Saturday, 14 August 2010

Alta Via 1 - Italian Dolomites

As usual we had left holiday planning to the last minute, but found a trail running holiday specialist Holimites who would book huts for us and arrange transport from the start and finish of the Alta Via 1. The itinerary that Igor recommended was a day or so longer than we would have liked, but we figured that we could find plenty of diversions en-route.

Small rucksacks packed we set off on a lovely sunny Tuesday morning from a Lago di Braies. We scampered around the lake cheerily greeting the tourists who had piled out of the coaches at the start. We soon started to climb and the crowds thinned and soon we were soon in the wilds of the limestone pavements of trail 28, which was a great diversion and one not listed in our guidebook. The scramble up Croda del Becco made sure we got some stunning views from an elevated spot at 2810m. Arriving at Rifugio Fodara Vedla we were spoilt to have the luxury of en-suite accommodation, a stunning sunset, very friendly cows and a great evening meal.

Day 2 we set out on the steep track down to Rifugio Pederu and then climbed up the rough mountain road to Rifugio Fanes where we played Pied Piper to a herd of goats! The Fanes and Sennes National park is a truly beautiful mountain landscape. Having made good time we decided to take the variant through Val Travenanzes along path 17. The mountain we were heading for looked like a giant chair and the slopes were covered in snow. The going was steep and nobody had ventured that way for some time. We reached the Bivacco della Pace, but then decided that trail shoes were not grippy enough to traverse the snowy ridge. It was clear when we got there that the "Giant Chair" had been partly formed through being blown up during WW1, some of the fortifications were still scattered across the hillside. It was now a long descent down to retrace our steps and a big climb to Forcella del Largo a steep rocky descent to the Largo, made easier by a fine path and then the first sighting, high up in the distance of Rifugio Lagazuoi 600m above us. The final climb was a fitting end to a long day and after the final snow field we reached the refuge and a welcome coffee and cake! This had been a long day, due to our little detour but through a spectacular, wild and rocky landscape.

Day 3 started with a little detour to the nearby peak of Lagazuoi and then down into the Galleria Lagazuoi. As Brits we learn little about the WW1 fighting between Italy and Austria in this hostile mountain environment. The remains of the trenches, gun emplacements and look out posts are testament to the bravery of the soldiers and the hardship they endured must have been horrendous, just as bad if not worse than that suffered by those on the Western Front.

We were then back into the sunshine and wild outdoors and saw the wild landscape that we had missed in Val Travenanzes. We made another abortive detour to Castellato on Tofane as the Via Ferrata looked OK to solo without gear but was already occupied by a couple of quite slow climbers. We made a brief detour (deliberately) to Rifugio Scoiatalli attracted by the crowds singing there and amazed at the skill of the drivers of the cement mixers which were negotiating the mountain track to Rifugio Averau! We ascended to Rifugio Nuvolau, which is one of the best viewpoints on the route. We looked back to see Tofane and Cinque Torri, both distinctive at different scales. The refuge is perched on a rocky outcrop and we made a descent of the scrambly ridge. We were almost put off by a group of blokes in full Via Ferrata gear, but the descent is only a scramble. Our route meant that we descended to Passo Giau and then had a detour up and down to Rifugio Fedare to avoid going on the road.

Day 4 started out with a 250m climb back up the road to Passo Giau looking up towards Rifugio Nuvolau and the Ra Gusela. We soon reached one of the most runnable bits of the route past Forcella Ambrizzola to Forcella Roan and then onto the cowbell welcome at Rifugio Citta di Fume. Monte Pelmo's imposing North Face with it's distinctive Breche was a constant companion. Having been thwarted by snow on Day 2 we enquired at the refuge as to whether the Val D'Arcia was passable, only to be told there was still 2m of snow at the forcella. So we took the route down to Passo Staulanza and then set off to investigate the dinosours footprints at the Orme. After a slippery scramble we found the place where there are over 100 prints dating back 220m years. With our backs to Pelmo we were facing the Civetta, another Dolomite giant and one we needed to traverse to reach that night's resting place. The weather was closing in and we could hear the thunder rumbling in the distance. We descended to Palafavera and then ascended the ski pistes to Casera di Poda. We felt we were outrunning or at least out-walking the storm as it had now enveloped Pelmo. After a steep climb to Rifugio Coldai we were greeted by the beautiful turquoise Lago Coldai, we descended to the banks and tried to capture its beauty with the camera. The thunder was getting louder and the deep grey lowering sky behind us added to the drama as we entered Val Civetta with the vast rockwall of the mountain towering 1200m above us. We still felt we might reach the refuge before the storm reached us, but the going was slow over the snow and scree.

The thunder was echoing off the rockwall above us and the lightening cracking across the sky. Then down came the rain.... and we lost the path. Luckily the visibility was still OK and we scrambled across the scree and boulders to the shoulder where we were heading and found the path again. Soon we found the turn off to the refuge and we were racing up the path, overtaking people and getting wetter and wetter. Near Rifugio Tissi we really did hurry past a chap standing under an umbrella...not good in a thunderstorm! The Refugio was a welcome haven and it was full to bursting with very wet people and kit!

Day5 dawned fine with a curtain of mist and cloud clinging to the faces of the Civetta. We descended along the rest of the valley and watched the climbers on the vertical rock faces. The flowers were beautiful adorned by the raindrops until the sun dried them away. There was good running on the tracks to and from Rifugio Vazzoler.We then traversed around a big bowl towards the Rifugio perched on a wooded outcrop where we stopped for lunch. It was then a short grassy run down to Passo Duran, a favourite day out for hill-climbing cyclists.

Day 6 saw us set off briefly down the road and then take a path traversing below the rocky pinnacles of Cima Moschesin until we reached the Rifugio Pramperet where we stopped for coffee and more delicious homemade cake and contemplated the Cime de Zita which was our next destination following across a wild and rocky bowl. After a detour from the Forcella to the summit we started the long runnable descent to Rifugio Pian de Fontana. It was early afternoon when we arrived and the meadows were strewn with wild flowers, so after dropping our sacs we went on a little detour to one of the flower strewn meadows a couple of km from the refuge.

As we had arrived early we had first choice of the bunks and chose two near the window giving us light and chance to dry our washing. As evening fell we were settled into the main refuge building looking forward to our evening meal. It started to rain, but we were not worried as we were safe inside. Then it began to rain harder and harder and the hailstones got bigger, hammering on the tin roof and then the rain began to seep in through the windows as the wind drove the water against the walls. We realised that we had left the window open in the sleeping barn, but should we go out now? After over an hour the rain abated and our kit and beds were soaked as the rain had driven in through the open window. I have rarely seen such a severe storm. The hut guardians were stars and put on the stove so that we could dry our kit and then found us another bunk in another barn. This was the wettest we had been all week!

Day 7 dawned sunny with the mist rising from the saturated ground. We descended quickly from the hut and crossed the swollen river before a short climb before we started the long descent down to the road through the beautiful Val Vescova a fitting end to a wonderful week in the mountains.

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