Bones, Bombs, and Barbed Wire
The Making of the Vie Farrate .
I followed my climbing partner, a bumptious 56-year-old Catholic priest from Glasgow, Scotland, up our fourth alpine face in three days. Father David Trainer, with whom I've climbed often in the last ten years, had that wide-eyed, excited-dog look he gets when he's having mountain funas for example in the Himalayas, where he trekked the Everest massif, and the Swiss Alps, where he's been posting routes for more than 30 years. This time it was 8,856-foot Mount Collac in the Dolomites, the Italian Alps, that got him riled up. "Hah, it's just brill-yunt," he kept yelling back in my direction. "Jings, look at that rrrauck," he added, as we traversed beneath a gloomy overhang on smooth, snow-white slabs. "I'll be sayin' me mummy-daddies any minute!"
Our route on that warm, clear dayone of a string of silken, see-forever days last seasonushered us up long vertical sections and along narrow traverses, with precipitous glimpses down to miniature villages and up along ranks of massive, stony ridges. We were delightfully unencumbered: We carried almost no equipment, just a couple of carabiners apiece, plus a short length of rope attached to a harness. But we weren't free-climbing: We were on a via ferrata ("iron path"), one of the region's 140-plus climbing and hiking routes outfitted with steel cables, cast-iron steps, and the occasional ladder bolted permanently to the rock by Austrian and Italian troops during World War I and by Italian climbers from the 1930s to 1950s.
On vie ferrate, climbers with little or no experience can waltz up routes with a thousand feet of vertical gain by simply clipping into the fixed cables and other features. This means that you can often stand at the base of a peak, decide to climb it by a classic line, and be back at the hotel in time for an afternoon glass of Merlot del Trentino. (This, as opposed to the arduous approaches, permit hassles, and huge racks of climbing gearropes, slings, camming devices, nuts, etc.required of comparable backcountry routes in the Sierra Nevada, where I often climb.) Wise novices will first tackle the more gradual, less exposed routes of the Dolomites, such as Via Alberto Bonacossa, on the Tre Cima, or Via Ivano Dibona, on Monte Cristallo. Only climbers with technical-terrain experiencespecifically on Class 5 routesshould attempt the region's more difficult paths: Via Tomaselli, on Punta Sud; Via Ferrata Cesare Piazzetta, on Piz Boè and Via Ferrata Bolver-Lugli, on Cima della Pala. All of which, of course, are spectacular.
In fact, the Dolomitestheir name comes from Deodat de Dolomieu, the French mineralogist who first identified the composition of the mountains' namesake rock in 1789are among the most ragged and vertiginous peaks in the world. For more than a century, Europe's best rock climbers have flocked to the 14 separate massifs and eighteen 10,000-foot-plus summits that stretch over a Delaware-size chunk of northeastern Italy from the Trentino-Alto Adige region north to the Veneto region. Pervasive fractures and sculptings in the white and gray calcium- and magnesium-stratified limestonethe residue of coral and sponges from the ancient tropical sea that once existed heremake for plentiful handholds and footholds. Having had more experience with the monolithic simplicity of California granite, I found the Dolomite stuff chalky and unnervingly crumbly-looking, but I quickly discovered that it's solid and hard to the touch and learned to trust it.
Far less trustworthy, however, is the weather: Clouds and mist can blow in quickly, obscuring routes and walk-offs; midsummer travelers should be especially cautious, since afternoon thunderstorms, always a risk in the mountains, tend to strike here, most often in July. Apart from the obvious dangers, a system of iron cables leading down a rock face is essentially a lightning rod, so keep abreast of weather forecasts and set out early in the morning if afternoon storms have occurred on previous days.