James Ellson on a solo sugar rush in the Dolomites.
I unwrapped another sweet and chewed greedily on it. Like the Martin Amis character smoking a cigarette but at the same time craving a cigarette, I wanted another. And I was already chain-eating sweets. Chain sweeting. I was scared. Very scared. Outside my comfort zone, and treading that quintessential climbing experience, that balance between love and hate.
The descent had begun simply enough, plodding at speed in consolidated snow back down the north western ridgeline of Tofana de Rozes (3225m). I’d started to plan my afternoon – ice cream and medals with my waiting wife in Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the heart of the Dolomiti. However, the snow changed dramatically as I turned east and onto the snow slopes leading to the Refugio Pomedes. In summer this would be straightforward scree walking. But I was faced with a melting snow pack, further weakened by the midday heat.
I started down rapidly, and immediately had problems. I set off a sluff avalanche. It started as a patch of snow just longer than my boot that had triggered it, but quickly widened to four or five metres as it began its inexorable journey down the fall line. An avalanche is a metaphor in itself for creating fear. The power, both literal and literary, of this avalanche was not its speed – it did not travel that fast – or its sound – it was surprisingly quiet. It was precisely its lack of sound and speed that made it terrifying. It sounded like sugar pouring into a bowl. Forever. The effect was horribly eerie.
I thought, I hoped, the avalanche was a one-off; perhaps I had moved a little too fast, a little too carelessly. But when I continued my traverse for another ten metres or so, I immediately set off another two. I didn’t own Chance in a Million but I knew this was dangerous. The snow was soaked and able to set like concrete instantly, and the snow pack unstable. I was back in serious chain sweeting territory. Using my father’s gardening gloves, as recommended by the Via Ferrata (VF) guide, I fumbled another sweet into my mouth.
The day had turned out to be one of the scariest of my mountaineering career. At least in my head. And this captures a characteristic of climbing that I frequently extol; that the V Diff and the E9 climber can have the same climbing experience, the same fear, the same wobbly leg, the same feelings of “why (and often how) did I get myself here?” There are objective dangers, yes. But it’s the individual perception of danger that gives the egalitarian climbing experience.
On holiday in the Dolomiti, I was attempting the classic Ferrata route Giovanni Lipella, named after an Italian who died in WW1. But it was early season, the snow was still lingering down to 1800m. The consequent loss of paths and way-markings made route descriptions very difficult to follow, and the general consensus was to do only low-level routes. But after ten days of mountain passes I was desperate to climb a 3000m peak. I’d left my car at 6am thinking there was only going to be one exciting part to the day, the 800m Alpini tunnel. But I was to be proved very wrong.
After an hour’s ascent, I gained the mouth of the tunnel. I geared up – jacket, fleece, balaclava, helmet fitted with head torch, harness, VF attachments, walking pole, ice axe, gardening gloves – and started up the first ladder. The tunnel was a little under two metres in diameter, and involved about a 100m gain in altitude. It would be a stroll in summer. That morning, however, I was just thankful that no excavation of the tunnel entrance was required. This pleasure was soon forgotten; the first 20m of the tunnel were expectedly dark but also thickly lined with ice. At one point, I went for a closer inspection with my cheek; I grabbed the VF rail and was glad that I had begun to clip the VF krabs. All of a sudden, the day was cold, demanding and serious. My kind of holiday. I popped in a sweet.
Breathing slightly harder I continued into the tunnel, and was relieved to find an iron staircase nicely positioned on the ice carpet. I clanked up easily but after only 100m the stairs ended, and it was me who was nicely positioned on the ice. I was forced to invent a new sport, ice tunnel climbing. A new sport demanded new techniques, and I developed these as I made my slippery upward progress: wide bridging on the less iced bottom corners of the tunnel, pulling and pushing with the VF rail and cunning walking pole placements. It was hard work. And as I ice tunnel climbed into the gloom, I began to think about the possibility of a blocked exit, and enforced descent. This would make going up look like child’s play.
After an increasingly nervous hour, the darkness began to retreat, and the end of the tunnel seemed a possibility. A few minutes later I was in the bright sunshine, eating muesli and reflecting on something that had been very different and perhaps quite good sport! From the top of the tunnel, a snow traverse (scree in summer) for several hundred metres took me to the start of the rocky VF, and the plaque to Senor Lipella. The warning signs should perhaps have registered, but the melting and weakening snow served only to slow my progress. Utilising the wires, I started the climb up the steep walls, and immediately enjoyed the feel of rock after the icy games in the tunnel. The standard was about Diff, and I made rapid and safe progress. Until the wires disappeared into a small snowfield. And so began the second adrenalin overload of the day.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t find the route. As I searched, and strayed further from the disappearing wires, the ground got more serious, ledges but with steeper, weaker snowfields interspersed with loose wet rock. Unconsciously I analysed my pack to see whether I could survive a night out – bothy bag, emergency plastic sack, flask, lots of food, fleece, spare gloves. It would have been uncomfortable but OK. Or I could have gone down, the descent from there would have been possible. I ventured a little further from the wires, “just to see around that corner”, “just up to that ledge,” I whispered to myself. And then I was committed, no decision, just committed. Reversing at this point would have been quite serious. Time for a sweet.
I began to grunt softly to myself, I don’t exactly know why, perhaps with the effort, perhaps the increasing altitude, perhaps (my perception of) the danger. I climbed higher using the easier angled sections of jagged rock, and the snowfields. The rock was not difficult, Mod or Diff, but it was loose and exposed and I was soloing. The snow was wet and sluffing off. I developed a technique of hands on rock, feet in snow to move around rocky sections. I divided the ground up into small goals, and conquered each one. At one point, both my feet slipped away. My hands clasped tightly and I stayed there. It felt horrible. My fingers bled, creating a slightly macabre trail.
Where was I? The route description had mentioned ledges, but also a “bizarre rock sculpture” Tre Dita (three fingers) which I could not recognize. I did see some heavily rusted tin cans. People had been that way before, or perhaps the cans had blown or fallen there. I did not know, but the cans were important to me. The ground finally opened up, the snowfields increased in size, and the rock patches almost disappeared. My grunting eased, the old familiar snow plodding took over as I headed for a prominent ridge. Visibility was perfect, the sun was hot. I was going to do it. Not sure exactly what, but I could not go back, that was for certain.
My altimeter showed 2990m, and I peered over the ridge. Success. This was the final ascent ridge, and I was only 200m below the summit. I could see an amenable descent, I could see the Refuge Pomedes. And I could see footprints, two quite distinct sets, perhaps only a couple of days old. It was midday, hardly a decision whether to bag the summit. After a final climb on stable and compact snow, I arrived there tired and slightly shell-shocked. My body throbbed with the intensity of emotions that such experiences induce. I thought in clichés. The 360 degree panorama was truly wonderful, the colours magical. I loved my family deeply. Life was good. The descent looked extremely fast. I was so wrong.
Snow is incredibly varied, and descending snow can be complex and subtle. Adjectives perhaps not usually associated with either mountaineering or myself. And my learning curve was about to become the steepest slope of the day. The rock patches were water sodden suicide belts, and the surrounding snow was saturated and incapable of bearing a traversing marmot. However, the avalanche trails and finally a snow shoer’s tracks were reasonably stable and I made some good progress. The best tactic was placing my feet slowly and precisely perpendicular to the slope angle in order that my boots were packing the snow into the slope, rather than displacing it downwards and encouraging another dreaded avalanche. Needless to say my soft grunting and chain sweeting returned. It was long, long, and mentally draining.
Of course I did make it down. Older and wiser? In some senses, yes – I now know a lot more about snow and I have bought Chance In a Million. But essentially no - I am more addicted to the climbing game than ever before. It was a phenomenal day, varied, exciting, and with success always resting in the balance. My equipment, skills, knowledge, and fitness were all well tested. I had injuries, stories, and photos. And I am already researching the next trip, the next peak, the next big day. But, and with an echo of the words of Edward Whymper, I would do well not to forget my pockets full of sweet wrappers.
Via Ferratta facts
What are they?
Via Ferratas (literally iron ways) are set routes through the mountains, equipped with cables, ladders, and sometimes even bridges. They enable people with little, or a limited amount of climbing experience to reach spectacular situations and summits. Some are remnants of wars in the Alps, and will take you through tunnels and long abandoned gun placements, whilst others are newer, specifically equipped for a good day out. Essentially it’s protected scrambling. You clip into an iron cable, using a special protection system, and climb your way to the top of the route, leapfrogging your protection onto each new cable section. Whether you just use the rock for movement or haul up the cable is entirely up to you, and many do a mixture of both. A fall would not be comfortable, since you’d rattle down to the start of your cable section, but if using a correct protection system wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Where are they?
The most famous area for Via Ferrata is of course the Dolomites in Italy. The mountains here contain all levels of challenges from an afternoon’s fun to long, demanding mountain routes. France now also has a growing network of “sport” Ferrata, where the aim is more the technicality of the moves.
When to go?
As James Ellson found out, an early season trip can run into problems with snow cover. Plan to go in July, or early September. Avoid August, it’s the Italian holidays and things will be very, very crowded.
How hard are they?
The main guidebooks use a two tier grading system. Technical difficulty goes from 1 to 5, and seriousness from A to C. Hence an easy short route in unthreatening terrain would score 1A, whereas a long, hard mountain route would weigh in at 5C. As a rough guide most confident scramblers should be happy jumping on a 3B and above.
As ever you’ll encounter both slower and faster parties en-route, but unlike other mountaineering situations, you’re both joined to the same piece of wire. However avoid being clipped into the same cable length as another scrambler, since this has obvious shock loading implications. Simply hang back and enjoy the view for a while, or if being overtaken, step to one side.
What do I need?
Pack what you’d normally take for a high-level ridge walk in the UK, with a few added extras. Although Via Ferratas are maintained, many are very much a mountain experience, starting and finishing in serious terrain.
Boots: Approach shoes have the edge when it comes to comfort and actually climbing the routes, whilst you’ll be thankful for a beefier boot on long scree descents. It’s going to be a compromise either way. Boot choice will also be dictated by the amount of snow cover.
Helmet: With multiple parties on routes and plenty of stones around, this is essential.
HeadTorch: Some routes head into long dark tunnels, so pack that torch!
Axes / Crampons: If heading out early season, descending from the higher routes may well need axes and crampons. Check local conditions before heading up, and you may also be able to hire these locally.
Gloves: Yarding up frayed iron cables can be hard on the hands. The solution is a pair of fingerless Ferrata gloves (or just some old gardening gloves).
Rope: If heading up the more serious routes or heading out with an unconfident member in your party, a short length of rope and a few slings could be worth sticking in. They will also help out in the event of coming across a damaged section of cabling, a real possibility if you’re the first party up that season.
Harness: Either a full body or a standard sit harness. Most climbers will just use their existing sit harness. But a full body harness will help prevent you being flipped over if falling with a pack on - and is also recommended for children. One option is to buy the harness as a complete system with a self belay set. Complete sets of varying sophistication are available in many Italian climbing shops
Self belay set: The most important, and most misunderstood item of Via Ferrata equipment. If you do fall on a Ferrata, your rapid descent will come to an abrupt end on the last cable peg, and extremely high fall factors can result. In climbing terminology the fall factor is simply the length of the fall divided by the length of rope in the system, and in normal climbing falls this rarely exceeds 2. But with Ferrata, you could be falling for say 20 metres and come to a halt on only 1 metre of rope, giving a fall factor of 20 or even more. Such an impact force could lead to complete equipment failure, or a broken body – or both!
Normal slings and krabs aren’t designed to take anything like this level of punishment, so the KISA (Kinetic Impact Shock Absorber) was developed. It’s essentially a brake through which a short length of dynamic rope is threaded in a certain configuration to absorb the energy of a fall. There are several different models available and they can be used in two different systems, the “straight through” and the “Y-type”. They each have certain advantages, but both are safe if you understand how to use them.
You could make you own set up with some spare dynamic rope and a KISA, but choice of rope diameter and correct configuration are vital. And with ready made systems including specially designed spring loaded screwgate krabs costing as little as £30, there’s not too much incentive for a DIY job.
The following two guides are essential:
Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites Vol 1 (North, Central and East)
Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites Vol 2 (Southern)
Both by John Smith and Graham Fletcher, Cicerone. Available from the BMC priced £11.50 (members), £13 (non-members).
www.petzl.com - Detailed product info on Via Ferrata kits.
www.planetmountain.com - Italian climbing & VF site.