Canyoning Holiday (Lake Como)

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Prologue

In the weeks preceeding Rob Watson and Nathan Walker seemed convinced our ineptitude would lead to at least one if not all of us dying on this holiday. The following account will prove otherwise. On July 7th 2023, David and I drove down to Ipswich to meet Ben and Anna at Ben’s parents house, Ben had somehow convinced his parents to lend us their very nice 7-seather Volvo XC-90 4×4 SUV complete with heated massage seats for the trip. Fourteen hours later we arrived at camping acquafraggia and met up with Rosi, Chris and James. Naturally Ben and Anna had booked a luxury AirBnB a short walk up the hill from us.

Bodengo 2

With 2 days of nice weather forecast, I thought it best to do a canyon I had done before. Bodengo 2 is a highly-rated aquatic canyon with lots of jumps and toboggans, why not.

We managed to navigate the first pitch with no rope loss/near drowning experiences this time. Looking at the second pitch my first thought was that this is probably tobogganable… can’t be sure though. We threw a bag down and watched it shoot off the end of the toboggan and wash over to the right of the pool against a wall.

I was still a little unsure, but Rosi offered to just do it, which I thought was quite brave. Off she went landing with a loud splash then being washed over to the side, everyone else followed like lemmings. Upon landing the current kept pushing us to the right of the pool where there was no escape. I figured rather than everyone wasting their energy fighting to get to the other side of the long pool I’d attempt to make my way across trailing one of the ropes behind me for the others to pull in. 

I took the rope out of one of the bags leaving a throw line for everyone else to hold onto. With some difficulty, I swam across to the other side of the pool with the end of the rope.

Incompetence.

I turned around to find James and Chris just behind me. As I pulled in the rope Ben and I think Anna (a helmet bobbing in the water) were the only ones moving towards me. It turns out Ben had passed the other bags to Rosi and David and took the rope for himself as Anna just about clung on while her SRT kit was dragging her down into the water. It was then I realised what a bunch of liabilities I was with. Chris swam back with the rope to rescue Rosi and David, a few chaotic minutes later we all got out of the water and carried on with the trip. Anna shot a POV video of the incident on her GoPro.

Much of the rest of the trip went off without a hitch, the warm and sunny weather a nice compliment to the endless pools and toboggans along the way.

At one point we arrived at a pitch with quite a rather long traverse line. The rope I had brought for making traverse lines was only 17m which I thought probably wasn’t long enough, the traverse looked easy enough, you wouldn’t want to fall though as you could be swept into a stream and down the pitch.

I clipped the tackle sack to the backup bolts then grabbed the end of the rope out of the bag and pulled it along to the other side, assuming someone would see that the rope needed tying in for the traverse line to be safe. I clipped the rope into the other side and inspected the pitch to see if it was jumpable. After inspecting the pitch, I headed back to tell everyone that they could probably jump it. David was already clipped into the traverse line, as I came across, I slipped on a wet patch of rock and to my surprise fell much further than I thought I would almost wiping David out on the way. It turns out nobody had realised the rope needed tying in. Luckily the rope was tied into the bag, so everything was fine, we brought in the slack and tied the rope to the start of the traverse line.

After Ben and David and I jumped the pitch everyone else realised the hard-rigged traverse would be a bit sketchy to de-rig. James was already on the pitch so everyone else got him to attempt to rerig it. James threaded the end of the rope through the backup bolts, tied himself in and belayed himself across with a fig 8. However, to his surprise, the rope was about 1m too short to make it across to the other bolts. The others attempted to shout instructions as James tried to understand them over the noise of the waterfall.

James: “I unclip this?”… Everyone else: “No!!” James: “Unclip this?”… Everyone else: “No!!!!!.

After about 30 minutes of faff, they somehow managed to make their way across to us. Something involving rethreading the knots to have smaller tails and using cow’s tails to bridge the gap.

Finally, we arrived at the stone bridge at the end of the canyon. Struggling to find the exit we saw two other canyoners approaching us, not knowing any Italian I asked if they knew the way back to the road while pretending to be in a car and pointing up the hill. The man replied in a Southern English accent, “Are you looking for the road?”. “Ahh you’re English” I replied. The man was on holiday with his family and had just finished the canyon with his son in under 1.5 hours, our trip took 5 hours.

The end of Bodengo

Val Brutta

The next day, having conquered Bodengo 2, we were looking to up our game a bit. But nobody was keen on such a big and challenging canyon. looking through the book I found a canyon called Val Brutta. This was downstream of Cormor and had some similar features but was shorter with a lower grade of v4 a3 I figured it was probably about the right level for the group.

So off we went to Cormor lite. When we arrived there was a rather intimidating-looking sign warning of potential flooding caused by “manoeuvres at hydraulic plants”. Looking in the book there was mention of a dam upstream but no phone number to call. We attempted to call the Cormor dam people but no there was no answer. Much debate followed about whether it was safe to do the canyon. Ultimately, we concluded that it had been really hot and sunny for the past 3 days so the water levels would probably be quite low. And we were here now so we may as well do the canyon anyway.

Ignoring Danger

After some boulder hopping and scrambling, we arrived at the first pitch.  This was set up with a loose single p-bolt and a couple of rusty mallions attached to it. In the caving world rigging off single dodgy-looking anchors is considered a bit of a faux pas, as more of a caver than a canyoner I was starting to feel a little more uncomfortable about the trip.

I looked around the group, Dave was a bit rough, he’d managed to get an ear infection the night before and didn’t get much sleep. Anna wasn’t very happy with the uncertainty of the upstream dam and the loose single-point anchors. We spent about an hour deliberating about whether to do the canyon or not before half the group split with James, Anna and David making the sensible decision to head back to one of the cars.

Ben and I went down the first pitch followed by Rosi and Chris. After taking some photos of the others coming down the pitch I thought I’d go ahead to check out the next pitch with Ben.

The next pitch was unlike anything I’d ever seen before in a canyon or cave. The pitch was the same as the one photographed in the book but with some key differences. There was a ton of water going over the edge and a single rusty piton at the pitch head. I thought to myself, “But it’s been so hot and dry recently, where is all this water coming from?” Then I remembered Rob mentioning these canyons being fed by a glacier. According to the canyoning forums the water levels in Val Brutta is notoriously high on hot days as is only reccomended on cooler days late/eary in the season, on hot days the canyon has a higher aquatic grading.

Realising we could do with an escape option I ran back to tell Rosi and Chris not to pull the rope though but by the time I arrived they were already packing the rope. We were committed.

We gathered at the top of the next pitch while I considered our options. The rigging guide said to rig off the single piton and go off the edge where the water was flowing. Even approaching the piton was difficult, it was placed above the stream flowing down the pitch. I cut off a section of our rope and tied some knots in for the others to use as a handline. Ben belayed me across so I could install the handline and better inspect the piton. It was properly rusted and had been in the canyon for over 10 years according to the guidebook.

I might have considered it without the water levels being as high as they were but with the water thrashing you over the edge I wanted something a little more substantial than a single old and rusty piton. I went back to the others to reconsider our options. I asked Ben to check if his phone had signal, maybe we could ring the others and get them to rerig the first pitch – there was no signal. Our call out was 6 pm which was 4 hours away at the time, maybe we could wait for rescue. But getting rescued is embarrassing, I had to think of something.

We had 2 lengths of 60m rope with us and I could spot a few natural anchors. A log jammed in the stream way and choked rock under a boulder. I cut off another length of rope to use as tat, tied it around the log and backed it up to the rock. The positioning of the anchor meant we could abseil down a gap at the top of the pitch to avoid most of the water. It was filled with flood debris and loose rock, I kicked down as much of the loose rock and debris as I could and tied in one of fig the cheap fig 8s I’d bought on Alibaba to use a ring anchor.

I threaded the rope through the smaller hole of the fig 8 and blocked it off with a releasable anchor in case I needed lowering and abseiled down the pitch. It worked fine and I got to the bottom of the pitch. The water was being funnelled into more of a slot canyon with deeper water. An incident here would be dire, this part of the canyon was wet, cold and enclosed.

The final pitch of the enclosed section appeared not to have any bolts, the water flowing down the pitch looked violent as it twisted around the corner and shot over to the other wall. Ideally, we’d avoid going anywhere near this. There was nowhere in the immediate vicinity of the pitch we could sling the rope around and had to travel back up the passage, Ben found another boulder and log we could tie the rope around. We abseiled off the rope tied to the boulder and awkwardly placed the rope over a slight v-slot in the rock, which would allow us to avoid the waterfall.

We got past this section losing more of our spare rope. The canyon then opened out into the sunshine, I felt relieved. But we were still far from the car, we avoided going down the main canyon which looked quite full of water and deathy by boulder hopping down the side of the canyon, sliding down scree slopes and using more of our quickly shrinking spare rope as abseil tat.

We eventually got to the final pitch which was rigged off a double p-bolt but with snapped chain rendering the redundancy useless. Ben got onto the pitch, remembering only once weighing the rope that he’d untied his leg loops earlier in the trip to be more comfortable. I went last landing in a deep pool, I looked up to see the pull-through rope had come out of the bag out of reach.

Not wanting to lose all of the rope, I spent the last of the trip scrambling around the side of the pitch to retrieve the rope. The guidebook reccomends inspecting the final pitch from the road to get an idea of the water levels in the canyon, in hindsight that’s what we should have done.

Val Perlana

After the drama of Val Brutta, I wanted something a bit more within our comfort zone for the next canyon. Perlana looked like a pleasant canyon in a nice way to spend yet another hot day.

With a 50-minute approach to the canyon ahead of us, up a hill in the sun and +30 °C heat Ben and David got changed into their wetsuits. About 15 minutes into the walk Ben and David looked like they were about to die of heat stroke before getting out of their wetsuits and staggering the rest of the walk to the canyon. The rest of the walk to the canyon involved a reasonably arduous walk through some woods, Rosi fell over about 15 times.

The canyon was well-bolted with warm water at just about the right level. The canyon went remarkably smoothly so I won’t bother describing the rest of the trip, here are some photos.

On Wednesday night there was a thunderstorm. All the canyons were full of water, James’s tent was leaking and after 3 days of intense physical activity, the syke was quite low. As the weather got better into the afternoon, we looked for sports climbing venues with short walk-ins. Anna found a roadside sport crag where the climbs could be accessed within two steps of leaving the car. In the evening we went to the local pizza place where we saw the man from the canyon eating dinner with his family. Turns out they were also staying at the same campsite as us.

Pilotera (Attempt 1)

For probably the last canyon of the trip we headed to Pilotera. A nearby canyon that is recommended in the guidebook as being good when everything else is too wet.

I was in Ben’s car as we turned off the road to Bodengo up the track to Pilotera. The higher up the road we went the steeper it got until eventually the switchbacks got to about 30° and he was starting to struggle with the large luxury vehicle sometimes having to do 3-point turns on the blind corners to get around them.

At the top, we got changed and set off in completely the wrong direction into the middle of some woods where we found some goats. After getting back to the car park we walked into the village where we were redirected by the locals back towards the car park and down a path to the village of Orlo, where it turns out the guidebook says we were actually supposed to start from. Walking down the road we again bumped into the family that were staying at our campsite again this time on bikes.

For the entirety of the walk, we were followed by goats. Approaching the canyon, the rain starts to gradually build up to a heavy shower. Once we arrived at the canyon, we saw more signs warning of flood pulses from a releaseable dam. The way the dam worked was quite cool though, a remote opertated cable lifted a counterweighted door releaseing water into the canyon. The dam people had even installed a camera so they could remotely inspect the dam before remote operating the release.

We checked the forecast again and Google was predicting thunderstorms for the next few hours. Although the canyon was recommended for when everything else was too wet, doing it in a thunderstorm didn’t seem like the best idea so we began running back to the car. On the way back the thunder was getting louder and the lighting closer. At one point we could see the lightning striking down the valley into the canyon, maybe it was a good idea to turn around.

Pilotera (Attempt 2)

The next day we went back to Pilotera, David couldn’t join us as he had gotten drunk the night before and fallen down some stairs, hurting his ankle.

On the way, we dropped James’s car down at the bottom car park while Ben drove us up to the top. The SUV wasn’t happy driving up the hill again and went into limp mode as the gearbox overheated. After stopping for a few moments and turning the heat up in the cabin to lower the temperature of the engine we made it up the rest of the hill.

We unpacked the car and Ben drove off to do a via Ferrata with Anna instead of the canyon. After getting ready I noticed James had left his helmet in the car. Luckily James was prepared to risk death/brain damage and proceeded with the canyon.

The water levels were much lower than they were the day before, as some of the pitches were rigged directly in the flow of the water it was probably good that we avoided doing it in flood.

Arriving at a very nice-looking jump, James and I threw my bag down and jumped off the pitch. leaving Rosi and Chris at the top. Chris not being keen on jumps muttered something about all the ropes bags being at the bottom of the pitch. Rosi: “Ohh no”, and proceeds to throw her bag containing the last remaining rope down the pitch. Other than Rosi falling over a hundred times, the rest of the canyon went smoothly.

Rosi later asked me to add: “I would like to point out that unlike Brendan in his fancy (and highly expensive) canyoning boots, I was wearing an old pair of cheap trainers with almost completely smooth foam soles where any form of friction was wishful thinking 😭”

Seeing as it was the last night of the holiday, we decided to finish the holiday at a posh Italian restaurant. By the time we’d all finished our respective activities, it was 9 pm. The food was very nice, Ben had decided to order a three-course meal and half a bottle of wine. A Prawn tartare, followed by cuttlefish ink risotto and a 400 g sirloin steak. I thought this was great, Ben was inevitably unable to finish his steak and like a vulcher I eat the leftover the scraps of Ben’s tasty expensive steak.

The next day we woke up early to drive over to Dover to catch a 10 pm ferry giving me 14 hours to write this rant.