The Dolomites in northern Italy are mountains, but they’re not like the Adirondacks. For one thing, they’re a lot bigger. The tallest mountain, Marmolada, rises to nearly 11,000 feet, more than twice as high as Mount Marcy. They’re also more civilized than the Adirondacks.
By civilized, I mean developed. In the Adirondacks, we prohibit cabins on the Forest Preserve. In the Dolomites, you’ll find lodges, known as rifugios, on many of the mountains. In the Adirondacks, there are only two ski resorts on the Forest Preserve, on Whiteface and Gore. In the Dolomites there are ski resorts all over, with chairlifts and gondolas running in summer (for sightseeing) as well as winter.
And then there are the via ferratas. Whereas Adirondack rock climbers might argue over the placement of a bolt on a crag, many cliffs in the Dolomites are outfitted with steel cables, ladders, stemples (giant metal staples), and bridges. The idea is to give non-climbers a climbing experience
In Italian, via ferrata means “iron road.” In World War I, when Italians and Austrians were fighting each other in the Dolomites, soldiers built via ferratas to help them move through the mountains. Today’s via ferratas are made of steel and are used by tourists.
There are dozens of via ferratas in the Dolomites, but only a handful in the United States. There are none in the Adirondacks, where such things presumably would violate the State Land Master Plan.
On a recent vacation, I climbed one of the longer and better via ferratas in the Dolomites, Brigata Tridentina, named for an Italian army division that specialized in mountain warfare. R.L. and Karen Stolz, owners of Alpine Adventures in Keene, recommended the route, and it was fantastic.
The gear for a via ferrata includes a helmet, climbing harness, lanyards, and gloves (for gripping the cable). You do not need climbing shoes. The two lanyards are attached to your harness. The other ends of the lanyards are clipped to the cable with carabiners. As you climb the route, the carabiners slide up the cable. When you reach one of the cable’s anchor points, you move first one carabiner, then the other to other side of the anchor. Thus, you are always attached to the cable by at least one tether. Nevertheless, a fall could result in injury.
Brigata Tridentina is a popular via ferrata on Torre Exner. I began the day at a busy parking area near Passo Gardena, at an elevation of 6,400 feet. After a short hike, I came to the first, short section of the via ferrata, which led me up a wall with the aid of numerous stemples. This section took only 10 or 15 minutes. It ended at another hiking trail, which I followed to the start of the main via ferrata near a spectacular waterfall.
When I got there, several people were already on the route and several others (who had skipped the lower via ferrata) were putting on harnesses. I started climbing and soon found myself waiting behind a party that was waiting for another party that was moving slowly. Eventually, the slow party let us all pass, and thereafter I was able to climb without too many delays. Indeed, at least one party passed me.
The climbing varied in difficulty. Some via ferrata climbers grab the cable to pull themselves up the harder parts, but I avoided using the cable for aid. In some places, the climbing was no harder than a scramble up an Adirondack slide. In other places, it was steep and called for thoughtful foot and hand placements. Even these sections, though, would be considered easy by experienced rock climbers. The exposure, though, was something else. We were looking down at hundreds of feet of air beneath our feet.
Another American, named Dave, was climbing behind me. We got to talking, and he told me that Brigata Tridentina was the fifteenth via ferrata he had climbed in the Dolomites—and the one he liked best. It did seem to have it all: varied climbing, fantastic exposure, and stunning views. Toward the end, where the route steepened, we ascended a few ladders and then followed a narrow ledge to a wooden footbridge over a deep gulf that separates Torre Exner from the Mur di Pisciadu.
The via ferrata ended on the other side of the bridge. From there Dave and I hiked a short distance to Rifugio Pisciadu, set beside a stunningly blue lake in an amphitheater of rocky peaks. We had ascended 2,000 feet from the parking lot. Dave took a seat on the deck and ordered a well-deserved beer. I had hoped to order lunch at the hut, but the climb had taken longer than expected, about three hours, so I had to rush off to meet my girlfriend, Carol.
Not to worry. The next day, our last in the Dolomites, Carol and I hiked four miles to Lago di Sorapiss, an alpine lake with brilliant turquoise water. It’s one of the most photographed spots in the Dolomites. And, as luck would have, it’s just a few minutes from Rifugio Vandelli. We ordered lemon beer and a ham-and-cheese panini.
Now I’m back in the Adirondacks, climbing without the aid of cables and ladders and eating peanut-butter sandwiches on my outings. It’s definitely wilder here, and that’s the way I like it, but I won’t criticize the Italian way of enjoying the mountains. When in Rome (or Cortina) …
Photos by Phil Brown. From top to bottom: Dave on Brigata Tridentina; Carol MacKinnon Fox on another via ferrata, with appropriate gear; Refugio Pisciadu; and Lago di Sorapiss.