Vertically challenged in the Dolomites
September 5, 2007
It’s a balmy summer evening in Frisco and my husband, Bill, and I have just finished dinner with friends Jack and Aleene. Jack asks us if we’d like to see the video of their recent hiking trip in the Dolomites.
Dolomites? We barely recognize the name, or do we know anything about the area in Italy where some of the most dramatic peaks and spires of the European Alps abound. As the video rolls, Bill and I quickly realize that the region must be among the most scenically beautiful in the world. The vistas remind me of the idyllic Swiss pastorals where two of my favorite childhood story characters, Heidi and her grandfather, tended their goats.But the photos that really catch our attention are those of people we recognize – Summit County seniors we’ve hiked with in the past. They are wearing funny helmets and harnesses equipped with ropes and carabiners. And they are hanging off the sides of sheer rock cliffs! The hiking routes, Jack explains, are called Via Ferratas (“The Iron Way” in Italian). To complete one, a hiker clips onto protective cables bolted to vertical cliff faces, then ascends huge iron ladders, climbs stairways of protruding metal pegs, crosses gorges on swinging bridges, traverses narrow ledges (some the width of windowsills), and scrambles into outrageously exposed locations that would otherwise be the preserve of dedicated rock-jocks. Jack claims that, with the proper gear, scrambling up rock precipices mountain-goat style is not only mind-boggling fun, but perfectly safe.That’s all we need to hear! Where can we sign on?Jack tells us about Bill, a guy we’ve met on local hikes. As a young serviceman stationed in Germany decades ago, Bill was first lured to the Dolomites for skiing. He discovered Via Ferrata hiking in the early 1990s. Since then, when he’s returned for his annual “fix,” he’s invited serious hikers he knows to tag along.I call him the next day and beg to be included in the next group.
Four of us fly to Munich. Others meet us there. About half in our group of 12 are veteran Via Ferrata enthusiasts, having been to the Dolomites several times before. The rest of us are neophytes, some with a bad case of the jitters – like me. Most of us are way past “over-the-hill” status – in our 70s, with even a near-octogenarian who happily yodels his way to every mountaintop.
Leader Bill gulps coffee, studies the map, and we’re off on a four-hour drive via beautiful Brenner Pass. We leave the autostrada just south of the Italian city of Bressanone (Brixen in German) and continue to the pristine hillside village of St. Cristina. This will be our base for several days while we hike some Via Ferratas nearby. Then we’ll move eastward to other villages and cities for more of the same – Colfosco, Colvara, and Cortina d’Ampezzo.Hundreds of these Via Ferrata routes exist in an area that lies, roughly speaking, between the Austrian border on the north, the vast Venetian plain on the south, and east of the Italian city of Bolzano (Bozen in German). The history of these protected routes dates back to the First World War, when Italian and Austrian troops, contesting boundaries, clashed along a front line that cut across the spiky summits of the Dolomites. To speed access to their various positions, soldiers bolted climbing aids to huge limestone cliffs, and widened slender, natural rock ledges to allow soldiers to traverse them single file. Evidence of the battles that raged here can still be found in tunnel complexes, barbed-wire fences, trenches, cannon emplacements and bomb craters. Today, these routes represent one of the major sporting attractions of the region also known as the South Tyrol. Via Ferrata routes also exist in other regions of the Alps, but none are as extensive as those in the Dolomites. These mountains, instead of being in a continuous chain, are massive outcroppings and are named as aggregations or “groups.” Our first sighting of the Sella and Sassolungo groups from our hotel’s terrace brings a collective gasp. These mountains are not at all like the tree-covered Rockies we know. Instead, they are craggy, barren and chalky-white, and they explode to startling heights from the midst of pastoral green valleys. The scene is a bit surreal – more like a movie-set backdrop or a cardboard cutout than the real thing. A word about local culture: The cuisine, architecture and even the language of the people that inhabit the region vary from one side of the mountain to the other. All derive from three distinct groups: Italians, Austrians and Ladins. (The Ladin culture emerged in the fifth century as a result of earlier Roman expansion into the Alps.) Today the Ladins – some 40,000 strong – are considered the indigenous people of the Dolomite region. All three languages are spoken in the area and three place names appear on every signpost.
Our first day “warm-up” hike gives us a little portent of things to come – long days, lots of elevation gain and surprises around every turn. Leader Bill warns us daily that to whine or complain is not an option, and that if we dare “lapse” he will dock our pre-trip deposits $10 for each offense. So, good sports that we are, we smile through clenched teeth about the little adversities that make the trip memorable: an eight-hour hike that was supposed to be three, a nonfunctioning ski lift we counted on to knock off two grueling hours off an all-day trek, a trailhead we searched for all morning but never found. But our smiles are genuine when it comes to Via Ferratas. The routes never fail to deliver the adrenaline rush we’re seeking or the views we gain at the top. Our first one – called the Piz Duledes – is rated in our guidebook as a Grade 1. (Via Ferrata routes are rated 1-5, according to technical difficulty and “exposure” – the degree of steepness and the height above the valley floor.) We hardly break a sweat on this one as we grab cables that help us up the steepest parts. The hardest part is the long descent through slippery scree.Feeling cocky, we choose a Grade 2 Via Ferrata for the next day. For this one, we will need to wear our gear. This includes a special climbing helmet and a harness, equipped with a shock-absorbing lanyard from which two rope ends hang, each with a carabiner (a spring-loaded metal clip). The technique we’ll use is this: As we ascend or descend, we stay clipped to the wire, ensuring that at least one rope end is attached as we climb past the pegs that anchor the wire. Should we fall, the peg directly behind us (never more than a few feet) will stop us. Sure – any fall will mean bruises and bloody knees, but the fall will be 15 feet instead of 1,500. The helmet will save our head from loose and falling rocks, and those that jut out where we least expect them.
For this hike, I am psyched. I’ve been told that among dozens of hikers that Leader Bill has coached in the Dolomites, only one woman “wimped out” and returned to the hotel upon approaching her first vertical cliff. Ever since I heard the story, I’ve been assuring myself that the second dropout will NOT be me! At first there’s an easy uphill hike through undulating green meadows. Gradually, the trail gets steeper and we scramble over boulders the size of garbage cans. And then, there it is – the first of many seemingly insurmountable challenges – a 20-rung steel ladder leading straight up! I am hyperventilating as I grab the ladder and lift my foot to the first step. I am so nervous that I drop both my hiking poles into a crevice a few feet below us. Leader Bill records my expletive on his video camera. While Leader Bill retrieves my poles, I keep moving toward our goal – only 500 feet, but straight up. Sometimes, we have to wait for others, like the 7-year-old Italian boy and his parents who climb ahead of us. Sometimes, we hesitate while searching for a tiny rock ledge where we can place a foot. Sometimes we pause just to take a few deep breaths.
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Never, on that first ascent, do I look down to the valley thousands of feet below. I have bigger things to think about, like where I’m going to find my next foothold and how long it’ll take us to reach the top.We reach the summit in about an hour, high-fiving each other and sighing with relief. But there’s more, of course – the just-as-difficult climb down. Aleene shows me how to face the mountain and step backward, one minuscule step at a time. The method works fine, except that by looking between my legs to find my foothold, I am forced to see what’s below me – a thousand feet of air. I say one of those little prayers reserved for times like these: Please, God, get me safely off this mountain and I promise I’ll never climb one of these Via Ferratas again! sBut of course, when the climb is over, I’m so pumped I can hardly stop blabbing. On second thought, cancel that prayer, God. Just help me do more!
Many more Via Ferratas and many more adventures lie ahead. • The Funniest: At the top of one particularly steep ladder, I snag my CamelBak water valve on a rock and it pops off. Water gushes out, trickling down the back of my shorts and between my legs. Husband Bill, who’s directly behind me, thinks I’m so terrified that I’ve had an accident. For the others behind him, I have a lot of explaining to do. • The Scariest: Leader Bill hooks his carabiner into a doubled-over portion of cable and then can’t pull loose. After 10 minutes of trying and not being able to unhook himself, he lets others behind him know that he’s stuck tight. A strong young German volunteers to help. He climbs over three or four others who are stranded on rock ledges, and with brute strength, pulls Leader Bill’s carabiner loose. Whew! Close call!• The Most Photographed Local Event: Hiking above the Val Gardena, we notice thousands of cyclists hurtling down a precipitous mountain pass. From above, the switchback road they follow looks like a tightly wound snake. The next day we modify our agenda to photograph, cheer and then mingle in Corvara with 8,000 participants in the annual “Maratona des Dolomites.” By comparison our Via Ferrata hikes seem like kid’s play.• The Best Accommodations: My favorites were the rifugios (“huttes” in German), small inns that provide not only basic eating and sleeping facilities, but magnificent, panoramic views as well. There are more than 100 rifugi in the Dolomites, mostly owned and managed by the Club Alpino Italiano. Hiker camaraderie is strong in these mostly hard-to-reach inns, although some can be accessed by lifts or even by car. Rates may sometimes seem high, but we bear in mind that helicopters and mechanical hoists are needed to bring up supplies.
• The Best Post-Hike Activity: Eating, of course, both for the variety of German and Italian taste treats, but also as fuel for the next day. For some of us, a slice of apple strudel is a daily must. For others, a gelato or two, followed by tiramisu. One day, after summiting one of the toughest hauls on the trip, I said, “OK, Leader Bill, what’s next?”Pointing to the steep descent gully, which was littered with tons of unstable, broken rock, he answered, “The next part looks worse than it is. But don’t worry, it’s wired.””Yeah,” I replied, checking my gear, “just like me!”For more information: http://www.italiantourism.com
“The Dolomites of Italy: A travel Guide,” by James and Anne Goldsmith”Dolomites and Eastern South Tyrol: Complete Guide With Walks,” by Dietrich Holhuber”Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites,” Vol 1-Cicerone Guides (www.cicerone.co.uk)Carolyn Schwartz is a freelance travel journalist who writes from homes near Chapel Hill N.C. and Frisco.