Learning the Ropes in Switzerland’s Canyoning Paradise
Every adventure needs trust. There must be faith in yourself, your partners, the environment, or the experience and not just for safety, but also value. You must deem the exploration important, either immediately or at some nostalgic point in the future. Belief in the experience is what makes it come alive.
These thoughts are subconsciously buzzing through me as the wind is violently flapping my cheeks and my hands slowly blister gripping the motorbike handles behind me. I am not sure if it is the floral aroma of the Swiss gardens or the lakes, vineyards, and mountains whizzing by us that fabricate my trust, but for now I have complete faith in being an instant away from the asphalt. Folks, at some point in your life, grow your hair long, so you can feel it whipping behind you as you zoom along the Swiss-Italian border on the back of a street bike. The feeling is transcendent. It permanently changes your reality to be reminded of this kind of freedom. Rebellion doesn’t come much easier than jumping on the back of a motorcycle.
I made this discovery for myself on a long-weekend trip to Ticino, the southernmost Canton of Switzerland. Ticino is Italy with Swiss prices—idyllic chalets were replaced by the more colorful chaos of Italy. Italian in language and spirit, it is also a place containing everything treasurable in today’s world: dazzling scenery of mountains, lakes, rivers, and deep green valleys. And if you are obsessed with rappelling, jumping, and sliding down river canyons, you’re in luck: Ticino is home to some of the world’s best canyoning.
Early in the weekend I’d found myself in Malvaglia Inferiore, a cleft running down the mountains into Ticino’s Riviera Valley. A canyon full of waterfalls to rappel, 30-foot jumps, and wet granite slides into deep turquoise pools, Malvaglia is a home of lush loveliness. Green, blue, and granite hues with a take-your-breath-away filter color every inch of the canyon.
The small steps become important in a Malvaglia world. Every movement you make is intentional because hurried, careless walking will quickly put you on your back. The slippery, moss-covered rocks require attention. If you’re not slowly moving from one boulder to another then you’re rappelling, sometimes suspended in the air dangling from the rope like a spider that has been disturbed amidst web-making. From rock crawling to rappelling, these are the motions of a canyoneer. And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch some airtime. Rappelling can be clumsy and slow. Sometimes it’s just easier to jump into the pool below than rappel. One jump and you’re in the place you need to be in an instant. But jumping into water requires intention, too.
There’s no easy way out once you’re in a canyon. The mental marathon is only over once you’ve set foot into the warm sunshine of the outside world. On a day in Malvaglia Canyon, that requires a four-hour commitment to being in uncomfortable places. But with the lack of ease there is magnificence. It is pure brilliance to see the world hanging from a rope amidst a waterfall.
My guide is a friend from the U.S. relocated to Switzerland after living in India and Japan for canyoning jobs. He now owns Swiss Challenge, a canyoning guide company based in Ticino. Our last solid chunk of time together was a summer living outside of Zion National Park in the back of his truck, the days when we were both novice in the canyoning world. Nearly a decade later and not much has changed for me. I am still unsure of myself when handling the harness, ropes, and carabiners.
With frozen hands in the cold, blue water of Malvaglia, I furiously twist and twist until my carabiner is definitely locked. Nothing about hanging from a rope hundreds of feet above a pool of water is casual for me. I wonder if my hands are trustworthy? Later, I have the same feeling on the motorbike. Even after 30 years of these being MY hands, I am not sure if they are accountable. What if they just decide to let go?
Malvaglia’s crescendo comes as one final multi-staged, 350-foot rappel. A big pool of water sits at the bottom like a catcher’s mitt waiting for anyone who makes a mistake. My right leg shakes uncontrollably while the rest of my body somehow maintains. Fabio, one of the other Malvaglia partners asks, “Aren’t you a professional skier?” My leg tells them something I wasn’t going to admit: This canyon has pushed me into an unfamiliar world.
“Do what needs to be done,” I tell myself and somehow I am moving.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
That loud, decisive authority is quite a surprise when it decides to show up. My hands, brain, and the rest of my body eventually move safely into the chilly pool at the bottom of the rappel. So often, it’s just a matter of choosing which voice to believe.
If at first you can’t trust yourself, then you must find someone you can: a guide, mentor, boyfriend, girlfriend, colleague, sister, brother, parent or stranger. Find this person and treat them as an extension of you because they will enable you until you can empower yourself. Accept their conviction and eventually mimic that same certainty in your own life. And stay in touch with these adventure mentors because later you’ll find them living in the places that create bucket lists.
This same trust is why I’ve discovered Ticino. It’s the reason I’ve seen fierce, windy mountain peaks and long, dusty trails with no one in sight. The mentors have always been there, leading me into my own guidance. I look forward to the day when I turn that confident gaze towards myself. Malvaglia is just one more slow, intentional step towards that moment.
How: The base for Swiss Challenge, located in Cresciano, is near airports in Lugano and Milan. Stay in nearby Bellinzona and make sure to visit Lake Como, Lugano, and Maggiore. Cresciano is also known for world-class bouldering.