The surreal beauty of Italy’s Dolomite Mountain Range is legendary and well, you know how much we love a great hiking story. Read along as guest contributor, Susan Guillory from The Unexplorer, describes her amazing adventure hiking the Dolomite Mountains, which are, without a doubt, one of Italy’s most beautiful sites.
What I love about travel is discovering those surreal locales, those places that you can’t believe are actually real. The Dolomites, a mountain range located in northeastern Italy, were exactly that: out of this world.
Setting the Scene
I’m not — or at least, I wasn’t — the type of person to say “let’s thru-hike some really high mountains in Italy!”
But when my friend, Debbie, asked if I wanted to accompany her on this trip, I knew that I would always regret it if I said no. And so I went from being an amateur once-in-a-while hiker to one who trained for nine months to ensure that I was well-prepared for the challenging trails at higher altitude than I was accustomed to back home in San Diego.
The plan was this: we’d spend a week hiking from rifugio to rifugio, averaging about 8 hours of hiking when we could.
The Rifugio System
The Dolomites have what are called rifugios: simple mountain lodging catering to hikers. Some mountain huts were accessible by car, and the parking lots were full as Italians and even Austrians came to spend the day hiking shorter trails. Top that off with amazing, hearty mountain food like Austrian dumplings and polenta with wild mushrooms, and you have the full experience.
But others, like Rifugio Nuvolau, were only accessible by a trail and a ski lift. That one was a real experience: there was no hot water nor showers. During the day, the only toilet we had access to was outside, and just a hole in the ground. Our room was in the attic, with rafters slanting down over our sardine-style beds pushed together. I bumped my head as soon as I got up in the morning.
Heaven on Earth Views
Hiking either the Alta Via 1 or Alta Via 2, the primary trail systems in the Dolomites, is not for the faint of heart. Rather than using switchbacks to make mounting an incline slightly easier the way we do in the US, the trails simply inched straight up at what seemed to be a 90-degree angle.
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But oh, the views. They made it all worthwhile. Like I said: some places are surreal. You can’t believe these places exist while the rest of the world is shaken by political upheaval, war, and poverty. Every time I’d get frustrated at the difficulty of the hike, I’d stop, look around, and realize how lucky I was to be there. Relatively few people had this opportunity to experience such a magical world.
On the first day, starting Alta Via 1 from the magnificent Lago di Braies, I quickly found myself dizzy and out of breath. The trail was the steepest I’d ever hiked. I made a deal with myself: if I could hike two minutes, I could take a breath. Yes, it took forever to reach the top, but I came out alive!
Fortunately the other days weren’t as challenging … until the storm.
Walking Lightning Rods
That day was long. We’d already put in a good five hours, and been disappointed that Rifugio Lagazuoi was booked. We were forced to push on another couple of hours to get to Rifugio Nuvolau (with no hot shower as the carrot to dangle in front of us).
That’s when I saw the ominous clouds over the next mountain range, then heard the sky grumble. We hadn’t hit any bad weather yet, and I was being optimistic that we could get through the entire trip without hiking through rains. It looked like I was about to be proven wrong.
Debbie and I sped it up. She kept stressing the importance of us not being out in the open. I didn’t know what choice we had. I realized that our metal hiking poles were essentially lightning rods, and I became nervous about carrying them.
At one point, I had a meltdown. I knew we needed to keep moving, but my body and mind were exhausted, and I was afraid. Debbie sat me down, fed me nuts and electrolyte water, and eventually I regulated my breath and continued on.
I’d never seen us truck as fast as we did that day. We made it up the final climb to where Nuvolau was perched at the crest of the mountain. Thankgully, the rains went the other way.
Hiking the Dolomites was one of the most strenuous experiences I’ve ever had, both mentally and physically. But knowing that I accomplished my goal, and now having memories and amazing photos to enjoy made the effort worthwhile.