Facing the Wrath of the Gods on the Alta Via in the Dolomites

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The Dolomites in all their rugid glory

The Dolomites in all their rugged glory

I’m at 2000m, it’s late afternoon and I’m climbing in the clouds, visibility zero. The wind howls around me swirling the heavy rain ripping into my waterproofs. I know the mountain hut is ahead of me, as I’ve seen it earlier perched on the edge of a cliff, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. Worse, there’s thunder around, rumbling just above me, and there’s the occasional flash of lightening. Now I’m really scared but I can only press on regardless.

It all started when I’d seen pictures of the immense cathedral-like spires of the Northern Dolomites and learnt that they’re the perfect backdrop for one of Europe’s classic long distance treks. Forget about luxury hotels, the only accommodation is in mountain huts, known as Rifugios and I’ll have to carry everything on my back – no transport of baggage here. The Alta Via 1 runs for around 140 km and my eight day walk will involve daily distances of between 9 and 16.5 km, with ascents of up to 900m and descents of up to 1300m. I decide that this will be a tough but rewarding challenge

In the weeks beforehand I get my kit together and meticulously weigh every item I’m going to be carrying. I read advice about cutting off the handle of my toothbrush and tags on my clothes but decide this is absolutely ridiculous. After all the whole point of doing this trek is to get fit and lose weight but I do finally get the total down to around 6kg, although with 2 litres of water increases it to 8kg. My pack feels heavy.

Rifugio Sennes

Rifugio Sennes

I fly to Venice and it’s then a bus journey to Cortina and then two further buses to the start of the Alta Via 1. Lago di Bràies is a beautiful lake full of day trippers, all taking it easy. I’m steeling myself for 800m of ascent under the heat of the midday sun. My rucksack feels uncomfortable even though I’ve meticulously adjusted it by watching YouTube videos. Round my neck I’ve got a mapcase and compass, feeling very professional, but an Italian hiker stops me and tells me I won’t be needing it. I soon find out he’s right, every path is immaculately signed, all are numbered – it’s just a matter of…hiking by numbers.

I’d also worried about sleeping in dormitories, crammed together with exhausted walkers snoring for Eurovision. So I’d purchased special earplugs on Amazon and read the advice to arrive early at the mountain hut so I could choose the best bunk. I’d even panicked a few days before I let and asked the tour company whether I could upgrade to a single room but was told it wasn’t possible.

So, tired after my hard first day, I check into Rifugio Sénnes reasonably early and they allocate me a space under the eaves in one of two beds laid end to end. I think I’ve done well until I realise that I’m stuck in a corridor with direct access to the toilets and kids are using it as a racetrack. This is not a good start but later I learn to be more assertive and even manage to avoid those basic dormitories of mountain refuges – mattresses crammed side by side so you can embrace your fellow traveller without even moving.

mpntains reflected in the lake

mountains reflected in the lake

My life now settles into a pattern – woken at 6.30 am by stirrings in the dorm, a good breakfast of bread, salami, cheese and strong coffee before donning my boots and getting out of the door before 8. Walk down 800m to the valley then walk back up on the other side in a long slog, arrive at the Rifugio, have a large beer, shower, take a nap and sit down to a hearty dinner of pasta, meat and dessert with half a litre of red wine. In bed by 9.30, fall sound asleep until woken again at 6.30.

As I approach the end of my trek the weather worsens and I see less and less of the craggy peaks and piercingly blue mountain lakes. Fortunately all the days of constant walking means that I’m not just physically fitter but mentally stronger as well. So, when I find myself enshrouded in mist trapped by a mountain thunderstorm, I don’t panic but rely on putting one foot in front of the other, making my way stoically upwards. Completely soaked, I suddenly see the mountain hut in front of me and realise why they’re called Rifugios in Italian. I’ve reached my shelter from the storm and lived to fight another day.

For more about the Dolomites, click here.

 

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