Easy Does It in the Dolomites


Mar 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Mountains and chalky crags abut the broad, deep-green swale of larch forests and hay-meadows of the Ampezzo Valley, just an hour's drive east of Canazei. There, you'll find an old mountain town tucked in the middle—Cortina, population 8,000—and some of the most history-rich vie ferrate, among them the famed Cinque Torre (Five Towers), now a magnet for European free-climbers. The town, a ski resort in winter (and site of the 1956 Winter Olympics), is a kind of anti-Aspen: elegant and luxe yet warmly human, full of comfortable old hotels built in a blocky chalet style.
Many of the most famous first ascents of the Cortina crags were claimed by Englishmen in the 1860s and '70s. In a burst of nationalistic pride, Davide Alberti Cuciarin, a guide born and raised in the valley, told us why. Rich English sportsmen asked Italian climbers to lead them for large fees; the Italians, who had summited the mountains many times already, obligingly hid the pitons that they'd placed on previous climbs.

About 60 years later, another sort of assault took place: Italian and Austrian troops battled it out in the Tofane Group and Fanis Group, three miles west of Cortina, during the First World War. Many of the paths the soldiers relied on to carry supplies into the mountains were later adopted by via ferrata pioneers. Thus, on the Fanis Group's Via Tomaselli, you begin by scaling straight up an immense, rough-textured vertical wall of black-streaked rock, past ladders jammed into cracks by Austrian troops who fought the Italians to a bloody standstill over three years. After you reach the long, narrow summit, the world drops away in all directions and you realize that avoiding a fall is challenging enough—engaging in combat is inconceivable.
The Treaty of Versailles, in 1919, finally sorted things out, giving Italy control of the formerly Austrian-held Dolomites. These days, the main signs of the region's mixed heritage are peaceful, and many are positive boons to the traveler. In Cortina, the charming shop girls speak Italian, the tourists in the cafés are mostly Italian, and the bookstore (Libreria Alberti) and stylish department store (Cooperativa) are unmistakably Italian in a casually chic way.
But just 20 miles north, in the town of Dobbiaco, the language of the streets and in the shops is German. The natives here think of themselves as Sud-Tirolese, not Italian, and will remind you that the Dolomites belonged to Austria for 800 years.
The food is neither Italian nor Austrian, but something hearty and rich and at home in both traditions. Don't be turned off by the names of some of the local delicacies: krapfen, a doughnut filled with jam or whipped cream, and stinco, a seasoned roasted shank of pork or veal. Wash yours down with Austrian beer or with glasses of Sylvaner, a regional white, or the local red called St. Magdalener. The wine, especially, will put you in high spirits for planning the next day's ascents.
On the morning we climbed Collac, my Scottish friend had forgotten his helmet. Looking up at the daunting climb, Father David seemed to be having second thoughts, perhaps about the people already above on the route, who might kick rocks down on us. I suggested that we back off, save this ominous line for another day, but he looked at me as if I were crazy: "Ach, the beauty of it—the raw severrre-ity!" he cried. "You canna hold back in the presence a sooch byoo-tee!" Soon we were off and climbing, clipping to cables as needed, passing a few people, slowing down only as we entered the fractured chasm, with its dead-vertical rock sections.
Summiting about noon, we found other climbers blissed-out in the sun, eating crackers and drinking from little silver flasks. To the east of us, its snowfields glittering, was the Marmolada. Father David pointed out its west ridge to me: "A luvly line, requiring ice ax and crampons, but if the weather holds, and if ye can awaken yerself before noon tomorrow...."

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