Roland and Stephanie's First Ferrata
Friday, September 11
Today was a big transition for us - from city touring to mountain exploring, in the Dolomites of northeastern Italy. There we would introduce Roland and Stephanie to the so-called Via Ferrata - fixed-protection climbing routes up various cliffs, crags and peaks.
We packed up and double-checked that everything in our Venetian apartment was in order (which, by the way, had turned out to be an excellent place to stay), then walked along canals and over bridges back to the railway station, where we made the short hop to the nearby coastal town of Mestre.
Back to the train station
After retrieving our car from the parking garage in Mestre, we began our journey north towards the Dolomites. The weather was looking a bit unsettled but otherwise reasonably good for the next few days, and it was sunny as we journeyed north along the Autostrada. Despite it being a flat coastal lagoon, Venice is not actually all that far away from the foothills of the Dolomites, and very soon we began to see hills and low mountains in the distance.
During pre-trip planning, I had picked an itinerary of routes and Via Ferrata climbs that started off very easily and gradually ramped up as our days in the mountains passed. This turned out to have been an especially good idea, since Roland's damaged ankle (from his mishap in Corniglia) was still bugging him, and we were all a bit worried about how he would manage with actual mountain hiking and climbing.
Puffy mid-day clouds obscured the tops of the higher peaks as we drove deeper into the Dolomites. We were headed for a subgroup of the southern Dolomites called the Pale di San Martino - a large plateau of high-altitude alpine land with many ridges and peaks radiating from it. For today and the next, we'd be focusing on the southernmost tip of this group - a north-south trending ridge of towers and crags that - despite its ruggedness - sported a couple of fairly easy ferrata routes.
Our plan was to hike up to a mountain rifugio (ie. a hut), climbing over a ferrata on the way to it, and then returning back to the car the next morning, climbing a different ferrata on the way back. The start of the route began at a nondescript pullout along a small farm road high up on the forested slopes above the valley town of Fiera di Premiero. My guidebook had indicated that this was a place you could leave your car. Indeed this was so, but what it didn't indicate was that there were signs that implied that you could only park between 7am and 9pm - which meant trouble for our overnight plan.
Understanding the route
We thought about it for a bit, and then decided to simply risk leaving the car at the pullout overnight. There didn't seem to be a crush of cars around, probably due to us being here in the shoulder season, we thought. With that, we reasoned that the intent of the parking limit was to deal with the busy summer season, and that perhaps these signs were in effect only during those times. And in any case, what else were we going to do at this point? We were quite far from any sort of public transport option, and any attempt to re-locate the car to an appropriate spot would have completed quashed our day's plans. If we came back the next morning and encountered a ticket (or worse, a missing car), so be it.
Our ultimate destination for the day was the religiously-named rifugio Velo della Madonna (The Madonna's Veil). It was tucked into a high alpine valley north of where we were, on the other side of some pretty major and pointy peaks. We had two main choices to get there: climb a "grade 2" ferrata in a fairly direct up-and-over-a-summit route, or climb a longer, more circuitous route that skirted the summits and involved an easier "grade 1" ferrata route. I had originally planned to tackle the grade 2 route today, but Roland's ankle put that plan into question. We decided to hike up to the decision point and, well, make the decision then.
The first part of our hike was pretty easy: hiking along the network of farm roads winding through a sloping terrain of forest and meadows. In their lower reaches, hiking trails in the Dolomites frequently use existing minor roads and farm tracks. Often these roadways are open to public traffic only on foot. Such was the situation for us now, as we followed trail 731 up through forest and alpine farmland. Up above, the towering peaks of Cimerlo - the southernmost point in the Pale di San Martino group - disappeared into the clouds.
Our pace was decent but not especially fast. Roland's ankle was causing him discomfort, but he was managing. The combination of the stiff support of his mountaineering boots and hiking poles made it manageable.
A combination of roads and actual forest trails brought us up to a couple of junctions. Here, we had to make our choice: continue straight uphill, with an ever-steepening gradient to a grade 2 ferrata climb of Cimerlo, or veer left and take a circuitous and less strenuous route. This would be longer and involve a less-difficult grade 1 ferrata.
With Roland reporting feeling some occasional twinges of pain from his ankle, we elected to take the less difficult route. Both would get us to the Rifugio Velo della Madonna, and probably at a similar time.
So, we turned off the steep path towards the summit of Cimerlo and headed west. The track was immediately flat, traversing across the slopes instead of up them. We crossed the top end of a few more beautiful alpine farm clearnings, and then turned north on trail 734, following a track that parallelled the high summits, but stayed mostly down in the forested slopes below.
Emerging onto open slopes
For the next hour or so, our trail traversed north through forest, occasionally breaking out in the open to cross the scree or talus of a long erosion gully that cut down the hill from the terrain high above. Roland crossed these gullies carefully, since they were often composed of loose material and therefore heightened the danger of an unexpected twist of the ankle.
While the weather was not totally clear, with a broken cloud deck that enveloped the higher altitude terrain, it wasn't too bad. At our mid-level altitude, we had fairly clear views into the valley below and of the terrain around us. The periodic appearance of the sun - if it coincided with the crossings of the eroded gullies - forced us to wear our sunglasses to counteract the brilliant reflection off of the fresh white surfaces of the chunks of dolomite rock.
After the hour-long northern traverse, trail 734 made an abrupt turn right (at a sign), and began climbing directly up the steep slopes. We had come far enough north to be past the major walls and towers, and now we had to head up to meet the start of our climbing section - the grade 1 Via Ferrata Camillo Depaoli.
The trail continued to climb quite steeply on an earthy little track, winding back and forth through increasingly open forest. Soon we emerged onto an area of grassy terrain interrupted with crags of rock. From here, we had great views down into the valley and up towards the steep terrain above. This was classic dolomitic scenery: grassy slopes transitioning straight into solid walls of rock.
After enjoying the nice views, we pushed on. A few more minutes of steep trail climbing brought us to the characteristic safety sign that signified the start of a via ferrata route (along with, of course, the steel ferrata wire itself).