So You Want To Do Via Ferrata – Part 1 – Prerequisities

A number of people responded favourably to my photos and blogs about our recent climbing holiday in Italy, with several saying that they’d been encouraged to find out more about the sport of Via Ferrata, or wished that they could do it. I’ve decided to write some blog posts to act as an introduction for getting into the sport, and I suspect some people may find it easier to start doing than they imagined.

Who is this aimed at?

OK, so the sort of person I’m expecting to be reading this is perhaps someone who has done some amount of hill walking in places like Snowdonia, the Scottish Highlands, the Peak District or the Lake District, or perhaps even in alpine mountains. They’re probably comfortable with a bit of rough ground or basic scrambling, and want to spice things up a bit.

I’m not assuming any climbing knowledge. Having some helps, and I’ll get on to that later, but you don’t need to be a climber to get into this sport.

Am I at the right physical and mental level?

There are some straightforward prerequisites in terms of fitness and psychology that we need to get out of the way at the beginning.

The most obvious one is fitness. You will need to be “hill fit” to do this sport. There’s quite a bit of walking, and most of it isn’t flat. Many routes have significant altitude gains before they start, and often long descents. You’re going to need to be able to handle this. Since Sylvia and I live in Cambridgeshire, which is the lowest and flattest county in the UK, it’s pretty much impossible for us to maintain hill fitness here. Before we went away this year, we did a couple of vertical kilometre walks in the Peak District. They helped tremendously.

So yes, you should be comfortable with hill walking. The other thing you need to be aware of is exposure, and how you react to it. Lots of Via Ferratas (most, in fact) will feature some level of exposure. Even the simplest ones will often have you walking on easy ground with a precipitous drop to the side. The first thing to note is that on the easiest routes, it’s physically impossible to fall unless you do something stupid, so the nature of the risk is in your own reaction to exposure, rather than any actual risk of falling off a mountain.

Note, this is not true of the harder ones. You can fall and you can die on those, but the key to preventing that is to be properly prepared and have the proper skillset.

So you need to know how you respond to exposure. The first time I was exposed to a really massive drop was on a trail called Angels’ Landing in Zion National Park, Utah, US. It looks like this:

Angels' Landing, ascent from our 2008 holiday there.

Angels’ Landing, ascent from our 2008 holiday there.

Note that Angels’ Landing is not officially a Via Ferrata, but it’s often said that along with the ascent of Half Dome at Yosemite, it was one of the closest things the US has to one for a long time. Sylvia and I agree that if it had a via ferrata grade, it would be 1B.

Anyway, I first encountered this in 1997. The drop is up to 400 metres on both sides. For the first time in my life, at the age of 23, I had a panic attack. I thought I was going to die. Apparently I went a sort of pale yellow and getting me off the mountain was quite difficult.

If this is your response to exposure, you need to fix it before you do this. Having a panic attack half way along a via ferrata is … inconvenient.

The good news, as evidenced by me, is that it can be fixed!

I’ve talked to Sylvia about this and we both agree that anyone in the UK contemplating getting into this sport should have ascended Snowdon via the Crib Goch route, in good weather, and have coped with it.

Here’s Crib Coch. It’s a lot like Angels’ Landing, but colder. Sylvia and I agree that if it had a via ferrata grade, it would be 2B.

Photo of Crib Goch from the first time Sylvia and I went there in 2005.

Photo of Crib Goch, with Snowdon in the background,  from the first time Sylvia and I went there in 2005.

So yeah, you need to be able to cope with that. I understand there are similar walks in the Lake District, such as Striding Edge, but I haven’t done them personally.

Assuming you are happy with the whole hill walking thing, and know you can handle Crib Goch/Striding Edge/Angels’ Landing without going to pieces, then you’re good. Time to talk about:


You need equipment to do via ferrata. If you’ve ever climbed, some of it will be familiar to you, some may not. Don’t worry if you haven’t, as this stuff isn’t rocket science. Here are the basics that you need:

Helmet, climbing harness, via ferrata kit, gloves

Helmet, climbing harness, via ferrata kit, gloves

The first thing you need is a climbing harness. You need to know how to put one on safely, and where the strong points are and how to use one.

This is not complicated, but you need to get this right. If you’ve never worn a climbing harness before, I strongly suggest you find a local climbing wall that offers a beginner course in roped climbing and take it. It will teach you how to use a harness and the basics of climbing. You don’t need to be a climber to do via ferrata, but you do need to know how to use the equipment.

A climbing harness is essentially a belt connected via a strong loop (called the belay loop) to a pair of leg loops. They’re comfortable to wear, comfortable to walk in for extended periods, and not cumbersome. They are designed to be lightweight, unobtrusive and worn all day. They’re also designed so that if you end up dangling by the belay loop, you dangle the right way up.

You will need a helmet. Some routes feature low hanging rock that will do you a nasty injury if you bang your bare head on it. Some have people above you who kick small stones down, and you need a helmet to protect yourself. Some via ferratas go through tunnels and you’ll need to attach a head lamp to your helmet, so it’s good to have one of those too.

A via ferrata carabiner. It locks unless you squeeze both sides.

A via ferrata carabiner. It locks unless you squeeze both sides.

You’ll want gloves, because without them hauling a via ferrata cable will wreck your hands. The best gloves to use are belay gloves, sold at the same places that sell climbing harnesses. You definitely need them to be fingerless at the tips.

Perhaps most crucially, you need a via ferrata kit. In its modern incarnation, this is a pair of carabiners, specially designed so that they can’t come open by themselves (mine require you to squeeze both sides at once). Each one is attached to a piece of webbing sling, or a short length of rope. These meet at the screamer, which is your shock absorber:

My screamer, intact but unfurled from its housing.

My screamer, intact but unfurled from its housing.

My screamer, shown above, is two loops of webbing. Each one connects at one end to the carabiner slings, and at the other end to the loop that attaches to the harness. They are sewn together using stitching that is designed to start failing when there’s more than about 120N of force applied. In a fall, the rows of stitches will pop, one by one, slowing you down until you come to a halt. After this, the kit must be replaced. I hope to retire my screamer, unused, after many years of service!

The next thing you need is a good pair of shoes. At this point you might be thinking, “Ah, I’m sorted! As a hill walker I have a nice pair of sturdy high ankled boots that I can use!”

Let’s stop right there. High ankle hiking boots are absolutely not what you want for this sport. They may be useful when hiking across the bogs of Bleaklow and Kinder Scout, but on a via ferrata they are a liability (unless your via ferrata features a glacier and your boots can take a crampon, in which case they’re a necessary evil).

You need what climbers call approach shoes. These look like trainers, but aren’t. They’re a cross between technical climbing shoes, which are great for standing on tiny bits of rock, but will cripple you if you try to walk in them, and trainers, which you an walk all day in. Crucially they have low ankles, so that you are able to move all your joints and get a good angle on the rock, and soles with a mixture of a tread for walking, and smooth climbing rubber near the toes for climbing.

Courtesy of wikipedia, left to right: Two climbing shoes, approach shoes, mountain boots (with crampons)

Courtesy of wikipedia, left to right: Two climbing shoes, approach shoes, mountain boots (with crampons)

The approach shoe is the one in the middle in the above image. It looks like a trainer. Don’t use trainers: the tread will make your feet will fall off the rock and you’ll hurt yourself.

OK, so that’s the gear we need: climbing harness, via ferrata kit, helmet (with optional head lamp), gloves, approach shoes.

And you’ll need suitable clothing for alpine summer work. I use outdoor trousers and a T-shirt made of quick drying material. I’ll then carry waterproof covers for my trousers, a lightweight waterproof jacket, and if warranted, a fleece, in my backpack. Some of these routes have snow and ice on them, but you’ll be working so hard that your problem will be being too hot, not too cold.

Where can you get this stuff?

Some outdoors shops sell most of this. Not the ones that are essentially fashion shops with an outdoors theme (although you can get the clothes there – if you’re a hill walker you probably already have them though).

In Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, there are a couple of excellent shops that can outfit you, and provide advice as they really know their stuff. In the Peak District I can highly recommend Outside in Hathersage. In Cambridge, Open Air on Green Street are superb.

If you do happen to go to a climbing gym to take an introductory course, most will have a shop that sells this stuff. You can buy it there.

The only bit you may struggle to get in the UK is the via ferrata kit. They can be bought in the UK, but most places don’t stock them because it’s not really something we do here. If you can’t find one, they can be found in abundance in places that have via ferratas (you will also find a really good selection of approach shoes there too). In Corvara in the high dolomites, I thoroughly recommend Sport Kostner. The staff are knowledgeable, friendly and most speak excellent English, and they have a range of good stuff. You can literally buy everything you need there in one afternoon, and they will be happy to sell you the lot for about €500.

There’s one crucial thing I haven’t mentioned that you need:

Guide Books and Maps

Guide books are essential, as are maps. This section assumes you’ll be going to the Dolomites, which is the spiritual home of the sport (although the Austrians have built more than anyone else. Some of their can be a bit disturbing though, I’m told!)

Perhaps the best all-round English Language guide book to via ferratas in the high Dolomites is Cicerone’s Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites, Vol 1. There is also a volume 2 that deals with the surrounding area, including the spectacular Brenta Dolomites. All the routes we did this year are in Cicerone Volume 1, with the exception of Magnifici Quattro, which they haven’t updated the guide for yet.

The Cicerone books are great. They describe the routes in detail, act as a good introduction to the sport, and are very atmospheric. They are starting to get a bit dated though, but I still think they’re a must have simply because of the level of detail they go into, and because they were, for a long time, the only info available on this sport for English speakers (they invented the grading system we use too).

More recently, climbing guide book publisher, Rockfax, have published, The Dolomites – Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata. This is much more comprehensive than Cicerone, uses the same grading system, and is more up to date. It’s more of a reference guide though and doesn’t go into the same level of depth.

We also have a German language book, with partial English translations, that is extremely comprehensive and provides detailed “topo” (route information) for each via ferrata. They use the German/Austrian grading system, but the level of route detail is superb. This is Klettersteigführer Dolomiten – Südtirol – Gardasee. It covers the areas covered by both volumes of Cicerone and comes with a DVD ROM that has a copy of the book on it as well as some videos, and GPX files with coordinates for parking and start points of all the routes, so you can take route information with you on your smartphone.

The Tabacco maps and smartphone apps are excellent.

The Tabacco maps and smartphone apps are excellent.

The definitive hiking maps for the Dolomites are published by Tabacco, who do really good 1:25,000 scale leisure maps of much of the Italian Alps. They can be purchased at Stanfords in London, or at many shops out there. Tabacco also have apps for iPhone and Android that allow you to download digital copies of their maps. The app is where my route maps on my blog all come from.

In Summary

So, to summarise part 1 of my introduction: You’re a hill walker wanting to get into Via Ferrata. You should be able to do Crib Goch without freaking. You need to know how to use a climbing harness. Taking an introductory course at a climbing wall would be a really good idea. Get hold of some books and maps and start planning!

See you in part 2.


Via Ferratas From Other Via Ferratas

Just for fun, here are some VF routes we did as seen from other routes we did. The routes are drawn from memory and not expected to be 100% accurate. Where the one is lighter, it means the route goes behind the mountain as we see it.

Upper section of VF Punta Anna (from just before the wind gap as it climbs to the summit of Tofana di Mezzo) as seen from the top of VF Lipella on Tofana de Roses:


VF Punta Anna, lower and mid section a seen from the approach to VF Lipella on the lower slopes of Tofana de Roses


VF Sci Club 18 as seen from VF Punta Anna, with Cortina D’Ampezzo in the middle


VF Punta Anna/Tofana di Mezzo (all of it), in red and VF Lipella (note it’s all behind the mountain here) in blue, as seen from the start of VF Sci Club 18. Each one gains over a kilometre in elevation!


Dolomites 2017, Day 9 – VF Giovanni Lipella

All the other via ferratas we’ve done while here have been ones we’ve done before. This one has been on my “to-do” list for some time.

Ascent in yellow, descent in blue. No cable cars or ski lifts to help this time.

Ascent in yellow, descent in blue. No cable cars or ski lifts to help this time.

The Tofana group has three main peaks: Tofana di Mezzo, the highest at 3244 metres; Tofana di Dentro, connected to Mezzo by a high ridge and 6 metres shorter at 3238 metres, and Tofana de Roses, 19 metres shorter than Mezzo at 3225 metres and very much the odd one out.

Unlike Mezzo and Dentro, which can be accessed from each other with only a couple of hundred metres descent, Roses is separated from the other two by the pass of Vallon di Tofana, which runs north/south between Mezzo and Roses and forms a 900 metre deep cleft between them. That almost makes Roses feel like an entirely separate mountain.

The vast bulk of Tofana de Roses, busy making weather, seen from near Rifugio Dibona

The vast bulk of Tofana de Roses, busy making weather, seen from near Rifugio Dibona

It’s also very different in character. Mezzo and Dentro, together with Mezzo’s southern ridge, Punta Anna, rise out of the lower slopes of the massif as a thin ridge. Side-on from Cortina, they present a massive wall, soaring 2 kilometres above the town. From the south, they almost disappear as they merge into a narrow ridge.

Roses is different; it is a vast hulking presence of a mountain which, together with its massive scree-covered lower slopes utterly dominates the Cortina side of the Falzarego pass. Even though it’s shorter than the other two (just), it demands your attention. It makes its own weather, distinct from the other two, and seems to just sit there as if to say, “I AM A HUGE MOUNTAIN, LOOK HOW IMPOSSIBLY BIG I AM!” If you’ve seen Snowdon, this thing is the size of three Snowdons stacked on top of each other (from sea level). Even from its base near Cortina, it’s still 2 of them on top of each other. This is a big mountain.

And unlike the other two, there’s no cable car or ski lift to help access it. There are ways to the top of lower slopes by either walking down from the Mount Lagazuoi cable car, or taking the ski lift up the lower slopes of Tofana di Mezzo and contouring under Punta Anna using Sentiero Astaldi, as we did last week, but if you want to get up there, and down again, you have to do it all yourself.

With this in mind, we drove down from Passo Falzarego, underneath Mount Lagazuoi, where the Austrian troops used to rain down artillery on the Italian forward position at 5 Torri below in the 1st World War (and where the Italians spent years tunnelling up from below to blow the top off the mountain – the Austrians heard them coming and moved. You can now climb or descend Mount Lagazuoi in the tunnels they built), and turned left onto a single track road that led up to Rifugio Dibona, the highest you can get by car. After a while this turned to a gravel track and in places I had to slow right down to avoid grounding. I’m really glad they gave me a hybrid: in the absence of 4 wheel drive, electric traction is really good at this.

Sylvia on the increasingly narrow approach path 400 metres above the car park.

Sylvia on the increasingly narrow approach path 400 metres above the car park.

From Dibona we set out uphill, needing to gain 450 metres to reach the start of the route. We’re both getting very fit now (Sylvia and I have both dropped a dress size in the last week: our trousers keep falling down), and we steamed up here passing walkers and other climbers as we went. This generated loads of heat and we were sweating profusely by the time we passed the caves we’d explored on our day off last week.

The pine-scented path of the lower slopes gave way to scree as we reached the base of the mountain proper, and the path became narrower and more precarious.

Ruins of WWI barracks at the entrance to the tunnels

Ruins of WWI barracks at the entrance to the tunnels and the start of the ferrata

Eventually we passed an obvious world war 1 observation point, carved into the side of the mountain, and round the corner came upon the ruins of wooden ladders used to reach tunnels that the Italian army had dug into Roses western flank, presumably to try and see what the Austrians were doing on Lagazuoi.

The ferrata starts by climbing through these old World War 1 tunnels. The tunnels are accessed via stemples placed in the rock by what’s left of the original wooden ladders, now over a century old, and enters via the ruins of a small hut, nestled into a rock crevice where the Austrian troops wouldn’t be able to see it (if they managed to spot what the Italians were doing, one well aimed artillery shell and it would all be over).

We entered the tunnels and started to climb, inside the mountain. I remember reading The Two Towers as a kid and finding the Moria passages deeply evocative. These guys did it for real, several times. The tunnels here aren’t as extensive as the Lagazuoi tunnels (there’s miles of those), but there are still the remains of entire barracks and command rooms they dug out of the solid, unyielding limestone in what must have been appalling conditions. Even in later July it was cold. The tunnels were cramped and steep, and while the lower sections have a modern steel staircase installed, the upper sections do not.

Inside the tunnels, lit only by our helmet torches. Turn them off and it's inky black.

Inside the tunnels, lit only by our helmet torches. Turn them off and it’s inky black.

We spent some time looking at the ruins, and expressing our mutual horror at what those young men must have gone through a century ago. It truly defies imagination. World War 1 is still a big deal around here: there are extensive ruins and, with the trenches hewn out of solid limestone and still here it seems to have left a lasting trauma to match the lasting impression it left on the landscape (they blew the top off a mountain!)

The tunnels are steep and we gained over 200 metres inside them alone. In places we had to duck, and apart from the occasional glimpses of daylight where small observation slots were dug (these were dangerous: the Austrians were looking for them), the tunnels were utterly devoid of light, save that provided by our helmet torches. At one point the tunnel crosses an obvious fault line and the roof has been propped up by thick wooden supports to prevent a cave-ins. This ferrata will get you if you’re scared of heights or enclosed spaces, and is not a climb for the nervous!

After about 20 minutes we emerged, blinking, into daylight, and I was able to turn my Fuji X100 camera back from 6400 ISO to 200 ISO and set it for “sunny 16” exposure again. There’s now a bit of a down climb on some ageing via ferrata cable to meet the alternate approach route from the Mount Lagazuoi direction, which avoids the tunnels. There’s been an extensive modernisation effort over the last few years on all the via ferratas in the High Dolomites and there are precious few sections of older style protection left. This pleases me, because the newer stuff is of a much better design. The old stuff survives in tiny patches like here. The rest of this route is in the new (safer) style.

The end of the tunnels. Who turned on the lights? This presumably afforded a good view of the Austrian guns.

The end of the tunnels. Who turned on the lights? This presumably afforded a good view of the Austrian guns.

The short down climb leads you to a broad ledge. It leads north along the western face of Roses for about 500 metres, getting slowly narrower as it does. There is nothing, yet, to trouble anyone with even the slightest tolerance of heights, but that will come. A few hundred metres in front of us, we spotted two more groups, one large and one small.

Eventually you come to the cable. If you’ve opted for the approach that bypasses the tunnel, this is the first time you’ll need your VF kit, and so it was that the smaller group was stopped here, in the latter stages of gearing up. It seemed to be a married couple, and the man was giving us death stares as we made for the cable in front of him, while he rushed to do up his harness.

I guess he resented the idea that we would “queue jump” and slow him down. I got on cable first and started to climb. Sylvia followed, and the man, his irritation leaking from him, tried to make a point by catching Sylvia up.

Well he tried to. The thing is, we’re both bloody good at this, and other things being equal, we beat guidebook time on cable sections. This is a Cicerone Grade 4C ferrata, so you get people on it who would be scared off a 5 or 6. We do 5s and 6s, so this is our bread and butter. We left them both in the dust while he presumably seethed at being “chicked”. Chalk one up for the women.

Sylvia on one of the protected ledge sections. She's stepping over a crevice that's ... well, who cares how deep it is after the 1st 100 metres? It's deep.

Sylvia on one of the protected ledge sections. She’s stepping over a rock crevice that’s … well, who cares how deep it is after the 1st 100 metres? It’s deep.

The character of this route soon became apparent. It heads north, along the west face. It follows a ledge for some time, then climbs up to the next ledge, and repeats. The climbs are always cabled. The ledges sometimes are and sometimes aren’t. The guidebooks all describe this as seemingly never ending, and it’s certainly true that you get a lot of cable for your money (er, entry to these is free – ed). This suits me fine: gaining height on a via ferrata cable is far faster and more energy efficient than doing it by walking.

One of the unprotected ledges. There are a lot of these, and some are narrower than this. Caveat emptor.

One of the unprotected ledges. There are a lot of these, and some are narrower than this. Caveat emptor.

This is, however, not a route for those scared of heights. It’s already done claustrophobia with the tunnels. Now it’s going to throw acrophobia at you.

It’s actually nowhere near as exposed as the Punta Anna route that we did 2 days prior, but paradoxically the vast scale of Tofana de Roses makes it easier to capture the vertigo in photographs. A few years ago I’d reached the point where I could handle exposure as long as I was on cable, but cried at short un-cabled sections. If I’d done this route a few years ago, I fear I would have had some sort of acute mental health crisis (not joking). Don’t do this route (or Punta Anna) if you can’t cope with unprotected exposure. Seriously, just don’t – it could literally frighten you to death.

After a few repetitions of the “walk along ledge, climb to next one, repeat” cycle, we caught up with the large group we’d seen earlier. Turns out there were 7 of them, and they followed the usual pattern of having the most able climber at the front, the slowest and most nervous member in the middle, and a spotter bringing up the rear to help.

It’s good etiquette to let faster groups pass you where possible, especially on long routes like this (and on Punta Anna, where you’re racing to get the cable car down, it’s downright rude not to). I’ve noticed a dynamic that seems to happen in these situations, and this was no exception.

You come up behind the spotter and stop, one cable length back. The spotter is helping the slow member with a difficult climbing section. They then move up. You follow, passing the difficult section at speed. The spotter then realises you’re faster than their group and offers to let you pass.

The group we'd just overtaken, on the next ledge section.

The group we’d just overtaken, on the next ledge section as we moved away from them.

This is what happened here. I thanked her and unclipped from the cable(!) I then went round the bulk of their group, at some speed, using the cable as a handrail but not clipped on to it (I’m perfectly happy to do this on easy climbing sections, but won’t unclip anywhere I feel there’s a danger of me falling)

Zoe has told me, on occasion, that I seem to have an ability to switch gravity off. I guess that’s what I did here as I raced past the group members. I wasn’t showing off, I just wanted to get out of their way, and get on with the climb. Sylvia started to follow me.

Now the second part of the dynamic takes hold: you reach the leader of the group, who is the best climber, and usually a man (this makes me sad – the most impressive ferratist I’ve ever seen was a young woman who overtook me on Magnifici Quatro’s headwall – massive respect due and a privilege to watch that level of skill).

The man will be annoyed, not knowing his spotter invited you to pass the group. He sees himself as the leader and should be the one to make these decisions, but he can’t because he’s at the front. However, since his group is now split in two by the presence of a pair of interlopers in the middle, he has no choice but to let you pass.

So we did, and got on with our day as we increased the distance between us and their group. This was made easier by us not bothering to clip on many of the protected ledge sections, instead using the cable as a handrail, or single clipping, both of which are faster (but obviously less safe: judgement needed) than the full double clip action.

Near the junction, where we had a snack. The drop here is about 700 metres: about 650 more than needed to turn you to a red smear.

Near the junction, where we had a snack. The drop here is about 700 metres: about 650 more than needed to turn you to a red smear.

Eventually, about 2 and 1/2 hours after we started, a climb section led to a junction as the west face started to turn to become the north face. This is a good point for an escape section, as north faces can be icy, even in summer. The left fork led round the north face to meet up with the main descent path from the summit. The right fork switched back above our previous route and continued the ferrata. We stopped here and had some chocolate and dried fruit before turning right and continuing on.

The unprotected ledge leading to the massive bowl. Note there are 2 other climbers in this photo (click to enlarge). Looks like they overtook the big group too.

The unprotected ledge leading to the massive bowl. Note there are 2 other climbers in this photo (click to enlarge). Looks like they overtook the big group too.

At this point we were at 2700 metres and had been gaining height much more rapidly than on this ferrata’s “sister route” of Punta Anna, two days prior. This was about to have consequences. The route continued on an entirely unprotected high ledge for some time, round into a massive scree bowl below the summit. Although we’d turned away from the north face proper at the junction, the curvature of the bowl created another north face here, and there were a lot of little meltwater waterfalls from the recent snow doing their best to drench us as we started to climb steeply upwards on the final, but very long cable section.

Climbing in the big bowl. At the bottom left you can just see the group we overtook earlier.

Climbing in the big bowl. At the bottom left you can just see the group we overtook earlier.

That’s when it hit us. Somewhere around 2800 metres I started to feel light headed, almost drunk. Sylvia was struggling on the more powerful moves too. We were both short of breath, and recognised what might be the initial signs of acute mountain sickness (AKA altitude sickness).

This confused us. We’d gone to over 3200 metres on Tofana di Mezzo 2 days prior and, while a little short of breath, were basically fine. Yet here we were both developing symptoms (albeit mild – if they were serious we’d have attempted to downclimb) 400 metres lower than that. Given our proximity to the end of the ferrata, which stops at 3000 metres, 200 below the summit, we decided to carry on climbing and reevaluate at the end of the cable.

As we approached, our symptoms started to ease and we developed a theory as to why this had happened. On VF Punta Anna, most of the strenuous hard work is lower down, between 2500 and 2700 metres. The climbing on Punta Anna is technical, slow and difficult and you have a decently long walk along the flat top of Punta Anna around 2700 metres before starting to climb, gradually, again.

This gives time to acclimatise. Lipella, despite seeming to go on forever, is actually a shorter ferrata and gains height quickly and relentlessly. The climbing out of the bowl, while technically easier, is still strenuous. It throws the altitude at you more quickly, and makes you work hard while doing it.

End of the ferrata and, 200 metres above us, the summit.

End of the ferrata and, 200 metres above us, the summit.

As a result, our metabolisms took a little time to catch up. Once they did, we were fine.

Suddenly we rounded a corner and the summit appeared in front of us. A couple of minutes later and the ferrata ended at a plaque commemorating the life of Giovanni Lipella, the mountain guide after whom the route is named.

The way to the summit was now clear, but the mountain here is shaped like an aerofoil and it was taking the prevailing wind and accelerating it hard over the ridgeline, where at least part of the path went. The clouds were being squeezed over the summit itself and sped up so they looked like one of those time lapses, only in real time. The wind was howling, yet if we moved 5 paces onto the other side of the ridge, it stopped completely. Aerodynamics is weird.

There were a couple of groups up there, having conversations, apparently about the wisdom of going to a point summit where the wind could literally pick them up and suck them into oblivion. Time was getting on, we still had a long walk down back to the car, and frankly the wind was bothersome. Given we’d already summited Tofana’s main peak 2 days earlier, had completed the ferrata, and had made it to the psychologically important 3000 metre mark (and climbed more than a thousand metres from the car), we decided to head down the descent path.

More importantly, unusually for a Dolomite summit, there was nowhere to buy beer up here.

Amazing view of Tofana di Dentro (left) and Tofana di Mezzo (right) from the descent path.

Amazing view of Tofana di Dentro (left) and Tofana di Mezzo (right) from the descent path.

“Path” is a bit optimistic for what this is. The sloping north face is dotted with cairns. How you get between them is up to you. There were quite a few people around, many seemingly having tried to summit by walking up the ferrata’s descent path. Rather them than me; as I said previously, gaining height on cable is much more energy efficient. Walking up, especially on this shifting and annoying north face scree slope, must have been soul destroying and exhausting.

The ruins of Rifugio Cantore

The ruins of Rifugio Cantore

Quite a few of them, while attempting to descend, were literally falling on their arses.

We walked, scree surfed and boulder hopped our way down, passing the walkers who had no inkling of the howling gale they were about to encounter as they turned onto the summit ridge. The view is amazing though. You can see Tofana di Mezzo, the summit of which we’d stood on 2 days prior, Tofana di Dentro, and its terrifyingly named subsidiary peak, Nemesis. The best bit was looking north and east though, where we could literally see for hundreds of kilometres, into Austria and probably into Switzerland. Far, far off in the distance were the 4000+ metre monster alps with their permanently glaciated pyramidal summits. Here we were among the clouds on the roof of Europe, and it was amazing!

Cheers! We normally do this at the summit, but needs must. Also it's Heineken which is rough compared to the local stuff

Cheers! We normally do this at the summit, but needs must. Also it’s Heineken which is rough compared to the local stuff

The descent proceeded quickly until we came to the pass at the Vallon di Tofana. There we found the ruins of Rifugio Cantore, along with some very well preserved World War 1 ruins which were presumably some kind of forward command post for the Italian troops. Nearby we heard the generator of Rifugio Guissani, situated right in the saddle of the pass, and made our way there for a beer. We were now half way down our kilometre descent.

Beer finished, we continued down a path that quickly turned into a very easy 4 wheel drive accessible track that allowed us to lose altitude rapidly without too much stress on our poor middle aged knees.

Pretty soon we passed the junction with Sentiero Astaldi, which we’d used to access this part of the mountain several days ago, and not long after the descent path met the ascent path we’d used over 7 hours earlier.

We’d done it! 8 hours round trip (including beer time), a long desired ferrata ticked off the list, and a second vertical kilometre in 3 days. Thoroughly enjoyable, and the scale of the whole thing is amazing.

It’s a very different feel to its sister route on Punta Anna/Tofana di Mezzo. The whole ledges thing is more typical of ferrata routes in the Brenta group, west of the Adige valley and over towards the colossal Mount Ortler (which I’m sure was one of the huge mountains we’d seen from near the summit), and the tunnels give it a lot of variety. I’ll definitely do this one again, but Punta Anna is one I will keep coming back to again and again until I’m physically incapable.

Dolomites 2017, Day 7 – VF Punta Anna/Tofana di Mezzo

This is the via ferrata we wanted to do a few days ago but were scared off by thunderclouds forming on the peaks. It ascends the south ridge of Tofana di Mezzo, the third highest peak in the Dolomites (3044m), initially via the south ride of its subsidiary peak, Punta Anna, and then via the south ridge and nearby east and west flanks of the mighty Tofana di Mezzo itself.

The route, with salient points marked.

The route, with salient points marked.

We got an early breakfast, jumped in the car and arrived at the car park at Ristorante Pie Tofana by about 9. Once again we bought singles on the two ski lifts up to Rifugio Pomedes, located where the grassy slopes of the Tofana massif give way to unyielding limestone cliffs, and jumped aboard. It was cold, only about 7º by the time we reached Rifugio Pomedes, and we had our coats on. Aware that snow had fallen over the last day, and that the summit was still above the freezing line, we had brought our ice axes in case we had to cross any big deposits of snow. Thankfully this turned out to be unnecessary.

So about the via ferrata. It’s graded 5C in the Cicerone system, which means it requires both expert climbing skills (the 5 bit) and expert mountaineer skills (the C bit).

The eastern flank of Punta Anna, one of Tofana's smaller peaks. The ascent route follows the ridge line.

The eastern flank of Punta Anna, one of Tofana’s smaller peaks. The ascent route follows the ridge line.

This is not like the other routes we’ve done so far this holiday. It’s not an excursion on cable up a part of a mountain. This is proper mountaineering. It’s climbing an alp, all the way to the summit, and not an insignificant one either. Tofana is a serious mountain and commands respect. Doing this lightly would be extremely dangerous.

Nobody can quite agree whether this is 2 via ferratas attached end to end, or one big one with escape routes in the middle. It is called three different things on the map: Punta Anna, then Olivieri, and finally Tofana di Mezzo, but increasingly people are just calling the whole thing, “Via Ferrata Punta Anna”. However, lots of people do the lower part of the route (up to Punta Anna) as a half day ferrata, and then either descend down the west flank to Rifugio Guissani, nestled between Tofana di Mezzo and Tofana de Roses, or via a steep path down the slopes of Torre de Pomedes to either the 2nd cable car station of the Tofana cable car (“Freccia Nel Ciello”, which translates to The Arrow In The Sky), or back to Rifugio Pomedes.

This can be a problem because there is a certain time pressure to this VF. The descent from the summit is, realistically, only practical by The Arrow In The Sky. The last cable car departs the summit at 4:50pm. Your options if you arrive after that are either descend on foot (not nice, at all), or sleep in the cable car station (cold, but they leave it unlocked and there is a bunk bed in there).

In fact, the young English couple we met on Sci Club 18 said they miscalculated and made it to the top of this ferrata after the cable car closed. Apparently sleeping in there was very, very cold.

So yeah, you get large groups on the lower part of the ferrata, and they move at the speed of the slowest member. Overtaking is difficult and requires the group to cooperate, which they usually won’t do. If you reach escape point 2 (you only go beyond this point if you intend to summit), after 2pm, you are at serious risk of getting stuck up there.

The view down valley from the approach path at Rif Pomedes. Unlike Sunday there are no thunderclouds forming.

The view down valley from the approach path at Rif Pomedes. Unlike Sunday there are no thunderclouds forming.

That’s why we arrived as early as possible. It turned out that we were the second group to arrive at the approach. The first, as we later found out, were 3 members of the Greek Mountaineering Society. They were quite high on Punta Anna when we got there and it seemed we wouldn’t catch them up (we did, but not until much later). We walked up the steep, but short approach path to the base of the climb and hit the cables at 9:50am.

Punta Anna starts with the exposure early. Get used to it, it gets a lot worse.

Punta Anna starts with the exposure early. Get used to it, it gets a lot worse.

The initial climb is fairly easy going, and soon leads to an exposed ascending ledge up towards the ridge line. Anyone wanting to do this route had better get used to the exposure because it features a lot. This route is “airy”, seriously so and if heights really bother you, do something else.

As we made our way up the ledge, we noticed another couple starting some way behind us. It turned out that our three groups were the summit club for today. They almost caught us, but not quite. In the event, all 3 groups moved at much the same speed: fast.

The route then has fairly easy climbing towards the ridge line. It’s recently been completely recabled (this was in progress when we last climbed it 4 years ago), and the protection is now excellent, apart from one spot where the peg has come out! It’s at the end of a cable section (the new cabling seems to have frequent breaks, presumably to make overtaking easier), and we couldn’t find the hole it came out of. It must have been taken out in a rockfall. We climbed that bit unprotected: no big deal.


Two huge groups approach the base of the ferrata. That's why we start early: summit blockers!

Two huge groups approach the base of the ferrata. That’s why we start early: summit blockers! You might need to click to see the big image to see them.

The route continues to climb towards the ridge line. At about half an hour in, we noticed two massive groups approaching the ferrata from the rifugio. We never saw them again, and presumably they did the first section and then bailed. If we’d got stuck behind them we’d have been screwed.

The route continues to ascend, getting harder as it goes. At about 45-60 minutes in, after it’s taken you onto the western flank, you suddenly reach the crux section. The cable takes you to the ridge line, which at this point is a knife edge, and then forces you to thrust yourself out into space, which hauling upwards on it. At this point there is void on three sides, and a near vertical climb worthy of the Ski Club right in front of you. If the previous bit of exposure made you nervous, this will probably cause a panic attack! It’s possibly the most exposure I’ve encountered on a via ferrata. There’s … nothing, just void, in most directions, and it’s a long way down. I tried to capture this in a photograph but I just can’t do it justice. It’s basically the distilled essence of vertigo.

Sylvia on the steep crux section. This photograph does not do it justice. The exposure is hundreds of metres.

Sylvia on the steep crux section. This photograph does not do it justice. The exposure is hundreds of metres.

The climbing is hard for the next hundred metres or so, and continues to be extremely exposed. As we made our way up, it started to snow (just a few flakes, or as the Cambridge News would call it, “a whiteout blizzard that paralyses the city”). I imagine it was falling in Cortina, fully a mile below us, as rain.

We topped out the crux section, and several more ridge line difficult airy vertical climbs in the gentle snow, which left us on the western flank, near the top. As we approached the summit of Punta Anna (traversing an exposed-as-all-buggery ledge), we noticed the pair behind us had gained a bit of ground and were just coming off the ridge line.

This starts to give you an idea of the exposure, but still doesn't do justice to the sheer "fuck me, that's a long way down" nature of it.

This starts to give you an idea of the exposure, but still doesn’t do justice to the sheer “fuck me, that’s a long way down” nature of it.

The ground soon became much easier as Punta Anna flattened out and approached the point where it joins Tofana di Mezzo’s south face. We were on the western flank at this point, and the strata slopes down, so you have to keep stepping up or you’ll get led down the side of the mountain, possibly onto very dangerous ground. Eventually you come to a fork. This is escape point 1. Left goes down into the pass between Tofana di Mezzo and Tofana de Roses, right continues the ascent.


Sylvia on the airy slab. That’s Punta Anna below, in the background. Anyone falling from here would fall for a long time.

A couple of minutes after this sees you start to climb rapidly on an airy (I’m using that word a lot) slab, onto the south face of Tofana di Mezzo itself. It’s steep, but the rock is glorious. It’s also at the point where the prevailing wind gets funnelled up the aforementioned pass and speeds up as it escapes out over the top. This lead to a shouted discussion between us about how strong the wind had to be to blow a climber off their feet and to their doom.

It was also bloody cold. We were approaching the freezing line, being well above 2800 metres by this point.

The slab gets steeper and steeper until it leads to a narrow precarious ledge, with a 500 metre drop to the side. In front of, and slightly below us was the bulk of Torre de Pomedes, coming in to meet the eastern flank of Tofana di Mezzo. Suddenly the ledge spread out at the meeting point on the shoulder of the mountain. The route forked again, with a steep path coming up from the scree slope behind Torre de Pomedes. This is the second escape route and realistically your last chance to leave if you don’t intend to summit. If you treat this as two via ferratas, this is the join.

The ridge just above the second escape point.

The ridge just above the second escape point.

We stopped and I ate some chocolate. We’d made it here in 2 hours, which was really stunningly good going. For now the route was a walk, turning left and heading straight up the sloping, scree covered east face of Tofana di Mezzo to a path along the ridge. Occasionally there were climbs to be made, but there is nothing like the technical difficulty of the Punta Anna stuff here. Ladders and stemples are provided while you get used to the altitude: you’re close to 3000 metres at this point.

The wind gap

The wind gap

The ridge becomes rocky and the path leaves it, descending slightly down the western flank along a surprisingly wide ledge (Tofana, you spoil us) as we approached the “Wind Gap”. The ridge line turns sharply here and becomes an east facing buttress. There is a gap of about 10-15 metres between that and a cliff face that leads up to the southern summit ridge of Tofana di Mezzo. There’s a scree deposition crossing it, with a narrow path on top and drop-offs to either side.

Oh yeah, and it’s unprotected. As if that wasn’t enough, on the other side we were faced with a sheer cliff which had about 20 metres of strenuous and difficult climbing. Suddenly the technical difficulty of earlier is back, with a vengeance, only this time there’s really not a lot of oxygen. Sylvia mocked me for making loud gurning noises as I hauled myself up, and then promptly did the same.

The next few things happen fast. Suddenly the ferrata forks. The left fork is a short out-and-back to the top of Torrione Gianni, a rock pinnacle with a nice view all around. If there are a lot of people on the ferrata, it’s worth doing this as there will be a queue in front of you for what comes next.

There wasn’t anyone else around, so we proceeded to what is, if not the route’s crux, its crowd pleaser. This is a traverse round Torrione Gianni on cable. There is a 200 metre (at least) sheer drop below you and your feet are on, at best, a ledge that is 10cm wide. In places it vanishes to nothing and you have to step on steel pegs sticking out of the rock. Last time we did this I saw it make grown men deeply frightened. See for yourself, I took video:

Please excuse my heavy breathing. The air is very thin up there and I had to work to get enough oxygen.

Immediately after the traverse, we crossed the top of a limestone arch. This is “the window” and the third and final  escape route. It leads down, through the arch, and then down a steep and unpleasant looking scree slope to the pass between Tofana di Mezzo and Tofana de Roses, far, far below. I wouldn’t want to use it.

From here, you can see the summit cable car station, deceptively close.

Sylvia, on the new cable section high on the western flank of Tofana di Mezzo.

Sylvia, on the new cable section high on the western flank of Tofana di Mezzo.

What happened next confused us. In 2013, when we last did this, the route pretty much stopped being a ferrata and turned into a scramble up a large bowl on Tofana’s east face, climbing up scree through old battered avalanche fences. This time, a painted arrow directed us round and down, just next to the window, onto the western flank.

The moment I started to descend I was hit fully in the face by a wind that was driving frozen rain and pelting me with it. This was unpleasant, but didn’t last long. The path led to a completely new section of ferrata with some fun climbing on the west flank. This is far better than the previous route, and makes my favourite ferrata even more rounded.

The limestone arch, modelled by a member of the Greek climbing team.

The limestone arch, modelled by a member of the Greek climbing team.

The top of this climb took us to a big limestone arch, with icicles hanging from its roof. It was here we caught up with the Greek climbing team, who were impressively far ahead when we started 4 hours previously.

Once through the arch and up a shiny new ladder, we rejoined the old route (we could see a bit of the old ferrata coming in from the left) which still has the last of the previous cabling. It’s in a bad way and I hope they replace it soon. It’s also not very long and leads to an unprotected scramble for the summit. This would be very easy were we not at 3200 metres and, in the thin air, finding it very hard work.

20 minutes or so scrambling and then we come up to a fence. This is the limit of the little walkabout area around the summit from the cable car station. We’d done it! We scrambled the last little bit to the summit cross, where the Greeks were kind enough to take our photo.

We made it! The summit cross is dedicated to those who last their lives in the 1st world war.

We made it! The summit cross is dedicated to those who last their lives in the 1st world war.

From the summit cross, it was a short walk down to the upper cable car station where, after walking past the bunk bed by the entrance and sniggering, beer was waiting.

The upper cable car station, and bar. This is where James Bond met his contact in "For Your Eyes Only"!

The upper cable car station, and bar. This is where James Bond met his contact in “For Your Eyes Only”!

We had ascended a thousand metres to 3244m above sea level: the third highest mountain in the Dolomites. It had taken us 4 hours and 40 minutes, beating the guidebook time by 50 minutes. Given that the guide book was written by two disturbingly fit German mountain guide hero types, and we’re a couple of bumbly middle aged women from the flatlands, we felt justifiably proud of that. We drank our beer and looked out at Cortina, over 2 vertical kilometres below us.

Beer duly drank and ferrata kits duly packed into our bags (this is one rifugio one can feel perfectly justified wandering into still kitted up), we bought tickets to descend 2 of the 3 cable lengths to Col Drusié, stepped into the Arrow In The Sky and started to descend. This afforded us a great view of the last bit of our route:


If you look carefully, you can see some of the avalanche fences below the limestone arch.

The air got thicker and warmer very quickly. My ears popped every few seconds. Then we were approaching the intermediate station at Rifugio Ra Vales. The attendants quickly ushered us into the car for the central section of the Arrow In The Sky, and we continued our descent. A couple of minutes later we were at Col Drusié. Any further and we’d end up in Cortina. Instead we exited the station, walked a short distance down the road (it’s a ski piste in winter), and found ourselves at the chairlift where we’d bought one way tickets 7 hours earlier. The car was right where we left it.

Back to the hotel and straight into the sauna. We climbed an alp, a big one, and it was awesome!

Dolomites 2017, Day 6 – VF I Magnifici Quatro

So I think I mentioned yesterday that via ferratas used to be graded from 1 to 5. There are actually multiple grading systems in existence. The one that’s popularly used in English speaking countries is the one invented by guide book writer Cicerone, and since adopted by the Rockfax guides. The way it started out was each route would have a numeric grade from 1 to 5, and an alphanumeric grade from A to C.

The numeric grade describes the technically difficulty of the VF. From Cicerone, “Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites, Volume 1”:

  1. Easy routes with limited climbing, suitable for the young and inexperienced. They require a head for heights and sure-footedness.
  2. Straightforward routes for the experienced mountain walker or scrambler with a head for heights.
  3. Rather more difficult routes, not recommended for the novice. Complete freedom for vertigo, sure-footedness and competence with the use of self belay equipment needed.
  4. Demanding routes, steep rock faces requiring a fairly high standard of technical climbing ability.
  5. Routes of the highest technical standard and suitable only for the most experienced ferratist.

Then there’s the alphabetic grade, which describes the seriousness of the mountain conditions. A is straightforward outings in unthreatening terrain, B requires a degree of mountain experience, C requires experienced mountaineering skills and a mishap could have “the most serious consequences”.

To put this into context, VF Brigata Tridentina, which we did as our warm up, is graded 3B. That’s pretty much the definition of “generic, middle of the road via ferrata”. Vf Sci Club 18, which beat us up, is a 5B. VF Punta Anna, which we wanted to do on Sunday but bailed due to the weather, is a 5C. The one we pottered around the waterfalls on is a 1A.

This all worked fine.

Then someone built VF I Magnifici Quatro (The Magnificent Four)

VF I Magnifici Quatro (from here on, “M4”) is graded 6B. They literally had to invent a new grade for this bugger because 5 really didn’t cut it. It might give you the idea that it was as “easy” as the Sci Club (briefly the most technically difficult VF in the high Dolomites), and that would never do.

M4 is quite literally in a category of its own. My uncharitable description of it, after doing it today, is “a brutal via ferrata in a hole that alternates between being dusty and muddy and which keeps trying to kill you”.

Sylvia and I did it in 2013, when we were at the top of our climbing game, and we aced it. Today went less well, but we were OK.

It’s appropriate to explain where the name comes from. 4 mountain rescuers went out on Boxing Day in 2009 and never returned. These heroic individuals were killed in an avalanche. The via ferrata was built in their memory.

It was built to be, without question, the single most technically difficult ferrata in the high Dolomites, probably the most technically difficult one in Italy, and one of the hardest in the world (the Austrians have a ludicrous one called VF Adrenaline).

It does not disappoint.

You are advised to take a rope with you. We did, in case we needed to retreat by abseil, use it to assist ourselves, or potentially rescue someone else who’s got stuck. My pack was heavy via 30 metre rope and some extra bits of metal to use it effectively though.

Here’s the overview:

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Maps

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Maps

The first thing that should be noted is that the ferrata is not where the map says it is. The markers were added by me to the app in 2013 because at that point, it hadn’t appeared on the maps yet. Now it has, but it’s in the wrong place.

You’ll also notice there’s no descent route marked. That’s because we cheated. More on that later.

Lengthy drive from Corvara, into the Val di Fassa, which is on the opposite corner of the Sella Group: the roundabout of the Dolomites. This meant having to go over two passes, including using the highest paved road in the Dolomites, at Passo Pordoi.

A descent of Pordoi took us to the busy town of Canazei, where they have police officers standing in the middle of Zebra crossings, directing traffic and vastly increasing the chance someone (them) will get hit. Have to say, I prefer Corvara, which is more centrally located and isn’t heaving all the time. I also had a bad experience with a hotelier who seemed to be the Italian version of Basil Fawlty there many years ago, and I’ve gone off the place ever since.

Faded sign of doom!

Faded sign of doom!

A short drive down the Val di Fassa takes us to the pretty town of Pozza di Fassa, where we turn left and start the drive up the side valley of S. Nicolo. After ascending about 200m from Pozza, we park at a chapel and start walking.

A side path soon appears by a small wooden hut, which has a nice carved wooden sign on it announcing the Ferrata, with a faded note underneath where I could just about read the English words, “Extremely difficult”.

Pretty alpine wildlife

Pretty alpine wildlife

The approach now becomes a pleasant woodland path (the entire ferrata is below the tree line) which gets steeper and steeper and ends up being reminiscent of the punishing approach to Sci Club 18, with a series of short, steep switchbacks which bring you closer to the cliff face, metre by agonising metre, but never seem to actually get you there. At least it’s in pretty pine woods though: it smells lovey and we can admire the wildlife.

Then suddenly we enter a huge cleft in the rock, that goes up fro about a hundred metres and overhangs at the top. The soil gives way to rocks, covered in dust, which turns to mud where water is seeping out of the mountain side. M4 is many things, but a climb on a cliff face with stunning views it’s not. You do most of your climbing in big dusty/muddy holes.

It’s time to gear up and get going. It immediately throws a slight overhang at us, which relies on powerful cable hauling. Get used to this, as it’s going to become a theme.

After that it becomes less steep, but awkward for a few metres, and then suddenly there’s this nasty thrutchy move across a crevice onto another slightly overhanging cliff face with a big loop of wire stuck into it. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to get your foot into the wire.

By this point the climber will notice the unusual protection. Sci Club 18 innovated with rubber bumpers on the pegs (OK, it wasn’t quite the first, but they were new at the time). M4 has a couple of other innovations. Many of the pegs terminate in almost closed hooks which you can thread your rope through if you want to belay a following climber. You could probably even use these to pitch it as a sport aid climb, although I’ve never heard of anyone trying this.

The other innovation is that the pegs, instead of being straight, curve down at the end and run parallel to the cable for a few centimetres. This is presumably to avoid impaling yourself on the open end of one if you fall, and seems like a clever idea, but as I discovered later, there’s a problem with these.

Anyway, after getting my foot in the cable, I climbed a few very awkward and very steep sections, where the ferrata couldn’t make its mind up which side of the cable I was supposed to be on. This is poor design, frankly. This is followed by an airy traverse where I have to trust the cable as I haul myself over the void. After this, we both find ourselves in the first of M4’s 2 big set pieces:

The Grande Dom

I assume it means “big dome”, but the other interpretation is valid because M4 is about to beat the shit out of you. Here’s how this works: you step up awkwardly onto a stemple under a slight overhang, smack your head on the rock above you (thank goodness for helmets), wiggle about in the crack, and then you are confronted with the crux of the whole ferrata.

I mentioned the Cicerone/Rockfax grading system. There’s another popular one, mainly used in Germany, which grades each section of cable on a Ferrata from A to E. The ferrata then gets the technical grade of its highest section:

A is “easy” – walking, basically.

B is “moderate” – scrambling, exposure.

C is “difficult” – climbing up to vertical, some small overhangs.

D is “very difficult” – long sections of vertical rock, proper climbing technique needed.

That’s where pretty much every via ferrata in the high Dolomites stops. Sci Club 18, which gave us a good kicking a few days earlier, has precisely 2 D sections along its entire 400m length. There are lots of C/D sections.

Sci Club 18 is a very hard ferrata.

Just to get here, we’ve already done 3 D sections. Now here’s the grading for each cable section in the Grande Dom: D E E D D C/D.

Yes, there’s a grade E. It is described thus:

E is “extremely difficult” – at a bare minimum, vertical rock with no stemples. Severe overhangs. Considerable power and training required.

And M4 is about to throw 2 of them at us, consecutively.

Yes, this image is the right way up.

Yes, this image is the right way up.

So yeah, we’ve just done the D. The 2 Es are short, but extremely strenuous severe overhangs with just cable (no stemples). I hauled my way up the first and then managed to heel hook the cable to clip. Now I have the second E section to do. I figure the sensible thing to do is try and clip as quickly as possible, to protect myself (unlike sport climbing, you want to clip early when ascending a ferrata).

This was a mistake. Rather than taking my time to see if I can get purchase on the steeply overhanging rock, I lift the leg that was standing on it already and push off the peg that the other one is heel hooked by. This thrusts my body out into space towards the next cable section (a mere D). I am now horizontal in space, one foot on the cable, hanging from it by both arms. I take one arm off the cable to clip. I am now hanging by one arm, but I have clipped. I try to make the second clip, but my arm is getting tired and I can’t reach. It occurs to me that I may be about to fall. I’m already  below the cable, and it probably won’t even deploy my screamer, but it the thought still lights up a primitive bit of my brain and I have to fight to keep the fear at bay.

Dangling from a steel cable. I'm sure I've seen this in movies.

Dangling from a steel cable. I’m sure I’ve seen this in movies. Note my feet are in contact with air and nothing else.

I let out a roar and heave on the arm holding the cable, pushing with my leg and stiffening my core. I make the second clip. I return to having two hands on the cable.

I’m still horizontal. I figure the only thing I can do is cut loose with my feet and hang my entire body, in the void, from the cable. When I do this I will have a few seconds to find a foothold. The rock isn’t great for them.

I cut loose and swing out to the right. I look at the overhanging limestone in front of me, pick out a couple of small footholds as quickly as I can, and put my toes on them. I am safe, but I am experiencing a huge adrenaline surge and I have just scared myself silly.

I didn’t make such a hash of this when I climbed in in 2013, but in 2013 I was in my 30s and was at the top of my climbing game. Today I am rusty and it shows. Today M4 taught me a lesson.

Sylvia wants me to wait for her. The rock is still overhanging, and there’s now a 20-30 metre long overhanging ascending high wire traverse (Zoe is probably reading this and having heart palpitations). I deploy my resting carabiner, awkwardly because my hands are shaking, and clip it to the cable. I now have to make my hindbrain believe that it’s perfectly safe to let go and sit there in my climbing harness, dangling from a piece of dyneema the size of a hair ribbon. My hind brain doesn’t quite believe it, so I keep putting an arm over the cable too. Tomorrow there will be a bruise there.

Sylvia arrives at the 2 E sections. She takes her time and does it in much better style than I did, but the second clip is still hard for her and I reach out and help. Now we have two D sections on the high wire traverse, followed by a climb out of the Grande Dom and the ordeal will be over for the time being.

I make the traverse. My arm muscles are pumped and I’m still trembling. I start to climb out on the vertical C/D section that I remember I still needed to use proper climbing technique for 4 years ago.

And it’s here I discover the problem with the new fangled pegs. Again, I’m clipping early to be as safe as I can, and I clip the cable just above where it connects to the peg and start upwards. It’s then that I realise that I have clipped both the cable and the peg. I try to reach down to free it, but I can’t reach. Time to evaluate my options: I can try to downclimb: it’s an overhang below me and the odds I will fall and deploy my screamer are very high. I can extend the sling of my resting carabiner, clip it to the peg above me, weight it, literally turn upside down in space and free it. That does not appeal.

I could try to get my rope out and abseil down a metre or two to free it. That appeals about as much as the whole “upside down” thing.

This is not a happy Sarah

This is not a happy Sarah

In the end I ask Sylvia if she can come and free it for me. I then find some purchase on the rock, above my protection and aware that a fall would hurt, and stay very still.

Sylvia arrives and frees the carabiner. I climb out, grabbing the same tree root I grabbed in 2013, and haul myself onto the flat expanse of grass in front of me. The Grande Dom is over. Time to take my helmet off and try to compose myself after what was very much not the best piece of via ferrataing I’ve ever done.

We’re now on a broad and verdant ledge, about half way up the cliff. The ferrata turns into a path, sometimes cabled (mostly to show the direction to go, but sometimes to help over slippery and exposed ground) leading through the woods. Since the ferrata was built the soil erosion here has got very bad in places, and I imagine it would be a quagmire after heavy rain. With the dirty, dusty rock and all the mud everywhere I wonder how long this VF will remain viable. The path follows the cliff edge and eventually leads up through a bank of stinging nettles(!) until you enter another big cleft in the rock. This is:

The Grande Camino

Me enjoying the Grande Camino

Me enjoying the Grande Camino

M4 is very much a via ferrata in two acts. This is the second. It also has a short prologue and epilogue, but the meat is in the previous section, and this one. It’s almost a Venus and Mars thing; the Grande Dom is characterised by the sort of powerful steeply overhanging climbing that young muscular men seem to excel at. The Grande Camino is a  100ish metre high slab that starts off vertical and gets shallower and shallower as you climb, until you end up walking. It requires thoughtful delicate footwork and balance, and is generally the sort of climbing that women excel at. The cable is cleverly placed to give you lots to think about with some quite delicate and run out sections. Frankly I could do this sort of climbing all day; it appeals to the tactician in me. No matter how much finesse you apply to the Grande Dom (in my case, not much), it’s always going to require some brute strength. This sort of climbing is cerebral, and I love it.

Eventually the angle gets shallow enough to stand up and walk, and then the cable gives way to a wooded path again. This time it’s very short, leading to M4’s Headwall. This is its last hurrah, and it’s even optional: there’s a path round. If you take it though you will miss out on signing the log book, which is to be found in an alcove halfway up the short headwall climb.

And suddenly, its over. I emerge panting into a grassy meadow with a family standing there watching me climb out over the cliff edge and collapse on the grass, exhausted. The children seem confused. The father explains. “Molto difficile”, I add, by way of an explanation.

Sylvia arrives shortly after me. We exchange a high five and collapse into the nearby refugio, where we immediately order beer.



And that’s it! Very much a “Type II Fun” experience. Sylvia and I have now done the undisputed most technically difficult via ferrata in the high Dolomites, and one of the hardest in the world, twice. Not sure I ever want to do it again (unlike the Sci Club).

Oh, there is one more thing. I noted I hadn’t marked the descent route on the map. Last time we did this we used the official one. It’s a long trudge down a very steep ski slope (somehow you gain about 700 metres doing this ferrata, but I’m not sure where), and it’s horrible. Too steep to walk on, no proper path, slippy grass, hard on the knees.

We went and paid the nice man and used his gizmo to take us into Pozza, then caught a little shuttle bus thing back to the car park. Much more civilised.

The highly civilised gondola down to Pozza.

The highly civilised gondola down to Pozza.

Dolomites 2017, Days 3 and 4 – Pottering

Before I get into what we spent the last 2 days doing, I need to write a few words of explanation about footpaths in the Dolomites. There are thousands of miles of “walking” routes here, maintained to various standards by various groups from commercial bodies (for example VF Sci Club 18) to the government (Italy has national service and some of the youths doing it opt to do it with the alpine troops, building and maintaining footpaths and via ferratas). These are comprehensively marked on maps. Some of them are kinda indicative as paths across scree slopes tend to get obliterated with the snow melt and reformed over the summer months. Some are paved. Some are protected with cables.

The maps need to distinguish these different types, particularly as this is serious mountain terrain and people have all sorts of different capabilities and experience. The definitive maps are published by Tabacco and they’re really good. They mark paved paths with solid outlines, well maintained, graded but unpaved paths with a solid red line, and then the line gets broken into smaller and smaller dots as the terrain gets harder. A path marked with small dots means you cam expect scrambling, scree surfing, possibly the odd stemple ladder.

Here, for example, is the map around Piz Boe: the highest peak of the Sella Group:

No paved paths up here

No paved paths up here!

In 2002, Sylvia who was working on an IT project at Trento at the time, suggested I come visit her and we could go hiking in these pretty mountains she’d seen. I grew up near the Peak District, but had never climbed anything in my life. I was happy with hill walking though, so we ended up drinking beer at the mountain refuge on top of Piz Boe, at 3152 metres. We then had to get back down to the cable car station. I saw what looked like a shortcut on the map.

“Why don’t we take this path?” I said.

“We can’t. See those crosses? That means it’s a via ferrata or protected path.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You need special equipment to use them. They aren’t safe without.”

And that was that, for 8 years until Sylvia, Zoe and I found ourselves back here in 2010, ready to find out what this Via Ferrata business was about.

The paths marked with crosses are either Via Ferratas, or protected paths. There’s a grey area where the two sort of blend into each other. As a rule of thumb, a Via Ferrata requires at least scrambling and a protected path doesn’t, but that’s not 100% definitive.

Basically, if you see a long line of crosses on the map, go that way and you don’t have a climbing harness, VF kit and helmet, and know how to use them, you are either going to be scared out of your wits, but basically OK, or you’re going to die.

So on to …

Day 3 – Cascate di Fanes

. After being given a thorough kicking by the Sci Club on day 2, I hurt. I had blisters on my fingers from cable hauling and my quadriceps were killing me. We decided to do some gentle exercise. There’s a easy, gentle gradient path north of Cortina that leads to a series of waterfalls, which are accessed by a “grade 1” via ferrata (they’re graded from 1 to 6. They used to stop at 5, but then … well, watch this space)

So I started to pack my VF kit and harness, until Sylvia said the guide book said they weren’t needed by anyone with any kind of experience. Happy to save weight, I didn’t bother. We jumped in the car and set off for Cortina.

A nice easy walk with pretty scenery

A nice easy walk with pretty scenery.

We parked at the very busy carpark and set off along the trail. It followed the side of the River Fanes which is everything you expect a mountain brook to be: clear blue water, rapids, waterfalls, tributaries coming in from mysterious looking slot canyons. Lots of families with kids messing about at the water’s edge. Mountain bikers rolling past. It was really pretty, even if I did complain about my leg muscles every time the gradient hit.

The River Fanes, doing its thing.

The River Fanes, doing its thing.

What we also saw were quite a few people walking along the path in brand new climbing harnesses with brand new via ferrata kits attached to them.

This is nice. Grade 1 via ferratas are fantastic for learning on. You get to familiarise yourself with the kit, see if you can handle some exposure and a bit of moving on rock, and it’s generally all very safe and straightforward. My first VF was a 1, and I used a VF kit on it too (if I was doing it now, I wouldn’t bother).

However, wearing your VF kit on easy hikes in is a bit of a faux pas. One reason is purely practical: you’ve got to store those long slings somewhere, and if you clip them to your gear loops they hang down in just the right place to catch your knee and make you have a nasty accident; embarrassing on a path you could drive a family car up without too many problems.

The other reason is, well, it can come across as showing off, and something you learn very quickly when doing this stuff is that some of the people you’re trying to show off to are probably well beyond your technical ability.

I’m reminded of a story about Sir Edmund Hillary walking up Snowdon via the Pyg Track. Someone, not recognising him, stopped him and castigated him for his recklessness in climbing such a dangerous mountain improperly attired. Didn’t he know the weather can change really fast up here?

Sir Edmund thanked the man for his advice, and carried on.

The ledge leading to the waterfalls. Note the cable for protection.

The ledge leading to the waterfalls. Note the cable for protection.

I have my own similar experiences. It never pays to make assumptions.

We arrived at the start of the via ferrata, and with no kit to put on, proceeded straight onto it. A short length of cable protecting a walk along a moderately exposed ledge led to the uppermost of two waterfalls. To my delight, I saw the path continued round under the waterfall itself. I suddenly felt like a twelve year old kid and simply had to go and stand behind the thundering water, so I did!

Fiddling with my phone to get a good video of the waterfall.

Fiddling with my phone to get a good video of the waterfall.

Then I called Sylvia under and made her pose for photographs until she complained she was getting soaked. I was also thoroughly wet, so we moved on. There was a bit of down climbing on easy rock with stemples, but the guy in front of me, with shiny new via ferrata kit seemed nervous and I didn’t want to spook him by getting too close when I was following with no equipment, so I waited until he’d reached the bottom before starting my own descent.

This led to a second waterfall, even more spectacular than the first. I took the opportunity to play with an iPhone app that lets me take long exposure photos even in broad daylight. I asked Sylvia to go and pose on a rock, and hold still, which she did, and then as she walked back she put her foot in the river half way to her knee. Oops!

The lower falls, with posy long exposure water blurring.

The lower falls, with posy long exposure water blurring.

Pretty waterfalls seen and excessively photographed, it was time to ascend via the rest of the ferrata (it’s a loop), which again had some basic scrambling and ledges with cables, before the pleasant downhill walk back to the car.

Day 4 – Messing about on the slopes of Tofana

Blue - the start of our planned ascent. Yellow - what we actually ended up doing.

Blue – the start of our planned ascent. Yellow – what we actually ended up doing.

The forecast was for a clear morning with thunderstorms rolling in late afternoon. We were interested in climbing Tofana di Mezzo, the third highest peak in the Dolomites, via the via ferrata whose name nobody can agree on. I’ve seen it called VF Punta Anna (after the subsidiary peak of Tofana that it starts ascending), VF Giuseppe Olivieri (apparently he was a famous early 20th century racing cyclist), VF Aglio (literally “Via Ferrata Garlic” – there’s a pinnacle on Tofana named after this most delicious of foodstuffs) and VF Tofana di Mezzo (named after the summit it eventually reaches).

Looking down the valley, with Cortina far below us. Scary clouds form on the peaks.

Looking south down the valley, with Cortina far below us. Scary clouds form on the peaks. The big peak in the distance is Antelao: the second highest in the Dolomites.

Increasingly “VF Punta Anna” seems to be winning this naming war. It ascends the south ridge of the Tofana massif. The climb is technical (not as hard as the Sci Club, but not far off) and really, really airy. You do not do this via ferrata if you can’t handle exposure because there’s a lot of it. The plan was to start early, climb, and given there were 3 well spaced escape routes, bail if the weather rolled in early.

We parked at the big carpark at Ristorante Pie Tofana (not actually one of their menu items) and took a pair of ski lifts up to Rifugio Pomedes, situated where the grassy shoulder of Tofana’s south east flank gives way to the towering buttress of Punta Anna.

The towering buttress of Punta Anna disappearing into cloud. The ascent route follows the ridgeline.

The towering buttress of Punta Anna disappearing into cloud. The ascent route follows the ridgeline.

It was 9am. An hour earlier there had not been a cloud in the sky. Now the vast buttress of Punta Anna had been lost in cloud, the base of which hovered mere tens of metres above us, and the distant big peaks of Sorapis, Antelao and Civetta all had towering cumulonimbus clouds forming over them. It occurred we were under something very similar.

Via ferratas are, predominantly, steel cables attached to mountains. They tend to go to summits and pinnacles because that’s cool.

An alternate name for this arrangement is “lightning conductor”. Climbing one inside a forming thundercloud is at best reckless. I’ve heard stories of people being welded to the cable by lightning strikes, and never being quite the same again, if they survive at all.

I looked at Sylvia. Sylvia looked at me. We made a decision: they were not thunderclouds yet. We might be OK.

There was pointing. There was the scratching of heads. There was ... teeth sucking.

There was pointing. There was the scratching of heads. There was … teeth sucking.

“Might” isn’t good enough when the penalty for getting it wrong is being turned into a charcoal briquette via one point twenty one jiggawatts.

“Fuck that”, we both said, and wandered the short distance to Rifugio Pomedes to replan our day over a cup of tea.

As we did so, a group of people arrived, all wearing via ferrata kit. They proceeded to gather on the terrace and look up at Punta Anna, and presumably have a conversation similar to the one Sylvia and I had just had.

I’m not their mother. If they want to climb in a thundercloud that’s their concern. Never found out if they decided to risk it or not, as they were still there as we set off west along Sentiero Astaldi towards the base of Tofana’s third peak: Tofana de Roses.

Me (lower right), on Sentiero Astraldi. Yes, this is a marked footpath on the map!

Me (lower right), on Sentiero Astaldi. Yes, this is a marked footpath on the map! The ledge is very narrow in places.

Sentiero Astaldi is one of those paths that’s marked with crosses on the map. It follows the line where Punta Anna meets Tofana’s lower slopes. For a few hundred metres the limestone at this elevation is infused with large amounts of iron and other minerals. This has two effects: it makes the limestone really colourful, and it turns it into choosy crap that will turn into sand if you look at it funny. As a result, erosion is rapid and plant life can’t get established to stabilise the scree slope. This means any transit is precarious in the extreme, and so it’s protected by cable.

It’s not a via ferrata, but unlike the walk to the waterfalls, which was, I wouldn’t dream of doing this without gear. The ledge is really narrow and the ground very unstable. It’s safe enough if you clip to the cable, and the alternative is a descent of nearly 300 metres followed by ascent of same.

So learning how to use VF kit can save you a lot of sweat by making otherwise inaccessible shortcuts available to you.

That being said, the protection on Astaldi is in appalling shape. The old cable has spots where it’s almost rusted through and has been reinforced with short lengths of newer cable. It’s not dangerous, but I wonder how long they can keep patching up before they need to properly recable it.

The protected path soon gave way to broad, safe walking paths and we removed our kit. Here you can either ascend the steep pass between Punta Anna and Tofana de Roses (this was one of our possible escape routes), descend towards Rifugio Diboba, or carry on along the base of Tofana de Roses. We chose the latter, and soon came to a junction with a path leading up to a grade 1 via ferrata to some caves. Above us were some rock climbers (doing it properly, not cheating using a VF), drawing oohs and ahhs from appreciative hikers.

The via ferrata leading to the caves. I'm in this picture; can you spot me (click for larger version)

The via ferrata leading to the caves. I’m in this picture; can you spot me (click for larger version)

We decided to go and investigate the caves. Neither of us had been on this part of Tofana before, and it looked interesting. A short scramble up a cleft in the rock led to a via ferrata cable protecting a traverse along a ledge some 50-100 metres above the talus. Technically easy, but the presence of the cable is reassuring!

It was as we retraced our steps along this VF, as Sylvia took the picture of me above (yes, I am in it – click for a larger version) that a guy with a French accent looked up from the path below, waved, and declared, “You are crazy! You are crazy!”

I responded that the view was nice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The cave was awesome. Not some little dent in the rock, but a proper deep cave with junctions and mysterious side passages and rockfalls and stuff. Without my head torch the interior would have been utterly pitch black. The cave soon came to a junction, and we took the lower passage, which led deeper and deeper into the mountain. Eventually it came to a metal staircase that someone had thoughtfully installed. I photographed Sylvia on it by the light of our torches; took a few goes to get a sharp exposure at a third of a second handheld!


Not an easy photograph to take handheld!

Carrying on, we thought we must be very deep into the mountain when, suddenly, daylight appeared round a corner! The passage had brought us back to the junction. We had become completely disoriented down there.

As we hung around, the noises we had assumed were birds were becoming increasingly agitated by our presence. We then realised they weren’t birds at all, but bats! They were flying around in the gloom and were not small ones. We decided to leave them to it and retraced our steps, out of the cave, along the precarious ledge, past the climbers, who had now made quite a bit of upwards progress, back along Sentiero Astaldi and thence to Rifugio Pomedes for a late lunch.

The clouds had lifted. The promised thunderstorms failed to materialise. We would have been fine if we’d gone for the summit, but hindsight is always 20:20, and we did some cool stuff instead. I’m up for a rematch with Tofana later in the week, but not tomorrow: they’re forecasting 25cm of snow up there!

Me on Sentiero Astraldi

Me on Sentiero Astaldi

Dolomites 2017, Day 2 – VF Sci Club 18

Yesterday saw my and Sylvia’s 3rd ascent of Via Ferrata Sci Club 18:

Map of the route

Approach from Faloria central cable car station to Via Ferrata and climb itself in yellow

There are a few quirks about this one that are probably worth explaining. The original via ferratas were built as routes that went somewhere and generally provided a shortcut for those comfortable enough with exposure or climbing to use them. Some were simply paths with lots of exposure that had cables for protection, some needed climbing skills. Very few were particularly demanding if you had the most basic climbing skills. Lots of them were interesting ways to see World War 1 ruins, following the equipped routes that the original Alpine Troops built from 1914 onwards.

At the 21st century rolled round, it started to occur to people that via ferrata was becoming an end in itself, rather than a means to an end; people were doing them not because of where they went, but because they were increasingly perceived as an extreme sport in their own right.

So a new generation of “sport ferratas” started to be constructed. The rationale for these was different: they didn’t tend to go to summits or ruins or whatever; they didn’t follow easy ascent paths; they tended to go to mountain refuges, who would often finance their building in order to create extra business.

Sci Club 18 is a sport ferrata. It was built by the Faloria Cable Car Company as a via ferrata route from the intermediate station of their Cortina to Mount Faloria cableway to the top station. In winter this serves as a base for various ski runs. In summer, it hopes to attract walkers and day trippers up from Cortina to its restaurant.

So they built a via ferrata to be an attraction in its own right. You can walk all the way from Cortina, but few do. Instead, if you know to ask at the cableway station (the guide books tell you), the ticket clerk will sell you a “ferrata ticket”. This is similar in price to a single, but is valid for a trip to the intermediate station, and a return trip from the very top. The missing bit in the middle you have to do yourself.

The route of Sci Club 18 as seen from the Cortina end of the Faloria Cable Car

The route of Sci Club 18 as seen from the Cortina end of the Faloria Cable Car

They don’t stop there though; what they’ve done is quite clever. Sci Club 18 is one of the most technically challenging via ferratas in the High Dolomites. It has a reputation that makes people want to challenge themselves. It’s deliberately built to be hard.

And in their final bit of commercial genius, the route it takes is straight up the cliff under the cable car. This means that if you take the cable car up to Faloria for lunch, not only do you get an amazing view of Cortina (which really is a lovely town), but you also get to see daredevil climbers on the sheer cliffs of Faloria as you glide serenely by.

And they own the car park in which said daredevils pay to park too.

This via ferrata is a piece of commercial genius. It’s also massive fun.

All aboard the classiest cable car in the Dolomites! Energetic young things first!

All aboard the classiest cable car in the Dolomites! Energetic young things first!

So Sylvia and I walk into the station and buy a ferrata ticket each for the lift. In there too are a young British couple, also there to do the ferrata. It’s apparently only their third (that’s brave). They’re on holiday from Devon after finishing their A-Levels. We all board the lovely old cable car (seriously, this thing is practically an antique but it oozes class from its sleek curves to its sponsorship from local posh yachting clothing shop, Paul and Shark, and it’s in glorious condition) and are whisked over the outskirts of Cortina, over farms and woodlands, to the intermediate station.

We disembark. Most passengers head for the adjacent car that will whisk them up to Faloria itself. We and the other couple leave the station and start walking uphill. We are soon left in the dust by the other two who are less than half our age and can just power uphill. The approach to this one is a bugger. You rise 200m steeply on switchbacks which seem to never end, as you inch closer and closer to the cliff face.

Fit young things on stemples just after the muppet filter

Fit young things on stemples just after the muppet filter. Note how relentlessly vertical it is!

We caught up with them at the bottom of the ferrata, where I opined that I was “getting too old for this shit”. They went first and started up the cable. No gentle start here; the Sci Club comes at you hard and fast with a technically challenging and exposed move round a slight overhang. This is the Sci Club’s “muppet filter” and if it freaks you out, it’s a good point to give up, because it’s not going to pull punches after.

After that, you climb vertically upwards (slopes are for the weak, the Sci Club goes straight up, and sometimes it overhangs because fuck you, that’s why) for a bit and you start to think you’re getting into the swing of things when it throws its next punch: an airy right turn onto a sticking out bit of rock that leaves you with sheer drops on three sides.

The ground is getting far away now, but it’s always visible. Spending lots of time looking down on this one tends to bring to mind endless seconds of weightlessness followed by the immediate pulping of your body on the unyielding rocks below. If heights are really not your thing, do a different ferrata because if you have a panic attack on this one, good luck getting off (options are abseil, if you have a rope; down climb, which is really bloody hard and dangerous; or fish out your mobile phone from your rucksack, without dropping it, and dial 118 for mountain rescue, who will bill you).

Sylvia takes a breather on a ledge. The drop is probably only about a hundred metres here.

Sylvia takes a breather on a ledge. The drop is probably only about a hundred metres here.

The climbing continues to be steep, but the rock is really grippy and the holds are good, if you know where to find them. You have to trust your shoes here because a lot of the time the Sci Club requires you to plant your foot against steep rock, grab the cable with both hands, and haul yourself up. If your foot pops, take comfort in knowing that this is a modern via ferrata with nice clear fall zones and rubber bumpers on the pegs. You’ll still probably need therapy after a fall though, and your screamer only works once, so you’re back to the whole “dial 118” thing again.

The Sci Club isn’t evil and doesn’t hate you. It does occasionally give you a little ledge to catch your breath without having to hang from the cable in your harness. It was on one of these ledges that we found the girl from Devon struggling with a particularly tricky climbing move. Sylvia and I gave her some tips by way of a demonstration, which meant we got in front of her. At the next ledge her partner beckoned us past, and from then on we were free to climb at our own pace. They may have been young, fit and strong, but we had technique on our side and could move much faster on the rock.

Wave for your fans, and take the time to appreciate how teeny Cortina looks below you!

Wave for your fans, and take the time to appreciate how teeny Cortina looks below you!

There was still about 250 metres left to ascend on the cable, and each one was going to be hard fought. While you’re fighting, the cable car comes past. Be sure to wave for the audience! They wave back.

Climb a little higher, and you get more and more overhanging moves, and more and more stress clips (where you have to clip your via ferrata lanyard round a peg while in a stress position, often on a sketchy foothold). The people who built this thing were doing art and their master brush strokes are, about 300 metres up the cable, revealed in an ascending overhanging traverse with multiple consecutive stress clips. Don’t let the presence of the stemples fool you; this is seriously hard work which gives you little choice but to hang your entire body weight on the cable. Purists hate this, as they want to use the cable only for protection, but that’s not what this sport is about.

The headwall, cable highlighted in yellow

The headwall, cable highlighted in yellow

Eventually, as your quads and biceps burn, the Sci Club relents and suddenly you’re walking on ground that is almost flat! The unwary might assume they’re pretty much done by this point, and indeed as you round a corner you see, tantalisingly close, the upper cable car station (here comes another car: wave!)

Then you notice what the ferrata does. It tricked you! Have another 50 metres of quite hard climbing because fuck you, that’s why. This is the headwall and it’s frankly cruel to do this to the poor climber when she can practically smell the beer.

I climbed the headwall first. Sylvia got waylaid by a rapid German who overtook her half way up it. This gave me time to reach the top, which is another walking section and takes you round to perhaps the best spot to take photographs of your climbing partner on the whole ferrata. I didn’t waste the opportunity!

Sylvia tackles the headwall. The verticality of the whole thing is really apparent in this photo.

Sylvia tackles the headwall. The verticality of the whole thing is really apparent in this photo. We’re now above the cable car.

After that you’re pretty much done. It wanders around more or less horizontally, or with easy scrambling, to reach the exit point. The cable here is just a token gesture and at points it leaves you to walk several metres on ledges with no cable at all. If you’ve coped with the exposure involved in getting this far, that won’t bother you.

And then, one last push up a 15 metre wall and it’s suddenly all over, and the cable car station and accompanying restaurant are a minute’s walk away. Just as well as it was starting to rain.

The youngsters wandered in about an hour later. They were very wet.

I had a beer and a lovely lunch of lasagna and then we walked downstairs into the cable car. Now we were the spectators and we listened to our fellow travellers gasp excitedly as they noticed two straggler climbers approach the headwall. They must have been utterly soaked.

Two climbers, ringed in yellow, approach the sci club's headwall, as seen from the cable car.

Two climbers, ringed in yellow, approach the Sci Club’s headwall, as seen from the cable car.

A couple of minutes later we were back at the intermediate station ,where we changed cars for the Cortina leg. A couple of minutes after that, and we were back at the car. Easiest descent ever. Thank you Sci Club, although I have to say, you thoroughly beat the crap out of me.

I’ll be back for ascent number 4.

Addendum: you may be wondering about the name, “Sci Club 18”. Apparently it’s named after a group of young people who, in 1930, formed a club to promote “the ideals of young people and skiing”. Reading between the lines, the “ideals of young people” seem to have included a strong streak of objecting to the sort of things Mussolini and his then understudy, Hitler, were getting up to. The ferrata apparently follows a favoured ski run of theirs. They must have been bloody good at it!

Dolomites 2017, Day 1 – VF Brigata Tridentina/Pisciadu

We arrived in Corvara late last night. Well, it was late by South Tyrollean standards. The restaurants were all closing and everyone was getting ready for bed. It was 8pm. We’d planned earlier but our flight was delayed getting out of Gatwick by thunderstorms in France. We did manage to score a hybrid (Yaris) at Venice airport car rental though, and its torquey electric drivetrain works a treat on these alpine passes.

We were just in time to get food at the hotel and we ate a filling Tyrollean dinner of, well, meat basically. Meat and meat with a nod to the whole “technically this is Italy” thing by way of a spicy (German standard, i.e. not spicy) spaghetti and tomatoes.

But it was mostly meat.

The next task before bed was deciding what to do today. The two vertical kilometres we did in the Peak District in the last month have served us well and we are already quite hill-fit. We’ve neglected the climbing gym of late though and we aren’t used to altitude. That meant we needed a strenuous but technically unchallenging climb at moderate altitude.

There’s a via ferrata just up the pass from our hotel. It’s a 650 metre climb up the Sella Group’s north face to a mountain refuge where one can have lunch. Unfortunately it’s also just about the most popular VF in the Dolomites and to be avoided at weekends!

Big-ass mountain

The climb runs up the far left buttress you can see here, just behind it.

It being Thursday we thought we’d be OK. As it was, the car park was full when we rolled in at 9am and the VF did very much resemble a 500 metre long vertical queue. I’m getting ahead of myself though.

The ferrata in question is problematic to name. It’s officially called Brigata Tridentina. For reasons I’m not going into, that’s kinda an Italian nationalist name, and the Dolomites is sort of like Italy’s Wales. This bit of it is predominantly German speaking and so the climb often goes by the name VF Pisciadu, after the river it climbs beside.

We call it VF Bad Flowers, which is a family in-joke, which I’m also not explaining.

So we arrived at the car park and looked up to see part of the mighty Sella Group’s north face looking back at us. Fine, that’s what we’d come to climb. Time to gear-up and consult the map. Both of us have done this route before, but it’s worth being thorough.

Via Ferrata in yellow, possible descent routes in green and blue

Via Ferrata in yellow, possible descent routes in green and blue.

As can be seen, the route attacks the lower cliff almost immediately/ There’s then a flat-ish section where it follows Dolomite path 29 before branching off and doing the bulk of the climb. It finishes at the mountain refuge at just under 2600 metres, and then there are a choice of descent paths.

Sylvia on the lower section.

Sylvia on the lower section.

So off we go. It’s a lovely day and the hordes are already gearing up at the base of the climb. We tried to get on as quickly as possible, to avoid being caught up in too many queues. The first section is a very simple 100 metre climb on stemples (steel rungs concreted into the rock). It gets a bit vertical, but it’s basically a ladder hammered into the cliff face and nothing challenging except any nervousness around heights to deal with. I don’t entirely approve of this, as a lot of novices decide to try this route at the end of their holiday, as their first “big climb”. Lots of via ferratas have a “muppet filter” where it throws something really nasty at you at the start. This does not. It starts out easy and just gets harder and harder, ending up with a few sections that are going to be very challenging for anyone not used to moving on rock faces.

Woodland walk between the two sections.

Woodland walk between the two sections.

I took lots of photographs. This is because we were’t moving very fast. It I looked up all I saw were the bottoms of a dozen or more climbers ahead of me. Some of them were moving very slowly, and overtaking on a via ferrata is not always easy. As a result, we waited and admired the view. This section is short though, and you’re soon off cable and onto a nice walk through the tree line until you reach a signpost directing you left to the bulk of the ferrata.

Lower Pisciadu Falls. The route goes straight up the cliff to the right of them.

Lower Pisciadu Falls. The route goes straight up the cliff to the right of them.

As you round the corner you’re in for a treat. To the left of the point where the cable restarts is the river Pisciadu engaged in a bit of verticality, something it does a lot on its rapid descent from the Sella plateau. The waterfall is quite impressive and the first of three the climber will encounter.

A few people were standing around looking thoughtful (the thought presumably being “am I going to die here?”), so we bypassed them and got back on the cable. Now we found ourselves behind the second type of person you don’t want to get stuck behind on a ferrata. The first is a newbie who can’t climb well and may well freeze and lose their bowel contents at the exposure (it happens). The second is the sort of person who is confident at climbing, but thinks they’re above using proper gear.

I should explain. When you fall in a normal climb, the rope is stretchy, and the entire length of the rope expands to slow you down. This is actually pretty comfortable, even on the really huge climbing falls. The gear is designed to dissipate the forces. A via ferrata can’t do that because there’s no rope. Instead, if you fall, you will slide down the section of steel cable you’re connected to until you hit a supporting peg. You will then come to an abrupt halt and if the fall is more than a few metres, you will die.

Via ferrata was quite a dangerous sport well into the 90s, where the survival rate from falls was often described as “not as high as we’d like”. Various things were tried to make falls safer. Newer ferratas are built with fall zones clear of rocks and often with rubber shock absorbers on the pegs holding the cable. The gear has evolved as well. The early intrepid ferrataist would use two slings with a carabiner on the end of each. When they came to a peg, they’d detach, one carabiner at a time, from the old section and attach to the new. If they fell, the slings would snap with the shock load and they’d die.

If this man falls, he will die. Silly man. The correct gear is cheaper than his life is worth.

If this man falls, he will die. Silly man. The correct gear is cheaper than his life is worth.

Now we’ve basically solved this problem. We still use two slings, but they’re connected to your climbing harness by something we call a “screamer” (because of the noise you make if you ever need it, presumably). This is a flat loop of webbing with one end attached to the slings, and the other attached to the harness. The two halves of the loop are then sewn together using thread that is designed to break at loads of above about 1200 Newtons (if you’re heavier than that, don’t rest on them). The idea is that if you fall, and your carabiners come to an abrupt halt at the peg, the screamer will deploy and instead of dying you will experience a significant G-force for an instant as it slows you down over about a metre. This is a one-time thing. It you use it once, you throw the gear away.

The guy above me, one of a group of 3 Germans, had a single dyneema sling girth hitched to his harness at one end and a carabiner at the other. If he fell, his back would break, and then the sling would snap, and then his rapidly dying body would plummet onto me, deploying my screamer. I would bot be best pleased.

So I tried to keep out of his fall zone.

You find things to do to amuse yourself while queueing on a mountainside.

You find things to do to amuse yourself while queueing on a mountainside.

After about an hour of climbing queueing, you come to a point where you can leave the cable. You’re nearly at the tope here, and there’s a sign directing you to “easy climb to top”. Lots of people elect to take this. Some of the ones who really should take the hint do not.

Our Germans had vanished at this point. A lot of people detach from the cable for a bite to eat. Instead there was a middle aged couple, the woman in front, the man behind. They seemed to be finding the going, which had got very vertical at this point, quite tricky. The queue slowed to a crawl as people floundered above us on a properly vertical section, only without stemples. The poor lady in front of me started making whimpering noises. I don’t think she was having a happy time. Shortly after, her husband’s shoe fell apart!

This is one of the more substantial bridges over the void you get here. Some of them are far more entertaining.

This is one of the more substantial bridges over the void you get here. Some of them are far more entertaining.

Not ideal, but at this point you’re basically done, save for the crowd pleasing suspension bridge over the void. Cross that and then walk to the mountain refuge for a well earned lunch. I had a beer and we both had dumplings in broth (a local specialty), before deciding to head down.

Remember the maps with the routes? The standard descent is marked in green. You zigzag down a steep scree filled erosion gully until you’ve descended 650 metres, and then you’re done. The descent is a bit soul destroying though: endless switchbacks of scree, scree and more scree.

That’s the way we’ve descended previously. The blue one, advertised as a bit longer, but a picturesque amble down a lovely valley, sounded enticing and it was still only lunchtime. Why not?

Yes, reversing back down the via ferrata avoids the crowds, but there's a reason they all went the other way.

Yes, reversing back down the via ferrata avoids the crowds, but there’s a reason they all went the other way.

Basically, false advertising is a thing. It’s a walk to a steep chossy porto-scramble down into a scree-filled erosion gully, which you descend for a few hundred metres. This takes ages and leaves you on the broad flat section between the two bits of ferrata, only about a mile down the valley. You then reascend for a while until you cross your former path and are presented with the choice of ascending a bit more to reach the other descent path, or down climbing the (now thankfully deserted) lower section of the via ferrata.

We opted to down climb because it was the shortest route, but down climbing a ferrata is a nerve-wracking affair. Stuff that seemed trivial on the way up suddenly seems very hard and accident prone. Still, we made it back to the hotel by 5 and jumped straight in the hot tub. Bliss!

VF Sci Club 18 tomorrow. Now that one does not mess about.

Syliva enjoys an "airy" bit of VF Brigata Tridentina/Pisciadu, with the eponymous river far below.

Syliva enjoys an “airy” bit of VF Brigata Tridentina/Pisciadu, with the eponymous river far below.

Itching to get on Some Mountains

This blog is ostensibly about climbing, as well as more activisty stuff, because one day I’m going to stop caring about the world and go and be a climber bum, because climbing and related activities are my passion.

Anyway, we’re currently planning a holiday to the Alps in August, about which I’m as excited as a kid with an advent calendar. In the meantime, I’d like to get outdoors in the UK, but the weather is awful, so am currently pretty much confined to climbing gyms.

Here’s me lead climbing a short 5+ route in the Castle in London. It’s quite overhangy and there’s a bit where one almost has to “cut loose” (i.e. cast off with feet and hang on the arms), above my protection which would make a fall “interesting”.

My style could be cleaner in places, but I think it’s fairly tidy, and so am quite happy with this. I’m finding watching it useful though because it’s giving me pointers as to what I need to tighten up.

Anyway, enjoy – I had fun climbing it. I’m only allowed to use the yellow ones.