MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO, Italy — My son had stopped climbing. I hugged the iron rungs of the narrow vertical ladder bolted into the cliff face of an alp. Liam, 14, was a few rungs above me. I knew I needed to make myself look up to check on him, but I had to take a moment to gather myself. One thing was certain: I was not going to look down. Above us, a few more meters of climbing led to the top of the ladder and a narrow ledge; below us, several hundred feet of sheer cliff.
We were poised on the most intimidating segment of a via ferrata — an “iron way” — in the Dolomite Alps in northern Italy. Originally built during the first World War to allow Italian troops to negotiate mountain passes only serious alpinists could otherwise use, the vie ferrate have become a popular hiking destination for Europeans. The pathways use steel cables and ladders bolted into the rock face. Hikers wear modified rock-climbing gear outfitted with a pair of carabiners attached to a special shock-absorbing rope mechanism that fastens around the waist.
Liam and I had first learned about the iron ways a few years ago while poking around a travel bookstore and discovering a guidebook that mentioned them. As avid hikers here in the States, the vie ferrate called to us and in June we answered.
After a flight from Boston to Milan, we traveled by train and bus to the mountain village of Madonna di Campiglio, in the valley beneath the westernmost Dolomites called the Brenta group. The Dolomites are geologically distinct from the Alps that surround them. They began as coral reefs eons ago, and their silver-bronze color reminded me of Utah. The Brentas are the home to some of the best vie ferrate for beginners, and beginners we were.
We rented gear from a local mountain shop, and after a 5-minute explanation of how everything worked and a purchase of a detailed map, we were on our own.
Campiglio boasts several gondolas and chairlifts that operate even in summer, and we rode one the next morning up to a ridge above the tree line at over 2,400 meters (nearly 8,000 feet). We headed for the via ferrata, still a couple of hours’ hike away. The rocky trails here were well marked, with sign posts indicating distances in walking time rather than distance. We marveled at the distinctive monoliths surrounding us. The famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner called the Dolomites the most beautiful mountains in the world. We now saw why.
After rounding a large pinnacle, we came to Rifugio Tuckett, one of the mountain huts — called rifugios — that are scattered throughout the Italian Alps. It is said that the Italians love to hike but hate to camp. Rifugios solve this problem, offering bunk rooms, hearty meals, and even beer and wine for weary travelers. They also make it possible for hikers to travel light, using only daypacks even for multiday jaunts. We stopped for an early lunch, and I took advantage of the moment to have a glass of German beer. We asked one of the caretakers about the various vie ferratte close by, and we were told that the ones above Tuckett were still closed because of snow but that a lower-level route around the next mountain, via ferrata SOSAT, was open. So we set out.
The early part of the hike was like any other walk with breathtaking views of alpine peaks crusted with snow. We donned our ferrata gear, and for the first hour or so we hardly needed it. There were a few cables into the rock here and there, but it mostly seemed they were there to give us practice. The trail was narrow in spots, but the footholds were clear and the dropoffs did not yet produce any hint of vertigo.
But soon we found ourselves at the top of a large cliff, looking across a gully to a cliff wall facing us. On the other side we could faintly see two hikers on a narrow ledge, perhaps 200 feet below us. Painted on a rock in front of us was a red mark, showing that the trail pitched over the rock toward the abyss. We clipped our carabiners into the steel cable, and eased our way over, looking for footholds.
I was exhilarated. Our gear protected us from falling, but I had never hung over such a precipice and I had certainly never seen my child do it. Liam seemed calm, which was key. The most pressing danger was vertigo or panic, and as long as we both kept our wits about us we would be fine. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. “Slow and steady,” I said to him in a voice as composed as I could make it.
The trail weaved vertically down the cliff face, using a series of narrow ledges. A few ladders were also necessary, and the scariest moments for me were when we transferred the carabiners from the steel cables to the ladders while we perched on the top rungs. After climbing for the better part of an hour down the wall, we reached the point where we had to cross to the other cliff. A 10-foot-wide boulder was wedged between the two rock faces, still hundreds of feet above the chasm floor. No steel cable, either. We lowered ourselves down to the boulder, unhooked, and eased over to the other side, trying not to think about the consequences of a slip of a foot. On the other side hung a 50-rung ladder, straight up the cliff wall. Liam went first, so I could help him if needed.
Methodically, we made our way up the ladder, unhooking one carabiner at a time and placing it above our heads and then climbing up to meet it. When Liam stopped climbing above me, I paused to gather myself and looked up. He was fine — merely resting by leaning back into his gear. I had no desire to test my nerves that way — I just hung on and tried to ignore how heavy my pack seemed all of a sudden. And I found myself wondering if this was a beginner’s route what the harder ones were like.
On the ledge, we made our way around the last precipice, at one point on our hands and knees to make our way under an outcropping. A few miles later, we came to another rifugio, Rifugio Brentei, beautifully situated on an outcropping under Dolomite peaks now shrouded by late afternoon clouds. We were justifiably tired after over eight hours of hiking and climbing, so we enjoyed the hearty rifugio dinner and had a good night’s rest in its bunks.
As we left the rifugio the next morning to hike down on another path to Campiglio, I signed the guest book. The other signatures were from Italy, Germany, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, but I could find no other Americans. The “iron way” hikes are not well known in the States. But as we can now attest, they should be.