Failure on the Limone Sul Garda Vertical Kilometer

Edited to add: The VK in Limone seems to be one of the steeper VKs: Sky Running Rules dictate that qualifying trails must rise 1000 metres in ascent through 5kms or less of distance. Limone’s vertical km is 1000 metres over 3 km.

Before I headed out to Italy I was thrilled by the idea that I would be right beside the vertical kilometer course. The famed all-out sufferfest of skyrunning championships. I could move in the footsteps of Jornet and Forsberg. I could breathe in the same mountain air. 

On the first few days in Limone sul Garda, I did some research- requesting mountain leaflets from the tour operators and visitor centres; considering my options; locating the pass behind the Hotel Europa; foraying up the first 200m to see how steep, how soon. I anxiously watched the clouds pull in, as it rained a few evenings. I looked constantly up to Cima Mughera- a dramatic tangle of rock rising directly behind the village. I took endless photographs of this rocky tumble, loving its extreme lines and Cubist geometric abstraction. The rumbling rock gives it the look of a mountain that has been dropped, breaking pieces off and spilling them all over the slope. 

Intimidating tangle of rocks.

The yellow sign on the left is the hotel Europa- the trail leaves from behind there.

On the Sunday evening, I made my preparations- food, clothing including waterproofs, a whistle, more water than could be needed, money for the cafe at the summit, my fully-charged phone. I set my alarm for 5am. I lay in bed, absolutely awake past midnight. My heart was racing, trying to burst clean out of my chest and run away from this venture. And I wrote the following in a blogger draft:

I promise to lay no expectation on myself because I am afraid. Bad decisions happen in fear that do not happen in respect. I will wait and see and I will be happy to turn around if I must. Turning around is not the loss, hurting myself is.

I woke before my alarm to the sound of heavy rain, and felt a deep, deep sense of relief wash over me. I couldn't ascend in that weather, not on wet rock. And so I fell into a much calmer sleep for a few hours. However upon my second awakening the world had changed- completely dry and much cooler than on previous days, with only hidden sun. Faced with a different set of parameters, I grabbed some breakfast, silent with nerves, and headed on up. 

The first few hundred meters were familiar territory- up the muddy trail, past the olive groves and barking dogs, smiling at the dog which was too nervous to come out of its kennels but still barked as if it were a brave military sentry (the dogs were in their enclosure both times I was there, but I have heard they are sometimes free- be cautious). Now onto the rock. The trail climbs exceptionally quickly. Between nerves and sharpness, my heart rate was sky high. As soon as you ascend out from the trees and onto the rock the exposure is immediate. There is very little on your side and behind you, and paying attention to your feet is mandatory as loose shingle covers the trails. 

The trail head- the wall on the left says 'Vertical SKY' with an arrow
The trail up in the groves, this image looking down
All trails in the area are marked with these paints- on trees, on rocks
The beginning of the exposure
The view down over Limone sul Garda
It was so cool to hike/run past these- 2014 ones also present
On several sections you will need your hands as well as your feet. If you go up here practise extreme caution whilst climbing sections- a fall could easily become fatal or serious, fast. About 0.5 kilometers into the route, you come across the first set of cord. This was irritatingly plastic cord- whilst the trail was bone dry, and the rock was dry, the plastic was still slippy in the cool air. 

The first rope set, exposed drop on left and you can see tree marker.
The trail was narrowing fast, but was still largely intact and I did not feel too insecure. I regularly backtracked small sections to ensure I still could (another rule for myself was do not go forwards onto something you cannot retreat from). There were quite a few climbs requiring arms in this section, and I began to worry a little about descending them. 

Further gorgeous views from an outcrop of rock- visible on the images of the mountain
Down to Limone
 

Around 1km in, my nerve failed me. I came across a section of fixed plastic rope, with a trail less than a foot or so wide, and the most exceptional exposure on the other side.

The section of trail
And its relevant exposure
 Every small bit of ambition left in my body flooded out. I actually did ascend past this piece of trail, facing the rock wall and studiously ignoring the huge drop. The ropes seemed next to useless- slack enough to lean a body right over the edge if someone grabbed one to prevent a fall. My pulse was crashing in my ears, my hands alternatively grasping the rock and the slick rope. On the other side the trail careened on, erratically ascending on the edges of rock. The trail was visible next to each edge, roped in some places, not in others. It was like this on and off for as far as my eyes could see. I pictured the ladders I knew were at the top of the route. Pictured the dramatic angles of the photographs of Killian ascending those ladders. My nerve was gone, shot, destroyed, abandoned ship with its tail between its legs. So I waved the white flag, and started my descent.

Further down, taking a ceremonial foot shot and having a banana
It actually took quite a while to descend too- roughly 15 minutes overall compared to a 35 minute ascension (could be done faster with no photo stops). Some parts of the descent seemed nerve-wracking, especially a section where I had to climb down backwards. However, as my pulse started to click back into its normal rhythm, and my mind began to settle,  I began to feel disappointment. I sat on a knoll, just above the tree line, and looked down into the village munching on a banana. I ruminated- should I go back up? Had I just fled from an opportunity I couldn't repeat? Then I thought about the lessons I had learned on the Via Ferrata - bad decisions are made in fear. I thought about the lessons I had learned in the Cairngorms- bad decisions are made when people think its their last shot at something. This may have been my last chance at the Limone vertical km, but it certainly wouldn't be my only chance at a vertical km ever. I continued down. 

One day I guess!
Back on earth, I took another shot of the mountain, feeling the loss and the disappointment. Then I turned uphill into the valley crest, and ran up the river path to join my aunt and mum on their walk. And it was a beautiful wander across the traverse path, in the newly breaking sunshine. I'm not sure I was much company for the rest of the day. I couldn't stop looking towards the mountain.

In retrospect I'm glad I turned around. I still feel a sense of disappointment I can't explain. A feeling I wasn't enough. But it was the right call. My fitness was there but, whilst I have experience in the mountains of Scotland, I had very little experience with that kind of exposure. I was quite afraid- too wound up- and would have risked making errors if I had continued. There isn't much room for error in a place like that. I'd love to go back one day, with more experience, with more fitness (to feel more comfortable), and not alone. I cannot even fathom the heros that move fast in territory like that. 

If you go up the vertical trail, here are some things to keep in mind- its exposed, exceptionally steep, and is covered in loose rock. This path is very difficult, as marked in the trails book. Wear trail shoes or hiking boots, take many more supplies than you will ever need, take first aid and clothing that you would need in an emergency. I'd also recommend long socks or gaiters- small sharp rocks got into my Inov8s and cut one of my feet. If you are walking, the vertical km has an estimate of 3-5 hours to the summit (5 seems far too long though). There is a turn off around 2km, but I'm not sure its an official trail (turns off left and sharply descends into the valley to the left of Cima du Mughera). The roped sections are often not bolted at the ends (eg the end of each rope just trails off loosely)- keep this in mind if you have any intentions to clip into them or slide down using one. 

Appreciate that if you get into difficulties, it will be very hard for anyone to come to your aid with any kind of speed or much gear. Bring a lot of water and food. Know that the weather can change fast in Limone sul Garda- if the clouds clear it will suddenly become boiling, if they pour in it may suddenly rain. Lake Garda is also prone to lightning storms, and my assumption is that in that case the mountain would be a very dangerous place to be. Descend fast but descend safely. Lastly, there are  vipers that live on the mountain trails. They usually avoid humans but are venomous and move more slowly when its colder- early in the day or in the colder months (this is when you are most likely to meet one). Therefore be wary of where you put your feet and especially your hands if climbing. Whilst they are rarely fatal, I am unsure what effects they could have whilst you are trying to descend to seek medical attention. 

The trail is the 136. As stated it leaves from behind the Hotel Europa, which is roughly 3 streets up from the front. The SkyRunning page on the route is here; there is information on the loop in Italian here; and there is some information in English further down this page. If you get the local trails brochure, there is information about the route in there too. 

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Any advice for improving my chances on such trails in future?

10 Comments:

  1. Oh my lord that sounds scary! But what beautiful views! I think you did the right thing to be safe. Better to enjoy those views but not risk everything for it!

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    1. Thanks Anna! It was indeed bloody scary. However 100% would attempt again- stunning, just requires a lot of prep and care!

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  2. Beautiful views. And so calm and brave. Those are wise words to keep in mind when ding something that scares you: bad decisions made in fear and when you think it's your last chance. I will remember those. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. I didn't feel calm at the time! Heart was in my throat. But thank you :) They are wise words though! Taught by wise people

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  3. Awesome!!! No worries, one day you will run up like nothing ;) You need to call me when you go next time. I'm doing the VK in Chamonix in the end of August so let's see how my fear can handle it or not... Did you got to Limone on holiday or just to do a bit of running?

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    1. Thanks so much, and yes I would LOVE company next time. That's so exciting! That's the race yes?

      We just went on holidays, otherwise I would have done more running ;-)

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  4. So beautiful! And so much wisdom in this post. I'm really liking the theme of learning new stuff from your blog at the moment :)

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    1. Wow, that's an amazing compliment, thanks so much :)

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  5. This looks bloody terrifying. Props for even attempting it, and for making the sensible decision in that moment.

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