So up until today, everything had been great. It hadn’t been the easiest of treks, but I came to the Dolomites expecting to be challenged, having never done a proper hut-to-hut trekking trip before and I was loving it. If this is the first post of mine you’re reading on the Dolomites, you might want to read my previous posts first in chronological order on Brixen, Alta Via 2 Stage 1 and Stage 2. Go on, I’ll wait here for you.
Alright, so Alta Via 2 Stage 3 involved trekking from Rifugio Genova-Schlüterhütte to Rifugio Puez. We woke up in the morning, and drew the curtains to find everything covered in white. The temperature on our phones said -2ºC, so it was going to be a cold-ish trek but it shouldn’t have been too bad (or so we thought). After a 7am buffet breakfast of bread, honey, jam, fruit and tea, we packed up our bags and headed out.
Judging from the lack of footprints in the fresh snow, we seemed to be the first ones to head out from the rifugio that morning. As we thought, the weather wasn’t all too bad, and we actually stopped to remove our inner fleece layers once we started heading uphill. We took our time, trying to be careful in the slippery snow… which meant we were soon overtaken by a trio of trail runners. This was actually a big blessing in disguise, because we soon found ourselves relying solely on their footprints as a number of the intermediate trail markers were hidden from all the snowfall.
When we initially set out, there was maybe 2 inches of snow or so on the ground, but it got progressively deeper the further we headed into the mountains. We spied a cute little cat along the way, who was super friendly, wanting attention from us, and who followed us for about 500 metres or so.
We were maybe about 1.5 hours in at this point, and I was really enjoying the experience. The air was crisp, the land seemingly unexplored (apart from the 3 pairs of footprints before us) and the views of the valley and mountains beyond were just awe-inspiring. This was everything I hoped the Dolomites would be and more!
And then things started turning for the worse. It started with a sudden deepening of the snow. 3 inches of ground snow suddenly became knee deep, and then waist deep. We of course didn’t have proper snow apparel or equipment, so I soon found snow in my shoes, gloves and under my coat. Melting snow in your shoes is deeply unpleasant, but I didn’t have much of a chance to think about it as I was struggling to move forward and make progress in the, at times, waist high snow.
I was still in good spirits at this time (what else can one do?) and kept telling myself we’d soon be back on a flat, easy path… but then we hit the bottom of the Forcella della Roa pass (or Roa-Scharte in German). To get through the mountain range, one has to make the brutally steep climb to reach the wind gap between the mountain peaks and cross over to the other side of mountain. The snow was really pelting it down at this point, and it was really much more like mini icicles hitting our faces due to the vicious wind blowing up a storm around us (I suppose that’s why it’s called a wind gap!).
By this time, another couple had caught up to us and we all decided to stick together and try to find our way up. The trail markers were pretty much non-existent, as were the trail runners’ footprints, so we were flying blind. We soon realised from trial and error that we had to do a series of switchbacks since the steepness of the mountain ruled out the option of making a straight beeline for the pass.
There was a particularly hairy moment for me when I was taking the lead and tried to find a path for us, but ended up on some loose scree. I found myself clinging on for dear life to the largest stones I could find, trying not to get blown downhill by the wind, whilst trying to kick against the ground to find something to push off of. All I connected with was loose stone which just rolled down the mountain every time I tried to move forward. I was practically crawling at this point, as there was a very high chance of me losing my balance and just rolling to the bottom of the mountain if I tried to stand up. I did the only thing I could do and strengthened my finger grip on whatever I could hold, tightened my core and half-crawled / half-belly slid to the side of the mountain, whilst warning everyone else behind me NOT to follow. It was hands down, one of the scariest moments of my life.
The other couple took over at this point, setting the route for us. I was starting to feel really cold now, the strong winds refreezing the snow melt in my thin summer gloves and shoes. We slowly made our way up, trying to take temporary respite behind large boulders along the path. We finally reached the top and rejoiced inwardly, only to discover that the easier route we needed to take was blocked due to heavy snow fall. 😱
The wind was raging here and I was starting to shiver… a really bad sign. I really didn’t want to stop, unload my backpack, take off my outer layer, and put on the fleece because I didn’t want to think about taking off my jacket at this point (I was just so tired and cold!). I’m glad I did though, because things just got worse from here.
Luckily for the 4 of us, another couple had caught up to us and they were clearly a pair of much more experienced trekkers. They said they would set the path for us since the trail we had planned to take was now a no-go, and we followed since well…we had no choice.
So onward we went, with no real idea of where we were going, and in constant fear of stepping into a crevice or off the side of the mountain. Just when we thought, “OK, we can do this!”, we reached a cabled section of the path. Ideally, we would have had via ferrata gear with us, but we didn’t of course, as it was meant to be the “easy” path. Well, we had no choice and just had to go for it and hope for the best.
This actually turned out to be a good section of the trail for me. The level of exertion needed to haul myself up the side of the mountain allowed me to warm up and distract my mind from thinking about the worst possible scenario. I’ve also done rock climbing and bouldering in the past, so I soon got into climbing mode and treated this as just another bouldering exercise. There were certain sections which were fairly exposed (a hand slip might very easily have meant a good fall down the mountain), so there were also mental blockers to get through, which thankfully I didn’t give myself the luxury of dwelling in. My sister and one of the others in the group had some problems around this though (fear of heights) and there were some impromptu pep talks and mind-over-matter discussions to be had…not that anyone had a choice.
After what seemed like endless cabling, we finally reached the top of the mountain only to find that our trail was missing. My sister and I had considered calling mountain rescue at this point as we were getting seriously worried about wandering around lost in the mountains at this cold a temperature where we could barely feel our extremities. When we looked at our phones however, you can guess what had happened – our batteries had died due to the cold temperatures. Again, no choice but to carry on. The experienced couple had long left us by this point (they were fast), so it was just the 4 of us following faint footsteps at this point, hoping for the best.
One of our travelling companions seemed to have good intuition and read of the mountain and suggested a path for us to go down which we all agreed seemed like the logical path. After about 30 minutes of hoping for the best, we finally came across a sign post and managed to reorientate ourselves (whilst breathing a huge sigh of relief). From this point on, there were no more cables, just A LOT of snow to trudge through. A section that should’ve taken us 30 minutes, took an hour instead because we were so slow and visibility was so poor. Every time I stopped for longer than 2 minutes, I started shivering. I had lost feeling in my fingers and toes for some time now and had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would probably get some degree of frostbite. I’m writing this about 4 weeks after the incident and I still don’t have feeling in some of my finger tips.
There were points when we lost the trail markers completely and just had to follow the footsteps in good faith. I have no idea how the two trekkers before us knew where to go, but thank heavens for them. Finally, finally, FINALLY, after 2 additional hours of trekking, we saw the flags in the distance indicating that our remote hut accommodation for the night was nearby. I can tell you that I’ve never been that happy to see some frigging flags! I’ve done some silly things in the past, but this is definitely the closest shave I’ve had.
There were 14 trekkers in the hut that evening, and we were all placed in the same dorm room. There were 5 bunk beds with 3 levels each and we were all given heavy bedding to get ourselves warm that night while the winds raged around us. By the way, heads up for those planning to take this route – this rifugio (Rifugio Puez) is really remote (supplies and personnel have to be flown in by helicopter) so there isn’t a huge amount of choice in terms of meals or sleeping arrangement. Hot water only runs once they start preparing dinner and it costs €3 for 5 minutes. All this might sound a little off-putting but it actually created a rather homey atmosphere, with mostly everyone mingling and eating dinner together.
A number of the trekkers had spent their entire day in the hut, as the bad weather made it too dangerous for them to venture out. I guess if we had known how bad the conditions would be once we were in the mountains, we might’ve reconsidered setting out too. The locals agreed though, that this was really unseasonable weather and we were all just plain unlucky. Ah well, we survived and lived to tell the cautionary tale. 🙂
The next question then was what to do the next day. We unfortunately couldn’t get any signal on our phones in the hut, and so, couldn’t really do any research into what our options were. We knew that Stage 4 would take us through Passo Gardena, and there was an option there to exit the valley and take the bus out of the mountains…if we wanted to take it. From the conversations happening all around us, it seemed that everyone was asking themselves the same question and the consensus seemed to be to get the hell off the mountain as quickly as possible. I guess with the uncertain weather conditions and what we had just been through, why push our luck. Stage 4 also seemed to include more cable sections (with even more exposure), and we definitely weren’t kitted out for that. So ultimately I guess, there was only one realistic option – to make our way out of the mountains ASAP…which (spoiler for the next post), we did.