On a hot summers day in early July, I meet my friend Ana in Dobbiaco, a small Italian town near the border with Austria, far from either of our homes. We’re about to start Alta Via 1, a 10(ish) day hike through the Italian Alps.
All 150 km of Alta Via 1 stretch out ahead of us as we jump off the bus at Lago di Braies. Many have come this way before us, but we have one thing that the others did not: a box of leftover pizza from the night before. There’s nothing like starting a long distance hike by looking totally unprepared for the ordeal ahead. We are not quite silly enough to actually lug the pizza up a mountain though so we stop for an early lunch on the glimmering far shore of Lago di Braies, which luckily has so many day walkers that there’s an easy rubbish bin to dump our pizza box when we’re done. Looking slightly more professional now, we begin the real challenge for the day, a steep climb from the lake shore up to Rifugio Biella.
No time for warm ups here, the trail juts straight up for the first 3 hour section and we’re soon eye to eye with the strange rocky peaks that raise their jagged heads above the scree fields. July is a wonderful time to be here, we’ve barely started and I’ve already spotted an array of gorgeous wildflowers. The summer heat however, quickly becomes oppressive. One section is actually marked on the map as Il Forno – The Oven. By the time we reach Rifugio Biella we’re both pink with exertion and probably sunburnt since I doubt even the best sunscreen is going to last long with the amount we’re sweating.
After a short break we continue on, this time with a nice gradual stroll through the alpine wonderland. Crazy jagged peaks jut their heads up all over. I’m surprised to find that some of the rock here has a reddish tinge to it that almost makes me think that we’ve somehow wandered into the American Southwest. The language of passing hikers is an easy reminder of where we are though. Although ‘Europe’ is about as far as I can generally pin it down. I tried to learn some Italian for the trip but most of the time I greet people in my terrible Italian only to realise that they’re speaking German/French/English/Spanish/? anyway and potentially know even less Italian than I do.
I was relieved to have the big climb out of the way but almost wish we were going uphill again when we hit the gruelling descent down to Pederu. It’s a gravel road with a lot of loose rock that makes it difficult to take anything but the smallest of steps even with my trusty trekking pole. By the time we make it down to the bottom our knees and feet are feeling pretty shot. Luckily Rifugio Lavarella runs a taxi service from Pederu and it’s already down there to pick up some other guests. We manage to hitch a ride with them, knocking another 2 hours of road walking off the journey.
The rifugio experience is much more luxurious than the mountain huts that I’m used to. Blankets, boot driers, flush toilets, beer and hot meals. Lavarella also has hot showers included with the price. What kind of hiking trail is this?! We quickly set up camp in our dorm which we’re sharing with a charming Italian family. Beds ready and showered up, we scoff down dinner and a beer before going for an evening stroll around the grounds as the sun goes down.
Day 2 is an easy start that takes us higher up into the mountains and through numerous herds of cows, all with dangling cowbells that clink down through the valley as we walk. The lazy stroll is short lived though and we’re soon leaving the cows in the valley behind as we make our way over the pass to Lago di Lagazuoi. It’s a steep climb up to the top of the pass but from the top we can see Rifugio Lagazuoi where we’ll be staying for the night perched on the next mountain over. There’s also a stunning view down to the lake which looks like a perfect place for a lunch break.
It’s a steep descent down to the lake and the midday heat has well and truly kicked in by now so we linger in the shade for a good while and jump in the lake for a swim. The water is chilly but refreshing and much to our surprise there are a lot of little fishes in the lake that like to nibble gently on peoples’ toes. They are particularly fond of me for some reason and swarms of them chase after my hands as I drag them through the water and tickle my kneecaps if I stand in one place for a while.
Unfortunately we can’t laze by the lake forever. It’s time to begin the long climb up to Rifugio Lagazuoi which doesn’t look quite so close all of a sudden. It’s an intense climb on its own but we’re also high enough now that the altitude is making the air much thinner than we’re used to. Every time we get puffed it seems to take an age before we get our lungs back under control. It doesn’t help that the climb seem to gets steeper and steeper the higher we go. Just when the rifugio seems to be getting close the trail veers straight up a steep scree slope. On the plus side there is some interesting history in this section. Old huts and tunnels are cut into the rock from World War I when this area was still part of Austria. We’re too bent on getting to the rifugio and taking our packs off to explore thoroughly right now though. We press on to Lagazuoi where we finally get to drop our packs and retreat into the shade. Me and Ana are in separate rooms tonight, she’s back with the Italian family from yesterday and my bunkmates are the only Americans I’ve seen on the trail, a cool older couple from Colorado.
Ana’s done for the day and goes to lay down but I get a second wind after resting with my book for a bit and go for a sunset wander around the hut. Lagazuoi is one of the highest rifugios on the whole trail and the panorama from up here is kind of ridiculous, especially now that the light is starting to soften. Storm clouds roll around the peaks and the setting sun lights up birds of prey circling over a stark plunge to the valley below. Clouds and mountain tops blend together as the weather changes. I watch the light play from one of the higher points for a while and then head down to check out some of the war tunnels that we breezed over on the way up. The conditions the soldiers endured up here in their tiny spartan stone hideouts must have been insane even without the fighting. There’s still plenty of snow hanging around in mid July and we’re tired just from bringing our small hiking packs up here. Getting enough supplies up to survive any other time of year must have been backbreaking work.
I head back to the rifugio just in time for dinner where we have our first experience with mezza pensione (half board). This is the standard form of accommodation at most of the rifugios and includes dinner and breakfast, and since it’s Italy, dinner is completely insane. We finish our plates and are just talking about how full we are when secondi piatti arrives. Second plate. Because that’s what everyone needs: two dinners. And there’s dessert as well. We will certainly sleep well tonight.
Italian phrase of the day: Vedo una mucca! – I see a cow!
Listening to: Grand Canyon – Puscifer