Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Italy's Dolomites: Alta Via 1

Chris had to be in Florence for three days on business (oh darn!), so we decided to go out two weeks early to explore the Dolomites and traverse Italy’s most famous trail, the Alta Via 1.
We first discovered this trail after coming across the AV1&2 guidebook while browsing Metskers Maps in downtown Seattle late last spring. “Hey, let’s do THIS trail.” I remarked off the cuff. “Okay. Let’s!” responded Chris.
The Alta Via 1 penetrates the heart of the spectacular Dolomites, running north-south from Lago de Braies near Dobbiaco to the Veneto Plain at Belluno. Options for side trips and alternate routes—some circumventing Via Ferrata --are many. Along the way one is treated to the constant, jaw-dropping spectacle of jagged peaks, green valleys, and that standard of European trekking: the rifugi (mountain huts).
With the assistance/advice of Dan & Janine Patatucci, who are fortunate to be living in the Dolomites—as well as just winging it on our own—we came up with a plan of traversing the trail in five days. This came out to about 16-18 miles per day, about perfect for us. We picked four huts that were spaced at reasonable intervals and, since it was getting late in the season--there’d already been snowfall on Sept. 14!—brought extra layers and hoped for good weather. Since many of the huts closed on Sept. 20, our choices were limited for the last two nights.

For footwear we went with trail runners: Salomon's XA Pro 3D Ultra for me, Asiics something-or-other for Chris. After five days of rough Dolomite rock—and this is a plug for Salomon, but it is the truth!!--my Salomons held up fabulously; in fact, they looked “one run out of the box,” merely a bit dirty. Unfortunately the same could not be said of Chris’s brand new Asiics, the heels of which started peeling and flapping on the fourth or fifth day. My feet never hurt—come to think of it, nothing ever did, probably since our packs were light and the mileage was reasonable. Everyone else we saw on the trail—including not one other American—wore boots. (And darned if we didn’t even see some lederhosen out there!)

A word about the rifugi: about the closest thing America has to Europe’s hut system is the Appalachian Mountain Club's huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (and more recently Maine), or possibly Colorado’s Tenth Mountain Division huts. I think they really are no comparison to Europe’s, however. Here’s the deal: All you have to carry is clothing, personal items (dental floss, toothbrush, sunscreen, etc.), water, and money. Yes, that last item is very important! But with no tent, pad, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, or food, you can go very, very light! The rifugi have real beds--often with an option of either a spot in a bunkroom or one’s own private room; showers--yes, with HOT water; real food--usually ordered off a menu; booze--wine, beer, grappa, hard stuff…; and espresso—my world is complete. Including breakfast, dinner, and a beer or glass of wine (or two or three), you’re looking at US$50-60/person. Over the course of the day’s walk, you usually pass a hut or two where you can stop for a coffee break or lunch, thereby not really having to carry any of your own food. (Caveat: we carried trail food for the last two days because many of the huts had closed.) This is your average rifugi bar, with beer taps adjacent to the espresso machine. Under the yellow light is a representation of the many flavors of grappa.

We flew from LAX to Florence via Frankfurt on Sept. 15-16 and after spending the night in Florence, made our way north on the autostrada. We initially planned on using public transportation but in the end decided we preferred the freedom of our own vehicle (hey, we’re Americans after all) so rented a little Alfa Romeo which was left safely in the parking lot of the Hotel Lago de Braies at the beginning of the AV1. This is a beautifully grand old hotel, albeit a touch on the creepy side, reminiscent of the one in “The Shining” (REDRUM! REDRUM!). After a plate of “stinco” (I am not making this up—google it), we turned in early, anticipating the next day’s walk.

The Alta Via 1 starts off with a lovely stroll around Lago de Braies followed by a stiff climb of almost 1000 meters to Forcella Sora Forno and our first rifugio, Biella. As it is for most of the route, the trail here is above treeline and is stunning! (So I don’t sound like a broken record, I will state here that each day’s scenery was absolutely spectacular and the weather was perfect... oh and that we had wine every night.) We continued on to Rif. Sennes, where we stopped for a lunch of hearty soups, hot cocoa, & cappuccino. The afternoon’s walk was basically a long downhill followed by a long but not difficult uphill to our night’s destination, Rif. Lavarella, with a total of about 20 km. for the day. This was the Ladin section of the trail, the predominantly Deutsch- and Italian-speaking parts being north and south respectively. Lavarella ended up being our favorite hut of the trip: our room was cozy but comfortable, the food was great, the setting was extra spectacular, and there were only five others staying there, so it was very quiet and peaceful. This was lunch:

Day 2 began with some climbing--first to Forcella del Lago, then to Forcella Lagazuoi and its amazing WW1 detritus, including tunnel complexes, trenches, caves, and remains of stone buildings. This area was the site of heavy and prolonged fighting between the Austrians and Italians and is preserved as an open-air museum, the Museo all'aperto della Grande Guerra. Fascinating stuff! This day we were treated to views of the Marmolada, the Croda Rossa, the Sella, and the Cinque Torri pinnacles as we switchbacked across the flanks of the Tofane, where we finally encountered another group of thru-hikers, Italians on their way to Passo Duran. The day ended with a schlep up to Rif. Averau, a total of 26 km. That night Dan and Janine surprised us for dinner, and we had a great time sharing stories and laughs. (They surprised the other guests when they departed on mountain bikes in pitch darkness!). We spent the night in a bunk room with the Italians and a hardy, older couple, where through the night snoring duty seemed to pass among the group.

At the beginning of our third day – we ready to get out there, the Italians meeting the day a bit more casually – we had a choice to make: do the via ferrata over Nuvolau Ridge or take the easier bypass around it. Somehow I talked Chris into traversing the cables and downclimbing the ladders, but this ferrata section actually was rather short and easy. It was also a lot of fun. (Can you hear the hand-muffled sneeze of “Horses***!!” from Chris?) We crossed the road at Passo Giau midmorning, and did what any coffee addict would do: stopped for a cappuccino! Yep, I could get used to this kind of hiking. Unfortunately for us, we left Rif. Giau about 10 minutes late, getting stuck on a very narrow section of trail behind a conga line of about 30 jovial Italians. I thought Chris’s head was going to explode (it takes just two cars in front of him on the road to evoke epithets), but the whole scene was rather humorous. It did take awhile to get around everyone! The views from Forcella Giau were just amazing: jagged rocky peaks surrounded by impossibly green meadows, marmots darting about, a babbling brook, grazing horses, cows & sheep, cozy villages far down in the valleys. By this point, it became patently clear that the AV1 was merely the teeny-tiniest piece of what these mountains have to offer, and we were already scheming as to how we might possibly manage to LIVE in Italy for a couple of years; we were falling THAT in love with the Dolomites. As the afternoon’s miles progressed, we advanced ever closer to the amazing Pelmo massif, and the views were… (oops, that broken record thing).
That's Cortina in the valley below:
Horses hanging at the pass, with the Pelmo looming behind:
We encountered a big CAI season-end party at Rif. Fiume—it was Sept. 20. The crowd was large and people were in party mode. A few kliks more brought us to 18 km. and our day’s destination, Rif. Staulanza. Within the hour, our Italian compatriots arrived, and that evening we enjoyed dinner with our new friends, Michele, Marcos, and Alberto. Michele, who spoke very good English, was quite a character and taught us how to properly drink grappa: basically you rub it over your teeth with your tongue, then quickly suck in air across your bared teeth as you swallow the stuff. He learned this in the army, saying “You get twice as drunk!!” Chris, of course, enjoyed testing the theory.
Chris lightened his already light pack by giving Coyote Fourplay Patagonia shirts to our new buddies. That's Alberto, Marcos, Chris, and Michele below. Chris got quite a few envious (?!) stares with his Hawaiian hiking shirt.
In retrospect, Michele may have been trying to get us drunk in order to beat us up to Rif. Coldai the next morning. However, Chris and I prevailed (woo hoo!), even after stopping by a little dairy (cow and goat) farm (“malga”) to buy some cheese. (All of the rifugi in this section had closed the day before so we were unable to buy lunch.) Team Italia/Machismo caught us just before Lago Coldai. Michele photographed us on his Blackberry and was kind enough to send it to my parents. The next 7-8 km. were spent traversing beneath the towering Civetta. This famous wall of sheer rock, one section taller than Yosemite's El Capitan, was absolutely stunning. We felt SO small beneath it! After lunching on our cheese at a deserted malga, we descended past Rif. Vazzoler on a rough dirt road, then turned left back onto singletrack and braced ourselves for the stiff climb to Forcella Dell Orso. While crossing the lower part of a gully in this section, we walked on hardpacked snow for the first and only stretch of our trek. It was only a 26 km. day, but I was tired and happy to reach Passo Duran and our rifugio for the night, St. Sebastiano. Though Team Italia planned to stop just after Vazzoler and finish the next day, they pushed to Duran, happily surprising us as Dan and Janine had earlier done. We sadly said goodbye to our Italian friends as they headed off towards Cortina; many people apparently finish their AV1 hikes at Passo Duran.

Our fifth and final day on the Alta Via 1 was one of unexpected beauty and solitude… unexpected because we were under the impression that the last section to Belluno was rather boring in contrast to the rest of the trail. But this is absolutely not the case! The day started, uncharacteristically, in the woods, and we remained in the trees for a couple of hours. Passing the ruins of some old barracks at Forcella del Maschesin, we once again broke above the trees and were awed by the magnificence of our surroundings. It only got better! Sandwiched between Rif. Sommariva al Pramperet and Rif. Pian de Fontana was one of our favorite spots of the entire trail: the Forcella de Zita Sud, 2451 meters. Arriving at this pass was bittersweet since it would be the last time we would attain an elevation this high. Here I am on the the last high forcella:
Our sadness was assuaged by multiple sightings of ibexes on the way down—and I mean DOWN, 800 meters in about 4 km—to Rif. Pian de Fontana at 1632 meters. My only complaint about the Dolomites is the relative lack of wildlife, so seeing these mountain goats was a real treat. Another surprise for the day was finding the rifugio open! So we, ahem, did what any caffeine addict would do... One more little climb for the day brought us to the junction of the official AV1 route, the one with reportedly three hours worth of via ferrata maneuvering, and the wimps’ route, the one reportedly taken by 90% of AV1 thru-hikers. Not having the recommended protection (helmet, short rope/biner, harness) and because we are wimps, we went the easy way. It was another long descent, this time about 1400 meters in 12 km. The lower we descended, the more lush the vegetation. Soon we were in the trees for good, walking down a lovely dirt road for many kms, finally taking the shortcut Trail #503, past a beautiful high waterfall just before reaching the road and the La Pissa bus stop. Our trek was over. In short order we caught the bus to Belluno, found a place to stay, and were soon wolfing down some of the best pasta we’ve ever had at a restaurant called La Trappola.

It’s especially difficult to encapsulate our trek into a neat summary note. So, perhaps the best way to finish is to not finish at all, but just keep looping and re-looping through all the memorable pieces of our adventure. Guess which pictures now populate our desktop and screensaver slide show?


Olga said...

OMG, Italy, girl? The mountains, the food??!! Wow!

Steve Pero said...

Absolutely beautiful photos, Sue!


Unknown said...

Hi Sue,
We plan hiking the AV1 on coming late September. there are some specific questions we would to ask you. how can we contact you by email?

RunSueRun said...

Hello and sorry for the delay in responding. I tried clicking on your profile, but it was not "enabled." If you would send me your email address via another comment, I will contact you and would be more than happy to answer your questions. It is an incredible trail -- DO IT!!


Anonymous said...

Thinking of doing this route in early sept this year. Is it possible to do it in 4-5 days without being totally wiped out? We are avid runners, accustom to trail/mountain running but don't want to feel rushed on the run. The trip looks amazing!