It's funny how areas go in and out of vogue. When I first started climbing El Chorro was very much the go-to place to go sport climbing throughout the winter, then the crags in Catalunya further north became popular, and following that the likes of Antalya and Kalymnos. Val Pennavaire (or Oltre Finale as it has been called), whilst popular for a great many European climbers, seems to have flown under the radar for a great many UK climbers - hence it felt like time to lift the lid on the area and showcase some of its finest offerings.
Val Pennavaire is situated inland from Albenga, which is about 30km west along the coast from the historically more famous climbing around the old town of Finale Ligure. The previously common name of 'Oltra Finale' has led to some confusion about the two areas being connected but there is definitely a clear distinction of 35km in distance and climbing styles that are a world apart. Finale Ligure was famous in the 1980s as a forcing ground but, like many areas from that era, is now more famous for polish and very spaced bolts. Val Pennavaire, on the other hand, has been mostly developed in the last 20 years and is very much more 'modern' in style.
As you drive into the valley you can initially be forgiven for thinking that there isn't much rock. The valley walls are very tree-covered and the obvious outcrops appear somewhat sporadic. Once you have been here a few days you realise that the crags are more extensive than they first appear and each one is packed with amazing routes owing to the stunning rock quality. There is hardly a bad buttress in the valley and most are relatively easy to reach on foot, although a car is advisable to get there in the first place and to take advantage of some of the delights further up the valley.
The old village of Colletta di Castelbianco is the social centre of the climbing in Val Pennavaire and is probably the most remarkable climbing base you will ever come across. Located in the heart of the most popular crags, this amazing development provides a wonderful and atmospheric base. It is an ancient village that was abandoned in the 1950s but was converted in the 1990s into intricate apartment accommodation with a bar, restaurant and incredible outdoor pool. Whatever your reservations might be about leaving historical places as they were originally, there is no doubt that this huge project has breathed life back into the ruin with it being a very popular destination in the summer months. At other times it makes the perfect base for climbers - relatively cheap, uniquely atmospheric and brilliantly sociable.
Below we showcase just a few of the area's best crags, with a quick summary of their aspect and some of the classics that adorn their walls.
Colletta Crags - Telematica
The most friendly crag in the valley and only a short 5 minute walk from the parking at Colletta di Castelbianco. With routes from 5a to 6b this is one of the most popular crags around. It is a bit of a sun-trap, which can be welcome.
Terminal Area Crags - Terminal
Terminal is without doubt one of the best crags in the area, with grades ranging from mid 6s through to high 7s. It contrasts neatly with its neighbouring crag Eboristeria, as the former gets morning sun whilst Terminal receives the brunt of the sun throughout the rest of the day - hence you can mix and match depending on which you are looking for.
The showcase of the crag is undoubtedly its central sweeping overhang (pictured above), which hosts a series of 3-star routes - all of which are sensational. That said, there's plenty of quality to be found on the crag's flanks.
Terminal Area Crags - Erboristeria
Conveniently located opposite Terminal, this is the crag that hits you in the face as you close in on your approach. A huge sweeping wave of rock with lots of great routes mostly in the harder grades. Erboristeria gets morning sun. In character it is pretty uncompromising with two distinct areas that look like they're going to be attached, but are actually a bit of a pain to get between and - as such - are described separately.
Right-hand Sector (aka. Bassa)
The Right-hand Sector is shorter and definitely packs a punch as a result, with little or no time to rest - particularly on the tufa lines of Scilla and Skimmia.
Left-hand Sector (aka. Alta)
The Left Hand Sector has a lot more distance to it, with nice, long, 30m pitches from the mid 6s upwards.
Colletta Crags - Reunion
Reunion is another one within easy walking distance of Colletta di Castelbianco. It is a bit shorter than the crags outlined above, but has a lovely woodland setting and a neat trio of 7s that are worth seeking out, but come prepared - they've spat off more than one person whilst clipping the chains!
Colletta Crags - Guggenheim
Even closer to Colletta di Castelbianco, this very steep crag has good holds but is generally a bit ridiculous. If you thought that Reunion was pumpy then it could be worth giving Guggenheim a wide berth, but if you think you've got the minerals then roll up your sleeves and prepare for a pump of a lifetime...
Terminal Area Crags - Cineplex
This place looks relatively insignificant when viewed from the valley but is actually huge and very extensive. It has the longest walk-in of around 40 minutes with quite a grunt uphill at the end. The wall itself presents a curving sweep of amazing rock with routes along its entire length. The main attraction is the right-hand side where the steep waves of overhangs give some brilliant hard routes. On its right, it relents a bit to allow some more amenable pitches, but this is mostly a place for hot weather and people operating at 7a and above. The Cineplex title refers to the route names which are mostly named after films.
A lot of the time you spend staring at a huge red face high up the northern side of the valley. This is Rocca Rossa - a big face with a series of mixed routes on it which don't see much attention. To the right however are some great, shorter walls of rock in a beautiful position. Quite a long walk-in but worth it for the views.
These three crags are situated up the valley a bit and have a steep approach walk. Once there you have three crags to choose from and not surprisingly, all of them are brilliant. The first you come to is Euskal - a big sweeping cave of a crag with some great hard routes. Further is a steep varied wall known as Colosseo which has routes across the full grade range. The final crag is the superb Rocca della Basura which presents a wall of great tufa formations. Plenty here in the 6c to 7b range on really weird rock.
Martinetto Area - Emisfero
A different crag and one which you initially drove past without noticing. This place is near the junction by Marinetto on the south side of the valley and looks pretty innocuous. It has all day shade and is also quite sheltered in the trees, which hides its length. As elsewhere, the rock is superb and it has a great set of routes in the 6b+ to 7a range.
Alto Crags - Red Up
Worth visiting, if only to climb 'Bob' - a mindblowing tufa that will make your trip (if you manage to get up it). That said, there's plenty more great routes here as well, but mostly in the upper 6s and 7s.
Logistics, by Alan James
When to go
The best time to visit is from October to April although December and January can be a bit too cold. May to September is likely to be too hot for most people, although there are a number of north-facing crags. There are also plenty on the other side of the valley facing south for when it is cold. There is a bit of seepage on most crags, which can take a while to dry after prolonged rain.
How to get there
Most approaching from northern Europe and the UK will come from Nice in France. How you get to Nice is up to you. Obviously, there are flights aplenty, but the area can easily be reached without flying either via TGV to Nice and hire car, or by taking the long drive (it is only a couple of hours further than the Provence crags). As part of a climbing trip it is within a day's drive of a huge variety of other venues in France, northern Italy and the Alps.
As mentioned above, the centre of climbing is Colleta de Castelbianco. You should definitely consider staying here since I can guarantee that, if you don't, you will wish you had. The place has many apartments varying from tiny 2-people rooms, to larger 6-person apartments. Virtually all have their own balcony with accompanying panoramic view. There is also a swimming pool but that is usually closed during the climbing season. Other accommodation is available in the area although there isn't much. You could stay cheaply in Albenga but that would require quite a lot of driving every day.
A 70m single rope and sixteen quick-draws should be adequate for all of the crags. There is no trad climbing anywhere and all the routes have lower-offs. The crag bases can be very dusty so a good rope bag is recommended. You can bring a stick clip but in most cases, it isn't really needed. There is a well-stocked gear shop in the main street in nearby Cisano sul Nevo (called CPR, run by local climber/equipper Elena Chiappa) - closed Monday. Also worth a look is down the road at Finale Ligure since the delightful old town there seems to almost only have outdoor gear shops.
Roc Pennavaire, published in 2018, covers the whole valley with drawn topos and good maps. It is relatively clear and easy-to-use although sometimes the route lines are mixed up. Most route names are painted on the rock so this isn't usually a problem. You can buy the guide from the bar in Colletta di Castelbianco.
Away from Colletta di Castelbianco, there are a number of excellent restaurants relatively close by in Cisano, and plenty more in Albenga. One especially good place to go is Zuccarello, which is towards Albenga but left at the main junction. This is another one of those incredible Italian villages of tiny maze-like streets and a great pizzeria in the main square.
There isn't much available locally. The tiny shop on the road junction has basic supplies but for most food shopping you need to head to Albenga where there is a big Co-op and a Lidl further into the town. Most of the apartments in Colletta di Castelbianco have decent self-catering options.
The area is not as good for walking as you might imagine. There are some short walks marked, but they don't get very far from the roads. The big hill that overlooks Colletta di Castelbianco from the north has a reasonably well-marked path up it: go up to Veravo (the chiming church tower) and pick up some red paint marks in the village that lead up the hill. This is also the approach to the Bausa crags (if you have the guidebook). Above the crags the path leads to the top in about an hour or so. There is also supposed to be a path up the even bigger hill that overlooks Colletta di Castelbianco from the south side of the valley. Apparently you can get on this down in Cisano and follow the ridge upwards but we haven't tried this one. Paths are not generally well-marked in this part of Italy. There are also walks available further up the valley where it opens out a bit.
The area is great for road biking with a magnificent two-col tour around Mont Galero for the keen. From Colletta di Castelbianco, go up the road towards Alto and keep going to the Colle Caprauna (1375m). Drop down and turn right to Ormea and then Garessio where you can pick up signs back towards Albenga. Follow these up over the Colle San Bernardo (963m) which takes you back down towards Martinetto and a right turn back into Val Pennavaire to close the loop.
I am reliably informed that there is also plenty of mountain biking available in the area, although I have no experience of this.
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