By Matt Westby
Clinging to an iron cable 200ft up a vertical rock face is a bad time to realise I have vertigo. Fear envelopes me and for a moment I can’t move.
Breathe. Concentrate. All I have to do is unclip my harness from the cable and then reclip a few feet further along. It’s a routine manoeuvre and not one that should invoke anxiety. But then being scared of heights, and more pertinently falls, can do strange things to a man.
Unclip, reach, clip, shift feet, shuffle left. Not unexpectedly, I execute the move immaculately and am back on flat ground within a matter of seconds. Relief and then adrenaline flood my veins as I look over the valley of broken rock and up to a blue sky blemished only by a few whisps of cloud. It’s as close to perfection as I can imagine.
“Ready to carry on?” The call from a friend breaks my moment of contemplation and we scurry off towards the next section of cabling.
This is via ferrata in the Dolomites, Italy; climbing for dummies or hill-walking with a twist, depending on how you look at it.
It basically involves scrambling up, down, across and through the mountains using a network of walking trails and, where there’s nowhere to plant two feet firmly on the ground, iron cables bolted into the rock. The only equipment you need is a helmet, harness and an item called a lanyard with two strands and a karabiner on the end of each.
Via ferrata translates roughly to “iron highway” and the Dolomites are riddled with routes that navigate you on a breathtaking journey around one of the most spectacular mountain environments on the planet.
For anyone who has never been to the Dolomites, and in particular above their treeline, just imagine being surrounded by 20 of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familias and you won’t be far off. It’s like the peaks have been poured from above and then set solid, rather than hewn from below. The vistas are as staggering as the mountains themselves are staggered.
Our week-long trip was centred in the Brenta Dolomites, best accessed from the ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio. A calf-burning three-hour hike takes you out of the town and up to the first of many mountain huts in the range, Rifugio del Tuckett.
Cloud enshrouded us as we made the ascent but it lifted just as we arrived and the memories of looking up to the summits and then down to the valleys as we drank beers in the fading sun will live as long in the memory as the via ferrata to come.
It was early September, a brilliant time for via ferrata the Dolomites as the routes are freed of heavy summer footfall yet the weather is still pristine. During our time there, we enjoyed sunshine every day and had the range practically to ourselves.
Following a night in the hut, we set out early and rose up on to the mountain sides for the first time. The via ferrata begins just a few minutes’ walk from Rifugio del Tuckett and after clipping in we skirted around our first of many peaks, out of the chilled morning shade and into the already-warm sun.
It takes only a short time to find your rhythm with via ferrata and while there are some sections free of drop-offs where you don’t need the cables, there are others that are wickedly steep and demand you to be not only clipped in, but using both hands to clamber your way up or down.
Every corner turned in the Dolomites reveals a new, frequently better view. The route took us along one side of a giant U-shaped valley, over a pass at the far end and then down into another valley, with the process repeated a couple of times before we reached our second hut, Rifugio Alimonta.
There is a temptation to keep going just a little longer when you arrive late-afternoon but the distances between huts are both vast and littered with obstacles, so the wiser move is to grab a beer, sit outside and take in nature’s theatre.
On the third day we made our way to the southern tip of the range, this time through more difficult sections of via ferrata. Now, we were finding ourselves met by vertical climbs and scrambles over rock ledges, while elsewhere, the walking trail was only as wide as a size 10 boot, with what would be a fatal drop-off on one side. Childhood years of my parents urging me to “mind my step” suddenly assumed a modern significance.
With the greater challenges came greater rewards, for the higher we climbed the more spectacular the rock formations became. We were no longer just looking up at the spires from below, but now weaving our way up, down and in between structures that, by comparison, make Gaudi’s creations look simplistic and unimaginative.
And then, almost from nowhere, another hut appears, Rifugio Pedrotti, and this particular section of the Dolomites suddenly stops. The chaos of the pinnacles ceases and the land gently rolls down into a valley that stretches way, way into the distance. It’s another astonishing spot to watch day yield to night.
Our fourth day looped us back north to Rifugio del Tuckett over the hardest via ferrata yet: two stunningly beautiful yet precarious stretches known as Bocchette Centrali and Bocchette Alte.
We left Pedrotti early and quickly rose high up on to the shoulders of the peaks. Now, we were almost always clipped in as we navigated up ladders, over ledges, down steep chutes and, to my particular consternation, across vertical rock faces hundreds of feet high.
By midday the route had led us on to the very tops for the first time, so we stopped for snacks and took in the 360-degree panoramas of the whole range before embarking on the long downhill to our original hut.
The route remained technical but as we descended our last mountain face, another factor came into play: ice. The northern side of the peak had been in the shade all day and so walking down the steep and treacherous trail became an exercise in careful foot placement if we weren’t to slip and suffer serious injury.
We finally got off the face and on to a pass called Bocca del Tuckett. The refuge was clearly visible further down the valley, guarded by what we naively assumed from our maps to be a small patch of ice just beneath the pass, but what instead turned out to be more like a glacier running all the way to the bottom.
“No ramponi?” asked a fully kitted-out elderly Italian man who had come up the ice in the opposite direction. We hadn’t anticipated these conditions and so only had walking trainers, and certainly not crampons. Bemused, the weathered Italian furrowed his brow, said his farewells and moved on, making light work of the face we had just tiptoed down.
We tried to down-climb the rocks that flanked the ice but it was too dangerous without ropes and sufficient climbing skills, so we were instead forced to opt for rudimentary alternatives. Two of us slid down the mile-and-a-half of ice on our backsides using a rock as a handbrake, while the third picked a slow and steady route down with his hands and feet.
We laughed at our oversight as we ambled back into Rifugio del Tuckett and toasted the relief of getting out of a sticky situation with a beer.
The following morning we hiked back down to Madonna di Campiglio, truly deflated to be leaving such dynamic and delightful mountains.
Via ferrata in the Dolomites: http://www.via-ferrata.co.uk/en.via_ferrata_brenta_dolomites_italy.html