By Jonathan Doyle
The Dolomites is a mountainous region located in northern Italy, dominated by towering spires and sweeping faces reaching over 3000m. This UNESCO world heritage site offers some of the world’s most impressive yet accessible rock climbing, via ferrata and adventure sports. The Dolomites uniquely caters for every level of climber across every discipline of the sport, with classic long multi-pitch trad routes found next door to modern single-pitch sport climbs.
The Dolomites, just like any mountainous region is a serious place, and being prepared for it will ensure you maximise your adventure while keeping your risk to a minimum.
1: Mountain fitness:
It’s a good idea to work on your general mountain fitness, what Andy Kirkpatrick would call your ‘binman strength’. There are often long walk-ins to reach the more spectacular and impressive crags, and ideally you don’t want to be exhausted before you start your climb!
2: Train your multi-pitch efficiency:
If you’re planning on climbing long alpine-style multipitch routes, you need to ensure your multipitch technique is dialled so you can cover ground quickly and not waste time on belays faffing with anchors. In addition, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with such alpine mindsets as ‘grab and go’ and ‘I’m sure there’ll be another bolt soon’.
3: Practice your essential skills:
It’s paramount that you know your basic self-rescue techniques such as prussiking up a rope, map reading and some basic first aid. The Dolomites can be remote in places, if you get a rope stuck half way up a route and then get caught in a thunder storm, the last thing you want to be doing is Googling how to free it up!
4: Ensure you have ALL the gear you need:
You already have your climbing rack packed (tri-cams make a wonderful addition for those tiny pockets), but don’t forget the emergency gear. It is not uncommon to descend from routes in darkness and occasionally get caught up in an unexpected storm or low-lying cloud.
There are many accommodation options in the Dolomites to cater for all budgets. Towns such as Canezei, Cortina D’Ampezzo, Corvara and Selva have many hotel, Airbnb and camping facilities. They are also well situated for easy access to the best rock climbing and adventure sport venues in the range. An alternative accommodation is the unique mountain hostels, rifugios, which are situated in convenient areas to allow quicker access to the mountains.
The Dolomites is home to some of the most formidable climbing in the world and plays host to a vast array of climbing styles. In general it is not the best place for absolute beginners, having some solid leading experience under your belt is a must as the exposure and altitude can be pretty intense at times, and there are often long run-outs to contend with.
If you are focussing on long multipitch routes, the obvious starting point is Piz Ciavazes. It is about as roadside as it gets and packs in some stunning climbing, reaching 300m in places. A good warm up route is Rampa Del Torso, IV with other note-worthy routes being the Schubert/Route of Friendship, VI- and Big Micheluzzi, VI. There is also some single pitch sport climbing here.
One of the most impressive rockfaces in the Dolomites is the South Face of the Marmolada, the highest mountain in the range. Reaching over 1km in height, it is the crown jewel of the region and a right of passage for the elite. It is not to be underestimated. It has a long walk-in and requires a super-early start if you’re to have a chance of making the last gondola home. Tomasson, V, is the easiest line and takes in over 650m climbing. Vinatzer-Castiglioni VI+ is another highly recommended route, this time covering upwards of 800m of climbing of grades up to E3. Finally it would be rude not to mention Attraverso il Pesce (The Fish) VII+, the ultimate test piece on the face. The crag is only for the highly experienced as it is very easy to get lost and end up on loose terrain, which could easily lead to a helivac situation. The Marmolada also hosts some fine via ferrata and provides a spectacular day out for those not quite ready for the south face.
If single pitch sport routes are your jam, the best venue in the area has to be Citta Sassi, at the end of the Sella Pass. This is an ancient boulder field situated at the foot of the mighty Sassalungo and provides a dazzling array of routes just a couple of minutes stroll from the carpark.
If you are looking for a more esoteric, perhaps overnight adventure, you could check out the high-altitude routes of the Odle/Geisler group. Just getting there is a bit of an adventure with an hour’s drive from Canezei, the Secceda gondola up to 2500m and a two-hour hike getting you to the foot of the routes. The location is absolutely stunning and it provides up to 700m (19 pitches) of top-quality climbing finishing up some beautifully exposed summits. A secondary esoterica special is that of Il Gobbo, Torre Del Diablo and Torre Leo. A couple of hours walk from Lake Misurina provides a sweeping view of Tre Cime and a couple of devilish routes coming in at around grade VS. There is plenty of chimney thrutching and slab balancing to go around and don’t forget the wild Dülfer step!
The weather in the Dolomites is unpredictable and the weather reports are frustratingly unreliable so take what you read with a pinch of salt and just make sure you have a waterproof with you, even if it 100% won’t rain…
It is essential you are fully insured. Taking out BMC (British Mountaineering Council) or AAC (Austrian Alpine Club) travel insurance will mean you are covered for most adventure sports. Also ensure your EHIC card is up to date.
Route finding is notoriously difficult in the Dolomites and it is easy to get sandbagged if you blindly follow a line of bolts (assuming the bolts don’t just run out!). It is a great idea to spend some time below your route planning where you intend to go with the guidebook in hand. Also remember that a guidebook is only a guide, mistakes are usually present and the Dolomites Rockfax guide is no exception. It is advantageous to have a few grades in hand to ensure you can handle whatever comes your way, at least while you are still getting to grips with the local grading.