A Passo Sicuro

I was suspended above Lake Lazerzsee in the Austrian Dolomites. The placid, crystal-clear waters were just a few feet below me. I looked to my brother David and, ahead of him, my father. My father was in front because he was the most experienced, and it was a known fact that the most experienced hiker or climber should always stay in front on alpine excursions.

We were about halfway through the ferrata in our summer 2008 vacation. A via ferrata is a protected climbing route in the Alps. The protection consists of a metal cable that’s bolted to the rock at intervals and runs along the route. People secure themselves to the cable with harnesses and snap-hooks.

“Chi va piano, và sano e và lontano,”  my father said. “Those who go slowly, go far, safe and sound.”

A ferrata is safe as long as one has coordination, good grip, and secure holds. The only risky moment is when you pass the two snap-hooks over the bolts.

My father stepped over and disappeared behind a protruding rock a few meters away from me. My brother, David, briefly turned to me. I grinned. The sunlight glimmered on his gold-rimmed sunglasses.

“Isn’t it cool?” he asked.

“Super!” I responded. “We haven’t done this in a while. When was the last time?”

“It was the hike where we could see Il Trono di Dio on the other side of the valley.”

He referred to “The Throne of God,” the unofficial name for a throne-shaped massif in the Italian Dolomites.

“Where we saw that group of people in flip-flops, right? How long ago was that?”

“It’s been a few years.”

David stepped ahead. I had clear space to move. I pinpointed and tested the holds on the light grey rock. I followed my brother.

I reached with my left hand first, then with my left foot. The rock surface was warm, suggesting it has been hours under the direct sunlight. My right hand and foot followed a moment later. My holds avoided moss and clumps of grass growing in the rock fissures.

I unhooked then re-hooked the first snap-hook to the cable in a single fluid movement. I repeated this for the second snap-hook.

I turned again towards the shimmering lake. The ferrata was about 200 meters long and never more than three meters from the water. The ragged face of rock was vertical in some short stretches.

There were no fish in the lake, which was unsurprising as the water came directly and only from a glacier. I observed it, visible up half a kilometer away in the treeless landscape. I had put my hands in the water earlier. The cold was sharp, but the water felt good to splash on my face.

I moved on, small steps, one by one. I was in no hurry. It wasn’t a dangerous situation, but I reminded myself everything must be done properly.

“Let’s put the harnesses on here,” my father had instructed when we stopped in a small flat rock top just above the beginning of the route.

“Do we have to? It seems easy and short enough,” I had replied, talking before thinking.

“It doesn’t matter. If we do it, we do it right. Otherwise, we walk around it.”

“It’ll be fun, and it doesn’t cost anything to be safe,” my brother had said, removing his backpack.

David and I didn’t have real harnesses, but my father had climbing experience and had been drafted into the Alpini when he was young (the Italian Army elite mountain warfare military corps). He had taught us how to make a harness with climbing rope, so we did so. Since David and I were kids, our parents taught us to respect the mountains and to always follow a code of conduct. Respect also meant safety.

I reached the protruding rock. I had a clear view of both sides of the ferrata. The few people along the shore appeared simply as colorful shapes in the strong sunlight. I made sure my feet were well set in the holds. I stretched my harness and leaned back, body straight. I let go of the cable and spread my arms. I arched and looked up.

The clear blue sky occupied my whole view, like an uninterrupted canvas. There was total silence. The warmth from the sun was balanced by the high-altitude fresh air and breeze.

The weight of my backpack and the pull of my harness were my only physical connections to material objects.

Years later, I would remember this moment while swimming. There is a moment that occurs between the wall push-off and the first kick when I am suspended in water. There is silence and no sensory involvement, only the feel of water over my body.

I stood hanging from the metal cable until I felt my father’s and brother’s movements through the tension of my harness. They were several meters ahead. I grabbed the cable, assessed the rock situation in front of me, and kept moving.

Soon after, we reached the end of the route.

“Fantastic!” I exclaimed.

“This was a good one, not too difficult, enjoyable. What a view of the lake, right?” my brother smiled.

“Yes. It wouldn’t have been as nice if it had been shorter, or if we’d gone without the harnesses,” I said to my father. “Which we should never do anyway, as you rightly said.”

“Once you are safe, which is easy in these cases, you actually have more flexibility. You enjoy everything even more,” he nodded.

“We should do this more often,” my brother added.

“Anytime,” I smiled.


Photo by author.

Richard was born in the US, grew up in Italy, recently moved to the UK after few years in Oregon. Architect by day, but also athlete and photographer, he alternates sports to reading and writing. Find his work in The Dreams' Chest.