Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Scaling the Dolomites

In terrifying terrain where troops once battled, James Henderson faces his fears as he traces their intrepid footsteps.

February 24 2010
James Henderson

Warfare is guaranteed to put people in extreme, often desperate situations. But consider having to fight in the Dolomites, the agglomeration of vertical limestone stacks in the north-eastern corner of Italy. They jostle with one another, ragged massifs with 3,000ft faces of sheer, unassailable rock. They would be appalling to operate in.

To start with, how do you get significant numbers of troops up and down 3,000 or 4,000 vertical feet each time they move? The answer, in the first world war, at least, was the via ferrata – literally “iron way” – a system of safety cables, to which climbers could attach themselves, that led troops along established routes. Where the going was too difficult there were pitons, occasional footplates and even ladders and footbridges. They might break a leg if they fell, but at least they would not die.

The via ferratas are still there and nowadays, without the risk of a sniper picking you off, they can be climbed for fun. Well, perhaps not “fun”. Actually, they are terrifying. The look-down-and-nearly-faint quotient is astronomic. This is extreme climbing brought within the grasp of mortals.

But, hey, I thought – a touch too breezily, as usual – physical challenges are good. And the Dolomites are an easy call for the weekend. I signed up like a shot.

Friday 1610 We take off for Venice. From the airport, we head north. In the evening light I can just make out the flatlands crumpling into foothills and then bursting with bare rock. Arriving in Val Gardena, the Sassolungo looms threateningly.

Saturday 0730 Albin, our mountain guide, arrives and we make a plan. As in any military exercise, we’ll start with a warm-up before moving on to the serious stuff. The front line will come later. Frankly, the prospect, even without the war bit, is scary.

Saturday 0830 We are on the first cable car. We must be first on the wires otherwise we will spend the morning queuing at 8,000ft. Piccola Cir is a tester to shake out rusty skills now 20 years old. At the foot of the climb, we harness up, Albin ropes us together and we clip onto the wire with a carabiner. The Piccola Cir has all the challenges of the via ferrata in small form – ridges, a slab, a traverse, even a step across an abyss to test your nerve. On a pinnacle at the top we pose by a cross.

From there we head back down through Val Gardena. With its meadows, angled eaves and geraniums, it is hard to feel that this is Italy. As it turns out, at the time that the via ferratas were first used, it was, in fact, Austria. This area is still known as Südtirol.

Saturday 1200 On the north-west face of the Sella range is Mëisules – the first via ferrata in the Dolomites, used for training troops before deployment. We cross fields of broken rocks and scree and arrive at its foot, where a plaque announces that it was built in 1912. I look up and the rockface soars, sheer, above my head, cable firing left and right into the distance above until it just disappears. Gulp. I taste the apprehension of every unfortunate soldier that trained here. A mix of adrenaline and fear clanks through the bloodstream.

But once we’re ready, there’s just one thing to do – go for it. I zone in. Hand, foot, hand, climb, foot, left, reach, right, stretch, fingers hooked, wedge a foot… The route skirts a rock outcrop, follows a crevice, traverses a vertical slab – I daren’t look down – crosses back again on a three-inch lip, then climbs a crevice just off the vertical, with tiny imperfections that pretend to be footholds. At one point I feel a “disco” leg coming on – that uncontrollable, comic quivering of muscles under rock-climbing strain.

Every five to eight metres there is a strong point, where the wire – often the original 20mm wire from a century ago – is anchored to the wall. To pass it I get myself steady, hugging the rock, face in rictus like some dumbstruck lover, unclip the carabiner and re-clip it the other side. Relief. Repeatedly.

Gradually, in my concentration, the fear subsides. I realise I can do this. It begins to flow. I look up and see Albin several steps ahead of the game. He is wedged, one foot either side of a crevice, paying in the rope as I climb up to him. “Yes,” he intones. “After the first 50m it usually becomes easier.”

“Er, right,” I mutter, deflated. No wonder.

We approach a buttress projecting from the main wall. I squeeze though a gap behind it and grapple around to the external face. Suddenly I find myself utterly, utterly exposed, clinging to a rock face over a sheer 500ft drop. It’s unnatural, this. I taunt myself and look down. Another gulp. My throat is sandpaper-dry. A ladder returns us to the main face.

We emerge on a flattish section, one of those stepped shelves in sedimentary mountain ranges. It is a wasteland of broken rock that over the millennia has fallen from above. It’s all limestone. The Dolomites were formed under a tropical sea 250m years ago before being uplifted by the collision of Africa into southern Europe.

Now adrenaline and elation fizz in the capillaries. With my feet on horizontal ground, I can appreciate the stupendous view properly. Around us the grey stacks soar vertically from sloping pine forests and alpine meadows where lone barns stand. Somewhere far below a cowbell clanks.

Saturday 1600 On the descent we disturb a family of marmots. With a warning squeak they all race for cover. Chamois perch in impossible positions, halfway up rockfaces. Albin points out a skiing couloir, 600m down, narrowing to just two metres.

Saturday 1800 After the exertion, it feels good to take a massage and a swim. Then a snooze on a lounger at Sun Valley Hotel, in full view of the climb.

Sunday 0800 It’s off to the front line today… the Sasso di Mezzodi.

Sunday 1000 We emerge at the top of the Arabba cable car. Ahead is the massive slab of the Marmolada, the scene of some of the bitterest fighting. But my personal challenge is to our left – the Ferrata delle Trincee. The massif juts mercilessly and vertically. Another gulp.

Harness on, I stand at the rockface. The start seems impossible, as overwhelming as it is overhanging. As I look up, so the blood and adrenaline drain into my feet; panic and confusion together this time. Then I imagine carrying a heavy pack and a weapon. In winter.

Here goes. I set my foot high to the right and reach as high as I can with my left hand. Where now? The only footholds are scoops in the rock just a couple of centimetres deep. With the help of the cable (and, no doubt, to the horror of any climbing purist), gradually I make my way up the 70º slab, using cracks to ram my boots and grip.

The rock is different here; darker, an overlay of lava on the limestone. I plug away, slowly, sweatily, breathing heavily, crossing back and forth as the wire wanders. True to form, the gradient eventually flattens out and gradually the rhythm changes. We are on the ridgeline, weaving in and out of the jagged peaks. A vertical drop appears on both sides, hundreds of feet. Even a wooden bridge tests the mettle here.

As we progress, I am amazed to find battlements built into the ridge, shelters and passages cut through from one side of the mountain to the other. The enemy could have come from either side here. But just imagine assaulting this, having to climb hundreds of vertical feet before you get within fighting distance. Eventually the route descends and we come to a mountain café. Hot chocolate.

Sunday 1400 At the Lagazuoi Open Air Museum, I realise that the ridgeline emplacements at Arabba were nothing. Here they cut kilometres of tunnels, which in turn were undermined by enemy tunnels and blasted off the rock face. Soldiers operated at 8,000ft year-round. It must have been appalling. Eventually we head off via Cortina on the return drive to Venice, to catch the evening flight home.

Sunday 2115 I arrive back in London as it gets dark. There is the pleasure of the physical endeavour – the chemicals of satisfaction running in the veins, the raw hands and muscles – plus an additional, flighty sense of elation in having conquered a fear. And then gladness that I have not just come home from a war.