Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites
June 18 - July 23, 2006
Via Ferrata Background Noise
Bill's little rumblings about hiking on a Via Ferrata route some day started out as background chit-chat again this year and slowly came to shape our visit to the Italian Alps--the birthplace and center of Via Ferrata trails. Via Ferrata are high mountain hiking routes that require some equipment to safely traverse the paths, though not serious rock climbing or mountaineering expertise. These trails allow one to walk among the pinnacles and other dramatic formations rather than just look up at them.
The usual equipment includes a helmet to deflect falling rocks and a harness with a pair of carabineers on short ropes. With the carabineers, one clips onto steel wires (hence the Via Ferrata or "iron way") previously hammered into the dolomite. This safety system allows one to walk with confidence along the more precarious stretches of the paths. It's a tamer version of rock climbing and is more often used for horizontal maneuvers than vertical ones.
Increasingly, Bill's talk was migrating from doing
Ferrate some day, to doing it this year. At age 55, one doesn't have to look far
for events that might curtail our traveling, so postponing this desire
fulfillment was looking increasingly foolish. "Why not do it now?" became the
issue rather than easily pushing it aside once more.
But there were problems to be solved: adding sturdier footwear to our already overloaded bikes; buying or renting the needed technical equipment; and acquiring the necessary skills. And Bill's longing was made more complicated by his fear of heights.
Walking the High Beam
By chance, a few weeks before Bill verbalized his intensifying Via Ferrata aspirations, I had developed a little lunchtime game to improve our balance despite the subtle losses due to aging. The game was simulating walking on a really low balance beam--but with our eyes closed. Vision is one of 3 elements of balance, and taking vision out of the loop makes the other 2 balance processes work harder.
We started out very sensibly by walking on a crack or line in the pavement like we were on a tight rope. After we had revived that sensation pattern in our bodies, we then practiced walking the same course with our eyes closed. Not too far to fall when you're standing on the ground and yet it was challenging to our brains. We were pleasantly surprised that we could traverse more of the "rope" after only a few attempts.
Next, I had upped the ante with a nice little curb in a Bellinzona, Switzerland park. It cleared the ground by an inch on 1 side and 2" on the other. We were amazed: we were only able to take a couple of steps with our eyes closed without drifting off the narrow curb the first few times, but after a dozen attempts, we were going 10 or 20 steps without "falling". After that, we kept looking for suitable "low beams" for a few minutes of practice after our picnic lunches.
The Swiss playgrounds with their "sliders" that you sit on like a Poma-Lift for skiers and then fly through the air on a pulley and wire also proved to be an unexpected training ground for confronting Bill's fears. We started playing on them just for the fun of it but soon realized that, like the 'balance beam,' they were serving another purpose.
Once Bill's Via Ferrata interests become more
moved to the high beam, but only with our eyes open.
Interesting, Bill seemed fearless. His balance was better than mine and he took
more steps than I did on our makeshift high beam. And he even dared to do a little leap between railings,
a maneuver he dubbed "Salto de lupo," a newly acquired Italian
for "Leap of the wolf".
Especially after his unprompted "Salto de lupo," Bill's fear of heights issue was looking bogus. But he definitely had a persistent fear of something more vague and we were going to have to look deeper to root it out. Doing a Via Ferrata would be a big investment in both time and money, so we wanted it to be a wonderful experience, not a public confrontation with inner demons.
Tracking Down The "Tarzani"
One of the delights about traveling is the unexpected and an unexpected quest became being doer's on instead of watchers of the ropes course we had ridden past on our way between mountain passes. We had seen a flimsy children's version in a Bulgarian seaside park last year called something like "Tarzani" and thought it looked like great fun. As we passed the much sturdier aerial obstacle park on the roadside in Val di Sole on the way down from Passo Tonale, we debated whether to do it or not.
I enjoy physical challenges that aren't too arduous or dangerous and jumped at the chance to join a trapeze class for one evening just before we started our traveling life. But Bill is generally more cautious and not so eager to do the unfamiliar with his body. The ropes course looked like a good training ground for the Vie Ferrate routes but of course, the unnamed fear made him reluctant to seize the opportunity that day.
After watching several adults on the course for 10 minutes, we went on with our planned ride to crest the next pass before it got insufferably hot, but regretted the decision the next day. Bill's soul searching that night told him that now was the time to confront these fears and the controlled environment of an aerial rope's course would be a logical intermediate step.
But getting back to the course was a problem. Our ride
over the pass had been on the side of the mountain with generally wider roads and
had been on the weekend,
felt quite safe. But climbing up
the side we had descended to get back to the ropes course in Val di Sole wasn't
at all inviting. Sharing the narrower, now uphill, road with trucks on a
weekday made biking up it look tedious and dangerous. Despite wanting to get
back over to the previous valley, neither of us were eager to go over this pass 2 more times in 2
days. Besides, it wasn't that pretty or interesting of a route.
It seemed simple enough to take a bus back the next day, as the distances weren't very great. We caught the 8:30 am bus to the top of the pass but once there learned that the connecting bus down to the other valley only ran twice a day and wouldn't be there 'til 11:30. It didn't take long to do the math: what would be a simple round trip outing in a car was going to be a 12 hour process by bus and would give us at most 2 hours at the ropes course. What we did accomplish in getting stuck for a few hours in this intermediate town at the pass was to check-out the rope's course company's webpage, which made us want to do the activity even more.
Online, the rafting company, Extreme Waves, looked like the professional, customer service-oriented business that we could entrust with our safety. A previous phone call had confirmed that they spoke enough English to make it all work. Armed with a new sense of urgency from looking at the webpage and also finding no similar opportunities in our next few weeks from our online search, Bill crafted a 3-day biking loop around the base of the mountain to return to the small valley town where Extreme Waves was located.
The Ropes Course in Our Sights
The plan was to arrive at Extreme Waves in the early afternoon after an easy ride on the last day of our return loop, dump our bikes and gear at a presumed nearby hotel, and then walk on the ropes and wires of their 4m (13') high square course. The next morning, we'd do the more difficult obstacles on the same poles at the10-11m (35') high level and if things were going well, we'd do the "Tarzaning" in a river canyon where we'd use many of the same skills but in the wild. But nothing had been simple in indulging our fantasy. The overnight thunderstorm had uncharacteristically brought hours of downpour the next day instead of the more typical brief soaking rain.
We arrived at Extreme Waves after riding all morning in the rain to find
the presumed owner/managers out in their raingear too. We all agreed that it
looked hopeless to do the ropes course that day but they urged us to be there the next
morning when they opened as better weather was on the way. They kindly called around for lodging and
found us a budget "rooms only" place when
they learned that we wanted no meals in the deal. At 15€
per person per night (about $19), we were paying about half of what we expected
to pay in this resort valley and were delighted with their choice.
We slogged up one more hill in the rain to meet our hostess who didn't bat an eye at our soggy clothes or dripping bikes. She looked unperturbed as she directed us to park our bikes in a furnished living area in her daylight basement. Eager to eat our much delayed lunch, we piled our wet clothes and panniers in the shower stall and watched the weather slowly improve.
In a matter of an hour or 2 the drenching rain stopped and temperatures in the 50° 's gave way to blue skies, with the air temperature rapidly heading towards 90°. We rotated our saturated clothing and soggy panniers on our suddenly scorching hot balcony, with almost all of it drying in a 20 minute stint in the direct sun. By 4 pm everything was dry and put away in our small room and we walked the 10 minutes back down to the river in hopes of doing the low ropes course.
The folks at Extreme Waves of course didn't recognize us dry and without the bikes. They hadn't expected us back that day and scrambled to accommodate us on the low course. We unfortunately forgot the camera in our flurry of recovering from the rain, but had a great time walking on wires and rope bridges as we worked our way around the obstacle course. Bill quickly confirmed that he wasn't really afraid of heights at all but that his anxiety had to do with other vaguer issues around doing unfamiliar physical skills.
I confronted my fear about stepping off into the air and
having to support myself with my insufficient arm strength as I held onto a
rope and slid down a wire. That was terrifying for me and unfortunately doing
the maneuver was the required last task to get down
off both the low and the high course. I had encountered that same fear when we
slid on the wires in a Switzerland playground, but did much better the second
time. In Switzerland however, we sat on a small disc and only kept our
selves upright with the strength of the arms. On the ropes course one had to
support all of their weight with their arms. (Or so I thought--when we were all
done with the 3 difference courses at Extreme Waves I learned that I could have been sitting in
the safety harness and it would have supported me.) But we were there to face fear and
be challenged, so it was all part of the process to feel that terror and overcome it.
The next day we remembered our camera and worked our way around the 35' high course. Much to our surprise, the added height wasn't edgy at all. We both could comfortably stop on the wire we were traversing or on a little platform between obstacles and take in the fine views or stare at the ground below us. The safety cables that we always attached to an overhead wire provided all the assurance we needed and our attentive spotter on the ground made sure we didn't unwittingly do anything foolish.
However the obstacles on the high course were much harder than on the low course and we later learned that not all participants make it through them. We were invited at a couple of junctures to attempt the new challenge and bail out if it was too much. But we were able to solve the body alignment issues well enough and rally sufficient strength to go on with each of them. Sometimes we had to balance on 1 foot while lifting the other up over an obstructing rope, other times we had to take a large step onto a wobbling rope or log without doing the splits in mid air. Each segment of the elevated course required a different combination of strength, agility, or balance.
"Tarzaning" in the Canyon
The icing on the cake in the afternoon was doing the "Tarzaning" course in a river ravine with an alpine guide. In Bulgaria, the "Tarzani" was the name given to the aerial ropes course but at Extreme Waves, it was the out-in-the-wild event.
Walter, our very cordial Argentinean guide, drove us to the site and together we hiked to the high end of the ravine. As we hiked up a steep forest trail, Walter explained that 40% of the land in this, the Trentino province, was more than 60% grade. And he shared that granite deposited by glaciers acted as water-propelled cutting tools on the soft dolomite strata, creating the ravine we would travel down on ropes and wires. On the walls of this steep dolomite ravine, the rafting company had strung wires and ladders similar to those on the ropes course to simulate how mountaineers use these devices to get around in sheer terrain or span wide gaps.
As promised to our now-weary bodies, the Tarzaning course was much less physically demanding than the high ropes course. The ropes course was more athletic and strenuous, the Tarzaning course was just plain fun. Arm strength was no longer an issue, nor was it necessary to figure out how to manage on wildly unstable footing. We just followed Walter's instructions as he lead us through the aerial maze threaded through the canyon. It was however different to be whizzing down a wire towards a solid rock face over a cascading stream than towards a little platform on a pole in a field.
Immensely satisfied with ourselves and the professionalism of Extreme Waves, we called it a day after doing 3 events in 24 hours. We could now head into the mountains with confidence that Bill wouldn't freeze on his first Via Ferrata. We also knew that we had confronted a much bigger assortment of physical challenges than we would on the hiking routes. Next would be solving the footwear problem; then it would be time to find the needed equipment and a guide for our first hike.
Our experiences on the aerial course highlighted for us, and especially me, the need for more upper body strength. We had always known that cycling strengthened our arms in only 1 position and for isometric holding as opposed to making them strong in a broad range of motion. My limited attempt to make up for this deficiency in our conditioning had been doing push-ups a few times a week over the last few years. But push-ups still involve only a few muscles over a narrow range of motion and I longed for more arm power on the ropes course.
The ropes course inspired us to look in Trento for exercise bands to work our shoulder, upper back, and arm muscles in a dozen different planes. Put off by the $20 and $30 price tags for the few options available, we settled for a free damaged bicycle inner tube from a bike shop. We cut the tube into 2 continuous loops of butyl rubber, with 1 strip being twice as wide as the other. Though not as elastic as the exercise bands for sale, the bike inner tube gave us 2 exercise bands of 2 different degrees of resistance to work with, and for free.
Bill snapped them up and put them in his "trunk" or home-made accessory bag on the top of his panniers so they would be easily accessible. The budget bands became a part of our picnic accessories to be pulled out with lunch. Several picnic lunches a week now end with 5 to 10 minutes of creative play with our bands. We use our feet, hands, railings, trees, and park benches to anchor one end of the band and do repetitive flexing and extending with 1 arm.
Our program wasn't at all systematic--each day we experimented
with the new height and angle options made available by our environment. We didn't
know exactly which muscles needed to be worked or how best to work them, so we just
tried new motions until we found weakness and then worked there. Even though our approach
was haphazard, we assumed that "better late than never" would be true for
developing the upper body strength needed for the Vie Ferrata in our future.
(See Travelers Fitness in
"What, How & Why" for more ideas, especially for graying
These Boots Weren't Made Just for Walking
In meticulously sifting through all of the possible culprits fueling Bill's anxiety about doing new physical activities, especially associated with heights, we outted a considerable anxiety about his feet. He worried about his ankles--ankles that were prone to spraining but had not since we starting doing some of our jogging on forest trails 20 years ago. He worried about a Via Ferrata guide rejecting us because our footwear was inadequate, whatever we had. He worried about his feet slipping and sliding out from under him. He worried about blisters.
Clearly the man needed a heavy set of stiff boots with aggressive soles to put his mind at ease, yet there were the downsides to such boots: we had little excess capacity for carrying bulky boots on our bikes; they would be used only few times; they would be expensive; there was no way to know that he had a good fit until hours of use; and his feet were happiest in sandals, about the only footwear he'd worn for the last 10 years.
We ignored the problems of buying boots and began the search on the day of our aborted bus ride to Extreme Waves. The resort town on the top of the mountain had several ski stores converted into summer hiking shops and we both tried on boots. A few days later, we carefully evaluated what we had learned from several hours of wearing the Extreme Waves loaner boots on the Tarzani canyon course. And we shopped 'til we dropped in the bigger city on our route, Trento, for boots.
Finally Bill bonded with a pair on special in Trento that were stiff enough and high enough to quiet the noise in his head. Even he laughed at the latest manifestation of his anxiety at the end of his boot-buying evening, which was a blister on 1 finger from pulling so hard on the laces. We hoped that this would be his only boot-related blister.
But my sandals being rejected by an alpine guide added to his fears, so I agreed to buy boots. But I drew the line at high tops because of the Achilles pain from wearing my borrowed boots--I would risk the wrath of a guide and forego ankle protection. My compromise would be using sports tape to protect my ankles from abrasion or supporting them if I got a sprain. But unlike Cinderella, there were no slippers just right for my nonstandard feet and I left Trento for the mountains without my "scarpe de montagna" as we had learned to ask for mountain shoes in Italian.
"AcroPark" near Cavalese
As we headed east towards the Dolomites and our unknown rendezvous with a Via Ferrata hike, we got a lead on another ropes course, even though it didn't show up on our online search for ones in northern Italy. It wasn't open for business on the day we arrived, though their literature indicated an opening date of 2 weeks earlier. "Perhaps tomorrow" we were told in Italian before the British woman switched to English. We rode to the next town to settle in for the night, resigned to calling before we headed out in the morning. Surprisingly, the next day they told our hostess that they were open, and we redid the 10% grades to get to their site.
But there was a little hitch in that only 1 of the 2 adult courses was completed. We were disappointed, but decided to traverse the available low course. It wasn't as hard or varied as the Extreme Waves course, but it reinforced our new skills. Unlike at Extreme Waves, this one gave us our own little pulleys that we attached ourselves before whizzing through the air on a 165' long wire. At the first course, we used pulleys already in place and on all but one in the canyon, our guide controlled the speed of our descent.
I was terrified at Extreme Waves when we used these "Tiroleans"
or sliding pulleys as I thought I had to hang on solely with the strength of my arms and learned too
late that I could just sit back in the harness. Jumping off and hanging on for
what seemed like dear life was at the edge of what I could do; sitting in the
harness was down right fun. Using the support of the harness was more like
sitting in a
swing where you lean back, your feet lift up, and off you go. So, this time I
got to enjoy the excitement of being on the 4 different slider wires instead of the having the terror-challenge
that can be had with these "Tiroleans".
At the end of the hour long course, we chatted with one of the few other staff who spoke some English about the higher course. He told us that it was finished but that they only allowed selected people to use it, which miffed us. He said it was 12m high; we countered with our experience with an 11m high course (only 3' lower). He said that you must be very strong; we said we'd done the same obstacles before. We said we'd like to do it; he said only certain people were allowed. We wanted to say: "You SOB," but didn't. Clearly his insults were just face-saving, though we wondered why.
This higher course obviously wasn't finished as the woman had said before. As we talked with the man about the high course, it was clear that red and white plastic tape marked the bottom area as closed and 2 workmen were busy installing more equipment. Nobody was on it in the air and Bill spotted where there were missing connecting segments. How the man possibly believed we couldn't see these things was beyond us. With the mixed bag of seething from his insults and the lingering fun of the course, we headed off to relive our adventure over a picnic lunch in the adjacent park area.
While lounging under the trees, we both laughed when Bill spontaneously declared that he'd had absolutely no fear of the heights. His lack of fear was reinforced for him when the man had told us the other course was too high and scary for us. Of course, it was Bill's presumed fear of heights that had lead to us doing these rope courses.
Aside from anchoring his lack of fear in his mind, it was good to have done the longer
distances on the Tiroleans and Bill had even mastered steering when he
started turning around backwards. The couple of new obstacles were interesting, like walking over nets, climbing a
horizontal path along a vertically hung cargo net, and stepping on the tops of
widely spaced poles. But nothing challenged our strength, flexibility or balance skills as much as the Extreme Waves course.
And though the AcroPark had a nice mini-course on which to learn to use the
equipment that the other course lacked, we didn't have the undivided attention
of a spotter as we had before, something that had helped keep it safe.
I had been lucky: I found a pair of Tecnica brand boots suitable to shod my Fred Flintstone feet the night before our visit to the AcroPark. They were the non-boot, high-top boot I had hoped for in being: light weight; low cut in back to spare my Achilles tendon of any pressure; just high enough for ankle protection; designed with a notch on the back sole to allow for a rolling gait instead of a clomping one; flexible in the forefoot; lined with Goretex; and vacuous in the toe box for my wide, thick feet. They performed well on the course and were comfy to wear. Though the bunions I had slowly nurtured back to health by wearing nothing but sandals for the last 15 years were red in the evening after only a few hours of wearing. That reinforced my plan to still take my sandals hiking to wear as much as possible to prevent painful inflammation from settling in again.
All Dressed Up & No Where To Go
Now we were set: we had vanquished Bill's paper tiger fear of heights; we had countered his fear of doing new physical challenges with a tidal wave of successes on obstacles that went beyond those encountered on Vie Ferratas; we had quieted his footwear related fretting by both lugging around high top boots; he had a book of Via Ferrata routes in the Dolomites that he was studying every night; and we had had limited experience with the Via Ferrata harnesses and carabineer systems. Now all we needed was an alpine guide to take us on our first Via Ferrata course. Like the other steps leading up to this point, it too would be a 'hit and miss' process.
The next plan was to inquire at our hotel and
at the tourist info office, if there was one, in each new mountain town about groups going on Vie Ferrata
or guides who would take the 2 of us. We had no idea what it would cost and
hoped we could coordinate a guided situation and the ability to rent equipment.
Purchasing our own equipment would set us back about $400 for the 2 of us--an
unwelcome expense and more equipment to pack around--both of which we hoped to
The valleys and their towns ticked away--Val D'Cembra, Val D'Fassa, Cavalese, Moena, and Tiers--in each we inquired about Via Ferrata, guides, and equipment. These weren't the hot spots for Via Ferrata, but we hoped that even if we didn't line up an outing at one of them, that by the time we got to the heart of Via Ferrata territory that we'd be better informed about the culture and prices and therefore be positioned to make a quick decision.
In between chances to inquire about guides, we impatiently shifted our attention to what was before us. We admired the purple-red rocks along the walls of Val d'Cembra. We learned that this porphyry is laced with an extra heavy dose of quartz, making it exceptional for cobble stones--a fact that would be underscored by seeing the distinctive purple rock beneath our feet and wheels for weeks to come.
As we traveled farther east, we also learned
that the ubiquitous, graceful larch trees all around us were synonymous with the iron
industry for over a thousand years in Trentino. Both the larch trees and iron
ore were in great abundance and had been exploited by the Romans for smelting
iron. Charcoal made from larch wood was prized as it burned hotter than anything else around.
The regional iron industry peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries and then declined as the larch stands were decimated in the process of making the charcoal needed for extracting the iron. Fortunately for us, the beautiful larch stands had recovered in many of the mountain areas we were traveling through and the nugget of history added to our enjoyment of them.
Then it happened, at dinner time we walked into the well-known alpine school in Ortisei (St Ulrich) and Manfred, a reassuring and enthusiastic English speaking guide, had just the Via Ferrata route for us. At least 1 other wanna-be was waiting for others to reduce the price from the private rate of 245€ to the group rate of 80€ per person. The route would be of medium difficulty instead of being an easy one, but we were assured it was suitable for fit beginners. The guide would pick us up at 8 the next morning at our B&B, drive us all to the route 30 minutes away, and escort us up what he considered the most beautiful path in the area that was suitable for beginners. Helmets and harnesses were included in the price. Going the next morning would mean devoting our evening to getting our food and gear organized and lining up lodging for a second night's stay in town.
The suddenness of our success in finding a competitively priced excursion with fewer hassles than at earlier attempts was a bit unnerving. But the plan had always been to be ready to go in a flash. We had our boots and we'd replaced a disintegrating backpack the same day we discovered its ripped-out seams just so we could turn on a dime. The only errands we'd have to do were to walk back to the shopping district to buy bread for lunch and get more cash to pay for the outing.
Fortunately our hostess said we could keep our B&B room for
another night, as digging out the odds and ends we'd need for the next day filled the evening.
Aside from lunch, most of what we took were 'just in case' items: our
professional level "ready for
anything" first aid kit; rain gear; spare socks; extra sunscreen; and
our cycling glasses with
dark lenses replacing our usual clear ones in case it became too glary for our
glasses. Aside from our 1 pair of walking sticks and our new boots, everything
we were taking was make-shift.
Instead of the cool $100 day packs favored by the serious hikers in the area, we had 1 Tour d'Suisse freebie and our new $15 backpack. Most hikers we'd seen were using metal, Swiss-made water bottles but Bill would reuse a bottled-water bottle and I was taking my water in a plastic-lined Dromedary bag we strap on the bikes. No "proper" (as the Brit's would say) hiking shorts or pants for us with matching plaid shirts but our daily biking uniform of sunscreening long pants and shirts. And biking gloves would do instead of buying special Via Ferrata gloves.
Our gear wasn't customized for outings in the mountains like most visitors to these famous recreational areas, yet we were confident that we had what we needed. We knew our gear well; knew that we could move well in it; and knew that we'd be comfortable if the weather turned bad. We had the needed confidence-bolstering from boots that were newly added to our inventory and the experience on the aerial courses that said that both we and our gear were up to the challenge.
Via Ferrata Tridentina on Gruppo del Sella
The "Tridentina" Via Ferrata route was all that Manfred had promised and he was the supportive guide that we had thought he would be. Our group of what grew to 5 walked for a few minutes from the parking area to the base of a sheer face where we were tied together with Manfred's safety rope, and up we went. I, as the only woman and presumed to be the weak link, had the position right behind Manfred. Bill came next, then Tony the English man, and George from Switzerland who was on his 2nd or 3rd Via Ferrata outing. Though Tony was also new to Via Ferrata, he was a tri-athlete who had climbed Monte Blanc among other adventurous things and so Bill and I were definitely the least experienced in the group.
We did about 3/4's of a mile of traversing, both up and horizontally, along the steel wires of the Via Ferrata and hoisted ourselves up about 2,000' in the course of about 3 hours. It was a fantastic experience for both of us. It gave us the thrill that rock climbers get in climbing up a pinnacle without needing their skill. We still supplied all the power and were constantly using hand and foot holds in the rock, but unlike the rock climbers, we often had this previously strung steel wire to assist us. We'd clip our carabineers that were attached to our safety harness to the wire to catch us if we slipped and sometimes hung on to the wire when a good hold in the rock wasn't available. There were a couple of vertically placed steel ladders cemented into the rock that we climbed when available and then we clipped to an adjacent safety wire.
Crumbly dolomite has an abundance of little nooks and crannies in it providing even novices with lots of knobs to step on or grab hold of. It was exhausting, however. About half way through the climb up we both were getting tired. There was the physical effort of climbing, often in awkward and unfamiliar positions that came with searching for a secure hold, and then the concentration required.
Every step taken required keeping the security rope tied to
Manfred on the proper side of our bodies, both the length of rope in front and
behind us. Before moving forward, I'd need to look back at Bill to make sure I
had enough slack in the rope between us to step up to my new perch without
jerking him off balance. Then the carabineer on the safety wire had to be slid
along, always being on the uphill side of my hand. Every few steps the carabineer would have to be
released, moved around a piton holding the wire in the rock, and re-closed. The
rhythm of clipping and untangling was easiest in the middle of the route: at the
beginning we were clumsy in establishing our routine and at the end we blundered
a bit as we were suffering from mental fatigue.
But Manfred watched over us and was generous with his encouraging and kind words. He managed to tell us "not to do that again" when we made a mistake without triggering defensiveness. And he gave us several breaks when we had a secure place along the route to rest and admire the views. A skilled people-person, he told us at the beginning to put our cameras away until at the top and that he would take the pictures for us. I am sure that was to keep the tempo up and to minimize foolish maneuvers for a photo. As promised, a few hours after we returned to town, he gave us each a freshly burned CD with all of the photos he had taken.
As expected, all of our preparation work had paid off. Bill
enjoyed the security of his rigid boots and I enjoyed the non-boot flexibility
of my "Gumbie" like boots. And surprisingly, Manfred complimented us on our
selections, saying that we had perfect footwear for Via Ferrata. The bulkier
boots that some had tried to sell us weren't necessary he said and that we had
the well-suited, sticky soles for the climbing.
The preparation work on our aerial courses had given us the confidence that we wouldn't freeze-up as we got to dizzier heights and had given us some practice with the safety equipment. The obstacles on the ropes courses were more varied and much harder than anything on the Via Ferrata, though the Via Ferrata was taxing because of the prolonged effort required.
Beer gardens and sidewalk cafes are the backbone of European social life and so not surprisingly, that ambiance was waiting for us at the "refugio" or mountain hut at the plateau at 2587m or about the 8500' level. A rustic lodge with a broad wooden patio with picnic tables was swarming with folks who had come on foot one way or another. A few would be over-nighting at the hut to extend their stay and activities--a hut that got its supplies from a special freight wire suspended over the rock faces. We settled for buying a lemonade and more bottled water to supplement our picnic lunch, though the cold beers sure looked good.
We were surprised to read a plaque near the top of our route
that the bridge we traversed between 2 pinnacles and the wire course itself had
built by the Italian army in 1967 as a training course. The Refugio F. Cavazza operators were
voluntary caretakers of the course since that time. Not all of their customers
arrived on the Via Ferrata but they wanted those who did to be happy. Alpine
guides like Manfred inspect the fittings and cables on each climb and report any
needed repairs to the host. Manfred commented that 2 weeks ago he had requested a
repair and noticed on our climb that it had been made.
Our real shortcoming for the outing--which was being too slow descending on rough trails and in loose rock--had been revealed 4 days earlier. It was then that we had taken our new boots for a hike up about 2400' from a chair lift at the mountain town of Vigo. We had learned on that hike that our cycling muscles were well conditioned for the challenges of climbing uphill but that there was absolutely no crossover with descending. The thunderstorm and closing times for the chair lift back to Vigo demanded that we hurry down, but our leg muscles promised to retaliate and we were frustrated by our lack of skill in delivering the additional speed required. Yet another thunderstorm necessitated a rapid descent on our first Via Ferrata outing with Manfred and Bill and I slowed the group down. At our fastest, we probably traveled at half the speed of the other 3.
Manfred finally split from the group to scramble
straight down the scree field to the parking lot and drove to a higher point to
meet the rest of us. He put George in charge of leading our group on a well-marked alternate
route to the road at Passo Gardena--a route that required about 1/3 less elevation drop and eventually got us onto a dirt trail
instead of staying in loose rock.
We were of course chagrinned and apologetic that we couldn't keep up, but we were teetering on the edge of feeling unsafe walking at such a fast clip on steep slopes. As we huffed and puffed and stared at our feet, we tried to imagine our next new training program--one that would condition us for the demands of scrambling down rocky slopes in between hiking outings. We both enjoyed the trip up and wanted to do another Via Ferrata soon but clearly needed to ramp-up our our descent skills.
As expected, the upscale ski resort town of Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Dolomites delivered our next guided Via Ferrata experience. It however wasn't the delightful experience of being supported by a people-person guide but a trial by fire for beginners with an impatient guide with a small English vocabulary. We coached the British father-son pair that made up our 4-some as best we could, giving them the instructions we had gotten on our first Via Ferrata that they weren't getting on theirs.
When I didn't understand the corrections for what was
introduced as an important safety mistake I was making, our guide said "Forget
it." Fortunately Bill had what was a correct guess about the instruction, which I
was later able to confirm with the guide. When our 2 groups from the alpine
center were held-up by an even pokier English-speaking trio without a local
guide, the second guide
began complaining to the 3-some in Italian. The haranguing was unmistakable and
detracted from our experience. It's never fun being around hostility, even if
it's not directed at you, and we felt our safety was compromised by our 2
guide's preoccupation with the trio rather than watching out for us.
Amazingly, the guide never introduced himself nor did he learn the names of our 4-some. The short list of instructions: "trust your feet", "don't use your arms so much," "take little steps" were shouted out, though we never knew for whom they were intended. And I was quite surprised to see how much time the guide spent with his back to our group. He did however teach us to run straight down the fall line of a steep scree field--a thrilling maneuver that rapidly becomes very treacherous if the rubble becomes too shallow.
A Second Chance, A Third Via Ferrata
Our second Via Ferrata was definitely more physically challenging than our first, though not nearly as pleasant a social experience. We decided to both anchor our new skills and clear the air a bit by doing a third outing, this time without a guide. After many unsuccessful attempts to rent equipment as we cruised through the Dolomite towns, we found a mountain shop in Cortina ready to accommodate us. Bill picked out a route that began at the top of a series of cable cars from downtown Cortina and I picked up the gear.
We were a little nervous but correctly judged that we were up to the challenge of doing the route alone. We picked our way through the well marked Via Ferrata route and admired the stunning views. But like on the other 2 Via Ferrata and our hike above Vigo, our pokiness was a serious problem. We were not traveling at the rate estimated by either of Bill's 2 guide books, which once again put us at risk for not getting down the mountain before the lifts closed. After our picnic at the top, we had to all but curtail the photos and lingering over the views and instead scampered down as quickly as we could.
By going at what felt like break-neck speeds down the loose rock slopes, we were able to make up enough time to partially redeem ourselves. We arrived at the lift well before closing but didn't miss the lesson, as we were the last ones off that end of the route. To continue doing Vie Ferrata, we would need to pick-up our speed considerably, even just walking free on the trails. The routes we were on were all designed as one day activities and at our slow speed we risked making them overnighters, but without having the necessary camping equipment with us.
|Picnicking at the top of our unguided Via Ferrata hike.||Where were those steels wires when we needed them?|
Pooped and thrilled as we descended down the ski lifts into Cortina, we then returned the rented Via Ferrata harnesses and helmets and walked back to our hotel. We savored those last moments in the warm afternoon sun, knowing that our first Via Ferrata season was now over.
Doing the Vie Ferrata hikes and all the build up to them had been exciting and challenging and had opened doors to new adventures for us. We were simultaneously very satisfied with what we accomplished and were looking forward to going on more hikes next year. In fact, Bill has already crafted his Dolomite plans for 2007, both with selecting Via Ferrata routes and in devising a new biking approach into the region. The Italian Dolomites continue to be our favorite venue for cyclotouring and our pleasure in being in the area was deepened by doing something so authentic for the region.
But as we headed for our hotel, we knew that this was not only the closing act in our 2006 Via Ferrata drama, but also for the drama of being in the Dolomites for this year. Cortina is on the edge of the Dolomites and it is often our last stop in this stunning section of the Italian Alps, with the next day's ride usually delivering us to the lower hills of Austria. This year would be no exception. That night we'd pack-up our boots and refocus our attention on seeing the sights from the saddle instead of from the tops of the peaks.
Should your interest in doing a Via Ferrata hike be piqued by our experience, the notes we are keeping on guides and where to rent equipment are available in our "Italy-Northern" Country Details file.
Where We Are Now 9/7/06
We are still in Germany, in the city of Paterborn. We are heading west towards Düsseldorf, having abandoned our journey north to the Black Sea. Our northward route was looking too short on sightseeing venues whereas turning west will give deliver some Roman and Industrial Revolution sites. And at last, the weather has improved as it rained almost every day in August.
We are returning to the States at the end of September for what we expect to be a brief stay. Our next stop will be New Zealand and departing from the States rather than Europe will give us the more generous (though shrinking) baggage allowance that we need for the bikes. We'll return to the States in March 2007 for our longer annual stay. We hope to see some of you then.