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Kent McBride Revisits the Storied Climbing History of the Dolomites — Part Two
Posted on March 29, 2013

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In recent years, via ferrata routes have become increasingly popular throughout Europe, but their history dates to the brutal World War I mountain battles in the Dolomites between Austria and Italy. In part two of our barstool conversation with Kent McBride, we get the full full report from the Eddie Bauer First Ascent guide as he describes the experience of climbing in a region that gave rise to these routes. “McGuide” traveled to the region to climb the Comici-Dimai Route on the  Cima Grande di Lavaredo with Caroline George but he also experienced a deeper connection to a storied climbing history and the character of the mountain culture in the South Tyrol region. As he relates in his characteristically conversational style, McBride found stunning vistas, via ferrata history and a distinctive hut culture that is different from any other place that he has climbed. –LYA Editor

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Images by Dylan Taylor and Dan Patitucci

Culturally, what’s the experience like of traveling to the huts in Italy?  How does it compare to the huts in other places that you’ve been?

There’s so much more character to them. You start out coming into these towns and notice the way they paint buildings and plant flowers to match up with them. It’s not because they’re the wealthiest. It’s little unique touches here and there that give it such character. Then you start getting up to the huts, and they almost blend into the landscape with the rockwork on those and the woodwork inside. You can tell generations have been there and they’re really proud of their history too. You’ll see the chairs with the mountain range carved into the back of them, and you wonder how old they are or who did it and really neat things that you can’t just walk into a Home Depot and buy.

Did you connect with any of the history of the original via ferrata routes when you were climbing the Dolomites?

Yeah, the whole beginning of that with the battles that they were fighting: it just brings climbing to a whole new level when you’re trying to guard your home soil.

It just happened to be in the mountains. You’re going to climb the mountains and you’re going to climb them with heavy equipment and you’re going to do them in all conditions and you’re going to be going as fast as you can, running for or climbing for your life. I mean we’ve never really had to deal with that. We might climb for our life if we make a bad decision and weather’s coming in, but I can’t imagine being shot at and running around in these mountains, up and down, and trying to help somebody who got shot or slipped. These guys were doing it day in and day out. It doesn’t matter why they were out in those mountians, but they were leading the rock era there.

I understand that the last ten years or so, the via ferratas have become very popular. What is interesting to you about that rediscovery of the history of those original huts and routes?

It’s still in their culture and the via ferratas allow the family to do it. They’re relatively safe with the cables and the anchors, but you can still choose any type of adventure on the different ratings. Families will go out and do these without a guide. It’s like what we’ll do in our parks, where we’ll go hiking, but they’re taking it to another level. I’m sure the elders are telling some of the stories of the history along the way and still doing it while they’re out having fun.

They’re having family fun instead of fighting for your homeland. You’ll see older guys out there too. I’ve had that before in Switzerland, where you see somebody out there and he’s just as happy as can be. Even if you can’t speak the language, you can pass an email and share photos later on, and everybody’s just out having fun on these via ferratas, getting out in the mountains.

Does it seem like a different mountain culture there?

Yeah. If you talk to somebody in America about climbing, they still don’t really know how you get the ropes up there or any of that. In Europe, not only do they understand it, they’re all doing it: Grandma, Grandpa and family.

Having so many people connected to the climbing history and heritage there, does that add a different cultural dimension to doing a trip like you did with Caroline.

Yeah, in lots of ways. I think some people think of the Alps and the Dolomites as crowded since everyone is doing it. But I think what changes that perception is that the access is so great with so many huts and you can do so much in such a short time. And with a little creativity, you can get away from those people. Otherwise, you’d be hiking around like you do here with a big pack, hoping to get one peak. But you can go over there and get a whole bunch of stuff done in just a few days because of the trams and the huts.

It seems to me there was a really unique combination of history and adventure in climbing on that trip. In terms of other locations in Europe that you’d like to go to that have that same sort of feel, what’s at the top of your hit list in the future?

Oh, there’s just so much around in the Chamonix Valley that I’d like to look at, so many climbs there. Where else?  There’s some sport climbing down in southern France that’s always looked exciting, like the Verdun Gorge.

No shortage of destinations in the Alps?

No, there’s just so much in the Alps and I haven’t seen the Pyrenees yet. I think that would be great.

Obviously the Italian experience was very unique and different. For someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time over there, how does France differ from Italy in terms of the experience you have when you go there to climb?

I think the most impressive thing is they are all unique and different. They’ll still talk stereotypes about one another and they’re going to make sure that they are different in their way.

But you do see the little subtleties when you go across the borders and, at the same time, they still love everything about each other’s countries—the whole landscape. So they get along, and very rarely do you see any scuffles like you see in the U.S. because there are more people living in a smaller area and they’re sleeping next to each other, shoulder to shoulder in the huts. And they just kind of move on and get along with each other. They aren’t afraid to move from country to country in spite of their differences.

Like the people in Wyoming get along with the people in Texas?

Yeah, and we really don’t have any old history of killing each other’s grandparents. These countries have had huge histories of battles and everything, and they still move to each other’s countries and get along and help one another when they’re out in the mountains, and they’re kind people. I’ve always enjoyed traveling over there and seeing that. I just love to learn from it.

Author: - Friday, March 29th, 2013
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