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TR: A European Best Buds Reunion Part 1: Dolomites, Italy July 2017

Jake Jones and I became best buds and regular adventure buddies during his time on exchange at UBC. Sadly, he had returned to Manchester to finish his degree. When Nicole Barrette and I received the Neil Mackenzie Adventure Grant to explore Scotland and I knew I was headed for Europe, Jake and I made plans to meet up 5 weeks earlier and decided to explore the Dolomites in Italy and Triglav National Park in Slovenia. With my bag packed for climbing, mountaineering and via ferrata, I was on my way to a best buds reunion!

Jake and I met in Venice, Italy on June 30th, 2017, where he was on a family vacation. After a wonderful day of exploring the “City of Bridges”, we rented a small car and headed to the beautiful mountain town of Cortina. Cortina has a few campsites to choose from: approximately 3 to the south and one to the north. They charge by the number of cars, tents and people, and typically were about 21 euros per night for Jake and myself, one tent and one car. Not as cheap as we were hoping, but cheaper than other accommodation. We stayed in Campsite Dolomiti, which was slightly further from the main road, but had the most trees and therefore the most relaxing environment. It also had numerous rooms to hang out in, including one with ping pong tables and another with a lovely kitchen area where we could cook.

Because I had never done via ferrata before, and because the weather forecast called for an afternoon thunderstorm, we began our journey on a relatively short, easy via ferrata: Col dei bos; Degli Alpini (summit 2559 m; 509 m gain). Via ferratas tend to be a step above scrambling and a step below climbing, where there are thick metal wires that are connected to the rock via deep metal rods. The via ferrata gear has two carabiners connected to bungee-like fabric that is connected to your harness. As you ascend, you switch one carabiner at a time and ensure that each is closed fully before moving the other above the next metal rod. Metal rods are typically 1-4 meters apart. If you fall, you fall to the last metal rod. The guidebook that we used for this trip was pretty good (“The Dolomites: Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata”, by James Rushforth), and despite being published in 2014, we would discover many times that it contained out of date information.

On our approach, we passed ruins of an old hospital from the war which were quite beautiful! I felt confident using the via ferrata gear rather quickly, but it took a little while getting over the fear of slipping, especially because I was in my hiking boots that had lost nearly all of their soles (i.e. had no grip), and the climbing was at least 5.4 in difficulty. The via ferrata set-up can only take one fall before the gear must be retired, and they are not cheap, so that was also on my mind. For the rest of the trip, I used my mountaineering boots instead with much better success and comfort! After our descent, we hiked towards Cinque Torre as the thunderstorm rolled in.

World War Hospital Ruins.

Photo credit: Jake Jones

The next day, we began our two-day journey on the beautiful Sorapiss Circuit, which includes a large amount of hiking and scrambling, and three via ferratas (Fransesco Berti, Sentiero Carlo Minazio, Alfonso Vandelli; another insightful trip report can be found here). The entire circuit is estimated to take 14-18 hours, and reported to have no water sources along the way. I packed 3.5 L of water, hoping that it would be sufficient, and Jake only packed 1.5 L. Otherwise, my 35 L packed contained my bivy, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, food and warm layers. The weather was overcast and threatening, and we made excellent time on the approach to Sorapiss Lake, which was stunningly beautiful. After a relaxed lunch, we began the long slog in the counter-clockwise direction of the route, up the valley. We passed many beautiful flowers and a scenic glacier, and very quickly lost sight of all other hikers, which was quite the contrast to the very crowded Sorapiss Lake and Refugio Vandelli.

Photo credit: Jake Jones

The trail became less clear as we followed the valley. In Italy, every hiking trail has a number associated with it, and they are generally very well sign-posted. But here, we came across numerous junctions with no signs and had to do our best guess work. We nearly missed the approach scramble to do the circuit after initially deciding that it must not be the right away. This lost us about 45 minutes until we decided to begin the scramble and see where it took us. We soon found ourselves on an unbelievably exposed ledge, with a 1500-2000 m drop directly below us. At any point, we were 1-35 m away from this sheer drop, and the slope leading to the drop was angled scree… definitely my least favourite type of surface. Our traverse across this ledge lasted for hours, and very much tested my mental strength and fear of heights. Without anything to hold on to with my hands, I felt very unstable and unhappy. At least the views were incredibly beautiful! I managed to keep the panic attacks at bay, and eventually we made it to the beginning of the first via ferrata.

Jake stoked about all the lost time, and what the start of the scrambling looks like for the Sorapiss Circuit.

As we put our harnesses on, the thunderstorm rolled in and it began to hail on us. We decided that the thunderstorm was mild enough that the safest option was to forge forward, despite the additional metal near our bodies. Initially, the route was a traverse on exposed rock and I was very glad to be connected on via ferrata, especially as it became more wet and slippery in the rain. Eventually we descended ladders before beginning a long ascent up a series of ladders and via ferrata climbing. Once at the top, there was a final ramp that we passed along through the fog. The fog suddenly dissipated to reveal the most beautiful view of the entire day.

Photo credit: Jake Jones

The ascent to the high point.

Two charming individuals. Photo credit: Jake Jones

Behind us, we unexpectedly saw a small red building that was a part of the suggested bivy site. Turns out that our bivy bags were not needed! This little red building was fully decked out, with bunk beds and a folding table. It also protected us from our friend George, an Ibex who came to my baa-ing. He was very friendly to me, but seemed aggressive to Jake, and hiding in the shelter was highly advisable… we were unsure if he was after the salts from Jake’s future urine, or if he had chosen me as his mate and was fending off other males. This bivy site is the highest point on the circuit, and we were feeling relieved that we had reached this point.

George, my Ibex friend. Photo credit: Jake Jones.

The next morning, we had a relaxed breakfast before heading out. Day one had taken ~10 hours after our 1 hour approach to the lake and 1.5 L of water, and we were only halfway. Luckily, we did not lose any time to route finding on the second day, but we did suffer from 35 degree Celsius weather, contrasting strongly to the day before. We also initially descended into the valley, losing most of our elevation, and began a long traverse back towards the lake. The second via ferrata was not technical, but was exposed with sheer drops. Luckily, this section was easier mentally because (1) I was attached to the metal wire, and (2) there were small shrubs obscuring my view of the drop. We reached a second bivy site in a valley before our final ascent to the next highest point on the route.

This ascent was brutal and seemingly never ending. By the time we were half way up, Jake and I were both out of water and exhausted. Spirits were low as we reached the high point and then began our via ferrata descent, which essentially was down-climbing while dehydrated and exhausted. There were times where I was worried about the ability of my brain to continue making safe, smart decisions, but but we did not stop. We knew that if we stopped, it would only make the situation worse. Jake and I barely spoke for the next two hours as we descended. Eventually, we made it back to the bottom and began hiking back to the Refuge, with the agreement that the first person there would purchase 3 L of water for us to drink asap. Jake beat me there, and I arrived to chug 1 L of water right away in much relief. We then hiked back out to the car, and took a well-deserved rest day. The entire circuit took us 10 hours the first day and 8 hours the second day, plus approach time and hiking out.

First view of Sorapiss Lake before the descent. Photo credit: Jake Jones

Before relocating to the western Dolomites, we did another via ferrata called Punta Fiames, Michielli Strobel (summit 2240 m; 1000 m gain: 600 m ferrata, 400 m hiking and scrambling). We also attempted to do 2 via ferratas on Monte Cristello (Ivano Dibona, Marino Bianchi), which are at the top of a gondola, the first ferrata being famous for being where they filmed the opening scene of Cliffhanger. Unfortunately, the upper gondola has been decommissioned (safety reasons) and is not scheduled to be re-built. So unless you want to take the “dangerous and unpleasant 2 hour scree slope” up, DO NOT attempt these via ferratas as of July, 2017.

Photo credit: Jake Jones

Photo credit: Jake Jones

Photo credit: Jake Jones

Photo credit: Jake Jones

Photo credit: Jake Jones

In the west, we began our journey in the Sella Pass, at a sport climbing crag called Citta dei Sassi, which is essentially a sprawling boulder field of large boulders, 8-20 meters tall. There are 11 ‘sectors’, some of which have many boulders associated with them. We had a lot of fun here, and met a really nice American couple who we bonded with over knowing fluent English. I would recommend this area for secure, bolted climbing with a variety of styles from balancey and technical, to overhung and bouldery.

We then attempted to do a more technical via ferrata, with wonderful reviews, called “Sandro Pertini”, which the guidebook indicated had been chopped down but put back up again due to a debate about whether it was in the National Park or not. We arrived early and prepared for a long day, only to discover that it had once again been cut down and no longer existed. DO NOT attempt to do this via ferrata. Instead, we did a 13 hour hike through the Vallunga Valley, seeing many awe-inspiring views. It was quite a wonderful day, full of temperature swings from 35 degrees to closer to 20 degrees, and blistering sun, to thunderstorms. The first thunderstorm lasted ten minutes while we scampered off a summit, and the second thunderstorm lasted much longer while we were at a safer distance below a ridge line. In Europe, they take getting off of mountains in thunderstorms very seriously, and so we attempted to escape quickly whenever the afternoon thunderstorm came upon us (which happened almost every day in the Dolomites).

Photo credit: Jake Jones

We finished off our time in Italy with a classic via ferrata called Piz da Lech (2911 m; 515 m gain), with stunning views! This via ferrata was the most difficult of the ones that we did, and included a lot more ladders. I think both Jake and I found this to be the nicest ferrata in terms of technical aspects. On our last evening, we explored the valley before heading back to Venice, where we would then fly to Ljubliana, Slovenia to begin our adventure in Triglav National Park.

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