Italy Piedmont/ Val de Sesia region
By John Leopold, photos: Martin McDermott and John Kerswell, video Nick Clendon
The following is a description of a trip by Bristol Canoe Club to the Val de Sesia region of Italy for a week in mid May 2005. I have written this as a guide as information on this fantastic area is rather sketchy. Also bare in mind the river descriptions are from memory which may also be sketchy and describes them at the river levels we found them which where medium to low (I think).
The Sesia valley drains the southern slopes of Monte Rosa in Italy, the second highest mountain in the Alps See map.
View of Campertogno and the Sesia valley
There are a number of ways of getting there: we drove up through France as if we were going to the French Alps, then turned off towards Chamonix and the Mt Blanc Tunnel (beware the speed limits in the tunnel are vigorously enforced with automatic radar detection, we were handed our fine on exit from the tunnel). You are then in the Aosta valley (covered in the Southern Alps guide book). Val de Sesia , is the next valley across.
Alternatives include (we drove back this way) drive through Switzerland, Germany, turn off at Strasbourg then through France.
Which ever way you choose it seems a long way allow 12-14 hours from the ferry in Dover.
Where to stay
Every one stays at the excellent campsite at Campertogno, the camp site is on island in the middle of the river Sesia. Campertogno is a charming Italian village with a couple of bars and restaurants, exactly as you would expect Italy to look in one of those Sunday paper travel sections
When to go
The season is very short, early / mid May looks the best shot, which is when we went. It actually was looking very dodgy when we went as there was very little snow pack this season, we were saved by a couple of days of heavy rain when we arrived, which sorted out the river levels.
The Southern Alps guide covers some of the rivers mainly sections of the Sesia, worth taking a copy with you. Our bible however was a copy of a tourist map of the area, which shows the put ons, take outs and grades.
Off the river
We didnt have much time for anything else, however there seems plenty of non boating activities to be had. The couple of times we eat out was very cheap, approximately 10 Euros for a large, very excellent, pizza and all the wine you want. Also there were always plenty of nice bars where one can get an aprs boating cappuccino / espresso or the drinking chocolate which is to die for, again very cheap.
The rivers we paddled were all with a 50km radius, the area is incredibly compact, which makes up for the heinous journey to get there. The rivers we paddled were reminiscent of some of Austria, the Swiss Inn and Norway however its not all steep creeking. Generally most of the rivers were class IV and IV+ with some V. Most of the hard bits are portageable. You need to be happy on class IV to get the most from the area, we did have a couple of Class III paddlers with us and they did find some stuff to paddle
Lower Sesia 5km III III+ Scoplello to Scopettamap
An easier section of water that allowed everyone to unwind from the journey and everyone could paddle but not boring as it is continuous at the grade, within a very scenic valley
Sesia Gorge 2km IV IV+ Scopetta to Balmucciamap
Short section with a beautiful gorge, nothing too committing everything can be inspected and portaged, good warm up
Classic run described in the South Alps guide, fairly continuous staircase class IV rapids, the two portages are difficult to miss, best start is from the campsite in Campertogno. We also paddled this in high water after a couple of days of heavy rain, it was a pretty scary continuous IV / IV+ with some big holes, not a time to swim.
Middle Sesia high water
Middle Sesia medium water
Gronda / Sorba 2km IV Vmap
Classic low volume steep creeking, used in the Teva extreme race. Drive up to Rassa and walk up the Gronda for as far as you like, the classic slides are just after the Gronda joins the Sorba. They actually go easier than they look, total exhilaration. Everything can be inspected from the road. Its possible to carry on down further for a couple of km, however rumours exist of a pretty horrible gorge towards the confluence with the Sesia, be warned.
Upper Mastallone5km Nosuggio to Pont Selva III III+map
Steep and continuous stair case rapids but not too hard. Absolutely ideal for our class III paddlers
Lower Mallastone 6km Pont Selva to Varallo IV IV+map
Classic steep stair case rapids, mostly can be read by eddy hopping, similar to the Mad mile on the Upper Dart. Towards the end there is a totally committing gorge, about 500m long, once you are in, there is not way out or portage option, the gorge goes at class IV however the entrance to the gorge is guarded by a pretty nasty drop that most will want to portage, no brainer for us. The gorge can easily be inspected from the road on the way up. Close to the take out are a couple of drops which look runable but we chose to portage as we were knackered.
Lower Semenza 5km Boccioleto to Balmuccia IV IV+map
This is described in the South Alps guide, but is not as intimidating as the guide suggests. We put in about 1 km downstream from the described start to avoid the portage and couple of other nasties. Pretty much classic pool drop rapids all the way to the take out, however towards the end there is a harder gorge, easy to inspect from the road, portaging is possible but difficult.
Egua IV, V 2kmmap
Another classic low volume steep creek needs a lot of time, as needs a lot of inspection. A classic very photogenic hard drop comes just after the put in, before you have had time to know whether you are on a good or bad day paddling wise.