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Category Archives: via ferrata

High Wire Act: VF Murren

By Mark Anderson

There were two activities on the Swiss trip that were the unequivocal highlights. This was the first one. I’ve done about 10 Via Ferratas now, and this was hands-down the best I’ve done. It has spectacular scenery, incredible position, interesting apparatus and it’s well-designed and maintained.

VF Murren culminates in a spectacular hanging bridge that spans a massive, 1500-foot-deep chasm. This shot was taken from the cable car that runs between Gimmelwald and Murren.

For most well-travelled climbers, the typical Via Ferrata will seem mundane, if not completely boring. Not so VF Murren! While never physically challenging by climbing standards, the exposure on this route is no joke, and will get the attention of even the most grizzled El Cap veteran.

The west wall of the Lauterbrunnen Valley. The village of Murren is sunlit and visible in the far upper left corner—the VF starts in Murren and follows the lip of the massive cliff to Gimmelwald (which is south, or left in the photo).

To appreciate the route, it helps to understand a bit about the surrounding geography. The Lauterbrunnen Valley, located about 10 miles south of the bustling outdoor mecca Interlaken, is perhaps best described as a limestone version of Yosemite Valley. Although not quite as deep or long as Yosemite Valley, the upper rim of the gorge is studded with cloud-piercing glaciated peaks, including the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau.

The village of Murren, and the massive cliff it sits atop—from the top of the Eiger Rotstock. The VF Murrent starts in the village and traverses the lip of the cliff towards the south (left in the photo).

The valley hub is the village of Lauterbrunnen, which can be accessed by car, train, etc. The lower valley is renowned for its 2500-feet-tall limestone walls and ubiquitous waterfalls. Atop these walls, along the rim of the canyon, are a serious of tiny, “car-free” hamlets, accessed by train, cable car, or a combination. Two of the more well-known are the hamlets of Murren and Gimmelwald (home to the world-class sport crag of the same name).

Logan starting the second 3-Wire Bridge.

The VF Murren traverses the lip of the west side of the canyon for two kilometers, from Murren to Gimmelwald. It weaves in and out of forest as the terrain dictates, but in the key spots it is literally right on the lip of a 2000-foot tall cliff. It’s like stepping out of a dense forest onto a small ledge on the side of El Cap with nothing but air beneath your feet. It is so perfectly exposed that there is literally a BASE jumping platform built into the route!

Logan heading towards the business.

I was really psyched to check out this VF, but I wasn’t sure how Logan would handle it. He’s very brave, but that’s a lot of exposure, and in my experience it can really take some getting used to. There’s a big difference between climbing your way up to a really exposed position, allowing your mind to acclimate as you steadily ascend versus just walking out to the edge of a cliff, and it’s hard to know how someone will react to that situation.

Entering the incredibly exposed lip traverse.

The route begins with a long stretch of easy hiking through forest, protected by wire. A series of downclimbs along stemples takes you out to the top of the cliff, where the route gets right down to business. The most exposed stretch comes pretty early, traversing an intermittent ledge system. The walls drop straight down here, with nothing but air for 2000 feet. For a brief stretch the ledge disappears and stemples lead across the void. This is not the technical crux, but surely the psychological crux.

Logan never seemed concerned about the 2000-foot drop. Should I be worried about that?

It turned out my concerns for Logan were completely unfounded. I don’t think Logan would have even noticed the exposure if I hadn’t pointed it out. He cruised it all with a smile on his face, and if anything I struggled to keep up with him while taking pictures and managing the rope.

Me in the same spot as above. Note the arcing line of stemples up and left from my head.

After the lip traverse, the route heads back into the forest for a while, eventually leading to a “Monkey Birdge” (or “Three-wire Bridge”) that crosses one of the many waterfalls. Logan wasn’t quite tall enough to reach between the wires on this one, so I rigged it as a Tyrolean for him and pulled him across.

Logan Tyrolean traversing the first 3-Wire Bridge.

More wire through the forest leads to what I felt was the physical crux, a series of 4 long ladder down-climbs, the last of which was slightly overhanging. Since we had sport-climbed at Gimmelwald earlier in the day, I was doing the VF with my entire sport-climbing kit on my back, 70-meter rope included. After a morning of struggling to grasp Gimmelwald’s biceps-bursting routes, I found that last, overhanging ladder to be rather taxing!

Logan cruising the long ladder down-climb.

Once again, Logan had no issues and didn’t think it was hard despite my whining. Next came a shorter 3-wire bridge, which Logan was able to traverse on his feet. Another long stretch of hiking leads to the highlight of the route, and the most incredible VF feature I’ve ever seen, a massive hanging bridge (aka “Nepalese Bridge”).

The incredible hanging bridge.

I don’t know the exact dimensions, but I’d guess the bridge is over 100-meters long, and crosses a chasm over 1500-feet deep. This was the first obstacle that gave Logan pause. Sadly he’s already a bit jaded and hard to impress, but when he came around the corner and laid eyes on the hanging bridge, he was in awe.

Logan starting across the bridge.

Contemplating the view.

The view down!

Despite its impressive engineering, the bridge was quite rickety, and the hand wires were hard for Logan to reach, so he took his time traversing the wobbly catwalk. Eventually he became comfortable and cruised the second half of the crossing.

Once on the other side, it’s a brief, steep walk along cow pastures to reach the Gimmelwald Cable Car station, followed by a quick zip back down to the valley. Of all the activities we did on the trip, this is one I would absolutely do again. This should be considered a must do for any capable visitor, no matter how jaded by rock cliffs you may be, and the great news is that it’s super easy to tack-on at the end (or beginning) of a day climbing at the fantastic Gimmelwald cliff. Its possible to rent VF gear in Murren if you don’t have your own, just be sure to save some arm strength for those ladders!

Watch our videos of the Murren VF here:

Klettersteig on the Flank of the Eiger

By Mark Anderson

“Klettersteig” is German for “Via Ferrata” (which is Italian for “Iron Way”).[LINK TO INTRO-STYLE VF Post]. Klettersteigs have existed in Switzerland for decades and they have some of the best in the world, including the best two I’ve ever done—the Eiger Rotstock and Murren via ferrats. The Eiger Rotstock route is not particularly noteworthy in terms of exotic apparatus such as Monkey Bridges or Ziplines, but because of its incredible position.

The Eiger Nordwand (aka Eigerwand) on the left, and the Eiger Rotstock on the right (with its summit just up and left of the signpost. The via ferrata more or less climbs the large gulley just right of the center of the photo.

The Eiger Rotstock is a sub-peak along the northwest ridge of the Eiger. It’s several thousand feet lower than the Eiger, but sits adjacent to the main peak’s infamous and iconic North Face, dubbed the “Eigerwand.”

The Eigerwand.

The Eigerwand may be the single most notorious mountain face in the Alps, if not the world, having claimed the lives of some 65 climbers. It was the scene of an unprecedented series of accidents in the mid-20th century as the Continent’s best climbers struggled to climb it. The news reports of these attempts, heroic rescues, and tragedies made the face world-famous to people from all walks of life, and the climbers involved in became household names.

It was eventually climbed in 1938 by Anderl Heckmair, Ludwig Vorg, Fitz Kasparek and Heinrich Harrer (author of Seven-Years in Tibet). Harrer’s book The White Spider, which details his ascent as well as all other attempts, successes and disasters on the face through the mid-1960s, is among the most classic pieces of Mountaineering literature ever written. And of course, the face was the setting for Hollywood’s undisputed best-ever climbing movie, The Eiger Sanction.

A view of the 6 ladders that start the Rotstock VF.

I suspect my hard alpine days are behind me, but as a student of climbing history, I had to get a look at this face, and the Eiger Rotstock Via Ferrata provides an excellent vantage point, in relative safety. The route winds up the notch between the Rotstock and the Eiger proper, essentially climbing the lower quarter of the Eigerwand’s west arête. The position is absolutely spectacular, and provides a taste of exposure and commitment with nearly complete safety.

Logan cruising the ladders.

Logan cruising the ladders.

Our adventure started with an early morning train ride from the spectacular Lauterbrunnen Valley up to the Eigergletscher station just above the hamlet of Kleine Scheidegg. From there a brief contouring hike leads below the Eigerwand to the start of the Klettersteig.

Just above the end of the ladders, with Kleine Scheidegg visible below and to the right.

Just above the end of the ladders, with Kleine Scheidegg visible below and to the right.

The Klettersteig itself is straightforward and not particularly interesting. It begins with six metal ladders, followed by mostly steep hiking (with a wee bit of easy scrambling) on generally good rock, almost 100% protected by cable.

Entering the big gulley.

Besides the phenomenal views, the best part of the excursion was taking Logan up on something reasonably resembling a proper mountain. He was psyched to reach a real summit and loved the exposure. It’s a great day out in the mountains with not much more risk than any alpine hike. For perspective, I’d say it’s a lot safer than the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion.

Near the Rotstock summit (up and right).

The descent from the Rotstock follows the lower section of the Eiger’s West Flank route, and provides unobstructed views of that route, all the way to the summit (when its visible). From our vantage point the route looked pretty fun and moderate in dry conditions, with some interesting scrambling on generally good rock.

Logan on the Rotstock summit, with the Eiger West Flank (and route) behind.

On the summit.

Check out Logan’s video of the Eiger Rotstock via ferrata here:

The descent went quickly and we rendezvoused with the rest of the family back at the Eigergletscher Hotel, then hiked down to Kleine Scheidegg (which was not much more than a large gift shop). After refueling the kids with ice cream we continued hiking north along the crowded “Panoramaweg” trail to the Mannlichen Cable Car station and zipped down to Lauterbrunnen. It was a great tour of the Eiger region and one that I’d highly recommend to anyone who wants an intimate look at the Eiger without taking much risk (or dragging a bunch of alpine climbing gear around).

Amelie and the Jungfrau.

Swiss Preview

By Mark Anderson

I just returned from an amazing and exhausting 2 weeks in Switzerland with my family. We experienced easily the most diverse set of adventures yet among our trips to Europe, which I will recount in detail over the coming months, but first, here is a quick, whirlwind photo preview of the highest of the highlights!

The Matterhorn

The trip revolved around three major activties:

  • Hiking & Sightseeing
  • Via Ferratas (called “Klettersteig” in German)
  • Sport climbing

We accomplished all three several times over.

On the way to sport climbing at Lehn, with the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau in the distance.

We hiked below the legendary Eiger Nordwand and around the northeast flank of the Matterhorn. We enjoyed incredible sunshine and torrential rain, rode more cable cars than I can count, and stumbled upon fields of wild strawberries.

Below the many summits of Monte Rosa. The three most obvious summits are (from L to R) Dufourspitze, Lyskamm and Breithorn.

Strawberry fields forever!

Goat

We completed three outstanding Via Ferratas, including one on the side of the Eiger and one that traversed the lip of a 2000-foot deep limestone gorge. We swam in alpine lakes and skipped stones across many more. We scoured the country for a palatable granola bar.

Logan braving the unparalled Murren VF.

Swimming in Grunsee.

Ama cruising the Brunnistockli VF.

We climbed at four incredible sport crags (and one passable slag heap in an incredible setting), thrashed through fields of stinging nettles in search of others, and picnicked at the world’s most iconic bouldering destination.

Gimmelwald sport climbing.

Off the beaten path in Elsigen.

Fontainebleau

We cruised alpine slides, toured a chocolate factory, played Big Chess in a car-free village, spent quality time with old friends, and traversed the digestive tract of a Trojan Cow.

This Rodelbahn is so good someone died on it.

Apparently this is the Willy Wonka-est of Switzerland’s many chocolate factories.

Big Chess in Murren

How would you describe this, other than a “Trojan Cow”? Kids climb up a ladder through the cow’s butt, and slide down its throat. That’s the north face of the Eiger in the background.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a technical descent of the whitewater “Nala Inferiore” canyon, including a 50-meter rappel down a raging watefall—a totally wild and surreal experience.

Rapping a 50-meter waterfall in Nala Inferiore.

It’s daunting just thinking back on all the ground we covered, but I guess that explains why I’m so tired!

Stay in Zermatt long enough and you get sick of looking at the Matterhorn. This is from Riffelsee.

Kid-Friendly Via Ferrata in the Dolomites

By Mark Anderson

When Kate and I were debating European vacation options last spring, a big factor in the decision was Via Ferrata. During our last trip (to France) I introduced Logan to the activity and it was one of the highlights of the trip. What I love about it is that it provides a practical way to take the kids up something relatively big.  Why not just climb a multi-pitch route? To do that the follower (who is at-best seven years old in this scenario) would need to belay the leader (me). With Via Ferrata, I can belay myself using a VF lanyard to a logical stopping point, then belay the kid(s) up.

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Leading Amelie up the final section of “stemples” on VF Sass de Rocia.

The Dolomites were an obvious destination for our trip, since they are literally the birthplace of Via Ferrata. The first “iron ways” were installed during the grizzly Mountain War—the battleground between Austria and Italy during the first World War. Confrontations occurred all across the Dolomites, and various relics of that horrific conflict are dotted throughout the range. Both sides created VFs to enable troop movements, and the work that went into them is incredible. In some cases, troops tunneled through miles of rock, to the summit of mountains, to little effect. The Mountain War was one of the most futile ventures in the history of armed conflict, resulting in the death of ~600,000 Italian and ~400,000 Austrian troops without achieving any strategic objectives (despite the fact that Italy was “awarded” significant lands from Austria at the end of the war, which explains why so many towns in the Italian Dolomites look, sound and feel Austrian).

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Presumably a Machine Gun nest, near the trailhead for Lake Sorapis.

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A Mountain War bunker and trench system at Cinque Torri.  These fortifications were primarily used by the Italian side for long-range artillery operations against the Austrian lines on the Lagazuoi peaks, which are the distant mountains across the valley in the upper right corner.

In preparation for our trip I got a pair of proper Lanyards for me and Kate* and rigged up a temporary VF to the top of the Gaudi Wall for the kids to practice on. I learned early in the planning stages that Dolomite VFs are much more utilitarian than the designed-for-kids route we did in France—they are generally designed to get people to a destination, not necessarily to provide a Type-I-Fun experience along the way. Generally they involve big spaces between rungs, a high element of adventure, and long, steep hikes to approach (especially in early summer when most lifts are closed). It took quite a bit of sleuthing to track down some kid-friendly options, but they are out there if you know where to look (and come prepared to hike!) [*Standard VF lanyards are not safe for kids, because kids don’t weigh enough to activate the built-in shock absorption systems–kids should be belayed on a dynamic climbing rope].

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The Schuss is the steep snow slope between the towers.  The left tower is Ra Pegna. The VF route starts in the vertical shaded gulley on the left, then traverses up and right along the obvious cleft, then zig-zags up the bushy ledges on the right side.  There’s also a VF on the right tower (Ra Bujela), but by the time we finished Ra Pegna we had had enough for one day.

The first VF we did was located right outside of Cortina on a famous ski slope called the Schuss, which is often used as a World Cup Downhill race course. The Schuss is a narrow chute between two steep rock towers, and our objective, “VF Ra Pegna,” ascends the east face of the southern tower. I learned of this route from Guidedolomiti.com, which turned out to be a key resource for our trip planning. It was designed to be family friendly, and would have been a great introduction for our kids if I didn’t totally hose up the approach beta.

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Amelie leading the descent from the summit of Ra Pegna.

We didn’t have any driving directions, so we just drove to the base of the ski run and attempted to drive up the service “road”. This was basically like trying to drive up a black diamond ski slope, and fortunately we quickly realized our two-wheel drive rental car, with it’s 8 cm of clearance, was seriously out-matched. We parked along the track and walked the rest of the way, which was still quite difficult given the steepness of the pitch. We arrived at the start of the climb already exhausted, but after a short break we were ready to conquer the tower.

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Logan on the last vertical stretch of the descent from Ra Pegna.  Frankly, the descent was more interesting than the ascent, and if I were to do it again I would consider climbing up the descent route instead.

The VF itself was uneventful, but a bit tedious due to a long traverse in the middle. Traverses are the bane of any VF-with-kids. It’s really easy to belay kids on straight-up pitches, and even haul them up if necessary, but not so on traverses. When traversing, our kids clipped into the cable (in addition to the rope belay) to protect against pendulum falls. This works great when the kids can reach the cable easily, but most of the time the cable is placed such that an adult can stand on the best footholds (usually some kind of ledge) and easily reach the cable, around chest-height. That puts the cable well out of reach of a 5-year-old girl most of the time. Despite these challenges, we made it to the top, but we were VF’ed-out for the next few days.

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Entering the first slot canyon on the VF Sass de Rocia.  Yep, still wearing the same shirt!

The next adventure was the perfect objective for a family on a sport climbing trip. The outstanding sport crag Laste is in fact a big plateau of limestone with a series of slot-canyon-like chimneys weaving through it. VF Sass de Rocia ascends these slots to reach the top of the tower. I got my fill of sport climbing in the morning, then the whole family did the VF at the end.

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Kate and Amelie heading up the first set of stemples on VF Sass de Rocia.  You can see one of the route’s bridges in the upper left.

VF Sass de Rocia was pure fun with zero approach and all the elevation gain spent on the wire. There were some wooden steps, several sets of metal rungs (aka “stemples”) and a couple of bridges. The round trip adventure took about an hour and culminated in a great view from the top of the broad tower. It is exactly the level of commitment you want for VF with young kids.

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From the top of the ladders, looking up at the first stemples and Kate on the first bridge of VF Sass de Rocia.

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Amelie and I descending VF Sass de Rocia.

We saved the best for last, but not by design. VF Grotte di Volpera wasn’t described in any of my guidebooks or online. I figuratively stumbled upon it while researching sport climbing destinations. The Cortina tourism board put out a series of short videos touting the various sport crags around town. In one of these videos I spotted a fun-looking ropes course in the background, so with some sketchy approach information I wandered through the forest until I found the crag.

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Logan on a long section of stemples on VF Grotte di Volpera.

The ropes course had been replaced by a proper VF, presumably installed by local guiding companies to introduce newbies to VF, because it was perfect for Logan. It had several sets of ladders, some exposed ledges, a slack line crossing and a “monkey bridge”, all zigzagging across the same small gorge, making the descent trivial. Logan had so much fun on it that he did the slack line 3 times, once as a zipline. As soon as we finished he asked if we could do it again. It was a great father-son experience and the perfect way to end our trip.

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Logan on his first trip across the VF Grotte di Volpera slackline.  After this he went back across walking the line, and then back to me using the safety cable as a zipline.

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The VF Grotte di Volpera Monkey Bridge.  This is the last obstacle before the easy descent path.

All told, I can’t say the Dolomites are an ideal destination for kid-friendly Via Ferrata. To be fair, there were a few routes we were interested in that were inaccessible due to snow pack (if you are looking for more options in high season, others that sounded plausible and interesting include VF Grotta di Tofana, SA Galleria del Lagazuoi, & VF De Luca/Innerkofler, described in this post).  On the bright side, we never ran into another VF party on any of the routes we did.  Apparently crowding can be a big problem on VFs in high season, but not in May!

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Logan near the start of VF Grotte di Volpera.

If kid-friendly VF were my primary consideration I would probably start with some of the newer VF setups in other parts of Europe (such as in the Haute Alpes of France, which, based on my research, appear geared more toward providing a fun and low-commitment experience for adventurers of all-ages). However, with some digging and careful selection it is possible to string together some great itineraries that kids will enjoy in the Dolomites.

Exploring the Tre Cime

By Mark Anderson

As we wandered over the many passes and marveled at the gob smacking peaks of the Dolomites, I definitely got “the itch” to climb something big. I’ve become a true sport climber over the last decade, especially since my kids arrived, but it hasn’t always been that way. I was first drawn to climbing by a love of the mountains and a desire to stand on top of the snow-capped volcanos I could see from my childhood home. That led to many adventures on the big walls of Yosemite, the alpine peaks of the Canadian Rockies, North Cascades and more remote areas of Alaska and Canada.

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The Tre Cime di Lavaredo from the VF De Luca/Innerkofler tunnels.  From left to right: Cima Piccola, Cima Grande, and Cima Ovest.  Also known as the “Drei Zinnen” (in German).

I wasn’t prepared to do any proper multi-pitch climbing, nor was I interested in ditching the family for an entire day, but the Via Ferrate offered the opportunity to do something that would normally require a partner and a long day in just a couple of hours. Hands-down my favorite day in the Dolomites was the day we explored the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. These “three summits” are notorious among adventure climbers, and have figured notably in the history of alpinism across many decades.

Cima Grande, the central and tallest of the trio, was the first to acquire notoriety with Emilio Comici’s 1933 ascent of its North Face, which is now regarded as one of the six “Great North Faces” of the Alps (along with the north faces of the Eiger, Matterhon, Dru, Grandes Jorasses & Piz Badile). The incomparable Walter Bonatti left his mark in February 1953 with back-to-back winter ascents of the Cima Ovest and Cima Grande. In 2001, gymnastic free-climbing took center stage on Cima Ovest when Alex Huber established his gob-smacking roof climb Bellavista (5.14a) , followed by Pan Aroma (5.14b) in 2007. More recently, the peaks featured briefly in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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Early on the trail to Rifugio Lavaredo.

We had a big day planned with lots of hiking, exploring, and some Via Ferrata. We arrived at Rifugio Auronzo at sunrise and struck out for the Rifugio Lavaredo and the Forcella Lavaredo pass just above. The trail winds around the unremarkable southern sides of the Tre Cime, and is more like a graded road with a few patches of snow here and there. Some liability-minded authority had barricaded the road with a small hand-written sign that warned: “Danger Street.” Fortunately I thought to bring an ice axe and helmets for all, so we were pretty much prepared for anything (ironically, on the return hike a washing machine-sized boulder spontaneously cut loose from the steep scree slope above and tore through the “danger street” only a few hundred yards in front of us—fortunately Kate thought to yell “ROCK!” and nobody was hurt).

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The “Danger Street” warning sign.

We made quick progress to the pass where we got our first clear view of the north faces, and they were incredible! We hung out for a while snapping pictures and assessing the snowpack. Our ambitious “Plan A” was to complete the VF De Luca/Innerkofler. This uber-classic route cuts along, over, and through the Tre Cime-adjacent Monte Paterno (thanks to a series of war-time tunnels and lots of wire).

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Monte Paterno, just left of center, from Forcella Lavaredo.  The Rifugio Locatelli is barely visible on the left.

The standard approach is to traverse the west slope of the mountain to the Rifugio Tre Cime-Locatelli, then clip into the wire for the return trip over and through the mountain. This slope, and pretty much the entire basin below the Tre Cime, was packed with snow, so we ditched Plan A. The usual exit route from Monte Paterno was only a few hundred yards from where we sat, so we roped up, strapped on our helmets, and set off to do the route in reverse, out-and-back.

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The Tre Cime in profile, from the start of the VF DL/I tunnel system.

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In one of the tunnels on VF DL/I.

The route is immediately interesting with a 50-foot stretch of dark tunnel (and in this case, somewhat snow-packed, with an icy floor and wet, dripping roof). The tunnel ends with long stretches of exposed ledges that were carved in the rock. We snaked around several ridges until we were stopped cold by a couloir filled with snow. We decided this was a good spot for the kids to turn around, but Kate generously encouraged me to continue.

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On the wire after the first tunnel section.

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Kate and the kids at the exit of a short tunnel (in the lower left).  The snowfield to the left is actually part of a snow-filled couloir that forced them to turn around.

Beyond the couloir the terrain eased again, then turned the ridge to the east side which was spectacularly bathed in morning sun. I made quick progress until I came across a big steep snowfield several-hundred feet high. It was pretty hard to follow the path at this point (and impossible to clip in since the cable was buried), so I just front-pointed straight up the slope using my icetool and surprisingly-effective hiking shoes with “ice cleats”.

Eventually I topped out the snowfield and got a nice view down the northern slope to Rifugio Tre Cime-Locatelli, which, predictably, was even more snowy! There was no way we could have completed the loop-route as planned in these conditions. However, if not for the snow, I think the kids would’ve had a good shot of making the summit, at least as an Out-and-Back the way I did it. The climbing is loose in places but never very difficult and the vertical-ish sections are only a few feet long.

From the col, it was only a couple hundred feet of snow-free climbing to the glorious summit. The views of the Tre Cime were phenomenal—it’s the perfect vantage point to admire these legendary north walls. I snapped a couple pics then hustled back down the route, even enjoying some glissading on the way down.

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The Tre Cime from the summit of Monte Paterno.

When I returned to Forcella Lavaredo the family was gone, but I could make them out at the Lavaredo Hut a few hundred feet below. By then the place was teeming with tourists, a stark contrast to the solitude we enjoyed at 6am. I wasn’t ready to return there quite yet—I still wanted to get a climber’s view of the big north faces, especially the massive roofs of Cima Ovest.

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The Tre Cime from Forcella Lavaredo.

Half-running, I traversed rapidly across the snow-covered slope.   Like most big walls, they weren’t quite as intimidating from directly below, but I was stunned by the poor quality of rock. Cima Grande in particular was a spider web of fractures, towering like a brick skyscraper without any mortar. I could see how face climbing on this wall could be both unlimited and terrifying at the same time. There’s a neo-classic 8a free climb on the left side of this wall that I can only imagine would be mentally ravaging.

On the right side, the classic lines of the Comici route and its variations weaved between ledges, linking weakness to reach a massive and drenched chimney. Physically, it was easy to see how a route here was possible, but it was hard to imagine venturing up on such a face with 1930’s-era equipment and techniques. Even with modern equipment, I cannot honestly say the route looked appealing. Still, I’d love to do it someday, with a Gore-tex jacket!

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Looking up at the North Face of Cima Grande, from the couloir between Cima Grande and Cima Ovest. The classic Comici route roughly follows the series of gray/black ledges, up into the long, wet black streaks.

The toe of Cima Ovest’s north face is a couple hundred feet lower than that of Cima Grande, and figuring the kids must have been getting restless, I stopped short of traversing all the way to its base. From the couloir between the two peaks I had a nice profile view of the big roof of Bellavista, and it looked spectacular. This wall is also known for poor rock quality, but from this vantage point it looked significantly better than the stone on Cima Grande. I could only imagine what it would feel like to pull into the roof, some 50m out from the toe of the wall, and a couple hundred meters off the deck. Nothing else compares to it in the world, and someday I have to figure out a way to try one of these routes.

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Cima Ovest in profile.

If there is a key take-away from my time in the Dolomites, it’s that I have to go back! This is not the sort of place that can be absorbed in just two weeks. For the time being there are other places to explore, but I will definitely return here, in the fall, with a rack on my back and adventure in mind.

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Exploring the Dolomites

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Hiking the alpine meadows below the Odle Group.

By Mark Anderson

The Dolomites are a jagged range of mountains in North-Eastern Italy, immediately south of the Austrian border. The range is composed of a form of limestone called dolomite (also found throughout Wyoming, at crags like Sinks Canyon and Wild Iris). The rock is heavily featured, and at times heavily fractured, providing unusual challenges for climbers and incredibly dramatic landscapes for sightseers.

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The Tre Cime (R) and Monte Paterno (L).

To climbers, the Dolomites are renowned for their long, dramatic alpine rock routes. The range is home to countless long classics, including one of the six “Great North Faces of the Alps” (the Comici Route on the north face of the Cima Grande). Reinhold Messner maintains they are the most beautiful mountains in the world—“each mountain in the range is like a piece of art.” After spending a couple weeks there with my family last month, it’s hard to disagree.

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On the trail to the Tre Cime, with the Cadini di Misurina group behind.

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Lago Sorapiss and the Dito di Dio spire.

There are so many ways to enjoy these mountains, its hard to know where to start. We wanted to do some sport climbing, some via ferrate (more on these subjects in the coming weeks), but mostly we wanted to explore the incredible and complex landscape.

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Routefinding….

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Climbing art in Ortesi.

For basecamp we chose the vibrant village of Cortina D’Ampezzo. This is a quintessential ski town complete with designer fashions and exorbitant prices (though to be fair, it’s not as bad as Aspen!) It even hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956. It’s got all the essentials (except a pool) and is ideally centered between several legendary climbing attractions.

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Exploring the Cinque Torri, a historic climbing crag. The Col dei Bos can be seen in the distance.

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Kate near the summit of Lagazuoi Piccolo, with Tofana di Rozes behind.

The weather in the Dolomites is incredibly consistent—it rains every day! However, in our experience the mornings were dependably awesome, usually bluebird, with clouds beginning to form around mid-day, culminating in relatively brief-but-violent thunderstorms. We never lost a day to weather, though we did postpone an activity when we awoke to threatening clouds. A typical day for us began with a dawn start, 5-7 hours of some climbing, via ferrata or hiking adventure, followed by a few hours siesta while the rain passed, then another short hike, etc and a visit to town for well-deserved gelato.

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Logan on the exposed trail to the Sorapiss Group.

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Amelie in the Odle Group, with Sassolungo obscured by clouds.

A well-maintained network of roads and cable cars makes it easy to explore, even with small kids (though the cable cars can be pricey). We were there in early season, so many lifts were not operating, and many via ferrate were impassable, but we found plenty to do for two weeks and grew to appreciate the relative solitude once the first wave of summer crowds arrived on the last weekend of our trip.

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Misurina, with the Sorapiss Group behind.

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The Haunold “Funbob.” No relation to Alex?

The kids did a great job of putting up with our insatiable desire to hike and climb. It was the most fun we’ve ever had on a vacation, but also the most exhausted we’ve been at the end. There always seemed to be one more hike, one more mountain pass, one more lake worth visiting. The only thing we failed to find was a good time to rest. Despite that, it feels like we barely scratched the surface of this marvelous place. I’m eager to go back once the kids are big enough to share a rope with me up one of the many towering alpine walls.

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Admiring the Sella Towers from Sella Pass.

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