Hiking in the Dolomites

I spent a week in the Dolomites (The Italian Alps) in the first week of June 2009. This is my diary of a lovely experience and is best read together with the photos at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/bobbystodel

Saturday 30th May

My holiday was booked through Colletts (www.colletts.co.uk), a British company, who rent ski chalets in the Dolomites in the summer and then run daily walks. I arrived from Gatwick by plane at Venice airport at 16h00 to be met by a young couple from Collets. We waited for another passenger, Philippa, who eventually arrived after registering the non-arrival of her luggage. We picked up a couple, Ian and Pat, from Treviso airport and headed north to the Dolomites. The trip took about three hours.

Colletts are based in three villages Arabba, Corvara and Pedraces which are west of Cortina and south east of Innsbruck (over the border). Corvara is ten kilometres over the Campolongo Pass from Arabba with Pedraces a further seven kilometres down the valley. This area was part of Austria until after the First World War and the architecture is quite alpine and Austrian. I assume that there are planning controls that ensure that the style is maintained. We dropped Philippa in Corvara and then arrived at Haus Valentin in Pedraces, which is within the Municipality of Badia (Abtei in German). Badia is one of five Ladin speaking communities in Italy with 94% of residents speaking Ladin at home and the remainder speaking Italian (3%) and German (3%). The area is completely focused on tourism with 3,000 residents and 900,000 tourist bed nights each year.

Haus Valentin is a purpose built chalet with eighteen en-suite bedrooms for 32 guests, a bar lounge and a dining room. It is staffed by Greg, Bryony, Kat, Kieron, and Jenny who are all in their twenties and British and Australian. Greg and Bryony worked here for Colletts last year while this is the first season for the other three. They had a few weeks training before the season began. Unusually for Collett’s chalets the cooking is done by the resident Italian owners Monica, Reiner and Christina. Breakfast and dinner are provided and packed lunches can be ordered. My room is comfortable with a beautiful view of the Fanes Massif. Apparently a mountain becomes a massif when it is higher than 3,000 metres above sea level.

The main massif in the area is the Sella Massif. The road route around the Sella Massif is 54kms long and passes through both Corvara and Arabba and goes over the Campolongo, Pordoi, Sella and Gardena Passes. Pedraces is about 1,200 metres above sea level. The area is renowned for its ski slopes and there are seventeen ski lifts. Most of them are closed at the moment but will reopen in June.

We arrived at about 20h30 and were pleased that they had kept dinner for us. We enjoyed a four course dinner of salad, goulash soup, chicken, sausage and pepper kebabs and apple strudel.

There was a complete change over of guests today with a total of eight guests arriving during the day. Besides me the other guests, all British, are:

Ian and Pat – married for 49 years without children

Lynsey and Abbi – Married for 42 years with three children. This is their fifth stay at Haus Valentin.

Pat P, Penny and Nikki – Three women in their late fifties and early sixties who worked together as social workers in Leicester and who leave their husbands once a year to go walking.

Sunday 31st May

I was told that as I was the only guest who had registered to do the high level walk, Crep De Sella, the walk was cancelled. They feel for safety reasons there needs to be at least three people, including the leader, on any walk. Most of the guests were put off doing an organised walk because of the steadily falling light rain. I elected to join Lynsey and Abbi on the easier walk to Vallunga Valley. They offered me a lift in their hire car and we followed Bryony and Jenny through Corvara and up the Gardena Pass. Halfway up the pass we conferred, as snow was falling heavily, and agreed to abandon this walk. After a coffee in Corvara we set off from the village on the Ru de Pisciadu walk along the base of the Crep de Mont face of the Sella Massif. The walk was 8kms long with a height gain of 170 metres and took 3.5 hours. I was not prepared for the 5°C temperatures but fortunately warmed up as we walked. The rain had eased off and only returned just before the end of the walk. The scenery was completely chocolate box with a gently rising track between pine trees, above the fast flowing Ru de Pisciadu River and with mountain cliffs rising steeply above us. Small streams flowed off the mountain as well as a fast and heavily flowing Pisciadu Waterfall that tumbled from 1,000m above us. There was a Germanic orderliness to the maintained track, the benches every 300m, the picnic tables where we ate our packed lunch and an isolated toilet hut. We headed back over pastures that looked like a golf course and the gravel path we followed along the mountain between Colfosco village and Corvara even had street lights. This was a delightful walk but was not the demanding walk I had hoped for.

This is the beginning of the walking summer season and the remaining snow is an issue. As a general rule the snow line is at about 2,200m with snow extending to lower levels in valleys and on northern slopes.

We returned to the chalet and chatted to the other guests who had walked around Pedraces, before most people disappeared for an afternoon nap. I spent some time studying maps and the route descriptions for the walks planned for the rest of the week.

Every evening between 6 and 7 there is office hour when the staff talk about the walks planned for the next day as well as other alternatives. Tonight someone presented on Via Ferrata or VF. VF are routes at high levels where movement is normally by being clipped to wires and using ladders and bridges. All VF routes have highly exposed sections. VF participants wear harnesses with karabiners and helmets. VF was initially set up for leisure purposes in the early 1900’s but was significantly extended by troops in the First World War. VFs are graded from horizontal routes through to challenging vertical routes. Colletts offer VF routes a few times a week but none of us were interested in doing VF.

We had dinner of salad, lasagne, veal and ice cream and then played Scrabble.

Monday 1st June

What a dramatic difference! Greg, Anna (24 year old staff member from Corvara) and I climbed Col di Lana which was a 7km walk (it felt far longer!) with a 770 metres height gain to a height of 2,462m. It was a long drive as it is about seven kilometres past Arabba. We started easily up a forestry track though the pine forest and then emerged into the open and went up and up. It was a lovely day, with occasional clouds, great views and a temperature of about 12°C. It took us almost three hours to the peak where we found ourselves surrounded, at a distance, by a huge number of peaks – absolutely fantastic! The peaks were all covered with snow and in the distance we could see the Austrian Tirol.

I learnt that Greg was 30, had obtained a business studies diploma and then worked as a psychiatric care assistant for almost ten years. After working in the NHS in secure units and other psychiatric wards and then in the community for a residential care charity he had resigned a year ago when a long relationship also ended. He spent last summer with Colletts in Corvara and had spent the winter as a snow board instructor in Canada.

I also learnt that Colletts were facing a difficult season financially. Their expected bookings this year are down to 3,500 from 4,500 last year and the Euro is dramatically stronger. Their expenses are principally fixed in Euros while their variable income is entirely in sterling. Their staffing levels in this area have almost been halved from last year. It is an interesting business study as this year they will probably have a lower profit than when they had only 1,000 bookings in a year.

Col di Lana was on the front line between the Italian and Austrian armies in the First World War. Besides affording unequalled artillery observation of the Italian hinterland it was also a major obstacle to the strategically important Puster Valley with its railway from Lienz to Brixen and thence to Bozen and Innsbruck. Since the beginning of hostilities with Italy on the 23rd May 1915, the Austrians had held the peak. The Italian engineers started digging from the south west of the peak and took four months to construct a tunnel 52 metres long beneath the mountain which inclined up the mountain at a slope of 15 degrees. The 5th company of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Tyrolean Kaiserjäger regiment holding the peak was relieved by the 6th company during the night of the 16th/17th April 1916. On the following night the Italians detonated a mine in the tunnel containing 5,020 kg of explosive and blew the peak off creating a 30m wide crater, killing about 100 Austrians and causing the remainder to surrender. A church was built at the summit to commemorate the event. The mountains are riddled with tunnels, trenches are found in many places, mortar holes are common and shell remnants are found often.

While we ate our lunch on the summit five other parties arrived, looked around and left by the way they came. Mad dogs, Englishmen and we took a different route along a ridge. We walked through trenches and wore head torches to explore some tunnels with holes in the cliff face used by cannon. However, most of the 500m ridge was very exposed and had a fixed wire to hold on to. I was apprehensive about this but decided to try it. Of course it was initially acceptable but then got steadily more exposed. Eventually I was holding on to the wire with both hands and not daring to look around at all but kept my eyes on my boots. I was scared and very uncomfortable but hoped that it was easier to finish than return. The route descended a little with huge exposure leaving me holding with both hands on to the wire, leaning back and moving backwards as I walked down sloping rocks. In a fragile state I nearly burst into tears when the wire disappeared into the snow on a neck on the ridge. Greg took my pack and we clung to rocks as we descended lower down on the snow field so that we could cross it. Greg then kicked steps into the snow which I slavishly followed. It should be said that I was the only one battling as the other two skipped along, completely trusting in their boots to keep them safe on the rocks and snow. Eventually, to my great joy, we finished traversing the ridge and started our descent on loose shale but with far less exposure.

We turned and returned on a contour path along the length of the mountain and I relaxed thinking that it would be easy going. But then we came to a small valley and the path disappeared again into the snow. This happened five times with snow crossings of between five and twenty metres. Greg would once again kick steps into the snow and I would gingerly follow, trying to ignore the slope below. The fifth snow field was only five metres wide but with the biggest incline. I decided to cross on my bottom. As my weight went from my boots they lost traction and slipped from under me. I flipped on to my stomach and started sliding fast. Greg dived after me; grabbing my shirt and pushing me into the far side of the snow field about seven metres down. I clung on to the grass verge while Greg tried to persuade me to trust my boots and stand up. Somehow I clawed my way back to the path. Very shaken I was happy to see the back of the snow field. The rest of the descent was then relatively easy. We got back to the van six and half hours after leaving quite drained and tired. The other guests at Haus Valentin, who had walked gently through flower meadows, enjoyed my story.

We had dinner of salad, vegetable soup, beef burgers and tiramisu. We all played a trivial pursuits type game before retiring to bed for a well earned rest.

Tuesday 2nd June

We drove to Arabba and did the Pinnacles walk from there. It is 6kms long with a 640m height gain and it took us 4.5 hours. The group was led by Bryony and also included Pat P, Penny, Nikki and Lynsey. It was an easy initial climb out of the village, across alpine meadows with lots of flowers. The main climb was along a dirt track, under a ski lift from Refugio Plan Boe to Refugio Bec de Roces. A refugio is a restaurant in the mountains intended for use by skiers. Both these refugios were closed. As we climbed we were aware of the Pinnacles of rock above us. It was a sunny day with regular threats of storm clouds and a wind that chilled things down from the 14°C temperature in the village. From the Refugio Bec de Roces we took an unmarked rocky and bushy path up towards the Pinnacles. As we passed the northern side of the Pinnacles we came across about eight snow fields varying in length from 3m to 30m. These were generally in hollows and so the implication of falling was not significant. We crossed them without a problem. We had some beautiful views between the Pinnacles. We then continued upwards to a point about 100m above the Pinnacles where we sat and ate our packed lunches. We had been hiking for about 2.5 hours. At this point we were still below the upper cliffs of the Sella Massif and the Piz Boe summit. As we ate our lunch we looked south across Arabba and beyond to the Marmolada Glacier, which is the only glacier in the area. The amazing thing was that peak of the glacier was almost a mile higher than our altitude at that point. With binoculars we could see a VF bridge in a very exposed position high on the glacier. It is very difficult to convey the absolute splendour of the scenery with ranges of snow covered mountains visible in every direction on every walk.

We saw some wildlife on this walk. The main animal we saw was marmots (Similar in size, appearance and behaviour to South African dassies). We also saw three different types of small antelope. They were all at a distance with one of them very high on the rocks. There were very few birds.

We then descended on a steep, and at times exposed, path. It was hard going because I had to watch my feet all the time to ensure that I did not slip. It did help me to focus my mind away from the exposure when it occurred. There was a lot of loose scree which made it more difficult. After about an hour we came round to the bottom of the ski lift and followed a track down to Arabba. This should have been easy but I was tired and my knees were hurting a lot. I had also not tied my boots tight enough so my toes kept hitting the end of the boot resulting in two black big toe nails. I was pleased to limp into Arabba and have an ice cold beer and apple strudel at Café Peter. I enjoyed my afternoon nap.

Dinner was salad, spaghetti aglio olio (a favourite of mine), chicken curry and melon. We then played the game of removing wooden rectangular blocks from a block tower with the loser being the one who caused the tower to collapse. After two games and lots of shouting everyone else headed for bed while I wrote this record.

Wednesday 3rd June

The staff has every Wednesday off so no walks are organised. I was ready for a rest from walking so I caught a bus to Brunico, a town 25kms to the north and at a lower altitude out of the mountains. A street market was operating opposite the bus station so I wandered through the mainly clothes and food stalls which weren’t very interesting. I walked on past the very modern new municipal offices and on to the old town which is centred around a long pedestrianised shopping street. There was a delightful atmosphere of old buildings, street cafes, bicycles and people chatting. At 22°C this was the warmest it had been since my arrival. At the end of the street, behind a big church I found the most interesting graveyard I have ever seen. Space was clearly at a premium and the intricate headstones were close to each other with each grave appearing to accommodate several generations of the same family. More ornate graves were in the cloisters on the side. The graves were all well tended with growing flowers. A few people were tending graves as I wandered. There was even a special area where watering cans were stored and could be filled. A public walkway went through part of the graveyard resulting in a lot of activity. I climbed the hill to the old castle but couldn’t gain access as it seems to have been converted to apartments. I returned to the old town passing another interesting church and then found very modern houses packed in between very old houses. This is clearly a thriving town with a very good standard of living for its inhabitants. A gentle stroll along the river, a pizza at a sidewalk café and then back on the bus to Pedraces. That evening the guests all went to a local restaurant and I had spaghetti aglio olio and apple strudel (the best so far).

Thursday 4 June (election day in the UK)

Lynsey and I were going to do a long high level walk today with Jenny. However during the night my foot became very sore and so I declined to go which caused that walk to be cancelled. During the descents on Monday and Tuesday my foot had gone over a few times without causing me any pain but possibly causing some inflammation. Some hours later during this morning I concluded that the pain was a recurrence of gout which I had a year ago. The excess uric acid in my system has gone to the inflamed area in my foot and created crystals which hurt. I took anti-inflammatory tablets after breakfast and tied my boots very tight.

Greg led Lynsey, Abbi, Pat P, Penny and I on the Two Lakes walk from the chalet which was 7kms long with 250m height gain and it took us 3.5 hours at a very slow pace. Soon after we left the chalet we were in open Alpine meadows with beautiful flowers and lovely views. We meandered along gently rising forest paths and arrived at a lake with the huge Puez Odle Mountain towering above us. Abbi walked very slowly which caused us to have lots of stops. We wandered on through the forest. It was absolutely idyllic with lots of rocks in between the trees. There was one steep section of about 250m but otherwise the walking was very easy. We had lunch at the second lake, were disappointed that the restaurant there was closed (so no strudel) and then took an easy track through the flower meadows. We came across a house with huge cast iron statutes in the adjacent fields before getting back to the chalet.

Relaxed in the afternoon reading and napping. Had dinner of salad, soup, pork fillets and apple rings in batter. All eight guests did a quiz for two hours with lots of teasing and laughs.

Friday 5 June

Today was the best walking day. Kat and Bryony led Lynsey, Pat P, Penny, Nikki and me on the Pra D’Armentara walk. It was 16kms long with a 450m height gain, a descent of 1,050m and took us 6.5 hours. From the chalet we walked through Pedraces village, crossed the river into the village of St. Leonardo and caught the Santa Croce ski lift (Euros5.30) up the Fanes Massif. I was very uncomfortable at the exposure I felt sitting in the chair lift as it rose higher and higher. We would have caught the second stage lift but as it was not operating we walked the extra kilometre up the hill and passed the Santa Croce church and La Crusc Refugio at the top station. The route up was marked every hundred metres or so by a picture showing the stations of the cruxifiction of Christ. The temperature was 16°C in the village and 11°C at the top station.

The path then took us up north beneath the face of the Fanes at the bottom of scree and between rocks and bushes. Several times we came across snow in valleys which was relatively easy to cross because of the lack of exposure. This was a beautiful walk framed all the time by the high bulk of the Fanes. As the path dropped lower we started to find small, pretty flowers. Having descended some distance we then began a ten kilometre return hike on the lower flanks of the mountain along forest and farm tracks. The route passed through forests, over meadows and across valleys with lovely views all the time. This was easy walking. About an hour before the end we stopped at the Runch Hut and had drinks. We marvelled at more flower meadows before finally entering St. Leonardo and having a very cold beer in Pedraces.

This week has brought home to me that I am uncomfortable with exposure which is a long drop next to a narrow path. There is far more exposure in these mountains than in the mountains in the Cape Peninsula in South Africa.

I have been pleased by my level of fitness. Going steeply uphill I huff and puff but have been able to go for longer and faster than the other guests. When I am out of breath on top of a hill I recover very quickly. My knees hurt towards the end of the Pinnacles walk but not once I stopped walking. I have felt no muscle ache or pain after any of the walks.

Both yesterday and today I have been managing my gout pain, principally with Ibuprofen and Co-Codamol. I would not have been able to either sleep or walk without that medication. It also helped that I was able to hold my foot tightly in my boots.

I was very pleased with my new boots. About a month ago I read a good review of Meindl Vulkaan GTX boots and bought them. They have proved to be very comfortable and supportive.

I have been very impressed by Colletts. The accommodation has been good; the food excellent and the walks wonderful. The arrangement of offering a variety of walks each day and allowing guests to do those or their own activity is ideal. The area is perfect with lots of different walks on offer. It has been no problem travelling alone because the walking makes it easy to mix and to get to know the other guests.

The weather has been a little cool at times but generally was fine once we started hiking. Rain threatened a few times but only actually fell on Sunday. The snow on the ground was clearly a concern for me on Col de Lana and might have been a problem on other walks. In a few weeks time the snow will no longer be an issue.

Dinner was salad, spinach gnocchi, turkey steaks and canned peach halves. We played the collapsing block tower game for a while before most people retired in a tired state. Four of us are leaving at 07h00 in the morning and I should be back in Guildford by mid afternoon. This has been a wonderful week.