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I scaled a mountain.

My first one.

I really ought to learn to start small, to tackle simpler tasks. Like, say, scaling a rock-climbing wall first.

But the call of the Dolomites beckoned.

Its sweet, come-hither whisper didn’t just stir the spirit of adventure, it rocked it. In the end, conquering the 8,907-foot summit called Colac made for some of the most exhilarating and terrifying moments of my life.

In late June, I made a trip to northern Italy to take on what I’d heard and read was an awesome adventure. For no particular reason, I set my sights on Colac. The peak soars over the mountain towns of Alba and Canazei, forming one of many climbing routes that make up the famed via ferratas, better known in English as "the iron way."

The routes are systems of steel cables, stemples (metal rungs drilled into the mountain to form ladders) and suspension bridges that date to World War I, when the Dolomites were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Warring Italian and Austrian soldiers in 1915 constructed the network of ropes, cables and ladders to help get troops and supplies to the peaks and their fighting positions. Today, professional mountaineering groups maintain the intricate system.

There are countless via ferratas throughout the Dolomites and Europe, numbering well into the hundreds, each varying in degrees of difficulty, said seasoned guide and mountaineer Gianni Pais Becher.

While climbers can attempt the "horizontal" routes — where cable lines don’t lead climbers on steep vertical ascensions or require technical know-how — on their own, no climber should tackle a mountain without the proper safety gear, cautioned Pais Becher, who up until about five years ago worked as a Dolomite climbing guide.

For the more technical routes, he recommends hiring a guide through one of the many outfitters in the foothills of the mountains.

"And another thing. Start early in the morning. Too many climbers go about 10 or 11 in the morning. This is not a walk in the park. Around 2, that’s the usual time a storm arrives. When I was a guide, I’d usually start about 5:30 in the morning. For many ‘vacationing’ climbers that was too early," said Pais Becher, who says in his mind he’s 29, but to the rest of the world, he just celebrated his 60th birthday.

I was that "vacation climber," but a well-prepared one: equipment-wise.

What I wasn’t prepared for were portions of the trail that left me utterly exposed on the face of

a mountain — thousands of feet above ground.

In fact, at one point, I contemplated taking up residence at the base of a set of stemples.

Then it got worse.

The route winds through narrow crevasses, vertical ascents, and at times across steep, smooth slabs with lots of exposure and little to no footholds — and you’re thankful for the safety system provided by the cables.

My boyfriend and climbing buddy had more experience than I, and his words of encouragement helped guide, pull and persuade me to plod along. A guidebook suggested the hike should have taken between four and five hours. We took nine.

The ascent really isn’t for beginners, and I should have started with something much easier. But hey.

I pushed on.

And at the summit, I was rewarded. Not just with the sense of having accomplished such a feat, but also with breathtaking views of mightier mountains.

And whether it was insanity speaking or the adrenaline from the exertion, I found myself vowing to take on those very peaks for my next venture.


Stripes in 7



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