Exploring Northern Ticino, Switzerland
22 Jul 2011
Look at Switzerland on a map, and you will notice a sizable area which extends south to be surrounded by Italy on three sides. This is Ticino - Italian speaking, Italian influenced food, and a friendly open Italian attitude to life.
Our 20 year old Cicerone guidebook by Kev Reynolds would help us open up this delightful area for a brilliant ten days of mountain trekking in late June. The area is easily accessible, and a two hour train trip from Zurich airport will take you into the heart of the region, just to the south of the St Gottard tunnel.
And so it was that we arrived on a hot sticky June evening in Biasca, a small railway town, just a short bus ride from our starting point, the village of Malvaglia, from which we planned to take the cable car up the first 1000 metres of an 1900 metre (overall) ascent to the Quarnei mountain hut.
First problem... The cable car, scheduled to run from 9 am, had a sign announcing the first run would be at 11.30. All very Italian, not very Swiss! So, a long climb in heat and humidity followed, the cloud swirling in and out of the long Val Malvaglia as we climbed to finally reach the hut 2109 metres, in steady drizzle in the early evening. We were the only four people in the hut. It's mid June, so early in the season, but we were to learn that much of this region, although now served by a fantastic network of paths and modernised, extended mountain huts, is rarely busy, even in the height of the season.
Day 2 of our trip started with full waterproofs, rucksack covers the lot. A two hour climb up past several spectacular waterfalls brought us to the final section of the intended pass. The torrential rain had turned it into a raging cascade of water, and after maybe 30 or 40 minutes, we were forced to turn back as the steep gully proved simply impassable under these conditions.
By the time we returned to the hut at lunchtime, everything was soaked through, so we spent the afternoon drying all our kit in front of the cozy wood burner in the hut, and another excellent night, while the weather steadily cleared. A glorious cold clear morning allowed us to attempt the pass a second time, the water was much reduced, but a thick covering of ice on much of the route turned this into an interesting scramble up the narrowing gully and onto the top.
What a view! The skyline filled with high snow covered peaks, including the unmistakable Monte Rosa. There followed a glorious descent past the two Adula mountain huts, then through a stunning valley carpeted with alpenrose, a crystal clear stream flowing north and leading us to Campo Blenio, our next overnight stop. A useful note here, that most of the huts, and many of the small hotels where we stayed did not take credit cards, so take plenty of cash.
Sadly we found Switzerland quite expensive this year, with average prices per person for bed, breakfast and evening meal (and a beer or two) in a hut at about 70 francs. We spent the following two days exploring the Val Camadra to the north, then east from the fantastically positioned Scaletta hut, over Passo della Greina through a wildly beautiful and deserted valley, then round to the south and finally west back to Campo Blenio.
Val Camadra is another valley filled with cascading water and two or three tiny villages, the final ascent to the Scaletta hut is steep and exposed, but the commanding position on the lip of a hanging valley is truly rewarding. Busy in the height of the summer, there were just 13 guests that night, and all of us were treated to the most amazing experience we have ever had. A herd of maybe 20 ibex contentedly grazing within five metres of us all. When the hut gets busier in July and August the Ibex are rarely seen as they go very high in the mountains – so this was an early season bonus for us. I used a considerable amount of battery power on the video camera that evening.
We then decided to head west, first up past the Bovarino hut through an amazing erratic-strewn valley aptly called Passo di Gana Negra, to stay in the splendid and very friendly Hospice de Santa Maria on the top to the Lucomagno pass. From the pass we continued west, up the Val Termine, and down to the Cadagno hut (good lunch!) then a thunderstorm delayed our progress up to the Cadlimo hut, which we finally reached at around 5.30, in good time for a quick wash – cold water, no showers... but who really cares when it's followed by a brilliant supper! This is a high mountain hut in the midst of a wildly beautiful area. It was June 23rd, and the first day that the hut was open. There were just eight of us staying that night.
The following day we continued northwards, firstly over to Oberalppass, used by both road and railway, but remarkably quiet at night, and then contouring east, then north up the Val Mila to the Etxli hut. The descent from the Mittelplatten pass was interesting... Wet slippery rock, a few patches of snow and ice, and very steep.
Arriving at the hut was also interesting. It was Saturday night, and the place was packed! Mainly weekend walkers, but also one or two others like us, making their own journeys through the mountains. No showers again in the the hut, but a very popular hot tub on the terrace outside! Our final day was positively jammy - we walked down towards Bristen, and were just wondering how to kill the two hours before the next bus was due, having missed one by about five minutes, when the bus arrived! The ride was exhilarating, every hairpin so tight that the road had to tunnel into the rock in order to make the turn, and so we descended to Amsteg, then on to Erstfeld where there is a train station.
Our flight back to the UK was the following day, so we were pondering where to spend our last night when we noticed the train due to arrive in two minutes time was going to Lucerne. Awesome! Just five hours from leaving the hut high in the mountains, we were in Lucerne, enjoying an end of trek long luxurious shower before hitting the town as tourists for a long lunch, gentle stroll to see the sights, then a long evening meal. What a great end to a great adventure. We had discovered a region of the Alps we intend to explore further, and had rediscovered the joy of exploring freely, devising our own itinerary, and soaking up the beauty and peace of these beautiful mountains.
Guidebooks and Maps Swiss wanderkarte Dissents/Muster 1:50,000 256T Swiss wanderkarte Vale Leventina 1:50,000 266T. Kummerly + Frey 26 Tessin Nord Val Maggia - Leventina 1:60,000 Walking in the Ticino – Switzerland by Kev Reynolds The Swiss Alps: Cicerone World Mountain Ranges series by Kev Reynolds (Published January 2012)