Alta Via 2, Day 8: A Roller Coaster Day on the Iron Way

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We wake up in our hotel room in San Martino di Castrozza refreshed and ready to get back on track after all the difficulties with timing and route finding yesterday. We grab breakfast, pay for the hotel and head for the funivia (cable car). To make up for lost time—and to save the legs—we take not one, but two cable cars up into the Pale di San Martino range. Ascending 3200 feet in a matter of minutes, we arrive above Rifugio Rosetta where we had intended on staying last night. The clouds in the early morning sun give the mountains an ethereal, gauzy feel. It’s good to be back on top, baby!

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Knowing we have a long day in front of us, we set off across a barren, rocky landscape. Almost immediately, the trail begins to descend down a series of switchbacks. Similar to the Golden Staircase on the JMT, only this feels like the White Staircase. Soon the trail contours left in the direction of a dominant jagged peak that is classic Dolomite view. With a green meadow in front of it and mountainous spires reaching up to the sky, it feels like we are walking into Macchu Picchu.

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Our first challenge is straight ahead, a lengthy via ferrata section that requires a fair amount of attention as we work our way around a semi-exposed face and then up to the pass at Col Fede. We have some practice with this now and feel reasonably comfortable, but the going is slow. We notice that the cables are numbered in descending order as you climb up, so you have an idea of how many sections lie ahead. This is psychologically valuable and keeps us moving forward.

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We huff and puff our way up, clinging tightly to the cables to avoid a deadly fall into the abyss below us. Along the way, we get passed by a family of three: the father is carrying two sets of poles and the family dog in his arms! I guess fear is all relative.

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We reach the pass in good time and head down the other side. We know we have double the amount of descent to ascent today, and down is simply NOT our favorite way to hike. Soon enough we are on a ridge above Rifugio Pradidali and decide to stop for a quick lunch. We press on past the rifugio and head up valley toward the big challenge of the day (or so we are led to believe by the guidebook).

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There are tons of people at the rifugio, but few are headed in the same direction we are. The Pale di San Martino is a climber’s Mecca, so most are here for the opportunity to climb one of the many peaks in the area, leaving the AV2 for us. After a brief flat period, it’s on to another rocky ascent and another series of via ferrata cables. This one is a bit more challenging and a lot more vertical. Our nerves are tested by the time we reach the pass.

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The clouds are hanging low and obscuring the stupendous views we are hoping for, but it’s still a dramatic scene to behold. We are grateful for the reassuring red and white blazes that mark the way up and point us in the right direction. Without them it would be very difficult to find the path in this white rock wilderness. Today is a day that I wonder what we have gotten ourselves into, and I keep reminding myself that pushing our bodies like this stretches our minds and frees our souls. This has become our motto of the summer.

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At the pass we take a quick break and wolf down some cashews and chocolate. With all the clouds it feels like we are on Mt. Olympus. We know we have a long way to go yet, so once again we press on. The other side of the pass is deadly quiet, with dramatic clouds looming over the tops of the peaks ahead.

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Alas, the trail down is tricky, technical, slippery and slow. We have been warned by the guidebook, but the reality of the situation is worse. This is tough going, and our legs have pushed hard already. Relentless, steep, rocky switchbacks are the order of the afternoon. I don’t know what the grade is, but it must be almost 1:1. It feels like we are walking straight down this mountain on a steep staircase to the valley floor, and it’s relentless! We have to keep our eyes on the trail, and the intense concentration it takes to place our feet in the right places begins to mentally exhaust us.

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At one point we pass the wreckage of a US plane from WWII that crashed here. There is a memorial near a bivouac hut where we could stay for the night. An Italian couple is lounging outside, playing cards. They tell us that they are crashing here tonight because Rifugio Treviso is fully booked. We are glad we have reservations.

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Continuing on, we come across an older American couple who are struggling to make their way down the trail. They clearly have experience backpacking, but this trail is a whole ‘nother story with a lot of tough hands-on scrambling. We stop and share a few short breaks, cursing the trail together many times, but ultimately we keep soldiering on at our pace.

The valley floor looms closer, and finally Rifugio Treviso comes into sight, which helps to boost our morale. We drop down below tree line, starting first with pine trees before morphing into a beech tree forest. Finally the trail contours left and descends at a more gradual rate. We cross a bleach-white dry riverbed and in a few minutes come to a bridge over a rushing stream. The water looks so inviting that we drop our packs briefly to splash ice cold water on our heads, faces, and arms. It’s exactly what we need before we begin to beast up the hill to the rifugio.

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We climb at least a dozen switchbacks on relatively soft and rooty terrain, under cover of trees, finally arriving at the rifugio just in time for dinner! The kind hostess suggests we sit down and eat right away, promising that she will show us our room later. In a matter of seconds, we are in a cozy hut with two cold beers in front of us and the first course on its way, still sweating and buzzing from the effort of the day’s walk. We let the staff know about the older couple still out on the trail, hoping that they will save some dinner for them for when they arrive.

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The atmosphere at Rifugio Treviso is friendly, with French, Germans, Italians and these two Americans filling the small room. It’s amazing how quickly we can shift gears. In a matter of a few hours, we find ourselves well-fed, showered, and relaxing on the picnic tables outside. The stars our out, the silhouette of the mountains surrounds and the sounds of the river below are all we hear. No matter how long and hard the day is, the payoff at the end is always worth it. Buona notte!

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2 thoughts on “Alta Via 2, Day 8: A Roller Coaster Day on the Iron Way

  1. Every one of your entries is even more stunning than the one from the day before. I also believe the Dolomites are more gorgeous than other mountains because the rock is soft, making for more dramatic views. When the book?

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