"While it helps of
course to have tough
muscles, the prizefighter
would not necessarily
make a fine Dolomite
climber. But the ballet
Give Me the Hills, 1956
BALANCING MORE THAN 5,000 FEET above the northern Italian countryside, we pick our way along a narrow path chiseled into the rock. Patches of the trail have disintegrated, forcing us to cling to the crags, but at each turn we're rewarded with a fresh view of the Dolomites, knifelike shafts of light gray limestone, breathtaking in their size, verticality, and austere beauty.
My wife, Rosie, and I traveled to the Dolomites to take advantage of a World War I-era system of cables that allows any reasonably fit adventurer to ascend these peaks without mastering technical climbing skills. During the war, Austria and Italy battled for control of the area, known as South Tirol. To facilitate access to the more difficult or exposed sections, the troops bolted cables and ladders to the rock to create vie ferrate, or iron roads. When Austria-Hungary was defeated, it ceded the region to Italy, but locals still speak German as well as Italian.
Expanded and reinforced since then, the vie ferrate snake throughout much of the high Dolomites. The bulk of the range extends east from the town of Bolzano, but we ventured west to the Brenta Dolomites for a multiday trek along a popular route known as the "Bocchette Alte," or High Bocchette. We reached the trail on the Grostè ski lift in the small town of Madonna di Campiglio and hiked--often at altitudes above 9,000 feet--across dry, crumbling mountainsides and slippery glaciers before returning the fourth day by a lower route.
We wore climbing harnesses, with two short attached ropes and carabiners on the ends. When the path became particularly precarious, we clipped onto the fixed cables. We walked, scrambled, and often scaled long iron ladders--one 300 steps high--bolted into the sheer cliffs. Even with our harnesses clipped to the cables, a slip could result in a ten-foot fall--not fatal but potentially painful. Each night we stopped at a rifugio, a simple but inviting lodge that provides dormitory-style accommodations, a welcome glass of birra or vino, tasty Italian food, and some of the best views on the planet. --Robert Heil