Alta Via 1

Dolomites, Italy

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Day 1: I can't believe it: after a terrible UK summer we have finally achieved glorious early September weather, when home can be one of the world's loveliest places. But here, as we entered the Dolomites foothills last night, the rain began. And this morning, I peer out from my room overlooking the wonderful Lago di Braies onto dour, steady rain.


Nevertheless, our group strides out cheerfully after a leisurely start, skirting the fantastic shoreline. Even on a definitively overcast day, the lake's shallows are a marvellous turquoise, thanks to the pale limestone below. A sheer tower rises straight from the opposite shore, a path looking like it has been dynamited into it's flank.


At the lakehead we strike uphill, below huge cliffs, winding up between ground-hugging pine and pretty, autumnal birch trees. A few gloomy cattle pick at grassy shreds across the way.


After climbing for perhaps half an hour, we realize that it is snowing – on the 13th September- gradually getting thicker, and very pretty. Even so, a clear view back to the famous lake might have been preferable, thank you very much.


The initially wide gorge narrows and gets steeper, then we are puffing up slippery rock and stones – not quite scree – between cliffs. At the top, we strike right up another steep, wooded hillside.


By the time we break for lunch the snow is thick on the ground, and we shelter under a large pine, the last big one before the tree line.


We emerge into what must be wonderful ground below the end of the Croda del Becco massif. A long climb round its huge cliffs, including a section with chains, gets us into a higher glen, which, again, must be fabulous on a good day: a huge ring of grey, broken cliffs and towers, below which we climb steadily to a col.


On the high ridge the snow is over our boots and we miss the wonderful views entirely; but we can see the Rifugo Biella below us, and clamber down to it in good spirits. The grey-haired keeper laughs when she sees us: three in shorts and the fourth in a skirt. Classic of the mad English genre.


This isn't where we meant to stay, but not to worry. Glühwein and barley soup in their cosy bar bring a rapid onset of wellbeing. We settle down to desultory talk, reading and writing in the fug. Then cards, supper, conversation and an early(ish) night.


Day 2


Up in haste for breakfast at 8 am: given the conditions, we won't try to walk to our planned refuge, so we have only some five hours, walking today, so we have a leisurely departure.


Drippings during the night indicated a thaw, and the morning is dankly misty, snow still thick on the ground. During breakfast, tantalizing glimpses appear of jagged snowy peaks in the distance.


The ladies of the house emerge to photograph our 9 am departure – is it Reggie and Paul in their shorts, or Ali in her skirt, that are irresistible?


What might have been a dreary trudge turns out to be delightful. The slush is a bit slippery, perhaps, but the rocks and ground fir under their snowy blanket are deeply satisfactory. Gradually, more of the serrated ridges, peaks and towers of this magnificent region appear as the cloud thins.


We drop steadily, winding on a long track around the hillside, across a relatively level area of thin forest, before dropping, on a long switch-back, through beautiful virgin mixed pine and deciduous forest, between tremendous cliffs, into the ridiculously perfect, U-shaped Tamerso valley. The snow vanishes stealthily and we are surprised to find ourselves back out of our unseasonal “Winter Wonderland” and into more typical conditions.


After a tedious trudge down a steep, slippery, rock-cobbled, old military track, we have a snack by the river, near the Pederu refuge, which is beset with construction thumping. No wonder it was (inconveniently) closed.


We eat and re-pack briefly by the stream, then set off up the valley toward the settlement of Fanes in its high bowl, a long way above us.


We labour up a steep hillside beside a slightly weird horseshoe of scree from the bottom of which the river bubbles out. At the top is a brief respite, then a clamber onto an ancient rockfall; we wind through huge boulders, the gaps colonized by ground-hugging fir. The valley is wild and grand here, the sides, snowy again, rising steeply to tremendous crags on each side.


The trail drops into a rather charmless stony area– perhaps on an old lake bed? – then joins a rough jeep track to meander above the stream, up the increasingly dramatic gorge. Dead ahead is a smooth, sculpted cliff which gives way to fantastically eroded spikes and scree to the right. How did such incongruities emerge?


Swinging to the left, we enter the magical Fanes bowl. The stream has formed a shallow mini-lake here, among close-cropped grasslands dotted with a few old-looking summer houses – once for the herdsman of the cattle which still graze nonchalantly by the track. We cross the river and are soon at the Fanes refuge, which is comfortable, well-run and really a simple hotel. We drink beer and hot chocolate until returning cloud and a related temperature drop drive us inside. A deliciously hot shower, gemütlich supper and a warm comfortable bed. Perfect.


Day 3


Boring! Today was predicted to be back to clear weather, but, when I peer out of the window of our cosy –positively fuggy – room, it is low cloud and threatened rain.


A good breakfast and an 8:40am departure, as we have a longish day ahead.


A short pant up the ridge behind the refuge gets us to broken ground between high, craggy ridges that appear and vanish again in the cloud that swirls up from behind us. The next hour or so is fabulous walking – a track snaking through meadows and the odd rockfall in the wide valley bottom. What a shame that the views are cloud-veiled, although it does begin to break, revealing tantalizing glimpses of the towers, spires and chasms surrounding us. It is very Chinese. This is all you need – bright sun and empty skies are wonderful, of course, but this delicate, evanescent mystery is ultimately more interesting, and you can understand why it was so beloved of the Chinese painters and poets. I feel better already.


We strike off the track, up the hillside to the east. After an initial climb, we contour delightfully beneath crags to our left. Across the deepening valley below us, the 3,000m complex of rock walls, spires and gulleys that is the Piz Dies Conturines successively revealed and hidden again by some supreme conjuror.


We then plod up to the outstanding Forcella del Lago, a slice cut deep into of the long, sheer spine that snakes down from Cima Scotoni  to the valley far below. The view from this pass is enthralling – an over-used word, but apposite here: a fearsome, narrow gulley plunges, between vast, sculpted rock walls, 1,000 feet to the immaculate little Lago di Lagazuoi on a tiny plateau above another set of cliffs. The zigzag down the loose scree of the gorge is dramatic, and would have been gut-wrenching before the trail was built in 2004.


The path skirts a huge scree slope above the lake, then climbs steadily southward toward the Lagazuoi highlands. It started to rain as we crossed the forcella – we have a quick early lunch huddled under a rock over-hang – and I dream of lying on the lake's sandy little beach on a hot day and dipping my toes in its turquoise waters.


The weather closes in as we toil up, between the remnants of First World War fortifications, beneath the great 4 km long rock walls of Zimes de Fanes and Lagazuoi Grande, on to a platform of bare, broken rock. On the high Lagazuoi pass, gale force gusts pelt rain that seems to go straight through our waterproofs. It is really pretty tough up here. Good map reading from Paul Hadaway gets us on the right track, through some complicated junctions, above a huge drop to the deep, forested, roaded, comfortable-looking valley far below.


A trudge down slopes of rock and rough grazing, with tantalizing views to nightmare spires protruding through the cloud that is filling the Travenanzes valley, gets us to the Col dei Bos. Here a network of trenches and walls in the bare rock proclaim the Italian positions during World War I, directly below Austrian positions on the Castellato outcrop of the enormous Tofana di Rozes. This area saw desperate, bloody fighting, including tunnelling and mining of the Castellato stronghold. It is still raining hard and cold, and we take extra care to avoid a navigation error. Ali is not 100% and Reggie thinly clad. A mistake could be costly.


The path climbs to and then skirts the very base of the enormous Tofana cliff. Vie Ferrate angle up tiny ledges in its face. This would be incredible walking on a fine day, with huge views over the deep valley below us, southward toward the Nuvolau massif and eastward across Cortina. But it is just too cold, blowy and wet to be fun.


We eventually turn southward, below the deadly looking needles to the east of the Tofana. A rough, steep path gets us down to the hugely welcome but dopily run Rifugio Dibona. We are crammed into a room for four, although there is almost no one there, then sit sleepily drinking very rich hot chocolates. These, and a delicious supper, more than make up for our slapdash reception.


Day 4


This is an exceptional day's walking.


We wake to bright sun on the soaring cliffs behind us, the valley far below and distant peaks swathed in mist.


We take off downhill, through gorgeous, fresh, post-storm forest into the deep valley. We cross the main road and start the long, but again delightful, haul up through mixed forest to the Cinque Torri outcrop. The forest thins, and we get ravishing glimpses between the resurgent clouds of the surrounding mountains in their broken, spiky glory.


From the Cinque Torri, a spectacular group of (you guessed) towers, it is a steady trudge to the stupendous mass of the isolated Avelau outcrop. Really quite tired, we repair to the refuge at its base for hot chocolates heaped with cream.


Then it is on up the narrowing spine of Nuvolau, quite quickly reaching the eponymous hut. The view from here is, we are assured, one of the best in the Dolomites, but it is predictably cloudy. We head on south: the small crowd at the top (you can drive to Cinque Torri) vanishes and we see why: we are at the top of a knife edge, a fearsome precipice to each side of a very narrow spine. Cables fixed to the rock show that people really are expected to descend this way, so, after stowing our sticks and pumping up our resolve, we clamber down, one hand on the cable and one on the rock. It is actually fine, as long as you can cope with the drops each side. We step out onto a ladder which seems to drop into the void but turns out to land you on a wideish ledge after 10 rungs or so. Another stretch of cabled clamber gets us, breathless and shiny eyed (from what?) back to a steep but regular path.


A sudden sharp shower overtakes us as we meander through a crazy rock glacier of platforms and crevasses, some we suspect going a long way down, where the vertical strata have been very unevenly eroded.


And then we are at the second section of "assisted" descent, down a steep crevice in another sheer face. Whether it counts as a via ferrata is moot, but it is way beyond what a mere walker would expect to face. As before, the order is Paul, then Ali, both seemingly impeturbable, then Reggie and me, both (speaking for myself anyway) somewhat queasy. It is so steep that the only way initially appears to be outside the cable, on the very cliff edge, and Ali has to launch herself without being able to reach her foot hold. The stretch of dangling ladder - itself uncomfortable in any other circumstances – seems like light relief.


At the bottom, we descend a rough path, still above a big drop, and work our way round to a little ridge between the mountainside and a small, freestanding tower. A very relieved meal (shrunken appetite in my case) is eaten by the reprieved convicts.


There follows a steep descent and then a trudge along the contours to Passo Giau, broken by a snack under a huge boulder which shelters us from a passing shower. This would be pleasant walking but for the drizzle and aftershock of our recent experience.


We reach the comfortable and very enticing hotel at the pass at around 3pm. We had planned to get to a further refuge today, but it would take several more hours, and we are tired. A lovely steamy shower, then some writing. The sunset from the pass is sumptuous: shreds of rising cloud isolate the silhouetted peaks and spires. Elevating.


We eat like kings, revelling in several courses of subtle cooking and some vivid wines: a wonderful variation on the hearty simplicities of the last three nights.


Day 5


Awake at 7:10 for a 7:30 breakfast. Apple strudel – and very good at that hour it was, too. We set off, late as usual, at 9am, with extensive mutual appreciation with the signora of the house.


A delightful hour, winding around verdant hillsides to the sound of cowbells, gets us, with a tough final haul, to the Forcella Giau. The trail snakes between boulders on high grassland under another tremendous line of cliffs, sadly cloud-shrouded most of the time, reaching another forcella with clearly wonderful, but mostly hidden, views across the Cortina valley. Instead we wind (now in rain) above a boulder field, under another cliff, to another col, from which we descend for an hour or more, under the cliffs and spires of the high La Rocheta spine, then through rough pasture and woodland, past soft-muzzled young cows grazing briskly to the eternal jangle of their bells (which only really becomes musical from a distance), to the Citta di Fiume refuge, a delightful old white-walled chalet decorated with flower baskets. We eat deliciously, plan our next steps, and make calls accordingly.


The fun now really begins. We wind, in sunshine, up through beautiful mixed forest, to the cliffs that mark the base of the enormous, dramatic Pelmo massif. We turn off abruptly and climb a 400m cleft between huge, sheer rock walls. This is difficult but thrilling walking, as we clamber up steep scree that has washed down round vast boulders that fill the couloir. After a tiring half hour or so, we pull ourselves on a cable up a final wet rock scramble out of the gulley side. At the top we are drinking and regaining our breath when a glum couple pass us, saying only that it is "difficile" above. We return the compliment. We are now on a long, steep grassy slope, at the top of which we graze, enraptured, into the vast scree bowl of the Val d'Arcia, surrounded by cliffs on three sides and a 300m scree fall on the fourth. Across from us is the gigantic, sheer north face of Pelmo, now soaring clear of the cloud to over 3,000m, and nestling a steep scree-sullied little snow field at its base.


We struggle round the bowl, across fields of smashed rock, then up loose scree to the notch in the cliffs at the eastern end of the bowl that is the Forcella d'Arcia. Another scree couloir drops hundreds of metres between the crazed cliffs of the Pelmo, toward the Cortina valley. With some trepidation we set off down, quite soon getting used to the gliding descent, which would have been huge fun, were it not likely to end in breakages if we were to lose control. The path then starts a long navigation around the base of the eastern Pelmo face. This is thrilling walking, threading, somewhat slippery, above further cliffs, at times so narrow that metal cables anchored to the cliff face are essential to ensure our survival. A couple of outcrops need particularly careful negotiation.


We reach a soft, narrow ridge between a free standing tower and the main cliff-face with some relief. From here on it is steep and slippery, but not dangerous.


We reach the Venetia refuge at 6:30, in fading light. We sit straight down, exhausted, to drinks that lead seamlessly into supper of sausage broth then sausage-meat fritters with cabbage salad. Delicious. Happy, fatigued, meandering conversation and an early night (I stay up to write). The atmosphere is made extra warm by the delightful women who run the refuge. We are almost the last guests – it closes after tomorrow night – and they perhaps have a bit of cabin fever, with an air of quiet desperation to get back down to "real" life – the younger of them is a graphic designer in Belluno. We eat the last slices of the season's last ricotta and chocolate cake.


Day 6


Another long day ahead, as we need to cross the deep Val Posedera, climb to the amazingly sited Coldai refuge and get round the back of the Civetta massif to the Vazzoler refuge.


It is not to be. After an efficient departure from Venezia, with protestations of love with our hostesses, we circle the southern end of Pelmo. It is a glorious morning, the sun slowly melting evanescent, shifting mists. The vast towers immediately above us are briefly illuminated by sudden bright shafts of sun; in a particularly memorable moment, I look up a sparkling stream bed to a band of thick mist. Far above, dimly visible behind the most delicate of veils, a suspended pinnacle, strongly lit against an empty, clear sky that is transformed by the thin mist below into the subtlest of blue-greys. Wonderful.


We are walking through high meadows interwoven with thick patches of ground-hugging fir. The trail is deep mud in places, churned up by the cattle whose bells we occasionally hear. At one stage, Ali, who is walking "point", goes up to her calves in mud and can't get out until she has removed her pack and dug the clinging mud away.


We turn downhill and descend through beautiful mixed forest lit by shafts of precious sunlight, into the deep valley.


To our horror, the chairlift we were looking forward to at the bottom has stopped working (end of season). We sit in the sun and contemplate our next move. We don't particularly trust the expected timings given in our Cicerone guidebook, and reckon we won't get round the Civetta range to Paso Duran by 11am tomorrow to meet our taxi. And my and Reggie's knees are troublesome. So we walk down the road to the blandly comfortable skiing villages of Pecol and Mareson, and check into the comfortable, very friendly Hotel Mae to sleep, eat and read while we await our transport. A very satisfactory self-created surprise end to a walk so exciting and beautiful that it is guaranteed to inspire sublime rumination – even when meeting snow, cloud, wind and rain as we did.

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