The Dolomites and North italy are famous for their high “hiking” routes involving Via Ferrata, Iron roads. The Via Ferrrata are steel ropes fastened to the rock surface to allow hikers and climbers to clip their climbing harnesses in, complimented with steel ladders and pegs to help climb places where there are no natural foot holds or hand holds.
During our visit to North Italy, the Garda Trentino tourism team offered us the opportunity to do a Family Via Ferrata hike with mmove. I thought, as it was suitable for kids and Garda Trentino region is famous for its climbing and via ferrata routes, we’d give it a go. I didn’t ponder much on what I had let myself in for till the morning of our climb, even then I was well-distracted by a business issue.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am petrified of heights; to the point of my stomach doing summersaults, even when I’m watching something that involves heights and long drops on TV. Put me at a cliff edge and my legs go jelly…
What was I doing planning to climb a steep mountain with big drops when I suffer such bad vertigo?
We arrived at our meeting place in Arco, Trentino at the mmove base in the early afternoon. There were a couple of families waiting- some for family rock climbing, and one other family waiting for the Family Via Ferrata session, they had a 6 year old daughter.
If she could do it, so could I!- I thought.
Before we kitted up, Andrea, our guide pointed up behind us to show us where we’d be walking and climbing up. It was high and it looked impossibly steep. Sentiero Colodri, a route classified as suitable for beginners, climbing 270m.
Panic started to set in.
While the boys were being fitted with their harnesses, I ducked out to catch my breath and try to calm my nerves. I didn’t want them to see any of my concerns and irrational fear, I didn’t want their climb to be influenced by my phobia, my vertigo.
Somewhat calmer, I returned and donned my harness. It was a very snug fit! (The XL size was apparently on loan.)
We had a drink of water- It was over 30C, but luckily the mountain face we were attacking was being engulfed by shade gradually- and set off.
The Sentiero Colodri via ferrata
First, we had a short hike with a little incline to the beginning of the via ferrata. During this walk, I was panting like a racehorse that had just finished the Kentucky Derby, sweating like mad.
I asked the guide, Andrea, if he thought I was fit enough to carry on. I was half willing him to say that it would be better if I turned back, but he reassured me that the ascent would be slower and more relaxed, I could cope.
Andrea then talked us through the hooking on system- both carabiners on the steel rope and always swap one carabiner at a time to a new section.
The three kids- Hugo, Max and Helena- only needed to hook on with a single carabiner, as they were tied together with a length of rope as their second line of support. This was because the safety mechanism of the harness only works above 40kg, thus they were each other’s safety mechanism and their rope was attached to Andrea.
We started the hike up the mountain, parents first, then Andrea, our mountaineering guide and then the kids.
First, some narrow, sloping paths to warm us up and get us used to hooking on and changing sections, then came some easy climbing sections and soon we were a third of the way up. Looking down was a little unpleasant, but holding onto the steel rope, I felt comfortable. Having gloves on really helped because I was gripping for dear life.
We stopped for a water stop before we hit the next segment. (Me and the boys each had a backpack and the boys carried a 500ml water bottle and I carried a 1 litre bottle)
What followed was a narrower, stepper part, zig zagging up the cliff, involving some walking, some climbing.
Looking down the swimming pool at the campground beside the mmove base got smaller and smaller, though the sound of many happy playing kids carried up, as if we were almost next to them.
At some point, we had some really tricky rock faces to navigate- the footholds and handholds were far apart and needed quite a stretch. There was a sheer drop of 15-20m beside us. I tried not to look down. I tried not to let fear creep in. I was determined I could do this, but my laboured breathing betrayed my nerves.
Both Helena and Max coming after us were struggling on this section and Max started to panic. He was becoming hysterical- he didn’t want to be there, he wanted to go down, he was afraid of heights, he was hungry, he was thirsty, he couldn’t reach. Everything came flooding out!
I talked to him from 2-3 meters away, not daring to go back or closer to him; Andrea talked to him and calmly guided him too.
According to Hugo, at one point, Max even mocked me with mouthing “blah, blah, blah” as I was trying to talk rationale into him…funny! And I guess that was a good sign.
We were just under half way, according to Andrea. Going back was going to be as hard as going upwards.
Max started to calm down and we talked about the ice cream we would have once we got down.
Even though the climb got harder from here, Max coped after this little tantrum. Helena was silently coping, but petite for her age, she was struggling with finding the grip in places. The steal rope was too high in places for the two little ones and it was hard for them to let go of it and concentrate on finding good hand holds in the rock around them, which there were plenty of.
The via ferrata really is a mental exercise, as much as it is a physical one.
I realised that the most important thing, while climbing- rock climbing or with the via ferrate- is to
concentrate on the next hand and foot hold;
have an idea of where you are going,
where you’ve come from
and what’s around you,
but focus, with a laser focus, on where you are going to put your hand and your feet next.
It’s pointless to look up and plan your route, because some of those spots that you think will work for you when you looked up will be totally different close up.
We climbed higher and higher and the pool below got smaller and smaller.
At some point, luckily well past the halfway point, I looked down and my thigh muscles became weak. Thankfully, I was leaning against the rock face, so they couldn’t give way totally.. From then on there was a bit of wobble in every step and lunge I took.
After 2 hours we came to a steep rockface with lots of iron rods inserted and fashioned into step ladder, with far apart rungs. This was a 12-15m high wall and apparently the last part. At one point, where there were a couple of footholds that I was supposed to use, I just couldn’t find the spots and then propel myself upwards. I kept slipping and managed to bang my knee so hard that it hurt days later at a mere touch.
At this point, I realised that it’s more important than ever to just concentrate on the next step or two, find a secure hold and move upwards, slowly, but surely.
I got to the top after the Danish couple and before the kids. As they were making this final, really difficult ascent I shouted to them:
“if you make it up you get as many ice cream scoops as you can eat!”
The boys couldn’t believe what they were hearing and double-checked. Their final strides of ascent were filled with an extra spring of excitement at the prospect of G E L A T O !
When the kids made the top I was so proud of them! It was a big achievement. I certainly felt elated by what we’d done: conquering fear, my lack of fitness and even my dodgy knee held up!
It took a while for us pause for a moment and to look around on the plateau we’d arrived to: it allowed for views of Lake Garda, Arco Castle and mountains and valleys all around. Stunning!
Normally, the mmove family ferrata would include further a 15-20 minute hike up to a cross on a higher point of the ridge, but the kids, particularly Helena, was so tired that Andrea, our guide, decided to take us on a short cut to the path going down.
A further 15 minutes hiking along an unofficial, slightly over-grown path and then rejoining the proper path heading down. This led us to the road, where the mmove van was waiting for us. (With younger families they pick you up, fit families with older kids get to walk down through the olive groves and back around the mountain… Which is another 45 minutes or so) We were grateful for the pick up!
Back at mmove base we took our harnesses off, gave our helmets and gloves back, said our thank yous and good byes, before going off to find Gelato…Ice cream.
Close by we struck gold: we found a REALLY good ice cream shop- Gelato Mio in Arco. Their flavours were amazing and they had a huge choice of ice creams, including at least 10 vegan options.
Max coped with 3, Hugo 5 and me 2 scoops.
Some story highlights on my Instagram account:
Family Via Ferrata
Would I do the via ferrata with kids again?
Yes! With an experienced, good guide, who knows the trail well and supports you, as Andrea did, it is totally doable. Look for a reputable company.
However, I believe they should have a height recommendation of 125cm + for kids, (saying that each child is different for capacity for heights, challenges and adventure, so you, and your guide, can be the judge if it’s suitable for your child .)
Would I go out with mmove again?
Absolutely! We had a lot of confidence in the guide- patient, knowledgable and qualified to lead- and the gear provided- all modern, well-looked after and clean.
Andrea spoke excellent English. (He is also an international mountaineering guide, which takes a couple of years of study and training to achieve.)
Adding to our confidence was that MMove have quite a variety of family adventures on offer (and most importantly the proper, child-sized gear to go with it): Check their family adventures out HERE!
What should you wear and take with you for a via ferrata hike and climb?
Wear flexible, comfortable clothing, specifically designed for outdoor activities: I wore 3/4 length running leggings and a t shirt with great wicking properties. I had my Meindl hiking boots on, though I’m not sure these were the best choice, as they were too wide and the sole too rigid for some climbing sections. A good pair of trainers with a grippy sole would’ve been better. Max had trail running shoes on and they were the perfect combination of sturdy on rocky parts, yet nimble enough for the crevices.
It was a very hot day and the sun was very strong, therefore I had the boys wear their long, but very light-weight hiking trousers and thin, long-sleeved, high wicking t-shirts.
We each had a buff to put under our helmets. (We wet these at the last well we passed by before we started our accent.)
We each carried a backpack with a bottle of water, a couple of protein and fruit bars in them and fleece. I also had documents and money and all the official paperwork in my backpack, in addition to a some painkillers and a small first aid kit, mosi spray, head torches, sunscreen and disinfecting hand gel…. what can I say, I like to come prepared!
Then of course you need the climbing harness and the safety lines and the helmets. You can often hire them, if you want to go it alone, from places like mmove at a reasonable price. For us these were included in the package for the Family Ferrata.