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Mello Out: In Italy's Val d' Mello


by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally published in Rock and Ice #85

Every year it becomes increasingly more difficult to escape the ubiquitous spread of modern western "civilization." After living in Germany for seven years, I'd had a hard time maintaining the romantic ideal of rural Europe, etched in my young mind by the works of Cezanne and Monet. The quaint villages are still there, but the nuclear power plant on the horizon, and the hum of high-energy lines strung across the fields are hard to ignore. The mountains are even worse, criss-crossed with ski lifts, and swarming with hikers, climbers, skiers, parapenters, kayakers and mountain bikers.

Luckily, there are still a few places left where time seems suspended - quiet mountain valleys, untouched by recreational development, where the smell of fresh-cut hay and the sound of tinkling cow bells drift up to your lonely belay stance. The aptly named Mello valley in northern Italy is one of my favorites.

The stone roofs of the village of Sondrio, like the weathered faces of the farmers working the rocky fields with scythe and rake, haven't changed for a hundred years. Both blend perfectly with the cliffs and boulders surrounding them. The crags of the Mello Valley offer the Alps' best concentration of low-altitude granite with easy access, and thus provide a perfect warm-up for a summer season on the high peaks. The area is inundated with crowds from nearby Milan on summer weekends, but quiets down by Sunday evening.

The campground supplies only the most basic facilities: a bit of flat grass by the river, water from a hose, and a toilet in a little trailer. In Sondrio, only a few kilometers away, are a grocery store, an excellent little climbing shop, and the best pizza I've found in Italy &emdash; all at reasonable prices.

Another couple of kilometers down from Sondrio is the Sasso Remeno, reputed to be the world's largest boulder. There is a complete, separate guidebook to this huge multifaceted rock and its surrounding boulders. You have to literally stand in the street to belay some of the routes. The most popular wall is the sunny south face. Many of the pitches are full rope lengths of bolt protected face climbing in the modern sport-climbing tradition. Most of the routes fall in "the middle grades" German VI-VII+ (5.9-5.11). All rate at least two stars in my quality book. Easy access makes this a perfect introduction to the area, or a destination when the weather looks chancy.

A pleasant 15 minute to one-hour walk up valley from the campground sets you below the major cliffs, which must then be approached up steep, intermittent climber's trails. Signs warn of danger from deadly, poisonous vipers. We carried sticks to beat the bushes and grass in front of us as we hiked.

The first long climb I did with my new Dutch friend, Franz, was the classic Luna Nascente (5.10) which follows dihedrals and cracks up the right side of the Scoglio Della Metamorfosi. We warmed up with Risveglio Kundalini (5.10), a zig-zag route up slabs below the Metamorfosi that most parties take to avoid the long bushwack up and around. This combination gives more than ten pitches of beautiful climbing on clean granite. The upper pitches of Luna Nascente are especially enjoyable; with a thousand feet of exposure down to the valley and snowy peaks above, the view is superlative. There is only one bolt on the entire route, so carry a normal rack.

After cruising Lunar Nascente, and a number of difficult routes on the Sasso di Remenno, we got pumped up for a long climb on the major formation in the valley: the Asteroidi. We optimistically planned on starting up Peidi di Piombo on the wall below the Asteroid to put together another combo route that would qualify as a Yosemite grade IV or V.

I don't know if it was fear or heat, but sweaty fingers made the face climbing traverse above the roof on the third pitch feel like hard 11. Halfway across I realized I was committed, if I fell I'd be left swinging in space, and I couldn't reverse the moves I'd made. As my fingers were about to grease off I barely managed to clip a TCU slammed into the only seam on the pitch. This gave me the psychological strength to make the belay, but Franz and I were drained. Luckily we were using double ropes, so we could just make the rappel over the roof. This climb illustrates the difference in ratings on the well-protected "sport" routes on the Sasso Remenno, and the committing long routes up the valley.

A week in the Mello valley barely tapped the area's potential. I could only gaze at the huge east face of Monte Qualido, where a number of grade V and VI big-wall climbs have been established. The climbing atmosphere here is much more than a line of bolts on rock, there is a "mellow" ecological philosophy (imported from Yosemite) carried over from the pioneers of the '70s. The "butterfly on the finger" logo, used by the local climbing shop on the clothing they market, well embodies what you'll find in the Val di Mello.

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