UK Mountains Walking, Mountaineering and Equipment Reviews
The Dolomites
The Dolomites

During August 2000, a group of us from the Malvern Mountaineering Club heading for Arabba in the Dolomites for two weeks of sun, climbing and Pizzas. We stayed in a large Chalet in the centre of Arabba and this gave us excellent access to some of the best climbing that the Dolomites could offer. The two main forms being Via Ferrata and pure Rock Climbing.

We also visited Corvara, which has the most stunning views of mountain ranges and Cortina, the biggest town in the area.

For those with a fondness for cycling, the passes are awesome, featuring 20 or 30 hairpin bends from bottom to top. Circular routes of 60-70 miles are perfectly possible for the hard-men and women.

Via Ferrata

The Dolomites features a large number of Via Ferrata, which are Iron Walkways. These are walks, or in most cases, protected climbs found throughout the Dolomites and are a relatively safe way of exploring the mountains. There is a guide published by Cicerone which is a 'must have' and it seems to list them all, well, enough to keep you happy anyway - 89 routes are described. Like rock climbing, they are graded. Via Ferrata use the grading system 'a' to 'g', where 'a' is more or less a walk and requires no equipment to 'g', which is very definitely a protected climb. It is important to have the correct protective devices for this type of activity. Slings and Karabiners are DEFINITELY NOT SUITABLE, since the fall factor that can be generated is far in excess of the capability of this type of equipment. See below for an explanation of fall-factors.

During our trip, we climbed several Ferrata of grades between 'd' and 'f', these are summarised below:

Brigata Tredentina (Grade 'd')

This VF ascends the Pisciadu (2985m) via a superb route, including one of the infamous bridges. For those with a taste for heights, but not rock climbing, it is an excellent warm-up route, the finish being at the hut, where food and drink is available.

Ettore Bovero (Grade 'e')

This ascends the Col Rosa (2166m). It is an excellent route, a little bit short for my liking and quite a long walk in (1 hour), but superb positions and views all the way. The summit is interesting, featuring dug-out areas from the war, and an unbelievable view all round.

Via delle Trincee (Grade 'f')

This starts from the cable car that leaves Arabba regularly and follows the skyline route. It has a hard start, and goes through several tunnels, so a headtorch is useful. It also visits a number of areas used by the military in the first world war, so makes a fascinating tour. For the most part, the Marmolada is in view and is superb...Next Year?

It seems impossible to find a bad VF route!

Rock Climbing

As well as the Via Ferrata, the Dolomites are a climbers dream. It is essential to climb on two half-ropes since all belays assume a 50m rope and all descents assume a 50m abseil. The following climbs are just a sample of what's on offer.

Hexenstein: South Rib (Grade IV+)

Located at the Valparola Pass on the road from Arabba to Cortina, it is an excellent route, reached in a matter of 15 minutes or so from the nearest car park. The route and the views are awesome, the climbing is never difficult, always fun and very interesting. There are six pitches, the last being the crux. It takes about 2 hours to ascend. From the summit, it is about 30 minutes back to the car down an 'a' grade Via Ferrata.

Sella Towers: First Tower: South West Corner (Grade V-)

This is reached in about 30 minutes from the top of the Sella Pass. It is a superb, and very popular route, the real test coming on the second pitch with the smooth crack. Bridging or jamming are the preferred options, and once past here, it is straightforward climbing to the summit of this tower. From here, an easy descent and scramble, brings you to the second tower and...

Sella Towers: Second Tower: South West Face (Grade III+)

The start is hard to find, requiring a wombling technique aiming for the corner crack. This is an excellent pitch, but is short. The descent requires several abseils and some care to ensure the right gulleys are used. Rope snags are common hereabouts, so be careful. About 1 1/2 hours back to the car from the end of the route.

Piz Pordoi: Mariakante (Grade IV+)

The walk in is steep and unrelenting and takes about an hour from the car park at the Pordoi Pass. The climbing requires some good route finding skills and is hard in places. It is a long climb, taking several hours to complete and the final section is over very loose scrambling rock to the top. The good news is that the finish is at the cable car station, so there is no need to walk down, unless you really want to.

Vajolet Towers: Stabeler Tower (Grade IV+)

The Vajolet towers are three magnificent adjacent towers, where a descent from one brings you onto the next. They were made famous by Sylvester Stallone in the film CliffHanger - remember the opening scenes, where they lost the girl on the Tyrollean traverse - well that was at the towers. They are somewhat more remote than many other climbing areas, but well worth the effort of getting there. It is not possible to drive there, one must drive to Pera di Fassa, and catch the bus to the Gardeccia hut, then walk. The service starts at 7:30am and takes about 30 minutes. From there, it is about 2 hours walk to the base of the towers, passing the Vajolet Hut en-route. The nearest hut is the Albert Refuge, which would be an excellent base from which to mount an assault on all three towers. The climbing is never more that IV+, which corresponds to about VS 4c, and for the most part, bolted, although some extra gear in the form of a set of nuts or friends would not go amiss for the spacious sections. Descent is by abseil only.

Fall factors

A fall factor is defined as the total distance fallen divided by the amount of rope available to hold that fall. For example, if you were 10m off the ground, and had placed gear 3m below you. A fall from here would generate a fall factor of 6/10 = 0.6 (3m to the gear, plus 3m past the gear). Note, we ignore rope stretch in these calculations. If you were on a multi-pitch climb, then, if you had placed no gear on leaving an intermediate belay, then the fall factor would be (x + x) / x = 2, where x is the length of rope out, equalling the height above the belay, but remember you would fall that far below the belay before stopping (one reason why it is very important on multi-pitch climbing to place gear as soon as possible after leaving the belayer, otherwise the force on the belayer will be huge and in a downward, rather than upward direction). This is the maximum fall-factor possible on a climbing rope, but consider the Via Ferrata. Say you had a 3m (1.5m from harness to karabiner) sling tied to your harness and fell. The average distance between bolts can be 6 or 7m and often further, this gives a fall-factor of (7 + 1.5)/1.5 = 5.7, somewhat higher than the maximum of 2 for a conventional rope system. The forces placed on the Karabiner and sling could well cause a total system failure with obvious consequences.

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