Step Right Up

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 2000 Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Step Right Up
All the guidance and gear you need for a true Dolomites adventure

Getting There: The Dolomites run in a northeasterly direction across the pocket of northern Italy that's east of Switzerland and directly south of Innsbruck, Austria. From the U.S., fly to Milan ($860 from New York, $1,010 from San Francisco, peak season) or Munich ($758 and $970, respectively) and proceed by train, bus, or rental car, or a combination of the three, to Canazei (200 miles from Milan and Munich) and Cortina (also 200 miles away). You can get around the Dolomites by bus or taxi, but a car ($274 per week from European Car Reservations at Milan's Malpensa Airport) allows for maximum flexibility.

Lodging: Most towns have hotels and small, family-run pensioni, as well as tourist offices that provide detailed information about local room rates and availability. One of the glories of the Dolomites is the well-ordered system of 100-plus rifugi, or mountain huts, where climbers and hikers can wait out inclement weather and overnight in dormitory-style bunk rooms for a nominal fee, usually about $10 (stop in any local tourist office for information). In Canazei, the tourist office can be reached by phone (011-39-462-602-466). For Cortina accommodations, call 436-3231.

Rates are lower during prime summer climbing season—mid-July through late August—than during the winter ski months, but early July and September offer even less-expensive prices and fewer tourists. In Canazei, the four-star Astoria hotel (601-302) lets rooms for $110 per person per night, including breakfast, before July 15 and $75 through late August. In Cortina, the Hotel Menardi is an elegant three-star establishment whose owners are knowledgeable about vie ferrate ($60 per night before July 15, $95 through August, plus breakfast; 436-2400).

Gearing Up: For vie ferrate, you'll need a helmet and a harness, as well as a self-belay device consisting of two locking carabiners, ten feet of climbing rope, and a "kinetic impact shock absorber" (also called a KISA, or dissipatore to locals). The KISA functions like a climber's standard belay-plate, dissipating the impact of a fall by offering resistance to the climber's tie-in rope, which has been threaded through it. All of the above—including $40 self-belay kits—can be purchased in equipment shops in Canazei and Cortina.

In the Dolomites, sunny romps can turn into stormy epics. Purchase and study a good guidebook (the best, and to date the only one in English, is Via Ferrata: Scrambles in the Dolomites, $22 through Adventurous Traveler Bookstore, 800-282-3963). Also be sure to invest in a "Kompass" series map on a scale of 1:25,000—available in bookstores in the region.

Guides: To learn about weather, routes, and techniques, many first-timers hire area guides. For the west-central region of the Dolomites, the booking office is in the town of Campitello di Fassa at 462-750-459. In the east-central village of Cortina call 436-868-505. —R.R.


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 (see "Bones, Bombs, and Barbed Wire," below). 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...."   

Berkeley-based novelist Robert Roper is writing a non-fiction book about American Himalayan climbers of the 1970s.

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