Arco - Italian Sport Climbing Mecca

© Jack Geldard

Jack Geldard takes a trip to Arco, Italy. The birth place of competition climbing and home to some fantastic long mountain routes. Complete with Photo-Topo, Map and route description for Zanzara - 300m, F7a+ - this is an article not to be missed.

The town of Arco
© Jack Geldard, Jan 2008
Arco, a sport climbing paradise or a victim of it's own success?

Drenched in sunshine and surrounded by perfect waves of limestone, Arco is one of Europe's most popular climbing destinations. The Rockmaster competitions have helped catapult this small Italian town to the top of many climbers 'must visit' lists. Sat at the head of Lake Garda in the Trentino area of Northern Italy, the town is everything you could wish for; beautiful buildings house equally beautiful people. The food is fantastic and the abundance of bars and climbing shops make rest days a heavenly experience of alcohol and impulse purchases.

At first glance the crags are unbelievable. Just meters from the road, with gorgeous tufas, pockets and overhangs, jewelled with bright glinting bolts; it seems as though an Aladdin's cave has been reached. Only it has been reached twenty years too late. When you get up close, the glint of the bolts is masked by the shine of the rock itself. The routes bring a new meaning to the word 'polished', making the catwalk at Malham Cove seem almost virginal in comparison. Some of the routes are so well worn that it isn't just the holds that take on a sheen. Any bulges or protrusions in the rock have been buffed to a high gloss, worn smooth by the passing of thousands of t-shirts or trouser legs. Footholds take on the frictional properties of an ice rink and chalk smothers the handholds, forming a greasy paste.

However, the rock formations are amazing, as if the crags have been designed to be climbed. The routes are accessible and well bolted and the atmosphere is fun and friendly. With a little driving and planning and perhaps some local knowledge, I'm sure it is possible to spread the polish around on to less well known or newly developed crags!

Above Lake Garda
© Jack Geldard, Jan 2008

Suzie Wilson - Sun drenched sport climbing
© Jack Geldard, Jan 2008
Development of the climbing around Arco started in the 1930's, with alpinists coming down from the Dolomites to enjoy the favourable climate and long limestone walls. This development has continued right up until today, with new routes being discovered all the time - such is the magnitude of available rock. Well known pioneers in the Arco area have included Cesare Maestri - infamous for his Patagonian ascents, Reinhold Messner - of high altitude fame, and more recently, Heinz Mariacher, Maurizio 'Manolo' Zanolla and Rolando Larcher have all added desperate test-pieces to the valley.

In 1982 it was Mariacher (famous for his hard ascents on the Marmolada) who bolted a variation line to Renata Rossi (6b+) and opened the door to single pitch sport climbing in the area. This was the first route to be bolted on abseil - the climbing had previously been done in a more traditional style, with most climbers striving to do long routes as training for the alpine adventures found further North.

With the acceptance of these short 'sport' routes and with the widespread use of bolts for protection, came a boom in climbing in the Arco area. With visits from leading climbers such as Wolfgang Gullich, Jerry Moffat and Ron Fawcett, Arco was set to become a centre stage for hard climbing. The late '80's saw the birth of competition climbing and after a couple of smaller, low-key competitions, came the first International RockMaster - won by Stefan Glowacz and Lynne Hill, who battled it out on the small crags of Arco.

All of the single pitch sport climbing is documented in the excellent English language guidebook Arco Rock

Multi-Pitch routes Guidebook
© Jack Geldard
After tussling with the polish for a couple of days, I certainly didn't feel like a 'RockMaster'! Our team felt more in tune with the early Arco pioneers and the huge walls surrounding the town began to call to us. We got hold of the Multi Pitch guide book from Versante-Sud. Unfortunately this isn't available in an English translation, but the simple maps and drawings make it very easy to use. There are several climbing shops in the town that stock a full range of guidebooks including the Pareti del Sarca - Multi Pitch Guide book.

Looking for something to take us away from the crowds, but not too far off the beaten track, we opted for the world classic Zanzara, a 300m 7a+ that takes the direct challenge of the white tower, directly above the Rockmaster competition wall. Zanzara is a deservedly popular and famous route, celebrated for technicality and perfect rock. I wasn't really up for it, being naturally lazy and much preferring a rest day – however it was sold to me as an easy day out, with my partner offering to lead both the F7 pitches. I reluctantly agreed.

What a rest day! All the pitches were technical and tricky and interest was maintained all the way to the summit. To save weight we carried only shoes, water and a printed internet topo, along with a rack of quickdraws and a single rope. An afternoon start avoids the strong sun, and we began our ascent after a leisurely morning at the pool. The first 6b+ pitch was polished and desperate and I think many parties climb that pitch and then abseil back to the base - we almost did! I would urge people to continue, as the rest of the route gives amazing and varied climbing on immaculate limestone.

Arco: A wonderful town surrounded by beautiful mountains. It has fantastic climbing and the opportunity to escape the crowds for those who so wish, but is it paradise? Maybe.


Juha Saatsi seconding on Zanzara
© Jack Geldard, Jan 2008

Approach and the Route:

From the town of Arco: follow the small road past the rock-master competition wall and campsite (parallel to the river) for 1 km - under the large limestone walls of Monte Colodri. Just after the large campsite, but before the 'Camping Zoo', break up the hillside for 200m (various tracks) to the base of the amazing white tower of rock. An extremely easy approach taking approximately 15mins from the town centre.

The route trends rightwards for an initial easier pitch along an obvious large feature line. It then breaks leftwards along a polished and tricky traverse to gain the face proper. From the second belay it is easy to follow the topo and bolts to the summit. The crux pitch is steep and on technical pockets. Expect all pitches to feel difficult and technical. The wall is in the sun until approximately 1pm.


From the top of the route: follow the cairned path along the top of the mountain, heading left (looking in) toward the town of Arco. After 1km the path drops steeply down to the town following cables and easy Via Ferrata in to the town centre. (35 mins)


A standard set of quickdraws is sufficient. The bolts seemed to be in good condition.

Arco Location Map and Colour Photo-topo

Zanzara Topo, Arco
© Jack Geldard, Jan 2008

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21 Jan, 2008
21 Jan, 2008
sounds like good training for Dirctissima. Just wondering Jack did you find any other decent non-polished single pitch crags....and how is the english guidebook to use?
21 Jan, 2008
I see we agree about one thing at Arco - polishio! Chris
21 Jan, 2008
Having said that - Lecco - in the next valley to the west is a prime and unpolished venue! Chris
21 Jan, 2008
Hi Morgan, I did find some of the crags weren't too bad - but the major areas like Massone were very polished. I think my favourite crag was San Siro - this didn't seem too polished and I liked the aspect. There's loads of different venues - and like Chris says - lots of choice. Worth a visit - but do be aware that the main areas have been popular since the late 80's! Jack
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