Story: Two climbing instructors high above Lake Lugano

To the summit as a team

30 years of friendship spent on the rocks. Grip after grip on the Denti della Vecchia where the walls are steeper and the rock is more structured. The real challenge? The journey.

The Denti della Vecchia – or Old woman’s teeth – have been a popular area for climbing since the 1930s. Amateur climbers love the spectacular backdrop, which is also a popular area for family outings and a forest reserve. Spotting animals and enjoying a spectacular panorama over Lake Lugano are added bonuses.

They would never describe themselves as summiteers – for Claudio Notari and Marco Pagani, both qualified climbing instructors, it’s all about the journey. The challenge lies in the rock face to be scaled, using only what the surface has to offer: protrusions, irregularities and recesses. Held firmly in place on the rope, enthusiasts solve problems and conquer climbs over one or more pitches. As a team. Hardcore fans even sleep dangling from the face so that they can continue climbing the next day. The Denti della Vecchia are a traditional climbing area in Ticino. The dolomite teeth rise up in Colla Valley. The region is also ideal for families who love hiking, and offers a panoramic view over Lake Lugano. Claudio Notari grew up here, meeting Marco Pagani in a sports club in the area. They’ve been climbing together for over thirty years.  


Denti della Vecchia

Are the Denti della Vecchia as spectacular to climb as they seem? 

Marco: “Definitely. Plus the area is historically important – people have been climbing here since the 1930s. At one point, the Denti were one of the most popular climbing destinations in Europe, but the number of visitors has dropped due to new places opening up. It also takes longer to get through the forest reserve than in other places – from Ci-ma-de-ra, it takes around an hour to reach the climbing areas. But it’s still one of the most beautiful areas to go mountaineering.”

Denti della Vecchia

According to Marco, people only interested in the climbing part will look for places that are easy to get to, even if that means there are a lot of other people there too. The clearest example is Ponte Brolla, which is the most well-known destination in Ticino. But then again there are lots of climbing fans who prefer quietness and nature.  

Claudio's climbing career began over thirty years ago: he’d go up into the peaks and spend several days climbing, sleeping in huts or under canvas. He hasn't got much free time now, so he mainly just climbs for fun on days out.  

The Denti della Vecchia are also geologically unique. Is it different climbing here than in the Maggia Valley? 

Marco: “Yes, you need two completely different climbing styles. With dolomite, the faces are steeper and the stone has more structure; you need strong arms. In the case of gneiss or granite, it’s more about your feet. If you’re used to climbing gneiss, it can be difficult to get used to dolomite, and vice versa. I personally prefer gneiss.”

Denti della Vecchia
Denti della Vecchia

Claudio: “I like both! In Ticino, it’s mainly gneiss or granite.”

Denti della Vecchia
It’s extremely important to respect the local fauna.

If you come climbing in Ticino, there’s around a 95% chance you’ll go to a ‘climbing garden’. These are designated areas with climbs of varying difficulty, which already have hooks in the walls. People who have already tried them all are looking for more of a challenge. We’re lucky here in Ticino: there are always new places to discover, but we need to be careful not to exaggerate –
I think we need to leave some spaces for future generations. 

Denti della Vecchia
Denti della Vecchia

Plus, we should never forget that we’re not the only living beings using the rocks. 

Denti della Vecchia
Denti della Vecchia

What else might we bump into on the rock faces? 

Marco: “Well, there are eagles and other birds, dormice, bats, snakes... And it’s their territory we’re going into. I once broke off a whole tour so as not to disturb a swallows’ nest. Just seeing how the birds protected their young was a very moving experience.”

Claudio: “It’s extremely important to respect conservation areas, particularly around nesting season. Climbing guides should provide all the information you need. Some areas are completely closed off at certain times of the year.”  

Pro tip
The Evolution Center in Taverne offers more than 120 different climbs and 100 boulders of varying difficulty. Bouldering, an activity like climbing, can also be done indoors.
The Denti della Vecchia Forest Reserve is one of the most spectacular in Ticino and a biodiversity hotspot. Rare plants grow here, some of which are endangered and therefore protected.
For a climb with unbeatable scenery, dams are a great idea. For experienced climbers, the Luzzone dam has the longest artificial climbing wall in the world, with the Sambuco offering 5 moderately difficult routes.

You don’t have quite the same contact with nature on a climbing wall, but don’t most climbing careers start on these artificial surfaces?

Claudio: “Not necessarily. We have some clients who only want to be outdoors – and some of them are beginners. It is possible, and there are some ideal spots. Normally it’s more efficient to start with a climbing wall though: the walls are shorter and you have all the equipment you need.”

Denti della Vecchia
Denti della Vecchia

Marco: “With indoor courses, people can climb alongside one another, and the climbs are designed specifically. A real rock surface is naturally irregular, so a climb here can be very different even though it’s the same difficulty.” 

Denti della Vecchia
Denti della Vecchia

On a climbing wall, everything seems very safe. Moving outdoors is quite an adjustment for the novice climber. They look at the surface of the rock and just see a sheer face! They don’t think they can do it. But don’t be fooled: the stone always offers somewhere to hold onto. Climbing gardens are well prepared, and any unstable rocks are removed, but up high in the Alps, climbers need to weigh up the risk themselves. With the right safety features in place, climbing shouldn’t be any less safe than on a climbing wall. 

“The stone always offers somewhere to hold onto.”