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Rockclimbing in the Dolomites in South Tyrol

Have you ever looked up to the top of a rocky peak and thought, “I wonder if I could climb that”? We certainly have – and that’s why we set off to Val Gardena Valley in the Dolomite Mountains in South Tyrol to test a rock-climbing course. Now that we’ve done it we can say there’s simply no better way of clearing your mind and forgetting about those niggling everyday worries. Conquering a peak makes you feel incredibly proud and happy. It all goes to show: sometimes you just have to take the leap…

Gigantic, fluffy, cotton-wool clouds waft around the rugged peaks of the Dolomites in the grey early-morning light, exposing patches of the bright blue sky to come. Our guide, Christina Demetz, 48, a native of Val Gardena, steps into the narrow car of the gondola lift. The lift with its small twin cabins dates back to the 1960s and it never stops – you have to leap in at the right moment. Is this a sign of what the day has in store for us, we wonder? Today, we’re setting off for our first bolted route, the Oskar Schuster Route, which will – hopefully – take us up to the top of Plattkofel peak at 2964 metres, high above the village of St. Christina in the valley, one of three towns in Val Gardena valley, the others being St. Ulrich and Wolkenstein.

We’re good skiers and hikers with solid Alpine skills – but rock climbing?

The one thing we need to tackle first is conquering that visceral fear of sheer height in both directions, where the only way is up – or down…a long way down. But happily, the euphoria of the magnificent view banishes all fear: beneath our gondola car the “Stone City” draws by, a mesmerizingly beautiful landscape of rocks interspersed with firs and pine trees, nestling at the foot of one of the most awe-inspiring group of mountains in the world: the Langkofel Group. Bizarre stone giants with jagged peaks that claw up into the sky. From the Sella Pass, the starting point for today’s tour, we glide up to the Toni Demetz Hut where the gondola lift ends. Clad in hiking boots and short-sleeved shirts, we set off. Never waste a moment is the golden mountaineering rule: ascend early, descend early. We walk in large swooping curves along a narrow path down to the Langkofelkar. Past scree and rocks – to our left and right steep cliffs rise high. This barren landscape could almost be on the moon. It is stunning!

The green valley glints below, like a distant oasis

We stride past the Langkofel Hut, following the signs that take us up to Plattkofelkar. We cross a snowfield and arrive at a via ferrata which is the start of our climb. Things are about to get serious! Wearing climbing harnesses with straps around our waists and legs, we hook our carabiners into the steel ropes strung along on the rock face. “Just crawl like a child. Make natural movements”, says Christina encouragingly, climbing agilely and very elegantly ahead of us.
My eyes struggle to spot the steps in the rock and the natural holds that the mountain offers. But then I find my flow, pulling myself up, reaching for a hold. It’s easier than I thought. Fog rises and blanks out the view down into the valley. After each pitch we have to clip out and clip back in again. You are always doubly secured during climbing: one rope remains in the first section while the second is unclipped and attached to the next one, meaning that you are never unsecured on the wall. Every time we reach a small plateau we take a short break and a very welcome deep breath.

We cross some hurdles without securing but are rewarded with a spectacular view

What is slightly tricky about this route is that not all the pitches have ropes: there are some complicated bits we have to cross without being clipped in. You are never completely exposed to sheer drops in these sections, but it does take a bit of self-control not to panic at the thought that below there’s a vertiginous drop while above is an insurmountable boulder. “Approach it from the side, the left foot first, then follow with the right foot…” Her instructions ring in my ears, ‘I’m not going to make it’, I think. But that’s the problem with climbing: you just have to keep going up, because there’s no way back.
And then I take a deep breath, focus and actually find a small indentation that will take my foot, while my fingers cling on to small bumps in the rock. It seems very natural, almost as if a blockade had suddenly been swept aside – both on the mountain and inside myself. “There you go – almost as agile as a mountain goat!” says Christina. I laugh with relief. I did it! It’s a great feeling, even if my knees are still shaking.

The pinnacle of success – our personal Mount Everest moment

Next up is a chimney, which we climb with the aid of an iron ladder. Twice we find ourselves stumped by a steep pitch, until Christina’s voice guides and soothes us: “We’re nearly at the top, we’ve nearly made it”, she says after two hours of solid climbing. Panting, we follow her over a small mountain top and see the cross on the peak ahead of us, festooned with flags flapping in the wind. Wow! The clouds drift past the peak as we drink in the view – across the green slopes of the valley and the surrounding mountains. It is simply breathtaking!
Then it’s time to descend, our boots seeking out solid ground between the scree and rubble, and our minds already looking forward to a well-deserved rest in one of the valley inns…

It is an amazing feeling to have achieved all this with our own muscle power

…where south Tyrolean specialities await, like the typical Schlutzkrapfen (handmade dumplings filled with spinach) or Kaiserschmarrn (shredded buttery pancakes with raisins). Delicious! Next day, we wake early – with the sorest muscles in the world. The only thing that can alleviate the pain is a hot shower – and more exercise. At 8.30 am. Stefan Stuflesser comes to pick us up.

Deep tan, muscular, medium-length dark hair, early 50s. His face is surprisingly youthful – perhaps it’s the result of all the exercise and fresh air? The mountain guide – they are called Catores here – is going to take us up to the peak of the first Sella Tower. The proud Sella massif has three peaks – called towers on account of their shape – and is a truly majestic sight. In the Dolomites there are routes for all skill levels and inclinations. A taster course can last a day or a week, and the sky’s the limit when it comes to special wishes.

Stefan teaches us the basics and we are firmly secured – as always

We have to learn how to unrope on a flat and follow the mountain guide. Anyone who wants to learn how to climb without a guide (usually in teams of two) and master the basics of belaying will need a little longer. We are given climbing shoes with thin, flexible soles, which we put on only once we reach the start of the actual rock climb. The hike there, across meadows thick with flowers along a solitary path, is very promising. But once we actually get there, I am on the verge of packing in and returning: the rock face juts so unforgivingly up into the sky that it sends shivers down my spine.

“Come on, it looks much worse and much steeper from down here. We are never exposed on this tour. Look up – that’s where we’re heading,” he says – and to my horror points up to two tiny figures clambering along a narrow ledge in the wall. Before I even have time to think about giving up, I take a deep breath and start off.

Challenging oneself and overcoming fear is an important part of climbing

“Always take small steps; we often make the mistake of wanting to get up to the top in big steps. That will only tire you out and make everything more difficult. Also, remember that I am belaying you – nothing can happen.” For the first few metres, he encourages us with useful rules: always look, then climb; don’t stress yourself; ask yourself, where can your feet find a good hold, where can you grip with your fingers? Grips in the rock are astonishingly frequent. What is just as important is to have the courage to attempt what might seem impossible. Also, climbing isn’t about strength (except free climbing), but about technique. It’s also reassuring that you're always safe with a helmet and ropes. Stefan tightens the rope once you loosen it and he calls from above to say that it’s safe to ascend. You can practically feel him pulling you upwards – if you slipped, you'd hang from the mountain like on a swing – and you wouldn't fall.

It takes time to build a sense of trust

There are many places where I have to force myself, but the feeling of overcoming one’s fear and seeing what you can achieve if you do is truly euphoric. One the peak, where the wind buffets us as we enjoy the panorama, Stefan asks: “So, would you do it again?”. Without stopping to think, we both reply: “Yes, for sure!” We even abseil half the way down. If anyone had told me that I would voluntarily “walk” down a rock wall backwards, while hanging from a rope, I might have doubted their sanity. But, as I do it, all I can feel is the adrenaline rushing through my veins – and an incomparable sense of inner peace.

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Enjoy every Bite.