Rupert Parker wonders whether he’ll able to survive an eight day hike, in the Italian Dolomite Mountains, carrying everything on his back.
I’ve been on a few of those wimpy hiking trips where they transport your luggage between hotels but I wanted to try the real thing – carry everything on your back, walking at high level and staying in mountain huts. The Italian Dolomites seems suitably rugged and I wonder whether I’ll be up for the job, after all I’m the wrong side of 60. It’s self-guided, you get the maps, guidebook, accommodation but it’s all down to me, at the end of the day.
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 spend the day sightseeing, walking in my lightweight sandals as I don’t want to wear my heavy boots. This is my first mistake as I end up with blisters on most of my toes, so I’m injured before I start. Nothing for it but to get out the needle and do some emergency surgery. Fortunately when I put my boots on, my feet feel fine. 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 mapcase 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 left 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 6.30am 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. Walk down 800m to the valley then walk back up on the other side in a long slog, arrive at the refuge, 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, fall sound asleep until woken again at 6.30.
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.
When you go hiking in this way, there is of course a particular form of companionship, a sort of Dolomite Dunkirk spirit. I walk alone but for the first three days I meet up with a Canadian couple who are doing the same Alta Via. We eat together and form our own English speaking conclave as the rest are Italian or German. For the other days I eat with the Italians and Germans discussing whether the UK is going to leave the EU and the dubious quality of English food.
Would I do it again? Yes definitely, although I begin to yearn for a hot bath and my own room with a large bed. The great virtue of Italian refuges is that there’s always some sort of pasta, as well as grilled meat, and the food is surprisingly tasty. At the end I arrive in Belluno and visit the tourist office where they give me my star prize – a badge engraved with Alta Via 1, proof I’ve walked around 120 km and done 5000m of ascent and descent.