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.

Cheers!

Cheers!

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!

DSCF1374

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.

Speech I gave at the Humanist UK panel on LGBT kids in faith schools

Hi. I should perhaps explain why I’m here. Those who were at the faith schools debate at the Liberal Democrat conference may recall that Chris Ward spoke eloquently on his experiences as a young LGBT person in a faith school. The things he said resonated with me and my own experiences, and I rushed to put an intervention card in. I only had a few seconds to make my point, but I did, and I was quite tearful when I made it. Between us I think we made a difference in how the vote went.

The film he referred to, which they showed to kids, and which I understand some schools still do, is called “The Silent Scream”. It’s on youTube and you can watch it. I should warn you that you may find it extremely disturbing. I was 14 when they made us watch it.

So my background: I grew up in a single parent family in the East Midlands coalfields in the 70s and 80s, living through the miners’ strike in an area where kids didn’t tend to expect big things for their lives. I did quite well in primary school and my mum worked during the day in a bookies. That didn’t bring in enough money to support me and my brother, so she had an evening job serving behind the bar in an old roadside coaching inn in the middle of nowhere. Its clientele fell into two groups: lorry drivers parking up for the night from the nearby M1 motorway, and teachers from the local independent boarding school who lived on site and liked to nip out in the evenings for some liquid entertainment.

And my mum, being quite gregarious, got friendly with these teachers, and would, on occasion, talk about her kid who was doing really well in primary school and was a bit of a wiz with computers.

And what a shame it was that the local secondary school didn’t tend to produce students who went on to university, or do much of anything really.

And then one day my mum came home and asked if I’d like to go to a really good school.

Mrs Thatcher was PM at the time and she was doing all that Tory stuff like favouring selective education. They had something called the Assisted Places scheme, where kids from a poor background who were “academically gifted”, could go to a fee paying school and the government would pay some or all of their school fees.

So I got an interview with the headmaster, and apparently I impressed him, and they offered me a place.

There are two further salient points to this. While I didn’t grow up in an overtly religious environment, the school in question was run by Jesuit priests, who are essentially the shock troops of the Catholic Church. The headmaster was a jesuit priest, various teachers were jesuit priests, the rest were members of what the church calls the laity.

The second salient point is that I’m a transgender woman and a lesbian. Specifically at the age of eleven, I was a closeted, terrified, and somewhat impressionable transgender girl who didn’t really understand there was a name for what I was feeling, but knew that if other people found out it would be very very bad for me.

I thought there was something wrong with me. This was not a good start for what followed.

I got the impression that the Jesuit school system saw its purpose as producing members of the establishment who would further the aims of the Catholic Church. They never seemed to have got over the whole Glorious Revolution thing. Indeed, the headmaster literally told me, as he was tutoring me to give the reading in mass, that he expected me to be a member of parliament one day. There’s plenty of overt religious indoctrination, and even to a kid it’s quite easy to recognise that and either run with it or shake it off.

The problem is the stuff they do that’s more subtle. The ways they teach you to think, and to see yourself and the world, which aren’t tagged with the overt “God” stuff, so if you later fall to atheism, as I did, some of it stays with you.

That includes the understanding that thoughts can be wrong. Not just actions, but certain thoughts. I don’t mean ideas of self harm or of other kinds of mental illness. No, there are some ways of looking at the world that are wrong. There are some ways of living you life that are wrong. There are some feelings that are wrong.

And if you think or feel these things you are a bad person.

if you feel attraction towards someone of your own sex, you are a bad person.

If you have these pervasive thoughts about how you desperately need to be a girl, you are a bad person.

You definitely shouldn’t act on these thoughts, and actually you should have the strength of character to be able to get rid of them. That would make you redeemed. That would show that you’d struggled against bad thoughts, and won.

Only, of course, I couldn’t make them go away. Indeed, as puberty wore on they got stronger and stronger. That meant that I was a bad person with weak character. That meant that I had failed. That made me loathsome and pathetic. A disappointment to the system that educated me to the point where I could go to Cambridge. A failure, a waste of money, and if there was some residual religious faith, probably someone who was going to be tortured for all eternity in hell.

This is how I, as a child, felt about myself.

In a school of a thousand kids, a hundred or so of them will be LBGT. Around ten of those will be transgender. A leading cause of death of transgender people is suicide. A large number of apparently unexplained suicides are probably transgender people who couldn’t find a way to square the circle in their own minds. I know a lot of transgender people and every single one of us has had to make our accommodation with death in one way or another.

Some faith schools manage to offer non judgemental or supportive environments, at least superficially. Some of the self hatred stuff, the idea that there are bad thoughts and feelings you need to struggle against is going to be there even in some notionally supportive environments, because it’s not tied to LGBT friendly SRE lessons: it’s mainstreamed in how these places teach you to relate to yourself and the world.

I wasn’t Catholic. My mum wasn’t Catholic. She just saw an opportunity for me to escape a life of no prospects ands took it, and I can’t ever blame her for that. Lots of parents send their kids to these places because they want their kids to have the best future. We can talk about how that’s a pretty dismal thing for social equality, but we really need to talk about what it’s doing to confused, scared, closeted LGBT kids who could be supported to become happy confident LGBT adolescents, comfortable with themselves and how they’re feeling, but who instead are being terrorised in the name of churches giving parents a way to produce moral upstanding citizens with good A-Levels.

What is Territorial Cissing?

There has been a recent spate of articles in the UK press, mostly at weekends. Pretty much all of them are written by cis women. They all attack trans women for, as far as I can tell, having the very nerve to exist as women. Perhaps the most notable recently was this piece by Woman’s Hour presenter, Jenni Murray (paywalled). Murray starts by proclaiming that she is definitely not transphobic in any way, and certainly not a TERF.

After this important disclaimer, she then trots out a few classic TERF tropes, which she seems to earnestly believe: trans women are fashion obsessed airheads; we were “socialised as men”; we need to stop pretending we’re “real” women; and by the way, a trans woman she knows agrees with her so don’t call her transphobic.

This is tedious. There’s nothing new here. These “arguments” are such cliches that one can number them ahead of time and provide handy links to their standard refutations if one desires. It’s well into “drinking game” territory.

I found myself wondering what the point of these “paint by numbers” weekly hit pieces is. The people writing them act like they’re imparting important new information, but pretty much the exact same piece appears every few days. Right on cue, a few days later author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came out with the same nonsense, and then a few days after that it was the turn of Hadley Freeman. Yesterday it was Ellie Mae O’Hagan’s turn.

Here’s my recipe for writing one of these pieces:

Start by declaring yourself “not transphobic” and say something about how you “deplore discrimination”. Like those things companies add to the bottom of emails, this is Very Important and Definitely Legally Binding.

Talk about how trans women have “male socialisation”, then pick a few of these and write a paragraph about each:

  • Political correctness means you can’t say “cervix” any more
  • Something about testosterone and sport
  • Trans activists are transing our children and forcing them to swallow bottles of deadly hormones
  • “autogynephillia” (caution – this will blow your “not a TERF” cover – use with care)
  • Trans women are airhead bimbos, definitely all of them, and no cis women behave like this, ever, amen

Now you’ve carefully constructed your devastatingly effective and completely original (or your money back) argument, close out by saying that trans women need to identify as trans women, and stop calling themselves women, and get off my territory!

Because that’s the rub, isn’t it? The thing these pieces are all asserting is territorial dominance. “I am woman, this is mine, you can’t have none, look at my expensively maintained by an Islington dentist middle class canine teeth! Grrrr!”

A dank pedestrian underpass

This seems safe

You know those dark, concrete pedestrian underpasses? Every city has them: even beautiful Cambridge with its medieval university. They’re just a bit grim, no matter how hard councils try to make them seem safe and welcoming.

And quite often, they smell of urine.

We all know who’s doing this. By and large, it’s young men. Whatever they think their reasons are, this whole “urinating in underpasses” thing has a very clear effect: it marks the area for women as being a place we shouldn’t linger. We’re probably not safe there. It’s not our territory.

The man pissing there probably did so with their mates present. They probably thought it was “top bantz”, or something. They were probably drunk and engaging in the sort of loud, territorial behaviour that women tend to instinctively fear. Yes, even trans women, despite what these thinkypieces would have us believe.

These constant hit pieces in the press are doing the same thing. Every time we see one, it reminds trans women that we can never take acceptance by feminists, or by any cis women we don’t already know well enough to trust, for granted; it’s not safe for us to do so. Feminism and women’s issues aren’t for us; if we speak up we will be punished and cast out because this is not our space, it belongs to the people who want us dead, or at least invisible. Like uppity women asking drunk men to just use the fucking toilet, we’re spoiling their gig.

And just to remind us, they’re going to ensure the media constantly bombards us with their territorial cissing, week in, week out.

An Ode to Brexit

Ode to Brexit

Tune: Ode to Joy, Ludwig van Beethoven, Words: Sarah Brown

Cameron watched the rise of UKIP
Feared he’d never end them
Came up with a cunning plan
And pledged a referendum

He just assumed Nick Clegg would veto
Blame the Lib Dems, so much fun!
He never stopped to wonder
What would happen if the Tories won

Boris Johnson saw his chance
To be the next Prime Minister
Switched sides; joined with Michael Gove
And hatched a plan most sinister

They both assumed Remain would win it
5 points clear and they’d be done
They never stopped to wonder
What would happen if the Leave vote won

They watched Donald make a fortune
Playing as to lose the game
With a campaign based on nonsense
Surely they would lose the same?

Bent bananas, hate the migrants
Pander to the worst excess
They never stopped to wonder
What would happen if they had success

On the day the country voted
Turnout it was very large
Stupid bastards went and won
And now it’s Springtime For Farage

My Lib Dem Spring Conference 2016 Speech on All Women Shortlists

This is the 3 minute speech I gave to the Lib Dem conference on all women shortlists. It was supporting an amendment which would remove them from a diversity motion we were considering. I took the view that the underlying problem is that the political environment is hostile towards women, and all women shortlists don’t address that, but paper over it.

We lost, but it was quite close, and some told me that my speech had changed their minds, which I suppose is the mark of a successful debate speech.

Conference,

In days of yore, it’s said coal miners took caged canaries down mines, to test the air. Imagine, if you will, one mine that has a problem. Nine miners take down a canary, and the canary, after looking distressed for a bit, dies.

The miners realise they have a problem. “Better get another canary”, says one.

So they do, and that canary dies.

As does the third, and the fourth.

Well word gets round the local canary flock, and when they see the miners coming they make themselves scarce. Now the miners really have a problem.

“I know”, says one of them; “for every five of us who go down, we will reserve another five spaces for canaries.”

“We’ll fill them from all canary shortlists.”

Slowly the miners all get unpleasant health problems, because canary targets don’t clean up toxic air.

I served four years as a councillor. At the end of my term, I feel like I discovered a dirty little secret. I ended my term on antidepressants and so, it seems did a statistically implausible number of my colleagues, in all parties.

Some of us ended up comparing notes: Citalopram or Mirtazapine, which has worse side effects? That sort of thing. How messed up is that?

Maybe we need a spent canaries support group.

Studies show that men often overestimate or overstate their abilities and women underestimate and understate them, and this is reflected in how different genders tend to respond in toxic environments, be it investment banking or be it politics.

We ask a lot of our candidates: organise deliverers, run campaigns, spend x nights a week knocking on y hundred doors. Our local parties often ask for more time than is reasonable. Men will quite often sign up, and then just not do it all. Women, who tend to have less free time to start with, will look at the expected workload and become stressed.

I’m no expert in why the response here is gendered; but it is, and we in all parties have built an environment that unconsciously selects men by tailoring it towards male-typical responses to stress. That’s a bad thing for the men too, by the way, they just tend to respond differently to it.

The problem is not with the women. The problem is with the toxicity of the environment. If we learned anything from New Labour’s love of targets and quotas, it’s that they provide simple solutions to the wrong problem.

Don’t get more canaries. Fix the toxicity.

Government Trans Equality Report; Much to Cheer But Timid in Parts

This morning, the government’s Women and Equalities Committee released its first report on transgender equality, detailing its recommendations. They fall into a few broad areas:

  • Reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act
  • Reform of the 2010 Equality Act
  • Reform of healthcare services for trans people
  • “Tackling everyday transphobia”

I’ve had a short while to skim this document and these are my initial impressions. It’s a very long report of nearly 100 pages, but much of it is summarising submitted evidence and explaining the current situation. The committee has helpfully written their recommendations in bold, and those are the sections I’m going to focus on. Zoe O’Connell has also blogged on this and is worth reading.

Before doing that, I’ll note that this is very much a report of our time, and fits with the narrative of the current Conservative government. While noting that the government has work to do, it defends the deeply discriminatory Spousal Veto and only really takes the gloves off when it comes to talking about the NHS.

Taking the parts as they are presented in the document, I’ll start with the Summary:

The report recognises that “High levels of transphobia are experienced by individuals on a daily basis with serious results“, and references the appalling suicide statistics faced by transgender people.

It recognises that the 2004 Gender Recognition Act was “pioneering but is now dated“, and criticises the pathologisation of trans identities and the need for self-determination.

It recognises that the Equality Act is unclear in who it covers, and suggests that the fuzzy concept of “gender reassignment” be relaunched as “gender identity“. Hopefully this will clarify and enhance the position of non binary people.

It has some strong words for the NHS, pulling no punches with “ e NHS is letting down trans people: it is failing in its legal duty“. This seems to refer to both gender identity, and general healthcare services.

Now on to the detailed sections, starting with the Gender Recognition Act. The report:

  • Recognises that the Act has nothing to offer non binary people, stating that “The Government must look into the need to create a legal category“.
  • Urges the government, “within the current parliament” to “bring forward proposals to update the Gender Recognition Act, in line with the principles of gender self-declaration“.
  • Recognises that the Spousal Veto is open to abuse and that this is “deplorable and inexcusable“, but recommends that the veto remain in place.
  • Recommends that gender recognition be available to 16 year olds, but suggests this should be subject to parental consent or Gillick Competency.
  • Notes there have been no prosecutions under Section 22 of the Act (the protection from outing clause), and expresses concern that this may be effectively useless. It suggests the Ministry of Justice “take action to address this“.

There’s some good stuff here. I’m pleased the committee spotted the uselessness of Section 22 as a piece of criminal law that is routinely violated and never enforced, and welcome suggestions that this be tightened up. I welcome the recognition of the need to extend recognition to non-binary people but am disappointed that the committee presents no suggestion as to how this might be attempted. Similarly, while it recognises the need for self determination instead of the current practice of having bureaucrats literally put your gender identity on trial, it presents no suggestions for how this might be done.

In regards to the above, the committee’s report is essentially, “isn’t this terrible? The government ought to do something!”

The attitude towards the Spousal Veto is extremely disappointing. The report notes that Scotland effectively did away with it, but stubbornly insists it must stay, while noting that abuse of it is “deplorable”. Again, it offers no suggestions to how such abuse might be prevented, nor what can be done in the instances where spousal consent is not possible to obtain (e.g. the spouse is in a coma, or cannot be contacted).

This is, perhaps, the most disappointing aspect of the report for me, and the point at which it is at its most timid. The justification for retaining the veto is both paper thin and nothing we haven’t heard before. Stating, “in a marriage where one party transitions, the non-trans spouse does have a legal right to be consulted if it is proposed to change the terms of the marriage contract in consequence“.

Let’s note here what it is that’s being vetoed: it’s not transition itself, nor any of the hormonal or surgical changes that have potentially profound consequences for the nature of what is supposed to be a life-long monogamous sexual relationship.

What is being vetoed is access to equality before the law.

While I will never agree that the veto is anything other than a gross and disgusting infringement on the liberty and humanity of trans people, I would perhaps understand it more if those defending it were able to present an argument that actually made sense. How can you possibly give a spouse power of veto over access to employment nondiscrimination, but not access to genital reconstruction surgery?

On The Equality Act, the report:

  • Suggests that the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” be replaced with “gender identity“.
  • Suggests clarification of the Act so it is obvious that its protections apply to children.
  • Recommends that the granting of a Gender Recognition Certificate prevents the exclusions on access to single sex services and jobs from applying to someone.
  • Recommends “the Government work with Sport England to produce guidance which help sporting groups realise that there are likely to be few occasions where exclusions are justified” from single sex sport competitions.

There’s some really good stuff here. The Equality Act was a rush-job at the end of the 2005-2010 parliament and many (myself included) think that its provisions for trans people are a mess as a result. The single most important change, perhaps, is changing the definition of what’s protected from discrimination from “gender reassignment” to “gender identity“. It is currently very unclear just “how trans” you have to be to be covered by the Act, and this should go a long way towards addressing that, especially for non-binary people.

At present, you can be fired from certain jobs (or prevented from applying for them), and refused access to single-sex services (such as domestic violence shelters and rape-crisis counselling) if you are trans, and this is explicitly legal under the Act. The report proposes removing these exceptions but only if you have a Gender Recognition Certificate. According to some legal experts I have spoken to in the past, this is very much the situation that existed prior to the Act passing in 2010.

This does risk widening the perceived gap between those who have a Gender Recognition Certificate and those who do not though. Given there are no actual proposals for how the Gender Recognition Act might be extended to non-binary people, if this proposal is implemented by itself then it very much maintains non-binary people as “second class” trans people, from a legal standpoint.

It also makes a retained Spousal Veto much nastier by creating the unpleasantly ironic situation where an embittered spouse of a trans person can subject them to domestic abuse while withholding their legal right to access a domestic violence shelter.

There are kinds of discrimination that the Equality Act allows which the report does not address. One such is marriage in church, where if the priest reasonably thinks you are trans, they can refuse to marry you. Another relates to military service. The report has no recommendations to make here.

On The NHS the report:

  • Says there is “too much evidence” of discrimination towards trans people in the NHS.
  • Notes that trans people encounter “significant problems” accessing general healthcare and sometimes encounter “out-and-out prejudice
  • Notes GPs often lack understanding of trans issues and referral pathways and this can lead to “appropriate care not being provided“.
  • Calls for a “root and branch review of failures in professional development, commissioning and incidences of transphobia in healthcare to be published within six months.
  • States that the General Medical Council must provide reassurance that it takes transphobia seriously.
  • Welcomes ongoing depathologisation of trans identities, in the same way that LGB people have been depathologised.
  • Suggests that gender identity services be separated from mental health services, and perhaps become a discipline in their own right.
  • Recognises that while gender recognition on request is something it would support, it would not support the informed consent model for “medical intervention as profound and permanent as genital … surgery
  • Notes the inappropriateness of prescribed gendered codes of dress and mannerisms to access treatment.
  • Demands that the “lack of capacity” which is causing long waiting lists be addressed urgently.
  • Recommends much easier access to puberty blockers for adolescent trans people and notes the urgency this represents.

I have less of a dog in this fight than many, as my own interactions with transition related health services largely finished nearly a decade ago. I do still experience problems accessing general healthcare, and I have campaigned continually on the difficulties trans people face accessing all forms of healthcare, because it’s really important.

I know the recommendation against an informed consent model will be disappointing to many. I’m not going to talk about that in depth here as it’s a complex topic and this is already getting really long.

Many clinicians will likely welcome the possibility of gender identity services becoming a fully fledged discipline in their own right, rather than the poor and neglected stepchild of mental health trusts. I would welcome this too: GIC’s currently live rather like a primary-school aged Harry Potter, shut away in the cupboard under the stairs by an adoptive family that would really rather they weren’t there at all, and if pushed, doesn’t really hold with “that sort of nonsense”. In order for GICs to properly reform and grow, they should be set free.

The last major section is called Tackling Everyday Transphobia. The report:

  • Notes that legal change will “only bite” if there is social change too.
  • Calls for the Ministry of Justice to work with trans people on hate crimes reporting.
  • Calls for the government to strengthen hate crime legislation.
  • States that the requirement for a doctor’s note to obtain an updated-gender passport “must be dropped“.
  • Calls for public bodies to justify those occasions where they record name and gender, and notes there is no such thing as a “legal name” in the UK.
  • States that the UK “must” introduce “an option to record gender as ‘X’ on a passport“.
  • Suggests the government move towards non-gendering of official records as a general principle.
  • Notes it is not appropriate for trans people in prison to be put in solitary confinement just because they are trans.
  • Asks the prison service to clarify its position on trans prisoners and requires prison staff training and that the implementation of policy be monitored.
  • Tasks the Independent Press Standards Organisation and OFCOM with working out how to get trans people to complain about poor representation.
  • Notes harassment of trans people online needs to be taken seriously.
  • Suggests schools need to cover trans issues in Personal, Social and Health Eductation.
  • Asks further education bodies to better promote trans equality.
  • Calls for trans-appropriate training of social workers “as a matter of urgency

This is the single largest section and there’s a lot here. The stuff on official documents is eminently sensible and the call for X markers on passports (with a move towards removing gender on them altogether) is very welcome indeed.

Treatment of trans people in prisons is a festering sore and urgently needs addressing. The committee seems, in its language, to be putting the prison service on notice, and I welcome that.

I think the committee have missed the point on press and media depictions of trans people. The problem isn’t that trans people aren’t complaining; it’s that nothing is done in response. This is symptomatic of a much larger problem with the press in our society, and I’m not optimistic much will happen any time soon.

I couldn’t help but smile at the suggestion trans issues be covered in PHSE. At my school, the only time they were mentioned was to note that people like me “should be locked up”. Things have improved, thank goodness.

Internet harassment really needs to be tackled. I had a nervous breakdown because of it 2 years ago. This report doesn’t suggest any kind of compulsion to do anything about it though. The government, apparently, doesn’t want to tell ISPs what to do (apart from when it comes to spying on us and making them censor LGBT news sites as “porn”).

I will close by apologising for the length, but there was a lot to get through and the committee have done a thorough job.

What they’ve produced is a curate’s egg. There’s some really good stuff in here, but some of it is really disappointing too, particularly the stuff about the Spousal Veto, especially since Scotland proved there is no need for it whatsoever. I can only wonder why the government is so attached to it, particularly since this report, if implemented, gives it more teeth.

And finally, a word of caution. This is not a bill before parliament. It’s a report from a committee, and while it contains a list of recommendations, it doesn’t have the power to implement any of them without ministerial support.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and quite a big one.

But the Spousal Veto guys – sort yourselves out, seriously.