All you can run: The Dolomites

I've written quite a bit about the two big races I did last summer - Xreid (part 1part 2) and UTMR 100k (part 1part 2), but now I want to tell you about what happened in between. Check out The RidgeBack to my roots  and Steep, steeper, Innsbruck as well!

I took the bus from Innsbruck to Cortina d'Ampezzo, and found my craning my neck on the final stretch to take in the alien landscape that appeared around me. I installed my orange tiny tent at a campground on the outskirts of Cortina. The campground was filled with elderly Italians staying in mobile homes, who prattled jovially to one another as they hung up their laundry and read the paper.

My next adventure would be alone. I wanted to run from rifugio to rifugio for three days, hoping to cover 30-40 km per day. With only a paper map available for planning, I had to count kilometer squares to estimate the distance between the places I wanted to see. I struggled a little to find an available bed near the popular Tre Cimes de Lavaredo, but after call several rifugios in the region I found one. The advantages of travelling alone!

The view from the campground was just fine.

The next day I left most of my possession swith the campsite hosts and I set off with a minimal 15L pack. I felt free and unencumbered, ready to explore the beautiful mountains that surrounded me.

The path I had traced on the map took me up a 1000 meter climb on a forest dirt road. It was still early, but the sun was already hot on my neck and I sweated profusely as I ground up the excruciating grade. The views better be worth it, I grumbled to myself. Soon enough I pulled above tree line and zany rock formations abounded.

If trolls live in the Norwegian mountains, what kind of creatures reside in the Dolomite palaces of rock?

I stopped for lunch near Rifugio Averau. Since this was near the car-accessible Falzarego pass, and there were ski-lifts running uphill to boot, the trails were overrun with people. I wolfed down my tuna fish sandwich while admiring the view of Tofana di Rozes, an iconic 3000 meter peak that looks over Cortina. I set on my way, anxious to get passed Falzarego pass and further into the background.

Lunch with a view.

Some minutes later I went to get my cell phone out of my vest pocket - and it wasn't there! Oh no, had I made the same mistake as in Innsbruck. I frantically ran back to my lunch spot and scrabbled around in the rocks, preying that someone hadn't just gotten a free phone.

I finally found the phone, absentmindedly placed in the main compartment of my pack. Phew.

I descended to Falzarego passing, running out of water just as I got there. The pass was a circus of cyclists, kiosks, motorcyclists and cars. I cautiously walked into one of the kiosks and asked to fill my bottle. Flustered by the crowds, I only got one half-liter filled before I darted out.

Near Falzarego pass

The next section featured a long, zig-zagging climb up a ski slope towards Lagazuoi. The sun beat down on the bare rocks, and I decided to take a risk and fill a second bottle in a creek I passed over.

I descended into a new landscape, towards a glittering green pond. I couldn't make out where the trail continued to, but when I got to the pond I realized it was taking me straight up, through an enormous chink in the nearby rock walls.

The trail passing through the chink the the rock. 

My water refills were proving insufficient in the heat of the day, and I prayed I would find some more water before the next rifugio, which was still some kilometers away. I passed by one river that was unfortunately guarded by cows and their dung, and so had to ration water in the penetrating afternoon heat until I finally reached Ucia de Gran Fanes. A spigot of clear, cold water was my savior.

Next stop: cold, delicious water.

Comparing the distance on my watch to the map, I realized I had greatly underestimated this first day. I was nearly 35 km into it and still no where near Rifugio Fodara Vodla where I would spend the night. My legs were fine though, and now that I had cold water I was basically a happy camper.

The next descent passed quickly, and soon I was ready to take on the final, 500 meter climb to the Rifugio. A dirt road zigzagged up what felt like a nearly vertical wall, positioned exactly so as to catch all of the late afternoon sun's rays. It was so hot, and now I was getting tired. I finally put my headphones to good use, watching the vertical meters tick up on my watch as I just. kept. going.

Hot and bothered on the final climb to Fodara Vodla.

Fodara Vodla was a beautiful rifugio with delicious food. From the friendly proprietor I learned that the local people in these valleys speak a language called Ladino. The Dolomites are a border region between Austria and Italy (and have been a part of both countries at one time or another), so most of the locals are actually trilingual, with English then being their fourth language!

{Strava day 1}

Morning sun on the peaks near Fodara Vodla.

The next morning I had a leisurely breakfast, trying to pack in all the calories I could, before I set off. Soon I realized my back had chafed yesterday, and sat down to try and tape the bad areas.

Back chafe, back tape.

This morning the trails felt much more remote. The mountains were like giant slices of layered crepe cake, built up of thin layers of rock. Except for the vegetation along the trail, it felt like passing through a moon landscape.

I soon started to play around with the self-timer function on my phone. 

As I stopped to study my map at a junction, I began to wonder about my route choice. Believing that the dotted sections on the map denoted via ferratas, I had avoided them all together and in this case would need to divert many vertical meters down valley to avoid the dotted section. It didn't make sense, and beside, I wanted to stay in the high country!

I asked at the next rifugio.

"Do you need a harness to pass this section?"

"No, no! Just a few cables, easy!" was the broken English reply. Good enough for me; I went for it. The trail took me around an enormous rock slide, several hundred meters wide at the base. Then it edged along a balcony above cliffs, with a few steel cable handrails that I felt disinclined to use.

The dotted section on the map was rugged but entirely passable without via ferrata gear.

I was meeting a few hikers now, and they seemed surprised to seem a runner.

"Brrrrava! Bravissimo!" a few called.

Hunger was setting in hard now. I had been snacking a little, but decided to sit down for more crackers and cheese. I stopped in a meadow with a view of the mountains and wolfed down my food. It didn't even seem to make a dent in the hollowness in my stomach. Just keep going, the calories will catch up with you eventually.

I was out of water, and wanted to fill my bottles before the next, long climb. Not finding a spigot outside of the café I came upon, I ducked my head inside and asked the waitresses for help. As they filled my bottles, I couldn't help but stare at the plates of pasta and other foods being consumed around me. I grabbed a menu and pawed through it.

"One café affogato!" I ordered triumphantly.

Italy's finest invention, the cafe affogato!

Café affogato: vanilla ice cream and espresso. If that's not motivation in a cup, I don't know what is.

I passed over Strudelkoph and ran a beautiful, long descent to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo vistors center. I had passed by this place on the bus two days ago - how long ago that seemed!

It was time to make up again all on the vertical I had just lost, to the base on the famous Tre Cime de Lavaredo themselves. It was motivating to know I only had one climb left of the day, but it was a big one.

It was sweltering again as I alternated between jogging and walking. I eyed that cool river that flowed by, and soon spotted a pool. I got in with my runner shorts and sports bra on, and let the frigid water run over me for a few moments.

The dirt road soon became a trail, and the trail climbed what felt like forever. I was starving again. As sweeping views of the Tre Cimes and Monte Paterno began to appear, so did the tourists. There is a paved road all the way up to the base of the Tre Cimes on the south side, and most people were on shorter day hikes from this high altitude parking place. It seemed almost ridiculous to imagine I had traveled close to 70 kilometers and 5500 vertical meters on foot from Cortina to reach this place that you could practically drive to.

Monte Paterno

I arrived at Rifugio Lavaredo, which is spectactularily located just below the famous towers. I checked in, and decided it was time to sit outside and enjoy refreshments.

"Do you have, um, panaché?" I asked, hoping that the French word for radler was comprehensible to Italians.

"You mean radler? Yes!"


{Strava day 2}

Juse me, the Tre Cimes, and my radler.

That evening, I met two friendly German girls, and ate dinner with them. I was a little starved for company. I was moving at a very different pace than most hikers, and most of my interactions consisted mostly of friendly hellos.

Loneliness is the negative consequence of travelling alone, but freedom is the other. I felt infinitely free the next morning as I flew down the dirt road from the Rifugio, the spires of the Campadelle range and my next adventure ahead of me.

Heading out of Rifugio Laverado.

With the knowledge that the dotted lines were not, in fact, via ferratas, I had replotted my routes to pass over a point ominously named Torre del Diavolo. From the initial long descent, I picked up a relatively disused trail and was once again away from the crowds.

Beautiful alpine rhododendron bushes.

I did meet a few hikers on my way up to Rifugio di Fonda Savio, and asked them if one needed a harness to go up, still not quite daring to trust that this route wouldn't end in a cliff.

More self- timer fun on the climb to Torre del Diavolo.

The climb to the Rifugio and onward to the Torre were steep and loose, but not technical. I crested the pass and headed down into the next valley, which was entirely filled with an enormous scree field. The trail markers had probably rolled around with the scree, and I quickly found myself off-trail, battling my way through a landscape that seemed to move with my every step. I could see the trail below me, and made a beeline for it. It was possibly the loosest trail I had run on, but I was so happy to be off the scree field it could have been a paved road.

The treacherous scree field.

Next I descended to the village of Misurina, hoping to find a shop where I could restock my meager supply of snacks. I was sorely disappointed; the village only contained restaurants and it was still one hour until Italian lunch started.

I resolved to push on, hoping to buy a plate of pasta at the Albergo down the valley. When I arrived there a little later, I found the windows shutter-boarded. This particular Albergo was out of business, and I was a solid 1400 vertical meters below the next rifugio.

Discouraged, I sat down by the river and hosted a short pity party for myself. I crammed down half of a sleeve of cookies, hoping to stoke the fire that would take me up the hill.

Pasta, pasta, pasta! I chanted to myself up the endless climb.

The 10 euro plate of spagetti with tomato sauce at the crowded rifugio was the best thing I had ever tasted, and I hungrily ate every speck, wiping away the remaining sauce with white bread.


On the next climb, I rounded a corner only to see the horns of an ibex in the distance, along the trail.

That's the last I'll see of that, I thought, imagining the creature would bolt as I approached. It didn't though, and I soon saw it was hanging out with a smaller ibex I assumed was its mate. I got closer and closer, waiting for it to run away, until I was so close I started realizing just how big those horns were. The ibex made a sort of whistling, snorting sound that startled me, and slowly got up and walked a few meters away. I tiptoed past - this was clearly his territory!

The majestic ibex was barely bothered by my presence.

Dark rain clouds were appearing the landscape behind me, and it felt like they were chasing me as I ran rocky singletrack towards the final descent to Cortina.

Dark clouds, moving towards me.

The rain hit me on the descent, but it felt like a release. It was one of those warm summer days where the drops are refreshing rather than chilling. I charged down the descent and arrived back at the campground where I had started three days earlier, soaking wet.

I had one more day before I would travel to Chamonix to meet my friends for Tour de Mont Blanc. I decided it would be fun to rent a via ferrata set and check out some of the routes near Cortina. After extensive reading, I decided the historical route through Castelletto to the peak of 3000 meter Tofana di Rozes was perfect for me. It seemed to be long and exposed, but not too technically challenging.

World War I has left its mark all around the Dolomites, and no more so than in the Castelletto, a fortress built in to the rock at a strategic location. Austrian and Italian troops fought in these high mountains through frigid winters in unimaginable conditions. You can read a super interesting account of the battle for the Castelletto here.

Coming out of the tunnel near the Castelletto.

I started my ascent into the Castelletto late in the morning, and felt rather alone as I sat outside the dark tunnel through the rock. Maybe doing a Via Ferrata alone isn't a great idea, I thought as I snacked on some cheese and bread. But I had rented gear and taken an bus up into the mountains to do this thing, and do it I would.

The route starts with a 500 m long tunnel dug through the rock by soliders during WWI. You almost don't need your gear for this, but the steps are slick at times.

After passing through the Castelletto, the route began to wind around the mountain and gradual climb. Moving at my power hiking pace, I caught other hikers and passed where I could. The route was steep and exposed, but never more than I could handle.

Glad for a little protection in this terrain.

The final push to the summit was a lunge-buster, at 3000 meters on steep, loose rock. The reward was the Dolomites and Cortina d'Ampezzo spread out at my feet.

A solid back-pack tan on top of Tofana di Rozes.

It was a satisfying end to a beautiful stay in these wild mountains. I'll be back, Dolomites!

- The Wild Bazilchuk