On Italy’s Alta Via 4, a new mom finds strength in the Dolomites’ ver­ti­cal ter­rain.

Backpacker - - Contents - By Heather Balogh Rochfort

Tackle the ver­ti­cal world of the Dolomites on the Alta Via 4.

IWHITE-KNUCKLE MY trekking pole, wish­ing it was an ice axe. Stop­ping to catch my breath and my bear­ings, I look up to make sure that my hus­band Will is still 20 feet above me. My boots are im­mo­bi­lized in slick, slushy snow. Try as I might, I can’t will my­self up. Or back. Or side­ways. I stand rooted 1,000 ver­ti­cal feet up a 50-de­gree snow­field with im­pos­si­bil­ity in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

Tears fill my eyes be­fore I can stop them. Get it to­gether ,I think. I give my­self the no-non­sense pep talk that’s worked for me in the past. But it doesn’t help. We’re nearly half­way through our six-day trek of Italy’s Alta Via 4, on a trip that was sup­posed to help me break through my self-im­posed lim­its, and all I can feel is their bit­ter weight, heav­ier than ever. How had things changed so much in less than a year?

Eight months ear­lier, Will and I en­tered a new phase in life with the birth of our first child, a girl. As is the case with all new par­ents, our lives were re­ori­ented by joy and sleep­less nights. But her ar­rival also ush­ered in a se­ries of com­pli­ca­tions caused by child­birth. It was my first les­son in moth­er­hood: I have no con­trol. The ob­sta­cles con­tin­ued through­out the post­par­tum months, first with nurs­ing, then with preg­nancy-on­set carpal tun­nel that left me un­able to even hold a pen. But my lit­eral break­ing point didn’t come un­til a late-sea­son back­coun­try ski­ing ex­cur­sion in Idaho. Dur­ing my very first de­scent of the trip, I fell in some sticky snow, shred­ding my right ACL. I had to ride out on a sled, my dig­nity in worse shape than my knee. And I had to con­front a ques­tion I’d never had to face dur­ing years of tak­ing out­door ad­ven­ture for granted. Could my body han­dle the fu­ture I had in mind?

Ev­ery­one around me knew I was strug­gling. My par­ents en­cour­aged a re­set and of­fered to watch the baby. So Will and I set our sights on the Alta Via 4, a 52-mile route in the Dolomites that had been in­cu­bat­ing in my mind as the first crit­i­cal trip of my re­nais­sance. Like its fa­mous cousins, the Alta Vias 1 and 2, this trek uses via fer­ratas, the ca­ble­and-lad­der “iron ways” that en­able hik­ers with no climb­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to pen­e­trate the heart of the Ital­ian Alps.

I sought moun­tain vis­tas and Old World charm like any hut-to-hut trekker in the Alps, but I also be­lieved the Alta Via 4’s ver­ti­cal chal­lenge and heady ex­po­sure would help me re­gain my out­door con­fi­dence. So two months af­ter I in­jured my knee (and be­fore surgery), we set off from the Alta Säge trail­head, near San Can­dido, in north­east Italy.

En­ter­ing the Dolomites feels like an un­do­ing. Their beauty is so in­tense that it sweeps the mind clear of ev­ery­thing else. Our first day, we hiked just two hours from the bus stop to Tre Scarperi hut. The path me­an­ders through conifer forests be­fore pop­ping out at the edge of the Campo di Den­tro Val­ley, where the wooden hut sits in the cor­ner of the val­ley, cows wan­der­ing through the front yard. There, we feasted on cap­rese sal­ads and veni­son ravi­oli.

The next morn­ing, we as­cended into the moun­tains proper. We rem­i­nisced about our daugh­ter’s gig­gles as we climbed a larch-lined trail out of the val­ley and into one of the eight dis­tinct moun­tain groups scat­tered along the

route. I strug­gled over thigh-high stone steps, awk­wardly throw­ing my­self up the largest of the stairs to ac­com­mo­date the knee brace sta­bi­liz­ing my ACL. Af­ter three hours and 2,600 feet of climb­ing, we rose high enough to see the peaks of Tre Cime di Lavaredo shoot­ing sky­ward, form­ing what looked like an ar­chi­pel­ago of rock among the clouds. That night, at the large and mod­ern Rifu­gio Auronzo, I fell asleep think­ing, So far so good.

Of course, we hadn’t ac­tu­ally climbed any­thing hard yet. On day three, rain spat in our faces as we ven­tured along the Sen­tiero Bona­cossa, our first foray on a via fer­rata. We hiked past caves and tun­nels hand-cut into the rock by Ital­ian soldiers dur­ing World War I. They also in­stalled ca­bles, bolted lad­ders, and iron rungs, which en­abled the move­ment of troops and ma­te­rial. To­day these his­toric bits of metal al­low hik­ers like us to as­cend ver­ti­cal rock faces by sim­ply clip­ping into the ca­bles with a har­ness—no tech­ni­cal skills re­quired. Oc­ca­sion­ally, we crossed ledges so ex­posed that our in­steps gripped iron rungs while our heels hung over the abyss.

Will and I fell into a com­fort­able pat­tern, and with ev­ery click of a cara­biner, I felt my con­fi­dence and phys­i­cal com­fort re­turn­ing. Adren­a­line pushed self-doubt to the back of my mind. I mar­veled at the wob­bly lad­ders, which are fre­quently miss­ing a bolt or two. “I sup­pose some­one checks these ev­ery sea­son?” I called down to Will as the metal jig­gled un­der my weight. He snorted in re­sponse.

But then we reached the snow­field where I got stuck. A mish­mash of slush and slid­ing peb­bles cov­ers the gully. A small rock comes loose and I fix­ate on its tra­jec­tory as it ca­reens down­hill, pin­balling hun­dreds of feet through the rub­ble. I look up and see Will climb­ing with ease. Sub­con­sciously, my hand reaches for my right knee to but­tress the weak­ened joint. And all at once, free climb­ing in an­kle deep snow with a bum knee and a baby at home feels like a bad idea.

“Will, I can’t move,” I holler, my voice edg­ing up a half oc­tave. He’s heard this tone be­fore. “I’ll come to you,” he calls down, and does. But there are no other op­tions. The only way out is up.

I place my good leg for­ward and weight it, loos­en­ing a small slide as I toe off. Next, I force my gimpy leg up­ward, con­cen­trat­ing my gaze on the brace wrapped around my knee. And then, sud­denly, this is the step. All my anx­i­ety and fear—about get­ting off this slope, about the fu­ture—are wrapped up in my abil­ity to sim­ply as­cend 2 feet. I just have to trust my­self.

I step up. My knee holds. I dig the tip of my trekking pole into the slope, find­ing pur­chase. I’m mov­ing for­ward again.

Atop the snow­field, I shield my eyes against the glare of the sun, some­how brighter now than it was an hour ear­lier, when it burned through the mist. Sharp peaks rise into the blue sky, of­fer­ing the kind of view that’s triply bet­ter be­cause it’s earned. I’m not shak­ing any­more. I’m a mother, a wife, and an out­door­swoman—a holy trin­ity that I needed to go into the moun­tains to get back.

The au­thor on Via Fer­rata Van­delli, high above Lake So­rapiss

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