Alta Via 2, Day 9: An Abrupt Ending

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It was a rough night of sleep last night in the rifugio. Even though I was plenty exhausted from the long, hard day yesterday, I had a really hard time falling asleep. We had a private room, but the walls in the dorms were merely suggestions and did not go up all the way to the ceiling, meaning that we could hear everything happening all around us, including the loud snorer right next door and the older American couple on the other side who carried on a conversation at full volume seeming to have no clue that everyone around could hear everything they said.

But, worse than that, my knees just ached and ached, and, no matter which I turned, I just couldn’t get comfortable. By the time the climbers started waking up in the wee hours, I think I had only managed a few short hours of sleep—definitely not the rejuvenating rest I was hoping for.

Despite feeling super proud of myself for making it down the mountain yesterday in one piece and arriving to the rifugio just in time for dinner, that nagging feeling of wanting get off the Alta Via 2 resurfaces, and it is all I can think about at breakfast. Just before taking off, we take a look at the large topo map outside the rifugio together, and I suggest a few alternate ways to end our time on the AV2. Perhaps we could stay here another night and do a day hike down the valley? Or maybe we could make our way to Passo Cereda and then do a day hike from there?

Matt isn’t into my suggestions, and, for whatever reason, it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I go to grab my pack while he finishes snapping a few photos from the rifugio, and, before I know it, I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes. Perhaps the sudden emotions are due to last night’s lack of sleep or maybe from being physically exhausted after so many days of non-stop hiking.

If I had to put money on it, I’d say I am feeling worn down from negotiating the steep, slippery trails of loose rocks, stones and scree that seem to be the norm here in the Dolomites. These mountains definitely are pretty, but these trails are definitely not my cup of tea, and I have had enough. Passo Cereda marks the last easy out for the AV2. From there we can grab a bus to nearby towns and then on to Feltre and avoid the last most isolated and difficult stretch of the trail.

Matt appears to be surprised by my tears. I try to wipe them away as quickly as possible and get going on the trail that runs on the backside of the refuge. We don’t talk much for the first section of the trail that undulates gently up and down through the forest. Why can’t the trail be more like this all the time? I wonder. This section is nice. I could do this type of trail all day long.

We reach a trail junction where we have the option to head back to San Martino if we wish to. Matt asks what I want to do, and I say that I am committed to today’s hike, but that’s it. After today, we will need to reassess. A pair of hikers is headed up the trail our way, so we press on, leaving the discussion for later when we can get some privacy.

Up we head, making our way toward the Forcella d’Oltro, and we finally find a flat spot at a trail junction where we can stop. There we discuss all of our options—turning back, continuing on, taking the bus out of Passo Cereda—and come to a “let’s wait and see” approach that is good enough to keep us both moving forward, at least for now.

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From the Forcella, the trail really starts to rise in earnest, and we are sweating our way up the loose rock trail when we happen across a solo woman hiker coming down. She looks like your ordinary, average hiker, and she is just what the doctor ordered.

I like to seek this type of hiker out when I am hoping to get info about what the trail conditions are like ahead. My trusted sources are usually middle-aged women who seem like they are out for a day hike. In no way, shape or form can they be the super-fit, climber-types who seem to be crawling all over the Dolomites. That type finds it hard to fathom why a trail sloping down at a 60% grade over loose rock and scree could possibly be something that I may hope to avoid with all of my heart. This woman, on the other hand, is perfect.

She is slowly picking her way down the challenging trail, which is my type of hiker. She is Italian and starts the usual trail banter with us. Where are we coming from? Where are we headed to? We do our best to understand and answer her in Italian, but I switch to English to get the serious information. I ask her about the trail from Passo Cereda to the next hut, Rifugio Boz. She asks if we are going there, and we indicate that we are undecided at the moment.

The trail to Boz gets a 3+ difficulty rating (something we haven’t done yet and avoided on the “shortcut” to Rosetta) and involves a long, free-climb that has had me hyperventilating ever since Sebastian mentioned it at dinner at Fuchiade on Day 6. This woman tells us that it is difficult but doable and that the rifugio is excellent.

We say that we are also thinking about stopping at Cereda and spending a few days in the little mountain towns between Cereda and Feltre for a couple of days. On this note, she really perks up and starts waxing poetic about Fiera della Primiero, Mezzano and all the other little towns in the area. She lives in Transacqua and tells us that we will have a really nice time visiting there.

We are both encouraged by the conversation—me by her assessment of the hiking and Matt by the favorable recommendation about these trail alternatives. Just before she continues on her way, she warns us that a really bad thunderstorm is predicted to arrive at 5 pm. She says it is code red and has received a rating of 5 for severity, which we take must be pretty serious. She advises us to make sure that we are at the rifugio before then. At the moment, it is only 11:30ish, so we figure that we have plenty of time to make it to Passo Cereda before the storm hits. We bid each other farewell and head on our separate ways with a new sense of determination.

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Reaching the pass is a good challenge, and there are nice views on each side. We take a short break at the top for an energy bar snack. It’s too early for lunch, but we need something before we start the steep descent down the other side.

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We hike up to a little flat, grassy plateau between the two sides and find some beautiful purple Moretti’s bellflower growing out of the rocks. They are arranged perfectly for a photo, and I especially like them because they remind me of the purple skypilot flowers that we saw at the top of the high mountain passes that we crossed on the JMT last year. These flowers aren’t nearly as fragrant, but they sure are pretty.

From the pass, we descend steeply down the other side, and I am moving so slowly. I had hoped that after surviving yesterday’s tough descent that my confidence would grow. Instead, it seems to be the exact opposite. I think I am suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Steepness Disorder), and Matt is patient as he waits for me to awkwardly pick my way down the rocky, loose stone trail. What a pain!

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I try to spin it in a positive way in my head, that it is good to break up today’s big 1000-meter descent and get some of it out of the way now, but it’s a hard sell. My psyche is definitely having a hard time buying it. It’s a relief when the trail finally levels out, and we start the traverse along a goat track below the Cima d’Oltro and Le Rocchette, soaring high above us.

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I have been dreading this section. It is described as being narrow and exposed with crossings over eroded gullies, but it isn’t as bad as I had feared. There are some treacherous parts, for sure, but they tend to be on the inside of the contours rather than the outsides and aren’t too difficult to negotiate.

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The difficulty here proves to be a mental game. We can only see until the next curve ahead of us, and the trail seems to be rising with every step. WTF? I am steeling myself for this big descent, and we keep heading up and up. Every time I crest a curve, I expect to see the trail heading down, but it keeps rising up instead. On an on, this goes. Knowing every step up now will mean a step down later is almost too much to take, but we press on. There’s a bad storm on the way, after all.

It’s a relief when we finally reach the junction below Passo Regade (2500 meters). Matt insists that we stop for lunch before the big descent. I am nervous about the weather and suggest that we at least get a little lower before we take a break. It’s only 1:00, but the sky is definitely getting darker. Matt agrees, and we start heading down the trail.

As we lose elevation, the temperature suddenly drops, and it feel like it is getting colder and colder with every step. The whole scene is quite dramatic looking, with huge, stone karst pinnacles standing at attention all around us. We stop on a fat ledge just above tree line to finish up yet another block of cheese that we bought in Malga Ciapella a few days back, and we both feel like we have finally crossed the imaginary “too much cheese” line and can’t eat another bite. Time to get going again!

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It’s only 2:00 pm, but the sky grows darker and darker as we descend. According to the news we got, we still have about three hours until the storm is due to arrive. We figure that this must be a prelude before the real event. Not five minutes later, we hit tree line, and the temperature drops 10 degrees. We lose all light, and the wind picks up. We can hear what we think is thunder rolling along in the distance, but we try to convince ourselves that it is a jet flying nearby. How could the sound of thunder last that long?

Matt takes charge and says we should pack the cameras away and get out our rain gear. In the process, the first big drops of rain start falling. We can feel the temperature falling by the second, and we drop our packs to throw on a warm layer underneath our rain jackets. We both grab our Smartwool tops, rain jackets, and rain covers for our packs, but, before we are even done getting situated, it’s clear that we are going to have to wait out the storm exactly where we are.

We drop our poles, lay our packs down with the rain covers protecting them and climb up underneath the lowest branches of a fir tree just above the trail. Luckily, there is a stone pinnacle just behind us, so, even though we can hear the wind roaring across the mountainside below us, we are somewhat protected. Flashes of lightning light up the sky, and we can no longer pretend that the loud rumbles we hear all around us are not thunder. The rain comes down in earnest, and it begins to hail.

We decide that things are likely to get a whole lot worse before they get better, and we  get out our rain pants. They make things feel better, but, after a few minutes sitting in the rain, our hands are cold. Matt climbs back to our bags and pulls out our hats, gloves and neck gaiters, which help a lot.

The lightning keeps flashing around us, and there is a constant roll of thunder echoing through the mountains all around us. It is an eerie, scary sound that must have me quite frightened because Matt turns to me and says, You know we are going to be alright, right? I’m not really all that convinced, but I nod yes hoping that the situation doesn’t get any worse.

We try to pass the time talking about lighter things, but the subject of our last will and testament somehow creeps into the conversation. As scared as we are, I tell Matt that I am grateful and so surprised that we haven’t had more weather like this in all of our time on the trail this summer. The Tour du Mont Blanc, Haute Route and Alta Via 2 are all extremely popular treks in July and August, and we have had to make reservations for every night on the trail. We just expected that weather would make a mess of our plans at some point and that we would have to skip portions of the trail to be able to stick to our schedule, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if this were our last day of hiking, and we are finally dealing with weather? I say to Matt. He smiles and says, Oh, this is our last day of hiking. And with that, the decision has definitely been made. Passo Cereda will be our stopping point on the AV2.

There we wait huddled underneath the tree for about an hour in total. Finally, the rain slowly lets up, the lightning strikes grow further apart, the eerie rolls of thunder fade, and the sky finally begins to lighten up. After a long period of no lightning flashes, we timidly crawl out from under the tree and resume our slow crawl down the trail.

The rocks are wet now, making them a little more slippery, but the trail itself feels a little bit better all tampered down by the rain. Our progress is slow, especially after Matt slips and falls flat on his back. Luckily, his pack takes the brunt of the fall, and he is only a little shaken, not damaged, by the fall.

As we enter the forest, the grade eases (hooray!), and we encounter broken branches everywhere. There are even some big limbs laying across the trail—fresh debris from the storm. It was lucky that we weren’t any lower down the mountain where we would have been dealing with stronger winds and falling debris.

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The trail zigzags down through the forest for quite a while, and, just before reaching the road that will bring us to Passo Cereda and a bus ride that will get us away from this trail the following morning, we come across a fallen tree across the trail that was snapped in the storm. Looking around, we see several more, but we also can’t help but notice the beautiful view of the mountains ahead of us. A long layer of low clouds rests just below a glorious view of the stone mountains rising above them. It’s a beautiful scene that begs us to continue on.

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The temptation is strong, but, after 9 days on the AV2, we know these Dolomiti mountains mean business, and we have had enough. Our night at the rifugio at Passo Cereda will be our last on the AV2. This will mark the end of four amazing treks and 40 days European hiking. We both know that we have only scratched the surface of what trekking in Europe is all about, and we are definitely left wanting more. But that will have to wait until another summer for now. 

Post Script:

It turns out that the thunderstorm we experienced on the trail was quite an event. It was all over the newspapers the next day, and there was even a hiker killed by lightning while on the via ferrata on the Marmolada, which was about four trail days from where we were hiding out during the storm.

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We ended up taking a local bus to Fiera di Primiero and spending a day exploring the “Cinque Terre of the North.” In this small region, there are five, super cute mountain towns all connected by trails. Each of the towns has its own flavor, and a few even cultivate artist communities with a different public art theme. Our favorite was the artistic wood piles on display in the cute town of Mezzano.

We ran into Sebastian and Miriam, one of the fun German couples we had dinner with at Rifugio Fuchiade after our first night off the trail. They are both experienced, gung-ho hikers who crave challenges like the AV2, so we were surprised to learn that they had actually bailed out at Passo Cereda as well. They said that the weather forecast for the following day was predicting severe storms again. With the final stages of the AV2 being even more technical, demanding and remote than anything encountered earlier on the trail, they thought it best to get off trail and spend their last few days of vacation elsewhere. Whew! Weather event #2 avoided. How lucky for us!

6 thoughts on “Alta Via 2, Day 9: An Abrupt Ending

  1. What an adventure! We love thunderstorms but on a deck or from a cabin window. Thanks for sharing. Makes a month of quarantine go by quicker reading about your trip! ♡

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting on them all. I finally have some time to catch up on these now that we are finally done with Remote Learning. Hallelujah! Summer here we come!

    1. Very cool! The AV2 is a beautiful trail, but it was very callenging. We have heard that the AV1 is very similar in terms of scenery but that it is far less technical. I would give that one a try if this seems too challenging for you. Happy trails!

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