Last year Helen, John, Sean and myself went on a family holiday in Lake Garda and managed to squeeze in a couple of via ferrate. We loved it so much that we vowed to return and after some cheap Aer Lingus flights popped up in March we were Italy bound last week. PJ decided to join us during the summer after listening to us 4 endlessly witter on about how brilliant it was going to be.
For once there were no travelling mishaps and we sauntered out of Milan Malpensa airport basking in the muggy evening heat after Ireland's non-stop summer rain. I'm ashamed to admit that we all speak zero Italian (apart from "Ciao" and "Duo Vino Blanco") but even I cringed when Helen spied the Carabinieri sign and mused "Carabinieri? They have a climbing shop in the airport?"
Because we arrived late evening on the Thursday we stayed in the airport hotel and drove the hire car over to Garda next morning, only taking 7 hours to complete what should have been a 2 hour journey. The Italian road signs are brutally haphazard but it did mean we saw the centre of Milan and a few other towns that we'd otherwise have bypassed. The 4-star Camping Brione in Riva Del Garda is to be recommended and after pitching tents I forced everyone out to a short 4A via ferrata called Rio Sallagoni. Some would have preferred lounging by the pool but with no George on this trip I took over the drill master role.
This ferrata starts off in a small limestone gorge near Dro with rungs leading steeply up one wall before swapping over to the other wall at a narrow point. At times you have to lean right back on the cable but it's over in a few moves. Later you traipse up the gorge floor and twice cross high above the river on wire cables - interesting but hardly terrifying. The route as a whole was overgraded as the guidebook does state (more likely a 3A) but being short (2.5 hours) it was good practise for the bigger stuff later on. The route ends up at Drena castle but it was late in the day and so that was closed.
We returned home for dinner in town washed down by cold Italian beers, followed by further warm beers on a quiet spot on the lake by the Riva marina. I refused to take any blame for PJ's fall into the lake but still magnanimously took off my dry t-shirt to keep her warm. Seems I'm used to standing drunkenly semi naked on a shore line these days anyway.
Next morning was time for the big one, Rino Pisetta, a 700m 5c monster that Sean had picked and psyched everyone else up to do. Helen and John were a little unsure of the difficulty but PJ and I assured them the climbing wouldn't be any harder than HS. From Sarche village there's a 40 min hike through the woods to the start of the route and even I balked a little at the sheer vertical first pitch. It was supposed to take 15 minutes according to the guide but it took almost an hour of faffing to get Helen up it, a small early slip doing nothing for her confidence. The lengthy view down to village was freaking her out despite being doubly attached to the thick cable and the strenuous pulling was tiring her quickly. The pumpy moves aggravated an old rib injury of John's too and the two of them chose to use the escape route at this point.
Sean was wavering too about whether to continue but PJ and I felt he was more than capable and so he put his war face on, "Bring it on!" There was easier climbing initially after this but it soon got steep again and there were a few nervy polished sections. Eventually we came to a difficult exposed vertical crack that had to be traversed onto and it took me a couple of goes to get it. PJ and Sean tried a few times but, rather than have them tire themselves out battling it, I lowered a rope for a little help and security. Some walking bits and more easy stuff followed, though this still meant big reaching pull-ups of about Severe difficulty.
After a while we came to the most exposed steep face which the guide describes as "really hard". Edging out left to find a decent foothold gave me a nice view of a 500m drop into the valley below but overall good hand and foot holds made it about HS. The exposure unnerved Sean a little and he contemplating asking for the rope again but I'm proud to say he dug in and went for it. We reached the log book then and in the stifling heat signed it "Could really do with a cold beer right now!" There wasn't too far to go but everyone's arms were feeling it and we were glad to reach the shady log bench at the summit for a wee rest.
PJ suggested we not hang about and we near sprinted down through the shady woods but eventually the pace slowed as lower down there were one or two narrow traverses where you had to watch the footing. Helen and John described a difficult enough down climb on the escape route when we all met at the bottom. That cold beer was most definitely on the cards now and it being Saturday night we just had to sample the bars closer to Riva's main square. By 3am we were sipping on some very generous shorts and John had resorted to using "Drinky drinky?" in his best Italian accent to get the next round in.
With our bodies feeling a little battered and our heads more than a little fuzzy Sunday morning was spent in the quiet campsite pool where the one or two Germans laughed at our girly shrieks on entering the frigid water. Helen and Sean both looked like they'd been given a punishment beating, their legs were so bruised and cut from sticking their knees and shins where they should really have placed their feet on the previous day's route. Tiredness was a factor in that I think. Later we moved on to the beach and everyone except the aquaphobic John hired canoes for an oul paddle. Lake Garda is famous for its wind surfing as in the afternoon a strong wind comes in from the south. It makes for interesting canoeing in the choppy waves. I may be an OK climber but I'm a crap canoeist and it wasn't long before I was in the drink, PJ laughing as I rolled a further 3 times trying to get back in. Eventually Helen and PJ had to rescue me by steadying my boat between their two. Lunch, shopping, dinner and an early night rounded off the day, as we prepared for the next day's 1400m 3C, Che Guevara.
However after everyone had relaxed with a long lie in, PJ figured that Che Guevara might be a bit of a handling if we couldn't stick to the 8.5 hour guide time. None of us wanted to be the Colmciller who had to admit to being benighted on a via ferrata. We'd have to remove ourselves from the club in shame and who'd have us then? The North West Mountaineers? So we changed plans for an equally spicy 5.5 hour 3C near Trento called Monte Bondone. After some by now typical navigation, during which we saw more of the centre of Trento than necessary we arrived at the climb start only to be greeted by a shouty Italian. With much gesturing, pointing and use of 4 different languages we got the message that the via ferrata was "Chiuso!", "Kaput!", "Fermé!" and indeed "Closed!" for reasons we don't yet know. We considered just sneaking past him but decided that a rock fall or something must have endangered the route. The guidebook talks of very narrow exposed paths on route to the via ferrata so it was best to make alternate plans.
The nearest half decent route was a 700m 2B called Burrone di Mezzocorona that was half an hour away. Gearing up next to the vineyards beneath this route another mouthy Italian elder appeared on a bicycle. "If he tells us this route is closed too", says John, "I'll wrap that bike round his scrawny neck". But after much gesturing, pointing and use of 2 languages we got the gist that we should go left on the path for some reason. A few minutes later we were confronted by a sign in the woods that described 2 variants of our via ferrata and after I spied a ladder below us we realised the old guy had been saying "Go left for the best action". The right fork would have avoided the initial big ladder next to a waterfall which was definitely worth backtracking for.
The rest of the route contained more walking than climbing and PJ forged ahead while I hung back with the mere mortals. There were a few interesting sections and the hike up through the stream-filled limestone gorge was quite beautiful, with several waterfalls worthy of a photo. The route kind of fizzled out in a picnic area in some beech woods so there was no real summit or sense of achievement and we were rather deflated that we hadn't once experienced the mild sense of fear that is every climber's drug. Helen and John chose to descend by the Strada Longhe gravel path but PJ, Sean and I chose to reverse the route to make it more interesting. We discovered a hidden waterfall on the way down that was simply breathtaking in it's height and graffiti scored polished limestone wall. Several photos later we continued.
We arrived at the car a few minutes after the other two and headed back to camp to get the glad rags on for another night out and for John to have a go at ordering a well-done steak in Italian. We had one of the best meals of the holiday that night and celebrated by drinking cocktails in our favourite Elvis bar, so called because we were first attracted to it by the 50s music it pumped out on Friday. As for the other night we avoided the camp 11pm curfew by taking our music and beers to the lakeside and partied till the wee hours, PJ twice managing to fall off the bench but this time avoiding a wet bum. The party got kind of split on the way home as Helen took 1 step forward and 3 back. As there was only one key to the gate I ended up turfing PJ over (and through) the hedge before launching myself over and landing badly in a Mr Bean style heap.
After another chilly swim on Tuesday morning we packed up leisurely. For once we didn't get lost on the way back to Milan but 5 tired heads needed several stops for awakening imbibement, cursing our lack of foresight at not booking a longer holiday. A scratch on the hire car bumper left us even more churlish as the company refused to budge on the excess. But with several hours to kill in the airport a scan through the massive photo collection cheered us up bringing back a million memories that we'll treasure until the Alzheimer's sets in.