#10 Europe: A Day in the Dolomites (summer 2011)


    We’ve lost track of how many times we’ve visited the Italian Dolomites but initially we marked time there in days, now it is measured in weeks. Friends and family have repeatedly asked if it is really so special and the answer is always the same “Yes, it is.” A recent day hike from the tiny village of Arabba typified why we find our time there so enchanting.
    This day’s hike began with a several minute walk from our room to take a swift gondola ride from our host village of Arabba at 5,300’ to the Portavescovo station at about 8,200’.  We pressed our noses to the glass with the few other passengers who were also “oooo’ing” and “aaaah’ing” each time it seemed that our car would slam into a rock face on its impossibly steep upwards course or when another stunning panorama suddenly came into sight. Watching the electrified expressions on the pair of nervous young Italian brothers and the sight of the German hiker photographing the cable mechanisms spiced-up the outdoor spectacle with a little indoor amusement.

    Zipping up the collars on our multiple layers of clothing and pulling our hats lower as the summit winds hit us at the top, we lingered to take in the 360 degree view of the dozens of near and distant peaks. We were transfixed by the in-your-face look at Gruppo Marmolada, the area’s iconic glacier-covered row of peaks. We’d seen Marmolada many times, but never so close at eye level.

    It had been an unusually wet and cold July and we felt lucky to see Marmolada’s glistening ice covering at all and even luckier to have it framed by a bit of blue sky. “Marmolada” was a name we learned our first year in the Dolomites and its associated stories bubbled up from our memories while we stared like voyeurs at the exceptional view. 

Iconic “Marmolada” with its many glaciers was the backdrop to our day.

    Marmolada was the hot-spot of the WWI battles in the Dolomites and troops were perilously entrenched in tunnels within the shifting glacial ice. More combatants lost their lives in these mountains during WWI from avalanches and other elements-related causes than from the fire power.

   Two years ago, British hikers had shared their stories of being storm-bound in a mountain hut on Marmolada and of course, the obvious recession of the multiple glaciers were potent reminders of the global warming issues.

  The history of the Marmolada we knew was still swirling in our minds when we fixed our gaze on the several inches of snow on the ground beneath us that had fallen 36 hours earlier--snow that threw our day’s route into question. We always make a point to avoid hiking in snow but after a brief assessment, we decided to head-out in our Vibram 5 Fingers anyway. The sun was making a brief morning appearance and our path wouldn’t take us much higher--we expected to stay warm even though our feet would be instantly wet in the fresh snow and slush.

    Unlike most of the surrounding mountains, this ridge clearly wasn’t made from dolomite and we quickly encountered mud, which is all but unheard of in this region of the Alps. I was puzzled by this black, coffee-grounds-like mud far above tree line and quickly ran through my short list of people I might ask about it when back in town. But like so often is the case, I realized my geology questions would go unanswered. Our rather stand-offish hosts spoke no English and they didn’t seem likely to help us out with such a discussion with our limited command of Italian and German. The tourist info lady had made it clear than she wasn’t available for any discussion that required more than a single sentence answer, and no one else in the village seemed accessible for that kind of chit-chat.  As overseas travelers, we’d learned long ago that we had to restlessly reconcile ourselves to having far more questions than answers and so it would be today.

    Carefully planting our feet with every step made for slow going but the slippery surface on the increasingly steep slope made it compelling. Then sense of adventure shifted to serious concerns for our safety when the mud got even slicker on a dangerously precipitous face. Ruminations about Marmolada evaporated; staying alive became paramount. The back-burner thoughts instead shifted to the frequent assessment of “How much risk is too much? Is this really more dangerous than riding a bike in traffic? What will we do if it gets even more treacherous?”  Just about any all-day hike we make in the Dolomites has moments or minutes that feel uncomfortably dangerous. The challenge is to note when the risk crosses that line into the unacceptable category, but that always-wiggling line makes it hard to be objective.

Bravely heading out in his Vibram 5 Fingers, despite the August snow fall.

    We were less than an hour into our hike when it became clear that this was one of those rare occasions when sharing 1 pair of hiking poles was woefully inadequate and each having 2 poles would have been far superior.  Presumably a pole in each hand would have spared me from skidding on my bum in the slick mud. “I’m soaked through” was my first thought as the snow melt and mud quickly saturated my 3 layers of clothing and I finally skidded to a stop. Bill’s first thought had been “At least she won’t go over the edge here.”

    Annoyed but back on my feet, we continued picking our way down the steep, muddy trail until the footing was secure enough for me to mop up. I was annoyed that I had fallen at all; I was annoyed about being muddy; and I was annoyed that I now had several hours of hand washing my heaviest clothes ahead of me that night.

  But our years of long cyclotouring days had taught me to quickly set such indulgent emotions aside and to instead turn my attention to my safety during the many remaining hours outdoors. My immediate concern was dodging the inevitable chilling from being in wet clothes when the predicted afternoon rains arrived, which would drop the temperatures to near-freezing if we were still at elevation when they hit. 

    Bill patiently used my new hankie-sized viscose camp towel to squeeze the water out of each successive layer of clothing covering my rear-end and to remove as much of the mud as possible because the mud would retard the evaporation. The clouds now blocking the warming rays of the sun made it too cold remove my long john bottoms, though I’d hoped to dry them on the outside of my pack while we walked. The revised plan was for him to pull as much water out as possible with the tiny towel and then I’d place the 3 paper towels we had with us between my layers of clothes to aid in drying them in place, on my body. He wrung out my fleece gloves and I continued to wear them rather than risk getting my pair of lightweight gloves wet so early in the long hike.

    We were completely out of the snow by the time I was cleaned up and soon the footing was enough more secure that we could pick-up some speed on the trail--speed that would warm me and consequently my wet clothes. Whistling marmots started appearing and our new entertainment became trying to spot them among the rocks. The shift in attention that they triggered helped us both relax on the safer-feeling trail. Once again we focused on admiring Marmolada from our new angles, contemplating the joy of spending long hours surrounded by such stunning scenery, and eyeing the increasingly threatening weather.

“Shhhh, there’s the marmot at the base of the big rock.”

    Only a little below the 8,000’ level, the slopes were now shallow enough to have occasionally caught one of massive chunks of rock that had snapped off the jagged peaks above us. The conglomerate-type material with 1’ diameter, rounded inclusions looked like old river bottom, not uplifted ancient coral reefs that define the Dolomite Mountains. The decidedly non-dolomite rock echoed our earlier observations about the unexpected mud and I unsuccessfully revisited how I might learn more about the geology of this ridge of radically different rock.  We became even more curious when a patch of flatter land had collected a labyrinth of these massive boulders, verifying that it was indeed the predominant material. Having our trail weave in and around the towering cluster of stones added a bit of hide-and-seek playfulness to the day.

    We scooted along as our winding trail headed upwards onto a steep, nearly barren ridge again, pausing frequently to study the new views available as we slowly began turning a broad second corner on our day’s route. During our pauses, our attention was also drawn to the threatening weather and to assessing the wind direction because we’d want to eat our picnic lunch in a sheltered area before the promised rains arrived.

    Shortly after our eastward journey paralleling the massive presence of Marmolada made its turn north, we found a rare makeshift bench on a spur-route of our trail. The grayed-wood slab propped just off the ground would be much warmer against my almost-dry clothes and bum than our usual perch of a well-positioned rock. Our lunchtime entertainment of gazing off at peaks was spiced up by a local shepherd wearing a typical bright blue apron and his dog walking close enough to us for the black herder to sniff our sandwiches. While the shepherd seemed to cat-nap on a hummock farther down the trail, we wondered if we’d snitched his favorite resting place.        

    Whether it was the gangly bearded shepherd, the dramatic setting, or the cumulative experience of the day, Bill found himself reflecting on Otzi, the Copper-Age Ice Man that was found mummified in the peaks some years ago. Our thoughts detoured to seeing his remains and kit in the fine Bolzano museum several times and to what life must have been like for him 5,000 years ago. Of course my first thought based on my own experiences of the day was “He was always wet and cold.”

    A little stiff and chilled from sitting too long for the conditions, we imagined what Otzi felt like with his significant arthritis as we carefully picked our way down a zig-zagged trail on a loose-rock face on the north side of the saddle we just crossed. First I was surprised while constantly looking down at my feet on the trail to discover a tarnished 1 Euro coin in the rubble and then I was startled when I looked up to see a hunched over, older woman poling her way towards us. Her harshly quizzical look turned to a smile when she made the switch to processing my English “We talked to you 2 days ago at the bus stop in Arabba--we’re the one’s on bikes.” She clearly enjoyed the amusement of the chance encounter as much as I did because after she passed us, we heard her shouting in Italian to her friend above us. It wasn’t the first time I’d recognized someone from a prior exchange in the villages or on the trails in the Dolomites and much to our mutual surprise, I bumped into her a third time 2 days later.

Once again mingling with small herds of livestock in the high meadows.

    Our mud ‘n snow event was well behind us by the time we descended the rough saddle face to begin the next phase of our hike, which would be a more tranquil, high-meadow event. Here we strolled along and through rocky meadows a little above the 7,000’ level. Small herds of tan-colored horses, white-spotted cows, and dirt-stained sheep added foreground interest to our continuous scanning of the latest wide-angle view of the area’s peaks.

    The multiple ear tags on the fat cows had us reflecting on the new terminology we’d learned during the BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) outbreak just before we began our extended travels, harsh but amusing phrases like “downer cows.” But these girls all looked healthy enough and we appreciated the accountability provided by their annoying looking tags that we now always habitually looked for. We no longer eat beef but it’s good for everyone to contain such outbreaks.

    We watched nearby valleys and jagged ridges become engulfed in fast-moving rain showers. We looked for the latest marmot announcing our arrival in to his territory and gave-up trying to catch a convincing photo of one. And we grinned when we noticed the latest wildflower bouquet that had collected between our nearly barefoot toes. “Up-down-and-around” there is always something new to marvel at when in the Dolomites, something new to contemplate.

    We lost track of our pasture land trail and decided it didn’t matter. Our next junction was at the crest of a rise that was easy to keep in sight as we walked. There didn’t appear to be any troublesome drop-offs to scuttle our efforts so we were content to forge our own route through the low-growing meadow grasses.

Finally, a better look at rather shabby marmot.

    I pronounced my clothes dry and my still-damp fleece gloves sufficiently warm by the time we thought we’d be wearing our rain gear in the mid-afternoon. But the sprinkles in our micro-climate didn’t escalate to a soaking rain, and we happily continued on towards the larch and pine forest descent without bundling up.

    At the rise above the forest, we stared at the remains of the WWI trenches and tunnels routed through the rocky plateau. Like when being captivated by the  sight of Marmolada, our thoughts quickly turned to the horrors and the enormous suffering of being a foot solider in these mountains during the Great War. We gathered bits from our memories of TV war movies and the lingering images from visits to area museums in previous years and overlaid them on these foliage-filled trenches. It’s always odd to juxtapose our reality, which is that we come to these mountains for the joy of it, with the pain and loss that was the reality for the troops when they were here.

    Often in the Dolomites one can spot the entrances to WWI tunnels and gun emplacements in the rock and this particular area was peppered with them. The reminders of the war add to our reverence for the area. The war is a sad part of its history but knowledge of it adds depth and breadth to our experience--it’s not just about us in the moment or being in nature--it’s also about centuries and millennia of other people’s lives that were lived here.

    Harsh winds, chilling snow, treacherously slick mud, and rubbly meadows felt through our thin soles had etching themselves in our physical-body memories this day. Stunning views had filled us with joy.  And the historical and present hazards of being on foot had busied our minds while on the high ridges. The final phase of our long day would be about being surrounded by lush undergrowth and then in a larch forest as we made our final 2,000’ descent back to Arabba.

Meadow flowers brightened the gray day.

   Leaving the WWI trenches behind, we soon overlapped with a trail we’d explored the day before. We were both quick to remember “This is where we saw the red deer and heard him barking.” Lucky for us we’d read a trilingual sign board about the deer on the way up that day or we would have been terrified by that event.

    We’d been trudging up a steep trail through dense foliage and not far above us we had heard the barking. “Dogs, it’s dogs” we both thought as we froze. The sounds of marmots, sheep, cows, fellow hikers and perhaps distance motorcycles are familiar sounds in the Dolomites but never dogs, so it couldn’t be good. But we didn’t have time to assess the unseen threat because in the next instant the red deer went charging by, still barking. We checked the sign board again on the way back that day, a sign the deer had clearly ignored, because it was both the wrong time of day and wrong time of year for him to be announcing himself. But safely out of his way, we felt privileged to have had the encounter the day before and vividly relived it as we stepped where he had stepped on our descent.

    As we picked our way down the treacherously steep trail to Arabba, we again reflected on the day. Like almost every outing in the Dolomites, it had had its moments that were scary to the point of feeling foolish and its moments in which we were energized by the sense of adventure. Walking these trails always triggers the recalling of history: topics like the Great War, the Copper-Age Ice Man discovered nearby, and “What it was like when....” Bilingual and occasionally trilingual signs nudge us to improve our foreign language vocabulary a little while we walk. The quieter intervals at lunch and on easy stretches of trails often are times of reflection when we share deeper thoughts, feelings, and inquiries. And these trails give us a benchmark so that we can congratulate ourselves on the progress we’ve made in our hiking skills and our overall fitness. A day in the Dolomites is always a rich, rewarding experience and nothing else we do compares with it.

If you are considering the Italian Dolomites as a destination, check-out our other website at velofun.us - Italy/Dolomites or our specific recommendations of where to go, when to go, and options for getting around.

Below are other images from our often snow-laced hikes in the Dolomites this year.