Trails in the Dolomites- a click away?

Two days ago in Belluno Google and the Unesco World Heritage Dolomites Foundation presented to the public at large the mapping and filming of some of the trails in our mountains. You can log on to Street View-Google Maps for a virtual tour. Given the weight and the size of the cameras that have to be carried by the operator, only the easier trails were digitalized. Therefore the via ferrate and the more challenging hikes are not included in Street View, based on safety concerns.
This is of course part of Google’s declared objective of making every angle of the world surface available on-line, mountain ranges included.

What is interesting is that the Unesco World Heritage Site Foundation enthusiastically joined in. Their declared objective at the meeting was to promote the Dolomites to an extended public, thus making it more attractive for people from around the world to come visit.

Right? Not according to many locals and the CAI, the Italian Alpine Club. Making it so publicly accessible and in such an effortless way betrays the very nature of the mountain spirit. As young boys and girls we were taught that a spectacular view was and should be a reward for the hard work getting there, and that sweating it out was the cost of enjoying a cold sandwich and a glass of water after having reached the destination.

CAI goes one step further, by arguing that it can be outright dangerous. Following the trail while comfortably sitting in front of your laptop may instill a false sense of security and undermine potential risks. It also does not take into account the micro-management of a hike, all the split-second decisions a hiker must make in response to changes, such as in the weather pattern for example.

I was very impressed with what I saw in Street View. There is no question that it certainly is an accurate display of what the Dolomites have to offer. However, as much as I appreciate this technological advance, I still miss the chill when the cold breeze from above hits the sweat and the muscles ache at the end of the trail.

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Cadore high country—for families

How satisfying is it really as a parent to introduce your own children to the mountains? That depends really! Given the right trail and the right attitude, I’ve seen mine take off, and there’s no turning back… at least until they hit their teens. Not even a brisk day and a bit of rain will get them discouraged. The Dolomites are a choice location for travelling with little ones: there’s an endless list of easy hikes with easy access, weather-shelters, and comfortable alpine huts with bunk beds (kids like bunk beds), not to mention the absence of dangerous predators. Combine that with idyllic rolling meadows for picnic stops, and plenty of animal and plant life (both domesticated and wild). Want something more adventurous? Our guides can take you out for a day on the rock or help you complete a via ferrata.

Allow me to let you in on a spot that deserves your attention. Pian dei Buoi and the eastern Marmarole mountain massif rises just above Lozzo di Cadore: Both the family-managed Rifugio Baion and Rifugio Ciareido are frequented by locals. You’ll rarely hear a language spoken other than Italian and regional dialects. At Rifugio Baion food is something special, coming from the Friuli area from which the management hails

We’ve been out scouting areas in preparation for our new custom family tours. These will not be advertised as group tours because we know every family has its own dynamics and preferences. We can help you organize the perfect family alpine experience.

Late winter ski tour under Monte Alto

Remember this spot? We were here in 2011, and here we are again. Some old friends gave me a call last night to propose a backcountry ski tour. We hadn’t skied together since 2008, and we’d been crossing paths all winter. I wanted to do something a bit off the beaten path, and avalanche risk was moderate to high above the treeline, so our destination had to be safe. Strangely enough, we had the same tour in mind. Here’s a short trip report and some photos to give a sense of this year’s late winter snowpack.

We’ve been getting a lot of new snow in the Dolomites lately, but also plenty of wind. The scouring action has left a beautiful drifted landscape, but also deep slabs which are prone to slide, even under the weight of a single skier or snowshoer. We came across several of these slabs on low angle slopes, which confirmed it wasn’t the right day to go high. Luckily we managed to get just above the trees to a ridge under Monte Alto. The summit itself yields fantastic views of the vertical south face of the Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites. We turned around before climbing the final steep summit cone. Better safe than sorry!

As we suspected, nobody had been through yet to break trail. Route finding proved to be a bit of a challenge, as the majority of the tour was in the trees. The descent was, simply put, a disaster complete with face plants and slow-motion cartwheels. Whenever we got our confidence up, the wind-blown crust would put us back in our place. Nobody escaped the frosty humiliation. Needless to say, the camera went into the pack for protection. Sorry folks, no pictures of the wreckage! All-in-all, a gorgeous day in great company. We got to see a new spot in winter, and we even linked a few turns somewhere deep in the trees. It’s snowing again… stay tuned for next weekend.

Big snow

Yes, we got all that. It’s been making white stuff on and off for over a week. We did get two days of unusually warm weather, but above 1400m it’s all snow. More on the way this week, then looks like a sunny weekend. Val Fiorentina is the right place to be in this kind of weather. Rifugio Città di Fiume is easily accessible just below Passo Staulanza, and presents no particular risks. The rifugio remains open weekends throughout the winter. During breaks in the heavy snowfall the north face of Mt. Pelmo made an ominous appearance. Even when hidden in the storm, it made its presence known as a sizable avalanche rumbled down. Nice to know you’re at a safe distance!

Eco-cultural tourism

Book a mountain walking holiday with us and you’ll discover the Dolomites are more than meets the eye. Beyond the sweeping panoramas, a deep, yet subtle story is constantly unfolding. This is the story of a landscape-in-formation; of majestic peaks, but also bucolic alpine and sub-alpine pastures, and bustling alpine towns. We characterize our experience as ‘eco-cultural tourism’ because it’s about the way this story unfolds before you as you walk through this landscape.

Is there such a thing as untouched wilderness in the Alps?

The Dolomites UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally proposed as a cultural landscape (a milieu of nature and culture in an ongoing relationship at the landscape level). This landscape narrative was not acceptable to the UNESCO commission because of a problem with specificity: the entire alpine arc can be considered a mosaic of cultural landscapes. In the end the outstanding universal value of the site was argued on the basis of its geological and geomorphological importance, and the unique beauty associated with the dolomitic structures. Thus, the Dolomites received recognition for their ‘natural heritage’, but a quick glance at a postcard or map will quickly reveal that this area is far from the ideal of unspoilt nature.

Let’s refigure the question: can you find untouched wilderness in America?… Really?… let’s think about this for a moment. In the Americas we are accustomed to having our nature ‘natural’ and our culture, well… highly anthropogenic, if not downright industrial (and unsightly!). Beginning from the Muir and the great American wilderness movement, we enclose our nature in parks. We escape to these parks, hoping not to encounter another human, or lay eyes on a man-made structure during our visit: we can be no more than mere visitors in these landscapes. Somehow we don’t maintain these expectations when we make our ‘escape’ to the Alps. Stopping mid-hike to walk into a bar in an alpine chalet for a drink—something quintessentially European in character—becomes an unmentionable blasphemy on Gods creation if inserted into an American context.

The food! The wine!

Of course, getting into the mix of nature and culture doesn’t always involve a trip to the bar. Italy’s alpine populations are fiercely proud of their open pastoral landscapes, their rows of vinyards, and also less reknowned cultivated counterparts including patchworks of home vegetable gardens, chestnut and wallnut groves, and fruit orchards.

And here’s the core of the nature/culture issue (at least as far as tourism in the Dolomites is concerned!): the food culture. Remember, besides pizza and lasagna, Italy brought the world the Slow Food movement. The key to Italy’s strong position in foodie-land is the express tie between nature and culture articulated through one of our most basic bodily functions. Italians are leaders in the western world when it comes to tying what they eat to ‘territory’ (territorio). Territory is the combined, localized manifestation of climate, ecology, culture, history, raw soil, and seeds. In America we talk about ‘heirloom varieties’. In Italy, we’ve reached a level of appreciation (verging on obsession) for local varieties. So much so that nearly every valley in complex geographical regions such as the Dolomites has a local cuisine based not only on local recipes, but also local varieties of squash, cabbage, corn, grain, radicchio, chicken, and so-on.

Ok, that’s all nice and cultural, but what about the ecology?

The sight of a herd of cows or goats, accompanied by the sound of bells might be unwelcome to the wilderness purist. Think of the fragile alpine meadows! This is a common preconception, however. Much alpine biodiversity can be attributed to traditional patterns of cultivation and the transhumance—the seasonal cyclical movement of domestic herds of sheep and cattle from valley to alpine pastures. Grazing keeps patches open and introduces an important ‘disturbance’, attracting birds, wildflowers, and polinators. There’s also a great deal of interest in ‘cultivated biodiversity’ on the part of scientists trying to address growing cracks in the world’s food system. As a living cultural landscape, the Dolomites have much to offer in these regards.

We seek to break down the ‘nature-by-day, culture-by-night’ dichotomy which is typically implicit in mountain tours. Whether you join us for two days or ten days, we make sure you get an experience that respects the place, the people, and the landscape. Walk, don’t run (or rush) your way through our little corner of the world, and you’re sure to be rewarded.

Snowshoeing and winter photography

Following an unexpected success last winter, 34 alpine huts in the Cadore and Zoldo region alone have again decided to remain open throughout the winter in order to receive snowshoers and backcountry skiers. The region’s network of groomed and marked trails provides easy access to backcountry areas away from crowded ski areas. Visitors taking advantage of the alpine hut network are rewarded with hot meals and even a warm bed to sleep in.

Why not try something different this winter holiday? Ski slopes not for you? Winter excursions on snowshoes promise a quieter retreat into the winter landscape, away from the crowded resorts.

Winter photography is about lines and light. Snowy panoramas invite conversion to black and white but colors can be equally intense. If you decide to remain in an alpine hut over night, sunrise and sunset are not to be missed. The Dolomites region’s climate means lots of sun over the winter months, so opportunities are plenty.

Our snowshoe guides and photographers are ready to help you make the most of your outing. At the moment, we’re only offering this option as a custom trip. Contact us for more information.

Bivacco Feltre

It’s been stormy, and things have been busy lately. A hole in the weather meant it was time to hit the trail and see what’s been going on up high. Bivacco Feltre and the surrounding Cimonega mountain group is at the core of the Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park. The elevation gain was putting me off, but the draw of new snow on the peaks was just too powerful. Ok, so the weather wasn’t perfect, but it was as good as it was going to get, and another warm air mass was on its way.

The trail’s no walk in the park. It’s very well maintained, but the map puts it at 1300m vertical to the bivouac shelter, and another couple hundred to gain a view of the massive Agner-Croda Granda group to the north. The last bit was a slog through crusty snow over icy boulders. It was all worth it. The clouds rose and the sky opened up in a complex three dimensional play of light. I shot pictures from all angles, running up and down the final ridge, taking time now and then to brush snow out of my pants and boots (but not enough!)

I’m not proud of the way this story ends. On the way back down, I was feeling pretty knackered so I crawled into one of the beds in the bivouac for a quick nap. By the time I woke up, the sun was already behind the peaks. No cell phone reception. Uh oh, they’re probably wondering where I am by now. I’d implied a quick hike and I’d left home at 5:00am. The headlamp came in handy finding the car, and I made the call to say I was safe and sound not a moment too soon! Of course they were curious about the pictures… so here they are! Find more photos on our flickr blog.

Edelweiss – stella alpina

The edelweiss is perhaps the best-known flower in the alpine region. Its fluffy leaves protect the plant from the extremes in temperature as well as the harmful UV rays at high altitudes.
In the past it was picked up indiscriminately and it was almost driven to extinction. Fortunately times have changed and it now thrives in its limited habitat.
South face of the Nuvolau, August 11, 2012

Cinque Torri

A magnificent view of the Cinque Torri from the north face of the Nuvolau, and a glimpse of the Tofana di Rozes in the background on the left. At first sight they look like boulders casually tossed on the alpine meadow by some unknown yet powerful hand. In reality nature played its part for millions of years, patiently carving out the tender rock and leaving behind the more solid and compact structure. The Cinque Torri are more than five monoliths, and one of them completely collapsed a few years back.
August 11, 2012 at noon.

Hiking tips in the Dolomites

Before you hit the trail gather as much information as you can. Make sure you know how to get to the trailhead quickly and efficiently, otherwise you’ll end up losing time on the trail and getting back too late in the day is never a good idea. Finding the trailhead is not always straight forward in the Dolomites where road signs are often lacking.

Carry an updated topographic map, preferably with a scale of 1:25.000. My favorite maps are published by Tabacco and can easily be purchased locally.

Consult an alpine guide or the local tourist office before you leave, and in doubt always ask locals for information, they’re a neglected gold mine of information. Ask the right questions—how long is the hike and what’s the vertical height? Then ask yourself if you have the fitness level to face it. There are always easier options here, but if you’re already on the trail and feel tired, then make sure you’re ready to call it a day before you run out of steam for the trip home.

Check the local weather report at ARPAV Dolomites weather where you can find the most accurate short-term local forecasts. Skip the English page as the Italian page unfortunately has much more information. Try accessing this page with google translate. Pay particular attention to the table indicating the thermal zero (Quota 0°C libera atmosfera h12(m)). This will give you an indication of temperature wherever you happen to be heading.

Be well-equipped. Although it’s generally easy to find water on the trail (food may also be available at alpine huts), carry some along. Parts of the range are karst landscapes. Water drains away from the surface quickly so water sources may be unreliable. Weather changes quickly as is typical of mountainous areas. Convective systems are very common during the summer months. We generally advise starting as early as possible in the morning and returning early in the afternoon to avoid getting stuck in a violent system. Always be prepared for a surprise snowfall or high winds, even in the summer.

Don’t be tempted to rely too heavily on internet research, as I’ve seen plenty of information on the web which is incomplete at best, and plain wrong at worse. In spite of the accessibility of the Dolomites from major population centers, cell phone coverage is often poor on the trail, so don’t count on it while hiking. Most importantly use your common sense. If it feels wrong, don’t do it. Safety first!