An alternative Alta Via in the Dolomites

Jacquie asked me some time ago to lead a trip through the Dolomites for her and friends. My first plan was to more or less follow the Alta via 1, starting from Lago di Braies (Pragser Wildsee). For logistical, time-constraints, and aesthetic reasons, I decided to alter the route. And, that’s how we ended up on what I’ll call the “Alternative Alta Via”.

The route winds its way around the major peaks surrounding Cortina d’Ampezzo. Starting with a trek into the heart of the Sorapìss cirque (Circo di Sorapìss). Then a visit to Lagazuoi, trekking below the amazing Tofane di Rozes, before heading into the next valley to Croda da Lago. From here we head out past Pelmo towards Civetta, before turning back towards Pelmo, on our way back towards Antelao. Finishing in Pieve di Cadore. By which time you’ll have walked the best part of a 100 km, and seen some of the most majestic peaks of the Dolomites, and spent eight evenings in some of the most delightful mountain huts (rifugios).

Jacquie, Mike, and I met up in Cortina on a warm Wednesday afternoon in early July. All my belongings for ten days of trekking were packed into a single 40 litre backpack. With some space to spare. They had some gear which they needed to store somewhere. Travelling clothes, and cycling clothes, and a few other things.

The storage issue, and more importantly the retrieval at the end, was part of what prompted me to plot this new route. Call it my alternative Alta via for the Dolomites. ‘Alta via’, if you don’t already know, literally means high route – i.e., trekking at altitude. Most of our overnight stays will be at or near the 2000m a.s.l. mark. And part of the route reaches heights of 2500m and above. Hence, high route, or Alta via. There’s a host of ‘Alta vias’ in the Dolomites. The most commonly walked one being the Alta Via I.

Tour overview

Day 1: Passo Tre Croci to Rifugio Vandelli (1942 m)

Today is a nice, easy walk. A couple of hours of gentle ascent along a fairly broad path. With a few exposed sections thrown in to test your nerves. If you have any. Height and exposure related, that is. The trek is just a nice distance to acclimatise and to adjust to the environment. And to warm up for the days to follow.

Along the way, we’ll get glimpses of the Sorapìss waterfall and the massive walls that protect the cirque we’re heading into (Circo del Sorapìss). With one of the most astounding views waiting for you at the end! A lake with a milky-turquoise-green colour that will take your breath away. And a rifugio where a hearty welcome awaits you from the always friendly Pais family, hut guardians and friends of many years, at the beautiful Rifugio Vandelli. Situated close to the surreal Lago Sorapìss, with its surreal colour, above which Dito di Dio (the finger of God) keeps watch.

Distance: 5.2 km | Time: 2 hr | Ascent: 312 m | Descent: 160 m | Highest point: 1942 m

Day 2: Rifugio Vandelli to Rifugio Faloria (2120 m), via Rifugio Tondi (2327 m)

Today is a slightly more difficult and longer route, retracing our path from the day before for a short while before heading uphill across the prominent shoulder visible from the rifugio. It’s a good hour-and-a-half to two hours of steady climbing from the rifugio to reach the point where the path appears around the prominent shoulder of Cima del Laudo at a height of about 2225 m. And by the time you reach the shoulder, you’re ready for a water break. While hugging the rock face, (some may even be clinging to the cable), we descend a few hundred metres before reaching a scree-covered contour path. We follow this for a few kilometres, before emerging onto a grassy slope, where we head up to Forcella Marcoira. From here we follow a contour path before crossing the ridge at about 2360 m. We’ve done most of our climbing for the day.

The path ahead, rising and falling by only a few metres, rather than the hundreds we went up and down until now. The chairlift (not active in summer) above Rifugio Tondi is visible from here. Another half an hour of walking brings us to the foot of a short ridge, and our final bit of uphill for the day.

Above on the left is Punta Nera. A devilish crossing on steep scree slope, and equally steep descent into the valley above Lago Sorapìss. First on a steeply angled slab covered in lots of fine loose grit. Followed by a steep scree slope all the way to the green basin below. An adrenalin filled trip if you fancy something a bit more exciting! But not today. We’re simply heading to Rifugio Tondi for refreshments. A good place to spend an hour or so while the tourists who come up by cable car to Rifugio Faloria disperse. The last bit of the walk to Rifugio Faloria is along a steep downhill path, covered in loose stone. A good place to slip and bang yourself up. So, we take our time and make sure we get to the bottom without incident…

Distance: 7.4 km | Time: 3 hr | Ascent: 633 m | Descent: 458 m | Highest point: 2375 m

Day 3: Rifugio Faloria to Cortina d’Ampezzo

We’ll spend the night in Cortina. A final opportunity to adjust bags, throw things out, and perhaps replace odd bits and pieces. (You’d be surprised how often this is a much-needed stopover!)

The walk down Rifugio Faloria to Cortina takes the best part of two hours down a sheepish path which sees you dropping from 2120 m to 1224 m. An alternative would be to catch a ride down with the cable car. And, if you don’t want to spend the day in Cortina, get on to a bus and head up to Passo Falzarego for the next walking stage.

Distance: 4.0 km | Time: 1 hr 35 min | Ascent: 15 m | Descent: 941 m | Highest point: 2128 m

Day 4: Cortina d’Ampezzo to Rifugio Dibona (2083 m) via Passo Falzarego and Rifugio Lagazuoi (2752 m)

The walk from Cortina to Rifugio Dibona is not the most exciting in the world, so I opted to take a bus to Passo Falzarego and continue from here. My recommendation would be to ascend via the war tunnels to Rifugio Lagazuoi. Jacquie and Mike had however made it clear that they don’t want any climbing, or via ferratas… so we rode the cable car to the top. We could also have walked up, but that would have added an extra couple of hours of walking, and we had to get across to Rifugio Dibona, which is a fair way from Rifugio Lagazuoi.

The other reason we rode the cable car was that I wanted to walk across to Lagazuoi peak so that Mike and Jacquie could see the fantastic 360° panoramas across the Dolomites! From here you can see everything from nearby Fanes, to the distant Marmolada, Sass Rigai, and a whole lot in-between.

We stop off at the rifugio for a cup of warm coffee and fresh strudel. It’s full to overflowing. It almost always is. Being a major stop on the Alta Via I, as well as its accessibility from Cortina, plus a cable car from the valley to its doorstep, and the superb views from its terrace, make it one of the most popular huts in the Dolomites. So, we keep our cold-weather clothes on and take a seat outside. Where the views are much better…

Then we set off for Rifugio Dibona. We take the path that leads to Forcella Travenanzes. Jacquie and Mike soon found out why you need your gloves with you. Even in the middle of summer. I lent them mine, so they could use their walking poles. My hands went into my pockets. Once we got out of the wind, it was a lot more pleasant. Dark clouds across the Tofanes, Croda da Lago and other peaks made for a very atmospheric walk. From Forcella Travenanzes, we take the path to Forcella Col dei Bos. We arrive at the very pleasant and welcoming Rifugio Dibona late afternoon, and are soon shown to our room in the large bunkhouse. When we’re finished marking our territory, we head to the big warm lounge for some hot and cold refreshments.

(Note! Time/distance includes walk up from Passo Falzarego.)

Distance: 9.0 km | Time: 4hr 5 min | Ascent: 1005 m | Descent: 1078 m | Highest point: 2761 m

Day 5: Rifugio Dibona to Rifugio Croda da Lago (2046 m) via Rifugio Scoiattoli (2255 m)

We set off shortly before 9am, heading downhill to the bus station. Missed the bus by a few minutes and ended up walking uphill to the Cinque Torri chairlift, adding at least 50 minutes to our day’s walking. At the top of the chairlift, we headed down to the open air war museum display. Trenches, radio rooms, ammunition storage rooms, etc., have been recreated to give visitors an idea of how soldiers stationed here during the ‘Great War’ defended these positions. Fascinating for some. Nostalgic for others, maybe, whose forebears manned these positions. To me, a reminder of man’s continuous stupidity!

We made our way around the Cinque Torri to Rifugio Cinque Torri, where we stopped off for drinks and cake. The cold Radlers and strudel were particularly good. When the lunchtime trade started arriving, we gave up our table and started our trek to the Rifugio Croda da Lago. First dropping hundreds of metres to the valley below, crossing the river a few times, and then setting off on a long uphill slog to the ridge above Rifugio Croda da Lago. And this one is a real slog. I know people who hate it…

The downhill trudge is relatively uninteresting, but once you cross the tar road, the terrain becomes far more interesting. The river crossings are quite spectacular, and there are a few places where I’ve showered under waterfalls in the past. Even the uphill slog provides interesting views: to your right you have the Cinque Torri, Nuvolau, and other peaks. Behind you the Tofanes stand proud above the surrounding landscape. And, when you’re nearly at the top, there’s a great lookout point with views across towards Sorapìss, Antelao, and other peaks.

A short while after you’ve reached the top, you’ll see the lake appearing ahead on your right. The rifugio is at the bottom of the lake on the left. Straight ahead is the iconic Becco di Mezzodì, which Barbara and I climbed with Alessandro Fiori (top local guide) a few years ago. Walk around the lake anti-clockwise towards the hut, and you’ll discover a delightful little spot where you can strip off and cool off after the slog. Continue to the hut where Modesto and Monica and their family wait to welcome you.

Distance: 12.3 km | Time: 4 h 50 m | Ascent: 937 m | Descent: 928 m | Highest point: 2259 m

Day 6: Rifugio Croda da Lago to Rifugio Coldai (2135 m) via Passo Staulanza (1766 m)

Today is our longest walk. Despite the distance it’s a pleasant walk with magnificent views! Especially Monte Pelmo and Civetta. We head off for Forcella Ambrizzola beneath Becco di Mezzodì – our highest point for today. From here it’s downhill all the way to Passo Staulanza. We stop at Rifugio Città di Fiume for drinks and a rest. Then we make our way across to the scree below the imposing Monte Pelmo. Another hour’s walking, and we arrive at Rifugio Passo Staulanza. We’ve done nearly two-thirds of today’s trek, and we’re ready for drinks. We stop for a long and leisurely break.

I make the mistake of not refilling my water bottle, thinking I’ll get some from the fountain, at the foot of the final uphill for the day. But today, the fountain is dry. Then we start our uphill slog. It’s a tough one. Especially the last hundred or so vertical metres. Steep. And, coming at the end of a long day. But once we top out above the zigzags we only have a few hundred metres to go.

Distance: 16.6 km | Time: 5 h 50 m | Ascent: 937 m | Descent: 854 m | Highest point: 2316 m

Early morning view from Rifugio Coldai across the valley below
Early morning view from Rifugio Coldai across the valley below

Day 7: Rifugio Coldai to Rifugio Venezia (1947 m)

Today’s walk takes us back across the valley to the opposite side of Pelmo we were on yesterday. In truth, we never did this walk, as Mike had taken ill, and I thought it’s best to head to the valley and find a village with a decent pharmacy. So, instead of spending the night in Rifugio Venezia (who were super understanding and offering help), we spent the night in Forno di Zoldo. This meant walking to the top of the knoll (Col Marin) and taking the chairlift down to Palafavera, then catching a bus (there’s only about two a day) to Forno di Zoldo.

I will nevertheless describe the trail as it is (from past treks). The steep downhill path – you drop about 600 metres in less than six kilometres – can be avoided if you take the chairlift down to Palafavera. From the junction on the main ‘Strada Provinciala’ we climb steadily for the first two kilometres, gaining about 350 vertical metres. Then the path levels out. Look out for the signboard (“Orme di Dinosauri”) pointing to the dinosaur footprints. These are the traces of at least three dinosaurs that are approx. 220 million years old.

Another 100 vertical metres are gained. And lost. And gained again before we reach this magnificently positioned hut below the impressive Monte Pelmo. Monte Pelmo is claimed to be the first of the high peaks of the Dolomites to be climbed. John Ball, a later president of the Alpine Club, together with a local chamois hunter scaled the peak in 1857. And heralded in a new age of Alpinism in the Dolomites. Climbing Monte Pelmo is a full day’s undertaking following the ‘Normal’ route. Classed as grade II (UIAA) climb, it has a very exposed cat-crawl ledge with stupendous exposure below, which many people will only attempt if attached to a harness and via ferrata kit. Expect to take the best part of eight hours to the top and back to the hut, if you decide to spend an extra day to climb this imposing peak!

Distance: 11.4 km | Time: 4 h 5 m | Ascent: 564 m | Descent: 748 m | Highest point: 2138 m

Pelmo from Rifugio Venezia (2008)
Pelmo from Rifugio Venezia (2008)

Day 8: Rifugio Venezia to Rifugio San Marco (1823 m)

I’ve only done this twice. Once in one direction, and another time in the other direction. It’s definitely not my favourite walk. Think of it as bridging between two magnificent huts on either side of the valley and get on with it. The reward when you reach Rifugio San Marco is worth it! The downhill trudge takes us all the way down to about 950 m asl into San Vito di Cadore. Fortunately, San Vito has a host of places where one can get a decent meal and some drinks, which certainly helps to break up today’s trek. From San Vito it’s a faily simple trek uphill to Rifugio San Marco. The very useful chairlift was damaged in a rockfall a few years ago and still waits to be fixed (the priority seems to have been to build avalanche defences to avoid the disaster of the previous rockfall).

Mike, Jacquie, and I, as you may have guessed didn’t actually walk the whole distance. Mike had however recovered, thanks to the medicine, and we got a bus to San Vito (from Forno di Zoldo). Then, from San Vito we walked to the rifugio. One of my favourite places in the Dolomites! I wrote about Rifugio San Marco, and its beautiful people, here.

Distance: 13.8 km | Time: 5 h | Ascent: 935 m | Descent: 1055 m | Highest point: 1951 m

Sorapìss and Antelao - from Rifugio Venezia. Rifugio San Marco is at the foot of Antelao on left (2008)
Sorapìss and Antelao – from Rifugio Venezia. Rifugio San Marco is at the foot of Antelao on left (2008)

Day 9: Rifugio San Marco to Rifugio Antelao (1796 m)

This time it’s Jacquie who’s got the bug… she’s been down and out since yesterday afternoon. Since today’s trek has a massive vertical gain, I decided against continuing. It’s time to head to the valley again. So, the description for this part comes from previous trips.

The trek up to Rifugio Galassi is a gradual uphill haul on a well-defined path. Despite the relatively short distance (about 4 km), it takes the best part of two hours to get here. Due to a few ups and downs you’ll have done nearly 500 vertical metres by the time you reach Forcella Piccola (2132 m; the highest point on this section). From the forcella (pass) you drop about 100 m to Rifugio Galassi (2018 m). This is your last stop for refreshments until you get to Rifugio Antelao – still three-and-a-half hours away.

The next two kilometres will take you another hour of walking. And see you gain another 500 metres. It will also get you to the highest point of the day: a neck between Antelao and Cima Cadin (2561 m). This is a good place for a lunch stop, if you started at a civilized hour of the day from Rifugio San Marco. Take a long break and enjoy the views and the quiet.

From here you’re on the downhill (apart from a short uphill section). Another two-and-a-half hours of walking will get you to the delightful Rifugio Antelao.

Tip for this leg

It’s a good idea to take a sandwich and drink for today’s trek. You’ll get to the highest point, and about the halfway mark for today’s trek at about midday (if, like me, you don’t start at 04.30 in the morning). From this high point, there’s another two-and-a-half hours of walking. (PS! Most huts will do lunch packs. Mostly consisting of a ham/cheese sandwich plus snack and fruit drink, or similar)

Distance: 12.0 km | Time: 5 h 35 m | Ascent: 1278 m | Descent: 1300 m | Highest point: 2561 m

Day 10: Rifugio Antelao to Pieve Cadore (878 m)

Today is all downhill. Enjoy your last few moments among the magnificent mountains. If we don’t spend the night in Pieve di Cadore (accommodation here is generally cheaper than in Cortina d’Ampezzo), then we can get a bus to Calalzo for rail or bus connections to Venice/Mestre.

Distance: 8.2 km | Time: 2 h 45 m | Ascent: 120 m | Descent: 1022 m | Highest point: 1821 m

Map of the Alternative Dolomites Alta Via

By the time you reach Pieve di Cadore, you’ll have walked nearly 100 km. It includes at least two bus rides from Cortina d’Ampezzo to Passo Tre Croci (where we start our route), and another from Cortina to Pass Falzarego on day four. Or day three if you don’t stop over in Cortina. Instead of bussing to Passo Falzarego, you could walk from Cortina to Rifugio Dibona, but you’ll miss out on the magnificent views from Lagazuoi peak.

(Total) Distance: 116* km | Time: 46 h | Ascent: 7556 m | Descent: 8413 m | Highest point: 2761 m

* includes travel by bus. A few short sections can also be done by cable car or chairlift.

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