Scaling the Via Ferrata in South Tyrol
Italy isn't a very big country, but a lot changes as you drive north. The economy picks up, for one thing. Northern Italy, many people say, is the tugboat that pulls Italy along, while southern Italy is the anchor. The Po Valley, which runs from the Italian Alps into the Adriatic near Venice, is one of the most industrialized regions on the planet. If you keep driving north of the Po Valley, people start speaking German, but you're still in Italy. It's fair to say that more changes in one hour of highway driving in Italy than in one day of highway driving in Nebraska.
The German-speaking part of Italy is known as the South Tyrol and it's been German, at least culturally, for something like 1500 years. Before the Great War, it was part of the Austro Hungarian empire, and its residents drank uncommonly good beer, sipped coffee and ate cake in coffee houses and called their ham "speck" instead of "prosciutto." After the success of the Triple Entente in the Great War, however, South Tyrol became part of Italy, but the people continued speaking German.
Today, it's something of a cultural hybrid. Still German, but with some Italian thrown in. The road signs, for example, are in two languages. Bolzano, Bolzan. Merano, Meran. To the passing traveler, the divergent spellings are the perfect expression of the cultural difference--a people who believe life is all in the vowels living next to a people who believe that it most definitely is not.
World War I not only decided the present-day nationality of the South Tyrol, it had an equally grand effect on the local hiking. Battles were fought high in the Dolomite Mountains, as much against enemy troops as against far less glamorous dangers such as avalanches and falling off cliffs. To help troops move about the mountain landscape, and to keep them from plummeting thousands of feet to their death--bodies of dead soldiers are still being pulled out of local glaciers--both sides began bolting ropes and ladders to the towers of limestone.
Sometime after the war, people realized this network of "protection," as its called in mountaineering circles, made for a handy way to scale the side of the mountains. The ropes were replaced with iron cables and people began climbing up to the very summits. Italians had a word for these new mountain routes: via ferrata, or iron roads.
Via ferrata were the reason for my visit to South Tyrol. For a period of about five years I flirted with rock climbing. Few sports are as spiritually and physically satisfying as rock climbing, but I drifted away from it because I didn't fully trust my ability with knots and bolts and other important things that keep you from plummeting to your death. Via ferrata are different. The protection is cemented into the rock and all a climber has to do is clip into it and climb cheerily upwards.
So on my first morning in the South Tyrol, I met Markus Staffler, a mountain guide and a fine example of Teutonic engineering. Markus drove me to the base of a local mound of limestone called Mount Fenberg (Favogna, to Italians), just across the Etsch Valley from the Dolomites. We got out his Volkswagen minibus, adorned ourselves in harnesses and helmets and started hiking. In truth, this Via Ferrata route was more via (road) than ferrata (iron). We would walk in an upwardly direction over standard hiking trail for maybe fifteen minutes, then run into a wall of white rock, where we would clip into the cables and continue the route up, though much more directly.
During the van ride, Markus had told me this was a beginner route. I had plenty of rock climbing experience, I told him, and I would be more than capable of handling an intermediate route. Markus's English is not that good, and I'm lucky that this is so. I imagned the "beginner" ferrata sections would be exposed pathways on rock, the kind of exposed mountain trail where the main dangers is tripping at the wrong time.
I was wrong. The ferrata-sections were directly up. Markus bounded to the top in a few limb-strokes, but it just wasn't the same for me. I would begin an up-section with equally ambitious intentions, but in minutes would find myself wedged into a crevace, hugging the rock, inhaling aroma of sweat mixed with limestone. At moments like this, you look down and the iron cable you are clipped into doesn't seem nearly as sturdy as it did a minute earlier. There is one thought: If I fall I will die. It's not an abstract subject-predicate work of cognition. It's a feeling: adrenaline, fear and a primitively basic notion--do not let go of the rock. Eventually, you cling long enough to realize you are not going to fall, that you could cling to this particular piece of limestone for two or three precious hours before succumbing to muscle fatigue. You have another thought: Why am I doing this? And finally a third thought: As soon as this stretch of climbing is over, we are getting the hell off this mountain.
So much for beginner trail
You look up and see a knob of limestone. You reach your right hand to it and feel that it is rounded, almost polished by the sweaty grip of others. You pull yourself up, then look down and see what looks like a fine place to rest your left foot. Several handholds and footholds later, you are standing next to Markus, who is smiling and clipping in to the next section of cable. At this point, an overwhelming sensation of happy, fuzzy warmth feeling sweeps across your being. You can feel the muscles throbbing in your forearms, your back and your thighs, and the sensation is close to euphoric. You set off on the next section of via but can't wait for the next ferrata.
We climbed 900 meters--or about 2700 feet--in this way, stopping only for sips of water and to eat an apple. (Markus ripped his apple into two halves using his hands. I ate mine the normal, weak way.) The route took us about two hours, and at the top there was a generous down-section of breezy trail waiting for us. It had rained the night before, and to inhale that cool, wet air felt like drinking spring water. Markus and I walked and talked. I tried to explain that it was a good thing that we didn't do an intermediate section. Though he didn't understand what I was saying, he knew this to be true all along.
The forest was tall and inviting, with stretches of enchantment that approached--but did not equal--Greece's Vikos Gorge. After about four miles of sweet Tyrolean descent, we entered vineyards. The young grapes were the size of peppercorns and red poppies were blooming between the rows of vines. There was a village, Margried (Magre, to Italians), where we stopped and drank from a public fountain. It has a church with a tall, pointed steeple, winding streets and a happily-ever-after medieval look to it.
We found a sign pointing to the beginning hike we had just climbed: Via Ferrata (Italian), and Klettersteig (German). The Italian name made it sound like an uplifting soul-freeing pathway in the mountains while the German name seemed to describe an intense session of exacting, analytical progress. Both, I decided, are correct.
Posted at N 46 15.440 and E 011 12.362