Trip Report, Alta Via 2, Dolomites, Italy

Posted by Michael Martin on

I’m sorry if I’ve seemed a little slow with this trip report. On the one hand, I’ve just been very busy since I got back; on the other, I’ve wanted to collect my thoughts about the AV2. About what we accomplished, and what we didn’t; about the things that went well, and the things that could have been improved. As a group, we backpacked quite well. Though we finished only about 2/3rds of the trail, we hiked more of it than any other group on the trail at the same time, that I was aware of (more on that later).

First of all, let me say that northern Italy and the Dolomites were astoundingly beautiful. This was my third trip to Italy, so I must like the place. Northern Italy was new to me, however, and a bit of a revelation. It was remarkably … Germanic! The people in Sud Tyrol were incredibly friendly to us, often going out of their way to be kind. From Chris at Bacherhof to the young man at the Rifugio di Forcella Pordoi, the people were awesome. And the AV2 was a fair trail, I think. Well maintained, crossing some of the most gobsmackingly beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, it never asked me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable doing. The portion of it I walked was challenging (similar to the GR20 in difficulty, probably a little easier), but rewarding.

The Lead Up

Shuttle and I flew to Venice on Friday, 6/26. By lunch time Saturday, we were drinking wine and tossing back small plates at a little place near the Rialto, and paying way too much to sit on the Piazza San Marco (6 euros extra if you listen to the music!). The day wore on, as days after transcontinental flights do. We returned to our hotel in Mestre, met Blizzard, and set out for dinner in Mestre’s pleasant town center. After watching a skate-boarding dog, we settled in for the first of many amazing meals.

Sunday, with jet lag defeated, we headed north along Brenner Pass, towards Innsbruck, the countryside becoming more and more mountainous as the train sped away from Venice. I amused myself taking photos from the speeding train—each bend seemed to reveal more and more beautiful terrain. I caught a glimpse of the Odle—of course, we would soon be up high with them. We arrived in Bressanone / Brixen in the afternoon. It turned out that B~~~ was on the train with us! He had been touring Florence and Bologna in the prior week.

It was immediately clear that Brixen was a different place. My German (which is ganz schlecht, though no one ever said so) suddenly became quite useful. The Gasthaus Bacherhof was high up on the hill, so we took a taxi. What a brilliant place! I told Chris, our host, that it was like paradise. He agreed that it was not bad. Patricia arrived. We drank beer, and ate speck, then swam in the pool and enjoyed the awesome views of the valley below.

Monday, 6/29, we were off to start the AV2. Unfortunately, the day started with a contretemps or two. Lufthansa had succeeded in breaking both my carbon fiber poles in transit, so I would hike all the way to Malga Ciapela with no poles. We had planned on mailing boxes to ourselves in Venice, but the post office in San Andreas had been shut for years. B~~~, Patricia, and Blizzard started the trail, while Shuttle and I took a taxi back down to Brixen to mail the boxes. Monica, the woman in the post office was very helpful, and eventually we got the boxes mailed to Croce d’Aune, our endpoint. But that was about Plan C or D. We taxi’d back to San Andreas, where we found B~~~, Patricia, and Blizzard, coming back down the road. They had started the AV2 off route. Oh well, we’d all be together now.

The Beginning of the AV2

This was the first lesson the AV2 taught us. There are lots of well-marked paths leading from San Andreas up to Valcroce, but there’s no sign for the AV2. In fact, I believe we went virtually the entire day before we saw an AV2 sign. You had to pay attention to the individually numbered trails. Once we figured that out, it was no problem. (Later, there were AV2 signs, but they were episodic.)

We began the substantial climb up from San Andreas to Valcroce. It’s 2000m up from Brixen to Valcroce. We had shaved off a little by starting at San Andreas. But, fresh to the trek, we climbed and climbed and climbed up the ski slopes—large stretches of the AV2 are really on ski slopes. We continually exclaimed on how great it would be to go skiing! Above us, the cable cars whizzed by. Pretty much all the sane people were just taking the cable cars up to Valcroce. Mountain bikers descended past us at crazy speeds. But we topped out eventually, at the head of the lift. There was a restaurant there, where we drank beer and took in our first view of the Odle. This is an undeniably beautiful view that we would enjoy the rest of the day.

It was getting near 3pm, so we set off, still climbing, now above the tree line. We enjoyed stunning views of 360 degrees and eventually come to the Refugio Citta di Bressanone. B~~~ headed out to see a viewpoint; I waited for the ladies. Eventually we descended through flowering alpine meadows, tucked into the forest, and come to the beautiful Schatzenhutte. We sat down and were handed plates of steaming gulash and drinks by the lovely Leah. A cherub-like German boy chatters at us. It's pretty perfect. And then there are the rooms and the hot showers.

Did I mention the golden hour on the odle?

Michael Martin posted on

Day Two

The next morning, we get started just as fast as we can and walk through charming forests before climbing the high and foreboding Forcella di Putia. This was a stout climb, but B~~~ and I soon reached the top and paused for the others. There were many hikers there from all nations, most day hiking in the area. We traversed towards the Refugio Genova, where we enjoyed lunch. Then, in the afternoon, we tackled a tough high alpine section. I admit that I was not entirely content with the look of Forcella della Roa, as it involved a steep looking scree field up very high. But it was less bad than it seemed. I soon stood on top, chattering in German with a woman there. When the others got there, we determined that I should go fast to the Rifugio Puez and let them know that we might be a little late for dinner.

I pressed on across a high cirque, climbed the Forcella di Selles, clambered up some cables there (no big thing), made my way across a sketchy, scree-filled traverse, then descended across sheep-inhabited fields above the gulf of the Vallunga. The path rounded a shoulder of a mountain before arriving at Rifugio Puez. I got there about 6pm. The woman who ran the place was accommodating enough, but the sleeping arrangements--30 people crammed in rooms with triple bunks--were the worst we saw on the AV2. I yearned to sleep outside. Nonetheless, I drank beer as my comrades trickled in.

Blizzard had had the "hardest day of her life," beseeching Jesus for aid at one of the stations of the cross. A sheep had come to her and led her to Puez. She noticed that it was possessed of singularly large scrotum. We encouraged her to drink some wine.

Day Three

After an uncomfortable night spent in sweltering conditions, we were off. The trail remained high, crossing a high alpine plateau. Our party became intermixed with a group of Italians who were carrying ice axes--I never saw anything that looked like it would need an ice ax. On the Marmolada, I suppose. We crested the Passo Crespina together, traversed a bowl to reach the Passo Cir on the left. A dreamscape of impossibly jagged mountains opened out before us, then we descended steeply to the Passo Gardena, where lemonade awaited.

Next up was the Val Setus, which would be our first truly sustained technical passage. When we reached this giant funnel of scree, gravel, and neve, it didn't look too bad. B~~~ climbed for the top, while I stayed in the back with Blizzard, who was feeling some trepidation. We zigged and zagged across fields of neve, at last reaching an aided stretch perhaps a hundred vertical meters from the top. I was enjoying the climb. B~~~ waited for us, and we helped Shuttle and Blizzard up the incredibly well cabled route. Class 3 terrain. Minimal exposure.

Patricia was at the top, where lunch awaited us at the Rifugio Pisciadu. Some fellows para-sailed above us. Lots of people wandered about with ferrata gear.

We decided again that I was going to press on in front. I had planned for us to reach Fredarola that evening, so we had a lot of walking to do. I would let the refuge people know that the others were coming, but would be late. Above Pisciadu, one climbs to the highest stretch of the AV2. A few cables aid in the traverse, but mainly it was snow, rock, and huge alpine views. The peak of Boe towers to the left. Mixed in with our Italian friends now, I took a shortcut with them, which led me onto a section of real via ferrata that traversed about 150 m, with 50-70m sheer drop to my right. I did it without gear, being quite careful with my toe holds. It was fine, but I remember thinking that there would have been no shame in putting my harness on. I had that thought about halfway through.

Beyond the Refugio Boe, the awesome sight of Sass Pordoi is visible. I remember being concerned by the snow fields leading up to it--remember, I had no poles--but they were no problem up close and not nearly as steep as they looked.

At last, I arrived at Forcella Pordoi, where a charming refugio is perched. It was 4:45pm. I decided that we would stop here, as we had already had a long day and this was a nice spot. Much German was spoken and the young man running the refugio called Fredarola for me to let them know we were stopping. Baked polenta paradise followed. I think we would all remember this fortuitous and beautiful refuge as one of the highlights of the trip.

Day Four

In the morning, we elected to take the cable car down to the Passo Pordoi, so first up we went to the top of the Sass Pordoi for stunning 360 views, and then a very fast descent. From the pass, we soon climbed through skiing areas to Fredarola, and then a long, beautiful traverse towards the Lago di Fedaia, with the Marmolada directly in front of us. Truly, this was amazing scenery. The descent was steep, always well maintained, but Shuttle fell once in a way that caused my heart to leap into my throat. The grade was 70 degrees, and it was a long way down. B~~~ and I both had time to shout "Jen!" Fortunately, she rolled once and came to a stop.

At the lake, we stopped for lunch, then headed along a road, then ski slopes down to Malga Ciapella, essentially our halfway point. I had booked us in the Hotel Tyrolia, which proved a fine destination. We got our clothes washed, got some groceries, and I bought new poles. Please note, future walkers of the AV2, there no ATM in Malga Ciapela. While I worked on our reservations, the others took a taxi down to another town where there was. I purchased a new set of poles. It had rained in the afternoon, and we had been too late to ascend the cables to the top of the Marmolada, so that was a disappointment. Nevertheless, we dined opulently at this very pleasant place.

Michael Martin posted on

Day Five

This day began with a sustained climb from Malga Ciapela to the alpine region along a road built to supply soldiers in World War 1. It was hot and I got into low gear and reached Forca Rossa first, with B~~~ right behind me. He explored, while I waited for the others. The views were stupendous. Blizzard got a little sketched out on a short eroded stretch near the top. An Italian fellow came to her rescue. Soon, we were descending through meadows that were paradise for marmots and ponies.

We got to Rifugio Fuchiade (which is a fancy refugio) at about 2pm and everyone was in a bad mood. Of course, this is past meal time and the waitress didn't want to serve us. She relented a little, but a storm was bearing down. We downed our beers and road walked to the Passo San Pellegrino as the rained started to whip around us. At the pass, we put on our rain gear and climbed ski slopes to the Corda degli Zingari. The thunderstorm abated as we got above tree line, which was just as well. I always get a thrill walking into bad weather, and remember these hours as some of the best.

On the descent towards Passo Valles, we lost the trail a bit and bushwhacked down the meadows. It was fairly clear where we were supposed to go. Soon we stood at the albergo there--an institution for decades and yet another idyllic place to spend the night. All was well with the world.

Day Six, or What Transpired in the Gulley of Doom

Early (well, after breakfast) Saturday, 7/4, we left the lovely Passo Valles and climbed toward the Rifugio Mulaz. The next section looked intimidating in the book. We had been staring at the Passo delle Farangole—a snow covered-notch—for a day or so. I was looking forward to it, though it did look intense. Blizzard had more or less decided that she would take a variant. At the intersection, Shuttle decided she too would take the variant. I elected to join them. A voice in the back of my head was telling me that the variant may not be as simple as all that.

B~~~ and Patricia pressed on along the main route, while we three descended the Valle Venegia. All went well at first. It was a beautiful, idyllic valley, full of green and easy walking, the spires of the mountain looming on our left. I recalled looking up at the Passo delle Farangole, and thinking that there was a lot of neve up there.

Michael Martin posted on

We passed herds of grazing cattle, then climbed for a break at Baita Segantini. Again, most of the hikers here had taken the lift up from Passo Rolle. We studied our variant route around. It was a bushwhack along the shoulder of the mountain to a trail numbered 712. Blizzard had goaded me into purchasing the topo map for this section, and she was damned right. I got my compass out and took a bearing, which would prove handy.

We descended through beautiful alpine meadows, aiming for a drainage on the mountains far west flank. But the land was littered with cliffs, especially on our left. I felt the ground steepen under my feet and detoured to the right. Wisely, as it turned out—the prior route had ended in a 30-40 foot cliff. But—never fear—an old eroded path cut beneath the cliff. On the far side, there was an old disused forest road. The slope was about 45-55 degrees, maybe 60 degrees at the most. For about 40 feet, the path was badly eroded and gravelly. It looked traversable. I crossed it. Shuttle and Blizzard started across.

I was looking the other way, when I heard Shuttle call my name, panic in her voice. I looked back, and saw that she had fallen and was face down in the gravel. “I’m falling!” she shouted. Blizzard was clinging to a strap on her pack. I did not believe either were in imminent danger. I crossed back, very quickly, using my hands to increase the friction. Blizzard started edging back to safety. I determined that Shuttle could easily slide down to a gentler area—she had fallen on a steeper grade. As she did so, I helped Marika out of the gulley. Shuttle slid farther down. She was having trouble climbing out. I put my pack down, descended into the gulley and took hers. Unencumbered, she was able to clamber out, and we three were re-united on the near site. Torn clothing, scrapes, and a bruise or two were all we suffered.

A little rattled, we headed down to Passo Rolle, a descent that was blocked several more times by cliffs. At last, we sat in a cool bar and drank some beer, laughing about how ordeal in the Gulley of Doom would have been visible to those lunching in this very spot.

We took a bus from Passo Rolle to San Martino, then a long cable car ride up to Passo Rosetta. More astounding scenery, and discussion of what it would be like to come here for skiing. A glaciologist was giving a talk there that night. We were stunned to receive a text from B~~~ and Patricia stating that they had been turned back from the pass and were descending. Lots of sketchy neve, they said (I will let them tell their own story).

They reached San Martino that night, and the next morning we convened at the top of Passo Rosetta, where, over coffee, we reached consensus that we would head down, two nights earlier than our intended ending, and three nights shy of what we currently had planned. In a word, I felt that the tougher, more technical terrain ahead would be a handful for several of us, and we would be turned back, anyway. I confess that several of the falls I had witnessed made me quite nervous. I did not want to handle another Gulley of Doom with real exposure and more serious consequences.

I won't belabor an already long report with two much about the remainder of the trip, which was straight up tourism in the Veneto. Padua. Verona. Giotto. A heat wave and every TV blaring about impecunious Greeks. Four nights in the DC UL palazzo in Venice, which gave me a much finer sense for that city, strangely awash in waves of tourists that start in the morning, crest in the afternoon, and recede in the evening. It is a tribute to the place that it remains so beautiful and interesting despite being overrun like that. Many photos were taken. A gondola ride really is a treat and shows you a city that you will never see on foot. The Biennale exposition of contemporary art really made the visit for me--weird, uneven, often curious and inspiring. On the water taxi ride to Marco Polo, I resolved that I would come back again, but I would bring enough money to take boats everywhere I wanted to go.

Michael Martin posted on


Since I know there are a few people headed off to walk this trail, or thinking about it, in the coming months, I wanted to offer some honest, closing thoughts and some self-criticism about the AV2:

* The scenery of the AV2 is wonderful, and the trail was fair, and usually well maintained, for the sections that I walked. To do well on it, you should think of yourself as a strong scrambler with a good head for heights. If you do some climbing, you should be fine. If that stuff bothers you, I'd shift to AV1. I am not any kind of great climber, but I was comfortable on the AV2.

* Given the fact that I knew a few members of my group would be uncomfortable in class 3 or sketchy ground, I should have shifted us to the AV1. Nevertheless, everyone hiked well, and we covered about the same distance on AV2 as the total length of AV1. So we did fine, though I am sure people share my disappointment at not finishing.

* This is a true, central European hut-to-hut affair. This has its advantages. Some of these huts were so nice that I could happily spend a week there. But there's an awfully big HOWEVER coming. By staying in the huts you sacrifice all control over your schedule. They tell you when breakfast is, and thus when you start. They tell you when dinner is, and thus when you stop. Throw in lunch, and you can get a sense for how little hiking time there really is. The late starts were especially inimical to DC UL's style of walking. We often couldn't get started till 9am or so, which is impossibly late. The best hours of the day were wasted waiting for coffee (there was no sense that one ought to start early in the morning). And this took away many of my tricks for running a group. Someone is going a little more slowly? I can't have them start early. Breakfast is at 8:30am! The group a little behind schedule? We can't walk extra long. Dinner is at 7pm! So, if you're going to do this, you really had better be cool with the stages as they are set up (I was trying to do a stage and a half a day).

* The trail is not like a grande randonnee trail, in that we encountered no one else doing the trip end-to-end. We encountered people doing sections, people taking the cable cars for lunch at the top, people day hiking, people hanging out at the huts to climb, people there just to spend the night. All good ... but don't expect to see a lot of end-to-end hikers. Honestly, many people didn't seem to know what the AV2 was.

* There is an element of fiction to the AV2. We walked from San Andreas to Valcroce, up a ski slope where all the sane people were just taking the cable car up. Similarly, the section heading down into Malga Ciapela was down a ski slope. The only reason to walk it is because you're determined to walk it. You might as well take a bus. We took the cable car down from Sass Pordoi. The entire section from San Pellegrino to Passo Valles? Ski slopes. Not that they weren't pretty. What to think about a trail that can be so easily circumvented?

* The experience of walking from little hotel to hotel, of settling bill after bill, of wifi, civilization, of the ski slopes, the passes full of motorists, the cable cars, the need for me to run ahead to make sure we didn't miss meal times, was all pretty foreign to my mode of backpacking. It prevented me from feeling like I was immersed in the route, committed to it (I feel more committed and immersed on weekend trips). And, in fact, the constant management of reservations, meal times, and what-not, felt stressful to me. I confess that I was largely indifferent to continuing south from Rosetta. It would have been nice ... but I had photography projects to do in Venice, and when weighed against some of the safety concerns I had, I was happy to stop and go be a tourist.

So, despite all the great things about the region--the scenery, the people, the food, evn the trail--I cannot say I loved the experience of this way of hiking the AV2. Trying to thru-hike it was just too different from the way I backpack at home, or even in Corsica, Nepal, Sweden, Iceland, etc.

If the things I have described fit your style better, you will probably have a different experience.

When all is said and done, though, I think I would gladly revisit the Dolomites, but more as a skiing trip, or a trip to do ferrata. Ultimately, it's unreasonable to expect the trail to conform to your expectations, you have to conform to it.

We're all called upon to hike our own hike, and, in a way, this experience helped me clarify the things I love about backpacking in the manner I do. The mark of a good trip is that, afterwards, one knows oneself a little better.

Karan posted on

Thanks for sharing this, U-turn.

From your experience (and somewhat based on my own over the years), I can relate to the important things I look forward to while backpacking : self-dependence and the right # of people on the trail (i.e. not too many :) ).

Anyways, it sounds like Dolomites is a lot of fun (in a non-backpacking trip) - espeically the rock scrambling part. Hope I get to go there someday. So many places to visit...

Michael Martin posted on

Thanks, B.A.

For me, the larger lesson is to what extent do I want the backcountry thing DC UL is so good at, versus to what extent am I willing to compromise that in order to hike a route like this. If I choose to do a hut-to-hut thing in the future, I think I will just accept it more fully, and realize that I'm going to spend half the day eating and drinking. :)

Karan posted on

Makes sense. Especially now that you know what the hut-to-hut thing is about. Eating and drinking, that is ;)

Joffrey Peters posted on

I can understand the sense of disillusionment with the hut system. I think that would frustrate me on a trip with a DCUL type schedule as well. It is so stunning, though, that I can see myself someday succumbing to the hut schedule in order to meander through those peaks.

It sounds like the Dolomites and the AV2 offer some serious terrain. Was any of it worse than some of trails in the ADK (where I've pulled a number of 5th class moves *on trail*)?

Michael Martin posted on

Yes. Agree on all points. It was a stunning place, and the huts were nice. When I do a hut-to-hut thing again, I'll just accept that I'll move more slowly and do the stages as they are customarily done. There are a number of beautiful routes in the world where you just have to adapt.

I do not think the moves were any harder than the ADKs (probably less so, in fact), but there was more exposure. Also, in contrast to the ADKs, where there is good rock, the Dolomites featured a lot of scree, gravel, and loose stuff, which a few of my hikers had very little experience with. And neve.