Italian Dolomite Mountains trek – overview and summary

This post is a combined overview and summary of a 9-day trek in the Italian Dolomites with about a dozen other members of the Tahoe Donner Hiking Club, which is based in Truckee, California. It was the biggest highlight of a nearly month-long Alpine trekking (and more) adventure.

A small confession: because it was not possible to write up my adventures during the trip, my posts are being created afterward, mostly long afterward. WordPress lets me select a publication date for each post, so I’m associating each post with the most relevant date, usually the date of the hike or sightseeing. This post is a summary of the 9-day trek, so its publication date corresponds to the 9th day.

During the trek we hiked from one rifugio (mountain inn) to another, carrying essentials for 4-5 days at a time. We needed to carry rain and cold weather gear, safety items, clothing, sleep sheet, towel, personal items, regular hiking gear (for me this meant poles, GPS, and camera), snacks, and water for the day. This comprised a load somewhere between a typical day hike and a backpack trip. I had a 36-liter capacity pack, and I did have some unused capacity. My base pack weight (excluding water) was 12 pounds, which I had determined from my summer’s training was within my capability to carry.

The trek was classified as self-guided: it was arranged through a local expedition company that planned a route and made reservations at the rifugios. They also provided transportation from our base hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo to the beginning of the trek and from the end of the trek back to the hotel, as well as a so-called refresh bag midway through the trek. The refresh bag could contain anything we wanted, but the most popular items were clean clothes, extra batteries, and additional snacks or other items to be consumed along the way. Since the bags were returned to the hotel, some people sent back souvenirs along with their laundry.

We were also provided with several copies of hiking instructions and maps, with a recommendation to hike in small groups rather than solo. Consistent with the club philosophy of “hike at your own pace,” the groups formed naturally according to hiking pace. Typically there was a small super-fast group, a larger fast group, a middle group, and the self-named recreational hikers. Several of us passed seamlessly between groups depending on the day and terrain.

Although we did not have a guide hiking with us, we did have a detailed orientation meeting the day before we started to hike. This is where we received maps – with more copies available to purchase – and a review of each day’s hike. With mountain travel, of course there was a review of weather and related topics. We were assured that, since it was only early September, there would be no snow. That turned out to be overly optimistic, as we discovered on day 4!

The route that had been planned for us was mostly north to south, less than 10 miles west of Cortina d’Ampezzo. For the most part the route followed the well-known Alta Via 1, or High Route 1, with the first day following Alta Via 3 and the second day traversing between the two Alta Via routes. Alta Via 1 is arguably the premier long-distance hiking route in the Dolomites and is 150 km (93 mi) long. We hiked just about half of this distance (47 miles according to my GPS data) and another 5+ miles on Alta Via 3.

This composite GPS track shows the route I hiked. The figure looks rather busy because I couldn’t figure out how to hide the “active log” label for each individual GPS track. The tracks for days 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 are dark blue and the tracks for days 2, 4, 6, and 8 are light blue. I did optional short “bonus” hikes on days 3 and 5, which are shown in green. Note the distance scale at the lower left; its total length is 10 miles.

Composite GPS track for 9-day Dolomites trek

Composite GPS track for 9-day Dolomites trek

The northern part of the route was in natural parks: we passed through parts of Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park and Parco Naturale delle Dolomiti d’Ampezzo. It is worth noting that a large area of the Dolomites has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the exceptional natural beauty and significance for the earth/geological sciences.

The mode of our trek is called hut-to-hut (or inn-to-inn) hiking. We stayed in mountain inns, which are called rifugios in Italy. Rifugios are owned and operated either privately (typically family-owned) or through local/national Alpine Clubs. We stayed in a combination of private and club rifugios. Each rifugio had its own character and served hearty, delicious food. There is quite a network of rifugios in the Dolomites. For each hiking day our instructions included information about a rifugio between our overnight stays where we could plan to stop for lunch.

Way-finding was generally straightforward: almost all trail intersections were clearly marked with detailed signage. On many days we could hike to lunch and then to our overnight accommodations by following signage to the appropriate rifugio. But we generally paused at trail junctions to consult our maps and instructions to be sure. This picture shows how the trails are marked at junctions. The red and white striped marking refers to a national trail with a trail number. More digits and letters sometimes seemed to signify a minor trail: we took 1, 2, and 3-digit trails as well as trails with an appended A, e.g. 28A. Many of the destinations and landmarks are given both in both Italian and German, as this part of the Dolomites is not far from Austria; a few signs also included Ladin, a local language. The numbers at the right are hiking times, the local unit of measure for trails (rather than mileage). The larger sign at the bottom of the cluster signifies that the trail is also designated as part of the Alta Via 1.

image of trail signage along Alta Via 1

Trail signage along Alta Via 1

I think of our hiking days as being quite civilized: Most days we appeared for breakfast as soon as it was available at 7am, finished loading our packs, and started hiking between 8am and 9am. We stopped at a rifugio for a lunch break, continued hiking, and arrived at our overnight rifugio typically between 2pm and 3pm. There was plenty of time to hang out in the bar, have hot chocolate and/or adult beverages, and play card games or read before dinner at 7pm. Dinner was two hearty courses, typically pasta and a meat dish (with vegetarian and other dietary restrictions accommodated), plus dessert. After losing 8 pounds during my training, it was kind of a delightful treat that I was able to consume – and enjoy – all 3 courses. Evening included more cards or reading, with lights out at 10pm. We also had informal daily meetings to review the next day’s route. Everyone knew that I was carrying a GPS and keeping careful track of distance and elevation data, so I was generally asked about the day’s statistics and how closely they compared to our route instructions.

Here is a summary of statistical data. We were somewhat surprised to find that the actual distances and elevation gains were generally a bit less than what was listed in the route instructions. The differences could be only partly explained by alternative routes we took in a few places. On the other hand, we were expecting some steep terrain and lots of ascents and descents; and of course there were no rest days during the trek.

image of day-by-day data for 9-day Dolomites trek

Day-by-day data for 9-day Dolomites trek

Most rifugios had a combination of dormitories and so-called small rooms, which typically could accommodate 2 or 3 people but occasionally up to 5. Here is an example of a 2-person room, in the morning as I was finishing loading my pack.   It was pretty cozy!

image of two-person “small room” at a rifugio

Two-person “small room” at a rifugio

The dormitory capacity was generally at least 12 people per room, coed, with bunks usually stacked 2 high but in one case 3 high. Here is an example of a typical dormitory room, with 12 beds visible. There was some extra luggage in this view, since I happened to take the picture the day of the refresh bags.

image of dormitory room

Dormitory room

If your group did not quite fill a dormitory and the rifugio was full, you would have one or more non-affiliated people staying with you to fill all of the beds. Everyone figured out rather quickly how to unpack the needed items from their backpack using a minimal amount of space.

Bathroom capacity was sometimes limited, but everyone simply made the necessary adjustments. Most of the rifugios we stayed in had sufficient hot water, and the tap water was potable – and therefore could be used to refill bottles carried with us. In a few cases where water supply was limited, use of showers required a token, with either a time or gallon limit. If the tap water was not potable there was prominent signage, and bottled water could be purchased in the bar.

Another thing worth mentioning about the rifugios is the shoe policy, since all rifugios cater strongly to hikers. In the public areas (bar and dining room) boots are permitted. However, there is a uniformly strict no-boots policy for the areas where the sleeping rooms are located. Either by the front entrance or downstairs from the entrance is a shoe room (Schuh Zimmer), where hiking boots are to be exchanged for indoor footwear. Some of our group brought slippers, but all of the rifugios had a selection of slippers that could be borrowed for the stay. Here is a shoe room at one of the larger (capacity: 70) rifugios; the opposite wall had another set of boot hangars. You needed to pay attention to exactly where you had put your boots!

image of shoe room at a rifugio

Shoe room at a rifugio

Although this post focuses on the mechanics of the trek, I do want to mention that the mountain scenery was spectacular. In particular, since I’ve included quite a bit of general information about the rifugios, I want to note that the settings are both varied and beautiful. One of the most spectacular has to be Rifugio Lagazuoi, at 9000 feet elevation the highest on Alta Via 1 and one of the highest in all of the Dolomites. Here is a view of the rifugio the morning after our stay, from the trail a few miles away. It is perched on top of the promontory to the left in the picture; I added an arrow to point out the blip. Yes, we really did hike up there!

image of Rifugio Lagazuoi

Rifugio Lagazuoi

Obviously the views from the rifugio were also exceptional. We had hiked up in a storm, complete with mist, snow, and ice, and there was more snow overnight. This was the view from my room at dawn the next morning; it’s one of my favorites of the entire trip.

image of view from my room at Rifugio Lagazuoi

View from my room at Rifugio Lagazuoi

In fact, starting from the first day of the trip I’d decided to capture views from my hotel room throughout the trip. It was fun to keep that in mind during the trek – there are memorable views from other rifugios, too.

Another rifugio in a dramatic location was Rifugio Tissi, shown here. Again, I’ve added an arrow pointing to it about 1/3 of the way up the slanted surface. We could see the rifugio nearly 1½ hours before we arrived, which provided some excited anticipation. As will be revealed in a later post, there were also spectacular views once we arrived at the rifugio.

image of Rifugio Tissi

Rifugio Tissi

It is my hope that this post provides a big-picture view of the Dolomites trek. I will also write a post for each day.

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2 Responses to Italian Dolomite Mountains trek – overview and summary

  1. Ken Davis says:

    Thank you for an informative post. We are doing the same trek this September. I’m curious what maps you used on your gps and did you enter waypoints?

    • trailhiker says:

      Our trek was self-guided through a local expedition company. They provided us with route instructions and paper maps (I forget whether they were Tabacco or Kompass; we needed 2 maps, though). We had daily briefings among ourselves to review the route for the next day. I used my GPS to record where I actually went. During the day we hiked in 2’s and 3’s and stopped at junctions (well-signed in general) and consulted our maps if we had any questions about which way to go. The other group from our hiking club used Gaia with downloaded maps. These maps were the same as the paper maps we had been provided with.

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