Sunday, August 26, 2018

Midsummer Europe Adventures: Dolomite Alps

Second Week: Dolomite Alps – Taste of Alta Via 1

(Written by Katrina)
First Week │ Dolomite Alps │ Sexten Dolomites │ Bavarian Castles

On Monday, July 2nd, we drove north towards what would be the main part of our trip: hiking in the Italian Dolomites. We would be meeting up with Erik and family a few days later for a shared 4th of July weekend, exploring the area around Sesto/Sexten. In the meantime, we had chosen to hike a few portions of the Alta Via 1 – a picturesque and well-documented 75-mile roughly north-south trail, intersected by various towns and mountain roads, and well-sprinkled with various mountain huts along the way (no camping allowed – instead, each night must be spent at a mountain hut or town hotel).
Map outlining the entire Alta Via 1 route: for our brief 2.5-day taste, we started in the middle near Passo Falzarego and headed south towards Passo Staulanza, before looping back

Having enjoyed beautiful weather so far, we were a bit concerned by the forbidding weather forecasts presaging daily thunderstorms for the entire upcoming week. Driving among the meandering mountain roads to reach Passo Falzarego, we were nonetheless heartened by the sunny weather and beautiful views, and we hoped the thunderstorms might not materialize after all, or at least only for a small portion of some of the days. Since we were short on time, we opted to take the Cinque Torri chairlift to shorten the distance we would need to hike in order to reach our evening hut. Riding up the chairlift, the mountain views opened up before us, but ominously dark clouds seemed to follow right behind us. 

Our first view of Cinque Torri – “Five Towers”, cloaked by a layer of incoming clouds
Heading towards Averau, the dark clouds quickly overtook us, hovering gloomily above as we strode on and into the clouds.
Luxury Hiking!: it's not often that such luxurious chairs are available at such scenic mountain valley overlooks, as these provided by Rifugio Averau. 

Dark clouds hovered above us as we finally reached the pass at Rifugio Averau, and looked down into the next valley spread out below us:
Looking down into the valley outside Rifugio Averau
Used to Washington weather – well-known for its winter rains and unpredictability, where a single day can easily meld from mist to sun to drenching rain – we were nonetheless still extremely surprised by the changeable nature of the weather that greeted us that evening in the Dolomites. Instead of altering from one hour to the next, the weather here changed literally minute by minute: one moment we’d be immersed in clouds, the next an incredible view of distant peaks in layered clouds would open up one direction, then we’d be back in denser fog, then views to another valley would open up while simultaneously being pelted by a load of hail, then a light misting of fog would allow a brief glimpse of a partial rainbow in the distance, and so on and so forth…

The mercurial weather provided a fascinating first view of the unique Dolomitic landscape. Indeed, this mountain range – portions of which have been declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2009 – was unlike any other mountain range we’ve ever seen. As boasted on the Unesco site (there are currently 1092 total Unesco World Heritage sites, including a total of 209 natural sites, such as the Dolomitic ranges):

"The Dolomites are widely regarded as being among the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world. Their intrinsic beauty derives from a variety of spectacular vertical forms such as pinnacles, spires and towers, with contrasting horizontal surfaces including ledges, crags and plateaux, all of which rise abruptly above extensive talus deposits and more gentle foothills. A great diversity of colours is provided by the contrasts between the bare pale-coloured rock surfaces and the forests and meadows below. The mountains rise as peaks with intervening ravines, in some places standing isolated but in others forming sweeping panoramas."

See The Dolomites in One Booklet for more info about the Unesco Dolomites Foundation

In addition to its natural beauty, the Dolomites also contain remnants of a darker cultural history, where fierce WWI fighting between Italians and Austro-Hungarians came to be known as the “White War” thanks to the devastating winter scene. Here, soldiers had to combat not only enemy fire, but the fierceness of the elements, with inexperienced soldiers needing to traverse through icy peaks in the bitter cold, and where avalanches took more lives than the enemy, including the notable “White Friday” where 10,000 died in a single day. [See WWI in the Mountains for more pictures and history.]
WWI soldiers defending mountain outpost

WWI soldiers hauling guns up a 3,400-meter peak

One fascinating remnant of this history are the popular “via ferrata”, or “iron way” routes: a series of anchored cable-lines and ladder rungs that allow traversing through otherwise very steep and difficult rocky paths, and which give a glimpse into the difficulty of a WWI soldier’s life. 
Anchored cable-lines making up part of the via ferrata leading to Averau peak
The easiest of these via ferratas are more like assisted hiking with a little bit of scrambling rather than any actual rock-climbing, but it’s still recommended to always use via ferrata safety gear – consisting of helmet and harness with a via ferrata lanyard that hooks into the provided cables.   (In preparation for attempting some of these routes, I had spent the previous few months attempting to conquer my rock-climbing fear, by joining Ariel at our local rock-climbing gyms. My first time, it took a massive force of will to eventually – i.e. after a good 20 minutes – make it up to the top of the 30ft wall with trembling legs and then force myself to jump off to be returned to the ground by the auto-belay device. Forcing myself to keep going again and again up the walls, and eventually making it up the even higher 50ft walls at the Seattle gym, I can now proudly say that I've successfully tackled many 5.9 routes :-) )

As we reached Rifugio Averau and looked out into the valley below, we were a bit disappointed that the dark layer of cloud hovering solidly above us seemed unlikely to clear up anytime soon. We had hoped to ascend our first via ferrata here, which would scale Averau peak, but seeing as how the peak was completely obscured by the dark clouds, attempting the climb seemed a rather fruitless endeavor. (Not to mention potentially dangerous, if the scattered rain would indeed transition to the forecasted thunderstorm:  lightning can always be dangerous to an exposed hiker, but being strapped into a long metal chain leading to a summit seemed a particularly reckless endeavor.)  The bigger question for us was whether to descend directly down the valley to our evening hut, or to continue along the slightly longer Nuvolau route that includes a small descending via ferrata. After dither-dallying for some time – starting the shorter, more direct descent several times only to re-ascend as the scattered rain cleared and the views opened up again – we finally opted for our original plan on going along Nuvolau. This proved to be an excellent choice, revealing some of the most memorable mountain views we’ve ever experienced.

Via ferrata route, descending into the mist
First time hooking into a via ferrata in the Dolomites (this route is called "Ra Gusela": a short intro-level via ferrata)
The constantly morphing mist and cloud layers:

Katrina descending Ra Gusela
Blooming spring alpine wildflowers

Phenomenal evening views as the sun began to set
After enjoying the breathtaking views, we eventually arrived at the “mountain hut” where we would be staying that night. Here we were greeted by yet another surprise: other than the castle-hotel we stayed at for our wedding, the Berghotel at Passo Giau turned out to be the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in, with beautiful décor and intricate wood carvings. 
Dining room at the incredibly beautiful Berghotel 
One of many intricate wood carvings decorating the Berghotel

The meals were fantastic, particularly combined with such beautiful alpine views right outside the windows. 
Luxury evening hiking meal!
Our private room also boasted scenic mountain views, and we enjoyed watching a compelling evening lightning show as the promised thunderstorm eventually rolled through later that night.
Evening views outside the hotel

While savoring our excellent evening meal, we overheard one of the other guests commenting about different areas they’d traveled to, eventually concluding that “Nowhere can truly compare to the unparalleled beauty and culture of the Dolomites.”  This surprised us, considering we'd never even heard of the Dolomites before, and wouldn't have thought of visiting if Erik wasn't stationed in Italy.  But, over the course of the brief week we spent in the area, we can certainly understand the Dolomites’ unique appeal. Not only are the mountains themselves extremely scenic – with their unusual mixtures of disparate peak formations and fluctuating weather – but the large network of different style huts, trails, access roads, and chairlifts makes these scenic mountains remarkably accessible to all levels of outdoor enthusiasts: from the extreme climber or mountain biker (or skier in the winter), to a non-mobile tourist who prefers to view the mountains from the car or hotel window. Hiking can be enjoyed as short day-hikes, or via much longer multi-day trips like the Alta Via 1 or 2, without the need for a heavy pack, since excellent meals and showers and ready-made beds can be enjoyed at the various huts along the way.  It would be easy for a group or family to split apart and take routes of different skill-levels before meeting up again at a pre-set place.  And although camping is not permitted, a large variety of huts allows for less expensive, dorm-style accommodation options, in addition to the more luxurious hotels offering private rooms. An abundance of guided trips are available, but there’s also enough info in guide books, websites, and on detailed topographic maps to easily plan self-guided trips (I would highly recommend the Cicerone Guides, such as Trekking in the Dolomites: Alta Via 1and Alta Via 2). And finally, the rich cultural heritage – including regional cuisine, artisan crafts, language, and of course, the quintessential chiming alpine cowbells – adds a further dimension to the area’s appeal.

Indeed, although we’ve spent much time traveling through various mountain areas, we did find the Dolomites to be strikingly different and filled with fascinating discoveries. We would definitely enjoy visiting again for more of this luxurious-style hiking!

* * *

On our second day, we continued hiking along the Alta Via 1 towards Rifugio Passo Staulanza. The clear skies that greeted us the following morning seemed to completely transform the same landscape that we’d passed through the previous day: mysterious and shadowy forms, drifting in and out of view, became solid sun-drenched mountains and valleys, all crisply and cheerfully outlined.
Katrina, as we started off from Passo Giau

Contented alpine cows

Panoramic views near Passo Giau in Dolomite Alps, with the quintessential accompaniment of melodic chiming cow bells:



Rifugio Passo Staulanza, our destination for the second evening

* * *

On our final day, needing to return to our car, we headed out early to hike up Mount Crot and over to the neighboring town of Pescul, where we caught a bus back to Passo Giau.

From Passo Giau, we hiked back up the more south-easterly 452 route back to Averau.

The famous "Cinque Torri" towers, viewed from Averau

Back at Averau, the still-sunny skies allowed us a second chance to climb the level 2 via ferrata ascending Averau Peak.
View from the base of the via ferrata


View from the base of the Averau via ferrata: glimpse of Rifugio Averau, and the Nuvolau peak, including the trail we climbed through covered in mist our first evening

Katrina with harness and lanyard, ready to begin the via ferrata

Michael, also with harness and lanyard, also ready to begin the via ferrata

View into the valley, with Cinque Torri to the right

Beginning the via ferrata

Panorama view, including the iconic "Cinque Torri"

Having successfully reached the top of the via ferrata

Finishing the final scramble up Averau peak (only a small portion of the climb from Rifugio Averau to the peak consists of the aided via ferrata section: it starts with a steep hike, followed by the via ferrata climb in the middle, and finishes with an unassisted scramble along boulders and talus fields to the top)

Dark thunderclouds rolling in, urging us to finish the climb and quickly descend

Averau peak

Views from Averau peak

Michael at Averau peak

Michael above Averau peak

Katrina at Averau peak

Descending from Averau peak

Katrina descending the Averau peak via ferrata: if you look closely, you can see white streaks of hail that began pelting us as we neared the base of the via ferrata

The rain and hail started at the very end of our descent. As the thunderstorm broke over our heads, we retreated into Rifugio Averau and passed a pleasant hour there, enjoying tea and cake and the loud singing of several Italian carabinieri who were also waiting out for the lightning to pass. Less than an hour later, the thunderstorm rolled out just as abruptly at it had rolled in, moving quickly southwards into the valley we'd just left a couple hours before:
Looking back towards Passo Giau, where clear sunny skies had held forth just a few hours before

It's incredible how quickly the weather changes here!
Averau Peak, which was engulfed in dark storm clouds when we summitted it, was suddenly bathed in sunshine and bluebird skies, just an hour later.
The valley before us: again clear and sunny with no more sign of the thunderclouds having just passed through

The thunderstorms, visible as they continue pushing through other portions of the Dolomites

Final view of the iconic Cinque Torri: with yet another version of cloud formations winding about the nearby peaks

With the weather cleared, and opting to skip the Cinque Torri chairlift this time, we hiked along trail #440 back to the car. All in all, a delightful trek!

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