Dolo-MITE *PART 2*
We had a roundabout hike path ti start day 4 to avoid a massive drop-off of elevation right at the huts edge. This plus our final plans for the day made it a long and imposing hike for our group. We happily/luckily met up with Kees and Luuk at a pass about 2 hours in and hiked down together to the next valley which took us out of the wild mountains and back to the tourist accessible mountains. The Alps are really incredible in the way they allow, and even provide access for regular Joe’s to get up and explore some of the best places. In the valley we had a lunch and some cards at a splendid patio. We unfortunately had to take off earlier than we’d like because of the lengthy remains of our ambitious day. We convinced the Dutchmen to take Nick’s stick because it would be impossible to take it where we were headed.
From the patio we crossed the mountain road amidst the best fields of wildflowers of the hike, and probably all of our lives… thousands upon thousands of blooms in yellows and whites, purples, periwinkles and fuchsias. Here we reached the via ferrata- iron road. It started with a 20 minute climb section, easy peasy. We got our bearings while completing this first (soon known as) “easy section”, took way to many celebratory pictures and high fived. We walked another 10 minutes to the real deal. Niko and I tried and succeeded to only climb on rocks for the next 3 hours, straight up the face. It was very intense. There was an ever-present immense drop-off below us for nearly the duration of the climb. The climbing path brought us into view of a stunning one hundred foot (or more) waterfall. We wove back and forth sometimes providing more views as we ascended. If you had the guts to turn around, you’d be able to see that we were completely surrounded by different mountainous clusters in the area.
We eventually got to a split with a decision for the really tough climb or the straight up the cliff switchbacks (on foot). It was here that we decided to split up. Athena took the switchbacks while Niko and I decided to continue the climb- and the climbing got real. Niko and I had no alterative but to start using the Iron handholds and wires to ascend. Even one part with an actual ladder, which had been bolted into the looming dolomite boulder side. We finished at a bridge spanning a vertigo-inducing chasm between to towering faces. Known as the rickety bridge, did a little hopping around, but didn’t test the structural integrity too much! (In fact, we decided one person at a time on the bridge, juuuust in case!)
That night’s sleep was at the Piscadu hut, set on a lake and beneath a peak, which would be on the agenda for tomorrow. I ventured out from the hut at sunset to get some pretty cool photos. After an enormous gluttonous feast, we all slept well after the long day.
After our super long day of hiking and climbing we were rewarded with… day 5 aka our longest hike duration of the week (at least there was no VF climbing today though). I had decided based on the recommendation of a Belgian man at the hut (and because it was right there looming over us, calling to me, taunting me) that another mountain peak was within reach. Yeah, it would add some time and energy expenditure, but bagging the peaks was fun & the views were sexy. For me the views were spiritually intoxicating. Performing a slow spin at the top looking for what seemed like thousands of miles in each direction. Zooming in on the snow capped peaks in my mind’s eye. The near certainty of encountering a family of ibex bounding from rock to rock with trapeze like grace, precision and utter disregard of a deadly plummet to the timeless eroded boulder falls of the last million years. Many a night I’ve sacrificed 3 sometimes 4 full hours to indulging my imagination with extreme visualizations of the next day’s adventures. So it was settled, we’d hit the peak.
Now came the hardest part- convincing the others to come with. The Belgian man, with his seeming encyclopedic knowledge of elevations rattled of the precise height of 85% of the peaks in northern Italy to me while I was out snapping sunset shots the prior night. This peak was only ~150 meters above the trail. Well when you put it that way I thought, 150 isn’t a very big number. Practically 100, which is basically nothing. By the time I decided to suggest it to the group, I’d convinced myself that we’d actually be going downhill to bag this peak. It was a “walkers peak” he had said, so that’s what I led with to Athena and Niko. Reality proved otherwise of course and after 45 minutes of not walking but clambering, often with both arms involved, up the mountainside in the steadily increasing heat of the sun, I was losing them. Niko was itching to go continue work on the magnum opus of whittled hiking staffs, which no doubt seemed to him a logical conservation of vitality for the remainder of the day. We did have a long day remaining, who am I to come between a boy and his beloved stick. It made him happy and was the right call. Athena “I hate elevation gains” Henzler was ready to drop out as well but had no stick at the bottom, so she was stuck with me. I had hit 2 peaks already and really wanted to share the experience with her. If I could just get her to the top she would understand. (Déjà vu to the all uphill proposal hike in NZ) We kept going, me excited, Athena pushing through her pain, which I very much appreciated. In these situations I’m a tightrope walker. I’ve errored in the past with both encouragement or by issuing a challenge- the best thing I’ve found is to promise chocolate at the top- but I had none. So I resort to the next best tactic I’ve got, silence. We finally crested the hill and as we had hoped, it was pure unadulterated optical bliss as far as the eye could see. Exactly like I had imagined it, except for more real, and simultaneously more surreal. Enough open space in front of us in all directions to let your mind drift and subconsciously, just for a second, consider the likelihood of sprouting wings just after you took a full speed running leap off the cliffside to explore the Tolkienesque landscapes below and beyond. Double down on internal promises to take up hang gliding, base-jumping and/or paragliding… Shit, shake it off, time to bring it back to Earth.
Sharing the views, the feeling of being the highest common souls on the continent is a really special experience. One that I hope to repeat again and again. It’s difficult to admit that you need to descend. A physical commitment to more exertion and a mental departure from a pinnacle in so many senses of the word. We crossed over a few alpine plains, devoid of most everything but barren rock for the next couple of hours. The guidebook had mentioned this as a possible ibex stomping ground but the only life we saw was massive tour hiking groups at the edges of their day hike range. That and heat wave lines rising off of the rocks. Aside from a 10 minute via ferrata section that we didn’t even bother to clip in for, it wasn’t anyone’s favorite stretch of the day. The VF was exposed, but footing was super solid so we plowed right through. We pounded on and ultimately arrived to a shortcut. It didn’t take much discussion to decide we’d take a 20-minute lift down to the valley floor. Our knees thanked us for avoiding the 2,000 ft. descent through scree switchbacks.
At the bottom we ran into the Dutchmen again who were planning an elaborate plan involving hitchhiking (times 2) and pizza. Their goal was to make it to the same area as us for the night. Group morale was not at an all time high at this point as our compatriots left for pizza and we decided to soldier on, but our pace dictated this move. Thankfully our next 2 hours were bordered with flat terrain and some fantastic views of the Dolomite’s tallest peak- if it had been more barren rock wasteland there might have been a mutiny. We arrived to the lakeside Castiglioni hut where we had yet another fantastic meal. Quarters weren’t luxurious, but they were plenty comfy for 3 tired hikers.
We woke up on our last day and had a hearty breakfast and immediately started discussing the plan for the day. Another via ferrata, rated harder than our first. Whereas our first climb was rated a 3b, this was a 4b. Both were estimated to take 5-7 hours, so it was a serious commitment. We ran into a bit of an impasse where I was the only one who wanted to get to it right after our 9am breakfast (an early departure was imperative because of a possible afternoon thunderstorm). The via ferrata would start after a 2 hour hike to the ridgeline. I can’t blame anyone for not being too keen on that, but Niko and Athena also didn’t want me going solo- also understandable.
Enter the Dutchmen! We were wondering where they had gone to and we now learned that despite the open beds in our bunkroom, they were turned away late last night. Perhaps it was a smell issue? (The additional speed required to make up for hitchhiking and pizza may have resulted in significantly more perspiration) But they were here now. Kees, always a gamer, decided to come with and would borrow one VF setup. Luuk would hang back.
Kees and I set an aggressive pace up to the ridge and banged it out in 40 minutes flat, Booyah! We scarfed down some honey bread for energy and strapped on our gear then got to the XXXX meter ascent straight up the face. Everything I had read said the first XXX of this VF was the most difficult and it proved accurate. The rock was solid though; with ample handholds and before long I was back to my game of avoiding the iron stemples and wires and climbing only on rock. As we ascended the views kept getting better to the highlight of the route, an antiquated wire and board bridge spanning a gap in the rocks with massive views in every direction, including down. The blood was pumping, adrenaline was up, and this was why we were here! We snapped a ton of panoramic shots in every direction and cruised on through some more decently challenging climbing. The next milestone we’d be encountering was the WWI tunnel blasted right through the center of this ridge, essential to the Austrians and Italians during their rugged clashes in this area. They’d also prove essential to us today as we busted out our headlamps and explored. We knew which direction to go, but not which tunnel would take us there so there was plenty of backtracking. It was historic, it was eerie, and it was very cool. Also very cool was the fact that we had helmets from our climb because I had 5 or 6 solid bashes avoided, thanks Petzl. I can only begin to imagine what it was like spending days, weeks or months in these damp, lamp lit tunnels, looking out the sentry holes to opposing peaks, facing possible mortars or worse- mine warfare. Apparently, the Italian and Austrian armies would actually burrow mines under each other’s strongholds within the mountain and then blast them, collapsing the tunnels upon themselves. Terrifying to say the least. We eventually made our way through- the funniest part of the tunnels certainly being encountering a sheep chilling/chewing away on something inside of an isolated lookout sentry post under the mountain. Backlit by the rays of sun coming in, he confronted us with his blank sheep eyes looking so serious. It was impossible not to laugh. We headed back down and met up with the group for what would be our last night on the trail.
Drinks were had and we celebrated our completion with some cards, “Asshole” was the game and we played until they turned off the lights on us that night. A great ending to the day and overall hike. Over our six days we had some great times. We saw enough peaks, views and wildflowers for me to confidently anoint it the most scenic hike of my life. Not a small honor to bestow on a trail in my humble opinion. Athena and I saw Niko more uninhibitedly excited than ever, or at least in a long while. (We even got him to sort of commit to future hikes with us!) We made new friends, worked our butts off, laughed a ton and no one got hurt. Couldn’t have drawn it up any better if I had planned it myself!
Post Script: learned later that NONE of the pano shots we took on Kees’ phone from the 2nd VF had processed, a major bummer. I guess we might need to come back and tackle this section again, any takers?