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.
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).
Presumably a Machine Gun nest, near the trailhead for Lake Sorapis.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the top of the ladders, looking up at the first stemples and Kate on the first bridge of VF Sass de Rocia.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.