The Alta Via 3
The Alta Via 3 starts in the charming town of Villabassa, 1150m, in the Pusteria valley. From its main square I headed SE through quiet streets for less than a km until I reached the railway line and the start of the track. I Zig-zagged under the railway line and over the main road in the valley to reach a grassy field.
Soon even the quiet streets of Villabassa seemed far away as I climbed up this alp until I was looking down on the spire of the impressive church. When the track got to a small parking place I crossed a bridge and then started climbing up a sustained track to the east of the river. This track climbed in the dark fir and spruce for a couple of hours until I burst out of the forest and emerged at a small alp pasture and dairy, called Magla Pozza-Putzalm, which now serves food and drink in the hiking season.
After this alp the route left the track and followed a steeper path climbing to the east through more fir forest until it gave way to larch and the light started to reach the forest floor. The route veered south again after half an hour, but it continued to climb up the north side of the craggy Sarlkofel mountain, often steeply.
I kept climbing past the tree line and into the pine shrub and slogged up the final slopes to reach Sarl Sattel pass, 2229m, at the end of a near continuous 1100 metre climb which took me well over 3 hours. There was a bench here and I made a beeline for it and plonked myself down, the back of my shirts a sweaty mess. it was only when I recovered a bit I noticed it was a fantastic view. Soon afterwards the German man who I chatted with a bit on the way up arrived and we had lunch here,
There were tremendous views down the hill we had just come up to the green fields of the Pusteria Valley and also awesome views south to some of the precipitous craggy massifs of the Dolomites with their sawtooth ridges of spires. My route over the grassy alps to the base of Picco di Vallandro was clear.
I parted company with the German here as he was climbing the nearby Sarlkofel mountain and headed south for a magnificent couple of kilometres. The route which was relatively small went across a alp past a sunburnt log cabin with cowbells gently ringing across the meadows. All around there were immense mountains all of which were very steep. This euphoric walk quickly displaced my unpleasant slog up the slope and reminded me what I loved about the Dolomites.
At the far end of the meadow the path climbed towards Picco di Vallandro to a junction by the Flodige Sattel, 2099m, The main path seemed to go down to the east to the large valley while the small path I wanted went west round Picco di Vallandro. I was surprised just how small and faint it was, this was obviously not a well used route.
Pretty soon the path crossed a wide scree field. In two places dry river beds cut into the scree. there must have been some tremendous rains in the last year or two as these river beds had seen violent torrents flowing down them carrying boulders the size of cars. They had completely destroyed the track across the scree and it was now a precarious scramble over the stream beds, as they were a ravine of stones. It was slow precarious work.
Eventually I got across the scree and then climbed up zig-zags in the large and dwarf pine to yet another pass, this one called the Kirchler Scarte, 2280m. I had another break here as I was some 6 hours into my hike now, A few cloughs circled overhead waiting for a scrap I might leave on this sunny flower-filled grassy pass. The view to the west over the red Croda Rossa showed where a huge rockfall had occurred a few years ago and to the south it was to the very jagged towers of Monte Cristallo, which still had snow on it from last weeks unusual snowfall.
I set off down the steep path to the south of the ridge back into the larch trees again and losing some 200 metres until I was at the bottom of the precipitous west ridge of Picco di Vallandro. Here there must have been a tricky via ferrata section but it was now made much easier by wooden steps. There were cables to secure yourself to from a harness but it was not necessary to dig the harness out, although a fall off the steps would have been fatal.
There was now an even bigger scree slope to cross. Where the path existed it was easy but in 3 places the violent torrents had washed a 20-30 metre section away and descending down into and climbing out of the ravine was difficult. It would be dangerous in rain. As I sweated up out of the last one a chamois leapt nimbly across the scree slopes higher up. After the scree there was a very nice small forest path to weave along for a km and this took me gently up to a gate I had seen for the whole traverse.
I walked through the gate into a different world. Suddenly there were expanses of gentle green grass flowing gently down the mountainside in a secret valley. It was a Shangri La and just what I hoped for. There was even a clear cool stream to drink from. It did not take long, even in my weary state, to skip across this meadow listening to the cow bells getting ever louder for a few km until I reached the delightful Magla Prato Piazza alp and dairy. I could see two large hotels to my west. I was tempted but they looked far too expensive for walkers to stay at.
Besides it was just another 2 km down an easy path across the meadow, which was full of healthy looking cows, to Rifugio Vallandro, which is more of a walker/mountaineers lodge. they had no rooms left so I got the top buunk in a nearly full 10 bed dorm. I was not as tired as I feared I might be after a sedentary month at home. A quick shower, and a rather boring polenta meal afterwards restored my composure. It was not a particularly nice Rifugio, quite perfunctory really, but it would do me. It was a long 9 hour day with 1500 km up and 620 down with over 17 km so I knew I would sleep well but I was not totally knackered.
I did not get too many disapproving looks at breakfast from my 8 other roommates so they must have all had earplugs. The beautiful weather outside would also dispel any of their any resentment with a disturbed sleep. Monte Cristallo was looking especially sharp in the crisp morning light.
I managed to get away at 0800 made good time up to the Strudel Sattel pass, which was just a half hours climb from the Rifugio. There was a couple with me but they headed up to Mont Specie, nothing more than a small knoll on the south ridge of the Vallandro massif, but no doubt with a great view this morning. I had a long day so did not want to deviate and pushed on down the valley.
Initially the route went to the north and quickly descended to the larch and then firs as it descended into the slot of Val Chiara. After a good half hour it crossed the stream by some old fortifications and then climbed up the south side of the valley. It was a sensational traverse as it crept along natural ledges and some formed paths for a good half km until it climbed over a spur with more fortifications and a tunnel. Some of this section had via ferrata protection, but it was hardly essential.
From the tunnel through the spur the path now dropped in a more determined fashion to the valley floor. Huge mountains rose precipitously on the far side of the deep Landro valley I was heading into, and to the north I could see the town of Dobbiaco in the main Pusteria valley.
After some two and a half hours of descent I finally reached the valley floor which was busy with people parking up to start their outdoor day on foot or cycle. I went into the Tre Cime Hotel by the road to have a radler and cake and prepare myself for the climb. As I relaxed the Russian couple from St Petersburg also arrived as did the couple who went up Mont Specie. They were all going to the Tre Cime area.
I found the various accounts of the official route of the Alta Via 3 a bit confusing. Some descriptions say it should go down the valley towards Misurina, others even said take a bus to Misurina or even Tre Croci Pass before continuing to Rifugio Vandelli. These all seemed a bit messy and certainly not within the spirit of the route which the creators envisaged. There was another variation which went up a near 1000 metre climb to Mont Piano and then to Refugio Boci before descending further to Misurina. This seemed to be the most authentic option and I am sure the one the originators chose, but their choice is buried under newer and more lily-livered options. As the weather was still good, although the cloud was rolling in, I opted for this high level variation, even if it did add a day to the whole route.
So I said my goodbyes and headed across the grassy fields to the start of the climb, which looked foreboding from here. The path I was going up was called the Sentiero del Pionien (The Pioneers Path). As is often the case the path is not nearly as precipitous as it looked and the first half was just a series of switchbacks up the steep hillside covered in dwarf pine shrub.
There were some trickier sections in the upper half as it wove between crags with a few sections with cables but I did not find it necessary to use them. I only passed one person coming down on the whole climb and saw no one going up. Near the top of the climb the path headed off along a ledge for a few hundred metres with huge cliffs above and below. Surprisingly this exciting section was not protected with cables. Once the ledge was over it was a short jaunt to rounded grassy top of Mont Piano, by now my legs were tired and I was delighted to see much of the rest of the day was almost level.
The euphoria of reaching the top and the stunning view in every direction was tempered by the fact that the whole plateau of this mountain and the adjoining Mont Piana where carved up into trenches, tunnels, bunkers and gun emplacements. it covered an area a kilometre long and half wide. There were also tangles of barbed wire and notices explaining what all the defences were, and which unit built them. It was a first world war open museum. I assumed these defences were all Italian against the Austrians, as this was where the front line went. Off course after the was the Austrians were punished by having South Tyrol taken from their control and handed to the Italians.
There were dozens of people, perhaps a 100 in all, looking at these fortifications. These all meant nothing to me and it was sad to see a great mountain vandalized like this. However, I suppose for them their Great Grandfather’s blood was in these rocks and tales of heroic events had passed down the generations to these spectators.
I had a good look around the massifs here which to the east were the massifs of the Sexton Dolomites. The most striking of these was the Tre Cime and they were right in front of me rising from the grassy plateaus and boulder fields which surround them. No less impressive was the very jagged Cadini di Misurina to the south of the Tre Cimes. I could easily see the rifugios I stayed on on the Alta Via 4 amongst them including the wonderful Fondo Savio.
It was just a short 2 km walk across this mountain top plateau of stone debris and some meadows of alpine flowers to the long awaited Rifugio Boci. The road to it is not open except for a fleet of shuttle landrovers which bring the hordes up from Lake Misurina at 1750m to here at 2205metres so I was hopeful for a bed when I went in. However even the dormitories were fully booked. I was gutted and perplexed how this could be in September. The host explained there was another Rifugio an hour away so I reluctantly had to carry on to Rifugio Lago de Antomo.
It was a steep descent down the track for half an hour and then another half hour through forest. it was an easy descent but I was tired and could not enjoy the surroundings. The path disgorged me out of the forest and right beside a lovely lake with lots of Grebes floating on it. The Rifugio was beside it, but even before I went in I was pessimistic. It was right beside the road up to the Tre Cime plateau and there were car tourists everywhere. Indeed it was also full. I was now annoyed at my predicament. I would have to go on down to Lake Misurina.
It was only a km away but I was sure the hotels here would be full and expensive. The first one I tried was the one I was recommended at Rifugio Lago de Antomo. It looked tired and a bit run down and there were few cars outside. I went in and asked, afraid of the answer. But no! they had a room so I took it. I did not fancy camping here or continuing on to find a more rural camp spot. The room was grim and but otherwise Hotel Miralago lived up to its two stars. I was dog tired now having been on the go for 17 km over 9 hours with few breaks. I had climbed 1165 metres and come down 1445 metres. Still it meant I had eaten into tomorrow’s schedule.
My night at the hotel was not as bad as I feared and the breakfast redeemed any misgivings I had about Hotel Miralago. I set off around 9 and headed along the west side of the lake for nearly a km. There were many wildfowl, but my eyesight was not enough to see what they were. There also seemed to be fish rising.
Soon this lakeside road met the main road at an enourmous, alpine-looking hotel. Beneath the hotel was a Spar shop. I had forgotten many of the huts did not take cards and accepted cash only and I was desperate for some. The Spar here at Misurina offered a cash withdrawal service for a small fee so I took out 100 euros to cover me to San Vito in a few days. It was a great relief to get some as I was sure Rifugio Vandelli would only deal in cash and given the forecast I might be there two days.
I walked past a row of gift shops and resturants towards the south of the lake and just before getting there found the path up to Forcella de Popena a good hour away. The path soon took me past the round dairy buildings of Malga Misurina and then into the mixed conifer woods whose grassy floor was heavily grazed by the cattle of the dairy. The path zig-zagged up for a good half hour until it split with one path going over the ridge into the high Popena Valley, with the other fork keeping to the east of the ridge. The two paths eventually met again.
I took the latter, easier path and was soon cruising at the treeline slowly climbing up into the dwarf pine and across stoney slopes. The weather was forecast to close in and I could see atmospheric mist forming in the valley and climbing up the mountainsides. To the north the Tre Cime dominated while just across the valley rose the jagged Cadini group. Away to the south was the Marmarole massif and much closer to me was the Sorapiss massif which would dominate my route for the next day. Right above me was Monte Cristallo, but unfortunately its spires were already lost in the mist.
The easy path continued gently up for a good 2 km until it was directly beneath a notch in the ridge called Forcella Popena, where the other path at the previous fork returned to the east of the ridge. Just at this high point the drizzle which had threatened started to fall, and it was soon rain, so I had to don a jacket and cover my pack. This rain only lasted for 30 minutes.
I went down a series of switchbacks down a grassy slope, the overhanging grass wetting my legs until I reached the forest again. It was a very pleasant descent through the forest with frequent grassy glades and meadows between the large larches. As I approached the road the firs took over and the forest floor was not so lush. I reached the road by a large bridge some 1.5km east of Passo Tre Croce. The only way to get there was along the road, and that was my plan.
However, after a few hundred metres along the busy road I had to change my plan. I find road walking humiliating and degrading, and avoid it when I can. I saw on the map I could avoid it. I would miss the cafe at the pass which I had earmarked for lunch, but consoled myself it was just another alpine pass with hordes of motorbikers in their leathers and shops of alpine trinkets.
So some 300 metres after the bridge I left the road and dived down into the forest. I followed the track down for about 10 minutes when I got to a crossroads of sorts. The track coming down from my left came from the bridge so next time I would not even have to walk the 300 metres along the squalor of the road. I turned right here down a very grassy track which was seldom maintained as there was a years worth of windfall saplings across it. After another 10 minutes I came to two solid bridges across two streams.
From the bridges the grassy track now climbed quite steeply up through the forest. It was never used for vehicles, and only occasionally by walkers or deer, as the grass was barely worn. It took a pleasant half hour to climb up the verdant zig-zags of the track and cut through 100 metres of easy level forest to reach the Tre Croce-Vandelli path. I was quite pleased my short cut had paid off, and not only had I avoided the road walk and the chaos of Tre Croce, but it was probably half and hour quicker.
The Tre Croce to Vandelli path was very easy initially. It was level, wide, and well graded. I soon discovered it was also busy as it was a good day trip to go and see the fabled lake at Vandelli. With this popularity came the disadvantages of toilet paper and even wet wipes, lying beside trail. Why wet wipes are not banned vexes me.
After an easy half hour the trail started to get a bit more gnarly and the drizzle returned. There were a few via ferrata sections, but nobody else had a harness on and even families sauntered along the precipitious paths just using the cable bolted into the rock as a handrail. Perhaps the most dangerous thing was the slippery rock and roots all polished by thousands of feet every year, and now all covered in greasy mud.
As I neared Rifugio Vandelli the mists cleared and Monte Cristallo looked especially clear with sun shining on it’s towers. The Vandelli Via Ferrata I went up two years ago looked very imposing, perhaps 500 metres of sheer rock from here.
I reached the hut after a 5 hour walk without stopping and had covered 11 km. I had just climbed a modest 780m and descended 590m. However much of it was relatively easy by Dolomite standards. When I went into the hut I was apprehensive about getting a bed. However not only did I get a bed but I could get a 4 man room to myself. Then the host said he remembered me from a couple of years ago.
I spent the afternoon in the dining room chatting with folk and then with a group of 3 American brothers over the excellant dinner. They were apprehensive about doing the Vandellii Via Ferrata tomorrow given the weather. I knew I needed good weather so would no go unless it was near perfect. I could do with a day off anyway, and there was no better place to spend it than in the cosy hospitable Rifugio Vandelli
The Americans went after the early breakfast to climb the Vandelli Via Ferrata but it was overcast and rain was in the air, so I decided to give the Berti Via Ferrata a miss and returned to bed to rest my weary legs. I woke at 10 with rain battering of the velux window above me, and with great satisfaction rolled over and pulled my down bag over me again. I spent much of the day snoozing as the rain or drizzle fell, and felt completely vindicated. The hut host lent me a nice coffee table book on the Cortina Dolomites, which kept me occupied for a few hours.
Each time I went down to the dining room during the middle of the day it was full of day trippers from Tre Croce having lunch, so I retreated back upstairs to my bed. Finally at 1500 the day trippers started to leave and there were about 8 people left who had arrived recently and planned to continue on a Via Ferrata tomorrow. The sheep and goats had separated. I gravitated towards those remaining and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening chatting. I managed to get a snippet of phone connection, enough to download the weather forecast, which was pleasing as it was good for the next week.
Despite sleeping all morning and also having a certain amount of angst about tomorrow I slept well and woke at 5. I packed up and went downstairs for the 0600 breakfast. There were already a few folk there and soon my dinner companions from last night arrived also. I said my goodbyes and set of at 0730.
it was a perfect morning and the milky turquoise of the lake against the backdrop of huge cliffs and towers, some with the first rays of light on them, was just magical and encouraged me. After the lake the path went up into the moraine debris of the remnant Occidentale Glacier. Above me loomed the huge Dito di Dio (finger of God) tower. Soon the last of the Swiss Pines and the the Larch vanished and only the dwarf scrub remained.
The path continued up and gave me a short view of the glacier before it went over a rise and dropped down slightly into the wild and remote valley east of the sawtooth crescent of a ridge which was Tonde de Sorapiss. It was not a big valley but I think seldom visited as the only way out was either by Via Ferrata or back the same way. I dropped gently down into the gentle valley floor. The stones here were more stable and in areas it was almost grassy, but generally there were only hardy alpines hunkered down in the gravelly soil.
The path climbed slightly again to meet a very rugged Via Ferrata route coming of the Tonde De Sorapiss. The path junction was just before the Forcella Cengin del Banco pass (which is impassable on the west side). Here I veered SE across scree climbing quite steeply to reach the bottom of some crags just some 15 minutes after the junction. This was start of the adventure so I unpacked my helmet and harness and donned them and looked at the the route up.
It climbed 100 vertical metres just to the north of a gully in the buttress. It was never very steep at just 45 degrees, but it was not protected with cables at all. Towards the top the route crossed the gully and emerged onto a ledge on top of the buttress. I followed this ledge for a hundred metres hoping it would become less precarious to a small ridge.
I rounded the ridge to see a sensational and worrying view. The ledge continued for a good half km. Above it was vast cliffs some 3-400 metres high and below the ledge were another rampart of cliffs some 3-400 metres high. The ledge itself was 3-15 metres wide and full of scree at a precarious angle of about 40 degrees. In the middle of this narrow band of scree was a path which ibex, chamois and climbers had trodden into a narrow path. Any stone dislodged from it would roll down the slope and plummet off the cliff, and I assumed I would do the same.
I gingerly edged my way along taking small steps and hunched like a gorilla so my hands were near the ground. There was the occasional section which needed extreme care for 5-10 metres and I had to scramble round small buttresses or climb up or down from one shelf to another. About half way along it was a torrent which I am sure would be a nightmare to cross in wet weather and impossible in heavy rain. I think it was being fed by the remnant glacier by Foppa de Matia. Looking back the way I came it looked like a classic photo of climbing in the Dolomites as the route traversed across the side of Croda Macora mountain.
When I reached and rounded the ridge I was making for I saw there was another 500 meter section. This second section did not seem so bad. The ledge seemed wider and a bit more forgiving and I was getting more numbed to the terrific exposure. Far down in the valley I could see the town of San Vito di Cadore when I would eventually pass. Probably an hour and a half after putting my harness on I finally reached a junction of paths, except the path heading down had been destroyed and I was told on no account to use it as a bail out. The 100 metre height I had gained on the ascent up the buttress to gain this shelf system had been lost as the shelf was descending to the south as I went, and at the lunch stop it was 2437m.
I had a sandwich and drink here as I thought the Via Ferrata would start soon. I was looking forward to the security of the wire cables and was very surprised some of the previous sections I had done were not protected. It took about another 15 minutes for the shelf to peter out and the the cables begin. By now the mist was appearing and although the view was vanishing so was the exposure. The cables started with a bang and I had to lean back over a vast drop while I shuffled my feet along tiny ledge. Soon the ledge widened out to a metre or so and I could almost saunter along using the cable as a handrail. I didn’t though as I felt alone and exposed so I clipped in with both the carabiners on the cows tails which were attached to my harness. This comfortable progress soon came to an abrupt halt about half an hour after my lunch stop.
I now had to climb down a series of ladders for about 30-40 metres losing all the height gained from lunch. I was a difficult descent and I used the cabled to hold onto while I found placement on the damp greasy rock for my feet. The 2 ladder sections were almost a break, physically and mentally. At the bottom of the ladders the route now found itself in a large gully although with the mist I could not see much beyond 200 metres.
The route now climbed up the gully across stones and boulders. It was only perhaps 40 degrees and there were no cables. It took a long time to climb the 100 vertical metres to the start of the final and longest Via Ferrata section. Normally 100 vertical metres would take me 15 minutes but this time it was nearly half an hour as I panted and clambered up the boulders.
This brought me to the bottom of the final section. It was very steep and I frequently had to use the cables to haul myself up. After some 40 vertical metres of this I reached 3 ladder sections with a bit of cable between them. I gained some good height here and soon had climbed another 60 metres.
The gradient eased a bit now and the route veered right along a narrow ledge climbing slowly. I slid the crabiners along the cable unclipping one and then the other when I got to a anchor point. Out of the mist I saw the reddish sloping shelf appear. I recognized it from the terrifying picture in the Rifugio Vandelli.
The first metres were the most difficult bit as again I had to lean back over the misty abyss while I shuffled my feet along a narrow ledge. My rucksack was pulling me back as I shuffled up. Soon however the ledge widened out to nearly a metre and it was a stroll up it. It went on for about 200 metres climbing slowly into the mist. By my barometric calculations I still had 70-80 metres to reach the pass and the top of the climb. So imagine my delight when the reddish shelf suddenly led me to a rocky saddle when the mist vanished. I was at the top. Even better I could see the Slapater Bivouac just 500 metres away down an easy path across stones and rock slabs. It had taken me over an hour and a half from lunch and perhaps three and a half hours from putting my harness on to complete the Berti Via Ferrata, which is only a bit slower than normal.
It was a nice jaunt down to the Bivouac and it took just 10-15 minutes. Just after the start of this descent I had to jump over a near bottomless, metre wide crack, which was about 300 metres long. With a few more decades of a freeze thaw cycle of the snow in the crack, this whole section of mountain is going to be prised off, taking the sloping red ledge I just came up with it.
The Bivouac was a small metal red shed bolted and wired down to the rock. It was only 2 metres by 3 metres. There were 3 beds towards the roof and seating under them. I dare say another 4 could sleep in the seating area. I lunched here and then thought I might as well write up the climb while it was still fresh, so I spent about 2 hours at the cosy Bivouac before continuing down.
As I set off from the Bivouac I saw two others returning from the summit of Sorapiss. They were the first people I had seen all day. I felt refreshed after my at least 2 hour break and sped down the steep gravel path for a good 20 minutes when suddenly I found myself near a herd of Ibex. Two male adolescents were fighting while the rest of the herd of about 10 beasts where sitting chewing cud. I could get with 5 metres of them before they stood up. One very large one made a snort and I backed off. He must have been at least 100 kg and with a fearsome set of horns. it would be ironic to do the Berti Via Ferrata unscathed and then be gored by a Ibex.
The rest of the journey down was quite uneventful, I continued down more gravel slopes until it approached the bottom of the valley. There was a herd of domestic sheep grazing here with about 50 animals. There was no shepherd or dog, so I assume there are no wolves here. An hour after leaving the Bivouac I was at Forella Grande enjoying a tremendous view.
From here it was an unpleasant and steep descent down to Rifugio San Marco. At times the path was quite steep and loose especially just before the rifugio. It was completely full again being the weekend, but the owner again recognized me from 2 years ago and he said I could camp on the lawn. That was perfect for me as I could still eat my dinner and breakfast in the rifugio. I put the tent up then went inside to enjoy a great supper. Everybody else staying in the Rifugio, some 40 of them, were from a alpine club from Venice. They all ate in the dining room and I ate in the bar area on my own, which given the excited self-important din from the Venice Alpine Club suited me just fine. It was a calm still night when I went back to my tent at 2030 by which time it was already completely dark. Today was only 11 km with 940 up and 1150 metres down but they were hard earnt. It had taken me 8 hours.
I did not sleep that well in the tent, which was also covered with condensation. I left it up while I had breakfast but the massive bulk of Antelao was between my wet tent and the rising sun on what promised to be a perfect day. I chatted a lot with the hosts, who were an extremely helpful couple. Indeed Rifugio San Marco had a very good vibe to it. I lingered a bit in the hope my tent would dry, meanwhile the members of the Venice Apline Club, had put on their barely used expensive boots, had their last ciggrettes and set off down the path with their shiny helmets swaying from their rucksacks to advertize their mountain prowess.
A fit woman suddenly bounced up onto the terrace where the refugio sat, her pony tail swinging. She went inside and came out with a coffee and started talking to the host. Her Italian was fluent but it just seemed a bit to clipped to be native. After her coffee she said goodbye to the host and sprung over to me as the host told her I was Scottish and she was indeed English. We introduced ourselves, She was called Tania and a mountain guide. Suddenly it dawned on me she was Taina Noakes. I told her I was James Baxter and there was a moment of incomprehension at first and astonishment second. We were both amazed to meet here at Rifugio San Marco.
Tania had just finished skiing the length of Norway and I had followed her amazing progress on social media when she did the whole trip in 75 days as opposed to my 120. Indeed we had just missed each other by a day when we both skied across Hardangervidda in January this year. Tania said she referred to my book the whole time on her journey and said she felt she knew me. It was a small world. We chatted for about half and hour, but it could have been all day. Tania had already come up from San Vito, some 700m below, and was now blasting up to the top of Sorapiss, perhaps another 1500m, and then back down to San Vito again. So after more hugs she dashed off almost like a fellrunner. Tania was everything the Venice Apline Club members hoped to be.
By the time Tania left my tent was dry and I packed it up and set off around 10. It was a quick half hour down through the woods and under the Refugio’s suppy cable to the road. There was another refuge here called Scoteri at the bottom of a vast scree field. Scoteri almost lay in a suntrap between Sorapiss and the vast Antalao, the second hightest mountain in the Dolomites. From Scoteri I followed the road down, initially through dwarf pine which quickly became conifer forest. It was not a pleasant descent but it was quick and suddenly I was on the outskirts of San Vito di Cadore, a small bustling town on a busy road. Here I went to a ATM and stocked up on enough Euros to finish, and then found a cafe.
I left around 1330 and headed down to the Serdes bridge and then climbed up through beech woods for short distance to Serdes. It was a small village full of charm, and character with many old sunburnt wooden houses and large rickerty barns. Window boxes of red geraniums were everywhere, much as they are in San Vito or Cortina, but they looked genuine here and not just an adornement to lure tourists in. After Serdes the route continued up the road, crossed a stream and then climbed to a shortcut path. The path was cool and decidious and the hot sun barely made it through the mosiac of broadleaves. It led to the Grotto of the Madonna, which was a shallow cave whose entrance had been built up. Beyond the locked gate was a statue.
From the grotto the path continued up for another 10 minuters or so until it reached a gravel road and parking place. At the parking place road forked and the route to Refugio Venezia took the left hand fork. I started this sustained climb which after a few km became quite relentless. The forest was cool but it offered no views save the occasional one to the huge tower of Mount Pelmo which I was heading towards. After a couple of hours from the parking place the gravel road slowly eased as it turned more due south. Here at last were views and more open vegetation. The mountain ash trees were heavy with berries and their branches drooping and twisted, and the silvery underside of the leaves forced upwards.
There was a huge scree slope down on the west side of Pelmo and the road skirted it. I had to crane my neck to look up at it’s towers. This was a very lofty mountain and it stood on it’s own making it more imposing. Behind me I could see my exposed route across the shelve systems of Croda Marcora which the Bert Via Feratta followed. The last few km of the road before Venezia were across sparse larch and pine forest interspersed with meadow. I could hear cow bells cluncking in the woods. At last the road turned a corner and I could see the refuge sitting on a knoll just above me and beyond that rose the dramatic tower of Pelmo, who summit was lost in the cloud.
I went in and apprehensively asked if there was any room, although the place looked empty. Yes she said. Last night there was 70 here and the place was crowded but tonight you will be the only one. What a difference a weekend makes. I had been here before some 4-5 years ago when I did the Alta Via 1, and now it was all coming back to me. I got a room to myself and had a huge meal which I simple could not finish. Today had really been a link day moving from one chain of large mountains to the north and across this side of the Boite Valley. From now I would be in smaller but rugged and wild mountains which are well off the beaten track. In all today I climbed 1010m and descended 890m over 15 km. It had taken me 6 hours excluding my stop in San Vito.
Being the only guest at Rifugio Venezia was great. I chatted with the very knowledgeable young guardian who was from San Vito and gave me lots of local information. His English was great and he was a nice guy. I eventually left at 0930 on an absolutely perfect morning. The mountain of Pelmo looked fantastic, its huge towers a mustard colour against the perfect blue sky. I set off in a buoyant mood as today was relatively easy, the weather was great, and much of my route initially was across alps and meadows.
After a km I came across a particularly nice meadow with the clunking of cow bells in the trees surrounding it. In the meadow itself were about 20 solid stocky horses. The looked very similar to the Norwegian Fjordinger horse with a light brown body and a very pale mane. There were many more horses in a meadow below. In every direction there were tremendous mountains but Pelmo behind me, and Antelao across the Boite Valley dominated, but many other massifs like Civetta were visible.
I walked through a very gentle, pastoral landscape with larch and mountain ash copses between the meadows in superlative surroundings. The sun was warming and I was going slightly downhill. It was as pleasant as walking gets. After half an hour I was worried I had missed the path I had to turn off from, and after checking the map realized I had not gone that far. indeed it took nearly an hour of sauntering through this paradise landscape to reach the fork, which was much longer than I expected.
I now left the path number 475 and followed a very small and unnumbered path to the south towards Forcella Cianpestrin, 1856m, also marked as Forcella Colonel de la Stanga on my map. The path was so faint it was difficult to follow and I had to look for markers across the other side of the boggy meadows it crossed. Even in the forest it was difficult to follow the trail. Cattle had trodden the entire area and every hoof print was full of water. There was no way I could keep my feet dry in my non goretex lightweight boots, which the sole was starting to come off on, so by the time I reached the pass I had wet feet.
The descent down the other side from this forested pass was much drier. I now followed the path number 493 and it took me past some sunny meadows full of pink crocuses to Cason de Serla, 1721m, a lovely alp. At the top of the alp was an old log cabin under an old corrugated roof. The logs were old and suburnt and the grain on them rough to touch and smelt of hot charcoal. They were probably over 100 years old. Below this georgeous cabin was the meadow and then another half km or so past a small pond to the gravel road.
I turned east here and followed the road past a few small alp barns and through spruce woods for a couple of km to reach Rifugio Talamini. I had hoped to stop here for lunch but it was closed so I sat and rested. After a few minutes a landrover pulled up and 3 middle aged ladies got out and opened the place up. What luck! I had a cheese and tomato roll, while the ladies sat outside and had tumbler after tumbler of red wine.
I left them still sober, and now started the longer 600 metre climb up to Mount Rite. Again the path was faint in sections and I had to pay attention and frequently check my map to make sure I had not taken a wrong turning. it was quite decidious when I started but as I neared the top the spruce took over and the forest floor was covered in cones. I heard the clunking of cow bells as I neared the top and then was surprised to see they were not cows but Dhzo’s, a cross between a yak and a cow which Reinhold Messner had imported to graze around his hilltop Mountain Museum here. Right beside the Museum was the Rifugio Dolomities, 2160m. It was an ugly building, perhaps a converted concrete fortress from the First World War. However the young host at Rifugio Venezia had reccomended I stay here, rather than continue to Rifugio Remauro below me now and beside the road.
What Rifugio lacked in charm it made up for in views and the towers of the Bosconero Dolomites, through which I will hike for the next 2-3 days were laid out before me. Again I was to be the only guest and was shown a bunk room to sleep in. There was hot water and I had a shower and washed my hiking clothes. I had not even paid lip service to hygiene since Misurina some 5 days ago so it was badly needed. The evening meal was excellent and as I ate it the herd of 50 or so Dhzo wandered past. I would have to wait until 0930 for breakfast tomorrow, so it would give me a chance to visit Messner’s museum and enjoy the view. Today was short at just 14 km with 730 up and 530 down. It had taken a little over 7 hours.
The long awaited breakfast at 0900 was quite extraordinary. I had hoped for a large cheese and tomato roll and coffee. Instead I got a vast slice of chocolate cake layered with apricot jam and coffee. The Italians seemed to have a very sweet tooth for breakfast. After the rather sickly meal I went up to the Messner Mountain Museum. It was built and restored in the same style as the refugio by either Messner or Belluno council. I could now see the rifugio was the barracks and the museum the gun emplacements.
It was supposed to open at 1000 but there was no-one there so I wandered about and looked through the windows. It seemed to be mainly a collection of paintings and featured specific Tyrolean and Italian climbers. I did not see any mention of Walter Bonatti. Perhaps the most interesting feature was the roof. There were 5 massive gun emplacements and 3 of these had been covered with arty, architectural, angular glasswork, with the concrete for the gun fastnings still in place. It afforded a perfect view down the Boite Valley and the guns were well placed to halt the Austrain advance that never came. There were also great views to many of the massifs.
I returned to the rifugio where the museum warden had now driven up and was having his morning coffee oblivious to the fact he should have opened 20 minutes ago. I should imagine he worked for the council rather than Messner. From what I had seen it was not worth waiting for him to finish, so I set off on another perfect day. I walked down the road for about a km to Forcella Deona and then left it to follow a path.
The path zig-zagged steeply down through the woods. I passed quite a few people slogging up through the woods. They all asked me how much further it was, and I could see my reply was a dissapointment to all except the more elderly. The trees changed from larch to spruce as one would expect as I descended and reached the tarmac road by the col where the Rifugio Remauro was. As the host at Rifugio Venezia said it was busy with traffic tourists. Many were parking to take the shuttle bus up the road to the Museum where hopefully the warden had finished his coffee, and the rest were motocyclists of all shapes and sizes. Half were eating a large lunch, while the other half were purring over their comrades machines with curiosity and envy. I had my large, longed for cheese and tomato roll, and shandy and set off again.
The climb up was very pleasant. The path wove up past quaint farm buildings and then slowly climbed for just an hour to the alp Pain de Angais, which was also pass at 1870m. It was a gentle pastoral area surrounded by larch. There was an older Italian man here who was surprised to see any one else. He had a heathy basket of mushrooms and we chatted a bit at this path crossroads.
I had seen a few notices on the way up advising hikers to avoid the Forcella Ciavazole, 1994m, route to Rifugio Bosconero and to take the Le Calades, 1859m, way instead. I could not understand the notices but I think the descent from the Forcella Ciavazole had been badly eroded by a rain storm and the ensuing torrent had washed away the path leaving steep unstable gravel and rocks. So I sauntered off to Le Calades just a km or so to the SW through a beautiful flat landscape of alpine meadow and larch copse. Beneath many of the larches were apline rhododendrums, some still with the last of the year’s flowers blooming.
From Le Calades I got a superlative view down to the Zolda Valley and the serated mountains beyond. However what really dominated the view was the two huge blocks of mountains called Sasso di Bosconero and Rocchetta, the latter being especially impregnable. Beneath Rocchetta I could see a small clearing on a shelf with a few buildings on it, and this was the dramatic setting for Rifugio Bosconero, my home for the night.
To get there I followed a small path, initally through the dwarf pine bushes as it veered into a broad gully. However the path soon crossed the gully and started descending the ridge to the east of it. It became quite steep and stony as the crest of the ridge sharpened. I felt like I had crossed into a drier climatic zone and the heat, vegetation and arid landscape reminded me of the last days on the Alta Via 1 and 2 as I approached the Venetian Plain.
Down and down the path went, twisting and turning with the crest of the ridge. There were steep drops on each side and it would not take much to make the path exposed. After well over half an hour of descent the path dived off to the east and went down the short flank to a open wide valley of stones. It was roasting hot down here in this still air with the pale rock walls reflecting the heat. This high stony valley had suffered the same as others in the catastropic rains a couple of years ago and the torrents had ripped ravines in the scree, but as the valley floor was quite shallow it mattered not.
On the other side of this stony valley was the sacntuary of a beech forest. I entered into its dappled shade and it was like stepping out of a furnace. There was just the slightest breeze in the beech forest, enough to gently wobble the leaves and cool me. The path had to climb quite steeply to get over a buttress of rock and this took a good 20 minutes. At last the path flattened out as it traversed across the shaded hillside, rich in fungi, for another 20 minutes to emerge at the very pretty Rifugio Bosconero, 1457m.
I drank first and then settled into the large dormitory with 24 bunk beds. I was the only one again. It was just 1600 so I went in, changed my clothes, and then went and laid down on the lawn outside for a sleep; as the two hosts were doing. It was a very nice end to the hot day. I had seen the route for tomorrow and was keen to get an early start to climb what looked like steep relentless scree for about 600m. Later in the evening party of 8 showed up as it was getting dark and would be in the same dormitiory as me. Today had been short at just 10 km with 510m up and 1215m down. It had taken 5 hours.
It turned out that the 10 people who arrived late last night had just come up for a meal and they must have left after I went to bed at 2100. The road was only an hour away. Breakfast was sweet as usual but it was a good portion. As I chatted with the host over coffee he said he had a shop in the valley below, but had taken over the place for this summer because of a tragedy. His sister had been running the place for 35 years since it was restored, and had built up it’s reputation. However, his sister had just died of cancer and he felt he had to continue. He showed me pictures of her and I noticed he also inherited her dog, a collie, who was curled up under the table. She was his only sibling and I could see he was upset.
I left feeling rather sombre by his tale and these thoughts followed me for the first km or so as I trudged up through the beech and pine forest. There were mushroom everywhere but I think most were in the Lactarius family and probably not good eating. Eventually I broke out of the trees and onto the bottom of an enourmous scree field which curved up to the SE. I had seen it yeasterday and it looked like hard work. I saw two chamois above me and they had long since spotted me. They started to run with ease up the scree then crossed it and started coming down the rocks the other side of a boulder ravine towards me. I watched in awe as they ran down these rocks which were nearly vertical. I managed a few photos, but they were soon gone.
On and on I plodded up the narrowing gully of scree to the west of Sasso de Bosconero and east of Sasso de Toanella. It was perhaps 35-40 degrees and just on the cusp of sliding down. The path was quite eroded and it was 5 steps up and 2 back down. I came across a few alpines struggling to get a foothold and dug them up to transplant. A bit unenvironmental but nothing compared to the torrents which ripped down here taking hundreds of tons of scree with it, burying hectares of dwarf pine and leaving treacherous ravines. After some two hours since leaving the rifugio I reached the top of the gully at Forcella Toanella, 2150m, and the first sun I had seen that day burst on me and I stepped into a different world.
The views south were dramatic with the high valley I was at the top of flowing down in a funnel of scree to the dwarf pines below. Then the valley turned to the east and filled with conifer forest, with alps dotted about on ridges. This valley then dissapeared down into the main Boite Valley which was out of sight in the bottom of a deep canyon. Beyond were the ubiquitious jagged ridges getting more and more hazy as they dissapeared. I did not go into this valley but followed the main ridge south keeping just to the east of the crest on a faint path through the pine shrub. This path continued for a good 2 km along the bottom of the crags which formed the crest. It was slow walking due to the terrain.Eventually I got to the pass called Forcella del Viaz de la Ponte, 1909m.
It had taken 3 hours to get here so I had a break in the shade on the west of the crest. The route now descended the west side and went down 100m very steeply. All of it was loose and I thoght quite treacherous. If I dislodged a stone it was off. I gingerly made my way down half the gully when some cables and chains appeared. I down climbed 30-40 metres using these and then gingerly shuffled down the last 20 metres when the path left the gully and headed into the dwarf pines again. It was not an exciting or spectacular gully, but just a struggle in unpleasant steep terain and I was glad to be out of it.
The path now continued south, but this time on the west side of the crest. It was getting very hot and I was starting to sweat and I clambered along between the bottom of the cliffs and the top of the dwarf pine. It would had been exposed were it not for these solid stocky bushes. After a km the path reached a small via feratta section as it negotiated a rocky gully. I stopped to put my harness and gear on. The start of the 30 metre section forced me to crawl on my hands and knees under an overhang. The sharp dolomite gravel nearly pierced my bare knees. After another half km there was another via feratta section which was much easier, but as I still had my harness on I clipped in.
Sweating in the hot sun and trussed up with my harness and rucksack on I followed the faint path as it climbed past a buttress called the Madonna and entered the top of a large and not too steep bowl of scree about a kilometre and a half long. At the bottom of the scree was a large flat forest area. This ended as it plunged over the side of the mountain. It was a hidden valleyand I am sure chamois were grazing in the woods of the secret plateau as there prints were everywhere. Eventually I could bear the heat no longer and found an overhang to take of my helmet and harness and let the wind cool me. Half an hour later I set off for the final traverse across the top of the shallow scree to Porta de la Serra, 2050m, which pretty much heralded the end of the ridge.
Just after this narrow pass, and with the canyons of the Boite and Zoldo valleys out of sight below me I passed two bronzes on the rock wall of Brovelli and Tolot, who devised the Alta Via 3 in 1966. From the bronzes the path continued south, sometimes very steeply, for a cautious hour as it threaded it’s way through the dwarf pines. It was hot and dry work as the path eventually came to a junction by an empty cistern and a ramshackle shelter cobbled together from old ruined pastoral buildings. However, I was now back in my favourite elevation of the larch trees again. The path continued to drop steeply on a constructed, but long overgrown mule track, before it crossed a dry grassy and traversed across some meadows to Bivioac Tovanella, 1688m.
I passed ruined cattle sheds as I crossed the meadow and approached the 2 storey building. The solid wooden door opened easily and I went in to a rustic room. There were some beds upstairs but it was not inviting at all. If I could could find water I would stay downstairs. It was not unlike a Scottish bothy. There was a cistern and it looked well sealed. There was a black hose leading from it to a concrete trough which had a puddle of flithy water in it. I turned the tap on the hose and hot water gushed out. However this soon slowed to a trickle and stopped. Bugger! the cistern must be empty. Then I noticed another tap hidden in the grass and to my delight cold water gushed from it. I filled my bottles and returned to the Biviouac Tovanella to settle in. I had no way to treat the water except boil it and I was very thirsty so I took a chance with my constitution.
It was only 4 hours from here to the end of the Alta Via 3 in Langarone. It would have been a shame to hurry down to it’s fleshpots and try and find somewhere to stay in a town I heard was not particularly charming after it was destroyed by landslide in 1963. So I took a chair and sat in the shade outside in the meadow. It was mostly beech tree here, many of which were turning, but I also noticed a whitebeam, an unusual tree now heavy with it’s small clusters of red berries. I am not sure if it is natural, or was planted to keep a benevolent eye over the dairy and pastures. I had not seen a soul all day and knew I would be alone at the Tovanella to watch the sun go down over the craggy massifs to the west and contemplate the magnificence of the Dolomites. It was just 8 km with 1010 up and 770 down, taking 6 hours.
I woke quite early but did not really get going until after 8, Stiff from yesterday and the hard bed, but thankful the untreated water did not affect me. It was another beautiful day as I left the meadow, and the sun which had been slowly creeping down the hill just arrived. It was too late to dry the dew off the long grasses and water was running down my legs and onto my shoes which were soon wet. I followed the overgrown mule track round the curve of the valley to the south side and then started climbing the gently traversing track up the hillside climbing some 150m to reach the ridge at Costa Del Dou, 1840m. This was the end of the climbs, from here I had a 1400m descent down to Longarone, which I could just make out in the valley far below.
I noticed an enormous Parasol mushroom, Macrolepiota procera, on the south side of this pass. Then another just down the slope, and a cluster just beyond. Then when I looked over this very large sunny meadow I noticed there were hundreds of them. You could have filled 10’s of wheelbarrows with this gastronomic gem. The path continued on the grassy mule track and traversed down the large meadow, past the junction to Igne, and then down into a dry streambed with wildly folded rock strata. Just beyond were the beech, remarkably high up, but surviving due to their south facing aspect. Stepping into the beech was like stepping into a cool, dim tunnel. The beech leaves and mast had formed a soft layer on the often stoney path and made it easy under foot.
The path slowly descended this constructed mule track, following the hills contours into side streams and round ridges. It was a very easy descent. Occasionally on the ridges it would burst out into an apl or meadow and have me reaching for my sunglasses. A lot of the meadows were covered in a carpet of crocuses, especially at Col de Luni, 1383m. Down and down the path meandered, passing a shrine and then entering stretch with larger beech trees. Here and there cyclamen started appearing on the forest floor, they were in leaf, but only one or two still displaying their deep purple flowers. I could hear traffic now and knew my trip would soon be over. For the last 2 km before the road the mule track became very well constructed with stone slabs on the downhill side and a terraces on the uphill side. It was a joy to walk down.
Suddenly I came to a road with a few small agricultural sheds. Below these stone sheds were orchards, the fruit plump on the trees. All manner of water collection methods from the shed roofs were used to irrigate the orchards. I passed the first person I had seen since the host at Rifugio Bosconero with his sad tale. The roads quickly zig-zagged down to a junction by a chapel which was the turn off to Podonzoi. This chapel was called the Vittime del Vajont, and must have been erected to remember the major disaster in the valley, when a landslide in a side valley on the other side, the Vajont Valley, tumbled down into the reservoir causing a large wave to top the dam and come crashing down through the town of Longarone, destroying much of it.
From the chapel I followed the zig-zags of the road down for about another hour until I was in Longarone itself. It was not only charmless, due to the fact much was rebuilt since 1963, but also very industrial. I had made the right choice in staying at Bivouac Tovanella. It was 10 km from Tovanella, with just 180m up but 1400m down, which had taken 4 hours. I had a meal and ice cream, for which the town is famous, and then plotted my escape to Venice. It took a bus and two trains and a few hours but at last I pulled in to Venice Santa Lucia at 1700. I was still in my sweaty hiking clothes but decided to take a vaporetto down the Grand Canal to sightsee, and then change for another one to go out to the quieter island of Murano. After the peace and quiet of the Dolomites downtown Venice would be too much to bear. The Vaporetto boat bus got in to Murano Navagio at 2030 by which time it was dark. I checked into a small guest house overlooking the sea, a real gem of a place. The next day I took 2 boats from the guesthouse to the airport.
I had now done the Alta Via 1, 2, 3 & 4. There was little to choose from in quality, but if you include Mount Piano and the Via Ferrata Berti the 3 is one of the harder. In all my version was 114 km, with 7825m up and 8610m down, and it took 61 hours over 9 days. The next will be the Alta Via 5, which is supposed to be the wildest and goes through the remote Sesto Dolomites.