Alps7 - A (Mostly) Cloudy Day Hike

Lago di Braies and the north Face of the Croda del Brecco

Neither Sandy nor I are adventurous eaters. When we travel, we actually tend to eat boring American food rather than exploring local cuisines. But we both love Italian food, so traveling to Italy is an exception. The local food and wine are a big part of the enjoyment for us on any trip to Italy.

CustomWalks takes advantage of the fact that Italy is known for good food and wine too. On this trip they planned several dinners at very nice restaurants. It started on the very first evening when we would be eating at the restaurant in our hotel. Before leaving on our first hike we were given an elaborate menu and asked to pick what we wanted for dinner that night. There were several choices, each an elaborate multicourse gourmet-type dinner. I'm sure that they were very good, and very expensive, but the items weren't exactly what I would normally pick. I don't remember all the choices but they were things like roast quail with fancy vegetables for the main course with various exotic appetizers and desserts. And that was the best selection.

The historic hotel at the lake

I hesitated. Where was the pasta? Where was the pizza? After all, we were in Italy. I didn't know what to pick. I didn't really see anything that I liked. But no one else was picking anything either. Finally Randy spoke up and said "I can't eat any of this crap. Can't I just get a plate of spaghetti with red sauce?" Not exactly how I would have said it but I had to admit that it was what I was thinking. So I chimed in with "Yeah, I would be happy if I could just get spaghetti too"

Iris and Marco both looked shocked. Here we had a chance to order a multicourse meal from a gourmet restaurant and we wanted plain spaghetti. It would be like going to the best steak place in town in the US and having a free dinner and ordering the kids plate of macaroni and cheese. But after checking that we were serious they went with the customer is always right, rolled their eyes and said they would arrange it with the chef. Spaghetti for dinner. Now I was happy!

We've climbed high above the lake and finally escaped the heat

When we had lunch that day at the Rudihutte, I ordered spaghetti with tomato sauce. Marco quickly reminded me that I was having that for dinner. "What's your point?" I asked him. That was the first, but not the last, time that I impressed Marco with my appetite for pasta and pizza.

Dinner that evening was great. Randy and I got our spaghetti, with a side of funny looks from the waitress. Delicious. I really enjoyed the meal. Fortunately we never had to face the chef who was probably deeply insulted. But hey, we were on vacation and enjoying ourselves.

At dinner that night Marco told us that we would really enjoy the hike the next day. It started at Lago di Braies, which he thought was one of the most beautiful spots in the Dolomites. Considering that Marco is a professional who spends half of the year hiking in the Dolomites, that was a high recommendation indeed.

The intrepid hikers near the Rifugio

Next morning when we started out the sky was overcast. The forecast was not very good. We all piled into a van for the drive to the trailhead. By the time we got to Lago di Braies the overcast had started to break up. I had to agree with Marco that the lake was a beautiful place. The sun was shining on the huge north face of the Croda del Brecco across the lake. The peak looked incredible. Surprisingly the mountain is actually quite easy to climb and a trail goes most of the way to the top. If I had known I would have said screw the itinerary - let's climb that sucker. But I didn't see a map till later.

There is a historic hotel at the lake at the end of the road - the Hotel Prager Wildsee (which uses the German name for the lake). It was built in 1899 and is still a family run business. It had an interesting history in World War II. Only two weeks before the end of the war, in late April 1945, a group of special prisoners was taken from the concentration camp in Dachau, near Munich, and brought by SS officers to the Tyrol.

A WWII relic - a drop tank from a P47 Thunderbolt

These were select prisoners who were special enemies of Adolph Hitler. They were moved to avoid the possibility that they would be liberated by the advancing allied armies. Many of them were relatives of the officers involved in the July 20 plot on Hitler's life. Their guards had orders to execute them if it looked like the allies would liberate them. When the local Wehrmacht commander hear of this, he ordered his soldiers to take the captives from the SS so that they would be safe. They were lodged in the hotel at the lake until the allies arrived two weeks later.

That morning, when it was so peaceful and the scene was so beautiful, it was hard to imagine the terrible life and death events that had happened here seventy years ago.

We started with an easy, level hike around the lake. There was an old chapel along the lakeshore where we made a brief stop. Marco told us that this was also on the CustomWalks Hut to Hut Dolomites tour that he had done the previous week. It was the same hike except that when we climbed high above the lake we would head for a different mountain hut. So this was familiar ground for him - he had been here the previous week.

Marco the Mountain Man

When we reached the far end of the lake the easy walking was over and we started a long climb. The next hour or two was the worst of the entire trip. It was warm, but not really hot. But it was incredibly humid and the air was completely dead. There wasn't even the hint of a breeze. The climb up from the lake was pure torture. I can't remember when I had ever sweated so much or felt so hot. This was not fun hiking. This was put your mind in neutral and just keep plodding along hiking. It seemed to take forever. I developed a lot of empathy for Sisyphus on this climb up from the lake.

Once we had climbed out of the first gully we came out into open high country. Here things weren't totally still. Here the humidity wasn't stifling. Here there actually was a breeze. So while the hiking was still warm, it wasn't totally miserable. We stopped to take a break and begin to cool off. Now that we could enjoy the hiking Sandy and I started out ahead of everyone else. It was easy to find the correct route so we kept on hiking for the refugio that would be our lunchtime stop.

Lunch stop at the Malga Cavallo hut

Now the overcast had returned and some of the clouds in the distance looked threatening. But none of the nasty looking clouds came very close. It didn't rain and the overcast made it cooler so it was good hiking. As we always say "Could be worse. Could be raining."

Eventually Marco caught up to us. It was only day two and I'm not sure that he trusted us yet to be out ahead by ourselves. When we reached a pass he took pictures of Sandy and I with the mountains and the clouds in the background. From the pass we dropped down to the Malga Cavallo Hut. It's not a refugio - it doesn't offer overnight accomadation, only meals. But that's all we needed, although I am sure Sandy would have loved to have been able to spend a night up in the high mountains in a hut. Not.

It had been over 2000 feet of climbing, and with the addition of the heat and humidity at the start, we felt like we had worked pretty hard. We were definitely ready to sit down, take a break, and enjoy some lunch.

Looking ahead to the long traverse

Just like the day before, over lunch we discussed our options for the hike in the afternoon. Iris told us that we had two options. If we were tired, there was a fairly direct route down to the highway. It would be mostly in the woods but it would be the best choice if we were tired. The other option was a beautiful traverse with great views. I was sold and immediatly voted for the second option. So did Randy. Sandy was a little more suspicious and wanted to know more about the difference between the two routes.

"Well, the second route is longer." Ok, we're all tired after the morning hike but eating lunch has restored some energy. How much longer? "Oh, not very much longer."

"And the second route has more uphill." Oh great. Like we haven't done enough uphill already today. How much uphill? "Not too uphill."

There were impressive views of the Durrenstein all afternoon

"The second route is harder, with exposure in some places. It has cables." Now Sandy definitely perked up. How much harder? How much exposure? How long are the cables? "Not many cables. The exposure is not too much. The hard parts are pretty easy."

Well it was pretty obvious that the second route was the route we were supposed to pick. I was actually excited about it but the cable discussion had Sandy a little worried. She is a strong hiker though and went with the second choice as well, just with a little less enthusiasm than I had.

We had to admit that we had been set up pretty well though. It would be hard to complain afterwards if we were unhappy about the route. After all, we had been warned.

When everyone was ready we started off. It was the longer, but not very long, route with some hard sections, but not many, that were actually easy. The skies were clearing a little and I could see some blue sky. We had been promised great views so I was happy.

At the start of the cables

Of course we started uphill right away. But it wasn't steep, we took our time (we were still digesting our lunches) and it wasn't long before we topped out. Now we could see quite a way ahead. I could see that we dropped down from our high point and then had a very long, gradually rising traverse along the slopes of the Piccolo Croda Rossa. Most of it looked pretty straightforward except near the end when the trail crossed an area of rock bands. I was guessing that was where the hard parts, that were actually easy, would be.

Although I joke about the trail description, the views really were fantastic. They lived up to their billing. Iris and Marco knew what they were talking about.

Ahead was a deep valley, the bottom out of sight. Down there somewhere was Ponticello, our destination for today and still a long way off. Across the valley, beyond Ponticello, rose the peak of the Durrenstein. It was an impressive mountain that I couldn't take my eyes off of. Although an impressive peak, it looked like it wouldn't be that difficult to climb. In fact, I could see a trail that went most of the way to the summit. Where I lost the trail there were easy scree slopes.

Randy tackles a tricky corner that has some exposure

The peakbagger in me was really excited. I kept wondering if I could sneak away from the group the next day and come back to go up to the summit of the Durrenstein. It was a beautiful mountain, well worth climbing, and it looked like it would be a spectacular viewpoint. But we had other adventures planned for tomorrow that I'll cover in the next post. So the Durrenstein went onto that very long list that I keep in my head of mountains that I will climb Next Time.

The traverse was long and it took us a quite a while to reach the rocky band. Here the route became difficult because the rock was crumbly and the trail tended to collapse. Although the rock was rotten it was steep, a bad combination. The trail was very narrow in places and there was some exposure. But Iris had been right. There was some exposure, but it wasn't bad. There were some tricky bits but they really weren't too hard. Personally I thought it made the hike a lot more interesting and fun.

Marco brings up the rear going through the rock band

Finally we reached the corner. When I'm hiking I always get excited when I am just about to reach the summit of a pass, or am about to turn a corner, and will get to see what is ahead. You never know what you will see. Here I was anxious to finally be able to see our destination down in the valley, and hopefully a nice easy trail taking us down to it.

Wrong. I was not just wrong, but WRONG.

I couldn't even see Ponticello, or into the valley at all. There was another traverse, as long as the one that we had just done.

It was certainly spectacular but I was wondering if maybe this was too much of a good thing.

There was nothing to do but just keep hiking. I was a little slower. Maybe I was enjoying the views a little less. But I just kept plodding along. Eventually we got to the end of the second traverse. It took a long time.

Croda Rossa d'Ampezzo - yes the walls are really red

We were hiking below the walls of the Croda Rosso d'Ampezzo. Not to be confused with the Croda Rosso Sesto, the slopes of which we had been hiking on the day before. I guess there aren't many words in Italian to name mountains, since they obviously have to recyle them. This Croda Rosso was an impressive mountain, and is one of the hardest in the Dolomites to climb because of the combination of steepness and rotten rock. And the Rosso in the name is well deserved, as the cliffs that we hiked below are indeed bright red.

After the second traverse we could finally see into the valley. Now we could see Ponticello and the road, although it was a long way off. It was time to descend. And we discovered something that would hold for the rest of the week. In the Dolomites, when trails drop down from the high country into valleys, they can be steep. Really Steep. So while a gradually descending trail can be a pleasure to cruise along, these trails were hard work. In fact, they were brutal. We were scrambling down over rocks. We were descending dirt trails that were so steep that we were constantly fighting to keep from slipping and falling. They were very hard work. Not the thing that you want to tackle at the end of a very long day when you are tired and just want to be done.

Another very long, and rising, traverse to go

The end of this hike, like the begining, wasn't fun. But we made it. We finally reached the hotel at Ponticello.

Fortunately this time at the bottom we didn't have to run to catch a bus. Marco needed to call the taxi to come and pick us up. But he couldn't get cell reception. No problem Marco. We'll get some cold drinks and just sit here on the patio while you walk down the road until you get cell service.

There are times when I love commercial trips.

While we were waiting, I couldn't help noticing that the trail to the Durrenstein left from right next to the hotel. I could see the trail sign from where I was sitting on the patio. As tired as I was, I still thought about going up that mountain.

We had plenty of time to enjoy our drinks before the taxi finally showed up to take us back to San Candido.

Almost there and Sandy can still manage a smile

That night for dinner we walked down to the end of the main street to a pizza place (yay!). After a long, hard but very good hike we all ordered drinks. We had another excellent dinner - hey, it was pizza and we were in Italy. The service was slow. In fact, it was so slow that we were all making jokes about it through dinner. But we didn't care. We were tired after a hard day of hiking and we had lots of time. It was also funny because no matter what we ordered, Marco always got his stuff last, and much later. We ordered drinks. We all got drinks, except Marco who got his five minutes later. Salads, Marco's came later. We were all just about done with our dinners when Marco finally got his. We kidded him that it was just the waitress's way of getting his attention because she thought he was cute. He agreed that his attractiveness to women was really a curse. We all should have such problems.

Day two of our Dolomites trip had been another fantastic day.