This article was originally published in December, 2012.
by Annette Aburdene
After years of walking in the Swiss and Western Alps, it was exciting to be back last September in the Dolomites and on the breathtaking High Trails, Alta Vie Nos. 1 and 3.
Tucked in the northeastern corner of Italy close to the border with Austria, the magnificent Dolomites are a paradise for summer walkers. During the First World War and the conflict between the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy, the Dolomite area became a war zone, with many hard-fought battles contesting borders that often ran along high-altitude mountain crests. Military mule tracks were constructed to supplement existing paths for supply and accessibility, and they comprise a valuable part of the network of pathways that the walker finds today.
What can a visitor expect? This inspirational early description from John Murray in 1840 still captures the essence of these mountains:
[blockquote]They are unlike any other mountain, and are to be seen nowhere else in the Alps. They arrest the attention by the singularity and picturesqueness of their forms, by their sharp peaks or horns, sometimes rising up in pinnacles and obelisks, at others extending in serrated ridges, teethed like the jaw of an alligator.[/blockquote]A number of established walking trails, or Alta Vie, transverse the Dolomites north to south and vary in length from six to 13 days. For our tour, our group of four chose Alta Via No. 1, starting from Hotel Lago di Braies, set at a beautiful Alpine lake amidst pine forests and soaring Dolomite peaks. This is the Pustatal in the Suedtirol, or Alto Adige region of Italy which is dominated by German-language speakers.
Our hike would last for 12 days and overnight stays would be in comfortable mountain huts, the rifugios, where delicious meals are served to hikers. We would walk south to the great Monte Pelmo mountain and then come back north on Alta Via No 3. We would cross linguistic borders: German speaking in the North, then the region of Ladin, an ancient Rhaeto-Romanic language spoken in the area of Cortina d’Ampezzo, and Italian. Culinary styles match the linguistic regions: the best of Austrian cooking mixed with Northern Italian cuisine – here, the ‘pasta’ course might feature dumplings, polenta and pasta, sometimes in the same meal.
We had booked our overnight stays and knew we could travel light. Planning what to pack became quite an obsession. I had last done a multi-day hike six years ago and had to take the right clothes and equipment but not an ounce too much. Did I mention that all of us have turned or are turning 60 this year? A light pack would be a must.
Over the years we had perfected lists of items to take, but for this trip we had to decide on electronics: take your smart phone or not (yes, there is sometimes reception, plus the smart phone functions as a camera and you can load I books on it), take a charger with the smallest transformer for Italian outlets (yes, the rifugios have power outlets), take an iPad for entertainment, maps (no, too heavy), a Kindle (my sister took her Kindle but, coming along for only five nights, not the charger, and, no, the Kindle does not last for 10 hours but fizzles out after five), or take a light book for evening reading (yes, but not essential: the evenings are spent re-hashing the adventures of the day and socializing with fellow hikers).
We knew better than to take electronic versions of maps and hiking descriptions; they are just too essential, and accidentally exposing them to rain or dropping them in a puddle might render them inoperable. So it was laminated paper maps and carefully photographed descriptions of the itineraries we had plotted out.
What about the hiking? It was glorious. September and the beginning of October is the late part of the Alpine hiking season, skies are often crystal clear, the weather is more stable than in the summer with fewer thunderstorms, and European summer holidays are over which translates into quiet trails. The Dolomites reward the hiker with extraordinary landscapes. There are high-altitude lunar plateaus where people are dwarfed by soaring peaks, elegant rock spires, sheer rock walls and steep screed slopes. Slightly lower levels mean dense evergreen and deciduous forests and mountain meadows.
Like most hikers we keep track of distances and elevations. Our hikes lasted from five to six hours a day, interspersed by stops for lunch and taking in vistas, distances covered were from four to eight miles a day with elevations of between 2,200 to 3,770 feet uphill and 1,000 to 3,600 feet downhill (and yes, downhill is harder).
So how did we manage? Quite well, indeed. The packing was almost perfect. My pack weighed a little over two pounds more than my regular day pack. Okay, I admit that being responsible for the nightly laundry and the packing of both packs in the mornings, I did stuff more into my husband’s pack than into mine. The rainproof pants that he had protested he would not need did come along handy for him: twice we walked in heavy downpours and my ‘water resistant’ pants were quickly soaked through, and waterproof pants will be back on my list for next year’s hike. Being soaked through to the skin in suddenly icy weather can get dangerous quickly.
We all agreed that we felt fewer aches and pains than we felt 15 years ago when knees first started to hurt (hiking poles are essential). Regular rambles through the streets of Forest Hills, Upper Northwest, Rock Creek Park, and forays into the nearby Shenandoah mountains do the trick and help keep me fit. And we will be back next year, maybe for 14 days, on Alta Via No. 2. After all, high altitude hiking is one of the fun activities that one better not put into some bucket list of “things to do later/before you die.” It’s better done often and soon.