Via ferrata, Italian for iron road, is a type of mountaineering route which allows climbers to safely navigate dangerous terrain with minimal equipment. A steel cable runs along the length of each route allowing climbers to attach themselves with a simple via ferrata lanyard, preventing any serious falls. This summer, thanks to the MPW travel scholarship, I was able to travel to the Dolomites with a friend and climb some of these routes.
Whilst vie ferrate are found all over the world, the Dolomites are home to a large collection of routes with a rich history of usage during the First World War. Due to the difficulty of the terrain, routes similar to the ones today have existed for well over a century in order to connect more remote parts of the mountain range. These early routes would use rope and wooden ladders which have since been replaced by more durable materials. Modern routes are graded from one to five for difficulty and A to C for exposure. Over the nine days that my friend and I spent in the mountains we tackled a large variety of routes from short, easy traverses to long and challenging climbs.
From our first day we realised that this would be no easy trip. The weather forecast was for storms every night, and some of the routes we had planned to do were buried in snow. We started with some easy traverses to prepare us for what lay ahead, but even these were daunting due to the height of the mountains. On the third day, after a few hours of walking, we tackled our first truly challenging ferrata. This B3 route spanned a cliff side with an almost sheer drop down to the mountain hut that we were aiming for. The spectacular and intimidating terrain seemed almost impassable at times, with each step requiring absolute focus. It took us around three hours to complete the route, which was both mentally and physically exhausting.
At the end of each ferrata there would usually be a mountain hut where climbers could spend the night. Basic things like showers and drinkable tap water were a luxury that few huts had, but the food was always fantastic. Small metal bivouac shelters have also been built in some more remote locations where the distance between huts is too long to travel in one day. All of the places we stayed at were extremely welcoming and it was great to be able to relax after each exhausting climb.
For our last few days, we moved to a different area of the Dolomites that was close to the Austrian border. Here we followed a route used by Italian troops during the First World War, where a long tunnel system had been carved through the mountains to connect several vantage points. Even though it was extremely hot outside, the tunnel itself was damp, cold and pitch black. The only light came from small openings carved out of the side that faced towards an isolated mountain that Austrian troops had used as a lookout. We would be climbing that mountain the next day and it was one of the more demanding ferrate that we had attempted. It took us an hour to complete and was a relentless climb. The vantage point looking down onto this route meant that Austrian soldiers would have had to climb it at night, but even in the day it was nerve wracking due to the height and difficulty. As we reached the top a flock of crows eerily descended on us and we were greeted with a spectacular view. It was a great way to end our trip and we were both relieved to have made it safely.
Over the past few years mountaineering has become a passion of mine. This climbing trip has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life but I am fitter and healthier because of it. I went to university in September with a sense of achievement from doing something of which I hadn’t been sure I was capable.