Hiking the Alta Via 4 in Dolomites 2016, Italy

Alta Via 4 is one of the high-altitude trekking routes found in the Dolomites mountain range in Italy. This route is not only breathtaking and very difficult but also very hard, exposed and includes a fair deal of via ferrata rock climbing. The reason we chose to hike this route was its difficulty, due to which we hoped the route to have less people. And we were right.

Even though this route can be hiked in a rather lightweight style (all accommodation and resupplying in huts), we added additional difficulty by hiking with large and heavy backpacks due to carrying all our hiking equipment (we did some rock climbing prior to the hike and afterwards). It wasn’t so much of a problem regarding all the ascents but rather in keeping balance while climbing the via ferratas and traversing super exposed sections of the hike.

Day 1

We met up early in the morning at the tourist information center in San Candido, Innichen (1174m) – a total of 6 hikers, 2 of them inexperienced. Instead of taking the tourist bus up to the official start of the route, we decided to walk there. The plan for the 1st day was to hike all the way to rifugio Auronzo via rifugio Locatelli (lunch) – about 19km hike with around 1300m ascent. We started off in a good mood and good pace, the weather was really great – not too hot. After we reached the actual starting point, the trail started to go up really fast. Our inexperienced hiking friends very lucky – they carried much less weight than we did (maybe 40L backpacks?) – so they were leading the pack, going at a decent pace.

After about a 2,5h hike we reached the Dreischusterhütte, where we patched up our blisters and where Kristians switched his hiking boots to trail runners. We ate some nuts and had a nice rest – the view of the surrounding mountains and the big pasture was just insane. We had no idea what would lie ahead, but we got going.

The easy traverse of the rather flat pasture quickly turned to a narrow path leading uphill for hours and hours. Our inexperienced hikers had started off too fast and confident and were now suffering the consequences – sore calves. They were not used to this sort of exhaustion and did perhaps not feel like the view was worth the pain.

The views were amazing and getting ever better with every step we took. However, it felt like the ascent would never end. The route was well marked and whenever we met hikers going in the opposite direction, we’d ask how much hiking we have left until we reach the “top”. Some said 15 minutes, others said an hour – that was really frustrating. By the time we finally reached the “plateau” on which the rifugio Locatelli sits, our tempo had really gone down. Once we sat down (among the hundred or so day-tourists who took the bus up to Auronzo and then hiked the 2km to Locatelli), our two friends announced that they will not be continuing the hike with us (that day we only had around 2.5km to go) – that this is not something they enjoy and they could not do this another day. They decided to get a bed at rifugio Locatelli and then take the bus down to the valley the next day.

This was very sad because we all knew that the first day would be the hardest (regarding the ascent). But looking back, I think it was for the best – it only got harder and scarier.

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In front of rifugio Locatelli, view to Tre Cime. Photo credit: Andris Nikolajevs

After a quick lunch, we hiked the easy 2.5km to Auronzo (2320m), took some photos, had dinner and enjoyed the insane sunset. The rifugio itself has a dining hall on the main floor and hostel-like bedrooms on the second floor.

Day 2

Day 2 started pretty much right away with a sentiniero (the easier version of a via ferrata), so we had the harnesses and via ferrata sets on from the beginning. It was pretty scary looking down into the abyss at places while knowing that it’s just your harness and a thin steel wire guarding your safety if you should fall off the exposed cliff edge. There were places where the steel wire felt unnecessary where as in other places it felt like it should’ve been there. After about a 2h relatively easy hike we reached the rifugio Fonda Savio (2367m), where we had lunch.

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The first via ferrata. On the way to rifugio Fonda Savio.

From Fonda Savio, the route would take us up and down and up and down mountain passes with very loose rocks and steep falls. There were places with fixed wires but mostly it was just a single-track hike. We chose to take the sentiniero Bonacossa route and not go through rifugio Citta di Carpi.

By the end of the day we had split into two groups – the guys ahead and us, girls, in the back (with about a 40min difference between us). Once we finally reached the rifugio Col de Varda (2174m), we were exhausted. We took showers and had a filling dinner with the view of Mt Cristallo.

Kristians had met an Israeli hiker outside the rifugio who had been, due to blisters, hiking this same route in crocs. Wow. Turned out they were actually two hikers, but we’ll get back to that later on.

Day 3

Day three was relatively hot and the hiking was to be straightforward – around 700m descent down to Misurina and then around 700m ascent up to rifugio Vandelli. The hike down was easy enough and thanks to the forests it wasn’t too hot either. At Misurina we took a quick break to eat and met the two Israeli hikers. We joked around a bit and came to discuss our destination and the hike tomorrow. It turned out we’d all be staying at Vandelli and climbing the via ferrata Alfonso Vandelli the next day. So we took off after lunch, only to have the guys pass us at 3/4 of the way up to the rifugio.

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The lake at rifugio Vandelli.

At the rifugio, as you can only get into the bedrooms from around 18:00 in the evening, we (the girls) took a shower whereas the guys decided to go and have a swim at the light blue glacier lake. The view here was seriously breathtaking. After the swim the guys decided to go back to the lake and ended up being away for a couple of hours, taking some wrong turns and ending up hiking all the way up to the glacier and back around.

Once they finally came back, we all had dinner, joined by the two hikers from before. We decided to start the Vandelli ferrata together, knowing it was not going to be easy. As one of the Israeli hikers was actually terrified of heights, he decided to go down instead.

Day 4

This was to be the hardest day of all: 1000m ascent, 1100m descent and about 9 hours of hiking. If the numbers weren’t enough – the difficulty, sheer drops and exposure definitely made this via ferrata very scary and exhausting. In places there was no fixed wires and we’d have to perform some sort of balancing-climbing acts or simply crawl where the overhang was very low over our heads. Having huge backpacks did not make things easier. There were traverses over loose rocks, seemingly ready to drop you into the valley at any moment, should you slip. I found myself very concentrated – enough not to give into the fear. The other girl from our team, however, who also happened to be afraid of heights, fought tears while doing these traverses.

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Via ferrata Vandelli. Photo credit: Andris Nikolajevs.

By lunch we finally made it to the Comici bivouac, where we got a bit of rest and some new energy. It sort of felt as if now the hardest part was done and we’d soon be at our destination – rifugio San Marco (1823m) – but that was far from the truth. After the bivouac, the route was no longer a via ferrata but was a rollercoaster of up and downclimbs. We ended up splitting into two groups – me with our Israeli friend Dror and Kristians with our two other friends. At some point Dror and I must have taken a wrong turn and found ourselves off the path, looking into the eyes of a mountain goat. It was luckily a very calm animal and ended up letting us pass – after which we literally climbed down a rock face to not have to go all the way back to where we had taken a wrong turn.

Now, it started raining. And if that wasn’t enough, Dror and I had reached the first section where the route would turn off to the left, descending to the rifugio – but we had no idea where the others were. So we whistled, called out and waited until finally, after about 30 minutes, the other hikers found us. The rain stopped and we continued our hike, going down and over a plateau with insane views. However – we were all running out of water.

The whole time after the bivouac it felt as if the rifugio was just around the corner, but it was still very far off. We crossed the Svito valley with all these amazing towering rocks around us, only to find out that we needed to still traverse around 600m down on a zig-zagging loose rock path. This took forever – especially considering the water situation. So when I started hearing flowing water once nearly down this zigzag path, I couldn’t have been happier – there was a fresh stream coming right off the cliffside, ready to be drank from. From here we could also see the rifugio – we were finally there. This was the toughest hike I had every done before.

Once at the rifugio, we discussed tomorrow’s plans and me and the other girl decided not to do another gruelling via ferrata day the next day (we heard from some other hikers, who had come from that side, that the route was extremely dangerous with falling ice and that the forecast promised thunder for the afternoon – the hike would again take the whole day). The guys were not super happy about it but they also understood.

Day 5

So the plan was to hike down to S. Vito di Cadore, take a bus a bit further up the road and then figure out a way how to get back up the mountain to hike to rifugio Antelao (1796m). We hiked down through lush forests that kept us cool and arrived in Cadore in time to have an early lunch. We had to wait for the bus a bit but it took us all the way to Valle di Cadore. We then checked into the tourist information center and managed to order a car to take all of us with our huge backpacks up to rifugio Costapiana(1610m). This meant we still had to hike for some hours (and ascend around 300m, descend around 200m) to get to the rifugio. This trail went by a church on a mountaintop,  San Dionisia – what a location. From the church it was an easy downhill hike through the greenery all the way to the rifugio, where we could see the stormclouds gathering up around Mt Antelao. Soon enough it started to rain and and we could see the lightning flashing while we ate an amazing dinner inside the comfortable hut. We were glad we had not taken the hard route today.

Day 6

This morning started with an amazing view – all the clouds were standing still in the valley – we were above the clouds, having breakfast. After yesterdays thunderstorm and rain, the air was cool and moist and it was a pleasure hiking down the forest road into Calalze di Cadore, where we’d take the train to Venice. The whole hike was of course downhill, so not that easy for the calves but easy for the mind. This feat of endurance was finally at its end.