“Signoreeeeena. Learn to lean out! You’ll never see anything with your face in the rock.”
My alpine guide is truly baffled. By the kung fu grip I’ve asserted on the limestone, which only loosens with the shaking of ankles and perspiring of palms, I’m starting to resemble a Garfield plush cling.
The internal dialogue has officially spiraled out of control: I can’t do this. I’m going to plummet. To an untimely demise. Do not cry do not cry do not cry… Do. Not. Cry.
How, exactly, did I get myself into this?
Truth be told, my life is hardly in peril. It isn’t as though I’m free climbing an exposed cliff, feet dangling over a vast chasm of darkness.
No, it’s more like me harnessed securely to a cable on one of the easiest, most picturesque routes in the Dolomites. There are metal rungs bolted into the rock. But there’s one factor I may have failed to mention to my guides pre-ascent: I’m an intrepid imposter. My restless spirit has been masquerading as an adventurous one since the mid-80s.
Well, no more. Here on Ferrata Averau, in front of God, Italians, and a spritely German family, the Emperor is finally going to put on some real clothes. So I lean out. Climb on. And my wanderlust becomes something slightly more fearless (and melodramatic).
That’s the Dolomites for you, a place to push yourself to the edge while harnessed sweetly, securely in your comfort zone to the very end.
Find more great experiences in our Adventure & Sports Travel section.
They’re called the “Pale Mountains” and these youngest of the Alps are roughly 100 miles north of Venice on the borders of Austria and Slovenia. The neighboring Val d’Ampezzo (Veneto) and Val Badia (South Tyrol) are the destinations of choice for most holidaying Italians, and while they sit nearly side by side, they each have a distinct cultural offering.
Val D’Ampezzo is home to the posh ski town of Cortina, situated regally amidst the jagged mountains of Tofàna, Cristallo and Sorapìs. (Watching the sun cast rays over those violet peaks at early dawn is nothing short of transformative).
Learn more in our Europe Travel section.
Dotted with alpine chalets, family-run inns, expansive hillside farms, and yes, a river runs through it, Cortina is flooded by the “Monte Carlo” crowd in winter, but it takes a relatively low profile in late summer, when the gelaterias, antique shops, enotecas, and hiking trails are wide open and Gucci faux fur coat-free.
While Cortina D’Ampezzo is very much North Italian in terms of cuisine, attire, language, Alta Badia is more in touch with its German roots. As part of South Tyrol, the region originally belonged to Austria prior to World War I, and still retains its autonomous distinction. (Up until the 1950s, the valley was only accessible by horse-drawn sleigh.)
Leiderhosen, schmarren (the world’s most delicious egg omelet dessert with lingonberry jam) and the local Ladin dialect collide with a dash of Italian to make something quite alluring indeed. The very small towns of San Cassiano, Corvara and La Villa string along a two-lane road looking out onto the fortress-shaped Sella Massif, popular among climbers and base jumpers.
The Dolomites were home to the 1956 Olympics and still host prestigious World Cup Ski Events, so there’s no shortage of winter options for the extreme adventurer. But more often, skiing/snowboarding in the Dolomites takes a highly social aspect. Friends hit the moderate trails, wide-open glades and weaving tree runs to go from one lift to the next, from valley to valley.
The Dolomite Superski Pass connects more than 700 miles of trails, 450 lifts and 12 ski areas, meaning visitors can have breakfast in Alta Badia, lunch in Val Gardena, and dinner/overnight stay at Rifugio Lavarella in Val de Fanes.
Check out the Winter Sports category for more information.
In the summer, options include hiking or cycling from one wide valley to the next, above gushing rivers, around peaks, stopping at malgas (family-run farms) for tea and gluvine (German hot mulled wine), listening to the distant jangle of cowbells or exploring old WWI tunnels is physically feasible for anyone in good health. It tends to range from cold to mildly warm in the Dolomites during summer (45-75 F) so bringing along two to three layers and a raincoat is a good idea.
You will often find yourself walking on scree (loose broken rocks, see tips below*), so be sure to wear shoes with good ankle support.
Find more adventures in our Hiking & Biking section.
One of the most unique aspects of the region is the aforementioned network of climbing routes, the Via Ferrata. Built by Italian and Austrian troops during the first World War, iron ladders and cables now sit in place of the original the ropes and wooden structures. (The routes are maintained by the Club Alpino Italian.) It’s best to hire a mountain guide* who can provide proper helmets and harnesses, clip yourself into the cables, and climb on. The ferratas range from beginner (Averau) to highly technical and exposed (Piz de Lac). www.ViaFerrata.org
The countless rifugios (family-run mountain inns) that dot the backcountry of the Dolomites are truly what set this region apart. Stumble up to one of these little gems after a long day’s hike, sit down to a wine-fueled, home made dinner, sing along with strangers at the bar, and rest a weary head in one of the sparse but clean rooms. If you’re lucky, you may end up swinging arm in arm at sunset, accordion music bouncing off Tibetan prayer flags, as the newly welcomed member of a dirndl and lederhosen-covered Tyrolean wedding. (True story).
To find some rifugios, check out this page on Dolomiti.org.
Roughing it is perhaps the most fun you’ll have in the Dolomites, but at some point, your weary paws will be calling out to the upscale, family-run hotels.
Cortina’s Hotel Park Faloria is just outside of town, near the Olympic ski jump, and offers up some amazing sunrise views of the Dolomites, not to mention cozy alpine chalet suites. www.parkhotelfaloria.com
Learn more about where to stay all over the world in our Hotels & Accommodations section.
Corvara’s Hotel Postra Zirma is a good upscale option for larger groups, and the downstairs disco is where knowledgeable locals, professional skiers, famous alpinist and well-heeled travelers bond over a heated game of pool. www.postazirm.com
San Cassiano’s Hotel Rosa Alpina is home to North Italy’s only two-star Michelin restaurant, St. Hubertus (run by famed chef Norbert Niederkofler). Save this indulgence for the end of your trip, because after a few custom spa treatments, a private mountainside barbecue, and a convivial fireside piano bar session with the Pizzinni family, well, nothing else seems quite up to par. www.rosalpina.it
CULINARY INDULGENCES TO GO
Don’t leave without ordering up some Lagrein (lah-GRINE) with dinner and then taking a bottle or two home. This little-known red has been produced for more 300 years in Trentino /Alto Adige and resembles a delicate pinot noir with a touch of spice. Delicious.
Grappa, a ubiquitous little brandy wine that has made its way into everything from marmalades to your farmer’s secret stash of rainy day cure-alls, is one spicy dame. Astringent at times. Impossible to resist if you want a good kick in the pants and a good way to earn some local respect (as I did mid-day at Ranch Hutte rifugio. Yeee ow!) Don’t be surprised if you see homemade versions aged with pinecones or ginger roots. And don’t forget to stock up on local Italian olive oils, lingonberry jams and bruschetta.
- In April to mid-June and October to November, the region closes down.
- Dolomite Mountains, whose owners Agustina Lagos Marmol and Marcello Cominetti have been operating for over a decade in the area , offer summer hiking expeditions, ferrata excursions and winter backcountry overnight cat skiing itineraries.
- Rifugios are either owned privately or publicly and start at Eu45 in dormitory style, which includes breakfast and dinner. Private accommodations with shared bathroom starts from Eu55. Most are open mid-June to late September, though a few operate in winter.
- Tips for Walking on Scree (with adventure guide Kathy Dragon of Dragon’s Path Adventures www.thedragonspath.com)
- For more tips, tricks and advice on outdoor adventures in the Dolomites, check out dolomitesport.com.
1) Uphill: Use a climber’s rest step to “rest” on each step when you leg is straight. Take one step up, fully extend your leg, and count to two. Your lower leg pauses before you move it through. This allows you to rest on your skeletal structure versus your muscles so you aren’t taxing your muscles as much. Going slowly and resting each step is actually faster than small busts of energy and then having to “stop” to rest.
2) Downhill: Keep your feet wide apart (really wide…yes, it looks a bit silly, and lower your center of gravity (bending at the ankle and knees, not your hips—don’t lean forward). Your weight will be evenly distributed over your feet. If you start to slide a bit, allow your body and feet to move with the slide versus breaking against it.
Text and photos by Jordan Whitley for PeterGreenberg.com. Jordan is a seasoned adventure traveler and sports host based in Los Angeles. Visit her on the Web at Jordanwhitley.net.
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