Dolomites (Alta Via 2)

After my trek along Glyndwr’s Way earlier this summer I returned and proclaimed it one of my hardest walks. There was wind, rain, endless hills and little facilities. That trail now seems like child’s play in comparison to what I have just returned from. For while on Gylndwr’s Way I might have got a bit wet, my life was never dependent on a rusting iron cable suspended across a cliff face at 3,000 metres.

I had wanted a step up, and by going to the Dolomite Mountains I not only took that step but probably skipped about 3 or 4 in doing so.

My friends and I had chosen to walk the Alta Via 2 (High Way 2), a 150km, waymarked trail from north to south of the Dolomite range in far north Italy. There are eight ‘Alta Via’ in total, each supposedly ranging in popularity/difficulty. We decided against the classic, touristy AV1 and settled for the level above, labelled ‘moderate with some difficult sections’. Three boys at their peak, all experienced walkers- easy. The catch was that though we are experienced walkers, climbers we are not.

The trail passes through some fiercely fought passages of the Great War, where the Austro-Hungarian and Italian army were battling each other, the weather and the mountains for four years. To get the edge over their opponents, they literally went over the edge, building the Via Ferrata (Iron Ways) over the peaks and cliffs- iron ladders, cables and rungs jammed into the rockface. Many of these still exist, and little did we know that we would be clinging to them for dear life every day. With no harnesses, no crampons, just 15kg bags hanging off our backs.

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Spending what must have been 80% of the trip at over 2,000 m, there was also ice and snow to contend with. Italy has had a cold summer and many parts of the path were covered with drifts angled across the slopes on which walking boots just did not cut it. The rest was on scree that had crumbled down from the termite hill limestone peaks above that we would eventually need to go through.

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The challenging path and Iron Ways did however open up an inaccessible landscape to give views of one of the most incredible ranges in the world. The highest peak of the Dolomites, Marmolada (3343m), seemed nearly always in view, whilst from on the mountain itself you could see the spiked, snow capped peaks in all directions, all grey from a distance but turning a rosy pink or even light sand colour when up close.

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We tried to make the holiday as cheap as possible and therefore carried our accommodation and food on our backs. It turned out to be the right idea, for the path remains high and on very few occasions passes any civilisation let alone shops. There are however, many ‘refugios’, mountain top lodges that offer a bed and food for around 45 Euros. We chose to avoid the expenditure, instead often camping nearby them so as to warm ourselves up with their Grappa (a very, very strong spirit) and chat about the day ahead with fellow trail walkers. It meant we got some incredible views from our beds early morning….

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The few times we slept indoors were in the two alpine huts we passed, both unattended sheds with bunks inside. The bunks eventually filled up with tired walkers and food was all shared out amongst each other. Though we had no common language we all had a common appreciation for Grappa.

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We were unfortunate with the weather, with rain on most days and low temperatures for an August in Italy but you never know what you’ll get with mountains.  Reaching the end at Feltre after eight days, through a combination of the poor weather, the self subsistence, the cliff dangling and the fact we had climbed higher than Snowdon each day for eight days- it felt like one of the greatest accomplishments of our lives.

How to walk it

Don’t let my account put you off walking this trail. Our problem was the lack of technical equipment- perhaps in hindsight we should have taken a harness, perhaps crampons or at least walking poles to steady ourselves on the icy slopes. These would be purely for reassurance and would not be a complete necessity in summer. A certain degree of fitness, is however very necessary.

When to walk

Late June, July, August or early September. We walked mid August expecting it to be too hot- if anything it was too cold. So always be prepared for the extremes whenever you go!
It took us eight days, with no rest days, just continuous walking. Allow yourself 10 if you want to take it easy or nurse a Grappa hangover.

What do I need?

Either a reasonable budget to pay for the beds and food in the refugios or a strong back to carry your food and equipment as we did.
Technical climbing equipment if you want reassurance on the Via Ferratas.
Thick fleece and wet weather gear.
Maps- it’s a well marked trail but knowing what is ahead is important. You can find them along the way- keep an eye out for Tobacco’s maps.

How to get there

We flew from Luton to Venice via Easyjet (return £200) and took a train from Mestre (just north of Venice) to the start at Bressanone for 20Euro.
At the end at Feltre we caught the train back to Venice for 7Euro.

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