ITALY Dolomites AV1 (Alta Via Uno) 2013.

AV1. Alta Via Uno. Magic.

Let the walk begin. Lago di Braies / Pragserwildsee. First morning.
I did this AV1 trail in July 2013. I have been somewhat reluctant to write it up, resisting the way words finitise the infinite, and, in so doing, reduce its grandeur to a degree. This walk will always have proportions in my heart that way transcend anything these words or photos can convey.
It is not just the story of scenic splendour, or of a walking track, but is also the tale of an ad hoc friendship that continues to resonate. This was one of the happiest walks of my life.

Alta Via Uno.
Day One.
I stared around the dining room of the Hotel Lago di Braies, overlooking the magical lake of its name (also known as the Pragserwildsee – everything in this area has dual naming), wondering which of the other munchers was doing my walk. Any? I tried to judge from the clothing: Who was dressed for such a venture?  They all were, so that was no help. Time would tell.

First little taste of a via ferrata to warm us up.
I had landed in Venice the afternoon before from Tassie and caught the bus straight there (well, via Dobbiaco / Toblach), arriving just in time for the evening meal. I hadn’t made a booking, but it all worked out. Next morning, that of the day in question, I was up with the dawn to circumambulate the lake, just quietly absorbing everything before I set out. Now, with excitement tinged with apprehension – one reads rather scary stuff about via ferrata – I was paying my bill and about to set out.

Summit of Seekofel
I had gone about a hundred metres when I made my first friends: a group of four Israeli mums undertaking the trek in a child-free spree. They were busy photographing the lake using DSLR cameras like mine, so I’d already found some photo freaks to share my journey. We chatted and I left them to it, keen to be off. There’d be plenty of time to talk later. Right now, I was a girl on a mission, as I always am once my pack is on my back. I’m so excited to be underway I just have to keep moving. I’m not one of those nice restful types. Sorry.

The clouds part, giving us a view down to the lake where I began 1400 ms directly below. My new friends took this for me.
Half way up the mountain I met more people – some from Holland, and a Welsh girl – and a bit later, a couple from Ireland. We had conferences about which was the correct way to go, as the map and the terrain had decided to differ, which was rather confusing if you like reading maps as we all did. Way forward determined, we were off again, but aware now of each other on the journey, and happy about future chances to get to know each other more. We were all excited about the adventure we’d just begun, and the air of happy expectation was infectious.

Seekofel itself. A magic mountain.
On I continued, climbing with glee until I reached the saddle overlooking my hut for the night. Some people I’d met had opted for a hut further on, but it was lower than this one, and the huts I’d decided on when I made my copious plans were all the ones that were as high as possible. So, some of us stayed in the pass, which I reached by lunchtime (in less than two hours’ walking); others continued to a hut I’d pass the next morning. I used the afternoon to climb the mountain behind the hut, whose German name is Seekofel.

Alpenglow: dawn on day 2.

Unfortunately, as I climbed the clouds began to roll in, and there was even a spot of very local sleet, but despite the near white-out conditions, I kept going, and soon met two people who’d turned back because of the weather, but who then turned around once more since I offered them quasi company (they found it comforting to know that I was up there on the same mountain ahead of them; it’s nice to know you’re not entirely alone in weather like that. I liked knowing they were somewhere behind me, too). I stayed on top long enough to wait for them to share the summit and exchange photos and a chat. The completely sheer drop of 1400 metres, straight down to our lake of this morning, was pretty awesome – almost vertiginous. Exhilarated, I danced through the snow along the tops before descending using the via ferrata, which was quite unnecessary, but a great confidence booster for later.

Day 2: Monte Pelmo comes alive as the sun illuminates her upper zones

Day Two.
The clouds had cleared for dawn, and I climbed enthusiastically up a different (smaller) mountain to get a good view of the impending sunrise. Grand Monte Pelmo in the distance, covered in snow, floated atop a bedding of cloud and dominated my attention. She was utterly magnificent, and grew even more so as the sun tipped and illuminated her upper storeys. Sunrise and sunset are two of the moments when I at last find it easy just to sit and stare and wordlessly appreciate my surroundings. I often think at such times of the injunction: “Be still and know that I am God”. Whether or not you hold to the tenets of the Bible, that notion of sitting and pondering infinity, of reaching out to something much huger and more important than you are – whatever words you might call that by – is very important. It’s part of why we need to fight for our wilderness areas. Even at this distance in time, I can feel goosebumps when I look at my photos of that morning, and remember the wonder of that gaze.

Day 2: the scene outside our rifugio. Eisengabel.
I descended, ate my breakfast, and departed on my way while the day was still fresh, but even so, there were many out ahead of me, which I like: I love to know that others appreciate these golden hours too. After about ten or ten thirty, the day gets too glary for my liking. I was enjoying myself, and sang while I first mildly descended for ten minutes, and then climbed about one contour over a small ridge that then dropped to the valley that contained the hut that I’d chosen not to stay at. It had already emptied. Again, I met happy people on the track and had fun times as we enjoyed that bit of scenery together before I moved on. I didn’t enjoy the final climb up to Rifugio Fannes, as by then the sun was too strong, and that part was on a dirt road not a path. In addition, there were lots of day trippers. I felt the odd one out amongst them, and settled down for lunch, eagerly scanning the horizon for the others who were doing AV1. I had now met everyone who was walking on my schedule. I missed them because of the “crowds” also there for lunch; I would have been much less lonely had I been alone. My spinach dumplings, hot chocolate and apple strudel with cream were delicious!!

The stream outside our back door.
That afternoon was gloriously relaxing, an admixture of reading out on the verandah, listening to the stream trickling past our lodgings, gazing up at the spectacular mountains surrounding us or across at the contented cows, a-chewing, a-mooing, to pass the time of day. Being a somewhat restless person, I punctuated reading with strolls through the pastures full of alpine flowers, and wandered around photographing cascading water. I love arriving early and then having the afternoon to explore or soak in the local environment before being required to move on the next day. By this stage of the journey, I had become part of a group of four, a subsection consisting of the Welsh girl, the Irish couple and me. We ate together that night, enjoying the fact that you could have food of such wonderful quality there in the middle of nowhere.

Day 3: dawn. 

Day Three.
As usual, I was up for sunrise, and, like the first day, I had to do some climbing first so as to get the best spot. It was well worth the effort. I took my shots, and then walked along the path for a while, as there was still plenty of time before breakfast. On the rebound, I befriended another eager photographer from the rifugio. We enjoyed having the world and that magic to ourselves.

Day 3. Dawn.
This day posed a bit of a problem for me, as when the others phoned our intended rifugio for the night to come, it said it was full. Libby (Wales) opted for the security of a bed, and hived off at some stage to sleep in the valley. She’d meet up with us the night after. Steph and Austen (IRE) were already booked in. I decided to take a gamble and see if my actual presence achieved anything. I’d need to get there early if I wanted this miracle, so opted for a pretty no-nonsense day that would optimise my chances. Anyway, it is my delight to travel quickly. I still stopped for photos and food breaks, or to meet new friends. This was the day I met Marian and Dani from Spain. Dani liked my style as I scooted up the pass singing, and photographed this strange apparition. We made friends later, as the incline changed at the top, and where I had caught Steph and Austen and was having a small break with them while I took in the view. We all descended at approximately the same speed, so kept together until it flattened out again. A snack together at the end of a flat section, and then it was time for me to go up the next pass, through the soft snow with small icy patches alone and try to ensure a sleeping space.

I had no problems at all securing a bed. In fact, I even had a bedroom to myself for a while, which is a bit of a luxury in these huts. The kind manager had put me in a room with my new friends. Steph had found  the possibilities for falling long distances on the snowy slopes to cause some disquiet; Marian felt happy at having overcome some obstacles; and I was elated at getting a bed, so the five of us, as we now were, had a kind of party to celebrate our various causes of joy – a second lunch or whatever, in which we bought food and put it in the centre of the table and enjoyed food and company and toasting the success of our mission thus far. It was a fabulous group of fun and interesting people, adventitiously formed, but gelling together very happily.

Steph and Austen begin the steep descent.

The view was absolutely magnificent, perched high as we were (Rifugio Lagazuoi, 2757 ms asl) like eagles in an eyrie. Dinner was delicious, and so was dessert quite possibly, but everyone ignored it, as sunset arrived just as the food did, and we all had our priorities on the outer environment. The hut emptied to the possible insult of the cook (but surely he’s used to it) and off we raced to get a good spot for the fiery red as it lit the snow and the majestic peaks that were our special demesne this night.

Day 3: Traversing AFTER the steep decent down the rockfasce.

Day 3. The sun begins to set at rifugio Lagazuoi.
One more sunset shot to finish the day.

Day Four.
Despite the brilliant location of this rifugio, I did not have a great deal of company early next morning for sunrise. All the others beat me away after breakfast, which I think they usually did. I get pretty early starts, as soon as breakfast is finished, but they were all a bit more organised than I was. It worked out well, as I’d catch them a bit later, and then we’d walk for a while together, and then separate later still. On this day, we ate lunch together, and a good one it was too, had at a rifugio down in the valley in the heat of the day, before we started the next climb.

Dawn Day 4

Descending from the hut
My afternoon tea that day was outstanding (had near the Cinque Torri at Rifugio Averau): truly delicious cake whose memory haunts me still (pastry, with layers of cointreau mousse alternating with almond creme patisserie). I need to return to that hut and experience dinner, sunset and sunrise from there. It had a great location, right next to some fabulous hunks of rock (the torri). However, as usual I wanted the very highest hut in the region, and that meant that I needed to proceed, stomach singing with delight in response to its contents, and do the final very quick haul to Rifugio Nuvolau, the least friendly hut on the route, with the least enjoyable food, and yet, if my memory serves me correctly, it was the most expensive. I hardly ate anything, despite having worked hard, as the prices were high, but my interest in what was offered was low. Luckily I’d had a great lunch and a delicious afternoon tea. I’d even had hot chocolate with a cream mountain on top, which felt rather indulgent at the time, but stood me in good stead when dinner was so meagre.

Me, courtesy Dani.

Towering rocks above our traverse. If you look carefully, you’ll see a climber.
Nuvolau has, however, what few can offer in terms of spectacular location, and despite how things may appear from this account, I think I was here to see the scenery rather than to eat. Sunset was predictably wonderful (you didn’t have to climb to see it, as you were perched at the very top of that subsection of the environment). Austen very kindly went out and took photos of the via ferrata for the next day. Libby had rejoined us by now, and she, Steph and Marian were all feeling a bit nervous about what the morrow would bring. This was to be our first bit of challenging via.

Day begins to close at Nouvolau. Tomorrow we’d descend by a via ferrata to the pass that can be seen below.

Day Five.
Here it was was: our first real via ferrata – but first, of course, there was yet another fabulous sunrise. I really was scoring well this trip. Breakfast was not worth writing about – except to say the calories were needed.

Rifugio Nuvolau in dawn light
I must admit that I looked over the edge – which presented itself as pure abyss – with a certain lack of courage, although I wouldn’t call it fear exactly. I was definitely NOT going to be dancing over that edge, that was for certain. I was subdued enough by its challenges to do the first bit without a pack in order to reassure myself, but, having done that, I’d tamed the lion and bounced back up to collect not only my own pack, but also those of Steph and Libby so they could do the hard part unhindered by a weight. Austen and Dani were both utterly accomplished climbers with an amazing list of interesting peaks that they’d conquered, so they were, of course, totally nonplussed. The photos Austen took in advance, showing the more anxious ones how it looked from below, had been of great help. We had slept well.

The via ferrata descends to the snow.

Dani and Marian were doing something else before the via ferrata, so that left four of us who opted to travel together for this bit. Austen was brilliant, guiding Libby and Steph down patiently, giving them information about where to place their feet, and generally encouraging them. I think they also appreciated my part in relieving them of packs, although that was a tiny gesture. Libby in particular was just thrilled when she’d accomplished the two sections we had to do. She was so excited she shouted the four of us to lunch at a cafe down in the valley – yet another celebration party that we all enjoyed. We had become a team, not just a random group of friends. Team we were, but we still had the freedom of the independent walkers that we also were, and after lunch, we separated again to each go at the pace that suited our styles.

View looking across towards cinque torri. Finished the first of the via ferrata at this stage.

And now we’ve accomplished the second. The happy faces of Austen, Steph and Libby as they rest.
My memories for the rest of this day include crossing snow drifts, walking through a fascinating valley with mesolithic remnants (and lots of wonderful flowers), more fun climbing, having my pack eaten by a donkey and being told by a man who didn’t know a thing about who I was or where I’d come from or what I was doing that my pack was too big. I didn’t do him the courtesy of explaining that I was there from Tasmania for a month and that I actually needed every single item I’d brought. Perhaps I could have left the iPad behind, but it kept me in contact with my family, and meant that I could download my photos each night and do some preliminary deleting of shots that I didn’t like as much as other ones. That not only lessened my workload at the end of the trip, but also cleared room on my memory card, and gave me pleasure. Our little group was also greatly enjoying the nightly slideshow. I could have also theoretically had a smaller camera, but then my pleasure would not have been so great. I am intrigued by people who want to dictate to us how we should be human without knowing any of the reasons behind our actions.

Route for part of the afternoon
That night we celebrated again – getting there, and all getting a bed. Libby and I slept in the laundry, as technically, there was no more room at the inn. The owner was as hospitable as could be, and did all that he could to make the room warm and comfortable for us (rifugio citta di fiume).

We knew how to celebrate.
Day Six.
Comically my diary records this day that I was sick of apple strudel. I ate it every single time we hit an eating place down in a valley. I liked the fact that it was a little sweet (but not too much), filling, came with custard and had heaps of fruit. However, on this day it was a case of enough is enough. The others laughed at me, having already wondered how anyone could eat so very much of the stuff.

Gentiana punctata

The view at lunchtime (Rif Coldai)
This day we played our normal game of split and join, most of us meeting up for lunch at a wonderful rifugio almost at the top of an interesting climb. Libby was doing her own thing and going more slowly, taking lots of photos of wildflowers, which were numerous and interesting in this area.

Me in the pass after lunch (thanks Dani)

Looking down at the lake from the pass (Lago Coldai)
After photographing the lake the other side of the pass with its magic, teal waters, and negotiating more snow we all did the final climb to Rifugio Tissi and settled in to our room. The sky grew dark and threatening. Still no Libby. We became anxious on her behalf, and especially so when it began to hail. Every few moments we went to the window to see if there was any sign of her. The hail was monumental, hurling itself down furiously. And at last Libby appeared, legs red and dotted from the ice fusillade, clothes drenched, with a huge smile on her face. Once more celebration was in order, and we were getting very good at that.

Marian negotiates the next bit of snow
Any other person seeing that night’s post-storm sunset would have marvelled at its colour and magnificence. Being shockingly spoiled now, we only graded it as mediocre, but I photographed it nonetheless. It was fun to stand around and watch what we could see and talk anyway.

Sunset at Rifugio Tissi

Day Seven.

The next day begins, Rif. Tissi

This was a very sad day, as it marked the probable disbandment of our little group. Steph’s knee was hurting, and she was unsure about whether she could continue much further. She’d set out, but may not get far. We had a “one in all in” attitude by now, so when she announced at Rifugio Vazzoler, a mere one and a half hours down the track, that she needed to stop, we all did. Besides: the most delicious smells imaginable were issuing out of the kitchen. Time to hang around and do some more serious eating.

We had morning tea and lunch and I started to feel both full and restless. While the others enjoyed the feeling of these temporary quarters and read and chatted outside, I went for a run in the surrounding mountains to quieten the little beastie within. Up the path and over the fields I gambolled, wild and free, until halted by an almighty thunderstorm, in which the rain was so thick and strong that you couldn’t see or hear. I ran to the nearest farmhouse and sheltered under an awning.

Rifugio Tissi
An ancient, traditionally dressed Oma came out and asked me what I was doing. Luckily I speak German, so we could communicate. I explained, and her response was to bring me inside, show me how to make cheese, indicating to me all the various stages as she had them in her outbuilding. There followed a cup of tea with some cheese tasting, by which time the rain had eased and I could continue. I was really glad we’d stopped at Vazzoler to enable this little sample of local life.

Austen in action. He was a fabulous climber.

Day Eight.

Steph knew by now she was “doomed”. We rather sombrely walked down the path through the forest, rocky slabs towering above, out of our rifugio, knowing that this small stretch before the next track fork was our last together. Perhaps we would never meet again. It had been so grand, and we did not want this abrupt change to plans, but you can’t proceed through terrain like that with an injured knee, so they were doing what was necessary.

Last walk down the path together (thanks Dani)

Byee. (Thanks Steph)
After our fond farewells, we went up, they down, and on we went, up, down, up, down and along to a rifugio that I really liked the look of – Rifugio Carestiato – but unfortunately it was fully booked for that night, so we had to descend to the valley, to Passo Duran: first time this trip. There were two possibilities down there. We chose the one that looked most likely to give us a good breakfast and to have just the right kind of shower. All of a sudden, we developed a taste for fluffy towels. It all worked out well.

Passo Duran. Our stopping point for the night.

Dani and Marian (I never said it was an alcohol-free trip).

Day Nine.

Now we were hiving off in force. Today we would lose Libby at lunchtime, as she did not like the sound of what lay ahead after the lunchtime rifugio (Pramperet). Wise move. It was not for her. I was not too sure it was for me. Someone had recently died on the section we were about to do in almost exactly our conditions – cloudy, soft, unstable snow.

paradisea liliastrum

We arrived at this rifugio too early for lunch, but we didn’t let a little thing like that stop us eating. We had morning cake whilst waiting for midday so we could order something savoury. YUM. It was the best lunch of the whole AV1. Libby would stay there that night to further sample their wares, but the day was not looking good by this stage, so we quickly parted and off our little reduced group of three went, into the mist and snow to see what we could see.

Horrors. The first bit was fine, and we climbed with no problems. I started to be very glad of company. The grey all around us suited my mood but did not suit my need for confidence. The book had given too many dire warnings. I met some Germans who seemed to want to latch on to me. They appeared uncertain about navigation. Meanwhile, I was low in confidence about the execution of what I knew to be the route, so appreciated having the extra human contact. The drop off to the side became perilous, but there was nothing at all to hold on to, and the snow did not seem worth trusting. I lost it when I came to a spot where it was obvious the snow had caved in at that point. I did not dare put my foot in it lest I then fell a few hundred metres (I was leading). However, above the snow was wet, slimy grass and again, not a thing to hold on to for security. I chose the grass but was (sorry) at tear point at this stage. The others didn’t know that, as they were behind, so I could present a confident enough pose for Marian who did not need someone panicking ahead of her. She was at the limits of her own freakout borders  without my making anything worse. At last we hit an officially exposed bit. I found it fine – there was rock to cling to, so up I went happily, but I was really, really hoping this was the top and that we could now descend. It wasn’t.

The two black dots nearly at the top of the snow to the right of centre are Marian and Dani
I was absolutely fine on the rock, trusting it, but not at all fine with being required to traverse narrow ledges of soft snow with a monster drop off to the side. At one stage I just sat on the ground. I needed to collect myself before daring the next bit. Dani looked shocked. I think he was disappointed in me, some role model of female audacity, but I am just me, very normal, with a crack point like anyone else. Anyway, I got over it. I just needed 20 seconds or so time out to gather myself before continuing. This next part was indeed the last of the climb, and we were soon enough descending into possibly the most wonderful valley of the whole AV1, utterly larded with flowers of every form and colour: a wonderful feast of form and hue, and especially wonderful given the angst that preceded it. Dani, like me, loved photography and flowers. We both descended in pure heaven, clicking away. Later that night over dinner we’d compare our catches as usual.

Pulsatilla alpina
Day Ten.
What a sad day this one was. Our dwindling group was to officially dissipate, the six of us cast out into the big wide world and separated perhaps forever. However, the day brought so much beauty that that dismal fact did not hit home until much later.

Sunrise was beautifully ethereal rather than spectacular; it bespoke the fragile sublimity of our planet earth in misty scenes that were bucolic as well as mountainous. The obelisk rocky shapes of what I think of as Dolomite country had now been left behind. Fields of verdant green with sheep and goats whose coats shone like lanterns in the sun dotted the hillsides that plunged away below into infinity.

Just over the first pass

Dani and Marian were heavily engaged in conversation with another Spaniard, who had a job in this rifugio over the summer break, but they said they’d be setting out soon, so we only had a perfunctory farewell. A nod and a hug until later. Later never happened. But I was not to know that as I set out happily down and then up to a mini pass, the other side of which was absolutely littered in myriad flowers. Heaven. The instructions didn’t match my book, but the contours made sense, so on I went, negotiating a narrow path that demanded every ounce of my attention. If I rolled my ankle here and fell, it would be goodbye world. My guidebook had said there would be stairs, so I was more than nonplussed when none appeared, but I did eventually emerge out of the fragrant laburnum forest to see Rifugio Bianchet (more cappuccino and strudel) at the end of the clearing.

I never tire of scenes like this
I drank and ate and wrote my diary. Forty minutes went by and, given the number of alternative paths in the area and the possibility of bypassing this rigugio, I gave up on my friends and proceeded, hoping they’d still be in time to catch the bus at the end. (They missed it).

The next section was sad. The forest was no doubt pretty, but it marked the end of the walk and I was not in a mood for finding it wonderful. Nonetheless I sang as I went, going quite quickly to recover lost time, and gazing at the mountains above rather than at the ground. Thump. I rolled my ankle a beauty and went sprawling across the ground, grazing my left hand and landing directly with the corner of my camera pushing hard and sharp straight into the centre of my chest. I got up with no problems and went on my way, but had enormous trouble putting any weight at all on my arms, and as I was now dropping very steeply on a narrow path where I normally use an orangutang style to descend, this was problematic. Had I busted some ribs? Injured my pectoral muscles? I was in pain, but kept pushing on, eventually emerging onto the road, where I saw Holly and Chris whom I’d met at the last hut, waiting for the bus that was due any minute.

The way forward (and along, just under the cliff line). Luckily I took my topple on a wider path where I didn’t think I needed to concentrate.
We travelled together, first on that bus, and then on a train until our routes diverged. They were off to Rome, I was headed for Bressanone (Brixen) to begin the AV2. I presumed these silly little injuries I’d given myself would heal as I travelled. We chatted and laughed and I felt more relaxed about the pain. Let the healing begin. What a great couple they were: they were on their honeymoon. Who would choose to do AV1 for their honeymoon? Well actually, Steph and Austen were going to be married in about five days’ time (the trek was an early honeymoon) and now these two had “just married” stickers. Great stuff. These two couples are the sensible ones. The crazies are the ones sitting by the telly.
And thus ends AV1. The saga continues on the AV2, but I’ll give  myself a break before I write it up.


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