High on the Dolomites

  • Article by: NATHAN BORCHELT , Washington Post
  • Updated: October 8, 2011 - 5:54 PM

Hiking in Italy's 'Pale Mountains,' along routes established by World War I soldiers, leads to some of the most stunning Alpine scenery in Europe.

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 follow one trail and then another down the mountain's western face. Twenty minutes and about 1,000 feet later, it's clear that my 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 uphill route back to the gondola.

In truth, disorientation has marked this trip from the start.

Shortly after landing in Venice, I leave the picturesque city behind without a glimpse. After crossing a vast, featureless plain, eventually the landscape hints at what lies ahead. 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 vermilion 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.

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, back-country 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 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 a trim figure that reflects her love of rock climbing, spent her childhood hiking and horseback riding on her family's estancia in Argentina's Patagonia and then attending school in California. But her first trip to the Dolomites changed everything. 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. 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. 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. 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.

•••

On the day I am destined for 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. Rifugio Lagazuoi stands like a visual invitation atop the adjacent peak.

We agree to meet at the gondola parking lot below the rifugio. Purple and yellow wildflowers line a trail that leads to switchbacks that eventually deposit me on the rifugio's massive deck. There, 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 and the panoramic views, I opt for the hike. First over the short peak behind the rifugio, then onto what I think is the right path. Instead, I wind up on the wrong side of a vertical rock fin that stands between me and the parking lot.

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.

  • related content

  • Climbers in the Dolomites.

  • IF YOU GO

    From Venice, it's about 100 miles north to Cortina d'Ampezzo, a good base camp for exploring the Dolomites region. For more information on Dolomite Mountains tours, go to www.dolomite mountains.com.

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