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Pale Towers of Stone, the Dolomites

Pale towers of stone

Intrepid climbers savor success

Griffin on the ascent
by Elizabeth Bradley

The Dolomites. Dramatic pale towers of stone in an alien, harsh landscape. For years, I’d admired the haunting photographs of this mountain range in northeastern Italy. When our family decided on a summer trip to Italy, our bucket list included the Dolomites, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And what to do in the Dolomites for a family with four boys between the ages of 12 and 17? The Vie Ferrate, or Iron Roads, established in World War I by battling Italian and Austrian soldiers, are now maintained and expanded by local climbing guides and supported by a network of rifugios (small inns). On Top, Ltd, arranged a guided 5-day trip for us with our days spent climbing among the Vie Ferrate and our nights in charming rifugios.

About a 3 –hour drive north of Venice, we passed through the lively town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, home of the 1956 Olympics, and followed the winding road to the Falzarego Pass where a cable car soars up to the Rifugio Lagazuoi (2,752 m or 9,000 ft). On our arrival at the picturesque wooden chalet, we stashed our packs in double rooms with baths down the hall, quite luxurious for a rifugio. A hike around the summit gave us an opportunity to admire the 360-degree view over the adjacent valleys and across to the massive, rocky peaks surrounding us. Our day ended with a traditional (and yummy) 3-course meal paired with an excellent Italian red wine.

Our mountain guide, Icaro de Monte (really), met us the following morning carrying headlamps for our first Via Ferrata: a tunnel. Carved both by the Austrians from the top of the mountain and the Italians attacking from below, the connecting network of tunnels is now an open-air museum with re-built machine gun emplacements, surveillance sites, and troops’ quarters to illustrate the miserable conditions of this World War I front. Over one million troops died on this frontline and their memories seemed especially poignant with two boys of their age accompanying us. Although not technically challenging, this Via Ferrata still required constant attention to avoid slips and bumps. Besides a fascinating lesson in WWI history, we were rewarded with stunning views between the tunnels.

In the afternoon, after fitting our helmets, climbing harnesses and gloves, we plunged behind a waterfall and started up the seemingly sheer cliff above us. Clipping our harnesses into the stationary cable system gave us plenty of protection in case of a fall; although well protected, we still experienced a thrill as the gorge dropped beneath us. At the top, a green alpine valley dotted with flowers and a stroll back out to the road returned us to the delightful town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. That night, we enjoyed the fruits of civilization: hot showers at the Hotel Villa Alpina, pizza, red wine, and the World Cup on TV.

The next couple of days found us in the Tre Cimi di Lavaredo area starting with a steep hike up to the charming Rifugio Auronzo. Icaro recommended the excellent homemade apple strudel served by a lovely blonde, blue-eyed waitress dressed in a low-cut dirndl. She and her brother, both Italians, chatted to each other in German with an occasional Italian phrase. This area of the Dolomites retains strong ties to the Austrian culture and was, in fact, Austrian until WWI.

After lunch, we hiked through snow and ice, even though it was June, to our first technical Via Ferrata: a vertical ascent helped by cables and fixed ladders straight up the cliff. We quickly became accustomed to the rhythm of clipping our carabineers onto the cables, always keeping one attached. Biking gloves protected our hands from sharp spurs on the cables. As we climbed, mountain weather moved in and rain slicked the metal rungs and the cliff face. Icaro dropped back with the slower members of our group while Griffin, our 17-year old, forged ahead leading the rest of us. Confident and strong, he led us interminably onward until the trail widened enough to re-group just below the last ascent to the peak. Twice, we met other groups of descending climbers requiring a complicated dance to move around each other while staying connected to the cable system. At the top, clouds billowed around us and gave us thrilling glimpses of the still higher peaks above and the sheer drops to the valley floor thousands of feet below us. We all enjoyed the excitement of our 12 year-old, Wyatt, to be on the top of the world and his first mountain peak. Back at the rifugio, the hot fire and delicious meal, accompanied by a Radler (1/2 beer & 1/2 lemonade), was the perfect ending to the day.

Another day, another Via Ferrata. With our full packs, we hiked between valleys on a trail traversing a huge cliff face. Where the trail narrowed dangerously, we clipped into the fixed cables and avoided looking down. Lunch was home-made spatzle with wild mushrooms and Italian sausage at another rifugio boasting an endless view over a vast field, still marked with traces of roads and buildings from WWI to the looming peaks beyond. Our afternoon Via Ferrata started with another tunnel section, cold and dank, before exiting on a knife-edge ridge with cliffs dropping away on both sides of us. We stashed our packs in a cave dug by WWI soldiers and quickly summited an adjacent peak with a grand view of the Tre Cime themselves: 3 large, tooth-like peaks known by climbers around the world.

The Pian de Cengia Rifugio was our home for the night: a dramatic view of the limestone cliffs and decorated with cheery red shutters. Like many of the rifugios, it offered bunk beds in an unheated dormitory, no showers but warm water, wooden panels and a fireplace in the common area to chase off the mountain chill. The spartan accommodations contrasted with the gourmet food and wine that we enjoyed tremendously. Once in the rifugio, boots off; nothing to do except talk to one another, play riotous games of cards, question Icaro about his mountaineering experiences and Italy, and reconnect with one another without digital distractions. And Adam, a friend of our son Griffin, found a guitar to entertain us and the other guests.

Our last day in the Dolomites brought us to our most difficult Via Ferrata, climbing a small, vertical spire projecting along a line of peaks. Icaro led the climb and occasionally paused for the rest of us to catch up after particularly difficult pitches. As it turned out, Drake, our 14-year old excelled at coaching others up the rough sections. At one point, I looked up the route and said, “How am I ever going to get up that?” Drake called down clear directions and encouragement that helped me over the crux. Although we were never in any danger because of the fixed cable protection, the climb was still physically and psychologically challenging, and only three of us and Icaro summited to write our names in the log book at the top. With more time and an additional rope, Icaro promised that we all could have done so.

Our afternoon hike heading back to civilization (and hot showers) circled under the Tre Cimi where we could see the daring climbers on its sheer faces. We were plenty happy to have challenged ourselves safely on the Via Ferrate and returned home with a new stock of family jokes and a heightened appreciation for each other.

If You Go:
For guided adventure in the Dolomites, check out On Top Mountaineering.

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