Saturday, September 30, 2017

Italy's mighty Dolomite Alps

Katie and I atop Lagazuoi ready to descend the tunnels 
My sweetie using the Via Ferrata cables

The iconic Cinque Torri spires we traversed

We also traversed the Tre Cime chimneys on an otherwise blustery day

At one of the innumerable rifugios, this one built in the 19th century 
We hiked to a rifugio in this region

Crucifix shrines were numerous along the trails
We're back from a three week trip in Italy's Dolomite (Tyrolean) Alps.
They're located directly south of Innsbruck, Austria in the northeast corner of Italy, pressing up against Austria.  The area feels more Austrian than Italian.
I wasn't prepared for the jaw-dropping beauty of this mountain range, with its jagged peaks and glaciers.
The mountains rise straight up at high angle several thousand feet from high, green, valley floors.
No one could have prepared me for the quaint agricultural villages with so many ski lifts that I stopped counting them.
It seemed as though each trailhead had little lodges called refiguios at trail heads, intersections, and at  high mountain passes, some of them impossibly balanced on rock.  I found the best food of the trip at these rifugios.
The valleys, even below the ski lifts, are grazed by dairy cattle that produce a wide variety of local cheeses.  Unlike our western U.S. cattle, these weren't running amuck, fouling streams and getting into everything.  They were belled and grazed in steep, electrically fenced pastures.
Besides spectacular hiking trails in every direction, with well-marked alpine trails starting in every town, what draws people here are the remains of WWI, where the Italians pushed the Austrians north, beyond the Dolomites.
Climbers and hikers are drawn to the "Via Ferratas," iron and wire cables that follow precipitous routes along the sides and to the tops of these mountains.  This allowed the Italians to hold the high ground and see where the Austrians were and to shoot down on them.  Believe me, these cabled routes are breath-taking and seemingly impossible to climb without special gear;  climbing helmet, climbing harness, leather gloves, and a special Via Ferrata harness to attach to the cables.
We saw and hiked some of the most famous routes, like traverses around the Tre Cime and Cinque Torri spires, took many lifts for views and trailheads, ate and rested an innumerable rifugios, and saw many battle sites and fortifications, and some open air and indoor museums.  One particular thrill was to hike the thousands of stairs over a kilometer in distance built within a mountain, the so-called Lagazuoi Tunnels.
We had flown into Munich, rented a car and headed over the Alps through Austria where we stayed in four small towns below various clusters of Dolomite peaks and trailheads.
For more than two weeks of the trip the weather was atrocious with snow and rain, finally clearing into what I'd call an Indian Summer that allowed us a bit more trail freedom.
The trails here are steeper than what American hikers are accustomed to, marked by paint on stone or trees.  I couldn't imagine wandering off-trail like I do in Montana, mainly because the trail dropoffs are so precipitous.
The only communities we visited were Bolzano, which had a decidedly Austrian/Hapsburg feel and an incredible museum dedicated to the Otzi Man, the 5,000 year old hunter whose well-preserved remains were found in a glacier; and Cortina, the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics, a very trendy and expensive place that is a playground for the 1 per-centers.
High mountains, low green valleys mark the Dolomites

A graveyard of Italian soldiers and supporters in WWI.  The Austrians have been removed to Austria. 15,000 men died.

Typical hiking route in dairy cattle country
In the small town of Sesso we enjoyed a local festival where the dairy cattle were herded into town and there was music, dancing and other festivities all day long.
Since I was the designated driver I had the experience of driving on the narrow roads of the Alps with their hair-pin curves that left little room for error.  The roads were quite crowded, too:  strings of Porsche rally-cars, lines of bicyclists, black-clad motorcyclists who darted past, even on blind curves.
The atmosphere of the Dolomites was highly busy.  In a matter of minutes on most days at the trail heads we could see para-sailers who had jumped off peaks gliding to the valley floor, serious rock climbers, mountain bikers negotiating impossibly steep terrain, and hoards of people on each trail, no matter what the weather was like.  And, this was the off-season!
Some takeaways:

  • This area is overcrowded with high end tourists
  • The scenery is worth the trip alone
  • The rifugios are something American recreation spots in the West might want to consider
  • The insanity of WWI is everywhere in the Via Ferrata routes
  • Be prepared for the Austrian influence in this Italian province.  It is decidedly German here, language and food and all
  • Although crowded, the trails are worth hiking
  • Residents are helpful, and multi-lingual, and when they can't speak English, still easy to communicate with
Once again, we flew in and out of Calgary, where the fights are about half the cost of American cities and the flights shorter and more direct.  We paid $750 U.S. for a roundtrip ticket to Munich.  The flight from Calgary to London is 8 hours with an hour layover, and another hour to Munich.  Try that from Great Falls!
It was great to be back in Great Falls.  The summer wildfires were out, there is new snow in the mountains, the Fall colors are on full display and the air is finally clear!
Of course, I headed directly to the mountains despite some jet-lag.
I climbed Windy Peak in the Highwood Mountains on Thursday.  The best Fall colors are still a week off.
On Friday I climbed an unnamed 8,280 feet peak off-trail north of Renshaw Mountain off Benchmark Creek on Friday, gaining 3,500 feet.  It may have been the best day of the year:  temps in the 70s, no winds, clear skies, snow on the mountain tops, and visibility deep into the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas.
It gave me a chance to compare and evaluate what I had just seen in the Dolomites with the Bob Marshall country.
There's no comparing the sheer majesty of the Dolomites.  They simply rise more sharply than the Bob peaks.
But, the Dolomites offer no solitude.  They are an anthill of people, many of them well-heeled travelers from around the world.  Our Front and the Bob, also limestone peaks, offer a wilderness experience that can't be matched by the Dolomites and the experience is free and accessible to those of us in Montana, who don't work for high wages.
My hike up the mountain Friday gave me a much greater sense of satisfaction than anything I had experienced in Northern Italy the previous three weeks.
I'm so happy to be home.
Back home Friday walking a Bob Marshall ridgeline ---- my favorite landscape of all!