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Lake Garda Summer 2008

Submitted by: Anthony Feeney

I'm back from Lake Garda, Italy a few weeks but am just getting round to recounting my exploits in the Dolomites. It was supposed to be a relaxing family holiday (7 kids and 5 adults) but after 3 days of basking by the pool I was bored silly and the lure of the mountains was irresistible. My sister Helen, cousin Sean, nephew Hayden, Colm, Pol and myself signed up for a canyoning day out. Basically you hike up the side of a mountain and follow the path of the stream down via rock pools, abseiling, sliding and leaping where appropriate.

Our German guide fancied himself as a bit of an action man so it was especially funny to watch him trip and go totally arse over tit while showing us how to traverse a boulder field safely. The route was pretty tame all told (the abseiling was just getting lowered, felt like I was being nurse maided, gah!) but adventurous for the kids and great fun. A particular highlight was watching Pol do the final 10 foot leap and swim out, despite his cousin's major hesitation beforehand. The boy has some guts!

Towards the end of the hols John, Sean and myself headed off to do a Via Ferrata. I'd brought a harness and rock shoes and a few pieces of gear in the hope we'd get something done but the boys had neglected to bring anything. On the advice of our local barman (excellent cocktail maker) we headed for Arco, just north of Riva Del Garda at the north of the lake, a major rock climbing venue, replete with 3 climbing shops. We bought another couple of harnesses, a 60m rope and a guidebook, then headed off for the 2A Colodri route.

We parked up next to an outdoor centre next to the river about 1km north of Arco. The route initially leads up through forest that any keen boulderer would love, as massive lumps of rock with interesting angles, pockets and edges line the path. A 15 or 20 min hike gets you to the start of the route and then we roped up in makeshift fashion. I had 6 runners, 2 slings, 4 karabiners, 1 rope, 1 helmet and 3 harnesses so I tied John on one end, Sean about 6m in front of him on a bight, and myself 6m ahead again, wrapped the rest of the rope round myself alpine-style, leaving a bit of a tail for my runners. The boys used a sling each and we each took 2 runners, with the plan to slide them along the cable, unclip one at each post and transfer to the next section then unclip and clip the next. We probably would have been in a right mess in the event of a fall but the going was fairly easy up a 45 degree slope most of the way and I'd have been more embarrassed about falling than hurt.

The rope gave John and Sean confidence but they found it taxing (and scary) enough in the baking heat, one or two exposed ledges giving them the willies. We had a consistently amazing view down to Arco and Riva and when we topped out you could see the whole northern end of Lake Garda. I was busy congratulating the guys when 2 separate families with several small children also climbed up over the final ladder. Kind of took the edge off the achievement! We climbed to the iron cross above and then followed the descent path that leads to the castle you can see towering over Arco. When we got that far though it turned out you had to climb several hundred steps to see the ruins and we decided that ice cream and cold beer was more in order.

That night we showed around the photos but Sean was admitting that it had all been rather easy. "I wanna do something scarier tomorrow!" he declared, after several shots of Dutch courage. There were a couple of grade 3 routes in the guide we'd bought but they were all of seriousness B or C (i.e. few escape routes and more exposed), so we narrowed it down to a 2A and a 3A. The former involved a network of caves and tunnels that were used in World War 1 and sounded interesting but easy, so we settled on the 3A "Via ferrata dell'Amicizia" which involved 8 metal ladders, one of which was 40m long. Scary biscuits!

This time Colm, Sean and I were doing the climbing so we loaded up the van, dropped the others in Riva again to kayak, shop, sunbathe, whatever and set off up the switchback path to the Bastion fort above the town. After the fort the path roughens and goes on up through shady forest, past huge concrete walls and steel netting designed to catch rock fall from decimating the town below.

Colm was filling a little ill and we gave him the option of going back but he steadfastly plodded on. Sean was also feeling hard pushed in the humid 35 degree heat whilst I just looked like I'd wet myself, stripped to the waist the top half of my shorts were completely sweat drenched. Lovely image. Thankfully we'd brought almost 8 litres of water; it was certainly needed. After about 2.5 hours and 560m of ascent we'd reached the first of the ladders. On the way up we spotted 2 climbers on the 40m ladder - they looked very very tiny against the backdrop of the huge cliff and I could see Sean getting a little worried.

The first 2 ladders were a very vertical 21m and 15m and were connected by a small metal platform that you traverse left on. I could tell that Sean was starting to brick it because he turned to me and said "Anthony, I'm starting to brick it!". So I told him we could climb it via ferrata style, or with the 60m rope I could ascend and pull the 2 of them up rock climbing style. Eventually Colm and I persuaded him he'd be fine if he just stared straight ahead and concentrated on 1 rung at a time. So we roped up like the day before, Colm in the middle, and set off. The hardest thing was moving in unison and there were a few expletives as someone was too slow (much loose rope about) or too fast ("Yer pulling me off!").

Some more steep climbing got us to the short Ladder 3, then more scrambling and we were at the big one. You realise when you get closer to it that it doesn't actually ascend the steep cliff above you. It travels left at maybe 50-60 degrees following the slope of the escarpment underneath the face. We took a breather to get Sean calm and then set off. After a few metres Colm suggested a picture stop and boldly held on with one hand as Sean and I posed above and below him - the ghastly forced grin on Sean's face was a sight to behold. The remaining ladders were wee buns after that, never getting above 10 metres (the last one is only 2m) but in between there's a fair amount of scrambling and in total you ascend another 600m from the bottom of the first ladder to the summit.

Near the top we lost the route for a short time and ended up on a ledge, all of us clipped into one ring with big drops all round and an edgy traverse behind us. I left the other 2 unhappy bunnies, let out some extra rope and scrambled up over the top, then belayed them up using a convenient boulder for an anchor. At the summit there's a metal Italian flag with a little box welded to it containing books to sign, but without a pen we could only read the other entries.

After an initial ladder downclimb, the descent is via a very solid (but sometimes narrow and exposed) track that winds round and eventually meets up with your ascent track high above the Bastion fort in the woods. We'd taken so long, however, that we were out of water and nearly out of daylight. Conveniently there's a spring signposted just off the path about half way down and we happily filled the water bottles. 1 more ladder downclimb got us to the little white chapel that you can see nestling in the mountainside from Riva below.

By now we had the head torches on and were making a slow descent, much to the chagrin of the others who were stuck in a van with crying kids awaiting the driver (me) to return. It was almost 10pm by the time we met up, having left at 12:30pm on a route that should take 6 hours max. An exhausted Sean was calling it "the hardest day's work I've ever done in my life" while Colm was nonchalant "Ah it was easy enough". Back at the campsite however he went to put his head down "for 5 minutes" and slept till 2pm the next day, while Sean and I went out for more cocktails and the possibility of some Italian female company.

Great fun this via ferrata stuff, an easy way to get to the top of some amazing peaks, but next time I'll definitely buy the KISA kit because I'll be trying something a little harder.

Photo of Route