Alta Via 2, Day 5: The Magnificent Marmolada

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For some reason or another, everyone in the rifugio wakes up at 6 and heads downstairs in a mad dash for breakfast, leaving us all alone upstairs. I don’t mind the early rise because I am wide awake after a terrible night’s sleep. I tap Matt awake in our cosy, little loft above the German family and start getting dressed. What is everyone in such a rush for? Maybe the breakfast is just as good as last night’s dinner?!?!

Alas, the answer is no. The breakfast here is the same ol’ standard serving of bread and jam with a bonus of Nutella and a hard-boiled egg. Not the worst, but it’s nothing to write home about like last night’s polenta ai funghi, for sure. I should have known better not to get my hopes up.

After breakfast, the hut empties out pretty quickly, and we are the last to leave at 7:45. This is just fine with me because we have to get ourselves off the giant rock of Piz Boè, and I am super slow at going downhill—especially at the beginning of the day, especially when it’s going to be super technical. Today’s hike is going to check all of my slow boxes.

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Just as we start working our way down the rocky trail, a helicopter arrives to make deliveries and take away all of the rifugio trash. The first time he swoops in to drop off a person whose job it is to attach and detach all of the deliveries to the long cable hanging from the helicopter.

The helicopter takes off, giving his partner a few minutes to get everything in order before the helicopter returns from the valley and flies right over us. Once the load of rifugio trash is delivered, the helicopter swoops down super fast closely following the slope of the mountain, almost vertical to the ground. It’s so close to us that we can see the pilot inside the cabin, and his body is pressed to the glass window! We can hardly believe our eyes, but I’m guessing it must be fun for him, especially with an audience of us two hikers to perform for.

At any rate, watching the helicopter fly back and forth definitely provides some entertainment for us while we slowly make our way down the face of Piz Boè. There are a few steep stretches of trail that require using cables, eye hooks and metal steps. Most of it isn’t too bad, especially considering that this is the first time we have had to go down a series of via ferrata instead of up it.

Eventually, we come to one little stretch that pushes my limits. There is a cable above a slanted, smooth rockface. At first, there are some footholds that allow me to sit on the top of the rock and then slide down a bit until the next foothold. Eventually, the stretches on the bars rock get farther and farther apart leaving me with no secure place to put my feet. At one point, the gap is too far for me to reach without having to let go of the rung above and slide down the rock to reach the next crevasse.

Of course, this is made all the more difficult while carrying a 25-pound pack on my back which throws my balance off and makes my movements even more awkward. Matt goes first and coaches me down from below, telling me what to do and exactly where to put my hands and feet. I feel so lucky to have a personal guide helping me through all of this technical stuff that is way out of my comfort zone. At the end of this same run, there’s another tricky step to get from the cable to some iron steps, and I’m relieved when we are finally done with all of the via ferrata for the day.

From here, we continue down, down, down switchbacks to the flat Sella, which looks like a giant rock quarry. I didn’t expect the Dolomites to be so arid and sparse, and I am hoping that we will return to the land of color before long.

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At a junction, we meet up with the official AV2 trail again and head toward the Rifugio Forcella Pordoi where we have to decide whether we are going to hike down a steep 600-meter descent or simply take a cable car down to the road below at the Passo Pordoi. We are both being indecisive about it and decide to order a cappuccino from the rifugio bar to stall for a bit before making a decision.

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As we are sitting there, a few other hikers we have met along the way show up, and we discuss the various options. The young couple we met a few nights back have decided to take the cable car, claiming that they heard from others that this is a steep section of trail worthy of skipping. We know these two are on a super tight budget, and the fact that they have decided to splurge on this convinces us to do the same.

To get to the station, we hike up a steep rocky trail with steps cut into it to the top of the Sass Pordoi. There are loads of daytrippers heading down the steps, and some of them are clearly struggling with the trail, which is totally understandable. I just hope they are not planning to make the steep climb up to Piz Boè!

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The cable car is pretty affordable (8.30 Euro/pp), money well spent in our books. From the air, we get a nice view of exactly what we are skipping. The trail definitely looks tough, with endless zigzags through a vertical gully of scree until it eventually flattens out on a long, grassy knoll leading down to the road.

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Even worse than that, though, are the hordes of people going up the trail that we would have to negotiate around. In addition to all of the regular hikers, we see at least three huge groups of at least 30-40 people all hiking in a giant, single-file row on the the trail. From the air, they look like giant caterpillars weaving their way up the mountain. Who are they? And why are they hiking in such big groups? It’s hard to imagine that trying to stay all together can be any fun, but to each their own. Hike your own hike, as they often say.

When we get to the bottom, we enter a Disneyland-esque strip of hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants with people everywhere. We walk down the road a bit and pass the border between the Trentino Alto-Adige and the Veneto (much to Matt’s dismay), and, suddenly, it’s as if we have crossed the dumpling/pizza divide. There are pizzerias everywhere. If this means we are going to get pizzas in the rifugios from now on, hooray for the Veneto!

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We cross the street and head up a trail to a small chapel where there are numerous plaques to people who have lost their lives in these mountains. Most of the people seem fairly young, and it’s a somber reminder that we are all out here at our own risk.

Back on the trail, we head up toward the Rifugio Fredarola and skirt just below it before continuing on to the Rifugio Viel del Pan. The trail contours the backside of some very green, striking mountains. Even though it is relatively flat and wide, it is covered in loose dirt and pebbles that are irritatingly slippery. After all the tricky via ferrata trails we have done, this will end up being where I am going to bite it—I can just feel it!

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All along the way, there are gorgeous views of the Marmolada, an impressive, giant massif covered in glaciers that beckons us to take photo after photo of it even though the midday sun is keeping it from looking its best.

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There are hikers everywhere along this stretch of trail, and we just have to shrug our shoulders and accept it. It’s August in Italy, and everyone is either in the mountains or at the beach. It would be a dream to have such an accessible trail with such spectacular views all to ourselves. We use the restroom at the rifugio and then continue on the trail, taking an upper route to the Sasso Capello to find a quiet lunch spot away from all the people.

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A trail from there leads us back down to the main trail where there is a huge herd of sheep and goats just begging us to take their own “me and the Marmolada” shots. The trail here is more narrow, and there are a fraction of the people to deal with as we climb gently up toward Lago Fedaia at the end of the valley. We keep climbing higher and higher, and, once we finally reach the lake, we have to make our way down, down, down to the road below.

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As usual, the trail is steep and slippery, and I pick my way slowly from firm rockhold to firm rockhold. After two summers of major hiking trips, the tread on my boots is practically gone, and I eye with envy the grippy, nubby soles of the other hikers who pass me up so easily. The son and daughter from the nice German family run past us near the end of the trail, and I wonder how their knees can handle the impact. How nice it would be to be so sure-footed!

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Finally at the lake, we grab a quick, refreshing lemon soda from one of the bars and pass by the tempting bus stop, opting to walk the last, few flat kilometers to our refuge for the night at the opposite end of the lake. First, we have to walk across the dam, and then we pick up a private road for walkers only along the south shore. There are lots of flowers in bloom, including nice stands of fireweed, making this last, easy stretch all the more pleasant.

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We get to the Rifugio Passo Fedaia just before a huge downpour, and we are grateful to be inside. This roadside eatery operates more like a small hotel than a mountain hut, and we are pleasantly surprised to get our own room. And guess what they have on the menu? Pizza! I think it is going to be a good night “on the trail”!

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