Mountain Hiking in the Dolomites

Close to two years ago, Leon and I planned on hiking the Alta Via 1 in Italy’s beautiful Dolomites mountains. Our original date was September 2021. As part of our preparation, we went on a hike in the Taunus mountains, a small “mountain” range (more accurately foothills) just north of Frankfurt. During that training hike Leon injured his foot, and we ended up cancelling the trip. 

Summer of 2022 came along and we began making new plans for the trip. September was set as the date. Leon planned on 20km per day, which would put us at the end point – a bus stop on a road west of Refugio Furio Bianchet, in 6 days. On paper, that seemed like a reasonable pace. We have done more on previous hikes, but it was over much flatter terrain. Like before, we made a 23km practice hike in the Taunus with our backpacks, and this time using hiking poles. We both came back healthy, fit, and injury free. 

The next morning, bright and early, we broke camp, packed up, and drove to the train station parking lot to deposit our car for the next 6 days. There is a bus service that takes hikers to the Lake Prags aka Lake Braies where the AV1 trailhead is located. This is a beautiful, turquoise lake surrounded by mountains, rowboats for rent, and a fancy hotel for those looking for a bit more luxury/comfort than Camping Olympia. We admired the beautiful scene before us, took some pictures, then walked to the other end of the lake where the AV1 begins. 

The route didn’t waste any time, we went straight up! Within 4.5km (2.8 miles) we had ascended 875 meters (2,871 feet). That was a tough introduction to the trail, but being in the mountains, this is what one should expect. The trail then descended towards our first refugio, it was a beautiful scene, but we didn’t stop yet. Thirty minutes later we arrived at Refugio Sennes, just in time for lunch. This was something I had been waiting for. Every website I read raved about the great Italian hiking food at the refugios. I couldn’t wait to try it. I looked at the menu…Spätzle, Knödel , Gulasch, it was typical German food. Then it dawned on me. The blog writers were Canadian and Americans. They aren’t familiar with Italian and German food (both are on the menu), so to them it was exotic, but to me it was just…. food. Still, it was a good meal after a long hike in the morning.

After lunch the trail continued descending, and descending…all the way back down to our starting elevation. At first, I was happy about the easy hiking, but then I saw what lay ahead – another mountain. Back up we went, and up, and up. Eventually the trail leveled off for a bit, offering a great view of a valley. As we were admiring it, a young Australian couple approached, also attracted by the view. We struck up a conversation and they asked us how long we were planning on hiking the trail. “The entire AV1,” we answered. They were very surprised at how light we were packed for the entire route. Their packs were bigger than ours, and the guy admitted that his wife/girlfriend was carrying a bottle of wine. We had just the most basic necessities with us. Also, we planned on 6 days of hiking, whereas the typical hiker will take 9 days – and spend each night at a refugio. Both the Australian couple and we were planning on camping some of the nights, but they didn’t mention how many days they planned for the hike.

We said goodbye and continued uphill until, at 7:30pm, we found a good place to pitch a tent. It was at a lake just a kilometer or so past a refugio. We had the place all to ourselves. According to our gps app, we had a little over 1500 meters of total ascent today. Leon and I eventually snuggled into our sleeping bags and chatted a while before going to sleep. Over the course of the night it had rained, but by morning the sky was once again clear.

We began Day 2 with a hike into a valley. It was pleasant, with wonderful views. Then Leon and I noticed a trail heading towards a mountain pass. Sure enough, that was on our route. About halfway up the mountain we noticed a guy walking down. We just figured he was hiking the opposite direction, but we were wrong. He had hiked up the same trail we were on, looked at the other side, and decided it was going too steep down. He couldn’t do it. He asked if we knew another route and we told him about a trail that continues in the valley and around the mountain. It’s much longer than going over the mountain, but is more suitable for those with a fear of heights. He decided to take that instead. Once we reached the pass and had a look over the edge, it did, indeed, look like walking off the side of a cliff, but another few steps and we saw the tight switchbacks leading down the other side and along a lovely lake.

From there the trail then began a long, steep uphill climb, from 2,182m to 2,730m before reaching Refugio Lagazuoi. The higher we hiked, the worse the weather became, until, reaching the refugio, a wet, drizzly fog settled in. To our surprise, this place was crowded, but we were able to get a table for lunch. For those who prefer a more leisurely trip, there is a cable car that ferries people up to the mountain peak here. One could have a relaxed ride, enjoy lunch at the refugio, and ride back down. In the winters one can ski here. 

We had a special adventure after lunch. Rather than hiking down the mountain on the Alta Via trail, we decided to take the route through the Lagazuoi Tunnel. Built during WW1 by Italian soldiers to undermine the Austrian army troops. There were a number of branches off the main tunnel, for machine gun emplacements, mines, as well as bunk beds and tables. It was an interesting journey through history as we descended. The way down was not the easiest, sometimes the passage was short, and I bumped my head a couple of times. Quite often the limestone steps were wet and slippery, fortunately there was a metal cable anchored to the wall to hold on to. To our surprise, the end of the tunnel was not at the bottom of the mountain. We came out and were unsure which way to go – right or left. As luck would have it there were some Italian mountain climbers hanging out there who pointed us in the right direction. We continued our hike down the mountain, where the path continued along the Falzarego pass. 

Yet another steep, uphill climb led us to one of the most well-known sites in the Dolomites, the Cinque Torre (“Five Towers”). It was a magnificent sight, but we had no luck with the weather, the sky was overcast and the light was a dull grey. Regardless, it was still impressive. I was surprised to see cars parked at the refugio, located a stone’s throw away from the trail. Apparently, one could spend some time here without the need to hike in. Good to know, in case I want to come back. We pitched our tent about two hundred meters beyond the refugio, in a quiet area surrounded by trees. Sometime during the evening, I don’t remember when exactly, we heard the sound of fireworks. Leon and I were in our sleeping bags already and our curiosity wasn’t strong enough to get us out of the tent, so the source of the sounds will forever remain a mystery.

It had rained most of the night, but at 4am, when Leon went out to “visit the bathroom”, the rain had stopped and the sky cleared up. He checked if I was awake (I was) and informed me of the beautiful night sky. We both spent quite a few minutes admiring the heavens, the stars, the Milky Way, and the constellations which were on full display. The heavens are at their best when you are far away from civilization and all its light pollution. 

By morning of day 3 we had good weather again. However, the previous night’s rain left the trail a muddy, slippery, downhill mess. It was slow going for quite a while until at last, the trail evened out into a pleasantly rolling route. That pleasantness was short lived, as it soon turned into another steep uphill battle. Well, at least it wasn’t a muddy, slippery fight, just the usual heart pounding, lung killing variety we have come to expect. I was developing a strong dislike towards this type of trail! It was during this struggle that we stopped for breakfast (trail mix for me, chocolate muffins for Leon.) Once back on the trail, we eventually met the guy from the day before, who decided against going down the steep mountain pass. He said he went down to the valley, and once in the town took a bus to a refugio where he spent the night. We told him about our experience going down, and then the three of us started up the mountain. Very quickly our companion urged us to go on, admitting he was very slow. He wasn’t lying, I’m no trail runner, but we soon left him in our dust.

the author carefully navigating a muddy downhill trail

Reaching the summit of the trail it evened out to a pleasant walk among the mountains, eventually running along a mountain side, thank goodness I’m not afraid of heights, as it was narrow and steep. I was glad to see that the path was of compacted gravel, it made for easy walking. However, it didn’t last too long, as over the course of some hours it turned into loose gravel, nothing dangerous, but noticeably looser and less level, and required us to be more careful. We could see that our trail led to a mountain in the near distance, and noticed quite a few people on the trail leading down. It wasn’t the occasional hiker, rather a continuous parade of people, sometimes bunched together, sometimes one after another. Once we reached the mountain, we learned that there was a trail running event going on. The mountain side trail wasn’t closed, but we had to yield to the contestants. The path at this point had some vegetation and trees on either side. As we heard the footsteps of runners approach from behind, we would have to find a place to step aside and let them pass. During the hustle and bustle of hiking the trail while dodging the runners, Leon and I got separated. This has happened all during the trip, but Leon was never more than one turn in front of me, then he would stop and wait. This time, with every turn in the trail, he was not to be seen any more. Eventually I thought that I had missed a turn, but checking my map, I saw that wasn’t the case, so I just kept going. Finally, after 30 minutes I caught up with him. He had picked up his pace so as not to be a hindrance, but couldn’t find a place to pull off the trail to wait for me. Once reunited we soon reached the valley and a water station for the contestants, which just happened to be across the street from Refugio Passo Staulanza, so we stopped for lunch here. My gnocchi were delicious, and filling, the waitress was very friendly, the weather was pleasant. What’s not to enjoy? By the time we got back on the trail it was 1:30.  

Now all I could think about was our overnight stay at Refugio Adolfo Sonino al Coldai. I was really looking forward to it. But there was something between us and it…mountains. Big, steep, intimidating mountains.  The first stretch was a mud trail that went straight up. Who the hell thought this was a good idea? Straight up!! Finally, FINALLY it leveled off. We had a pleasant hike now. One thing I can safely claim, I recover quickly from the uphill battles. Once it levels off, I’m back to normal speed, and a normal heartbeat, in 3-4 minutes. The Dolomites, though, must have woken up in a bad mood that day, because they took a look at me, hiking at a good pace, looking forward to a hot shower and a bed, and said, “Oh, you think you’re an alpine hiker? Well take this, bitch!” and threw a steep, rocky uphill, billy-goat path in my way. There were rocks of all sizes on the “trail”, some small, some that rolled out from under your feet, some big ones that we had to climb over. Damn you Dolomites!! Finally, after what seemed like hours, we made it to Refugio Adolfo Sonino al Coldai, and this time it truly was a refuge for me.

After checking in, and buying a shower coin (6 minutes for 6 Euros), we went to our room, fortunately we had it to ourselves. After settling in we waited for a shower to become available. It was a glorious 6 minutes!

The food was really nice, and we enjoyed relaxing at the table with the small handful of other guests. We spent most of the evening relaxing here, discussing hiking, equipment, etc. It was a pleasant ending to a very pleasant evening in the refugio. Eventually we went up to our room where I immediately fell asleep as Leon read a book on his phone.

We definetly earned this beer!

I slept like a rock, and the next morning I woke up shortly before sunrise, grabbed my camera, and headed outside for some photos. I wasn’t alone, there were a handful of people waiting for mother nature to start the show, and she didn’t disappoint. As the sun slowly made its way above the horizon, the tips of the mountains began to light up and glow. It was a nice start to the day. 

Leon and I took full advantage of the buffet breakfast. I was relieved to discover that my shoulder muscles had recovered over the night so I was able to enjoy breakfast pain free. After getting our fill we loaded up, strapped on our backpacks, and said goodbye to the refugio. I started the hike in much better spirits. I was ready to conquer these mountains! I was keeping up – mostly – with Leon. With every rock that came in our way, I jumped over it. This hike was mine this morning. We took an unofficial trail at first, through a landslide of rocks, as it offered the advantage of almost no elevation. The official trail would have brought us down several hundred feet before hiking back up again. I felt like a mountain goat scrambling over the rocks and over a barely discernable path, marked with some cairns. The entire morning, I kept telling myself, “This is easy. I got this!” It’s amazing what a difference a night in a refugio makes. 

By lunch time we easily reached Refugio Bruto Carestiato, a quiet oasis tucked away amongst some trees at the foot of the mountains. Afterwards we hit the trail…and it went rapidly down. But this time there was no going back up a mountain. The downhill path led to a refugio where we had a short break, then continued on. By dinnertime we reached another refugio at a highway, which the AV1 follows for about half a kilometer. It wasn’t the most pleasant section of the hike, but at least there wasn’t any traffic. After a short time, we came to a picnic spot where the route led back into the mountains. This was our planned camping spot for the night. Unfortunately, a camper van beat us to it. Hmmm, maybe he was just here for dinner? We didn’t give up yet. The owner was at another table so we sat at the unoccupied one and unpacked our dinner. After a few minutes, the campervan driver approached us. His name was Dan, a young Israeli man who lives in Spain. He was on an adventure vacation and just happened to pick this place to spend the night. He asked if we knew where to buy some water and other supplies. We got into a conversation with him, discussing our travels, the area, etc. He was a very pleasant fellow. Over the course of the conversation Leon offered the use of his water purifier, which he gladly accepted. He then mentioned that he needed to go to town for some supplies and offered to do some shopping for us if we needed anything. We were very impressed with this guy; he really was nice. 

We would have enjoyed camping in this area and spending the evening with him upon his return from shopping, but there wasn’t a dry place to be found, , so we decided to keep going along the route, and stop at the first suitable place for the night. 30 minutes later we settled for a small patch of ground under a tree. It wasn’t ideal but it would do. We pitched the tent, made our toiletries, and slowly settled into our sleeping bags. After a bit of chit-chat, I said goodnight while Leon stayed up to read. Sleep didn’t come easily to me, I felt warm and a bit uneasy in the stomach. Sometime later I heard Leon yelling at something. He saw a fox curiously taking a peek in our tent. We weren’t sure what led him here, but he was not shy at all about having a look at us. At Leon’s behest, he slowly walked around to the other side of the tent and off into the forest. After the commotion had settled down, I tried again to fall asleep. I dozed off, but in the middle of the night I couldn’t fight it anymore. I ran out of the tent and was violently sick. Once I had emptied everything, I crawled back into the tent and was able to get some rest. 

The next morning, I felt slightly better, and decided to keep going. I figured I ate something bad and now that it was out, I would be able to keep going. I was very thirsty and drank a lot of water, but was still feeling a bit shaky. Leon suggested to have a bit of bread to help settle my stomach and offered one of his chocolate croissants. That turned out to be a bad idea. It didn’t stay in my stomach a few seconds before being forcibly ejected. I felt like a firehose.  As the water was rushing out of my stomach, the visions of our final full day of hiking were rushing out of my mind. Instead of looking forward to the night when I. would lay my head down with a feeling of accomplishment, I was instead leaning against a tree just to stay on my feet, wishing my body to stop convulsing. Once my stomach was empty, and my body stopped shaking, I told Leon that I couldn’t go on. We will have to stop here and go home, to which he readily agreed. 

Our first idea was to see if Dan was still at the picnic site and ask him for a ride into town. By the time we got there, at 8:30, he was already gone. So much for that idea. We then decided to go to an “Organic Farm” on the road – we saw a sign for it the evening before, and ask for help getting into town. That also turned out to be useless. The guy spoke no English, and we were unable to communicate. The only thing left to do, as far as we could see, was to continue back to the refugio we passed yesterday. Along the way a car approached and Leon waved it down to ask for a ride into town. It was of no use, the woman in the car was unwilling to pick up two strange men. So, we walked the entire way back to the refugio. Now you might be wondering how I was able to do that. Leon must have had the same thought, as he kept asking me how I was doing, can I make it to the refugio. I’ll tell you what I told him…what choice do I have? It sucks having to walk out of the mountains with a virus in your stomach just daring you to swallow something. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of mother nature, where there isn’t any convenient transportation service. If I wanted get back home, back to safety, I had to keep walking.

Back at the refugio, we asked the proprietor about transportation to the nearest town where we could catch a bus, pointing out that I was sick and needed to get back to civilization. He offered a telephone number for a taxi. When I told him that I didn’t have reception, he offered a second telephone number. OK, this guy was of little further use. We went outside where, luckily, I had enough signal to make a call. Unluckily the taxi driver was busy for the next 30 – 60 minutes. Hanging up, we approached a couple leaving the refugio and getting into their car. We tried explaining our situation but they were as weary as the woman driver we flagged down on the road. 

During this whole episode there was a couple, about my age, standing in the refugio’s parking area. Once the car drove off, they approached us and asked about our situation. Turns out they were German, and they, like us, had to cut their hiking trip short. Not due to sickness but due to a lack of vacancies at the remaining refugios. They were waiting on a taxi and offered to share it with us. Having a common nationality with Leon established a bit of trust between us. Their English wasn’t so good so they were also glad to have a native English speaker traveling with them to deal with the locals – although Leon could have easily managed that as well. My only real advantage was having a better mobile phone plan. So, the man and Leon planned our way back to the starting point. The taxi arrived after a few minutes and dropped us off at a bus stop in the next village. She gave us some advice about the buses, wished us well, then went to pick up her next passengers. Well, the bus schedule was such that we had a very long wait here, so we decided to try our luck with the taxi again. I called her and she said she could pick us up in 15 minutes and take us to the next bus station.  Finally, at 1:30pm, after 2 taxis and two bus rides, we were in Cortina d’Ampezzo, a charming little tourist town where we would catch the final train back to the starting point and our car. We had a bit of a wait here until our train arrived so Leon wanted to find an ice cream parlor for a snack. I was not about to risk eating anything so I watched him enjoy his delicious looking Italian gelato. I only sipped on a bit of water when my mouth felt overly dry. 

I discussed with Leon my idea about returning home. I thought it best to go back to Camping Olympia and see about staying the night there. It was now 4pm and the drive back was 8 hours long. Leon, however, insisted on getting on the road immediately. “What are we going to do at the campsite all day long? Don’t worry, I’ll drive. It’ll be fine.” Try as I might, I couldn’t persuade him, so we got in the car and drove towards home. 

Late night car fire on the Autobahn

Things didn’t go as planned. First, we met a road closure. After waiting for about 20 minutes, I asked Google Maps to find a route around it, Google also informed me that the closure was a scheduled event and the road would reopen in about an hour. To our dismay the alternate route just led us to another road that ended at the same road closure…damn you Google!! There was nothing left to do except turn off the engine and wait it out. Finally, 30-40 minutes later the road opened up again and we continued on. The rest of the drive out of Italy, through Austria, and into Germany was without incident. Our lucky streak ran out, again, in Germany. The highway was closed due to a car fire. We were within 50 yards of it and watched it burn. Once the novelty of being eye witnesses to a burning car wore off, we were so tired that we decided to close our eyes and rest until the situation cleared up. Sometime later we were woken up by a knocking on the driver side window. A police officer noticed we weren’t moving when everyone else was clearing the scene. Oops, we assured the officer that all was fine, buckled up and continued on our journey. Luckily, there were no other incidents, but still, with the drama we had faced, we didn’t get home until 2:30am. What a night!

As disappointing as the ending was, I really enjoyed the trip, and I know Leon did as well. The hiking (in spite of what I thought, and said to myself on the first 3 days) was amazing, the views beautiful, and the sunrises gorgeous. I can highly recommend a vacation to the Dolomites to anyone. (Hiking not necessary.)

A big thanks to Leon for doing everything he could to get me out of that area. It was very touching to see his concern for my well being. Thanks also for his contribution of “photojournalism” photos offering behind the scenes views of our trip.

If you would like to see more of the breathtaking views we experienced during this hike, just head over to my flickr page.

Ready for more adventures? Find another one here


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