Alta Via 1

Dolomites, Italy

September 2015

Writing in 2019 it is four years since I set out on this, one of my first long distance trails. Walking with my Dad I had almost nothing to do with the planning and so I have not attempted to provide any links to accommodation or suggestions for transport to and from. Instead, this is simply my memories of a truly stunning walk in incredible scenery. We fitted it in in late September which is the very end of the trekking season with the result that we were only able to complete the first six days before all the huts closed, and that we were subject to some rather challenging weather.


Day 1 Lago di Braies to Rifugio Biella

The trail begins by the mirror-like waters of Lago di Braies which double the height of our first sight of the mountains. A pleasant and easy start along a wooded shore quickly turns to a steep ascent through scree, traversing the edges of some remarkable cliff faces. The route is well marked and over a couple of hours we wind our way through steep sided ravines to reach the pass and our first view of the mountains that we will be walking through for the next week. The view is simply incredible, and worth every step of the ascent. Even better, there is no descending to be done today as the Rifugio Biella sits directly at the pass meaning we can sit and savour the sunset over a large one-pot communal dinner. Off in the distance we get a glimpse of the Pelmo, one of the mountains that will mark the end of our trail. Later, I’m unpacking my bag in a tiny attic room when I discover a disaster of lightweight packing. The thin poly bag which contains all my toiletries has been squashed, and the head of my toothbrush is sitting perfectly in a big dollop of shampoo. After much washing (and foaming) it tastes revolting and on day one of a high mountain walk there is nothing to do but embrace it. Luckily it’s hard to be miserable in such a place.

Day 2 Rifugio Biella to Rifugio Lavarella

We wake up above a beautiful cloud inversion and say our goodbyes to the distant mountains as we head out along a rough vehicle track leading away from the Rigugio. Our start and end points for today both sit up above 2000m but sadly for our knees they are on opposite sides of a valley and today is all about the down and back up again. It’s another day of beautiful mountain scenery as we descend precipitously down an impressively hair-pinned track into a classic u-shaped valley. At the bottom we find a café though of course they don’t sell toothbrushes. After a quick lunch it’s back up the other side though thankfully the route is more winding and slightly less sheer. Almost the whole day is walked on good tracks that in some cases double as tiny roads for the scattering of little alpine huts. We stop for the night at the Rifugio Lavarella where we meet a German family who are walking the same route as us for the next few days. The rifugio is much more like a hotel than a classic mountain hut and offers some wonderfully warm showers and a choice of what we want for dinner!

Day 3 Rifugio Lavarella to Rifugio Lagazoui

In a change from our warm and sunny start it starts raining overnight and the weather forecast predicts thick snow fall for what will be our highest mountain day. We set out with some trepidation and by the time we reach the turnoff up the mountain a thin film of snow is beginning to settle. We stand for a while in our summer boots, with a distinct lack of snow equipment, reflecting that this looks like a very bad idea. The alternative is the route our German friends are planning which continues down to the road in the hopes of getting a taxi (though with about five words of Italian between us this is an alarming challenge) and then hoping that the cable car up to the rifugio is still running. If not then we’ve no-where to stay. Neither feel like particularly inviting options but we chose a difficult linguistic challenge over possible death and begin our descent. It’s very calm as we drop into the valley and the snow starts to fall in ernest with giant sticky flakes coating everything, ourselves included. It has a distinctly winter wonderland type feel and is certainly beautiful. Thankfully by the time we reach the road we’ve become part of a large group of ourselves, the four Germans, and a Hungarian couple and somehow between the eight of us we manage to convince a taxi driver to head out through a foot of snow to rescue us. It’s a rather hair-raising journey but we make it to the cable car station just as they’re about to shut and in five minutes we’re whisked up to the Rifugio Lagazoui to look out over a snowy mountain world.

Day 4 Rifugio Lagazoui to Rifugio Averau

The snow has stopped falling overnight but lies in thick drifts all around the rifugio and most of our party opt to take the cable car back down again. There is however a rather unique alternative in a series of war time tunnels that are dug down through the mountain, if we can find them. The entrance is only a few hundred metres from the rifugio but it feels like miles as we crunch awkwardly across icy snow drifts and the remains of trenches, trying not to look at the drop that awaits a slip. We’re hoping to do a section of via ferrata later in the walk and have come with a small amount of gear which we use to clip ourselves onto the hand rail though the final few metres are unprotected and icy. Finally we are able to crawl through a tiny wooden door on the cliff edge into the safely of the tunnels. It’s a long way down and steep steps all the way. It also turns out that there are several different routes and turnings, all of which have signposts pointing back up to the top, but absolutely nothing to tell us which route to take on the way down. Consequently there’s quite a bit of climbing too. Occasionally we come to windows in the cliff face and there are short sections where we have to leave the tunnel and edge along snowy ledges. It’s exhilarating and probably gives a more realistic insight into the lives of the soldiers who would have lived here. Eventually we find the right route to the bottom and pop out just next to the cable car. The rest of the day is a relatively short walk past the impressive Cinque Torri (five peaks). Thankfully no further detours are needed and we reach the Rifugio Averau to be reunited with the Germans for the last night of their walk.

Day 5 Rifugio Averau to Rifugio Staulanza

The sun joins us again for our fifth day in what is now a spectacular world of snowy peaks. We say goodbye to the Germans and head out on what is our longest walking day traversing high paths under some awesome cliffs and jagged summits. We had been hoping to include the Nuvalo peak and via ferrata but with the snow still thick we give it a miss. The day is beautiful and varied and the snow gradually melts away around us under strong sunshine so that by the time we near the Pelmo we’re walking through grassy meadows with only a dusting of snow remaining on the highest summits. The quality of the signposting remains excellent and it’s rare that we need to consult our maps. Eventually we wind our way down to the Rifugio Staulanza where we find ourselves the only guests in a 20 bedded communal dorm. There’s a distinctly closing down feel and the owner is surprised that we’re still walking so late in the season.

Day 6 Rifugio Staulanza to Alleghe

This is our final day on the trail simply because there are no more open rifugios for us to stay at. The route starts out along a wide grassy valley climbing little hillocks covered in grazing sheep but it’s not long before we’re climbing steeply again, this time up our last pass over the shoulder of the Monte Civetta. Crossing onto the Northern side we’re reunited with the snow for an impressive view of the cliffs leading up the summit. For us it’s now time to say goodbye though, after days on well marked, signposted paths, finding the trail down into the valley proves actually quite challenging. Eventually we get the right one and begin our steep descent through thick forests. It’s over all too quickly and all that remains to be done is navigate our way through public transport back into Venice where we have an extra day for sightseeing before flying home.