Epic: Alta Via #2 In Italy’s Dolomites (Part 1 of 3)

Italy, Venice and the Dolomites

Buon Giorno. GrΓΌss Gott. (pronounced Grooss gott).

Italy, Venice and The Dolomites

I have just arrived into Italy’s Venice Marco Polo airport. I am headed up north to the contested border region between northern Italy and Austria known as the South Tyrol, also known as the birthplace of the controversial Reinhold Messner. I am headed for an epic backpacking adventure into the Dolomites.

The destined town is Brixen in German or Bressanone in Italian. Originally part of Austria-Hungary, this area became part of Italy in 1919, after World War I ended and to this day, residents have resisted to some degree by maintaining their inherited langage — it is a bilingual region with 73.13% speaking German.

The intense system of mountains around Bressanone is what is known as the Dolomites. It is the Dolomites that lit Messner’s fire at the tender age of five. It is his incredible accomplishments that in turn lit the fire of many after him.

As a side note, Messner has accumulated mountaineering feats so astonishing he has earned himself the status of the greatest climber in history. He is renowned for an amazing list of accomplishments including first solo ascents on the exhilerating, steep rock faces of the Dolomites, the first to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, and the first to climb all the 8,000-meter peaks.

Messner is a hero to people of all ages and sizes and if you are fortunate to find yourself on some path in the Dolomites you will be amazed by the ease and speed at which the young and the old make their way up and their way down and their way to the very edge of rock ledges stretching even 3,300 metres below.

Buon Giorno! GrΓΌss Gott [Grooss gott]! Hello!

They Set You On Fire – Unique, bizarre, Other-Worldy

Interested in immersing yourself into a world which lasts, perhaps, a blink of an eye in our lifetime? How about immersing yourself into a world that has been described as unique and bizarre and other-wordly, as well as fascinating?

The jagged limestone buttresses and spires of the Dolomites rise high above the conifer forests, verdant meadows and valleys filled with hill-hugging villages. Dawn and dusk in the Dolomites cannot but awaken passion as the presence of calcium carbonate and manganese in the rock causes the mountains to glow in tones of violet, pink and red.

Your emotions will be unleashed and unstoppable for the whole time you immerse yourself.

After one day of climbing 1,500 meters to the first rifugio, I was smitten. I was surrounded by passion to climb and was in awe. I was surrounded by fearlessness for the edge and it is what I still aspire to. The dramatic intensity of the locals and the dramatic intense beauty of this dolomitic region, to this day, draws my mind and soul to those breath-taking moments, when in need of a little escape while sitting back in North America, in my little office, at my little keyboard.

The Challenge

The Dolomites are criss-crossed with foot-trodden routes. Of particular appeal are long stretches known as Alte Vie or high routes, of which their are ten of them. They are routes which have been strung together from ancient mule tracks and military roads and footpaths for the enjoyment of backpackers and hikers. The beauty of these alte vie is that they can be done in pieces, rather than tackling a route in it’s entirety.

The plan is to follow Alta Via numero due (high route number 2) from Bressanone to the Venetian plains of Feltre, a route 185km (115 miles) in length. The beauty of this trip? We don’t have to worry about hiking all day, then worrying about setting up camp, cooking a meal and wondering if we will be able to wash ourselves to start fresh the next morning.

The beauty is — this worrying part is taken away from you by the extensive hut-to-hut system known as rifugios. Be forewarned — English is rarely spoken by the rifugio owners and it is best to pre-book your accomodation by calling each rifugio months before you begin your trip. You will be charged less, you will be assured a cot for the night, and if you arrive late, they may even begin a search for you to ensure your safety.

Before I head down the path of Messner’s world, the only animal to be aware of is the Vipera, also known as Vipers. They are the only poisonous snake in the area. The treatment if you are bitten involves being delivered a series of mini-electric shocks that decompose the venom and alleviate the discomfort. Where appropriate, you may want to hit the ground ahead of you with a stick to send any creepy-looking vipera on its way!

Alta Via # 2 (Part 1 of 3)

Get ready, this may change your world — forever …

My experience backpacking up to this point? Longest backpacking trip prior to this trip was four days in length. I had never experienced hiking on what can be very crumbly limestone mountains. I had never experienced hut-to-hut backpacking — mind you, this certainly doesn’t take getting used to. I had never experienced via ferrate — steep and exposed rock routes which rely extensively on metal cables, rungs and ladders. The greatest elevation change experience to this point was 1200m (4200 feet).

The recommended time to complete the route is two and a half weeks. My husband and myself completed it in fifteen days.

Our trip began being dropped off in the San Andrea parking lot by my wonderful Italian uncle, just outside of Bressanone. At 561 metres, you have a choice to make — take the gondola up to your first of fifteen rifugios or hike up 1500 metres and experience every glorious step of it. For me, the choice was simple — and the absolute right one. You’ll understand why, let’s head off.

Oh, one more thing before we begin this journey. I am on a mission to help make children’s dreams come true — in particular children that are struggling with life-threatening illnesses. Below you will read about a dream I had that became a reality, would you please help me in making the dreams of 10 kids from the Make-A-Wish foundation become their reality? All you have to do is send me some words of encouragement and make a pledge to help. I in turn, will make my way to running a marathon a month this year. At the end of the year, after I complete this dream I will forward you a link with the Make-A-Wish foundation’s payment processing site, to turn this pledge into a donation. Your support would be greatly appreciated, click here for more.

For someone who has an incredibly, intense fear of snakes and now vipere, as we climbed higher and higher and found ourselves three-quarters of the way through to our first night’s rest, I found I couldn’t care less as I dropped to the ground. Backpack still on and way to heavy, I looked back to the now faraway town of Bressanone. I knew we were on the right track, what I had no clue of at this point was the surprise that lay ahead.

As we finally approached the top of the hill to where Rifugio Plose sat, we poked our heads over a wooden fence and our eyes stared out to a blazing fire. This was our first glimpse of what is known as the Dolomites — and we had never seen anything like this before.

The surprise that lay in store for us was this — we had no clue at this point, that what we were looking out at was exactly what we’d be stepping into the next morning. We had no clue at this point, that the intense inferno we were in awe of at that moment, the different ranges of mountains that lay before our eyes, we would be crossing over!

We had just climbed about 1,500 metres with packs that contained far too much. There are no words to explain how much we appreciated washing up, and honestly, crawling over to where dinner was served. To this day, what happened next, has never happened to me before. We were served an incredible soup and half-way through my meal, my head feel over and I fell fast asleep!

Day two was an experience unto itself. As we began our journey through these amazing limestone rocks, we found ourselves sharing our path with sounds of music and the bells and cows that chimed out the melodic tunes.

Fresh and eager and bubbling with excitement and energy, we found ourselves taking the recommended side trips up to the very tips of peaks — like our first one, Sass de Putia. What we had no clue of until this point, was that we’d be experiencing our first via ferrata, that we’d be experience shaking like two leaves as we pulled our way up, way up while looking down at what looked like white rocks, but were actually little village buildings.

What we had no clue of until this point, was that we’d be climbing to our first cross encounter. Our minds wandered in amazement at the view below and at the thought, how did anyone get these two thick, long pieces of wood up here!

Day three began with the same energy and excitement and now wonderment at what lay in store for us today.

Green paths led way to rocky paths, which led way to high passes, otherwise known as forcellas.

We climbed higher and higher and looked down to the ground and the green verdant valleys now far below.

As quickly as that day began, the day ended and we found ourselves crawling on the floor and under cover for some shut-eye with the rest of that day’s crew. While alarming snores and grumbles alerted us through the night, the stay was definitely warm and cozy!

Looking back at day 3, we stepped into day 4 with our first of many sheep encounters.

As the hours passed away, again far too quickly, our stomachs began to grumble as we headed into lunch and the amazing little ski resort of Val Gardena.

We passed cute little store fronts and my first experience with fresh Edelweiss. These beautiful little flowers and leaves are covered with white hairs, appear woolly and are velvet to the touch. They grow wild in this part of the world, and what I didn’t know at that moment, is that a week later I would come across my first wild Edelweiss in a remote corner of some craggy rock deep in the Dolomites.

Day 4 ended with an incredible room with a view in our fourth rifugio known as Rifugio Pisciadu.

The day ended with an incredible sunset while indulging in red wine and fresh spaghetti complete with fresh parmeggiano cheese on the patio. To our surprise, the evening became alive with entertainment of the purist kind — about 1,000 feet in front of our table a group of wild mountain sheep (known as gumps to the locals) began frolicking in play as they scrambled to lick the salt below their feet. I ran up to them, quietly hid behind a rock and watched in amazement as little ones playfully threw themselves down the steep incline.

Day 5 far too quickly appeared. I found myself looking back through the last few days and praying that the days ahead would slow down to a crawl. The thought of this experience disappearing with such speed began to tug at me with pangs of sadness.

So we took aim for another sidetrip and headed up, way up, to our next peak. This peak left me barely breathing, as I looked at what seemed like rocks falling away right below me. This peak left me not even wanting to move for my camera — all I was concerned about at this point? How the heck are we going to get ourselves down from here!

Day 5 was our short day and we rested and planned for the day ahead. The wonderful part of following a well-known route is that your chance meetings with explorers from around the world become expected meetings. As each of you make your way to another evening’s rifugio you end up bumping heads and sharing a drink and reminiscing of this last day’s exploits.

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This was post one of a three-part series on the Dolomites. Ensure you don’t miss the surprises that lie in the next two posts and subscribe to my blog.

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  1. Igor - August 15, 2011

    Very nice report Doris, bus as you walked on 50% of the trail in ladin speaking area (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladin) you have to add also Bun dΓ¨ (=Buon Giorgno in ladin) in your greeting πŸ˜‰

    • Doris Blanchet - August 15, 2011

      Ciao Igor! Mille grazie per il tuo Comment e per il complimento πŸ™‚ Sai perche non ho messo saluti per la lingua Ladin – perche volevo mettere solo i saluti che abbiamo sentito durante i quindici giorni che chaminavemo. Era cosi strano per me sentire tutti i Germanese. Eriamo li per 2 settimane e volevo che il mio marito imparasse un po d’italiano – perche dopo andevamo trovare la mia nonna in One di Fonte – vicino Bassano del Grappa. πŸ™‚ Il mio nome e Doris Ferrarese Blanchet πŸ™‚

      Ti promesso – la prossima volta che vengo – dovete salutarmi in Ladin – per sentire come e pronunciato .. e dopo lo scrivo sul blog. πŸ™‚

      Adesso cambio discorsso – ho visto il tuo blog holimites.com – e magnifico cosa che fai!! Sono molto gelosa che abiti nella quella regione!! E pure hai un lavoro che sfrutta la bellezza della zona!

      Ciao per adesso Igor … (scuzza che ti ho scritto in inglese in non Ladin .. πŸ™‚

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