canyon exploring with Michele Angileri

Vallone di Lestio

Vallone di Lestio is one of the three steep and wild valleys that make up the Coserie creek. Usually dry in the upper part, it is fed by small perennial springs in the lower part.
Downstream of the confluence of the three branches develops the Coserie gorge, featuring large pools of emerald water and twisted landsliding rocks.

Name Vallone di Lestio
Area Calabria
Nearest village Paludi
Elevation loss 330 m
Length 3,5 km
Highest cascade 19 m
Rock Flysch, limestone
Rating5
Shuttle Possible
Explored by Michele Angileri, Saverio Talerico; august 22nd 2018

 

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I remember ...

In summer in Calabria weather is not always dry and hot. There are the summer thunderstorms, due to the arrival of cold air at high altitude clashing with the warm and humid air that rises from the sea and from the low layers of the atmosphere in the late morning . Summer storms are often violent, with so much rain coming down in a short time, triggering the natural outflow channels which flow into the streams generating flash floods. And the conscientious canyoneer knows that flash floods are the greatest danger for those who descend a gorge. A flash flood comes as a wave, a wall of water bringing mud and stones, overwhelming everything that is at the bottom of canyon. When there is the risk of a summer thunderstorm you must give up on the purpose of doing a canyon route. Or else (if the will to go is very strong) you must choose an area where the risk of thunderstorms is low, and in that area choose a stream from which it is always (or almost always) possible to exit sideways, so that a flood would not be dangerous (provided you exit the stream at the first thunder).
Because it is not possible to predict where the storm will be and where else it will be completely absent. Thunderstorms are highly localized phenomena: they can violently hit a village and leave the neighboring one dry, only a few kilometers away.

There are years in which summe weather in Calabria is decidedly worse, with particularly strong and widespread storms, sometimes so strong as to cause torrents to overflow. The summer floods in Calabria destroy and kill. I remember the flood that struck the lower districts of Corigliano Calabro and Rossano on 12 August 2015, transforming the cheerful atmosphere of summer vacations into a scenario of mud and cars piled up on each other under the pressure of water of the overflowing streams.
Sometimes it is worse: the storm that hit the area of Vibo Valentia on 3 July 2006 caused 4 deaths, that of 10 September 2000, in Soverato, made 13 ...

In August 2018 the weather in Calabria became decidedly unstable. Every day there were thunderstorms, on the mountains and even on the coasts, already from the late morning. My explorations program had to adapt to this situation. I and my friends chose the destination the night before, consulting and comparing weather reports. In case of uncertain forecasts (they were never good) the choice went on the less risky area and an open creek (i.e. a gorge with continuous escape possibilities), better with a little feeding basin.

For August 21st I had planned with Saverio the exploration of one of the three branches that make up the Coserie creek, an "open canyon" with a very small feeding basin, the only kind of canyon you may figure to explore in case of unstable weather.
In the late afternoon of the 20th I learned from the internet that a rescue intervention was taking place in the Raganello gorges, by Civita. There was even talk of deaths. As the hours passed, the details came: there had been a flood in the gorges, and there were dead and missing. As always in August, numerous hikers were going through the gorges, and numerous tourists were at the exit of canyon, under the Devil's Bridge, when the flash flood arrived, unexpected because the storm didn't happen at Civita but a few kilometers upstream, in the basin of San Lorenzo Bellizzi
The dismay I felt grew stronger with the thought that some of my friends or acquaintances might be among the people caught by the flood ... (the thought also came to my relatives and friends, who then began to call me in bursts to make sure that I had not gone to Raganello that day ... No, don't worry, I was at home. A terrible thing, yes.)
Although I am fully aware of the risks of canyoning in general and of the Raganello Gorges in particular, and that was not at all the first time I had such news, which are unfortunately recurrent (a few days before, for example, there had been a similar event in Corsica, with 5 dead, a guide and 4 clients), despite this I was still too upset to go and explore a canyon on the following day. With Saverio we decided to postpone, at least for a day: we both needed to ... think? to process the news? to attenuate the dark emotion that was taking us?

My thoughts went to the past, to the first canyoning experiences made in Raganello gorges, when my level of experience and awareness of risks was not different from that of the people who had been hit by the flood. The fifth time I was in the gorges I was grazed by falling stones. The weather was stable, the sky was clear, ... suddenly I heard like a gunshot 3-4 meters from me, and something (a splinter) touched my cheek. The stones had fallen down a overhanging wall, silent, unnoticeable. From that moment I began to notice the marks left by the stones falling on the rocks of the gorge: almost everywhere the rocks were chipped and there were fragments of sharp stones. From one year to the next, then, I saw pieces of wall disappear and sharp boulders appear on the bottom of the gorge ... Brrr ...
The sixth time I was hit by a flood wave, fortunately harmless. It was the first time I walked down the gorges of Barile and Raganello on a single day-trip. In the afternoon I was about halfway down the Raganello gorge, in a wide part. Suddenly the water turned brown and the flow quintupled. The flood wave was triggered by a thunderstorm that occurred perhaps at the foot of the Dolcedorme, perhaps in the upper part of the basin of San Lorenzo Bellizzi, however far enough that neither I nor the friend who was with me noticed it. The flow-rate did not became dangerous, however, and our descent could end up without delay. That event made me aware of the risk of sudden floods, which can generate upstream, far enough that those in the gorge do not notice the danger.

These first canyoning experiences date back to the mid-80s, when canyoning and the Raganello gorges were almost unknown. Over the years Raganello has become one of the main tourist attractions of the Pollino National Park. In summer the gorge outlets are visited by thousands of tourists, which go through a short part of the gorges without suitable protections or clothing or footwear, completely unaware of the risks they take. Hundreds of them go trough the most or the whole canyons, attracted by the stunning beauty of the place but also by the advertising of commercial operators. The clients of commercial operators are among the few to go trough Raganello canyon well-dressed and equipped, and the guides are expert ... Nevertheless among the victims of the Raganello flash flood there are a guide and some clients. Surely such a big flood had never been seen in summer at Raganello canyon, not in the last 20-25 years, not since Raganello has become a tourist attraction. The criminal trial will assess whether one of the contributory causes of the tragedy is someone's imprudence.

What will change after the Raganello tragedy?
Surely there will be greater awareness in public opinion and (I hope) in commercial operators, but they will continue to "promote the territory" by selling inexperienced people "adrenaline" excursions in "natural waterparks" (it's business, baby). Regulations will probably be introduced for accessing the Gorges, and I hope that they will be rational and reasonable, aimed at informing and protecting and not at preventing the free canyoning practice (perhaps thus creating lobby and business).

We did the exploration of Vallone di Lestio on august 22nd. The valley turned out as we expected: never narrow, with escape possibilities almost everywhere. A little rain came when we were at half the descent, but it stopped immediately. Later we began to hear distant thunders: not one or two but a real concert, a fury of booms that told of a violent storm that was unleashing upstream of Longobucco, perhaps on the Sila plateau. Oh yes: there was a fucking bad weather that summer. I began to feel uneasy: if the storm had shifted a few kilometers it could have affected the upper part of Vurganera valley. And we were heading there, to the gorge downstream of the confluence of Vurganera into Coserie. I imagined the arrival of a flood wave from Vurganera, preceded by a movement of air and a roar that would have become strong in a few seconds. From the beginning of the air flow I would have had little time (maybe only twenty seconds) to put myself in a safe place at the top, then a wall of brown water would have run down the gorge and there would have been no escape for anything that was in the stream bed at that time.
But it was not Raganello's tragedy that brought me those thoughts, no: it was the awareness of the risk of such wonderful and dangerous sport, an outdoor activity in which experience has a key role. But experience grows as you make errors and take risks, and luck also counts, and it is possible to predict, yes, but up to a certain point, because something unpredictable remains and you must be somehow prepared even to that.

Was I talking about canyoning or life?

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