Last night, as the sun was setting, I was taking photographs of the hills across the canyon at the end of the valley, one side of which we had walked along at the end of our day. As I packed up my tripod to head back to the rifugio, a German woman started to head back at the same time. She asked where we were heading to today and after hearing my response said, Oh, that’s a long way! It’s right over there, gesturing to a small building on the top of the highest point of the tallest mountain at the edge of the visible horizon. Little did we know how right she was or about what it would take to get ourselves there. But thankfully Day 4 of the AV2 is blessed with spectacular scenery from start to finish, making our journey well worth every hard-earned step!
After an average breakfast (we had to queue to pick up coffee, etc!) we hit the road with energy, eager to make a good start to a long day. We begin by walking to the edge of the Little Grand Canyon of the Dolomites. We arrive with the Italian group who jokingly say that this is their version of our famous landmark, though possibly even more impressive!
We spend the first few hours walking around the canyon, across a broad plateau dominated by rocks and little vegetation with great views in all directions. At the end of this grand traverse, we reach our first short climb up to Passo Crespeina which has an artistic crucifix next to a fence line and a gate.
As we pass through the gate we enter a small canyon with an impressive red rock wall on the right side. The short path to Passo Cir follows the left wall. All of a sudden we see a few small groups of day hikers coming our way, and we figure they must be coming up from Passo Gardena.
As soon as we reach the next pass, we start to see large hiking groups massing. Still we are distracted by the strange rock formations that look like hoodoos we have seen in Arizona and Utah. The sky is super blue today, so the rocks stand out nicely in photographs. We make our way through this “garden” of pinnacles as more and more tourists pass us.
We turn the corner and finally get our first view of the Val Gardena and the Passo below. It’s beautiful, but now we see bus loads of hikers headed up in our direction. Down below the parking lots are filling, and the ski lifts are bringing ever more tourists to this center of outdoor activity. It is August 1, and the summer holidays have begun in full earnest in Italy. Italians typically vacate the hot cities and plains and head either to the beaches on the coast or to the mountains to beat the heat. I guess we can’t expect to have the Dolomites all to ourselves.
We do our best to stay focused on the beauty all around us as we make our way down to the pass. On the plus side, there are some perks to having so many people in this area. When we reach the Passo Gardena there are plenty of places to stop for a cappuccino, and we do so at the very popular Jimmy’s Hutte.
After a quick break, we cross the road and head up a grassy knoll before skirting left around a cliff escarpment. As we embark on this stretch, we note the trail number has changed from the #2 to #666, perhaps an ominous sign of what’s to come.
No sooner that rounding the next bend, we find ourselves staring straight up a giddy gully and at least a 1000’ ascent. It begins on loose boulders mixed with scree and zig zags slowly up tight, rocky switchbacks with loose scree before reaching the first of several Via Ferrata-style stretches where we have to pull ourselves up steep rocky stretches using cables that are firmly attached to the rock with iron eye hooks.
The trouble is this dolomitic stone becomes slippery like soapstone with all the foot traffic and this adds an extra element of difficulty. There are plenty of people who have just completed a more technical Via Ferrata section in which you have to rope up with harness and helmet and are now coming down the opposite direction creating a log jam and making it difficult to get around people.
Eventually we emerge on top of the plateau and are greeted with spectacular views. We pull off to the edge of the plateau away from the crowds to take lunch and marvel at the panoramic views. We have now entered phase 2 of the 666: The Death Valley of the Dolomites. The terrain is incredibly, surprisingly arid and totally unexpected from the pictures I’ve seen of the Dolomites! Where are the lush green valleys and pine forests? Definitely not here!
Variety is the spice of life, we always say, so we embrace this strange lunar landscape and press on. In a few moments we pass Rifugio Pisciadu which would be the normal end of this stage, but we have decided to push further. After a brief stop to photograph the “cotton” flowers, we begin a slow rocky ascent toward Cima Pisciadu rising quickly above the busy rifugio and the lake next to it.
More via ferrata cables help us past some difficult sections before we enter a cool, shaded gully. I pause to splash my head with cool water from one of the few small streams we have seen today. Refreshed we keep climbing up over the gently rounded pass and gaze into the center of this massive plateau. There is nothing but rock surrounding us on all sides.
Down we go to a junction where we finally see the turn off to Rifugio Boè. This rifugio is already located at 9425 feet and is a sight for sore eyes. But, unfortunately, it does not represent the end for us today. Instead, we have booked two of the 20 beds at Rifugio Capanna Fassa, located at 10,340 feet, so we still have quite a hefty climb to go. We are already feeling the length of this day and decide to check in with the staff at Boè to see if there is any chance of getting space there instead. Alas, they tell us that they are already full. We take a short break and hit the trail again, jazzed to finish and see what’s on top.
It’s a 45 minute beast of a climb up rock scree on tight switchbacks before we reach the last of the cables for the day. Thank god we practiced this whole via ferrata thing first back in Kosovo! That experience has really paid off for us on this trip.
We emerge onto a ridge line with stunning views of the surrounding mountains again, staring at the rifugio which is several hundred feet above us. There are black choughs (alpine birds) perched on the edge gazing at us as we huff and puff our way to the top.
When we finally get there we are greeted by fellow hikers who have arrived ahead of us. This is a small group of only around twenty hikers tonight, each of whom have gone the extra mile to stay at one of the highest rifugios in Italy. The friendly staff show us to our beds for the night. They are lofted above four others and are the two highest beds in the place. We get ourselves situated before heading down to the small dining room for some much-deserved vino.
Dinner is amazing (especially after such a long day on the trail), and the highlight is definitely the polenta with mushrooms and cheese that is so good that we forget to take a picture of it before nearly scarfing it all down. I have got to figure out how to cook creamy, tasty polenta!
We strike up a conversation with a pleasant German family who are hiking for seven days on the AV2. We have stayed at the same rifugios a few of the nights so far, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to have a conversation. They have been to the US to hike in Yosemite and canoe in the Adirondacks. The daughter is studying to be an elementary teacher, and the son is intending to be a chemist. They want to know if we are journalists because they always see us typing up our notes on our little keyboards at night.
Dessert is a surprise: panna cotta with fresh frutti di bosco. The German parents ask if we would like to try the local schnapps. Alison declines, but I’m up for it. It turns out to be a local grappa made with mugo a short conifer that grows only at a particular altitude. There is literally a branch stuck in the bottle, and it reminds us of the time my relatives in Preghena gifted us with a homemade bottle of juniper-flavored grappa. This one is excellent, and I sip it slowly to enjoy the flavor.
After dinner, we step outside to enjoy blue hour from the highest point on the AV2, a fine end to a fabulous day on the AV2!