The weather forecast for our last day of hiking was excellent. Sure enough, when we got up in the morning and looked out there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It looked like it was going to be a fitting finale to what had been a great trip.
We were going to take a cable car to the beginning of the hike today. To get an early start we wanted to catch the very first cable car of the day, so we were all at breakfast early. The hotel staff had agreed the night before to let us start before their normal serving time. During breakfast Randy was all excited about something that he had read in the news and launched into a political rant. He did have some pretty strong political opinions that he would voice sometimes. The discussion never developed into an arguement though. Everyone else would just keep quiet and after a while Regina would give him a gentle poke in the ribs or a kick under the table. He would stop and someone would quickly change the subject.
All kidding aside, we got along really well with Randy and Regina. Their hiking style and pace was similar to ours. We had a lot of good conversations at meals and on the trail. And they were pretty flexible about arrangements so they usually just went with the flow. Except about dinners, and there I was always right with Randy saying "can't we just have spaghetti?"
Regina and Randy were expats living in London. Since we had been expats too, and I had even lived in the UK, we had a lot of conversations about the experience of being an expat. Randy was retired and although he was older than me (sixty seven vs sixty two) he was an active runner and still did half marathons. In two weeks he was planning to go to Dublin for the marathon there. I was impressed. Although I still tried hard to keep fit I had given up running some years before. I was inspired to give it a try again and resolved to see if I could start serious running again when I got back to the US.
After breakfast we grabbed our packs and took the pedestrian path to the town center. Even with our early breakfast, we had to hustle to make it there by the time the cable car started running. The lift would take us up 3600 feet, from Cortina at 1224 meters to the summit of Monte Faloria at 2324 meters. From the valley this is a spectacular looking mountain with a long line of steep cliffs that forms the eastern wall of the Valle d'Ampezzo. It provides a dramatic backdrop to the town of Cortina when looking to the east.
The cable car rose in two stages. The first stage started directly in the center of Cortina, right across from the central bus station. It climbed through the trees and as we rose higher we started to get better and better views, looking out over Cortina and the valley, to the mountains in the west where we had been hiking the day before. Today the Rifugio Nuvolau, the refuge in the clouds where we had been in the fog yesterday, was perfectly clear. There wasn't a cloud anywhere in the sky. It took about seven minutes for us to climb the 840 feet from Cortina to the intermediate station at Mandres.
The second stage was truely dramatic. It surmounted the huge band of cliffs in a single, unsupported cable span that was a mile long and climbed 1800. Quite a spectacular ride. At first, we were suspended far out in space, high above the ground and far from any support for the cable. Then as the cable car approached the mountain, we got a close up view of the steep cliffs usually seen only by technical rock climbers. There is also a via ferrata on the cliff, the sci club 18 route, which climbs the cliff face directly under the path taken by the cable car. This via ferrata is very difficult and very exposed. It's a much bigger challenge than the easy via ferrata that we had done a few days before. Looking at the cliff just a few feet outside the window, I tried to imagine doing the via ferrata, not having the luxury of being enclosed in the cable car as you went up the cliff, but just hanging out in space. There was a lot of air underneath us.
When we got off the cable car on the "summit" of Monte Faloria, I wasn't impressed. From below it looked like an impressive mountain top above a wall of cliffs. When we got there we could see that it was just a local high spot on a plateau beneath a long, much higher ridge. It was a great viewpoint though. It had an impressive view of the valley and distant mountains to the west, and a spectacular view of Monte Crisallo to the north. What a beautiful mountain. But it didn't feel at all to me like we were on a summit. Not even close.
There was a large hut with a huge patio right next to the lift terminal, the Rifugio Faloria, but we didn't stop there. We started hiking right away, downward for a very short dip and then we were hiking upward (of course), up a long slope. We were high enough that the temperature was pleasant but the slope was steep enough that I was soon breathing hard and sweating profusely. But the surroundings were incredible and I was enjoying the workout. Since we were just starting out we climbed slowly. It took us about forty five minutes to reach the Rifugio Capana Tondi.
The view was even more spectacular here. We stopped to enjoy the view, catch our breath, and make our standard bathroom stop. (These are listed in reverse priority order.) It is considered very poor form to use the facilities unless you are a customer, so some of our group ordered coffees. I'm not much of a coffee drinker so I just stayed out on the patio, enjoying the sunshine and admiring the surrounding mountains.
There was a yellow lab that lived at the hut and soon he came over to see me. He was very friendly but of course that is the way labs are. He was an English yellow lab, which are stockier than American labs. Although our dog Abby is half and half, she takes after her mother and is built like an American lab. So while everyone else drank their coffee, I hung out with my new pal Snoopy.
When we left the hut we climbed a short rise and then came to a downward slope where we dropped to the start of a long traverse. It looked very familiar, just like sections that we had done on the first two days. There was a long ridge of needle-like summits. Below the cliffs that protected the top of the ridge was a steep scree slope, then more gradual slopes leading down into the valley. The trail crossed the scree just below the cliffs. There were constant ups and downs, not really gaining or losing any net elevation, but never walking on the level for very long either. It was great hiking in a spectacular setting, but it was a lot of work.
It was like deja vu all over again.
These high traverses are common in the Dolomites. There is a close up view of the steep cliffs and sharp peaks of the ridge. But there is an expansive view to the other side - it feels like walking up in the sky. But the scree can make for tough going and loose footing even on the trail. And there can be significant exposure. We had experienced all of these on our previous hikes.
This traverse was easier than the others though, at least till we reached the first snowfield. It was a surprise to encounter snow. We weren't that high and it had certainly been very hot, even at higher elevations, for the past few weeks. That meant that the snow repeatedly melted every day and refroze at night. So it was hard ice. Soft snow can be a pleasure to walk on in the mountains. It certainly beats loose rock and scree.
Unfortunately this snow was rock hard and extremely slippery. The only thing that made it feasible was that it was flat, so as long as we walked slowly and carefully we were ok. It was like walking across a hockey rink in street shoes, only here the ice was bumpy.
Just as we crossed the snowfield we met a lone hiker going the other direction. She said that a little farther ahead she had encountered a snowbank that she couldn't cross and had turned back. We could see what she was talking about, it was not that far ahead. The snowfield we were crossing now was wide, probably a hundred meters across. The next one was tiny, and couldn't have been more than twenty feet to cross. It looked trivial. We nodded our heads sympathetically as we listened but we secretly all thought she was a wimp.
It didn't take us long to reach the second snowfield. It turned out that we were half right.
It was more than twenty feet across but still not very far. It was certainly less than fifty feet. But this one wasn't flat like the first one. It wasn't very steep, but the ice was so hard and slick that we found we couldn't even take one or two steps without starting to slide. It felt very insecure. Only Marco and Regina had poles, and even those wouldn't be enough to prevent a slip from happening or stop one after it started. We didn't have ice axes and crampons which is what was really needed to cross. And the runout was bad. Anyone who slipped would slide down the ice till they landed in the rocks.
Ok, so maybe the hiker who turned around wasn't such a wimp after all.
We didn't think it was safe to cross. We didn't want to go back. That only left one option - go around it. We started to climb down. The slope was steep and it was covered with a loose jumble of rocks. It was very unstable. Walking on the trail had been fine. Off the trail was a struggle. We had to go slowly and we had to go carefully so we didn't fall or tip rocks over on ourselves or someone else in our party. It was very hard work and no fun at all.
There wasn't the laughing and joking and friendly banter that there had been along the trail all morning. We were pretty quiet. Except of course for all the cursing and swearing, but that was mostly under our breath. It took us a long time but we dropped over a hundred feet below the trail. At that point I said enough. The snow was only about ten feet wide here. There were some rocks poking through. Sandy and I decided to try to cross. We slipped and slided and even pounded out steps in the ice with rocks. Somehow we made it across. Now we just had to climb back up the hundred plus feet that we had dropped down. It was even more work and less fun going up but eventually we made it. I was exhausted. It took us about half an hour to get around the snow and I felt like I had been sprinting at full speed the whole time. It was a welcome relief to be back on the trail. I was moving very slowly as we started down the trail again. The detour had taken a lot out of me and I think everyone else too.
Past the snowfield the trail rose gradually to a saddle, the Forcello Ciadin at 2378 meters. Everyone was tired so we took our time going up. Finally we made it and stopped for a rest in a beautiful grassy area. We took an extended break, to recover from the extra effort required to get past the snowfield and to enjoy the view. We ate snacks, drank water and either sat on rocks or lay in the grass. The effort to reach this spot was well worth it.
As on other days there was a bailout. From the Forcella Ciadin there was a trail that dropped directly to the valley and went straight to the Passo Tre Croce. Even though we were tired, we all opted to continue according to plan, even though it was much longer. Hey, taking the shortcut would have meant that we would miss lunch at the hut!
When we started again we had another traverse exactly like the one we had just finished, only much shorter. At the end it climbed to the crest of the ridge to another saddle. On the other side instead of dropping straight down we traversed to the crest of a broad, grassy ridge and followed it as it descended. As we walked through the meadows we spotted many Edelweiss flowers, even though they are quite rare. Found only in remote mountain areas, it is a national symbol in Austria, Switzerland and Rumania. Because of it's scarcity it is a protected plant in most countries in Europe, including Italy. In spite of the beautiful flowers and the inspiring setting, we were all too out of breath to break out singing "The hills are alive...". I guess that Julie Andrews was a lot tougher than all of us.
Eventually we left the ridge and crossed a large, open basin. On the other side our way seemed blocked by a steep, rocky buttress. We had to get past it to round the corner and get out of the basin. It would have been hard to go above or below the buttress, so the narrow trail just went right across the middle of the cliff face. At least the trail certainly seemed narrow when we were on it. There was considerable exposure although there were cables part of the way for security. Being sure footed mountaineers we made it around the corner without any problems. Fortunately we didn't meet another party coming from the other direction. I wouldn't have wanted to have pass anyone on that section of trail.
After an easy section we came to another short, steep rocky section. It was short but this one was scrambling rather than hiking. There were cables again to provide security since there was significant exposure. We climbed it and rounded another corner.
Now we could finally see our destination, Lago di Sorapis and the Rifugio Vandelli al Sorapis. It wasn't far but it was about 1200 feet lower and the trail dropped almost straight down. A trail that goes slightly downhill is easy to walk and you go faster and with less effort than on the level. A steep trail is a lot of work but still goes quickly. A very steep trail like this one, which we had learned on this trip seem to be common in the Dolomites, is very slow and very hard work. The dirt or gravel sections of the trail required great care to avoid slipping and falling. Most of the way down I was grabbing tree branches, bushes, rocks or anything that would help me maintain my balance and keep me from slipping. If I wasn't so stubborn I would probably even admit that trekking poles would have really been useful on this stretch. But there were also some rocky sections where we had to downclimb with hands and feet for ten or twenty feet. There. Poles would have been a nuisance on the rocks.
The descent was very hard work and the refuge didn't seem to be getting any closer. We just kept going. It seemed to take forever but eventually we did reach the hut. It had taken us four and a half hours of hard hiking and we were all tired and glad for a chance to stop.
The hut was crowded with hikers. That wasn't really a surprise since Lake Sorapis is a popular hiking destination. We went inside and were fortunate enough to find a large empty table. But after we sat down Sandy got up right away and went back outside. I followed and found her outside sitting on the step. She said that as tired as she was she just couldn't take the heat and humidity and the strong cooking smells inside of the hut. It was making her queezy. I had to agree that it was extremely stuffy in the hut and the food smells were rather overpowering. So we waited a few minutes and when someone on the patio got up I rushed to grab their spot. I wasn't very polite since other people were waiting too but I figured we needed to get a table where we could sit. Although Sandy said she didn't feel like eating anything I was hungry so I went inside and ordered some lunch. I brought back a bottle of Gatorade for her which she downed quickly. She said that it really hit the spot. She looked better already. We took our time, rested, ate a little, drank a lot, and slowly Sandy started to feel better. The others ate inside but we preferred to stay outside in the fresh air.
We stayed a long time to rest. We all needed to get our strength back. We had one and a half to two hours of hiking to go to reach the highway at the Passo Tre Croci. But before we started back we made the short side trip to Lago di Sorapis.
The lake is famous for the unusual milky green color of the water and the dramatic mountain backdrop dominated by the sheer spire of the Dito di Dio (the Finger of God). The color of the water is due to three small glaciers above the lake. The rock flour, the fine powder that is all that is left of rocks pulverized by the glacier, is carried down by runoff. Then it remains suspended in the lake water and gives it the milky green color. I thought the lake was pretty but since clouds had moved in the color wasn't that striking. Sandy and I have been to Lake Louise in Canada many times so we have seen glacier-fed lakes before. There were also crowds of people there. Bottom line was that there weren't really any opportunities for good photos. But at least we can say that we have been there.
Then it was time for the long walk back to civilization.
Iris set a moderate pace for the return. The hike out was pretty easy. It started with a short uphill section which had me thinking "Oh no! Not again!". But the uphill didn't last very long and then it was mostly easy downhill. It was a beautiful hike which I enjoyed even though I was really tired. We had a view of Monte Cristallo on the other side of the Passo Tre Croce, different from what we had been seeing all day but equally beautiful. There were other impressive mountains across the valley to the east for almost the entire walk out.
Part of the hike was along a very exposed section in the middle of a steep cliff face. There had been exposure on the trail at quite a few points earlier in the day, but here there was definitely some Big Air off to the side. At one point I came around a corner and just stopped. The dropoff on our right suddenly was very dramatic. I started up again, carefully, holding onto the cable. I heard Marco a few seconds later as he came around the corner. All I heard was him say softly "Whoa!". Yup. I thought that summed it up. There were cables for security and we just moved carefully on this section and had no problems. But it wasn't a good place for people with a fear of heights. Or for fooling around. The trail was wide enough but if you went off it was a definitely a very long way down.
Even though it was far off, we could see the big hotel at the Passo Tre Croce the whole way back. Slowly it got closer and closer until we finally reached the highway. Even then we still weren't done. We had to walk about half a mile down the road to the bus stop. Fortuately after such a long hike we didn't have to wait long before the bus came to take us back to Cortina. After eight hours of hiking it sure felt good to sit down and ride instead of walk. And our timing was good. The weather had been threatening most of the afternoon. We had seen dark clouds in the distance the whole time. Almost as soon as the bus picked us up it started to rain. Hah! Too late to get us. We beat the rain back to Cortina and hurried down the pedestrian path back to our hotel before the rain caught up to us.
It had been a long day, but it had been spectacular. A fitting finale to our Dolomites trip.
That night it was raining by the time we went to dinner. It gave us a good excuse to drive instead of walk. We had dinner at El Zoco, a small family restaurant. It was a little more elaborate than most of our "just give me spaghetti" dinners but I was ok with it. We had some good wine and toasted to a good trip. Even Iris was with us. Throughout the trip Marco would go to dinner with us every night, but since Iris lived nearby, usually she went home in the evening. Understandable. I would do the same thing in her situation. But she came along for our last dinner to help us celebrate the trip.
We talked with Randy and Regina about doing another trip next year. Randy and I both like the idea of the REI Julian Alps trip. All of us wanted to come back to the Dolomites again too. That was a good sign that we had a good trip.
In fact, it had been a wonderful trip.