The immense cathedral-like spires of the Northern Dolomites are the perfect venue for tackling one of Europe’s classic long distance treks. Forget about luxury hotels, the only accommodation is in mountain huts, known as Rifugios and I’ll have to carry everything on my back. Walking the Alta Via 1 in the Dolomites runs for around 140 km and my eight day walk will involve daily distances of between 9 and 16.5 km, with ascents of up to 900 m and descents of up to 1,300 m. Will I be tough enough?
In the weeks beforehand I get my kit together and meticulously weigh every item I’m going to be carrying. I read advice about cutting off the handle of my toothbrush and tags on my clothes but decide this is absolutely ridiculous. After all the whole point of doing this trek is to get fit and lose weight but I do finally get the total down to around 6kg, although with 2 litres of water increases it to 8kg. My pack feels heavy.
I fly to Venice and it’s then a bus journey to Cortina and then two further buses to the start of Alta Via 1. Lago di Bràies is a beautiful lake full of day trippers, all taking it easy. I’m steeling myself for 800m of ascent under the heat of the midday sun. My rucksack feels uncomfortable even though I’ve meticulously adjusted it by watching YouTube videos. Round my neck I’ve got a map case and compass, feeling very professional, but an Italian hiker stops me and tells me I won’t be needing it. I soon find out he’s right, every path is immaculately signed, all are numbered – it’s just a matter of…hiking by numbers.
I’d also worried about sleeping in dormitories, crammed together with exhausted walkers snoring for Eurovision. So I’d purchased special earplugs on Amazon and read the advice to arrive early at the mountain hut so I could choose the best bunk. I’d even panicked a few days before I let and asked the tour company whether I could upgrade to a single room but was told it wasn’t possible.
So, tired after my hard first day, I check into Rifugio Sénnes reasonably early and they allocate me a space under the eaves in one of two beds laid end to end. I think I’ve done well until I realise that I’m stuck in a corridor with direct access to the toilets and kids are using it as a racetrack. This is not a good start but later I learn to be more assertive and even manage to avoid those basic dormitories of mountain refuges – mattresses crammed side by side so you can embrace your fellow traveller without even moving.
My life now settles into a pattern – woken at 6.30 am by stirrings in the dorm, a good breakfast of bread, salami, cheese and strong coffee before donning my boots and getting out of the door before 8 am. Walk down 800m to the valley then walk back up on the other side in a long slog, arrive at the Rifugio, have a large beer, shower, take a nap and sit down to a hearty dinner of pasta, meat and dessert with half a litre of red wine. In bed by 9.30 pm, fall sound asleep until woken again at 6.30 am.
The worst day starts well with fitful sun, then develops into a day-long drizzle. It’s OK, I have the clothes, there’s little wind and it’s warm. It’s a shame I miss some of the best views because of low mist, but I only begin to panic when the rain’s finally set in. I’m climbing in the clouds, visibility zero, and I know Rifugio Nuvolàu is ahead of me as I’ve seen it earlier perched on the edge of a cliff but I begin to have doubts. There’s thunder around, rumbling just above me, and I’ve stopped enjoying it, I just want to go home. Fortunately within a few minutes I’m at the refuge and enjoying my regulation large beer and have changed into dry clothes.
At the end of my trek I arrive in Belluno and am given a badge engraved with Alta Via 1 to prove that I’m man enough. The Dolomites provide stunning walking, particularly when the cloud lifts to reveal immense craggy peaks, or piercingly blue mountain lakes. Surprisingly, you don’t need alpine skills as there’s little scrambling and most paths are broad and well-trodden. Food in the Rifugios, as you’d expect in Italy, is typically tasty, and usually includes pasta and some sort of grilled meat, with jugs of local wine to wash it down. This Dolomite diet, unfortunately, meant that I ended up heavier so the Alta Via is not a recipe for shedding those pounds.