Text and pictures © 2006-2022 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"I find what keeps me safest on climbs is a big, gnarly hexcentric. Specifically in the sense that I let my partner know that I'll be aiming it at vital parts of his body if I ever see that hand come off the belay side of the rope..." — John.
Ever since coming back from the US, I've been suffering from crack withdrawal symptoms. Apparently there's no such thing as crack climbing in old Europe. Sure, you can find some good cracks up in Chamonix, 2 months a year when it's warm enough, provided you can avoid the bad weather, fight the crowds and survive the glacier approach. Or you can try to track down a few rare cracks up various cliffs, usually bolted and not very fun. But there's one place I've been hearing about for years: the italian Valle dell'Orco, in the Gran Paradiso national park, sometimes referred to as little-Yosemite.
Left: Grade IV move under a chockstone on the normal approach to the Mroz spur.
Right: Nice hand-eating crack up Piatonetto (6a).
Last few days of August, we drive into Italy, around Turin and in no more than 3 hours we arrive in the valley below the Gran Paradiso national park. Little cute villages built with lichen-covered drystones cover the valley floor. Very scenic. We start with a cliff off the side of Piantonetto valley: the Scoglio di Mroz. There are 'no trespassing' signs all over the roads, but as an italian friend told me on the phone the day before: 'ignore them and keep driving'.
Left: Christine on a 6b short traverse on 'Impressioni di Settembre'. Jam if you can.
Jenny's still nursing a sore wrist and ankle, so there's just Vincent, Christine and me. I follow the guidebook indications on the trail up, but we loose Christine off into the woods on the right. She climbs back down so we can go through the official approach, a heinous grade IV tunnel below a huge chockstone, only to discover that she had actually reached the base of the cliff via a nicer trail...
Right: The Piantonetto valley seen from above.
And the rock keeps its promises: at the base there are several great splitter cracks. Either that or smooth slab routes. The route has great jams, good natural pro, a granite with lots of crystals not really like in Yosemite, more like in Estes Park. 6 varied and good pitches.After we rap down, it starts drizzling. We wait a while to see if we can bag another route, but eventually retreat to a place packed with raspberries where we pick a whole box of them. Then we drive to Teleccio lake at the upper end of the valley and hike up to the Pontese hut in poor weather.
Right: Coming down from the Pontese hut, overlooking Teleccio lake. I've heard that there's a plastic route up the dam, but it was too windy to go check it out. And who cares anyway with so many orgasmic cracks around. Image taken with high dynamic range techniques.
Left: The elephant's ear crack: hand, hand, hand.
The plan was to climb at the Becco Meridionale della Tribolazione, a long way above the hut the next morning, but it rains all night with falling temperatures, and in the morning the high routes (3300m) are all covered in snow. Down we go in a windstorm, in search of warmer horizons. The Caporal is such a cliff that received high praise from my italian friends, and doing the approach we really think that this is a lost piece of Yosemite: cracks every which way, aid lines with scary gear sticking out, smooth slabs...
Left: Christine trying for the crystals instead of the Elephant's crack.
Right: Upper part of the route: 60 meters of strenuous Rattlesnake dihedrals.
I start on the Elephant's Ear (l'Orecchio del Pachiderma), but the guidebook is not quite clear where the start is: in the chimney, the thin crack next to it, the dihedral or the bolted arete on the left ? They push me to start on the arete and I struggle up, crossing back and forth several times into the dihedral, making a knot of spaghetti with the ropes, and forcing them into a dicey swing to reach the belay. Such a mess that they forget the pack containing the food, water and guidebook at the base.
The pitch above is a stupendous large hand crack which can also be taken as a layback. Yah, I'm back in the US. After that pitch we switch leads and Vincent takes the slab above, with a couple aid moves. The route changes name at this point, turning into Rattlesnake, a strenuous succession of corner laybacks and chimneys. The pitches are short but we run out of gear quickly.
Once on the summit we pull down a 60m rappel to the intermediate ledge and... try to pull the rope which doesn't move at all. Just like on my last route with Vincent up the Pavé, he has to ascend the rope with a prussik and a tibloc. The knot was just stuck onto the lip of the rappel. Orco may not be Yosemite, but it looks similar and we live through epics just the same.
Left: Slightly overhanging laybacks up the Rattlesnake.
Right: Vincent ascending the stuck rappel line.
There are plenty of campgrounds and cheap hostels but also secluded spots to lay down a sleeping bag. In the morning we head to the other major spot: the Sergent. There the lines are more similar to Vedauwoo: offwidths with coarse crystals. The most famous route is one whose name should have ticked us off: La fessura della Disperazione (Despair Crack). But I feel confident with my #6 friend, not used in a long time and rusting away at the bottom of the gear pile.
Left: First pitch of the Fessura della Disperazione. I'm not too desperate yet, but that'll come.
Right: First grassy pitch of Nicchia delle Torture.
The first 3 pitches follow a large diagonal crack, sometimes horizontal, sometimes more vertical, but always offwidth. The first pitch is rated 5+ and takes just enough protection to be enjoyable, including said #6. It's horizontal enough that you can stick your whole lower leg into it to take a rest as the smooth rock doesn't offer any kind of comfortable toe-hold below the rounded edge of the crack. The second pitch quickly turn into a problem: I can protect the last 15 meters of traverse only with my #6. So either I move it along with me and my seconds go 'splat!', or I leave it and I'm the one risking going 'splat!'. I back off and we rappel down in shame, swearing to bring an extra two #6 next time around.
Next route is 'Nicchia delle Torture' (the Torture Hole), which should also have ticked us off... On the second pitch Vincent gets into a 10 meter overhanging offwidth... and he's left the #6 down. Down is also were we head back quickly.
Third attempt is not much better: on what is supposed to be a 6b slab there are actually 2 lines of bolts and none are 6b. I go back and forth between them, aiding my way up on both, and finally make it to the belay. This time we manage to finish the next pitch, but the one above, nicknamed the 'surprise dihedral' (6b), just breaks our spirit before we even give it a try.
Finally, just so we don't leave the place in infamy, we whip the beautiful Incastromania (6a), a great and gentle single pitch hand crack. Time to go home, but I'll sure come back here with Jenny so we can get spank... so we can hone our crack climbing skills. If you are a european planning a US road trip, this is the place to come for training, and if you are a US climber missing home while on a European trip, you can come crack it up just like back home.
Left: The Mroz spur, partway up the Piantonetto valley.
Right: Straining on the crystals of 'L'importante e esagerare' (6c) at the Mroz spur.
And indeed, just a month later we are back to finish where we left off. Three days where we hit the same cliffs in the same order and finish the routes we'd left undone. First a hike up to the Mroz spur where the rasperies are now gone but replaced by mushrooms. The route 'L'importante e esagerare' takes an improbable line on a crystal covered slab and provides some very continuous moves.
Left: Trying to layback a very wet Nanchez dihedral.
Then back at the Caporal where the Nanchez dihedral proves a disappointement. Not the route itself which is steep on excellent rock with great cracks, but the conditions of the route where 3 of the 6 pitches are just completely wet. We both keep pulling on gear in order to avoid a potentially painful fall on this slime covered rock. When we make it to the final two pitches and find them dry, we are just too stressed to care anymore.
Right: Leading the fifth pitch of the Nanchez dihedral, facing out. The crack on the left is soaking wet, the right doesn't look so good, so in the middle I go
An finally back at the Sergent. Unfortunately I couldn't find another #6 to finish off that Despair Crack safely, so we do a couple ground pitches like 'Il signore Nero' which looks like a heinous offwidth but ain't that bad, before heading back up Paperinik and the Torture slot. This time around I have both the #6 friend and the #4 Bigbro with me, but when I reach the slot, in an enraging remake of Moses Tower, neither will fit, the crack being just in between in width. The climbing proves easier than expected, with decent holds for the feet and some good hidden flakes inside the crack after a short distance. Then the #6 fits right in, and even better there's a bolt at the top of the slot, before the roof move.
Left: Jenny on the steep fifth pitch of the Nanchez dihedral.
And cherry on the cake after hiking back down to the parking lot: the Kosterlitz boulder. A 6m high boulder split by a crack starting thin finger and growing to offwidth size, featuring an overhanging start where good jamming technique is crucial. Two italians are strugling on it on toprope, trying to figure out some unfathomable crystals or strenuous layback. They watch us put our hand jammies on with a smirk... and we just cruise up, particularly Jenny who has no problem on the lower thin part. The grade is given as 6a/7b in some guidebooks. Go figure !
Mid-october proves a good time to climb on the lower altitude cliffs like the Sergent or the Caporal, the days are cool and sunny, there's nobody during the week (but you can find hordes from Turin during the weekends), the restaurants have good specialties and it's easy to find nice free camping if you know where to look.
Other crack climbing in Europe include:
Now if you know of any other place in Europe with either good trad climbing or plenty of cracks (which is not necessarily the same thing), please let me know, I'd love to give it a shot.
Left: The major spot of the Sergent as seen from the minor cliff of the Desertore.
Right: Jenny on a thin 6b finger crack on the Desertore. I almost peeled off that thing.
Left: The village of Noasca, seen from the cliff of the same name. A very nice and easy 5+ dihedral goes up for several pitches, making a nice intro to trad climbing for dummies.
Right: Back to the Caporal, doing an alternate finish after the Elephant's ear.
Left: Up on the Caporal, much easier than the Rattlesnake.
Left: Balancy move at the end of the pitch.
Right: The thin crack above the Elephant's ear is a sustained 6a, turning into a heinous 6b (?) slab.
Left: A view of the slab leading into the rattlesnake.
Right: A view of the Caporal, with a party on the slab after the Elephant's ear.
Left: Large view than above: a party is visible on the left in the large Nanchez dihedral, which we climbed completely wet the previous year.
Right: Close-up on the Sergent from a distance. The diagonal crack starting from the lower right corner is the infamous Despair Crack offwidth, which finishes after 4 pitches above the grassy ledge.
Left: Bouldering on the granite of the Desertore, on the other side of the valley from the Sergent.
Right: Sunset view on the easier slabs on the left side of the Sergent.
Right: The Caporal in the morning. The Elephant's ear is hidden in the shadows.