the car park, heralded by the strong smell of burning metal, and even with the engine switched off it continued to make loud concerning noises which was apparently the engine completely overheating. Once it sounded a little bit less like it was about to explode, in our daily tribute to the gods of faff, Ben, Brendan and James decided to drive back down to the bottom to check the water levels were at a suitable level after the heavy rain the night before. With everything looking good, we set enthusiastically off towards the canyon and immediately went the wrong way. After a couple more wrong turns, picking up some goats along the way and relying on random Italian villagers to point us the correct way, we were back at the car park and finally heading in the right direction.
As we approached the canyon, it started to rain getting heavier with each step and by the time we had descended a ladder into the start point it was at a torrential level. Huddling into a small cave entrance for shelter, we decided to bail on the trip rather than wait and see if the rain would stop as it had become pretty cold and there was thunder and lightning forecast.
Sure enough, as we headed back towards the car the lightning started to kick in with one bolt looking like it struck the canyon we’d just left. This was the first time I had experienced seeing lightning occurring at the same altitude, if not lower, to where I was standing and it really bought home the reality that we were high up on a hillside covered in metal gear in a thunder and lightning storm, where the lightning was striking not too far of a distance away from where we were. This was something not lost on anyone else either, and we all noticeably sped up, accompanied by our goat friend who had followed us down to the canyon and back up. It was probably thinking we were complete idiots and wanted front row seats to us being fried. My only consolation was that I wasn’t the tallest person in our group and hence would hopefully be less of an appealing electrical conduit than everyone else.
In a typical fashion, once we had made it back to the car and reconvened at the bottom, the weather cleared up and it became beautiful and sunny again. Lacking the energy to put back on our gear and try again, we instead went into Chiavenna and had more gelato.
Friday: Pilotera (Attempt 2)
We hadn’t intended on canyoning on the last day due to the faff of wet gear and the need to pack, however due to our failed attempt the previous day we wanted to do at least one more before leaving. David was out of action after falling down a 2m drop whilst drunk the night before (luckily only a sprained ankle) and Ben and Anna wanted to go and do a via ferrata route, but before they did we managed to persuade them to drive myself, Chris, James and Brendan up to the top parking. Once again, Ben’s car struggled its way back up the hill sounding less and less healthy with each bend we took and requiring a tactical rest at one point as the engine shut down due to overheating. Thanking Ben for his sacrifice, we set off for attempt number two.
The walk in was mercifully shorter and more efficient thanks to being dropped off a bit closer and knowing where we were going. We arrived at the canyon in no time and noted that it looked significantly drier than the day before. For the zillionth time this holiday, I cursed my frictionless shoes as I slipped, slithered and fell my way through the long stretches of boulder hopping sections. This was made even more painful by the sight of Brendan effortlessly leaping from rock to rock in the distance.
Myself, James and Chris managed to get some canyoning rigging practice in and there was even a fun jump halfway through which was perhaps less fun for Chris who dislikes big jumps. He was dismayed to see when we arrived that Brendan and James had already thrown 2/3 of the rope bags down the pitch. I expressed sympathy for him whilst also throwing the final rope bag down, forcing him into doing the jump.
The trip went by smoothly and before we knew it we were heading back to the campsite to pack for the big drive back to the UK the following day. Overall, I had great fun canyoning on this holiday and would like to express my deep gratefulness to Brendan for having to endure a bunch of incompetent liabilities all week, and not just ditching us to die in a canyon at the first opportunity.