Could we do it? The 150km ‘Alta Via 1’ trek, between Badia and Belluno in the eastern Italian Dolomites, was the challenge for our six-man party in September 2013. Our approach to Badia from Venice by taxi offered hints of what was to come: great views of deep rocky gorges and high cliffs; sharp ridges and towering summits, the highest in cloud. The roadside terrain gradually became more alpine with perched villages, onion-domed churches and high green pastures.
Our first leg to the Senneshutte (2128m) from the beautiful Lago di Braies lake(1500m) was a moderate 51/2 hours in sun and occasional cloud, with superb views of massive buttresses, fine narrow ridges, jagged ridges and pinnacles, and the tilted dolomitic limestone bedding planes that characterise Dolomite geology. Even in September, flowers such as Gentians, Monkshood, Grass of Parnassus, Campanula, Bladder Campion, Edelweiss, and Orchids added patches of colour to white paths along the mountainsides.
This encouraging start set the pattern for the next two days via the Faneshutte and the Volparola huts; with sunshine, tiny clouds and fresh breeze in cols and on ridges -perfect walking weather. Blue and Fritillary butterflies, Alpine Choughs and Marmots were occasionally seen, while we walked between massive buttresses, towering up from broad alps with meandering streams, grazing cattle and occasional ponies.
Rifugio Lagazuoi, accessible by cable-car, stands on a breath-taking cliff commanding the Passo Falzarego. Our starting point for the following day, it is surrounded by evidence of occupation of the area by Austrian troops during WW1, when the heights formed the frontier with Italian forces. This includes tunnels through the rock by which it is still possible to reach the pass beneath. However after enjoying the stunning views across the pass of row after row of jagged peaks emerging from the morning mist, we were off over the rocky surface on our way to the Giau hut.
At 71/2 hours, our longest day so far, enlivened by occasional marmots and a with steep zig-zag descent via a wide rocky gully to the valley, skirting the massive buttresses and pinnacles of the 3225m Tofana di Rozes. Ascending through pinewoods from the valley, we climbed the lower slopes of the Torre Grande to reach Rifugio Scoiattoli for lunch, and finally reached the luxurious Rifugio Passo Giau for a delicious dinner of spaghetti with salami pieces in vegetable sauce, beef carpaccio with potatoes and spinach, bilberries and ice cream, accompanied by wine from Trentino.
Stately carved rock towers, bathed in a beautiful warm glow from early morning sun, rose from the grassy hillside above Passo Giau, as we set off on another long day. By rocky cols and grassy hollows, once occupied by early man, we skirted the magnificent Monte di Pelmo (3169m), then descended to the wooded Fiorentina valley, before a steep climb to the Rifugio Coldai, perched between the Cima di Coldai (2200m) and the Northern shoulder of the great Monte Civetta (3220m).
The huge NW face of this famous mountaineering playground was our constant companion on the following easy day to Rifugio Tissi, a hut dedicated to the memory of mountaineer and patriot Attilio Tissi, who died in 1959 on the northwest wall. Just above the hut, the cross of Col Rèan is perched on a cliff with breathtaking views of Lake Alleghe and major mountain ranges of the Dolomites: Marmolada, Sella, Col di Lana, Fanes, Lagazuoi, Tofane and Pelmo. A basic hut but with great atmosphere; with after dinner everyone joining in Italian songs to guitar accompaniment.
The soaring spires and pinnacles of the South face of the 2700m Moiazza were highlights of the following strenuous day, as we toiled up rocky ascents and across steep scree, among misty mountains patched with snow. Finally, as the weather turned rainy, we gratefully descended through conifer woods to the Passo Duran and reached the comfortable Rifugio San Sebastiano, beneath the jagged West face of the San Sebastiano mountain. Here, as a result of poor weather and one member’s disintegrating boot, we decided to end the trek a day early, escaping the following morning, by road walking and bus, to the pretty riverside town of Belluno.
Despite this slightly disappointing finish, this trip proved a hugely enjoyable and worthwhile experience of a truly unique landscape; highly recommended for moderately fit senior walkers. Also highly recommended are the holiday company Holomites, based in Badia, whose guides efficiently and cheerfully arranged our accommodation; and the Hotel Ustaria Posta in Badia, which gave us a comfortable start and a friendly send-off.
Several of the excellent Rifugios are accessible by road and could act as a base for local exploration, as an alternative to the whole trek.