High on hiking in the Dolomites


A view of the valley and surrounding peaks between the Col Dei Bos via feratta and Rifugio Lgazuoi. (Nathan Borchelt/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 9, 2011

Call it an Alpine fever dream. Or disorientation from a nearly utopian week in Italy’s vertiginous, bone-white Dolomite Mountain region, hiking through verdant valleys and along exposed ridgelines, dining on impeccable rustic fare and drinking too much red wine. Or just chalk it up to childlike enthusiasm mixed with overconfidence.

Whatever it is, after hiking 1,500 feet to the top of Mount Lagazuoi and admiring the panoramic views of the cliffs jutting into an azure sky and the narrow Falzarego Pass far below, I decide to skip the gondola ride down — the easy way to the valley floor — and elect to hike instead.

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.

But the reason I left Venice behind is the via ferrata. Italian for “iron road,” the term refers to the network of ropes and wooden structures that Italian and Austrian soldiers built during World War I to ease their passage over the mountains. Iron ladders, cables and suspension bridges now line these routes, affording easy access to some of the most dramatic Alpine scenery in Europe.

As I reach the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo, I can see ribbons of snow on the higher-elevation peaks. Farther below, dense pine forests grow as close to the rock face as biology allows, tufts of moss trying to climb the vertiginous peaks. The jagged mountains of Tofana, Cristallo and Sorapis dwarf the town, and I feel instantly overwhelmed by the Dolomites’ sheer magnitude.

Thankfully, I have someone to help me out.

Agustina Lagos Marmol, a dark-haired woman with olive skin and a trim figure that reflects her love of rock climbing, was destined for the Dolomites. After a childhood spent hiking and horseback riding on her family’s estancia in Argentine Patagonia and then attending school in California, she became a tour operator for the luxe outfit Butterfield and Robinson, which brought her to the Dolomites in 1994. That’s where everything changed. One climb in the region and it was all over — in 1996 she founded her own tour operation, Dolomite Mountains.

While we review my itinerary for the next five days — biking, hiking and via ferrata; overnights in rifugios and boutique hotels in mountain villages — I start to wonder: With all this so close to Venice, where is everyone? The Dolomites seem empty.

Agustina tells me that August is peak season. In Cortina alone the population balloons from 5,000 to 60,000, and the same thing happens during the ski season.

But in fall and spring, the mountains remain almost eerily silent.

The dearth of crowds makes me feel as though I’m in on a well-kept secret. That’s reinforced the next day on a bike ride with Agustina’s colleague. We start off easily, pedaling on the bike path behind Cortina before an uphill grind that leads to a pristine overlook.

From here the town looks toy-like, as though painstakingly assembled by some overzealous child who covered every space on the valley floor with Tyrolean structures. We pedal farther into the mountains, past a waterfall and over a bridge, then above the treeline across a wide, rock-strewn basin framed by white cliffs.

The only time we see other cyclists — other people, for that matter — is when we stop for lunch at a rifugio. Turkey panini, cold beer and crisp mountain air.

The next day, Agustina and I head out for a two-night trek. An uphill slog takes us through clumps of trees whose pale-green leaves hint at the brilliant yellows that will blanket the mountains when they reach their autumnal peak at the end of September.

After hiking through the saddle between two peaks, we drop into another valley, leaving Cortina behind. At noon we stop at Malga Cavalli, a modest wooden structure with a porch overlooking the surrounding ridgeline that juts from the basin we’ve just traversed. The simple meal is perfection: dried sausage and gherkins sourced from the local farms and fresh bread, all washed down with a tangy mixture of beer and lemonade, a Dolomite staple.

From there, we hike deeper into the Dolomites. Switchbacks through a scree field lead to a narrow trail carved into a 50-degree slope. Cables anchored into the rocks appear whenever the 100-foot drop seems too close for comfort; members of the Italian Alpine Club maintain all the trails, and they know where to add a bit of reassurance. We reach the ridgeline and continue down the path, where cranberry-colored lichen grows in the thin cracks in the rock.

The route takes us into another valley, past other rifugios, Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind. Weather is starting to come in, the clouds graying out the once brilliant sunlight. But not before we reach Rifugio Fanes. The more spartan rifugios are run by the Italian Alpine Club, but Fanes is privately owned, a three-story stone-and-wood structure nestled in a narrow valley. We drop our packs, kick off our hiking shoes and, drinks in hand, watch the clouds envelop the pines on the ridge. We shower and then dine on handmade gnocchi and house red. Sleep comes in a silent wave.

I awake to a steady drizzle, and as we hike out, Agustina suggests a change. Instead of hiking to Rifugio Lagazuoi, we’ll loop back to the car and overnight in the town of Val Badia.

The suggestion proves prescient. On the way to town, we stop at Lagazuoi for a late lunch. The rifugio sits at the top of Mount Lagazuoi, affording spectacular panoramas of the Dolomites — or so I’m told. We ride the gondola up to the lodge from Falzarego Pass, but clouds cover everything. A total whiteout, forecast to last at least 24 hours.

“Two things you can’t control,” Agustina jokes as we eat a plate of beet ravioli. “Women and the weather.”

The next day, Agustina hooks me up with a group of U.S. tourists on a 10-day hike through the Dolomites. We collectively brave the drizzle to traverse up to the Santa Croce Sanctuary, a somber white church built in 1484. As we hike up, we pass parishioners returning from the church, their prayers audible before they appear out of the mist. Later, we retreat to the warmth of Ranch Andre, a simple restaurant near the church. Hearty portions of nettle soup, polenta and spinach ravioli are served by a waitress whose warm smile and inviting eyes make me swoon — as if I need another reason to love the Dolomites.

And I still have to visit the via ferrata.

I wake to sunlight and crisp mountain air. Fluffy cumulus clouds snag in the trees lining the lower mountain slopes. The white peaks jut victoriously into the azure sky.

I meet my guide, Marcello, Agustina’s ex-husband and another person whose physique speaks to an epic love affair with the mountains, and head to the via ferrata route Col Dei Bos.

Think of the via ferrata as assisted rock climbing: the thrill of the ascent minus that all-too-real fear of falling, thanks to cables mounted to posts anchored into the rock. You wear a helmet and a climbing harness with two carabiner clips attached to the harness via ropes. Fix one clip to the cable and start climbing. When you reach the point where the cable meets the post, clip the spare carabiner to the next section of cable, remove the other clip, and keep moving.

The climb goes smoothly, with plenty of hand- and footholds. We hit a playful rhythm. Clip, unclip, climb. Farther up, I see dots of color, other hikers farther up Col Dei Bos. With each step, the terrain becomes more exposed, my faith in the climbing harness more secure, and the views surrounding me — the sinewy road on the valley floor, the fading green of the pines, the near-vertical cliffs on all sides — improve exponentially.

At the top, snow-covered Marmolada Glacier, the tallest point of the Dolomites at 11,000 feet, stands in dramatic relief against its rocky base on the other side of the valley.

In less than an hour it’s over — but I’m not ready to leave.

Marcello tells me to keep hiking. Lagazuoi, the rifugio swallowed by storm clouds two days before, stands like a visual invitation atop the adjacent peak.

We agree to meet at the gondola parking lot. I head out into a small saddle as Marcello returns to his car. Purple and yellow wildflowers line a trail that leads to switchbacks that eventually deposit me on the rifugio’s massive deck.

Agustina hadn’t exaggerated. From Lagazuoi’s position, the entirety of the Dolomites unfolds before you, a visual symphony of forest, rock, clouds, snow and sky. I pause to drink in the views, and weigh my options: ride the gondola or return on what should be a quick downhill hike.

Still drunk from the climb, from the panoramic views, from that waitress’s smile, I opt for the hike. First over the short peak behind the rifugio, then onto what I think is the right path. I head down, following the well-marked routes, and reach a trailhead. One way leads into one of the many tunnels that honeycomb the Dolomites, another feature built during World War I. With no head lamp, I go the other way, my stride wide and footfalls confident — until I realize that in my joy, I’ve managed to get on the wrong side of a vertical rock fin that now stands between me and access to the parking lot. I try to traverse to the right, hoping that I’ve missed a trail head. Instead, I end up near another valley, where a narrow suspension bridge — another via ferrata — arches across to the next mountain.

Maybe I could go that way, head farther north. The trails might lead back to my hotel.

Instead, I take a large bite of humble pie, wash it down with the last of my water, and start back up the 1,000 feet to the gondola that I should have taken in the first place.

An hour later, I’m in the parking lot, exhausted. I can’t find Marcello.

“He waited for you for a few hours,” Agustina says when I phone. “He thought you might have hiked back to town. Why not hitch a ride?”

I tell her that I’ll grab a bus. The bus never comes. I’m organizing a cab when Agustina calls.

“I’m on my way to dinner and can pick you up, no problem,” she tells me.

“I’ll wait in the parking lot,” I reply, still raw from the hike and relieved that respite is in sight.

“Wait at the bar.”

Smarter words have never been spoken. By the time Agustina arrives, the beer has washed away the embarrassment of getting lost in one of the best-marked hiking regions in Europe.

Agustina asks why I didn’t hitchhike.

“I tried,” I reply. “But I think it’s much easier for an attractive Argentine fluent in Italian to get a ride than it is for a sunburned American who speaks next to no Italian.”

“True,” she replies, smiling.

I smile back. Even with the comical missteps of my final day, the Dolomites still leave me feeling lucky.

Borchelt is a Washington-based travel writer and photographer.

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