A remote via ferrata adventure in the Dolomites
Lou Stone explores the ancient military via ferratas of a less visited corner of the Italian Dolomites. Her journey take her deep into secret amphitheatres of soaring spires, over the high Alpine passes of the Marmarole, and to secluded huts in spectacular locations.
What is a via ferrata?
Literally translated as iron way, it is essentially protection that has been added to exposed mountain routes in the form of metal foot- and hand-holds. A dedicated lanyard attached to a climbing harness clips onto a metal cable running alongside, to protect a fall. It makes the terrain of climbers feel accessible to hikers.
A Cicerone guide had been sitting on my bookshelf like a siren call: Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites. I was curious to discover this place where via ferratas first proliferated. During the First World War, as the Austro-Hungarian and Italian sides fought for control in this hostile high-altitude environment, permanent lines were fixed to help troops move around.
These old wartime routes are a very different experience from modern ones. They were designed to assist soldiers, not for recreation, and the intermittent protection reflects this.
Cicerone grades the via ferratas in their books with a number from 1 to 5, reflecting the technical difficulty, and a letter from A to C for the seriousness of the route. The routes we followed were graded 1 for easy and 2 for ‘straightforward for experienced scramblers’; and B to C denoting them as remote, harder to escape from and with more objective dangers.
The dramatic spires of the Dolomites owe their architecture to several episodes. The limestone rocks formed 210-250 million years ago, from sediment deposited during an intense period of marine life on the floor of the Tethys Ocean that covered this area at the time.
The European and African tectonic plates then collided 40 million years ago, thrusting the rocks of the Alpine chain upwards. However, the area of the Dolomites lay further south than the main Alpine realm. This meant it was raised later and more gently, so instead of folding, it retained horizontal bedding planes. Finally, glaciation and erosion carved drama into the soluble limestone.
To me these routes suggested an experience, a journey, so that’s how I wanted to encounter them. I chose the Marmarole area, described in the Cicerone guide as quiet and almost lonesome, which I hoped would avoid the crowds during peak tourist season.
These via ferrata were remote, so I chose three that were next to mountain huts, all linked together by the Alta Via 5, a multi-day trek that weaves a high level route across the range from north to south.
I opened up the trip to my local outdoor club. For our first target, I chose the easiest route. It was circular, which meant everyone could have a taste of what was involved, and turn back if they felt unhappy. I booked two nights at the first two huts, to take the time pressure off the first two routes, and hotels at either end of the range, near bus stops.
We booked the Cortina Express to get us between Venice airport and the edge of the Dolomites. We then used the Dolomitibus to get in and out of the Marmarole range, although at the time, we could not get the bus tickets online and had to buy them from a local bar.
Day 1 Trek from Lorenzago di Cadore to Rifugio Ciareido 1969m
13km distance, 1200m ascent
We set off from our hotel in Lorenzago di Cadore, to the east of the Marmarole. We would not be joining the Alta Via 5 until after our first hut, so I plotted a route northwest to the refuge. The paths, reassuringly bold on the map, felt decidedly ignored on the ground, and thick summer foliage obscured the path.
We worked as a team to spot the waymarking, painted in forest-green on the occasional tree. We found that a section of the path had been lost to a landslide and we had to detour round. We met no one all day, and felt we really were exploring an ignored side of the Dolomites. After several hours, we emerged abruptly from the forest. Jagged towers of rock speared up from the forest edge, as if they had thrust suddenly and violently through the trees.
We arrived at the Rifugio Ciareido with its astonishing 360° views, and the friendly staff presented us with souvenir metal key rings in the shape and weight of a small mountain. Serviced mountain huts are a curious mix: the dormitory bedrooms are basic, bathrooms are shared, and there is often no Wi-Fi, yet they offer full catering services and even a bar.
The Ciareido, and in fact all of the refuges we stayed at, served us astonishing Italian four course meals from an à la carte menu.
Day 2 Via ferrata Sentiero Amalio da Pra
550m ascent to 2298m, 200m of via ferrata at grade 2B, 3.5 hours
We hiked north then west steeply uphill, until we reached the San Lorenzo pass. From here, we had fantastic views north across forests to the Sesto Dolomites.
The route ahead looked steep and loose, so we geared up while still on relatively safe ground. We descended towards the beginning of the via ferrata, and entered a landscape of dramatic pinnacles.
The route traversed southwest round the north side of Monte Ciareido. The climbing was three-dimensional, venturing up, down and across ledges and cracks in the spires. We had to tread carefully across several unprotected gullies of loose scree. Presumably, recurrent rock fall would have made it futile to install cables here.
A final hike up loose rock brought us to the end of the route at the San Pietro pass, overlooked by a large pillar in the shape of a sitting figure named ‘Il Pupo’. The hike east back to the refuge was steep but straightforward.
This short but full day had been plenty enough via ferrata adventure for some, but the rest of us were thirsty for more.
Day 3 Trek from Rifugio Ciareido to Rifugio Ciggiato 1911m
We were now on the Alta Via 5, and saw other people for the first time. The route west to Rifugio Ciggiato was short, with two brief equipped sections protecting the exposed path. For some this felt straightforward, and we held the cables with our hands.
For others, even the placard testifying that His Holiness Pope John Paul II had walked here did not relieve their anxiety, and they clipped on with slings and karabiners for courage. Adventure is perception.
We had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the captivating flora, much of which is unique to the Dolomites. Before long, the most remote refuge on our itinerary appeared, perched on a saddle.
Omar, the guardian, made us feel incredibly welcome. The food was exquisite, and the coeliac in our party touchingly catered for. During dinner, Omar sat with us, and brought to life stories handed down through his family of the conflict that had waged through the area during the First World War.
Day 4 Via ferrata: Sentiero degli Alpini
740m ascent to 2650m, 450m of via ferrata at grade 2C, 6 hour round trip
Today’s route was on the Alta Via 5, northwards from the refuge. As soon as the cables began through the broken rock, the way became steep. The exposure proved too much for one member, who turned back.
We climbed up a series of intermittent cables and ascending ladders, bent and gnarled from rock fall damage, mist concealing the drop below.
The cables ended at a wide gully of loose shale, just before the Jau de la Tana pass. It was incredibly exposed, so a few of us decided we preferred to add some security to traverse it. My partner belayed me across so that I could fix our safety rope to intermittent bolts as a handrail. It was worth the effort; it was an awe-inspiring setting for lunch.
We left the Alta Via 5 at the pass. Some of our group finished the day with a circular hike, continuing east along the steep northern side of Punta Anita to the Froppa pass then down its southern valley.
Others of us returned the way we had come, only this time, the mist swirled aside, revealing huge exposure dropping away to the valley floor against a spectacular backdrop. Back on shallower gradients, we saw herds of ibex on the sheer cliffs above us. After our epic day, we collapsed blissfully into our gourmet hut dinner.
Day 5 Trek Rifugio Ciggiato to Rifugio San Marco 1823m
14km, 1000m ascent, 1000m descent
A variant of the Alta Via 5 heading west along the southern edge of the Marmarole linked us with our next refuge. We followed a long river valley overhung with improbable crags, explored waterfalls, wove through woodland and flower meadows, and traced sweeping zigzags across colourful screes.
After a long day, we arrived at another impossibly picturesque hut on a spur, on the east side of the range.
The Rifugio San Marco was bustling. We were surprised to find ourselves enjoying an open air shower with a clear view back to the seating area outside the hut, so we took it in turns to hold up dignity curtains for each other, improvised from towels.
Day 6 Trek Rifugio San Marco to Auronzo di Cadore and via ferrata Cengia del Doge
Only a few of us undertook the final linear via ferrata, graded 1C, following the description in reverse to make it work for our journey. The rest hiked instead, northwards along the delightful Val de San Vido, 11.5km distance with 400m ascent, and a few even skinny-dipped in the river.
This via ferrata was more like a high mountain hike with considerable exposure, and very few sections of cable. The route began pleasantly through meadows filled with flowers and boulders, but quickly became steep and loose, eventually shrinking to a narrow ledge.
We clipped on to the protection when it appeared; the rest of the time, we crept along slowly and carefully. After turning several corners around imposing rock pillars, we finally descended on a path through scree and scrub, until we reached the safety of the valley.
The two groups converged on the road north to Auronzo di Cadorem. At the hotel, we celebrated our shared adventure, and swapped stories. We had all really enjoyed immersing ourselves in the history and remoteness of the area by taking a hut-to-hut journey, and if this was a more ignored area of the Dolomites, then I personally looked forward to exploring much more.
Via ferrata advice
A word of warning: if you fall from a via ferrata, you are not held as you would be if you were climbing with a rope above you. You may fall from above your karabiners, your karabiners will slide down the cable, and when they reach the bolt at the end of that section of cable, your lanyards will deploy*.
The total fall could be some distance, and consequential. You can protect yourself during rests with a safety line, and you can protect each other moving through riskier sections with a short rope, and the knowledge of how to use it.
* Modern via ferrata lanyards use slings sewn up with stitches, designed to rip under load so that the impact of a fall is gradual. This means you should not re-use them after a fall. Do not use regular slings, which could fail when shock loaded.
The usual kit for hiking in the mountains and staying at huts.
Guidebook: Cicerone's Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites Vol 1. Includes map recommendations.
Map: I used the Tabacco sheet 016 Dolomiti del Centro Cadore 1:25.000
- Via ferrata lanyard
Additional safety equipment:
- Via ferrata gloves
- Safety line system
- 20-30m rope
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