The Dolomiti (Dolomite) Mountains
This year I’ve seen some road. Mostly in my home state of Oregon, but sometimes you’ve got to leave home in order to really see it better. Late in summer there was a small window for me to get into some serious overseas hiking, so I jumped at the chance to huff up some alpine paths, based on a photo I’d seen a couple years ago. Lloyd Winter showed it to me one day at work, and it had been haunting me ever since. It was taken in the Dolomities (Dolomiti), a craggy, rugged, mythical swath of the Italian Alps that are completely bewildering in scale and accessibility.
I started digging on the internet to find a description or route map to this single mysterious photograph. No luck. I continued for a few weeks clicking around Tumblr’s, Instagram, and any leads I thought might bring me to the gateway this photo was taken from. Somehow the internet lead me to exactly where I was looking for. These are some other things I saw along the way. Thank you, random Internet image, for letting me pass through these gateways on a quest to find you.
There are two approaches to the Dolomites, via Innsbruck from the North, or Bolzano from the South. I came up from Bolzano, and not knowing what I was doing, mistakenly stayed in Bolzano. I thought that was in the Dolomites. In fact it’s a 40 minute bus ride from them, so I missed out on several sunsets and star shows, unfortunately. Chalk this mission up to reconnaissance for another exploratory visit.
After I got my bearings in the region, I realized every valley had its own culture, language (German, Ladin, or Italian), and distinct mountain landscapes. One could spend an entire vacation in a single valley exploring the rocky monoliths, flanked by Disney-esque villages, stocked with every service you may need.
But of course in this part of Europe cute villages are everywhere. I was not here for a hotel/spa retreat combo, or lazy Sundays eating my weight in Gelato. As soon as I saw my first craggy peak looming above my bus window, I was obsessed with getting up in their business, and of course, sourcing the image that lead me here in the first place.
What is incredible about the Dolomites is not their height, there are higher peaks to be found in the Alps, it’s their accessibility. Often they seem to have no foothills, and jut up from high plateaus vertically, right before your eyes. So, their scale is at a mind-altering closeness that makes you feel even smaller than you are. And, since the foothills are rather easy to navigate, there are lifts and roads and huts peppered throughout the entire range. In fact one can hike hut-to-hut for days or weeks on end without coming down from the lofty summits. There are so many that you can determine how long you want to hike each day, and pop into a fully stocked hut and bed down with other fellow trekkers. It’s a dream. A TOTAL DREAM. Seriously I’ve been having dreams about it since I’ve been back.
There is a group of monoliths near a ring of needle-sharp towers called the Puez-Odle Group, which lies in the tiny Kingdom of Odle that is particularly stunning. From any direction, the views are heart stopping. There was some local literature that credited this area of jutting peaks and larger-than-life cliffs as the inspiration for JRR Tolkein’s depiction of Middle Earth. I have yet to source that on the web at home, but it only takes a quick glance to see the correlation.
Want a craggy backdrop with curious milk cows in the foreground? No problem. There are sheep, mini goats, cows and horses, each equipped with a huge bell around the neck to make you giggle and swoon to your heart’s content. They will sniff you, and take any treats you have, but of course, don’t feed these creatures, this area is full of farmers who depend on the health of their livestock. In fact most of the area is built for farmers who harvest their crops right up jagged cliffs with 1,000 foot drop-offs. Certainly during winter this is a brutal place to call home, with roads closed to the outside world. The skiing, however, is legendary. This is the sort of place you ski up to your hotel room, being just a few clicks away from Cortina.
So, back to finding the source of the image that got me here.
I went to the wrong place. Twice. I didn’t know the NAME of the peak, so I was miscalculating based on an illustrated map of a ring of giants called the Alpe de Siusi. There was this one section that I THOUGHT might lead me to the exact same peak the photo was taken from. I realized I was way off, but then actually saw the peak from a break in the clouds. It was already afternoon and I knew I had to get off these mountains before the last bus to Bolzano at 6pm. I ran. I caught a chair lift. And then, 3 hours later I found myself, heart pounding, watching the clouds clear, over the thing I came for.
The Seceda summit over Val Gardena. Internet and real life, colliding.
So I missed the last chair lift out of the high alpine area after staring for too long, and thus ran down the mountain, only to miss the last bus out of Santa Christina. Whoops. It was getting dark. Literally the first hotel I walked into had a single room and was just seating for dinner. Score. It was this place, Hotel Kristiana. Go there, if there was any more random string of events that lead me to this single hotel, I’m not sure I could actually follow them.
That night, after a hearty alpine dinner, I got chatty with the hotel owner and his friend of 50 years, when we started talking about trails.
After a few remarks, they realized I was asking them for their advice on the Dolomiti, and immediately I had over 100 years of mountain knowledge being poured over my head as they pulled out their old, ripped maps, and told me where to head the next morning. I sat there, realizing that this was another version of the internet, telling me where to go. The original map – human memory. I so want to go back to that hotel bar and see those lifelong buddies giggling about the old days and sipping Ouzo. The reason I want to go back, is because they sent me into another dimension. They lifted the curtain for me, though I didn’t realize it at the moment. Neither of them were fit enough to go on the trail they were telling me to hit at sunrise.
There was one single destination they said I had to visit. Tierser Alpl Hutte.
The hut (Hutte/rifugio) itself isn’t the main program. It’s the ascent and decent. Both of which are completely unique, and completely on another planet as far as beauty. Nothing can prepare you for the images you will see on this hike. What you see here are single eye shots. Each direction you look is a complete masterpiece of deep mountain inspiration.
And by inspiration I mean heart-breaking scale and majesty.
What is scale here? I’m not sure. In the image above, in the lower right, you can make out power line poles. That’s about the only scale I can offer. So, the vastness swallows every human thing, and yes you will love it.
After stopping in the Tiers Hut for an espresso and soup, I descended for several hours to the town of Tiers, where I caught my last bus on my last day in these magical peaks, and headed home. On my way, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a new ring of giants, the guardians of the Rosengarten, a group of pink-glowing needle-like fortresses that I just didn’t have time to explore.
Maybe you should?