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Trekking through the pale mounts

BY MARY TERRA-BERNS

I slipped out of our room at Rifugio Carestiato hours before breakfast was served. I didn’t want to miss it. The lightning close enough to touch, sonorous thunder and toad choking rain enveloped the rifugio. That was the final day of our eight-day, 90-mile, hut-to-hut hike on Alta Via 1 in the Dolomite Mountains of northern Italy. Alta Via 1, one of six hiking routes through the Dolomites, is considered the easiest because there are fewer exposed sections than on the other routes. But don’t be fooled, this trail is strenuous even for experienced hikers.

Our six-pack group started at Lago di Braies in the Italian Sud Tirol (southern Tirol region), the northernmost point of Fanes-Senes-Braies Natural Park. Lago di Braies is a popular tourist site with an interesting history. Hotel Pragser Wildsee, an architectural landmark built in 1899, hosted Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand and his family a few years prior to his assassination in Sarajevo, instigating World War I. In April 1945, at the end of World War II, the hotel welcomed 139 political prisoners from Dachau concentration camp after they were liberated from the German army near there.

After viewing the small chapel next to the hotel and snapping a few photos, we shouldered our packs and headed south around the lake and into the mountains. Originally called Monti Pallidi (Pale Mounts), the Dolomites were renamed in 1788 to honor French geologist Deodat de Dolomieu, who described the mountains’ primary component as calcium magnesium carbonate. We were wowed by the massifs, rock cliffs, pinnacles, parallelepipeds and 3,000-meter peaks as we hiked through the Pragser, Tofana and Civetta mountain groups. Although we didn’t travel through all nine units of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we did take in about 80 percent.

Military history is intermingled with the Pale Mounts. During WWI the front line of the conflict between Italy and Austria ran through these mountains, and open-air museums with the remnants of fortifications, trenches, tunnels and the metal cables, posts, stairs, bridges and ladders of the via ferratas (iron paths) are dispersed across the landscape. Austrian soldiers even tunneled beneath Marmolada Glacier, creating a labyrinth that connected several outposts.

We arrived at one of the most significant open-air museums after a couple of days on the trail. Naturpark FanesSennes-Braies, between Rifugio Scotoni and Rifugio Lagazuio, in the shadow of Lagazuoi Gran, reveals an open-air museum with remnants of numerous military fortifications and artifacts. At Rifugio Scotoni a small chapel displays wartime artifacts as well as the names of hundreds of soldiers killed when an avalanche buried them there in 1916.

We gained 1,100 feet hiking to Lagazuio Pass from Scotoni that morning and had three options for losing all that hard-won elevation: take the gondola, follow the trail or take a dark, damp tunnel into the next valley. We opted to take the tunnel.

An impressive maze of trenches leads to a narrow trail on a knife-edge ridge with a small entrance at the end. We all clicked on our headlamps and slipped from sunlight to darkness, broken by a few gunnery windows and various side rooms. We descended 2,000 feet through the rock into the next valley.

Our next few days were filled with more impressive mountains, vivid wildflowers highlighting “Sound of Music” alpine meadows, and very large, but generally friendly, alpine cows.

Arriving at Rifugio Carestiato, after many switchbacks, steep scrambles and extraordinary views we enjoyed a much-appreciated cold beer on the deck while watching the dark clouds mustering for the morning light show.

Although the trees were still dripping after the morning’s downpour, the day was breaking gorgeous. Eager to get on the trail, we gathered our gear, tightened our bootlaces and slipped on our sunglasses. Heading toward Moschesin Pass through Parco Nazionale delle Dolomiti Bellunesi, we crossed the scree-covered south slope of Mount Tamer and stopped to capture a few images of the craggy peaks behind us, which, unfortunately, were covered with ominous, dark clouds catching the wind and heading our direction. Our awareness of altitude and being on an exposed section became very keen.

Quickly donning raingear and slipping on waterproof pack covers, we prepared to double-time it down the trail. As lightning erupted from the clouds, we encouraged our group lollygagger to dig deep and move quickly. Once we reached a safe location, I became the lollygagger. The rest of the six-pack beelined it to our final rifugio, Malga Pramper, a working farm, for a warm shower and dry clothes. I, on the other hand, wanting to make the most of this final day in the Dolomites, slowed down and enjoyed the scenery in the pouring rain. 

TIPS FROM THE TREK

• We flew into Venice and took a coach bus to Cortina.

• July and August offer the best weather, but trails are busiest in August.

• No permits necessary, but reservations are highly recommended. We worked with a company called Distant Journeys. We opted for a self-guided trip, but the company booked our lodging.

• Speaking Italian is not required, but a little is helpful and appreciated.

• Most of rifugios we stayed at boarded us two or four people to a room, but we did have an eight-person room we shared with other trekkers. Sometimes we had a shower in our room, other times we shared a single one with limited hot water with many people.

• Less is better in terms of gear, but don’t skimp on the raingear and the socks. You can wash a few things in the sink, and sometimes a rifugio has laundry service for an extra charge.

Mary Terra-Berns is a freelance writer and editor with a master’s degree in fish and wildlife science from Texas A&M University. She has worked with, and written about, rare animals like wolverines and Canada lynx, as well as not-so-rare species like black bears and burbot. Her short summer days are often spent at high altitudes at home and abroad. Several of her thin-air chronicles have appeared in regional publications and presentations.

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