Climbing Italy's Alta Via 4

On a via ferrata, a new mom finds strength in the Dolomites' vertical terrain.
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Alta Via

The author on Via Ferrata Vandelli, high above Lake Sorapiss.

white-knuckle my trekking pole, wishing it was an ice axe. Stopping to catch my breath and my bearings, I look up to make sure that my husband Will is still 20 feet above me. My boots are immobilized in slick, slushy snow. Try as I might, I can’t will myself up. Or back. Or sideways. I stand rooted 1,000 vertical feet up a 50-degree snowfield with impossibility in every direction.

Tears fill my eyes before I can stop them. Get it together, I think. I give myself the no-nonsense pep talk that’s worked for me in the past. But it doesn’t help. We’re nearly halfway through our six-day trek of Italy’s Alta Via 4, on a trip that was supposed to help me break through my self-imposed limits, and all I can feel is their bitter weight, heavier than ever. How had things changed so much in less than a year?

Eight months earlier, Will and I entered a new phase in life with the birth of our first child, a girl. As is the case with all new parents, our lives were reoriented by joy and sleepless nights. But her arrival also ushered in a series of complications caused by childbirth. It was my first lesson in motherhood: I have no control. The obstacles continued throughout the postpartum months, first with nursing, then with pregnancy-onset carpal tunnel that left me unable to even hold a pen. But my literal breaking point didn’t come until a late-season backcountry skiing excursion in Idaho. During my very first descent of the trip, I fell in some sticky snow, shredding my right ACL. I had to ride out on a sled, my dignity in worse shape than my knee. And I had to confront a question I’d never had to face during years of taking outdoor adventure for granted. Could my body handle the future I had in mind?

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Everyone around me knew I was struggling. My parents encouraged a reset and offered to watch the baby. So Will and I set our sights on the Alta Via 4, a 52-mile route in the Dolomites that had been incubating in my mind as the first critical trip of my renaissance. Like its famous cousins, the Alta Vias 1 and 2, this trek uses via ferratas, the cable-and-ladder “iron ways” that enable hikers with no climbing experience to penetrate the heart of the Italian Alps.

I sought mountain vistas and Old World charm like any hut-to-hut trekker in the Alps, but I also believed the Alta Via 4’s vertical challenge and heady exposure would help me regain my outdoor confidence. So two months after I injured my knee (and before surgery), we set off from the Alta Säge trailhead, near San Candido, in northeast Italy.

Entering the Dolomites feels like an undoing. Their beauty is so intense that it sweeps the mind clear of everything else. Our first day, we hiked just two hours from the bus stop to Tre Scarperi hut. The path meanders through conifer forests before popping out at the edge of the Campo di Dentro Valley, where the wooden hut sits in the corner of the valley, cows wandering through the front yard. There, we feasted on caprese salads and venison ravioli.

The next morning, we ascended into the mountains proper. We reminisced about our daughter’s giggles as we climbed a larch-lined trail out of the valley and into one of the eight distinct mountain groups scattered along the route. I struggled over thigh-high stone steps, awkwardly throwing myself up the largest of the stairs to accommodate the knee brace stabilizing my ACL. After three hours and 2,600 feet of climbing, we rose high enough to see the peaks of Tre Cime di Lavaredo shooting skyward, forming what looked like an archipelago of rock among the clouds. That night, at the large and modern Rifugio Auronzo, I fell asleep thinking, So far so good.

Of course, we hadn’t actually climbed anything hard yet. On day three, rain spat in our faces as we ventured along the Sentiero Bonacossa, our first foray on a via ferrata. We hiked past caves and tunnels hand-cut into the rock by Italian soldiers during World War I. They also installed cables, bolted ladders, and iron rungs, which enabled the movement of troops and material. Today these historic bits of metal allow hikers like us to ascend vertical rock faces by simply clipping into the cables with a harness—no technical skills required. Occasionally, we crossed ledges so exposed that our insteps gripped iron rungs while our heels hung over the abyss.

Will and I fell into a comfortable pattern, and with every click of a carabiner, I felt my confidence and physical comfort returning. Adrenaline pushed self-doubt to the back of my mind. I marveled at the wobbly ladders, which are frequently missing a bolt or two. “I suppose someone checks these every season?” I called down to Will as the metal jiggled under my weight. He snorted in response.

But then we reached the snowfield where I got stuck. A mishmash of slush and sliding pebbles covers the gully. A small rock comes loose and I fixate on its trajectory as it careens downhill, pinballing hundreds of feet through the rubble. I look up and see Will climbing with ease. Subconsciously, my hand reaches for my right knee to buttress the weakened joint. And all at once, free climbing in ankle deep snow with a bum knee and a baby at home feels like a bad idea.

“Will, I can’t move,” I holler, my voice edging up a half octave. He’s heard this tone before. “I’ll come to you,” he calls down, and does. But there are no other options. The only way out is up.

I place my good leg forward and weight it, loosening a small slide as I toe off. Next, I force my gimpy leg upward, concentrating my gaze on the brace wrapped around my knee. And then, suddenly, this is the step. All my anxiety and fear—about getting off this slope, about the future—are wrapped up in my ability to simply ascend 2 feet. I just have to trust myself.

I step up. My knee holds. I dig the tip of my trekking pole into the slope, finding purchase. I’m moving forward again.

Atop the snowfield, I shield my eyes against the glare of the sun, somehow brighter now than it was an hour earlier, when it burned through the mist. Sharp peaks rise into the blue sky, offering the kind of view that’s triply better because it’s earned. I’m not shaking anymore. I’m a mother, a wife, and an outdoorswoman—a holy trinity that I needed to go into the mountains to get back.

Heather Balogh Rochfort had successful knee surgery in September. She can’t wait for ski season.

Do It

Getting there From San Candido (two hours by car from Innsbruck), catch a 45-minute bus ride to the Alta Säge trailhead. Season Mid-June (depending on snowpack) to mid-September, but avoid August, the busiest month. Permit None Gear You need a via ferrata kit (helmet, harness, two locking carabiners, and webbing lanyard; the latter costs roughly $130, or rent everything but the helmet for about $35 for six days). Optional: grippy gloves to protect your hands. You also want approach shoes and a sleeping bag liner (the rifugios have blankets). Itinerary Most hikers go north to south and take up to 10 days to finish the 52-mile trail (from San Candido to Pieve di Cadore). For a shorter, 32-mile version (with via ferrata side trips), start in San Candido and end in Passo Tre Croci. Rifugios Most huts offer both private and dorm lodging. Plan on 50 to 60 euros per person per night (includes bed, dinner, and breakfast; add 10 to 15 euros if you plan to buy lunch). Discounts are available for members of the American Alpine Club. Reservations recommended. Guidebook Trekking in the Dolomites: Alta Via 1 and Alta Via 2 with Alta Via routes 3-6 in outline, by Gillian Price, offers minimal beta but is in English.

Rifugio Contact Info

Rifugio Tre Scarperi
Phone: 0474 966610

Rifugio Locatelli
Phone: 0474 972002

Rifugio Auronzo
Phone: 0435 39002

Rifugio Fondo Savio
Phone: 0435 39036

Rifugio Col de Varda
Phone: 0435 39041

Rifugio Vandelli
Phone: 0435 39015

Rifugio San Marco
Phone: 0436 9444

Rifugio Galassi
Phone: 0436 9685

Rifugio Antelao
Phone: 0435 75333

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