The Iron Way – by Helen May

I like walking, I like climbing and I like great scenery so, when an Italian colleague mentioned Via Ferrata, I was interested. But let’s take a step back before considering my experiences. Via Ferrata is Italian for Iron Road (or Road with Iron). It is a route through the mountains supported by in place steel cables and iron ladders to aid with the more exposed parts of the route. The first Via Ferrata were created in the Dolomites during the World War I to help the Italian and Austria troops fighting to gain control of the mountains.

So for a change from a holiday walking and camping in the wilderness, I decided to spend a week in the luxury of a Tyrolean hotel spending my days doing “tough” activities in the mountains. The company I travelled with rates the comfort of their holidays as Leisurely, Moderate, Challenging, Tough and Very Tough. To give an idea of Tough, it is the same grade as the High Passes of Everest! So I was rather apprehensive when I set out on my first Via Feratta.

The walking to the start of the iron way was more of a steep scramble than a leisurely stroll. Then we put on our harnesses and hard hats for the “difficult bits”. As a climber, the first day was pretty straightforward practice to use the equipment. The route down the mountain was simple but tiring: when the soldiers were building their routes over the mountains, they also built routes through the mountains. So we descended through a long long tunnel with steps and more steps and more steps and…

As the days progressed, the climbing became more difficult and the routes became more exposed. On day three we found ourselves climbing ladders all the way to the top of a mountain. Then climbing down again. Doesn’t sound too challenging? How about passing people going in the opposite direction, hanging on to the edge of the ladder as someone, over-endowed with “just-in-case equipment”, inches passed? I was very glad to be attached to the ladder.

The final day was the most challenging – longer, higher, more popular (so lots of passing people on narrow ledges) and very very exposed. Once we’d got to the end of the route, we had to turn around and do it all in reverse … and downhill. Most of my climbing is going up rather than down so this was even more challenging and awkward than going up. The views and adrenalin rushes were all worth the slightly scared feeling.

Of course, I was doing this for five days and managing my diabetes. To be honest, the Via Feratta had very little impact on my blood glucose readings. The “reward” at the end of the climbs, a lovely slice of apple struedel with a mug of hot, frothy chocolate, was something I had to think about but, with all that walking, scrambling and climbing, I like to think the little effort of injecting was worth the effort.

Oh and Tough? Nah – not as tough as camping out in the snow walking for seven or eight hours a day at high altitude (perhaps a story for another day). Just a little more scary.

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