A brief history and overview of bouldering in southern Switzerland
[Updated: July 2010 & February 2011]
Ever since the first tales of magical granite strewn hillsides and pictures of Fred Nicole crushing great looking blocs in weirdly named areas, such as La Balmaz and Osogna, first started to filter in to the British Isles back in the late 90’s; British boulderers have seemed instinctively drawn to the southern and central valleys of Switzerland. In spite of the initial lack of documented information, climber’s often visited entire areas purely on word-of-mouth and loosely translated Chinese whispers, hoping to find the next promised land – perhaps a suppressed love for the greater ranges is hidden deep in the heart of even the laziest and most stalwart cellar dweller?
Fred Nicole’s historical ascent of the awe inspiring Cresciano test piece Dreamtime (initially the worlds first Font8c, but now considered 8b+) in October 2000 caused ripples across the world scene and instigated visits from top climbers from all corners of the globe. The scene was a buzz with rumor and counter rumor of incredible lines and projects a plenty. The final nail in this coffin of secrets was the launch, in 2001, of the Slackjaw film ‘Stone Love’. This superbly shot climbing film showcased what would become one of the best known granite bouldering areas in the world and added to the areas’ allure, featuring as it does a duo whose magnetic appeal instantly raises the profile of any destination; I speak of course of Ben and Jerry. With Cresciano now firmly established as a fully legit venue and the release of the excellent guide ‘Cresciano Boulder’ in November 2002 – almost a year to the day that ‘Stone Love’ was originally shown at the 2001 Kendal Mountain Film Festival – the interest in the area was gaining pace. As more and more sketched topo’s to areas such as Chironico (further up the Tessin valley) and the aptly named Magic Wood (80km east of Cresciano) appeared, it was rapidly dawning on everyone that the geography and climate of the southern Swiss valleys and mountain passes was likely to make the area one of 'the' bouldering hotspots of the early 21st century. The release of Versante Sud’s ‘Bloc Notes’ in February 2003 saw the first guidebook representations of the Chironico areas (along with the first published topo’s to the increasingly popular Val Masino and Val Di Mello areas on Northern Italy), helping further interest in the Ticino region. However it was the release, in February 2004, of Harry Roker’s guide book, ‘Blocheart: Bouldering in the heart of the Alps’, which was to be the biggest catalyst for drawing visiting boulderers to Switzerland. This roughly drawn topo guide was a simple no frills affair, yet its accuracy and more importantly the amount of previously undocumented areas it covered – Cresciano, Chironico, Magic Wood, Sustenpass and Branson to name a few – made it an instant hit, and further added to the snowballing popularity of Swiss bouldering. This is still the only published guide to the now world famous boulders of Magic Wood. By 2005 Swiss bouldering was well established as some of the best in the world, in fact it had made such an impression US strongman Dave Graham that he had taken up residency in the Tessin area. Dave, along with the likes of Ueli Gygax and many other central European bloc-crushing-machines, had taken to expanding the existing areas around Chironico, as well as opening up entirely new sectors of the hillside – alongside the continuing development of Magic Wood and numerous other smaller areas. This veritable tidal wave of development was not going undocumented, and by November 2006 Chironico had a new 288 page definitive guide book, packed to the gunnel's with top draw boulder problems! This was released simultaneously with a surprise addition (well to me anyway) to the region, San Gottardo Boulder. At 2200m this area is essentially a summer destination, but its exquisite settings and gob smacking granite lines make it another valued addition to the ever increasing wealth of bouldering areas in southern Switzerland. The development continues...
The image below shows the four main (published) guides to the bouldering areas of southern Switzerland. The Cresciano, Chironico and San Gottardo boulder guides are currently unavailable in the UK, however they can be purchased in the local Tourist Information Offices. The Biasca and Bellinzona Tourist Offices (including contact details) are marked on the 'Area Overview' map below.
[UPDATE July 2010: As the Blocheart guide is now out of print you may find useful the Swiss Bloc Volume 1 guide (published May 2010), which contains photo-topo information for Magic Wood, San Gottardo, and the Susten Pass, as well as numerous 'new' areas.]
The map below shows the position of all the main climbing areas in southern Switzerland and a few other useful facilities such campsites and airports. There is then an area summery of each venue listed below.
BrioneOverview: A small but historic area 32km NW of Bellinzona, in the Italian speaking canton (state) of Ticino. The area comprises of sectors in woodland and riverbed settings, currently all areas (other than the river boulders) are banned please DO NOT visit these sectors. Guide/s: No published guide documents this area. Number of Problems: Unknown Season: Spring, autumn and winter are the best times to visit, although climbing in the winter may be effected by snow levels. Altitude: 800m
ChironicoOverview: A must visit area and one of the ‘Big Three’, Chironico is located in a beautiful woodland setting, on a hillside, in the Italian speaking canton (state) of Ticino. The area features all manner of styles and heights of problem on a superbly solid gneiss. Guide/s: Chironico Boulder (2006, updated 2009), Blocheart (2004) [out of print] and Bloc Notes (2003) [out of print]. Number of Problems: 1300+ (27 sectors) Season: Spring, autumn and winter are the best times to visit, although climbing in the winter may be effected by snow levels. Altitude: 600-800m Overview: A must visit area and one of the ‘Big Three’; these classic neighboring areas are situated in the Italian speaking canton (state) of Ticino. One of the lower bouldering areas in southern Switzerland, this is the original Swiss bouldering venue. Set on a hillside in a sweet chestnut forest, this primo granite area tends to be more technical in style and success seems more reliant on skill, technique and conditions. That said some serious strength is still required to crack the tougher nuts. Guide/s: Cresciano Boulder (2002, updated 2007), Blocheart (2004) [out of print] and Bloc Notes (2003) [out of print]. Number of Problems: 900+ (16 sectors) Season: Winter is the best time to visit although decent conditions can be found in early spring and late autumn. Altitude: 450m
DischmatelOverview: A small and slightly esoteric gneiss area around 8km south of Davos, in the German speaking canton (state) of Grissons. The problems vary in quality with some being excellent and others being quite poor, mainly in terms of rock quality. That said the glorious alpine meadow situation is almost worth a visit in its own right. Guide/s: Blocheart (2004) [out of print] Number of Problems: 100+ (3 sectors) Season: Late spring, summer and early autumn. Snow can be a problem at other times of the year. Altitude: 1700m
FionnayOverview: A compact and picturesque area located in the south west of the country, 30km SE of Martigny, in the French speaking canton (state) of Valais. The situation is reminiscent to that of Chironico but on a much smaller scale. NOTE: Access is sensitive. Guide/s: No published guide documents this area. Number of Problems: 20+ Season: Late spring, summer and autumn. Snow can be a problem at other times of the year. Altitude: 1400m
Magic Wood (Averstal)
Overview: A now world famous destination and the final member of the Swiss ‘Big Three’, this gneiss area is situated in a wooded ravine, near the village of Ausserferrera, in the German speaking canton (state) of Grisons. The blocks generally offer a steeper butch style of climbing and are, on the most part, located in pine woodland on the western slopes of the ravine. A small group of boulders (including the famous Bruno block) are located in the river bed. Guide/s: Blocheart (2004) [out of print]. Swiss Bloc Volume 1 guide covers the area in photo-topo style (May 2010). Number of Problems: 400+ (4 or 5 Sectors, depending on the guide) Season: Late spring, summer and autumn. A unique feature of ‘cold venting’, emanating from the deep permafrost’s and caverns beneath the blocks, make conditions around the boulders much better than the general air temperatures would suggest, making this a popular summer destination. Altitude: 1500m
Martigny (Branson, Gueroz and La Balmaz)Overview: Again a historical if somewhat esoteric area encompassing three small areas all within 10km of Martigny, in the French speaking canton (state) of Valais, in the south west of the country. Branson hosts Fred Nicole’s La Danse des Balrogs, the worlds first recorded Font8b. The rock is a slate-like gneiss. Guide/s: Blocheart (2004) [out of print] Number of Problems: 30+ (3 sectors) Season: Late spring, summer and autumn. Snow can be a problem in the winter months. Altitude: 700m
Overview: THIS AREA HAS AN ACCESS SITUATION AND CLIMBING IS PROHIBITED. Another historically important granite area, featuring the famous ‘Cart Project’ - a line which has been attempted by some of the world’s strongest climbers. Guide/s: No published guide documents this area. Number of Problems: Unknown Season: Spring, autumn and winter are the best times to visit, although climbing in the winter may be effected by snow levels. Altitude: 1000mSustenpass & Steingletscher
Overview: A great summer area situated high on a mountain pass in the German speaking canton (state) of Uri. Made famous by frequent summer visit from the likes of Fred Nicole and Klem Losket, the Sustenpass and its partner the Steingletscher (8km further up the pass) offer a variety of small and large gneiss blocks, in a hanging alpine valley with almost roadside access. Guide/s: Blocheart (2004) [out of print] or Swiss Bloc Volume 1 (May 2010) Number of Problems: 170+ (5 sectors) Season: Summer. The Sustenpass is often not free of snow until the end of May and thus closed to motor traffic until completely clear. Altitude: 2100m
Other More Recently Developed Areas
- Fuxenstein - Small limestone/sandstone area not too far from Interlaken
- Grimselpass - Large granite area not far from Andermatt and known for its routes.
- Goppenstein - Small gneiss are in the vicinty of Kandersteg
- Kandersteg - Large limestone/sandstone area, just north of Brig, well worth seeking out!