Il Labirinto Verticale
“TODAY THE WEATHER IS GOOD AND I AM AMONG THESE DAMNED MOUNTAINS LOOKING OUT FOR SEVEN LOST SHEEPS”. This is one of the many inscriptions you may find engraved on the sheer rocks overhanging Balme houses. Many of these rocks bear names, nicknames, dates, weather, season or work comments. There are even declarations of religious faith and philosophical attitude such as “EVERYBODY MUST DIE” and “CIBRARIO TUNDU’ GIUAN DOMENICO DEI COSTANTINI SON OF COSTANTINO FROM UCEGLIO GOOD SHEPARD TO GRAZE SHEEPS I GREET YOU ALL SHOULD WE ALL GO TO HEAVEN, 26th OF AUGUST 1865”.
“L’Ròtchess”, the rocks, is the name given by Balme inhabitants to the big rocky wall overhanging their village, which the military maps mark as Torrioni del Ru.
A wall without vegetation whatsoever and cut by several waterfalls, which drops for almost a thousand meters from the peaks of Punta Rossa and Uja di Mondrone to the back of the poor fields and the old stony houses. A wall which, from afar, looks uniform and compact but in reality is composed by thousands of cleft, gullies and towers, the dimensions of which becomes evident when clouds penetrate among ridges and spurs or when the snow covers ledges and terraces, enhancing the outline of a gigantic vertical labyrinth.
With no doubt it is a forbidding place, but not an inhospitable one since more and more groups of hikers and ibexes happily live side by side. Hikers spend the sunny Sundays climbing up and down the Ginevré practice cliffs, while ibexes have found an optimal habitat on the smooth rocky walls and, not being afraid of man, at times they reach the vegetables gardens behind the houses to nibble heads of lettuce.
Both presences are quite recent. For hundreds or maybe thousands of years the big wall had other inhabitants who occupied ledges and terraces, leaving behind evidence of their lives.
Generations of Balme shepherds guided their sheep and goats herds on these rocks, and not only during the summer. Particularly during the winter months, when the snow covered the valley floor, the big rocky wall warmed by the sun offered, here and there, poor pastures free from ice and snow.
It was the little boys and girls work: they used to leave home in the morning with a slice of bread or “polenta” and spent the day up the mountain with the goats herd which was a very important part of the family assets. They also brought a wooden cup to drink the fresh cascade water or, more often, their own animals milk. The cup was also used as compass to draw wedge rosettes on the rocks, the ancient sun symbol which, unchanged, had been used as decoration of wooden and rock objects through milleniums even if its magic and religious significance was now unknown.
During the long hours spent in the sunshine on the terraces, or under cover from bad weather under thebàrmess, the young boys and girls used to carve the stone with a knife or a nail. The outcrops of chlorite, a light and soft green stone, were ideal “blackboards” for their creativity.
Wheels, suns, crosses, human and animal figures were superimposed to names, dates, and daily life observations. Each boy or girl signed with the personal and family nickname. The name “SOPO DI PLERE”recurs many times showing the pride of Giuseppe Antonio Castagneri called Pìn Plère, shoemaker and violin player, who, even if lame, could climb the rocks just as his peers.
Somebody, in Balme, still remembers the means used to overcome the most demanding moves (on the smoothest rocks, urinating on the feet was necessary to make it possible for the wet skin to better stick to the dry rock) and the many times the young boys and girls really went to rescue hikers lost in the ledges labyrinth. People still talk about the Vioùn della Pénna where the quarry of sharpening stones is and about when women used to reach Lago del Ru and remove the clump dam allowing water to run down the couloir. On the ledges, men stood with carved logs so as to reroute water in the irrigation ditches (ru) for rye and barley fields on the dry side of the andrit.
LABIRINTO VERTICALE – LAGO MERCURIN – ALPE LE PIANE – MOLETTE
Elevation gain: 1150 m (4 ½ hrs.)
Descent gain: 1300 m (4 hrs.)
Il Labirinto Verticale is a spectacular and sunny trail already used in ancient times by Balme shepherds. This itinerary, through ledges and tracks, allows overcoming the rocky cliff on the steep south exposed slope above Balme village. Once the steep part is finished, you will rejoin the trail, which, from Balme reaches Lago Mercurin, below the wild West side of the Uja di Mondrone.
From the lake, crossing over the crest descending from the Uja, you will reach the lower part of the regular trail Uja – Molette that you will follow to return.
Starting point: Parking “Camussot”
Climbing time: 3 – 3 ½ hrs.
Descent time: 1.45 – 2 hrs. from the crossroads; 2.15 – 2 ½ hrs from Lago Mercurin
Elevation gain: 900 m for the vertical labyrinth only
1100 m climbing to the lake Mercurin
Suggested time of the year: late spring – beginning of autumn
The itinerary starts from Hotel Camussòt parking ground (1480 m). Follow the trail direction Lago Mercurin, passing through Péra dìi Tchàmp, panoramic viewpoint on the village below, and through a thin beech wood. Do not follow the trail on your left marked Lago Mercurin but proceed on the trail to your right, running at mid slope through stony grounds, woods and pastures. It directly reaches the base of the big wall near the lower waterfall of the Pissài stream (1600 m).
On both sides of the waterfall, very often dry at the end of summer, you will find some bàrmess (shelters under the rocks) where engravings and inscriptions may be found. One of these inscriptions is in patois“OURÀ’ IÀ LOU SOULÈI OURÀ’ PROÙ”: “one moment the sun is shining and a moment after it isn’t”. Rock walls (baricàiess) delimit some of the shelters. The old people of the village for hunting marmots used them. This kind of hunt was traditionally reserved to them, as they could no longer hunt chamois.
On the right orographic side of the waterfall, climb a short steep westward gully up to a ledge where there is a boulder with an inscription difficult to read. Now climb another small gully going east where a small cross stands, its arms in a ring formation and some inscriptions: “SOPO DI PLERE 1880” and “C. B. DI CANÀN A LI 10 MAI 1887”.
You now reach the second Rio Pissài waterfall (1680 m), where the westward Lansàtta ledge begins, very wide at first and then gradually narrowing.
The name Lansàtta means “small scalpel”, a very sharp instrument, similar to a clock hand, used to incise veins during bloodletting. The viper, an asp short and thin with an evident triangular head, typical of these valleys is known by the same name in Balme’s patois. In the past, these reptiles were numerous on the sunny wall. Nowadays they have almost disappeared due to the many birds predators (crows, ravens, buzzards and eagles) which have increased in number with the stop to hunting.
At 1720 m altitude, the ledge becomes steeper and narrower until is nothing more than a very narrow move under a jutting out rock. Where the track is the scantiest, you will find some inscriptions on the rock “1827 PANCRASIO C. 1803”. Once you have gone beyond this point, shortly follow the ledge until you will enter another short and steep eastward gully. You will then reach a wide grassy level ground near the third RioPissài waterfall.
Going on, you will cross a wide notch with a shelter under the rock (bàrma). Here you will find traces of ancient bivvis, stone walls and nettles, the latest witnessing the presence in the soil of animal dejections. Few meters below the boulder forming the bàrma, on the edge of the cliff, there is another wider shelter under the rock, closed by a small dry rock wall.
This site, called “lou bou dii Canàn” (the Canàn’s barn), was used by the Castagneri Canàn goats shepherds to produce goad cheese without having to carry the milk down to the valley. There are still visible the place where the fire was lit, a small bundle of twiggy and a ribbed slate (pilòiri). On this stone the cheese molds were set to drain so as to recover the buttermilk (laità). On the bàrma roof, some dates are visible among which “1661” and “P*S”, and some cryptic hurdle shaped drawings too. Near the bàrna you may see otherinscriptions belonging to different times. These shelters where used on various occasions by the Balme youngsters fleeing from enforced enlistment as it happened during French occupation at the end of the XVIII century and during the 1944-1945 winter military mopping up.
Going back to the ledge, you will now proceed on a light slope where you will find other inscriptions, and will overtake several small gullies until reaching a 1900 m altitude. The ledge ends up against a rocky edge. To overtake it, a rudimentary wall has been built with stone slates after which the Rio del Ru gully opens up. You will now divert your path in order to follow a big ledge climbing eastwards, again in the Rio Pissài direction. You will now reach the big waterfall (the real Pissài 1882 m) and turn again westwards. Enter the very steep gully which allows you to climb almost vertically, overtaking another bàrma, in order to reach the Pènna rocks, where the grinding stones body is.
These grinding stones, a variety of chlorite-schist, were used in the past to sharpen any kind of cutting tools, particularly scythes. (Mowers kept these stones dipped in some water in a cow horn tied to the waist belt.) Being so important, these stones were collected and commercialized outside the village.
Mount Pénna (2200 m), that, from Balme looks as a summit, in reality, is only a wall supporting a great rocks slope between the Rio Pissài and Rio del Ru gullies. From this point, climbing directly, you will reach the trail marked Lago Mercurin.
Once you have reached the trail, climbing to the right in half an hour you will reach Lago Mercurin, while turning to the left in about 10’ you will reach the Ru gully. From this point, descending and following the trail to the left of the gully (track direction), you will travel the gully backwards until you will again overlook Balme Village. Now you have to cross the stream coming down from Lago del Ru. (The creek crossing may present some difficulties in early summer, during late afternoon hours, due to the great quantity of melting water from the snowfields high up in the gully.) Through a ledge you will then reach a rocky pass, overtaking the crest and overlooking a grassy gully very steep at the beginning becoming softer later on. Follow the trail and cross to the left the watershed, directing yourself to the antenna tower. From this point proceed until you reach the trail climbing to Falesia del Ginevrè, turn to the right and, descending through pastures you will reach the Camussot parking area from which you left in the morning.