Our base for the last three days of the Dolomites trip was Cortino d'Ampezzo. It's mainly famous as a ski resort. Actually a very chic, and therefore very expensive, ski resort. But during the summer it makes its living from hiking, climbing and other summer mountain tourism.
We stayed at the Hotel Menardi, a family-owned and very traditional hotel about a mile from the town center. No on-the-main-square, newly-renovated hotel like we had in San Candido. Cortina is too expensive so we were out in the burbs. Getting into town wasn't bad though. Although the road didn't have sidewalks there was a nice pedestrian path just behind the hotel that ran to the center of town. It took about half an hour to walk it. It wasn't a problem unless it rained (which did happen) or we were really tired after a day of hiking (which also did happen). But the first evening we were there we had only done a moderate hike that day so walking into town was no problem.
We walked the length of the main street. There were a lot of shops but they tended to be more upscale. They were probably meant to appeal to well-to-do skiers. Not many good outdoor shops. Or good tshirt shops for that matter. Sandy was interested in finding a traditional Tyrolean outfit and had been directed to the coop. We found it at the far end of the main street but she didn't have any luck finding an outfit. In fact she didn't even find anyplace that sold clothes, although I didn't think she looked very hard.
The coop did have a grocery store. Instead of stopping at a restaurant for dinner we just bought some things to take back to our hotel. Although there were a lot of restaurants in town, they were very strict about not serving food before 7 pm. Sandy and I like to eat early so instead of waiting we got some bread, cheese and fruit and took it with us. We needn't have bothered. When we got back we stopped off in the hotel bar to have a glass of wine (or two). While we were enjoying our drinks they kept giving us free snacks. By the time we got to our room, we were already full.
The next day was another one of those mostly-cloudy-can't-tell-what-the-weather's-going-to-do days. The planned hike for the day was probably the longest one of the whole trip. Since the weather ws uncertain, Marco and Iris decided to switch the itinerary around and do the hike planned for the last day instead. It was shorter and it wasn't as exposed or committing. There were various bailout points along the way if the weather went really bad. Given my tendency to be timid in the face of uncertain weather, you won't be surprised that it sounded like a good idea to me.
Regina wasn't feeling too ambitious so she decided to take the day off. She was going to rest up, touch bases with work, and maybe take one of the cablecars that left directly from Cortina upto a high viewpoint. She wanted to be charged up for our last day hike with was an ambitious one.
The rest of us started with a short drive in Iris's car to near the summit of the Passo Falzarego. We had an amazing view across the valley of Monte Lagazuoi rising out of the morning mists. On the summit we could see the Rifugio Lagazuoi, perched above the steep cliffs of the south face. It claims to be one of the highest mountain huts in the Dolomites.
Marco had been there less than a week before. It's on the hut-to-hut Dolomites Grand Traverse offered by REI Adventures. Since REI outsources to CustomWalks to actually run the trip, Marco had just finished leading a group the week before. They stayed at the rifugio on the very last night. He said that the sunset from the vantage point of the hut was one of the most incredible sights in the Dolomites. Ok, he had me convinced. I mentally added another place to my I'll-do-it-the-next-time-I'm-here list.
From the trailhead near the pass we started hiking uphill, slowly at first, then more steeply. Behind us the clouds were swirling around Monte Lagazuoi, providing constantly changing views of the mountain. As we got higher we passed a small pond, then started to climb though a gully that cut down on the distant views. We reached a saddle and began a traverse below the cliffs of Monte Averau to another saddle, the Forcella Nuvolau and the Rifugio Averau at 2413 meters. We had hiked several miles and climbed over a thousand feet from our starting point near the pass on the highway, so we were ready to take a short break at the hut.
Next we continued slowly upward on the ridge of Monte Nuvolau, climbing another 500 feet higher to the summit of the mountain and the Rifugio Nuvolau. The name means "refuge in the clouds" and it definitely lived up to its name the day that we were there. Although the panorama from the hut is famous, when we were there it was totally in the clouds with a visibility of maybe a hundred feet. It actually was kind of eerie as it was perched on the edge of a cliff, obviously very high up but the dropoff just disappeared into the clouds.
We bought drinks in the hut but didn't stay very long. There wasn't any view to enjoy. Being in the fog on top of a mountain is pretty much like being in the fog anywhere else. It was just cold and damp and dreary. Soon we were headed back down and it didn't take us long to drop out of the cloud that was sitting on the top of the mountain. We retraced our steps most of the way back down the ridge but veered off before reaching the saddle to head for the Rifugio Scoiattoli.
This hut is right next to a group of towers known as the Cinque Torri (five towers) because...well.. because they are rock towers and there are five of them. For a non-Italian speaker like me I it was easy to confuse them with the Cinque Terre (five lands), an area along the coast of Italy that features a world famous hike. Sandy and I did it way back in 2006 on a trip with CustomWalks (through REI Adventures) just before we moved to Singapore.
Many times I've looked at old photos and said "look how young" or "look how thin" so and so is. Or "look at those clothes" or "look at that hairstyle/haircut". It's hard to believe we ever looked like that. But if you click on the link above you'll say "Look at that website! Can you believe Steve ever did a website that looked like that?" You can tell that it was a long time ago. I think I originally coded those web pages on stone tablets.
The Cinque Torri are in the center of a large ski area in winter. There is cablecar that comes up from the valley to the Rifugio Scoiattoli, and several smaller lifts that go up from there in winter. In the summer the five towers are popular with rock climbers because of their easy accessibility. There are also lots of trails for hikers leading to other mountain huts. It's easy to do a hike that strings together several of the huts as we had that morning. And now it was time for us to stop at one of them, the Rifugio Scoiattoli, for lunch.
We found a table on the patio with a nice view of the five towers where we could watch the rock climbers while we ate. It was better than having tv. It had been mostly cloudy today but we hadn't been rained on. We had been able to see a lot of the peaks much of the time. But while we were having lunch there were some blue patches of sky that opened up and we even had sunshine to go with our meal. Good timing.
After lunch we decided to take a tour of the nearby WWI museum. There had been a major Italian defensive position on the small ridge right next to the hut and the five towers. The fortifications and living quarters have been restored and exhibits have been set up as an open air museum. It was about a ten minute walk from the hut but of course it wasn't flat. We dropped straight down for about five minutes and then had to begin climbing right back up. Every hiker hates losing elevation that they worked hard to get knowing that they will be climbing back up again.
Well Sandy wasn't that excited about the museum. I'm the one in the family who is interested in military history. When she saw the uphill, she decided that it wasn't what she wanted to do right after finishing eating lunch. So she stopped to wait at the bottom of the hill while we climbed around looking at the museum exhibits. She told me to take good pictures. Hey, don't I always?
The Italian position was right at the crest of the ridge. It was very different from what we had seen on the via ferrata on Monte Paterno though. There the two sides were fighting on the same mountain and were only meters apart. Here the Austrian positions were several miles away in the mountains across the valley. Rather than snipers and direct attacks, they exchanged artillery fire. Since the ridge masked their position, they didn't need all the tunnels that we had seen on Monte Paterno. Only the gun emplacements and observation posts were dug in. It still looked like it had taken a lot of work to construct the place. I'm sure that with low temperatures and avalanches it was not a pleasant place to stay in the winter either. But the mountains overlooked the valley and the town of Cortina providing a commanding location for artillery. So both sides fought bitterly over these mountains.
It took us about forty five minutes to go through all the exhibits. By that time we had looped around to the base of the towers and took a different trail leading back to the hut. After all that time we expected to find Sandy waiting for us on the patio drinking a coffee. But when we got to the hut, no Sandy. Ruh rho Scooby Do. We lost Sandy.
Iris walked down to where we had left her on the trail, out of sight from the hut, and soon was walking back with her. Sandy had waited there patiently the whole time, even though we were only supposed to be gone about ten minutes instead of almost an hour.
With the group all together again we had the standard question - how did we want to go down? We were right at the top of a cablecar that went to the highway. Sandy opted for that and Iris went with her. Randy, Marco and I hiked down. Normally none of our group hiked very fast, but when Marco estimated that it would take us two hours to get down, Randy and I took it as a challenge. We zoomed down in about an hour and fifteen minutes. I'm sixty two and Randy is sixty seven, so we thought that was pretty good time for a couple of old guys. We cruised past everyone heading down the trail except one young couple where the guy was seemed to be determined not to let us get by. Eventually his girl friend got tired of racing, especially on the steep parts, and yelled something angrily at him in Italian. He finally stepped aside looking sheepish and let us go by.
Meanwhile Sandy and Iris had taken the cablecar down. The lower station was some distance down the road from where we parked the car so Sandy had a coffee while Iris walked up, got the car, and came back to pick her up. Just then Marco called and said that we were at the road and they should come and pick us up. We had been lucky all day but now were just starting to feel raindrops. I actually got out my rain jacket, the only time I had to while we were in the Dolomites, but we were picked up before we really had a chance to get wet. A short drive and we were back in Cortina.
That evening we all split up for dinner. Sandy and I did the half hour walk to the main street and found a spot at a restaurant, at a table that was under the awning, before it started to rain. We took our time having a drink and eating dinner while we watched people scramble every time it started to rain. Our luck for the day continued as it stopped before we needed to walk back to the hotel.
Not perfect weather for hiking but we didn't really get rained on all day. And amazingly enough, I wasn't worried about it anytime during the day.