Sesto Group Loop
Tuesday, September 15
After spending a whole day cooped up in the Rifugio Berti, we were raring to get out and see, hike, and climb something. Looking out the window, the late clearing of yesterday seemed to have stalled, as some clouds still clung stubbornly to the peaks. Still, we could see hints of sunlight and a patch of blue, so we were optimistic.
Last Minute Route Review
We reviewed our modified itinerary once again over breakfast, and again checked with Marco about our plans to climb the ferrata Zandonella. He seemed to think our plan was a good one, and shortly after 7:40 a.m., we were on the front deck of the rifugio, ready to go. There wasn't much packing to do, since today's adventure would be a loop, and we'd be returning to our room in the rifugio at the end of the day.
Ready for the day
The first part of the day's journey involved hiking up the valley behind the rifugio. This valley, called the Vallon Popera, led up to a high pass in the very core of the Sesto Group. Near the pass, we planned to veer off and start climbing the Via Ferrata Zandonella - a Grade 4 route that would lead us to the top of one of the principle summits of the area, the Croda Rossa di Sesto.
Trail 101 (the same trail we used to get to the rifugio Berti two days before) led north up into the Vallon Popera. It initially led through an area of sparse forest before rising high enough to be entirely in alpine meadowland. We were for the moment hiking inside a cloud bank, and couldn't see much. However, we could tell the sun and sky weren't far away.
Happily, a short time later, we emerged from the cloud bank and started to get some truly fantastic views of the Vallon Popera. An open area of sky allowed the low sun to flood the upper valley with warm, yellow light. Ringed with jagged towers and peaks, tendrils of clouds clinging about them, it felt both moody and morning-fresh at the same time.
The walk up trail 101 through alpine meadows was one of the most scenic parts of our outing today, probably mostly due to the dramatic atmospheric and lighting conditions. The trail wound up through a hummocky landscape of alpine meadows, angling up towards the very clearly defined gravel bank of a terminal moraine. Beyond that, we could see way up to the narrow notch that was Passo della Sentinella. Somewhere before that point, we knew, we had to turn off and head to the start of our ferrata route.
Winding up through alpine meadow
By the time we had hiked up to the edge of the moraine, the clouds around the highest peaks had thickened, and the morning sun was blocked from view. As the tone of color in the air changed from warm yellow to steely gray, the whole scene changed from cheery to gloomy. Upwards we climbed on trail 101, now on the crest of the moraine.
As we climbed the narrow crest of the moraine, we began to hear sounds. At first, it had sounded like a helicopter was flying around somewhere above in the clouds. Then, a little later on, we began to hear other sounds - kind of like sawing sounds. Some sort of power tools. The sound was intermittent, and continued on and off. It seemed to be coming from up and to our right, up in the direction of the summit of the Croda Rossa, and roughly the location of our ferrata route.
After climbing up the steep moraine crest for a while, the thought came to me that there was a good chance that these sounds were in fact the sound of power drills. Probably, I thought, drills used to make holes in rock. For ferrata installations. That's what was probably going on - maintenance work on a ferrata. Was it our ferrata - the ferrata Zandonella? It certainly seemed like the sound was coming from the right direction. Precise identification wasn't possible, unfortunately, due to the thick clouds that prevented us from seeing all that far up the cliffs around us.
Now, if in fact maintenance was being done on the ferrata Zandonella, what would it mean for us? This was a grade 4 ferrata, with the possibility of stiff climbing and big dropoffs. Would we be encountering a wire that suddenly ended in the middle of a tough pitch?
Without more knowledge, our general consensus was to stay the course and maintain our itinerary. We continued up the steep gravelly crest, climbing ever closer to the notch of the Passo della Sentinella. Off to our left, old dirty summer snow covered a little glacier remnant hidden away in a north-facing alcove of nearby Cima Undici.
Back during breakfast, I had carefully read my guidebook and had also consulted some information contained in binders in the hut. It seemed like the start of the lower end of the Zandonella route might be difficult to find, so I wanted to be sure I was armed with every bit of information I could get. Making matters more difficult was the fact that there are actually two variants to the Zandonella route - the original route, and an eastern variant (we were aiming to climb the original route). Fortunately, we soon came across a set of faded red and green painted letters on an outcrop of rock, something I'd seen in one of the rifugio's info binders. This meant that the turnoff to the original Zandonella route was at this point.
Turning off from trail 101, we climbed a faint path up through scree to the base of vertical cliffs. Here, a more distinctive path led back east along the cliff's base, passing what looked like several wartime tunnels and emplacements. A short way along this faint path, we stopped to examine a faded and smeared bit of plastic-wrapped paper. Hmm... blurry but somewhat readable, and using limited Italian translation skills, we read this: .... reported via ferrata ... poor state of maintenance ... ... dangerous transit of mountaineers... appropriate to take urgent measures to eliminate serious threats to safety... closure foot traffic on via ferrata Zandonella....
Ok, we'd read enough - the general message was clear. The old gear on the Zandonella route had been deemed out of date, loose, and sketchy, and it looked like on this *very* day, they were at work fixing it up. That was pretty much the only conclusion one could arrive at from the sign and the continued sound of drilling from above.
In the interest of getting more information, we continued on for a few steps to the actual start of the ferrata, where a metal plaque inscribed with "Zandonella" was affixed to the concrete wall of an old military emplacement. The wire started from here and wrapped around a corner. I went up a few metres and around the corner to have a look. The fixtures and the wire did look pretty old compared to all the fixed-up routes we'd recently seen; the wire, instead of being nicely tight and securely affixed to the attachment points, was instead loosely routed through metal hooks drilled into the rock. It would have worked, but it certainly did not have the bomber feel of other, more up-to-date ferrate.
So, our options: there were really only three, I supposed. First option: climb the ferrata anyway, be on the lookout for any unprotected sections and hope we could safely get past them, and hopefully not annoy the workers up on the route. Second option: find an alternate routing to the top of the Croda Rossa that did not involve the ferrata Zandonella. Third option: turn around and go back to the rifugio, curl up and shed some tears of frustration.
After being shut indoors for a solid 24 hours due to rain, we sure as hell weren't going with option three. Option one was considered for a few minutes, and we reasoned that probably we would be able to manage even with a section or two of missing cable (assuming it wasn't in too tricky of a spot, in which case we would have to downclimb). But option one wasn't the prudent thing to do, especially when we couldn't even eyeball the route in advance due to the clouds. So.... option two. Consulting our topo map, we could see a way - up over Passo della Sentinella, down into the gully beyond, and then climb up to intersect the north ridge of the Croda Rossa, which had another (and much easier) ferrata route to the top. From the top, we'd retrace our climb back down the northern route ferrata, continuing on our original itinerary of going down to the north and around to the east in a big loop.
Disappointed about missing out on a cool grade 4 route (which apparently had a lot of good WWI stuff along it), we turned around and headed back along the footpath, soon rejoining trail 101 and headed up to Passo della Sentinella. It only took a few minutes of steep gravel and scree climbing to reach the pass, which is on the boundary line between the Italian provinces of Veneto and Trentino-Alto-Adige (a.k.a. the Sudtirol). There was a lot of World War I structure and memorabilia here - a fortified lookout drilled through with a tunnel in a small cone of dolomite right at the pass, and a lot of plaques, statues, and general memorial-type stuff.
Caves, plaques, and artifacts