Sud Tirol: Alta Via 2
We spent the first two weeks of our trip in the Sud Tirol region of Northern Italy. During this time, we hiked most of the Alta Via 2 trek and also rented a car to get to sites for Chris to photograph.
This area has a major German and Austrian influence and we often joked that we had not yet arrived to Italy. In fact, the region was part of Austria until Italy gained control at the end of World War 1. Most signs are in both Italian and German, adding to our confusion, as we speak neither language. Food seemed to be a mixture of Austrian (sausages, sauerkraut, goulash) and Italian (pasta, polenta, pizza), with a stronger Italian influence as we headed south. Despite the dual personalities of the region, its identity is solidified by the presence of the beautiful Dolomites, or Italian Alps!
Within the Dolomites, there are many well recognized through hikes, which are named Alta Via 1-8. These routes are significant as they were key routes in moving soldiers during WW1. With Alta Via 1 and 2 being the most popular, we chose the more strenuous and less crowded Alta Via 2. Hiking North-South from Brixen/Bressanone, AV2 offers stunning views including the impressive glaciated Marmolada, the highest mountain in the region. Accommodations were in full-service huts along the route as “wild-camping” is usually not allowed. Throughout the trek we refreshed our WW1 knowledge (after realizing we both must have snoozed through that history course!), and were most impressed to find out that the Italian soldiers built an entire city within the glacier of Marmolada!
We started the trek from the Plose ski lift just outside of Bressanone. After a quick espresso at the top of the gondola, we headed into the mountains. The views were stupendous and we quickly realized that we would never be far from an espresso nor a gondola for the rest of the week. At lunch that day we learned the language barrier may be quite an issue – I tried to order soup and ended up with some kind of Kix cereal + chicken broth concoction – and also that Italians apparently drink at each and every meal! We finished the hike to the symphony soundtrack of bell-ringing sheep and cows at Rifugio Genova. This rifugio was very crowded due to its position on the road and ample amenities. We enjoyed a private room with a view for our first night in Dolomites.
The following day we encountered our first aided stretch with cables and ladders on our way to Rifugio Puez. The infrastructure of this hike is impressive and we were thankful to have assistance on our first near vertical section up a couloir. We arrived to the hut quite early that day and had to sit in the dining room for several hours before being allowed into our room. While suffering through boisterous Italian conversations – Chris made eyes with the dog at our neighboring table for probably longer than was socially acceptable. Not his fault that we miss our dogs! We slept poorly in a cramped dormitory, but awoke excited for our first Via Ferrata!
Via Ferrata is a cable-assisted route that goes through exposed, often straight vertical, and always-sketchy mountain terrain (ie: pre-arranged rock climbing). There are many via ferratas throughout the Dolomites, most dating back to WW1 when they were utilized to quickly move soldiers through the mountains. Given that we don’t have the appropriate equipment (harness, rope and helmets are a must), we went with a local guide named Tomas. The route was obvious, but it was nice to have someone experienced show us how to hook in and out as we moved up the mountain. He also provided brief history of the area and was an excellent guide. The route was exhilarating, but also fairly crowded, requiring patience during our multiple stops and delays. We were delivered to Pisciadu in one piece and there enjoyed an afternoon with beautiful views.
We referred to our day four as “the day of many stops”. We took a leisurely route; stopping for a second breakfast (somehow bread and jam was not enough?), lunch at the top of Sass Pordoi (tram station with our first views of Maromolada) and beers just past Passo Pordoi. During our beer stop, we observed shepherds – who resembled Vanilla Ice more than our vision of shepherds – herd hundreds of sheep across the road. We arrived to our destination, Rifugio Viel del Pan, late in the afternoon, and encountered amazing views, great food, but rude service. Because of awkward distances, the following day was a quick hike into Rifugio Castiglioni. This hut is well positioned but featured the most awkward accommodations, with a bunk bed that was suspended in such a way that it resembled a dungeon and a shower room that we think may have once been a kill room (or is still where Dexter lives). Quite lovely, really.
Day six was our longest day – 13 miles and 4500 feet of vertical gain to make it to Passo San Pellegrino. Throughout the day we met several characters who would decorate our remaining hike – 3 friends from Belgium who we referred to as the “Waffle Brothers” and an English couple who apparently survived being charged by a bull on that same day (luckily the bull lost interest by the time we passed). We stopped for a delicious hot chocolate – literally just melted chocolate – at Rifugio Fusciade, before making a final, rainy push into Passo San Pellegrino. We spoiled ourselves with an amazing hotel stay and delicious four-course meal that night. We also managed to catch up on current events thanks to BBC news, but lost interest quickly when it turned to American Politics.
The following day we climbed up, up, and up to Rifugio Mulaz – our first true mountain hut as it cannot be accessed by road or cable car. The hut meisters were very friendly and we enjoyed a cozy stay, waking up the next morning to 4 inches of snow! Unfortunately, our final day’s route was quite exposed/steep/sketchy-when-wet and we had to bail out due to the slippery conditions. We endured a slick descent with the Waffle Brothers, hiking a safe ‘low’ route to San Martino di Castrozza. After pizza, beers, and too much indecision, we opted to take the cable car up to our final hut, Rifugio Rosetta. This proved to be an excellent decision, as we were treated to views of mountains through cloud-breaks and rainbows that evening! We descended the cable car the final day and were transported back to Bolzano to begin the next leg of this trip.
After a quick night of recharging and NFL watching in Bolzano, we rented a car and took off again for the mountains. There were several areas that Chris had picked out to photograph. We headed first to Santa Magdalena, where he hoped to photograph two churches. The first church we came upon was beautiful and we chose to stay in a nearby hotel. Unfortunately, the second church (and also the symbol of the entire town) was taken over by “Speck Fest”, a bacon festival that would take place in two weekends. It was almost comical, but more annoying that such an epic setting was ruined! Thankfully we had a great sunset at San Giovanni (St. Johann) church and the following day headed to the ski towns of Ortesei and Santa Cristina.
After a quick espresso (did I mention we drank a lot of espresso?) we took the cable car up to the beautiful basin above Val Gardena. We stayed for two peaceful nights at Rifugio Fermeda, a family-run establishment with extremely friendly service, very large meals, and comfortable accommodations (less comfortable after being force-fed by Italians!). Both evenings we spent sunset at Forcella di Pana and Chris captured some beautiful shots of cloud-breaks the second night! More importantly, Katie was a proud member of the Italian clean plate club on the 2nd night!
Now it’s off to Venice!
We were sad to say goodbye to the Dolomites after two excellent weeks. Much easier then the “wild camping” we do at home, but also much more difficult to have complete solitude. Although harder, we prefer backpacking at home to a remote lake basin.
Pros: amazing mountain scenery, interesting history along the way, full-service huts, lots of espresso, affordable for European standards (usually 50-60 Euros per person for half-board), cow-bell symphony soundtrack. The list can go on and on.
Cons: Are there any? Some crowds in the areas that were accessed by cable car. Always full stomachs and expanding waistlines
Logistics – We booked the huts on our own, emailing about 6 months ahead of time. We opted to go in September after the summer crowds had left and were so thankful for this timing. Most huts close on the 3rd or 4th Sunday of September. Reservations were not necessary most nights, but definitely needed for Friday and Saturday nights in the popular huts. Even if you don’t make reservations, definitely check to make sure lodging options are available if you go in September. For example, Malga Ciapela is a rather large tourist town with cable cars to Marmolada, but completely shuts down in mid-September, and some folks we met had to hitchhike to the next town for lodging.
We used the book Cicerone guide for planning and GPS on our phone for route finding along the way. Maps are available, but we did not purchase these as they are large and you’d need 4 maps to cover the entire hike. Most huts have maps for reference if needed.
Day 1: Bressanone to Rifugio Genova (5 hours)
Day 2: Rifugio Genova to Rifugio Puez (4 hours)
Day 3: Rifugio Puez to Rifugio Pisciadu (5 hours, Via Ferrata)
Day 4: Rifugio Pisciadu to Rifugio Viel del Pan (6 hours)
Day 5: Rifugio Viel del Pan to Rifugio Castiglioni (2 hours)
Day 6: Rifugio Castiglioni to Passo San Pellegrino (7 hours)
Day 7: Passo San Pellegrino to Rifugio Mulaz (5 hours)
Day 8: Rifugio Mulaz to Rifugio Rosetta (4.5 hours, indirect route)
We arranged transportation and luggage storage through Base Camp Dolomites in Bolzano.
Most people carried their via ferrata gear with them. However, as we had only planned for one via ferrata we saved ourselves the weight and used a guide service instead: Thomas
Mountain Hut Membership
We learned after the fact that it would have been beneficial to join a mountain hut association. You can join at the office in Bolzano prior to your departure for discounted lodging and food along the route.