Pure Magic: Spellbound By the Boulders of SwitzerlandThe mossy green forest of Magic Woods radiates upward out of the steep valley until it meets the sharp, snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps. The contrast is sublime.
American boulderer Carlo Traversi has had an exceptional season with repeats of several of the country’s hardest problems, including Jade (V14) and, in March, the second ascent of one of the hardest boulder problems in the world, The Game (V15/16). Below is his account from a successful trip to Magic Woods and Ticino. Traversi’s trip culminated with ascents of two famous V14s: The Never Ending Story in Magic Woods and The Dagger in Cresciano, Ticino.
+ Magic Woods
The mossy green forest of Magic Woods radiates upward out of the steep valley until it meets the sharp, snow-capped peaks of the Swiss Alps. The contrast is sublime. Perfect gneiss boulders protrude from the verdant carpet of the forest floor. Granite talus fields tend to lack featured, clean and overhanging blocks, but here in Magic Woods, we were surrounded by epitomes of edges, pinches, slopers and jugs. It’s a giant climber playground, and I came here with Connor Griffith, Jon Glassberg and Paul Robinson to climb as many hard boulders as I could get my hands on.
There are many classic problems here, but all of Magic Woods’ boulders are amazing. The climbing varies from intricate clean slabs, to straightforward edge pulling on steep overhangs. I was most intrigued by Practice of the Wild, a mysterious problem established by Chris Sharma in 2004 and given the rarified grade of V15. No video of the first ascent. Very little media coverage. Reportedly, very hard.
Before getting on any area testpieces, I’d found it wise to repeat some easier climbs to familiarize myself with the nuances of the area’s climbing style. I spent the first week working and finally doing The Never Ending Story (V14), The Riverbed (V13), Steppenwolf (V13) and Electroboogie (V12).
Finally, I felt ready to approach Practice of the Wild. Most hard problems require bearing down on edges, but this one was unique for its open-handed climbing on pinches and slopers. The climb follows a series of sloping rails that lead out
the belly of a massive boulder. A mossy hillside behind the wall creeps upward, coming close to touching the lip of the giant roof. The diagonal rails extend from the bottom of the wall to just shy of the lip where a double-clutch dyno to a mailbox slot rounds out the difficulties. Under normal circumstances, the dyno would be fairly casual, but the proximity of the hillside forces you to lift your feet at a precise moment in the swing. As with many great problems, this complexity added to the perfection.
Winter was moving into the mountains, bringing snow and extreme humidity, while seeps crept down the belly of the giant boulder. We were living in a hostel in nearby Ausserferrera. Clean cement floors and walls surrounded us, and when the rains came, we couldn’t help but make the occasional prison joke. Finding a dry day was becoming as difficult as learning Swiss German. A threatening storm promised to eliminate Magic Woods from our list of climbing areas for the rest of the trip.
Four days of work over two weeks had led me to a breaking point. I’d done all the moves. It was now or never. I dried the seeping mess of a right-hand start hold with a combination of chalk, T-shirt, brush and more chalk. Two deep breaths. This is it. Do it.
My fingers found the familiar positions and I threw a right heel hook above my head. A quick setup led to the first huge right-hand move over my head. Right-hand sloper, left hand to the incut, right hand to the thin pinch. Squeeze!
I cammed my right foot in the crummy half-toe lock and pounced to the crux left-hand grip. Palming a basketball would have provided more purchase. I squeezed anyway and quickly moved to the next desperately sloping edge.
The resulting position was like trying to pick up a cardboard box with your feet while holding onto a textured ceiling. I stabilized, squared my body, and lunged for the good edge.
My right hand caught the perfect spot but the tension as my body strained outward was too much to handle. My right toe slipped off and I violently swung away from the wall. Unable to stop my centrifugal motion with one arm, I ripped off the wall and plunged into the pit below.
Practice of the Wild would have to wait for another trip to Magic Woods.
Descending from the high-alpine pass into Ticino, I could feel the pages turning onto the next chapter of our adventure. Connor and I were stuffed into Paul’s 1994 Peugeot with two pads, all of our luggage, and a pad on the roof. Despite the crowded quarters, the situation couldn’t have been more perfect. We arrived just after dusk in the small village of Claro, north of the larger town of Bellinzona. Connor and I moved into a quaint studio apartment down the hall from Paul and his girlfriend, Alex Kahn.
The Ticino region is home to three major climbing areas: Cresciano, Chironico and Brione. Our house in Claro was five minutes from Cresciano, 20 minutes from Chironico, and 40 minutes from Brione. A perfect home base.
The stones shifted beneath my feet as I made my way up through the upper part of Brione. I passed by old stone houses, and arrived at the meadow. Green grass, epic mountains above, and granite boulders forced me to drop my pad and gear.
Brione has it all: alpine scenery and a bevy of blocks with features and texture reminiscent of sandstone.
General Disarray (V13) in the Valle Verzasca seemed like one of the best problems there, with proud dynamic moves around a bulge, leading to a tricky and delicate topout. The holds are almost entirely pinches. Perfect for me.
Poor conditions made it difficult to piece together the moves, but over the course of a few days I made good progress. Then suddenly the trip was coming to a close, snow settled into the surrounding mountains, and it was time to go home. Driving to the boulders, I watched the drifts pile higher and higher, but despite the accumulation, conditions were good. Windy, cold and low humidity.
One last try.
I spent half an hour chipping ice and brushing snow off the boulder and revealed the path. Not perfect, but climbable.
Just below the crux, I squeezed hard with my left hand and placed my feet on the smears. The rock felt like Velcro to my skin. Those three rare circumstances for sending had aligned: perfect conditions, proper motivation and able body. I floated through the crux. The final slap to the lip resulted in a splash of watery slush. I teetered over the top with both palms pressed on a giant block of ice, and let out the scream of victory.
The simple life is wonderful. We all need sleep. But as a young enthusiastic adult, I find nightlife has a certain allure. Over the previous summer, I had delved into the world of electronic dance music and Milan is an epicenter of that particular scene. There was no question as to whether we were going to experience the Milan club life, only when. Connor managed to get in touch with an old high school acquaintance of ours who was living in Milan, and the plan developed. She mentioned DJ Tilt at the infamous Tunnel Club. We said yes.
Following an aggressive drive back from Brione, a quick meal, and change of clothes, we were off to Milan.
Downtown Milan reminded me of a corn maze, except that every turn leads somewhere, just not where you want to go. We were map-less in a city with no street signs aside from the stone engravings on each corner. Luckily, after some yelling, screaming and ample honking, we finally reached our destination.
United with our crew, we sampled some of the local pizza and arrived in the abandoned tunnel around 1:00 a.m. As we exited our lonely parked car, the orange glow of the streetlights created a filter through which I would view the rest of the night. In Europe, partying starts at 2:00 a.m. I wasn’t completely ignorant of that fact, but when I entered a nearly empty Tunnel Club at 1 o’clock, the truth rang out.
Concern turned to intrigue when I noticed that the bartenders were merely preparing for the night ahead. One hour later, I was floating in a sea of electronic dance heaven. Tunnel was packed and there was no holding back. Loud pulsing music acted as a conductor for an orchestra of youth setting themselves free from their structured everyday lives. I watched a girl lick some lucky guy’s tongue like a popsicle. I took breaks from the flowing rhythm and walked the streets alone, absorbing what I could of the urban night. The music never stopped, and we left well into the new day, but still before sunrise. Sensory overload coupled with lack of sleep put me into a dream-like state as we maneuvered our way out of Milan and back into the mountains of Switzerland.