The lord of the rungs

Don't fancy climbing the Italian Dolomites by the usual method? Fine – the locals ran ladders up them a century ago. Alun Davies explains the lure of the via ferrata
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The Independent Online

If a resident of the Italian Dolomites invites you on a Sunday-afternoon ramble, burn the woolly hat, buy a hard one and prepare for lift-off. In this mountainous part of northern Italy, a stroll in the hills has little to do with the traditional British image of a red-sock rambler plodding along a gently rolling bridleway. In the Dolomites, walkers of all ages squeeze into Lycra, slip into a harness and reach for the ironways, or as they like to call them in Italy, the via ferrata.

If a resident of the Italian Dolomites invites you on a Sunday-afternoon ramble, burn the woolly hat, buy a hard one and prepare for lift-off. In this mountainous part of northern Italy, a stroll in the hills has little to do with the traditional British image of a red-sock rambler plodding along a gently rolling bridleway. In the Dolomites, walkers of all ages squeeze into Lycra, slip into a harness and reach for the ironways, or as they like to call them in Italy, the via ferrata.

Via ferrata routes are the airiest, and potentially scariest, trails in the world, where walkers and scramblers clip on to protective wire ropes bolted to vertical cliff-faces and safely ascend huge iron ladders, climb stairways of protruding metal pegs, cross gorges on swing bridges, traverse narrow ledges (some the width of windowsills) and scramble into outrageously exposed situations which would otherwise be the preserve of grizzly rock-jocks.

The history of these protected routes dates back to the First World War, when Italian and Austrian troops clashed along a front line that cut across the jagged ridges, rock towers and spiky summits of the Dolomites. To speed up access to the advanced positions, climbing aids were bolted on to huge limestone cliffs, and slender natural rock-ledges were widened to allow single-file progress. Evidence of the battles that raged on these precipitous peaks can still be found along many via ferrata routes in the shape of tunnel complexes, barbed-wire defences, trenches, cannon emplace-ments and huge bomb-craters.

Not all the via ferrata date back to the war; other paths and protected scrambles were put in place by rock climbers to provide a quick approach and descent from traditional climbing pitches. More recently, in the lower hills, there has been an increase in the number of shorter, more technical sports-climbing routes.

It didn't take long for adventurous walkers to wake up to the challenges and adrenaline rush of these routes, and their popularity led to the older routes being restored and new protected trails and climbs bolted in place.

There are now more than 100 via ferrata in the Dolomites, ranging in difficulty from undemanding, protected paths within the capacity of any reasonably fit walker with a head for heights right through to strenuous assisted climbs requiring a high level of technical ability and physical endurance.

My first encounter with a via ferrata was an old photograph of a guy dressed in breeches and Bavarian-style hat posing in bright sunlight on a narrow rock ledge above a seemingly bottomless precipice.

When I eventually arrived on the ledge on my first visit to the Dolomites the weather decided more drama was in order, and a lightning storm appeared out of nowhere. White-hot flashes sizzled the ridge-tops overhead, ear-splitting thunderclaps filled the voids, and hailstones rained down on the narrow ledges. All this while I was clipped on to the best conductor on the mountain with no escape route...

The common denominator on all routes is the magnificent scenery and huge exposure, which on the more challenging trails is nothing short of awesome (try 2,000ft sheer drop of awesome), serious (one-inch-wide footholds above 500ft of nothing), and extremely unnerving for anyone lacking a good head for heights.

For those who can hack it, there are few better days to be had on mountains anywhere in the world. Wire-rope protection bolted firmly alongside the routes is essential for safety, as is the use of a dedicated climbing kit.

This kit comprises a helmet, harness and a lanyard (short length of rope with a braking device) for clipping on to the cables. The lanyards are designed to withstand the high forces generated by a slip or fall. Fall factors (the force generated by a fall) resulting from a mishap on a via ferrata can be much higher than the force produced by a fall off a traditional climbing route. The lanyard and braking device must be capable of absorbing the energy of a fall to prevent equipment failure or physical injury.

Most via ferrata are snowbound during the winter months, making them very serious, some would say brutal, undertakings and way out of bounds for the walker or scrambler. By mid-June most are snow-free, but there is always the odd stretch of hard snow up on the higher routes, and wintry storms are possible at any time of year in the Dolomites.

In the prime summer months of July, August and September, the excellent mountain refuges are in full swing and the via ferrata are alive with hordes of adventure-seeking Italians, Germans and French – and an increasing number of Brits – testing their skills and seeking thrills. It is difficult to prepare for a via ferrata experience in the UK. On many occasions I have led mixed-experience groups to attempt the mighty Bocchette via ferrata in the Brenta. All were successful, but I have also witnessed two cases of vertigo, and it's a traumatic experience for the victim.

Although it is not a technically demand-ing route, the Bocchette is the "classic" via ferrata experience (see "The route", right), complete with awe-inspiring scenery, hair-raising ladder ascents and an enormously exposed, though perfectly safe, ledge traverse across a huge, vertical rock-face which, in parts, is no more than a foot wide over a drop of a 1,000ft or more.

Quite simply, the Dolomites and the via ferrata are an exhilarating adventure playground for adults, and with low-cost airlines flying into the area they are accessible without breaking the bank. Isn't it time you slipped into some Lycra?

A guide to the 'via ferrata' appears in the January/February issue of 'Adventure Travel' magazine, of which Alun Davies is editor (01789 488 166)

The route
The Bocchette via ferrata follows the north-south spine of the Brenta Massif rising to the west of Trento. The most famous section is the Bocchette Centrale, which begins at a glaciated pass above the refuge Alimonta and ends at the Bocca di Brenta. It's not particularly difficult. But there's an early warning of what degree of exposure to expect as the initial series of ladders leading from the Stulmini glacier dumps the climber on a small knife-edge ridge with huge drops all around. The ridge leads to the first of the mightily exposed narrow ledges. Next up comes one of the most dramatic 'paths' you'll ever come across – a narrow ledge blasted out of a sheer rock-face traverses a monstrous vertical cliff. Once past the Basso there's a tricky little scramble and traverse before the route enters a further ledge system and drops down to the pass via a series of ladders.

Do and don't
Do watch the movie Cliffhanger, in which Sylvester Stallone drops the girl and gets chased by the baddies along via ferrata routes. You will get a taster of the spectacular scenery, though ignore Sly's climbing technique.
Do check all the wire ropes and climbing aids before attaching your weight to the fixture. The via ferrata are well maintained, but you don't want to be the first to find out a bracket has been loosened by a lightning strike.
In summer, start early and be off the routes by mid-afternoon. Thunderstorms are common in late afternoon and the refuges get very busy.
Do pack at least a couple of litres of water for each route to avoid dehydration.The Dolomites get very hot in summer.
Travel insurance is a must, and it's vital you are covered for via ferrata routes. Most policies are riddled with exclusion clauses when it comes to mountain activities; make sure yours isn't.
Don't go out if there is any chance of lightning. It is no fun being clipped to the best conductor on the mountain.
Never set out without the recommended equipment. An unprotected fall can mean you don't get to enjoy old age.
Limestone is slippery when wet. Keep a close eye on the weather (most refuges post daily forecasts in English) and lay off the tougher routes if in doubt.

The facts
Ryanair fly into Brescia and Treviso, both about a two-hour drive to the south of the Dolomites, which are located in north-eastern Italy. For details of flights, visit www.ryanair.com
Specialist via ferrata equipment suppliers include: Petzl, 01539 625 493; Mammut, 01286 873 520; Camp, 0191 284 8444; Edelweiss, 0151 334 3631; Edelrid, 01539 733 842; Simond 01539 739 314. Salewa, 01768 779 877.

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