Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Hike to the top of Italy

   The Dolomites located in northeast Italy, are regarded as among the most attractive landscapes in the world with vertical limestone pinnacles, spires and towers in a diversity of colors. The highest peaks at 1500 meters are the tallest limestone walls in the world. They were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2009.  During WWI, they formed the line between the Italian and Austrian-Hungarian forces.  The  protected footpaths, numbered 1-8, are the long distance trails that are hiked today, most take a week to complete. The most comprehensive guide, recommended by hikers is the Cicerone Guide, Walking in the Dolomites. We are hiking only a segment of path number 5 in the Val de Fane. 
       Breakfast is typical European style, hearty muesli cereals and breads, fruit,cheeses and hard boiled eggs. The early morning showers clear and by the time we are ready to leave, it looks like we will have dry weather for hiking, though our daypacks are stuffed full with raingear. 15 min north of Cortina in Fiames is the car park and trailhead and I am delighted and grateful that we actually made it here, found the trail, and won't be the "couple from California lost while hiking in Dolomites"! We walk through pine forests and along the aqua colored glaciated river that meanders through the Parc Nationale Dolomiti, stopping at Ponte Outo which looks down into a very deep flume and the river below. From here the trail splits into a gradual incline - a wider packed gravel mule road or a shorter but much steeper hiking path. We opt for the path and huff and puff our way up a 6 mile, 3,000 elevation climb, not for the faint of heart. Fortunately, we start at a respectable elevation of 4,000 ft. It is a pleasant hike with very few people and the occasional mountain bikers. The skies have cleared, leaving the cliffs with a dusting of snow, yes snow in early Sept. We later learn that the rifugios had accumulations of 10 inches of snow overnight!  Misty clouds float across the mountains that surround us on 3 sides.  The scenery is spectacular- gray and ochre colored striated sheer cliffs, green hills and babbling brooks.  
     At the end of the steady climb, 6 hours later, we reach 7,000 ft, traverse the pass and look down over a small valley, where 2 rifugios and a few wood cabins sit.  We make our way down the hill. Rifugio Fanes is the larger of the two, 3 stories high, cozy with wood interior and furniture. Built in 1928 and remodeled in 1969, it is run by the second generation of the original family and is bustling with activity. This is one of the most well furnished and comfortable rifugios- some are very basic hostel style huts. Nearby is Rifugio La Varella. Car service is only available from Pederu, a few miles to the north, for those with luggage. No shoes are permitted inside and the boot room is on the lower level, where you hang your boots soles facing out on individual pegs; the entire wall is covered with boot soles. 
     We have reserved a small private room with 2 twin beds; bathrooms are shared. The hut is so cozy and clean, it puts Yosemite's High Sierra camp to shame. Dinner is served in the large dining hall and we are directed to sit at one of the 6 long tables; our table-mates are couples from Germany and England, all avid hikers doing multi-day hut to hut journeys and they recount their worries of having to hike out in the snow after last night's storm, but to their relief, the snow melted quickly this morning. Conditions in the Dolomites are unpredictable and snowstorms frequently make trails impassable even  in the summer. 


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