Alta Via 2, Day 3: The Real Challenge Begins!

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Breakfast is at 7 at Rifugio Geneva, and, for the first time in all of our rifugio stays this summer, there is a long line of hikers waiting for the buffet. We are on the tail end of the rush and decide to take care of our other chores first. By the time we are finished packing up and visiting the bathroom, there’s hardly a wait. This rifugio has all the breakfast standards plus hard-boiled eggs which provide a little bit of much-needed protein on these trekking days.

After breakfast, I run upstairs to grab my iPhone out of the charger and use the bathroom for the last time when I suddenly remember that I have not re-filled my water bladder for today—argh! Matt is surprisingly understanding as I start unpacking my bag to unearth the Platypus. He heads outside to take some photos of the topographic map on the rifugio wall with his cellphone as I get everything re-situated. What a pain!

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We run into the Italian/British professors just as we are about to leave and spend a few minutes on the trail with them before we get to the first awesome viewpoint where we stop to take a dozen photos. It doesn’t take long for Cristina to realize that we are going to slow them down (they are doing a stage and a half today), and they hike on ahead.

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We take more photos and continue up to our first uphill of the day, which brings us to an amazing panoramic col where the layering of clouds and mountains below us is mesmerizing. We hike out to a small viewpoint and snap some photos of the incredible scene. Matt is so smitten that he even breaks out the tripod for some HDR images and a few self-portraits of us. It’s so difficult to get good photos of us together on the trail that it’s nice to feel like we have the time to do so on these shorter, less-challenging stages of the AV2.

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By the time we are all done, almost everyone from the hut has passes us by, and we are bringing up the rear, which, as photographers, is exactly where we like to be. We contour the hillside and head down toward a trail junction at Kreuzjoc.

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The views are wide and open, and we can see across the way to the mountains ahead of us. There is a thin, dirt ribbon of a trail gently heading up the slope of the mountains. Where the green ends, the trail crosses a steep scree field and then zigzags its way up through the scree to a tiny notch of a pass. All the sudden, Matt calls out, Holy cow! Do you see that trail? Are we going up that?!?!

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I hope it’s easier than it looks from here, I reply, trying to convince myself that I’m not intimidated by what I see ahead of us. This is our fourth trek of the summer after all. We can handle it, right?!?

Before we head on to find out exactly what is in store for us, we take a short break at Kreuzjoch where an elaborate alpine crucifix reminds us we are in Italy. From there, the trail starts out gently as we contour our way along the base of the Odle Needles above us, and we hardly notice the ascent as we work our way up the slopes toward the scree. We take a short break on a grassy knoll before making the last big climb up to the pass.

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The scree section is actually a lot less treacherous than it looked from afar, and we walk with relative ease until we reach the base of the switchbacks. Here the trail gets noticeably steeper. We pass up the group of twelve Italians who have been on our same course since day one. We ask then how it’s going, and one of the women replies, Un po severo between huffs and puffs. Yeah, I’d say it’s a little severe alright!

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It’s almost noon at this point, and it is getting a little toasty. The heat I am generating steams up my sunglasses, but the glare from the bright, white rock assures that they are staying put for now. I put my head down and force my feet to plod along. Whenever I pick my head up to have a look around, my feet slip backwards on the scree, so it’s nose to the grindstone for the rest of the way. Eventually, the grade finally eases, and we stop for some photos before the final push to the top.

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There are lots of people hanging out at the pass, eating, chatting and taking in the gorgeous view back to the snow-capped mountains on the Austro/Italian border. We find a quiet spot out of the wind and the sun and have our lunch. When we pack up to leave, the Italians and a group of three German women head off at the exact same time. Go figure!

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Much to our relief, the other two groups head off on a variant trail (3A) from the pass that heads off on a goat trail and then disappears into a big mass of rocks. We can see hikers way above them, so we figure there must be a via ferrata that takes them up there. Our book doesn’t mention anything about this alternate trail, so we continue on the main trail down into a rocky bowl where we eventually have to pick our way across a small boulder field to where the trail up to the Forcella di Sielles leads.

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It’s another series of switchbacks up to a pass where we get an amazing view into the Grand Canyon-esque Vallunga. From there, we head up still to a long rocky stretch with several sections of cables to get us up to the top. This is our first real section of via ferrata since we were cabled in with safety equipment in Peje, and I am curious how it will be for me. It’s definitely a lot tougher with a loaded backpack on, but it’s not too bad overall. This section doesn’t have too much exposure, so it makes a good introduction. I hope that the other sections we encounter will feel as comfortable as this one.

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At the end of the cables, we have a little more uphill before we pop out onto a nice plateau where we can relax and enjoy the view. It’s grassy and flat all of the sudden, and there are lots of white stones scattered all over the place. Someone has arranged a group of them into a heart-shaped drawing, so we steal the idea and make an arrangement saying “AV2” which is fun to photograph with our boots and backpacks and such.

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From there, we have to walk along a narrow, exposed section for about 10 minutes before we come to a large basin of grassy slopes that we traverse on for about an hour or so before finally reaching Rifugio Puez.

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We arrive at 4:00 and are shown to our room by a curt woman who tells us the showers won’t be available until 5:30. The sleeping quarters are tight with triple-decker bunks in the dorm rooms. We are in the same room as the French family we shared a room with last night at Rifugio Genova. The father is a snorer, and I hope I can block out all of his strange sounds a bit better tonight.

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We unload all of the essentials and then put our bags out in the hallway before heading downstairs for a cold beer out on the terrace. We get some writing done, and, figuring there will likely be a long line for the showers, we decide to go for a walk before dinner instead hoping to get some photos of the amazing view we have right in front of us. It’s a quick affair since we have to be back by 6:30 for dinner.

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We sit at a table with a young couple from Denmark and Finland who are currently living in Sweden. They are on a tight budget and are pinching their Euros even though the rifugios are pretty fair with their prices. We remember those days of super budget travel fondly but are so happy that they are over. After dinner, we head back outside to get the alpenglow on the canyon again.

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Matt braves the cold windy night longer than I do, and I head back to the cozy refuge to finish up my writing and photography tasks for the day. The place is lively with people playing cards and chatting and trays full of large beers being served well after 9. The Italians either aren’t aware of the concept of hikers midnight or they don’t care about it. Either way, it makes for a fun place to spend the evening.

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