Despite what you read in Outside, Climbing or Alpinist about enduring epics, it was just one of those days when I did not want to be on the rock. We had ascended to a Refugio by cable car the previous afternoon and it had snowed for the remainder of the afternoon and into the night. We accumulated six inches on the deck by morning and it made for a spectacular sunrise. The experience of the previous day had taught me that any form of moisture on the obvious hand and foot holds would make them extremely slippery. I had to take solace in the fact that just being at Refugio Lagazoui was a stunning experience. But we came here to climb!
Just what was it that had driven our curiosity to the point of being willing to cross the Atlantic Ocean just to climb? It was a different kind of climbing. To understand Via Ferrata, you have to understand the history of the area, specifically World War I. It is almost ancient history by now, but in 1916 and 1917, the Italians and the Austrians were locked in a stalemate in the high passes and rocky buttresses of the Dolomites. In order to gain an advantage, they both tried to occupy the heights. When one side occupied the high ground, the other tried to dislodge them. Experienced mountaineers were a valuable asset in these tests of military stamina.
But not every soldier could climb these towering heights. So, the mountaineers found the routes and then erected a series of ladders and cables up the ridges so that ordinary soldiers loaded down with personal packs and the tools of war could ascend them. After the war, individuals seeking recreation found that these routes made very spectacular outings. Since then the original routes, and others established to provide this type of recreation in other areas, have been maintained and improved. An unusual form of climbing, called Via Ferrata, and spectacular settings was enough to motivate our journey.
Being unfamiliar with this type of climbing and the area gave us the incentive to sign on with an outfitter that had done this before. Wilderness Travel was offering a one-week tour and a symposium that sounded interesting. We had climbed Kilimanjaro with them and trusted their experience. So, how do you climb “the iron way”?
It turns out you climb it just like you would climb any other rock–with hand and footholds and mantles, stems and opposing force. The only difference is the protection. Instead of bolts, cams, or stoppers, the protection is fixed with eyebolts, “C” clamps and steel cable. In theory, you don’t climb the cable; you climb the rock and fix yourself to sections of cable for protection.
This requires the only different piece of equipment from conventional rock climbing: the ferrata lanyard. There are two types, but basically they attach you to a cable and provide some kind of friction or energy absorbing device. If you fall, there is no stretch in the rope to reduce the impact. You fall to the last piece of protection and come to a screaming stop. Without the friction device or the energy absorber, the impact force would be dramatic and the risk of injury would be increased. The lanyards have two carabiners that allow you to bridge a piece of protection and never be completely separated from the cable. In some cases, as in walking along a ledge system, only one carabiner can be attached so that movement is facilitated.
Armed with the basics, we were off to test ourselves against this new environment. We took a chairlift up to the top of a winter ski area and walked along a trail system for about two miles. Many of these fantastic routes are not located in close proximity to the road and some effort is necessary to access them. Like many of our climbing areas, the closer it is to the road, the more popular and crowded they are. The Masare Ferrata is on the Rosengarten Massif and is a loop that starts at a Refugio and comes back there. What a convenient place to have lunch, and it was usually spectacular as well as delicious. The route went along a ridgeline, splitting pinnacles and using ledges. The exposure was spectacular but with focus on that next hand or foothold, progress was made. The rock climbing equivalent rating would probably have been a 5.5 or 5.6.
We learned to allow only one climber on a difficult section so that if they fell, they would not wipe others out on the way down. We clipped ahead to minimize the distance we might fall, except for the down climbing, when you did not want to fall on someone ahead of you. We began to take advantage of secure places to change our lanyards and learned when we felt comfortable enough to use only one carabiner. We were beginning to get the hang of it.
So, the next day everyone was ready to test themselves against a difficult, committing route along the Latemar Massif: Everyone except me. I wanted to ease into this new environment with a bit more practice and opted for another route on the Rosengarten called Santner Pass. It was a great choice as I got to lead a route and gain more confidence, and the rest of the group got weathered out of their route. Santner Pass is a great short route but takes all day because you end up on the other side of the mountain and have to work your way back. That requires crossing two passes and traversing the backside of the mountain for some distance. But it also means another great refugio and lunch.
Day Three and the weather that forced the other group to abort their route had dropped snow on the primary objective so the trip leaders suggested a shorter option and we were off to Refugio Averau. The ferrata Averau is a short climb to a summit plateau and a 20-minute walk to the top with spectacular views. Unfortunately, this is where we experienced the impact of thousands of climbers before us. Each obvious hand or foothold was polished smooth and just as I started it began to hail on us. The moisture on the foothold made my foot slip off. At that point, I decided that lunch was the better option and retreated to the Refugio. Just as I stepped inside the heavens opened up and it rained and snowed hard for the duration of lunch. But soon the intrepid climbers who had persevered began showing up looking like drowned dogs. So much for any chance of a view. This was the afternoon it snowed into the night.
It was obvious that we were not going to do a high ferrata the next day, but dinner and the night at the refugio were spectacular in the falling snow. The options were a couple of hikes that took us past WWI fortifications and emplacements. The short route took us past the access for our original option and down to another refugio. That sounded good to me. At the bottom, we were met by our vehicle and had a nice drive into Cortina where we would spend the remainder of our time.
Because the next day’s climb would take us to the Cortina area, we would be going from the “newer” ferratas to the historic areas. The climb was to be of the Luca/ Innerkofler Ferrata and it starts at a tunnel dug by the Italians to hold the high ground. We donned both the ferrata lanyard and headlamps to get to the climb. After about 50 feet in the tunnel, we emerged onto the cable and made our way across the ridge through two saddles and a high point. Every step we took was one that numerous Italian soldiers had taken to bring ammunition and sustenance to their troops. The troops endured harsh winters and many died of exposure and disease brought on by the difficult conditions. Near the end of the ferrata we re-entered a tunnel and observed numerous firing positions and storage areas. After about 20 minutes the tunnel opened onto an area just above the refugio. We had held the high ground.
The ferrata is named after two soldiers/mountaineers from opposite sides. Du Luca was an Italian and Innerkofler was an Austrian. Both were from this area and therefore very important to these campaigns. Because the Italians held the high ground, Innerkofler went out one day to find a route that Austrian soldiers could take to dislodge them. As he climbed he was shot and fell into Italian territory. Because the Italians knew of his mountaineering skills and his military bravery, they buried him with full military honors. After the war and in recognition of his bravery, the decision was made to rebury him near a newly rebuilt refugio. In the process of moving his remains, the bullet was found that had shot him – it was an Austrian round. He had been killed by “friendly fire.”
The ferrata was followed by a spectacular lunch at a refugio and a walk back below the ferrata we had just climbed. There was a monument to fallen Austrian soldiers consisting of an eagle with a broken wing. The clouds swirled past, giving us occasional glimpses of the Tre Cime di Lavardo. We were told of spectacular first ascents of overhanging walls on these towers.
The final day’s climb was a fitting climax to a great trip. Unfortunately, again because of the weather, we were going to be climbing a lower level ferrata: Michielli Strobel. This was to be the most difficult of our climbs from a technical point of view and it was relatively close to the highway. Relatively close in this case means 45 minutes of climbing straight up a washed out gulley. As we reached the base of the climb we found ourselves behind a group of about 20 out to enjoy a little recreation on a Saturday. It meant that every time we came to a new section of ferrata we would find ourselves standing in line. No matter, the climbers eventually spread out and if you focused on your own hand and footholds you could imagine yourself all alone. Most sections were almost vertical and it was sustained climbing up 3,100 feet with 2,000 feet on the ferratas. At the top we had time for a quick snack, sorry, no refugio, and spectacular views of Cortina. The hard part was getting down those 3,100 feet through scree and gulleys. Sometimes we just have to earn our fun.
With the few ferratas we were weathered out of and the numerous other options, we could spend several years seeing it all. It makes it all the more desirable to go back. There is always a new route around the next corner that will take you to high places and stunning environments. The options are almost endless. Via Ferrata is a different kind of climbing – my kind.
“High on the Mountains”