I leave the camera-toting crowds behind, following one trail and then another down the mountain’s western face. Twenty minutes and about 1,000 feet later, it’s clear that my over-exuberance has made me miss whatever path I was supposed to follow. A massive ridge in the peak separates me from the route down to my ride, waiting with what I imagine to be ever-increasing impatience in the parking lot below the gondola.
I’d eaten only a bit of fruit that morning, my water is down to a few precious sips, the September sun feels as hot as it does at summer’s peak, and only two options seem viable: Continue, hoping that a narrow, all-metal suspension bridge that I can make out in the distance will actually get me back to my hotel. Or turn around and retrace a punishing near-vertical uphill route back to the gondola. . . .
In truth, disorientation has marked this trip from the start.
Shortly after landing in Venice, I’m driving north, leaving the city’s picturesque canals, gondolas and narrow streets behind without a glimpse. After crossing a vast, featureless plain for an hour, I’m trying to convince myself that there’s method to my madness.
Eventually the landscape hints at what lies ahead, and after navigating the first of many tunnels, I’m instantly transported. Just 100 miles and a world away from Venice, the Dolomite Mountains conquer the horizon.
The first things I see are the peaks that give the region its name: sheer white cliffs that launch into the sky like knife blades. Known as the “Pale Mountains,” they boast a chemical composition dubbed dolomite (stratified calcium magnesium carbonate), deposited more than 230 million years ago when seawater covered the region. The white rocks practically glow in the midday sun. As evening sets, vibrant hues of rose and vermillion explode across the cliffs before surrendering to a deep blue. Then the moon rises and the rock absorbs its ethereal light. At sunrise, it’s all pinks and purples that eventually shift back to the pale of midday.
The Dolomites cover 90,000 acres of the Italian Alps, ending at the Austria-Italy border, and the region boasts a heady mixture of both cultures. The Ladin culture, established when the Romans invaded the territory in the first century, also endures, with its own language and cuisine, such as crisp spinach-stuffed pancakes and barley soup.
World War I brought fierce combat to the Dolomites, and the military routes constructed to supplement the old shepherd paths draw legions of trekkers today. The trails are anchored by a vast network of rifugios, backcountry lodges that offer bottomless glasses of red wine, home-cooked food, a soft bed and morning espresso — as well as the ease of carrying only spare clothes and water during the day.