Trip Reports: Via Ferrate In The Dolomites, Italy - August 2013
Last week Claudia’s father and brother drove down from Dresden to join us in the Dolomites in northern Italy for a fun week of hiking and climbing via ferrata routes together. The via ferrate are climbing routes with fixed cables and ladders, and by using a climbing harness with two short ropes with locking carabiners, it’s possible to safely climb exposed routes without technical climbing skills.
Our first adventure was a long day hike along the Strada degli Alpini in the Sesto/Sexten group of mountains. The first views made it abundantly clear that I was indeed in the Dolomites again, with their mind-bendingly jagged peaks piercing the sky!
During World War I, the peaks in the Dolomites were occupied year round by Austrian and Italian troops, with each side battling fiercely for high outposts. While hiking through these mountains you often see relics from the war, including ledges, tunnels, and caves with machine gun windows. The soldiers had built the first via ferrate in order to aid in the transport of supplies and ammunition to their high hidden outposts. After the wars were over, climbers made use of the fixed cables, and the sport became so popular that the alpine clubs built many more via ferrate routes throughout the Dolomites. While nowadays these old routes are just used for fun, it’s quite sobering to imagine the harsh realities that the soldiers had faced in these rugged peaks.
This area of northern Italy used to be part of Austria, and you hear German speakers just as much or even more than Italian. It’s still a bit odd how every town and mountain around here has two different names – a German and Italian one – and both are always listed on the maps and whatnot. It gets a bit confusing!
After our time near Sexten/Sesto, we headed to the famous Tre Cime mountains to spend a few nights in the Locatelli hut which sits on a saddle with a stunning view of Monte Paterno and Tre Cime mountains.
Though the weather was unsettled for much of our time there, we did manage to climb Monte Paterno, a rugged peak that I also climbed by myself 10 years ago.
The route up Paterno first passes through a long tunnel built by Italian soldiers that ascends steeply right through the narrow ridgeline!
When I was here in July 10 years ago, it was after a very snowy winter and this entire tunnel staircase was encased in wall-to-wall 6-inch thick ice. I had no ice axe or crampons, and to make matters worse, my headlamp had died right as I entered the tunnel! But with my arrogance (or stupidity) of youth, I decided to push on. I clipped into the via ferrata cable, leaned back and pulled myself with my hands all the way up the steep icy staircase – in complete darkness! But the worst part was when the angle finally eased and the security cable ended, and I had to continue on sheer ice with the fear that if I slipped I would slowly and helplessly slide back down and then tumble down the entire staircase. I tried to clutch any handholds I could find along the rock wall of the tunnel, and when I had a chance I filled my pockets with pebbles which I would sprinkle under my feet to give me a little bit of grip. All the while swinging my arms in front of me as I groped my way through in the pitch black darkness. Fortunately I made it through ok, but returning here again this time and seeing how long and how steep this tunnel was… well, it kind of horrified me to think of how crazy I was that first time!
Claudia’s father Gundolf is a climber who has honed his skills in the Sandstone Mountains of Saxony; four years ago he summited the highest of the Tre Cime peaks seen here towering in the background! Speaking of which, the first climbers to conquer the vertical north face of the tower were Saxonian climbers; it took them three days to make their way up the face.
On our last evening near Tre Cime when the storm finally broke, I walked around to some small lakes and caught an incredible display of the famous enrosadira sunset light. Due to the natural orangish color and reflective qualities of the Dolomite rock, when sunset light shines on these mountains they display a distinctly saturated illumination, called the enrosadira.
Our third and final climb was the famous Cristallo peak near Cortina d’ Ampezzo. We took advantage of the gondola that rises all the way to the high crest of Cristallo, but riding in the old rusty and rickety “futurama” gondolas built in the 1950’s was probably the scariest part of the entire day!
The via ferrata on Cristallo is a classic route and quite exciting… when not waiting patiently for dozens of slow climbers in front of you. Going up in the morning was great fun; going back down while dozens of others were simultaneously trying to go up… not so fun. I guess that’s how it goes on a popular route on a beautiful Sunday in August.
Claudia and I are still in the Dolomites and we’re excited to trek and climb through the Rosengarten range next! Thank you Gundolf and Ferdi for coming down to spend the week with us!