Mountains, Biker Gangs and Capsizing: The Dolomites

Written by Jono Hawkins on 01 Sep 2016

Leaving home for a holiday in the afternoon is always a bad idea. It seems like you’re giving yourself more time to pack, more time to prepare and more time to get to the airport promptly. The reality is different, as we realised at 3am on the floor of Venice Airport having arrived at midnight, while being moved on by the cleaning staff… 7’o’clock couldn’t have come soon enough. Claire and I boarded the ATVO bus from Venice Marco Polo airport to Cortina D’Ampezzo in the heart of the Eastern Dolomites and swiftly fell asleep for almost the entirety of the journey. We sought out the ‘La Cooperativa’ supermarket and purchased gas and food, had a picnic lunch in the main square then returned to the bus station. Our original plan was to tackle the ‘Sorapis Gruppa’, a two day Via Ferrata circuit around Mt. Sorapis, however we took a chance on there being space at the Rifugio Locatelli (Dreizinnenhutte) and jumped on a bus to the Tre Cime Natural Park. Named after the three imposing rock pillars that rise out of a limestone plateau hanging well above the valley, the Tre Cime Natural Park is without a doubt one of the most breathtaking areas of the Dolomites. The local bus drops you at a height of 2,350m at the Rifugio Auronzo which makes the walk round behind the Tre Cime and towards the Rifugio Locatelli straightforward and not particularly strenuous. We arrived at the Rifugio in good time and had a drink before asking if there were any beds left available for the evening. To our disbelief the hut was fully booked, as was the Rifugio Lavaredo half an hour’s walk away. This seemed odd for a hut in September, especially given that It wasn’t particularly busy. Resigned that this would have to be a night spent in a bivvy we picked up our bags and trudged 10 minutes away to cook dinner on our stove.

At this point, the sight of what seemed to be 50 soldiers marching over the horizon explained why the hut was full for the evening. Cursing the German Army’s mountain warfare training we finished our couscous and returned to the hut to discretely use the toilets and refill our water bottles. The only reasonable patch of ground we could find out of direct view of the hut was tucked just downhill of it and even this was far from ideal. Having set up our tarpaulin in my garden prior to leaving for the trip, it seemed to work very well on flat grass, a luxury we were not afforded here. A broken night’s sleep followed full of worries about the integrity of our shelter and our spirits. Finally leaving the improvised tent just after 6am we trudged back up to the Rifugio Locatelli to stash a bag full of our camping equipment before attempting the ‘Innerkoffler’ Via Ferrata.

This is undoubtedly the most popular route for people to take from the Rifugio and leads inside then up the steep spire of the Patternkoffel. Initially the track takes a series of tunnels and steep, dark steps all of which had been mined or blown out during the First World War. Breaking off from the main track to the sides are a series of galleries than provide beautiful views over the Lavaredo basin and towards the Tre Cime. Eventually we broke out onto the Eastern face of the mountain and climbed steeply up a series of cableways to a col. Continuing upwards we scrambled to peak of the Patternkoffel and enjoyed the stunning views of the Rifugio and the Tre Cime from the top.

Returning to grab our bags from the refuge, we trudged back to the bus stop on only a few hours sleep. We made the hour long journey back into Cortina D’Ampezzo and to the tourist information office where an incredibly helpful woman was able to make us a reservation at the Camping Olympia. This is easier said in English than done in Italian when you are trying to explain that you would like to use a campsite but have no tent or campervan. We jumped on the bus to the campsite and were able to stay in a ‘camping pod’ for the next two nights. This was essentially ‘a shed with a bed’ but we were grateful for the solid, windproof walls and prospect of a decent night’s sleep.

We cooked on the porch of the pod, sunk a beer in the bar and slept. The next morning we took the path that ran parallel to the campsite and over the hillside behind. After what felt like an incredibly long upwards slog, we broke over the saddle of the hillside and made our way down into the next valley. On the path down, I noticed a cable running off to the side of the path and decided to investigate the incredibly sketchy path that led down to the base of a waterfall. After taking a few photos, I ran down the river bed and scrambled up the side of the river to meet back with the path and head to Claire. We both walked down and followed the riverbed to look at the waterfall, before turning back and tucking into our lunch of chorizo and tortilla wraps.

As we got closer to the gorge, our target for the day, it became evident to me that I had been here before with my family. There are a few Via Ferrata’s tucked into the steep walls of the gorge and we decided to give one of these a go before walking back to the campsite. We followed the cable behind a waterfall where the path curves steeply downwards over a set of rungs to its base, now some 90m above our heads. The views were amazing as the afternoon sun licked the top of the steep limestone walls and the waterfall crashed on the rocks loudly behind us. It was a gentle walk back along the valley floor to the main road which leads back into Cortina D’Ampezzo and we were in no rush to get back to the camping pod.

We cooked dinner again that evening back at the pod, having watched one of the supply helicopters for the hut take off from the disused airstrip across the river. There was very little else in the town apart from the campsite so that evening we returned to the bar. When we arrived at the campsite we were informed the restaurant only opened on Thursday, Friday and Saturday however to our dismay we saw plates of food served across the room. Unable to justify the extra cost on another meal, we were left with our mouths watering…

Packing up the next morning, there was a mild sense of dread knowing that a long day (and night) of travelling was ahead of us. We had lunch in Cortina and bought some food from ‘La Cooperativa’ before taking a bus up to the train station in Dobbiaco. As we drove further north towards the Austrian border we found the culture become progressively more Tyrolean with road signs in both German and Italian.

Our train arrived quickly, and a quick consultation of the departures board at Fortezza told us that a direct train to Innsbruck was leaving in 3 minutes. We rushed to Platform 3 and jumped aboard. Although we had to pay a €1.50 supplement each because this was a ‘Eurocity’ train, it saved us two more changes at stations before arriving at Innsbruck. One of the more grounding moments of the holiday occurred while the train crossed the Austrian border. While not anything like the pictures of migrants plastered across tabloid newspapers, the platform was still home to refugees pleading with Austrian and Italian police to let them board the train.

I had a wonderful time in the Dolomites and can’t wait to head back in the future for more Via Ferrata. Lessons were learned and if I wanted to stay in huts I’d certainly make more of a provision for this by booking in advance - bivvies should be a last ditch option only! Have a look out for the follow up blog of our time in Slovenia.