It used to always annoy me when I lived in the US and heard Europeans say that they were not very impressed by the American mountains. In truth, it was the sky they came for, or more accurately, the size of the sky – big. Sure, the Alps are tough competition when it comes to comparing mountains. In terms of sheer beauty, with their relief, glaciers, and unique forms (the Matterhorn!), the Alps are hard to beat. But if they are lacking in anything, it’s open space, a feeling of being “out there”, or truly remote, wild even. Sure the sky is big here too, but it’s probably not without some infrastructure visible; a road, cow pastures, and especially the heinous ski lifts.
Thankfully, the beauty and quality of life in the Alps more than makes up for any shortcomings. Nevertheless, there is a longing for the occasional getaway, to mountains more quiet, trails less crowded, and terrain more pure. Last week, in the Ticino, the Italian speaking region of Switzerland, we discovered a hiking tour that had all of this. After 10 years living in the Alps I now get it, sometimes I need a big sky.
The Via Alta Verzasca
Famous for its villages of tiny stone houses deep in the mountain valleys, the mountains of Ticino are much less alpine, but no less beautiful. In fact, they have a magical quality that is difficult to really identify. Wild and remote apply here, but more so, there is a feeling. It comes not from any one iconic peak, or wall, or glacier, but from the overall package that is Ticino. The mountains are simply mountains that fill your view and invite you in. You aren’t staring at any one thing, but everything.
Sneaking its way along one of the more rugged and improbable spines is the Via Alta Verzasca. This is what we went to Ticino for. Typically done in five or six days, and south to north, the route is not well known. While it is on the radar of the Germans and Swiss Germans, the route is fairly difficult and will most likely remain what it is today, quiet. Essentially, it is a ridge traverse with everything that comes as a result, lots of up and down, slow going, and with difficulty at times.
The first night is spent at the Capanna Borgna, at 1900 meters. Day one is primarily an ascent to get you in place to access the ridge for day two. Once above tree line, you enter a kind of cap on the mountains where you will stay for the next few days. The terrain here is extremely steep, with some vertical drops of up to 1500 meters off the ridge line. The trail itself is a combination of casual hiking and mandatory scrambling in very exposed terrain with severe consequences should you fall. The route is rated T6, which is the most difficult grade for trekking routes. While the route is equipped with fixed ropes, chains, and even iron rungs to use as ladders, it is not to be taken lightly for anyone prone to vertigo or unsure on their feet. While we were on the route there was a party intending to do the tour but wisely turned around.
In addition to the steep terrain, the days are big. While researching the route we found that each day was around 6-9 hours. In the end, this was pretty accurate. With photos, all the up and down, taking in the views, etc… we left each hut by 8 a.m., and arrived to the next hut in the late afternoon. The route is incredibly well marked with blue and white marks and even “VAV” lettering and signage along the way. Getting lost might actually be difficult. The local Società Escursionistica Verzaschese does a huge amount of work to maintain this trail and keep the huts running clean and smoothly. And, it all works perfectly.
Tips for the Via Alta Verzasca
Food: While the huts do not have wardens, they do offer basic food and drinks. Pasta, rice, coffee, milk, pasta sauces, beer, wine and cokes were stocked in all the huts and at much more affordable prices than elsewhere in Switzerland. They each have a fully stocked kitchen complete with pots and pans, cups, etc.. even a variety of Moka pots. We were worried that the huts might not have everything for dinner, so like most trekkers had all our own food. The huts are managed by a team who regularly check in, but it is possible that a hut could be light on food.
Some of the huts offer showers. A silk bed sheet must be used, but thick wool blankets are available. Keep the huts as spotless as you find them. We found the huts to be cleaner than most people’s houses. Let’s keep them that way. Well done humans!
Huts cost up to CHF20/night per person.
Water: There is a fountain at every hut with drinking water. On the route itself, there were only a few places along the ridge where water could be taken.
Cell service and power: Hit or miss for most of the way. Data was slim. Remember… wild and remote. But, a couple of huts do have electricity for charging.
Weather and seasons: Fall in Ticino is paradise on earth. This is not a route you want to be on in either a thunderstorm or hot day. The best season is certainly September and in to October. Any fresh snow is going to make things tough, but the huts are open until mid to late October. Check in at Ticino Tourism.
Day 1 : Starting in Vogorno or Cugnasco, you’ll need to get yourself up to Capanna Borgna on one of the many standard trails. 1900 meters of gain, depending on where you start. It’s possible to be dropped off by taxi fairly high above Cugnasco…
Day 2 : Capanna Borgna to Capanna Cornavosa. Bam! It starts. This is the hardest day of the tour with a lot of steep up and down along the most exposed sections of ridge line. 1000 meters of gain. 1000 meters of loss. 8 hours.
Day 3 : Capanna Cornavosa to Capanna d’Efra. An easier version of day 2! 1100 meters of gain. 900 meters of loss. 6.5 hours.
Day 4 : Capanna d’Efra to Capanna Cognora. With the exception of two sections, this is a fairly easy day. But, two steep descents on the ridge require serious care. The first comes when descending Pizzo Cramosino’s west ridge and is the most severe of the entire route. While equipped with chains and ladder rungs, it is necessary to descend an open and exposed face where a fall would be fatal. The second comes as the descent of the next peak, the Madom Gröss, and is a steep, loose gully that quickly descends 200 meters. While not difficult, care must be taken to not knock loose rocks down the gully and onto other parties. 1050 meters of gain. 1030 meters of loss. 7 hours.
Day 5 : Capanna Cognora to Capanna Barone or finishing up in Sonogno. The standard Via Alta Verzasca continues on to Capanna Barone on a normal, easy, hiking trail. This is the shortest of the days, at 3.5 hours, with 620 meters of gain and 400 meters loss. Here you have options.
1. Continue down to Sonogno and call it good. This adds another 3 hours and 1300 meters of down.
2. Instead of doing the Via Alta Verzasca, gain the ridge to the Pizzo Campale from the Passo di Prato and traverse it to the end. This is the Nicola Balestra Traverse which we did not attempt due to rain. Apparently it is also T6 or even slightly harder and getting closer to actual climbing.
3. Stay at the Capanna Barone and add an ascent of the Pizzo Barone to your day, another 700 meters of up, and a visit to the beautiful Lago Barone just above the hut.
Day 6 : Capanna Barone to Sonogno. 3 hours, all down, 1300 meters…
In Sonogno, be sure to spend some time wandering the tiny streets of the ancient, well preserved village. On your way out of the Valle Verzasca, via PostAuto or car, be sure to stop in Lavertezzo and explore the incredible river just next to the road. Thanks to crystal clear water, intricate rock forms and colors, this is one of the most famous landmarks of the Ticino.
In the coming weeks we will create an ALPSinsight Trip with complete info for doing this trail.
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