House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part I

10When God created the mountains, He made sketches of their various forms and deposited them in northern Italy. He scooped together a big lump that looked like Mont Blanc, plastered its north face with snow, and that was Marmolada. He crafted the perfect pyramidal shape of K2, with a little tuft of spindrift blowing off it, and that was Antelao. Last, He worked on towers and spires like those of Patagonia, and that was the Cadini of Misurina and Tre Cime. God, gaily at play in His mountain sandbox, was how the Dolomites came to be.

I decided to visit the Italian Dolomites last fall after returning from Chamonix. I whipped up a spreadsheet of the Alps’ coolest mountain races all organized by date; while Dolomites Skyrace was appealing for its location and tenure on the Skyrunning calendar, I couldn’t justify travelling to Europe for so short a race and wanted something earlier in the season. Lavaredo Ultra Trail was ideal, a gruelling 119km ultramarathon which took place among the same incredible scenery. It also became a focus of this trip early on to stay in some of the mountain refuges that dot the hills around Cortina before joining my friends in town before the race.

When I rolled my ankle in February, I expected it to be a small hiccup until I found myself in May struggling even to walk. My plans abruptly changed. I signed up for the 20km Cortina Skyrace but at my bleakest moment wasn’t sure my “cloven hoof” would allow me to walk around Calgary airport, let alone hike in the mountains or run a race.

Fast-forward through a series of physio appointments and rehabilitative exercises. On June 16th, vastly improved yet still on the injury fence, I stuffed ten days of supplies into my trekking pack and said, “Arrivederci, Banff!”

17/06/16 – Cortina to Croda da Lago
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After fifteen hours flying and two more on the bus, I arrived in Cortina at 2pm and immediately started hiking. It was a 10km/800m ascent to Rifugio Croda da Lago and to be honest, I was doubtful of my fitness and didn’t want to get there after dark. With the help of Google Maps, navigating out of town was easy and as all of the trails in the Dolomites are numbered and well-marked, finding the way to the rifugio wasn’t tough.

While climbing steep hills with a big pack is foreign to my body on a good day, I made fast progress up the muddy cowpath. This trail is also the final descent of the Lavaredo and Cortina Trail courses, so as I ascended I asked myself what sick, cruel course designer picked this slick, techy drop for fatigued runners in the last throes of those races.

Despite worrying about arriving at the rifugio after dark, I got there sooner than expected and dinner wasn’t served until 7pm anyway, something that was characteristic of rifugios I stayed at. So I went for a stroll to admire placid Lake Federa and returned to a meal of spinach dumplings drenched in butter sauce.

18/06/16 – Croda da Lago to Nuvolau
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For months leading up to this trip, the forecast had shown thunderstorms and rain, every single day, without any real nuance for how or when bad weather occurred. The prospect was thus a little daunting in the context of a trip based on sustained hiking above treeline. A little rain fell overnight at Croda da Lago but when I woke to a bluebird sky, I scarfed down breakfast and headed out the door.

I marched up to Forcella Ambrizzola, rounded the rear of the big spires that comprise Croda da Lago, then dropped into the Dolomites backcountry. For the next few kilometers, I played leapfrog with a couple mountain bikers resigned to pushing their bikes through the subalpine meadow more than actually riding them. Once we all reached the top of Forcella Giau I still felt relatively fresh, but one of the bikers turned to the other and asked, “Why did we bring these bikes?”

I descended the other side of this col en route to Passo Giau, a wide, paved pass that was clearly a popular destination for weekend motorcyclists and road bikers. At the rifugio, I ordered an espresso and apple strudel, then proceeded on my way.

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I traversed around the back of the imposing white tower Ra Gusela to a saddle called Forcella Nuvolau where Rifugio Averau is located. My destination for the night was Rifugio Nuvolau, precariously perched a hundred meters higher on a peak of the same name.

There was plenty of time before I needed to check in at Nuvolau, so I popped in to Averau and ordered another espresso and apple strudel. Then I headed down the hill to check out famed Cinque Torri below.

5 While the Summitpost page aptly describes these five towers as “amusing”, they exemplify the Dolomites in somewhat reduced scale. Rising from a plain, five bizarre, hulking structures seem to have been arranged — or emerged organically from the ground — as though in a great Zen garden.

6As the first storm of the day rolled in, I sheltered in one of many World War I-era bunkers built into the hill around Cinque Torri. When the rain momentarily let up, I made a break back up the hill for Nuvolau, as I heard thunder rumbling and could see another storm coming.

Before dinner at the rifugio, I lingered outside taking pictures as my skin began to tingle and the air got thick and fuzzy. The thought suddenly occurred that standing on a mountaintop with a metal box in my hand wasn’t the smartest thing to do, so I retreated beneath the overhang instead. The snow started to accumulate on the patio tables and the scene was transformed into winter.

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Dinner was spaghetti in olive oil and garlic; so simple but so tasty. I chatted with some folks from Oregon who are, safe to say, a model of how I hope to be when I am “old” and/or if I had kids. It’s supremely inspiring for me to see fitness and adventure carried into middle and old age, and furthermore to encourage it in one’s children.

After a long meal and varied discussion with the Oregonians, the storm cleared up and we rushed outside to observe Nature’s majesty. I don’t mind the crosses and Jesuses on top of every summit, but just look at the surroundings — especially at sunset, from a mountaintop, after a storm has passed — that’s the church, man.  7

19/06/16 – Nuvolau to Lagazuoi
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The day started a little stormy but not too bad. I made my way over Forcella Averau and beneath Croda Negra on a few of the more technical steps of this trek, although that isn’t saying much. It was simply that snow still choked a few steep descents through narrow gullies and a slip here would have sucked. Luckily I was able to spyly ski down them instead.

I reached paved Passo Falzarego (2105m) appallingly early so I killed time looking in the souvenir shops and brooding over an espresso — something which goes against both the meaning the word and the practice of drinking it in Italy.

After a brief episode looking for my poles (which the shopkeeper placed alongside umbrellas in some kind of storage bucket), I started the long slog to Lagazuoi. The path was like a museum of old war fortifications, which ascended to the mouth of gusty Val Travernanzes where I saw Rifugio Lagazuoi perched in the clouds.

9I’d learnt from my Oregonian rifugio-mates that the final stretch to Lagazuoi was still snowed in, and now I could see that it looked like a ski slope — in fact, I longed for my featherlight Dynafit PDGs and a pair of skins, that way I could get some turns in as well. But as it were, I only had my sneakers, so I slogged up the bootpack, cursing and wheezing in each labored breath.

I reached Rifugio Lagazuoi and proceeded to the slightly higher summit and watched as an aggressive-looking storm started rolling in. A wall of snow squall ominously devoured Antelao, then Sorapiss, then blotted out the Tofane group as well. By the time I made it back to the rifugio, conditions were so whiteout I could hardly see it fifty meters in front of me. For a group of German guys and two New Yorkers still struggling up the slope to Lagazuoi, apparently it was pretty nervewracking.

0We dined over a four course dinner as the skies cleared and the sunset lit it on fire. Then we all rushed out to take pictures. When you do a Google image search for something like “Dolomites rifugio”, this is the image that usually pops up: Rifugio Lagazuoi on the edge of a great cliff, above a sea of mountains bathed in golden light. Truly a powerful experience.

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20/06/16 – Lagazuoi – Giussani – Dibona
33I took my time leaving Lagazuoi in the morning as I’d consistently made good time and this was to be the shortest of my days. I had a few challenges navigating the snowfields in Val Travernazes but soon found myself travelling underneath a row of offensive positions tunneled into the face of Tofana di Rozes, a couple hundred meters off the deck. After spotting some chamois, I came to a big notch in the mountain separating peaks of the Tofane massif. Here I had a choice: I could see Rifugio Angelo Dibona, where I intended to lay my head , a little ways below. However, it was again too early to check in and do nothing, plus I had the opportunity to visit some neat, old rifugios up in the col above.

Going into this trip, I had planned to use the Dibona hut as a base for an ascent of Tofana di Rozes the following day. Throughout my trek, however, the summit had appeared really snowy, and though I’d brought Yaktrax expecting a little bit of snow, it looked more like an ice ax and crampon sort of scenario.

Slogging up to Rifugio Giussani confirmed my suspicions. The whole east face was still covered in deep snow with avalanche paths that streamed down and fanned out to the valley bottom. I popped into the rifugio and inspected the route a little closer over a bowl of soup. A few postholey bootprints started up the face but disappeared when they got to the avalanche path. While the route to the summit of Tofana di Rozes is supposed to be a “trail” of sorts when in good condition, it was more of a mountaineering endeavour at present.

Rifugio Giussani was one of the cooler rifugios I visited. While Lagazuoi was elegantly situated but had no real character of its own, Giussani had a true mountaineering tradition to it, as a base for daring ascents of the Tofane group.

The same was true of Dibona, down at treeline, where I spent the night. A hip and surprisingly young couple ran this rifugio where pictures of Angelo Dibona — dangling from rope ladders off the side of the Tofanes — covered the walls.

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21/06/16 – Dibona – Ra Vales – Cortina
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My buddy Jordan from Edmonton was due to arrive in Cortina later this day, but I still had lots of time to kill so I continued traversing around the base of Tofana di Mezzo and up to the last alpine rifugio of my trek, Ra Vales.

The snowy slog up (actual) ski slopes was giving me flashbacks to Lagazuoi. As I approached the rifugio, I saw no activity except for two guys smoking cigarettes who invited me inside anyways. The rifugio was still closed for the season and they were working on the cable car yet insisted on giving me coffee, Fanta and serving up a platter of meat and cheese. One of them held up an empty wine bottle with a disheartened expression and apologized for their lack of wine.

15-2After lunch we parted ways and I plummeted down the snow slope back to Forcella Ra Vales in a fraction of the time it took to get there. On my descent to town, I stopped to get water at Rifugio Col Drusie, then proceeded to visit Lake Ghedina, which was crystal clear and stocked with huge fish.

Not long after, I emerged onto the outskirts of Cortina and a big smile erupted across my face. The past five days had started out a little daunting but proved to be incredibly satisfying. On my trips to France last couple years, I’d rented a room in the valley and made daytrips into the mountains. On this trip, however, I found trekking hut to hut with everything on my back a much more fulfilling experience.

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The occasion called for pizza and beer, a combination Cortina caters in a way that is exquisitely gourmet. I took off my hiking pack and plopped onto a seat on the patio of Pizzaria Porto Rotondo, my table furnished with pristine linen, meticulously arranged cutlery and polished glasses. I was sunburnt, dirty and probably reeked; I found the juxtaposition amusing. The waiter took one glance in my direction and already knew what I wanted.

“A large beer?” he asked.

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part I

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