Examining Cortina d’Ampezzo’s trail map we noticed something curious. Some of the alpine trails were labeled with a line of pluses,
“+++++++++++…”, instead of the typical line. We figured that any trail labeled plus-plus-plus must be good. Instantly Becky was ready to “Give it a go.” Somehow reason prevailed and we decided that we should check out the map’s legend before heading up to hike the “plus” trails. The map told us that the “plus-plus-plus” trails are “Vie ferrate e sentieri attrezzati” or, in English, “Fixed rope and laid routes.” We had no idea what that meant in practice. But we also knew that a via ferrata, whatever it was, was non-optionally in our future. We had to try “it.”
Soon after our discovery of the “plus” trails on the map, we were signing up for guided hike at the mountain guide center near Cortina’s campanile. We had chosen a trail ahead of time, not knowing anything about any of the vie ferrate, because of how it looked on the map. At the guide center, they told us the trail we chose was named Via Ferrata Marino Bianchi. Only afterwards did we figure that “via ferrata” translates roughly to “road with irons.” Further consultation of Wikipedia told us that a via ferrata is a “a mountain route which is equipped with fixed cables, stemples, ladders, and bridges.” “Walkers and climbers can follow vie ferrate without needing to use their own ropes and belays, and without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing,” Wiki continues.
That was good to know. Everyone knows that the Surgeon General strongly advises against unprotected scrambling.
Further Internet research told us that the first vie ferrate were built in the Dolomites by the Italians and Austrians to aid the movement of mountain infantry during World War I. For some reason trails built using WWI military safety standards and named after mountain guides who invariably died in climbing accidents caused us a tad bit of trepidation. We decided it would be best to check out the climb ahead of time.
Via Ferrata Marino Bianchi starts from Rifugio Lorenzi’s deck. The rifugio sits in a saddle at the top of an ancient pod-style ski lift built for the 1956 Olympics. At the bottom, we lunged and squeezed through the narrow doorway into the brightly colored two-person pod. The operator slide the door shut behind us. “Seats” inside the chamber of the lift neither let you quite sit or stand comfortably. The thin metal floor of the pod flexes as you shift your weight seemingly ready to give way at any moment. They do inspect these things, don’t they? There was plenty time to examine the inadequacies of the vintage lift and the steep rock slopes outside as we crept up the hill just above walking speed.
After twenty-five minutes inside the pod we exited at the top and climbed up the snow covered steps to Rifugio Lorenzi. The rifugio sits near 10,000 feet, impossibly perched on the spine saddle of a high rocky ridge. Why would anyone even consider building a restaurant with guest rooms in such an inaccessible and precarious location? From the rifugio’s deck, there is a good view of the beginning portions of two vie ferrate. The start of the famous and long Ivano Dibona looked straightforward beginning on a series of metal steps. Our choice for the next day, VF Marino Bianchi, did not start as easily. Cables attached to pitons supported climbers as the inched along rock walls and crawled up the steep pitches and ladders. The trail peaks on the top of Cima di Mezzo del Cristallo (roughly the “top half of the crystal” in English). What we signed up for wasn’t a hike. We were going rock climbing. And, as usual, we were in over our heads. Once again, we found ourselves doing another activity where helmets are required. Why does that keep happening?
Early the next morning we met our guide Nadia for our via ferrata trek. A quick fitting for the harnesses and the helmets and we were off in Nadia’s car to the base of the lifts that would take us to Rifugio Lorenzi and the beginning of VF Marino Bianchi. There was no waiver to sign. The mountain guide collective was confident enough that we would return that there was no prepayment required. It seemed we must have been overestimating the challenge. Or maybe they were just checking to see whether we would actually go through with the whole thing before the credit card was swiped.
Once again at the top of the pod lift we climbed the snow-covered path to the Rifugio Lorenzi and donned our harnesses and helmets. Roped up to Nadia, we moved under a cable railing and were off of the rifugio’s deck. We were now officially on Via Ferrata Marino Bianchi.
For the first sixty feet, the via ferrata was easy. We walked and soft scrambled around a rock knob. Only then did we see what we couldn’t see from the deck; the “trail” headed straight up a near vertical section of the ridge. It was a steep climb. Find a handhold, find a foothold, and slither your way up. Physically, it was hard work. If you chanced a peek back at the top of a pitch, the route seemed impossibly steep. If you recall the Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger you can get an idea of the terrain. In fact, Cliffhanger’s famous bridge sequence was filmed nearby.
“How did we make it up that?” I couldn’t help but think at the top of the pitch. It didn’t seem so difficult in the midst of the climb but at the top, peering down, it looked real hard. Getting down would be much harder than climbing up. It took a force of will to not to focus on the eventual perilous descent.
But really, the via ferrata is not particularly dangerous. For experienced climbers it would have been a virtual sidewalk. With the harnesses linked to super solid steel cables threaded through pitons inserted deep into the rock, we couldn’t fall too far. Sure a little slip off of a typical inch and a half wide rock ledge that we were desperately clinging to might mean a couple of cracked teeth and a bruised and abraded body. At the worst, with a mishap on the higher pitches, we might have actually broken a bone or two and torn some of our few remaining intact ligaments. Shit, even without a serious a slip and fall, Becky and I both donated blood to the Dolomites on the excursion. But then that’s not saying much about the via ferrata as we had both scarred ourselves on our hotel’s bed the night before. Anecdotally, all we can say for sure is that the via ferrata and our hotel room posed similar apparent risks to our bodies. We’d have to see which scars, those from VF Marino Bianchi or those from our room’s bed, healed faster before we could fully assess the relative dangers.
Fortunately the harder climbing portions of the trek, those that would have required true technical skill, came equipped with solidly installed metal stepladders. It was a good thing. A few more ladders would have been even better. It turns out that we weren’t just cleaning out the rain gutters of the house back home. We were really training for a via ferrata.
Eventually, we transited all of the ladders, knife-edge spines, icy saddles, and steep scrambles to reach the summit of Cima di Mezzo del Cristallo at 3154 meters. At the peaks of the Dolomites could be seen in all directions. Though Cima di Mezzo del Cristallo is only 500 feet higher than the start of the climb at the rifugio, we were worked. The descent would not be much easier, physically or technically. It looked to be a lot harder to get down some of the pitches we had just climbed.
Indeed it was slow going and particularly challenging on the categorically non-optional return trip to the rifugio. Eight hours had passed when we returned to the mountain guide’s office in Cortina. VF Marino Bianchi is rated as medium difficulty, 2 out of 4 with 4 being the hardest. Our pace was slower than typical.
We were tired but almost nothing would keep us from a good fresh Munich beer back in Cortina. (The region’s Germanic history is reflected in the beers on offer in the town. But it is Italy so a draught beer is alla spina and not vom Fass.) The next few days we would be sore in body parts we didn’t know existed. But we are undeterred. Over the beers the map was laid out and we made plans for a return visit to the region’s vie ferrates. Dolomites’ many high iron roads provide a glimpse into the region’s military history, give unmatched views of the harsh rocky alpine terrain, and provide a physical challenge at the edge of our ability and sanity. Why would we not want to go back?
The full picture set has been uploaded to Picasa.