The Everest of wall climbing
The first destination of our six month hiking and climbing trip from Belgium to India was the Diga di Luzzone in the Ticino district in Switzerland. The Diga di Luzzone is a 165 meter high dam and home to the longest artificial climbing route in the world. In the 90’s a German climbing hold manufacturer installed a five pitch climbing route on the face of the dam, covering a distance of over 165 meter. The average pitch length is about 35 meters.
Next to the sheer volume of continuous climbing, the dam also starts to overhang quite a bit halfway through. The five pitches are rated at 5b, 5c, 6a and two 6a+. Considering the exhausting trip from Belgium to Switzerland we just made (with 43 kilo’s of combined weight in our backpacks), Annelies’ chronic knee injury and the heat wave, we knew this would be anything but a walk in the park. This was our Everest of wall climbing.
The bellow video was featured on Rock and Ice. It’s not ours, but the drone images in it give you a good idea of the scale and the surroundings.
We arrived late in the afternoon in Campo Blenio at the end of the valley, really close to the dam. Only then did we find out the road up to to the Diga was closed due to a massive rock avalanche. We could see that they were working really hard to open the road again. So if you are planning to do this climb after the summer, I’m pretty sure it will be open again. We decided to stay at the only guest house in the village, so we could keep our backpacks safe while climbing. An expensive option, but the only legal one since there are no campings close to the dam.
20 Swiss francs (CHF) per climber plus 100 CHF deposit gets you the key to unlock the ladder that gives you access to the first pitch. The key can be collected at Ristorante Luzzone, located at the top of the dam. Due to the heat, the plan was to collect the key in the evening so we could start making the one hour and a half approach at first light. When I finally arrived at the foot of the dam (we decided it was better for Annelies’ knee to turn back halfway through), I was so impressed by the sight of the dam topped of by the snow covered mountains.
From the foot of the dam it’s another small half hour to the top with the restaurant. I was really disappointed when they refused to give the key at the restaurant, insisting that we had to collect it in the morning. The restaurant is open from 8am to 12pm, so our planned early start was going to be delayed.
Luckily this gave us some more much needed sleep.
After an early breakfast at 6 am we started walking the partially steep path to the foot of the dam. After collecting the key (running up to the restaurant and down again), we were at the foot of the dam and ready to go. We took our lightweight 70m rope, 14 quickdraws and some extra carabiners and prussic rope in case I had to haul Annelies through the hard parts. On my back was a backpack with our rain jackets, 2 liter of shared water, some Clif bars and our approach shoes.
Getting started can be quite funny, cause you have to figure out a way to lock the ladder again after using it to get up to the first anchor. The fastest solution for us was to let Annelies secure herself at the first anchor, myself putting back the ladder and then ascend a fixed part of the rope using a self-rescue technique.
I led the first pitch, and when we met again at the start of the second pitch we were both stoked about the quality of the climbing. But at the same time we realized this climb would be hard for Annelies. She had climbed only a few times in the last year because of her injury and while the moves in this route aren’t hard, the total route does require a lot of climbing specific stamina.
I continued leading the next two pitches, only stopping to admire the view and the swallows flying close to us and nesting in some of the holds. It was about halfway up the climb I was overwhelmed by the exposure of the climb. I was surrounded by the gray mass of the dam and I was just the tiny dot at the center of it all. Probably not even noticeable from the ground. The dam has been described as “having more exposure than a bulldog’s testicles” with reason.
Physically relaxing at the stances wasn’t easy. The hanging belay points are worse than on any natural climb I’ve ever done. There is only a 5 cm metal edge to stand on, so you are constantly hanging in your harness. Our feet were already killing us after the first pitch. Belaying bare feet and alternating between your knees and your feet to support your weight was the only thing we could do to make belaying a little less strenuous. Because we weren’t switching leads, we took some more time at the stances to pass gear.
By the time we both made it to the top of the third pitch, the sun was already catching up with us. We had been climbing in the shadow all morning, but for the last two hardest and most overhanging pitches we were going to be left at the mercy of the scorching sun.
It was also at this point that Annelies had to admit she couldn’t go any further. It got so bad that her hands started cramping up to the point she couldn’t open them anymore. We had two choices. The first one was to rappel back down (we figured out the 70 m rope was just long enough). But this meant hanging in our painful harnesses for quite some time. The other one was me helping Annelies up using a 3:1 (also called a Z-pulley, a rescue techniques that allow the belayer to pull some of the weight of the climber up using a pulley system). This meant she would still have to climb, but I would be helping her up by pulling the rope through the system.
After resting for a while, she decided she would climb one more pitch without my help At the start of the next pitch we faced the same dilemma, but with the top of the climb in sight Annelies decided to give it a go by herself again.
And there we were, after six exhausting hours of climbing we made it to the top. We both stepped over the top railing and hugged each other. I managed to climb everything on sight and Annelies got up every pitch using nothing but her own strength. We had conquered the Diga di Luzzone, the highest artificial climbing structure in the world!
We were rewarded with the sight of the reservoir lake at the other side of the dam and then rushed to the restaurant to drink something. A Heineken beer never tasted so good.
Grade and gear
165m, 5 pitchs (5b, 5c, 6a, 6a+, 6a+) The route is slowly progressing from slab to overhanging. The route is well protected and the moves aren’t that hard. The grade comes from the length and exposure. The climb can easily be done in 2-3 hours if both climbers are comfortable with the grade.
You will need 14 quickdraws and a 70m rope or a doubles/twins if you want to be able to escape by rappel (we haven’t tested this, always knot the end of your rope to avoid accidents). The route traverses, but there are rappel stations to the left to escape if necessary.
Keep in mind that it’s forbidden to start the route by rappel from the top.
We did this on our hitchhiking trip from Belgium to India. Although the hitchhiking went very well (15 hours of active hitchhiking to get to our destination), you might want to know the more traditional way to get there.
The closest airport is in Milan. If you want to do it by public transport, it is easy to get a train to Bellinzona. From there on you can get a train or bus to Biasca. Once you’re in Biasca, take the bus again that goes all the way to Campo Blenio. You can find the timetables here. In normal conditions it is possible drive all the way to the dam or to hitch a ride to the dam. I even heard rumors about a shuttle bus in the high season, but I can’t find a timetable.
With the lodging being so scarce and expensive at the end of the valley, you might want to consider renting a car at the airport if prices are reasonable. That way you can get in and out of the valley faster and you can leave your luggage in the car while you climb. But don’t leave anything visible to prying eyes. While the lady at our lodging claimed “wir haben keine banditen” (we don’t have any thieves), I wouldn’t take the risk.
If you wan’t to do the climb early in the morning, there are two options. The first is to book a room in Campo Blenio. This is what we did the night before the climb, since we didn’t have a car and wanted to climb early. We booked a room in Campo Blenio, from where you can hike up to the dam. Because we improvised this last minute it was really expensive (120 CHF/night for a double room). But so is everything in Switzerland. We can’t remember the name of the accommodation (and it’s not online), but it’s right at the start of the path before you cross the bridge into Campo Blenio. You can find other options on Airbnb.
The other option is to put up your tent at a camping further away, but then you’ll need a car if you want to climb early. The closest one is at Acquarossa. It has beautiful surroundings, but it is expensive (around 36 CHF for a night for two people and a small tent).
The one in Bellinzona is about half an hour further away and is a little bit more crowded because it’s closer to the city. But we recommend it. It is cheaper (30 CHF/night/two persons/small tent) and includes free showers and has a nice bar, mini market and other amenities. The owners are a really nice couple (who traveled to India with a van in the past :-)), and they are really making a lot of efforts to make the camping a nice spot to hang out. They give you free tapas with your drink and are setting up an open air art exhibition around the camping. Another advantage is that you get a free bus pass for the entire region while you stay at this camping! This might not sound like much, but with the Swiss bus prices it is. The one time we took a bus from Claro to Biasca it was 12 CHF for a 15 minute busride. We stayed at this camping after the climb to relax and visit Bellinzona.
There is one more camping spot in Claro, but we can’t recommend it since it is expensive and the owner urged us to get of the camping grounds before 10 am quite harshly after we only arrived at 7 pm the night before.
There is a ban on wild camping in Switzerland. But if you chose your spot carefully and aren’t to worried about theft it could work.