Trek to the Marmolada Glacier
Trekking in Italy was a novel concept to me. No one had told me that the Dolomite’s were in fact a part of Alpine mountains (albeit a different part). Obviously my Canadian education was lacking. In order to rectify this deficiency I did a bit of Internet surfing and then took the short cut to instant knowledge by ordering “Trekking in the Dolomites” by Gillian Price (a Cicerone Guide). The pocket guide provides detailed outlines for Alta Via routes 1 and 2 as well as outlines for routes 3-6. Route 1 looked good but route 2 had the enticing notation that it was more ‘high altitude’ in nature and a bit more difficult. So naturally I selected route 2 as my planned first trek. It’s a 13-day trek with a great deal of time above 2,000m (the tree-line in the Alps is generally around 2,000m).
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $$
I set out from Tuscany via local Italian trains to the small town of Bressanone Brixen (where German is spoken, not Italian). Before catching the local bus to the ski village of Plose I visited a supermarket 50m from the station (basement of a small 3 story building) to buy some last minute munchies. After stocking up (no gas for my stove though) I paid €1.50 bus fare for my 45 minute ride to the ski lift (see the Maps & Facts pages for travel details). Rather than hike the initial 4.5 hours to reach the plateau so late in the day, I wanted to take the €10 lift to the plateau. However, it had stopped running at 6pm so I opted to pitch my tent in the nearby pine forest and wait until morning when it resumed operations at 8am. Why walk uphill for 4.5 hours when a 15 scenic ride is available?
Trek Day 1 Photos
Early the next morning I walked back down to the lift to await its opening. While waiting I noticed an Intersport shop next door that sold maps and perhaps gas for my stove. Gas was not available but maps and other gear were in abundance. I picked three maps of various scales that covered the route and then got on the lift. In 15 easy minutes I covered 4.5 difficult trekking hours.
Once on top it became apparent that the ski area trails were well used (and confusing). The guidebook gives adequate general information that works well when the available options are not so profuse. After a number of incorrect choices I gave up and pulled out one of my new Tabacco Maps to study. I cut a trail directly to the opposite side of the ski area where the trail options were more manageable. The Cicerone guide proposed the first day end at the Rifugio Bressannone in the ski area but I opted to combine day 1 & 2 since I had started out early and used the lift to cover much of the first day’s distance.
Beyond the ski area the trail followed below a ridgeline within a lovely pine forest with some steep drops and long views of the green alpine valleys and towns below. Around mid-day I exited the forest and began a long walk through rolling alpine meadows until reaching a road leading to a pass. The road was picturesque and contained a steady stream of cyclists and leather-bound motorcyclists. It was a land of winding roads that was perfect for cycling (with and without a motor).
After following the trail along or just below the road to Passo Rodella I entered the Puez-Odle National Park. It was a mixed forest with an abundance of mushrooms of all varieties. I longed to sample them but knowing nothing of mushrooms I opted on the side of prudence and I vowed that one day I would improve my knowledge of mushrooms.
As an aside, a few weeks later I learned that two families had died of mushroom poisoning and that it was a common annual problem. Clearly prudence paid off in my case.
The forest thinned as I reached the southern wall of the valley. The trail then curved, split and followed a small river above and along the enclosing slopes. I chose the higher trail for the panoramic views and access to the numerous waterfalls that fed the river below. After a few hours the rocky trails merged in a gully then joined the now small stream whose source started a short distance above at the pass. This section was well traveled and very busy. I consulted the map and found that a split from the lower trail led down to a road and parking area. I was heading up hill to the pass (Odle di Eores) with a lot of people heading down and back to the road. Obviously the road gave day hikers easy access to this lovely high altitude area. I continued to the pass and then made an easy decision. I could turn left and spend two hours summitting either Sass de Putia or Piccolo Sass de Putia (2,875m or 2,870m) or turn right and follow the cow trail (below the ridge) for an hour to reach the day’s objective, Rifugio Genova. I opted for the Genova where a comfortable bed, a warm meal and cold beer were available.
The Rifugio was a modern marvel with hot showers (pay as you go), cold beer, electricity and a gravel road leading down to a small village and civilization. The place was packed to capacity (I was staying in a shared 3-bed room, €22) with some through hikers, many day-hikers, a spattering of rock climbers and a respectable number of cyclists.
Dinner was a boisterous drinking affair with communal tables but I bowed out early because I was sore and tired.
Trek Day 2 Photos
The following day was another warm and sunny marvel. The guide book suggested a 5 hour, 12km day to Rifugio Puez (with ascent of 820m and descent of 645m) but I was sure I could do better. The easy part of the morning was spent crossing over the ridge of the Odle and into the next valley. Then a long west-to-south traverse of the valley to arrive at the dirt/scree 60 degree slope leading to another pass (Forcella della Roa). This was difficult but actually just a prelude to a much more difficult pitch up ahead. Once over the ridge I followed a trail along the sheer cliff of the Piz Duleda that ended in a vertical chimney. Using hand-holds and guide cables I pulled myself from ledge to ledge to finally reach yet another pass (Forcella di Sielles). From the pass the view was spectacular and eerie. I was in a rugged moon scape with high summits above and rock cliffs in all directions.
I was tired, my knee was starting to bother me and it was windy and chilly at that altitude. After a short rest I started another long traverse, this time to the east, in hopes of finding the Rifugio Puez and a hot lunch.
By 2pm I reach the refugio and was over whelmed by the number of people, the chilling winds and the lunch prices. It was becoming clear that this was the pattern in the Dolomites. Road trail junctions then expensive and busy refugios at regular intervals.
After lunch I opted to continue on and perhaps make an outdoor camp. I made my way along the valley’s narrow ledge to the Forcella di Ciampia pass (easy since it was at approximately the same altitude as the refugio) then through a lovely high altitude plateau with a small lake at its center. Here I had to make a choice. I could set up my tent and make my own meal (no gas so it would be a cold dinner of snacks). Water had been a constant issue these last two days. There was either too much when down in the green valleys or not enough when up in the moon scape plateaus. The lake and stream would at least solve the water problem for the night. Unwisely I opted to move on in hopes of completing the entire next days planned trek. What a fool I was.
After a short ascent I crossed the Passo Crepeina and sighted a tiny village far down in a green valley (val Chedul). The trail split, one cutting away to trace yet another high and dry trail below a ridgeline the other down to the village. I followed along the ridgeline. Being tired and pushing my pace caused me to stumble and twisted my ankle. After a short break I continued on but taking extra care not to place too much weight on the injured ankle. My going was much slower now as the afternoon continued to drag on. Gradually the sky grew dark, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up.
Eventually I reached the wind swept Passo Cir and spied high dusty narrow rock needles that were spooky and deserted. Where had all the people at the last refugio gone I wondered? I consulted my map and saw that I had a very long descent (550m) down to the road Passo Garena. It appeared as a busy ski village dotted with huge hotels and ski lifts in all directions. My guide book showed the Refugio Berghaus next to the road. The descent was very painful and slow going. Late in the day I broke out of scrub pines and into tourist land. I stopped at the first restaurant and asked to use the bathroom with a desire to fill up my water bottle. I was out of water and thirsty. Sorry no bathrooms, kitchen closed, water on sale for a king’s ransom I was told. I hobbled out and over to one of the lifts. Same story, no bathrooms and no water. I was ticked, in pain and had only one option, to continue on down to the road crossing and the refugio in the distance. The large bus in the refugio’s parking lot hinted at the obvious. The woman at the counter told me that they had no beds available, ushered me out and then locked the door and left. I was left standing outside in the wind, hungry and thirsty. I hadn’t even had time to ask for the bathroom.
Sitting dejected on a bench by the front door I considered my options. I started a conversation with some British cyclists that had spent the day riding to reach the pass and was informed that there was nothing cheap in the area, but there was an open shop (of sorts) just down the road. I thanked them and hobbled the 100m to the shop. It was a road-side mish-mash of goods. All kinds of goods. Camping and trekking gear, tourist trinkets, junk food, used books, clothes, beer, tools, etc.
I purchased a trekking pole to help with my sore knee and ankle, a few small bottles of ice tea, some snacks and finally a can of gas for my camp stove. The price for this small collection of goods was exorbitant. I discovered where the term highway robbery came from. Being the only shop located in the heart of high-end ski village had its advantages.
I hobbled back up to the refugio where I had left my backpack leaning against the wall and then made my way into a nearby field. On my way down the slope I had watched the terrain carefully in hopes of finding camping sites in case the refugio was full. I left the trail about 50m from the road and entered a small cluster of pine trees. In the middle of the trees I setup my tent. I was only partially concealed from the road and nearby hotels but it was already growing dark and the rain clouds looked nasty so my chances of being discovered were low.
Within 20 minutes of entering my tent it began to rain. I was too close to the road to use my stove, plus it was raining out, so had another dinner of snacks and fell asleep to the sound of pelting rain.
Trek Day 3 Photos
Morning arrived much too quickly and my knee and ankle were not in the best shape. Fortunately I carry an Ace bandage that I used for my ankle. The morning was foggy and chilly and I couldn’t spend the day in the tent waiting for clear skies so I broke camp and returned to the refugio in hopes of a hot breakfast. Once again the prices were prohibitive (€11 breakfast) so compromised by ordering hot tea and cold sandwiches. I then used the bathroom extensively and refilled my water bottle before heading out into the damp foggy morning.
I spent much of the morning slowly winding my way up the steep scree Val Setus, past the Rifugio Pisciadu, then up a cable guided climb past Cima Pisciadu to reach a surreal no-man’s land of rocks and clouds (or fog). The wind swirled the fog around and visibility dropped even more. It was an astoundingly spooky place. My knee and ankle kept me moving at a very slow pace which was actually a good thing given the steep cliffs and low visibility. There were many flat open rock ledges that plunged down into darkness.
Endless hours later (noon) I reached Rifugio Boe as the fog lifted and a biting cold wind lanced through my thin windbreaker. I had left the shelter of the spooky place and was now on the opposite side of the mountain, on the edge of an open bowl. I eagerly entered the refugio and sat down for a hot drink just as the winds began to gust even louder and then hale began to fall. Then a full fledge blizzard kicked in. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the 25th of August. How could it be snowing already?
I decided that I was not dumb or cheap enough to go out in a snow storm at 2873m when I could spend the day and night in a warm building, eat hot meals and drink cold beer. The meals were hot and the beer was cold but so was the room I slept in that night. Yet I felt lucky to have reached the refugio before getting soaked in the previous day’s storm. Being wet at altitude sucks.
Trek Day 4 Photos
After breakfast the next morning I paid my king’s ransom and left the refugio. It was very cold out. A sharp wind was whipping the previous day’s snow around and the ground was treacherous with frozen puddles. The up side was that the many icicles hanging from rocks made for refreshing snacks as I walked. In time I exited the shadow of the nearby peak and continued along the rim of the valley to reach the Forcella Pordoi, just below a gondola station leading down to the road Passo Pordoi.
The way down to the road was a 600m scree slope that opened out onto green rolling hills. My ankle made the going painful and very slow. Normally I would have run down the slope like a mountain goat but that was not going to happen any time soon.
I reached the road as the gondola began operating and the crowds were think and abundant. Before crossing the road and continuing up and over the opposite ridgeline I took time out for a detour to visit the stark Ossario, a military mausoleum housing the remains of over 8,000 German and Austrian WW1 & WW2 troops who lost their lives fighting in the Dolomites. It was hard to imagine men fighting and dying in such beautiful surroundings.
After this bleak detour I returned to the main road and joined the throng of people slowly making their way up the slope to the southern ridgeline 200m above. At the ridge I had an option. I could continue along the wide and comfortable trail along the southern side of the ridge with clear views of the Marmolada glacier and teaming humanity or I could cut left and follow a narrow treacherous poorly marked foot path on the northern side of the ridge, alone and in silence. I opted for the trickier and isolated route even though my ankle and knee were not voting with me. It was actually a challenging and pleasant variant.
By mid-afternoon I crested the ridge to stunning views of the glacier, lake and the carnival atmosphere of school children and day hikers on the trail below. After a lunch break I dropped down to join the main trail and spend the next 3 hours above steep green rolling slopes. Near the lake the trail took winding sharp turns as it dropped 600m to reach the Refugio Castiglioni, at the Lago (lake) Fadina and road pass Fadina.
The refugio offered dorm beds (the entire attic actually with over 20 beds) for the usual price (€22), hot meals of polenta and cold beer. I booked a bed even though it was only mid-afternoon and rested my aching knee and ankle while considering my options.
Trek Day 5 Photos
A bus stopped in front of the refugio at 10am, the following morning, that went directly to the train station in Trento (6 winding hours to the west) or I could continue my trek to the south for another 5-6 days. I looked out the window at the glacier and decided to leave the decision until later.
I left my gear on the rented bed and ventured out to visit the glacier. Without gear the walking was much easier. Plus the €5 stand-up lift to the foot of the glacier helped a lot. I spent the afternoon on the ice and considered my glacier options. I had none it seemed. It was slick ice. Not the dirty and sandy ice that I had experienced on glaciers in Nepal, India or Pakistan. This ice was being melted and re-frozen at intervals (and generally shrinking rather than growing). It could not be climbed without crampons as was evident by the a few climbers slipping and sliding down from a day circuit from the west side (the recommended route). One of them told me it was like walking on an ice rink that was on a 50 degree slope and that he would never do anything of the kind again.
Those words were like a song to me. It definitely needed my attention in the future. But for now it would be enough to return to the refugio and ponder my next day’s plan.
The pondering turned out to be a waste of time. In the morning I found that it had snowed during the night and a biting cold wind had visited the pass. I packed my gear, headed out to bus stop and caught the bus back to civilization.
I would give my knee and ankle time to heal and return one day with better equipment and perhaps, if the gods are willing, traverse that lovely glacier before it melts into a passing memory.
Hope you enjoyed this story.