‘Not more dangerous, only more difficult,’ is Michael’s response when I ask whether the rain that continues to fall will make our climb more dangerous. Despite being fluent in several languages, my mountain guide is a man of few words.
We’re standing in a small car park in the Alta Badia valley, dwarfed by the towering rocky peaks of the Dolomite mountains. The previous evening they had glowed pinkish-orange in the light of the setting sun, but right now they are wreathed in wisps of low cloud. Like most natives of the valley, Michael speaks fluent Italian, German and English in addition to his mother tongue, Ladin. An ancient language related to Latin that was once widespread, it now only survives in these remote mountain valleys of northern Italy and southern Austria.
Michael is passing me an ever-increasing pile of safety equipment from the car boot. Soon I’m wearing a helmet, tough fingerless gloves and a climbing harness, plus a complicated device of metal clips and flimsy pieces of cord that is supposed to catch me if I slip and fall. Today I will be attempting my first via ferrata – a climbing route where metal pins, ladders and cables have been fixed onto the rock to allow amateurs like me to venture where otherwise only experienced climbers could tread. As I squint up at the sheer rockface of the Via Ferrata Tridentina, the uneasy feeling in my stomach builds.
Reassuringly expert-looking in his red waterproof jacket, Michael strides purposely towards the mountain, with me jangling along in his wake. He explains that the first section of the climb will be a sort of test – if I struggle we will have to give up and go back down. He demonstrates how to clip onto the metal cable running up the cliff and moves upwards with alarming ease. I don’t want to disappoint him, or myself, so I grit my teeth and resolve to do my best.
The rockface that looked smooth from a distance turns out to be jagged and complicated. Touching the rock feels strangely intimate – I find myself stroking the pinkish-grey dolomite rock above me, my fingertips taking in every bump and ridge in the stone. As my senses adjust to the vertical terrain, I begin to find ledges for my feet and notches for my hands. And whenever the natural rock features run out there are metal pins and ladders to use instead. I get into a rhythm – hand, hand, foot, foot, clip – and soon we reach the top of the first section. Michael regards me with a quiet satisfaction that seems to imply I have passed the test, for now at least.
To reach the next, more difficult part of the climb, we must hike. As I trudge wearily on tired legs after my goat-like guide, my mind wanders back to the previous day. For this was not the first hike of my trip, not the first time I had risen early and unquestioningly followed an inscrutable guide. Yesterday I had been richly rewarded for my physical exertions and faith with the opportunity to explore first-hand the setting for one of the most dramatic episodes of WWI.
When Italy joined the Great War in 1915, the Alta Badia Valley went from being a forgotten Austrian backwater to the frontline in a conflict between rival empires. The Austro-Hungarians set their defensive frontline right through the Dolomite mountains, knowing that they could retain control of the valleys by using the mountain peaks as observation posts and artillery stations. They created some of the first via ferratas by fixing ropes and ladders to the cliffs to help move troops and artillery to the summits.
Like the Austro-Hungarian Kaiserjäger troops before us, my hiking group had marched breathlessly up to the summit of Piccolo Lagazuoi, passing rocky trenches and a barracks-cave filled with uncomfortable-looking communal bunk beds. When we reached the peak we were surprised by what we found, but nowhere near as surprised as the Austrians stationed here on 21 June 1917 must have been. Unbeknownst to them, the Italian Alpini had spent months tunnelling up through the inside of the mountain, and on that day they detonated 32,000 kilos of explosives directly below the summit, creating the enormous crater in which we stood.
As we descended through the steep, pitch-black tunnels, our torches lighting up the narrow rough-hewn walls, it seemed we might turn a corner and find the Italian soldiers still doggedly tunnelling their way up through the solid rock. Put to shame by the gruelling challenges faced by the brave men of the Great War, I resolve to tackle the next section of my climb with renewed enthusiasm and a greater sense of perspective.
A couple of hours later, after several hundred metres of strenuous, near-vertical, utterly terrifying climbing, I’m exhausted, but my chest swells with excitement, not fear. Puffing heavily, I’m barely able to gasp at the fantastic views of the Pisciadù waterfall tumbling to my left and the tiny toy towns of the Alta Badia valley dropping away almost a kilometre below. If only my limbs weren’t already occupied with basic self-preservation, it would be a great place to stop for a photo.
As we near what seems like the top of the world, a helicopter thunders up from the valley and passes beneath us, emphasising just how high up we are. The wind is ripping past and even though the rain stopped some time ago, the rock is still damp. Suddenly one of my trainers slips and I cling desperately to the metal cable in front of me, my heart beating wildly. ‘It’s best to avoid falling,' Michael advises.
Do it yourself
The Via Ferrata Tridentina is located at the western edge of the Alta Badia valley, between the town of Colfosco and the Gardena Pass. Those with experience climbing via ferrate and their own equipment can undertake it alone, but anyone else should contact Alta Badia Guides (altabadiaguides.com) to arrange a guided ascent. The route can become crowded, so it’s advisable to start as early as possible. The total altitude climbed is 629 metres, with the ascent taking around 3 hours and the descent around 1.5 hours.
The Kaiserjaeger trail runs up Piccolo Lagazuoi, which is located to the southeast of the Alta Badia valley, between La Villa and Cortina d’Ampezzo. The trail is intended for expert hikers, and it’s advisable to have a harness and via ferrata set, as well as a torch and helmet to descend the tunnels. Weekly guided walks are run from the La Villa tourist information centre in summer. The total altitude climbed is around 700 metres, with the ascent taking around 2.5 hours and the descent around 1.5 hours. Another option is to take the Lagazuoi cable car either up to or down from the summit.
Anna Tyler travelled to the Dolomites with support from Alta Badia. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.