Sometimes climbing trips are about adventure, the unknown and pushing yourself to your limit. However, it can be nice to have a trip when you know exactly what you’re getting. Guaranteed good climbing, nice weather and delicious food. Northern Italy is a perfect choice for either sort of climbing trip, with everything from Dolomite and alpine adventures to coastal cragging and relaxing in the sun. This article is going to focus on the fantastic sport climbing on offer in Northern Italy, perfect as a trip in its own right or as part of a bigger road trip, leading on perfectly to countries like of Slovenia and Croatia.
Finale Ligure is an old school climbing destination with a lot of history and reputation. Many people will say the grades are tough and the routes are polished, but this isn’t always the case. There are over 4,000 routes at Finale and whilst some routes at famous crags are polished, you won’t have to go far to find routes that aren’t.
The rock is excellent and quite different from typical European limestone. There are lots of pockets, sometimes the rock can be totally blank with the exception of two or three pockets guiding the way. One of the few places that has a similar style of climbing to Finale is Buoux, a brilliant French old school venue that also has stiff grades! However, there are still some wildly steep juggy routes and tufas on offer at Finale so there is something for everyone.
Although the quiet, polish and crowd free crags are tempting and good, be sure to visit the classic venues. They are popular for good reason. Grotta dell’Edera is a great example and would be a standout crag anywhere. You enter the crag through a surprisingly large cave, scrambling up until you see the daylight pouring through a small squeeze. After shoving your bag through first and wriggling through yourself, you appear in a stunning tube of limestone with a huge natural window. There is a great spread of grades, routes like ‘Lubna’ 7b and ‘Remember We As a Friend’ 6b are some of the best I’ve done at their grades, total quality.
Other sectors like Monte Cucco, Tre Frati, Bric Scimarco, Monte Sordo, Rocca di Corno, Capo Noli and the Rian Cornei crags make up the classic areas of Finale Ligure. These crags have some of the best and most historic routes on offer and are all worth a visit. The list of quieter crags is seemingly endless, and how much you will explore comes down to how much time you have.
Finale Ligure was one of our favourite places in Northern Italy, mainly due to how outrageous some of the climbing was. An example is ‘Rombo di Vento’, pictured near the start of the article, which goes up an enormous, exposed overhanging prow…at 6c. Many of routes around Finale can look improbable for the grade and go through amazing terrain and rock. Perhaps a 9a climber would find it less impressive, but in the 6a to 8a range there are some mega classic routes that would stand out anywhere.
Val Pennavaire / Oltre Finale
The Val Pennavaire/Oltre Finale area seems to change in name depending on who you ask and can be a bit confusing. Essentially the guidebook is called Oltre Finale and covers a large spread out area. The best and most popular crags within the guidebook are in the Val Pennavaire. Oltre Finale means ‘Beyond Finale’ and the Val Pennavaire crags are around 40km west of Finale Ligure. Where you have travelled from will determine which of the areas is best to visit first, it is definitely worth checking both out.
There is loads of climbing to savour around the village of Coletta di Castelbianco, which is a great place to be based to make the most of what is on offer in the area. We found the climbing style here to be totally different Finale Ligure, Finale is somewhat of a pocket paradise whereas Val Pennavaire was comparatively devoid of pockets. Instead, there are lots of steep routes with big flat holds, crimpy vert walls and tufas, often being a mix of all three on one long route. Some of the tufas can be perplexing and highly technical, not just a test of your pinch strength.
One of the great strengths of the area is the variety of crags to choose from. Sunny and shaded aspects, a big grade spread, permanently dry crags and long or short walk ins. It will be possible to climb on basically any day if you’re motivated enough. As with the majority of climbing areas, spring and autumn are the best times to visit. We were climbing in late autumn and the conditions were perfect.
Further afield from Coletta di Castelbianco there are even more crags, with a cluster of venues close to the village of Alto and more beyond. Red Up crag is the prime place to be in this area, with a stunning tufa wall over thirty meters long, you will wish some of the routes ended sooner! Further right from the tufa wall is a selection of routes on slab grey rock, with some steeper sections at the top. Here there are some unusual remnants of some sort of pipe line, with sections of concrete pipe fixed high up on the wall with metal brackets.
There are over two thousand routes in the Oltre Finale guidebook and four thousand routes in nearby Finale Ligure. With so much rock in a relatively small area there really is something for any occasion. Although we personally preferred Finale Ligure, we also thought the Val Pennavaire crags were brilliant and without a doubt it is an area worth visiting.
Arco is another renowned climbing area, situated right next to the gorgeous Lake Garda. Alongside Finale Ligure, Arco is one of Italy’s most famous and best sport climbing destinations. The rock is fantastic quality and unlike other destinations, the climbing is much more spread out. Popular crags close to the town of Arco itself, such as Massone, Belvedere and Nago can be crowded and polished. However, some crags in the valley can be more than an hours drive away and are completely deserted with polished rock and crowds being only a distant memory.
As with Finale Ligure, just because some old school crags have a certain reputation, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth visiting. Depending on the grade you climb and what sections of the crag you visit, it is possible to find routes that aren’t polished. Equally, some routes are so good the polish doesn’t spoil them and arguably routes can polish quickly and then reach a ‘terminal’ state of polish and haven’t actually got any worse in recent years.
Most importantly, there are still many great crags that almost nobody visits and you will likely have the crag to yourself all day. This gives loads of options to mix things up depending on your likes and dislikes.
Our favourite crag in the Arco area would probably be Bassilandia, near the town of Sarche, about 15km from Arco itself. The crag is popular, but far enough out that it isn’t busy and the routes weren’t really polished, the crag gets more than enough traffic to keep all the routes clean so it was more or less the perfect middle ground. The routes we did were all superb, and the crag is a real nirvana for anyone climbing in the upper 6th and 7th grade.
‘Nebraska’ 6b+, ‘Extraterrestre’ 7a, ‘Will Coyote’ 6c+, ‘Messico e Nuvole’ 7a and ‘Il Mare Calmo’ 7a were all absolutely brilliant routes, great lines on great rock.
Arco is a beautiful part of Italy and is deservedly one of the most popular sport climbing areas in the country. As well as having lots of fantastic climbing of its own, Arco is also situated close to lots of other climbing areas and is a great include as part of a road trip. Arco was possibly the favourite of all the places we visited in Northern Italy and we would visit again in a heartbeat.
To visit the Dolomites for sport climbing or bouldering may seem crazy to some as the Dolomites has some of the best alpine trad routes anywhere. However, consider you are in Arco and hit a heatwave, all you have is sport climbing equipment. Within 2-3 hours drive you can be in the high mountains enjoying cool weather and lots of great cragging.
We have climbed rock alpine routes in the Dolomites and it goes without saying, they are the main event in this area and provides some stunning and memorable experiences. The sport climbing and the bouldering in the Dolomites is not as good compared to the sport climbing in Arco or Finale Ligure. However, if you lack the equipment or experience for these sort of climbs don’t be put off visiting altogether. There is something for every climber and what you see will no doubt inspire return visits.
The area is so stunning and there is so much to do. Climbing, of all disciplines, hiking, via ferratas, swimming and, in the right season, skiing. You would have to try hard not to enjoy yourself in the Dolomites.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Northern Italy and hope to return in the future to explore the south of Italy, and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.
Although the areas we wrote about in this post are quite well known already, hopefully we have provided some useful information and ideas of what these places are like to visit. Italy is a fantastic country to visit for climbing and unsurprisingly is the third most popular country for tourists in Europe and fifth worldwide.
Relevant links and resources
We used the vertical life app for topos of the Dolomites (sport), Arco, Finale and Olta Finale
For more of multi–pitch, alpine and via ferrata in the Dolomites