Alps8 - Via Ferrata

The back side of the Tre Cime - that's the easy side!

Today was the day of decision.

Several years ago, when we first started looking at CustomWalks, the trip to the Dolomites, a portion of the Alps in Northern Italy, really appealed to me. One reason was that in my previous travels in the Alps I had never made it to the Dolomites. They are famous for beautiful scenery and have many peaks that are well known climbing objectives. But another important attraction for me was that on one of the days, they offered an option to do a via ferrata.

Via ferrata literaly means "iron way" in Italian. They are protected hiking/scrambling/climbing paths. There are fixed cables attached to the rock that you can clip into to protect yourself from falling. Sometimes there are artificial climbing aids, such as iron rungs or ladders. Via ferrata are a step above cables placed for a hiker to hold on to. The easier ones are just hikes or scrambles with some exposure, that provide protection in case you should fall. The hardest are serious climbing routes with technical difficulty and lots of exposure. The difference is that you use a self belay with the fixed protection on the route instead of placing your own protection and relying on a partner belaying you on a rope.

Starting off from the end of the road at Auronzo

Via ferratas originated in the Dolomites during WW1, when the border between Italy and Austria passed through these mountains. Incredibly, the border was fortified and battles were fought in the mountains and even on some of the summits. To allow troops and supplies to move quickly and safely among the fortifications, tunnels were dug into the mountains and cables and other aids were installed on rocks and cliffs. After the war, some of these routes were recognized as a unique way to travel in the mountains and were adopted and restored by local alpine clubs. Soon new via ferratas were being built just for recreational use. Since then they have spread throughout the Alps - to Germany, Austria, Switzerlandand France, and to the rest of Europe. They are starting to appear in North America but their growth is probably limited by US liability laws and the fact that they are banned on public lands. Via ferratas can even be found in such unusual places as Mt. Kinabalu on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, at 3776 meters it's the highest via ferrata in the world. When we lived in Singapore I always wanted to climb Mt. Kinabalu by the via ferrata but never made it. Maybe some day.

Tre Cime de Laveredo - one of the great north faces of the alps

I used to do technical climbing when I was younger although I have to admit that I was not very good. I eventually stopped not because I lost interest but because I ran out of climbing partners. They all fell victim to pressure at work, obligations with spouses and kids, or a loss of ambition combined with a gain in weight as they grew older. In middle age it turned out to be almost impossible to find people who could go to the mountains and climb. By comparison, my hunting for wargame parnters now is easy.

So I really wanted to go on this trip so I could do the optional via ferrata. I had even done a practice climb the month before on Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, about the closest I could get to a via ferrata in the western US.

Sandy wasn't too interested in doing the via ferrata but the other couple, Randy and Regina, were intrigued. Since I had the most climbing experience of the group, they were going to follow my lead to decide on whether to go or not.

Approaching the Tre Cime hut

I turned out to be a real wuss. One day I was gung ho to go. The next day I thought the weather wasn't good enough. I changed my mind about as often as possible.

I spent a lot of time online researching the route that we would do. At dinner (spaghetti, of course, as you know from reading a previous post) I proclaimed that it wasn't too hard. Randy and Regina were willing to go with my judgement and signed up. But then on The Day, it was cloudy when I woke up. My worst characteristics of vascilating on doing hikes or climbs based on uncertain weather came out. I was being completely wishy washy that morning. Finally Sandy just decided to kick my butt and said that I should go, and that she wouldn't accept any excuses.

Yes maam. I guess that settles it.

But Sandy knows me and she was absolutely right. After all this time thinking about it, I needed to at least try. I was in.

The view from the Tre Cime hut

After breakfast we split up. Sandy left with Marco and Iris, our CustomWalks trip leaders. Randy, Regina and I met our alpine guide, Kurt, at the hotel, and we rode in his car. We all drove up to the same place, the end of the toll road (yes, another private toll road) at Auronzo. There was a mountain refuge there, which was good because we all took bathroom breaks before starting out hiking. That's important when you are hiking with old people.

When we got out of the car we got several shocks. First, there were hordes of people. This was a big tourist attraction. Auronzo is the primary access point for visiting the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (three peaks of Lavaredo), one of the most famous groups of mountains in the Alps and even the world. While we were used to seeing people on our previous hikes, here there were busloads and busloads of people. Literally. There was a whole parking lot for buses and coaches and it was full. No wilderness solitude here.

Our second shock (ok, maybe it was actually our first) when we got out of the car, was that it was cold. For the past ten days we had been hot, even up in the mountains. But we were at 2333 meters, higher than we had been before. Adding to that, there was a very strong wind blowing. We didn't feel cool. We actually felt cold.

Gearing up for the climb

Sandy and I had brought along jackets and long sleeve shirts in our packs. After we put them on we were ok as we started out. Like many hikes (or even walks in the city) once we got going and got warmed up, and turned away so we weren't going straight into the wind, it didn't seem so bad. It was actually much better than the heat and humidity that we had at the beginning of our hike the day before.

We all started out together, hikers and via ferraters. Our goal was the Rifugio Locatelli (also known as the Tre Cime hut). It took us about an hour to get there. As we hiked below the cliffs of the Cima Piccola (small peak) we could see several climbing parties. Some were going up the backside, the easiest route but still incredibly steep. In fact most of the route is overhanging. Other parties were silhouetted against the sky as they climbed the east ridge route, which was even more difficult. I asked Kurt if he had ever done any of those climbs. He replied "The east ridge, a couple of times. The backside, maybe twenty times or so." Whoa. This guy was good. Really good.

From the hut Sandy would continue on with Iris and Marco. Good service - one person with two guides. I guess she was important. Or maybe just hard to handle. Randy, Regina and I would go with Kurt to the via ferrata, which started just above the hut.

The hut was in a magnificent setting. All around were spectular peaks. In the distance we could see the Croda di Rossa and the route we had hiked on day one. Then we had been looking this way and seeing the Tre Cime hut where we were now. From the Crodo di Rossa it has appeared to be just a tiny dot. In fact it was a large four storey building.

Via Ferraters - ready to go

But the view was dominated by the nearby Tre Cime group with their sheer north faces. The north face of the Cima Grande is one of the six great north faces of the alps. It was first ascended in 1933 by the brilliant rock climber Emilio Comici and the Dimai brothers in 1933. The Comici route is still considered one of the classic routes of the Dolomites. It is so steep that in the first 750, the wall overhangs by 60 feet. That's steep! It required great bravery for the first ascent because once on the face, it is extremely difficult to rappel down because it is overhanging. Once on the route, you are committed.

It was time to put on our via ferrata gear. We each had a helmet. It was primarily to protect us from rock fall but would also keep us from hitting our head if we slipped while climbing. We wore a climbing harness that had two lanyards about three feet long attached to it. At the end of each lanyard was a carabiner to clip into the cable on the route. The idea is that if you slip you are attached by the lanyards to the rock and can fall only a very short distance. The lanyards are specially designed on via ferrata gear to absorb the shock of a short fall. As you move up the rock you clip the carabiners into the cable and slide them along as you climb.

Climbing up to the notch

Of course the cable has to be attached to the mountain, so every few feet you reach an anchor point. The carabiner can't slide over it. That's why there are two lanyards. You can unclip one and leave the other attached. Then when you have clipped the first one in above the anchor, you can unclip and move the second lanyard. You never have to be unprotected. A simple but effective scheme.

As we geared up we took lots of pictures to record pur preparations. Sandy seemed to be having way too much fun at our expense. While I thought I looked intrepid Sandy said that the proper adjective was probably nerdy. I leave you to judge for yourselves from the photos. Finally all of us had our gear set. We had posed for all the pictures. We started out for the beginning of the via ferrata, leaving Sandy behind at the hut with Marco and Iris. They would spend the afternoon hiking and we would meet them back at the hotel at the end of the day.

The route that we were going to attempt was the Innerkofler/DeLuca. It is on Monte Paterno, a mountain that rises on the south side of the saddle where the Tre Cime hut is located. Although smaller than the other mountains around it, Monte Paterno is very steep and has no easy route to the top. It's summit is famous as a viewpoint, particularly since just to the southeast are the Tre Cime group.

We started hiking up the ridge. The Innerkofler is a popular via ferrata so there was a well worn climbers track. Going up the ridge we passed the Frankfurter, an unlikely looking rock spire.

Randy and I take a short pause on the route

Soon after we came to a dark cavern entrance. From that point, the route ascended in a pitch dark tunnel, climbing up stairs carved into the rock. During the first world war, the Italians held the summit of Monte Paterno while the Austrian held the lower slopes. The Austrians built an elaborate set of tunnels to make their way up the mountain to provide access for them to make assaults on the summit. We followed Kurt up the steps. While he had a headlamp there wasn't much light that got back to where I was following. Most of the way I was feeling my way up the stairs. Since the tunnel was cut through solid rock, sometimes they did not allow much headroom. Even though I ducked my head, I probably hit the ceiling a half dozen times. An unexpected via ferrata hazard. Good thing I was wearing that climbing helmet.

Sometimes the route would come out of the mountain into the open but it would usually quickly dive back into another tunnel. Although the tunnels were difficult to dig, they allowed troops to move well protected from snipers. Any part of the route out in the open on the mountain would expose soldiers to enemy fire.

Kurt and I pose at the notch - summit climbers behind us

Eventually we emerged out into the open for the last time. The tunnels took longer than I expected but we had gained a lot of elevation in the process. Even though we were in the open now, I don't have a lot of pictures of us on the cable section of the via ferrata. Since Sandy and I had split up, I let her have the iPhone to take pictures of her hike. Actually, since it was her iPhone, I guess I really wasn't letting her have it. It was hers after all. Randy and Regina did take some pictures and were kind enough to let me have some of them to include in this post. For anyone who would like to see more of our climbing route, there are a lot of photos (and probably a better written description) on this blog done by a climber who does many via ferratas.

While the tunnels had been interesting, now we were ready to start the real climbing. We could see the route going up an obvious gully to a notch near the summit. And we could see lots, and lots, of people on the route.

Taking a break on the long exposed traverse

There was a large ledge where we emerged from the tunnel and now Kurt brought out his climbing rope and had us all tie in. Even though we had our own via ferrata gear, we were going to be roped up as a safety measure. While the extra safety margin was appreciated, the rope would prove to be a real nuisance while we were climbing. We were roped up close together, so if we moved too quickly we would bump into the person ahead of us. But if we moved too slowly, we would pull the person ahead of us off balance when they tried to move forward and the rope went taught. Plus it seemed that the rope was always in the way. I was almost stepping on it (a big no no) or I was tripping over it or it was on the wrong side or something. It really was an annoyance.

Just as we were ready to go, another party came out of the tunnel. Kurt let them go ahead so we wouldn't be rushed. But while we were waiting for the first group, another group came out of the tunnel. Then another. Finally I think Kurt just said screw it and we got into line and started climbing.

Getting up to the notch was defintely the most interesting climbing on the route. It was hard scrambling with significant exposure. I was glad to be attached to the cables. At a few difficult spots, I would grab the cable to hoist myself up. This was a via ferrata, not a purist sport climb, and it's a standard practice. Going up slowly in line really wasn't a problem. But people coming down the route were, and there were a lot of them. This was definitely a popular route.

I survived - at the end of the via ferrata

There were a lot of families climbing together, with a lot of children in the eight to fifteen years old range. If I ever felt nervous about the climbing or bothered by the exposure, I just looked at the ten year old laughing and zooming up the route ahead of me.

Finally we reached the notch. We were still about 150 feet below the summit. We could see two different via ferrata routes leaving from the notch and going to the summit. But Kurt said that the summit routes were more difficult and we wouldn't be going up. It isn't part of the Innerkofel route. In fact, when via ferratas were first becoming popular, there was a deliberate attempt make to avoid going to summits. That was seen as a "cheap" way of getting to a difficult summit. Via ferrata were a sport in themselves, a "hike" along or across a vertical cliff.

Peakbagger that I am, I still felt a small twinge of guilt for being so close and not going for the summit. But I had plenty of excitement getting to the notch.

Now came the worst part of the whole day. We had to descend a steep scree gully. Anyone who has done any climbing knows what that means. And if you haven't, I can't explain it to you. Trust me. It sucks. Regina and Kurt were in the lead and set a very slow pace down which made it easier. I was very careful with each step to avoid slipping.

Sandy looks back to Monte Paterno and the Tre Cime Rifugio

When we finally made it down to where the track leveled our, we circled around the mountain and found a good spot to stop for lunch. I felt really good after the morning's climb. We had a great view of the north side of the Tre Cime. And now we were even by ourselves. Everyone else seemed to have taken a different way down, although we were on the standard route.

After lunch we started a long traverse. The path was reasonably wide, a couple of feet in most places, but we were in the middle of a huge cliff. At one point we came to a short tunnel that had a window in the rock that looked out at the Tre Cime, perfectly framed. Where was my camera? Further along we came to a seeming dead end, only to find a hole in the rock that let us pass through the ridge to the other side. It reminded me of the Peekabo hike that Sandy and I had done over spring break this year in Canyonlands National Park.

The last section involved an easy but exposed traverse along the cliff of Monte Paterno. The only difficulty came in a concealed corner where we had to drop down from the broad ledge that we were following and then climb a rock step onto another ledge. In true via ferrata style we all used the cable to help get up the rock step. Since my upper body strength isn't that good, it was tough even with the cable.

Spectacular views on the hike around the Tre Cime

Finally we reached the end of the via ferrata and it was time to unclip. It had been awesome. Now we descended another steep dirt track, very carefully, to the main trail. On the way back I had a chance to talk to Kurt quite a bit about some of the climbing he had done. He was a very interesting guy.

We stopped half way back at the Rifugio Lavaredo to have a celebratory drink. While we were sitting on the patio we watched a climbing party that was rappeling down the route on the Cime Piccolo. Because the route was so overhanging, the climber came off the wall and was hanging out about ten or twenty feet. We watched him for about fifteen minutes, along with everyone on the patio at the hut, while he struggled to get back on the wall. Cheap entertainment and definitely better than tv. When we finished our beers, we walked the rest of the way back to the car and then drove to the hotel.

Strange - Sandy passes through a field of cairns

It had been an awesome day. I loved the via ferrata. I got Kurt's business card. On the trail back to the car I started thinking about how I could get back to the Dolomites next year to do more via ferratas.

Meanwhile Sandy had been busy too. After a break at the Tre Cime hut she continued on with Marco and Iris. She completed the circuit of the Tre Cime, a world famous hike. There were distant views to spectacular mountains and an ever changing view of the Tre Cime themselves. For Sandy it was definitely a day well spent too.