By Laura Kelly
That first bite of gnocchi at the Rifugio Madonna almost had me seeing God.
It was a relatively short, but strenuous ascent up 1,450 meters (4,757 ft) to our lodging for the night and we were starving.
I had chosen this trip for the relative comfort of the high mountain hostels – called Rifugio – for a real bed, warm food, and invigorating beer (and wine!).
But I wanted to earn the comforts of my stay, committing to a four-day trek in the Dolomites along the via ferratas, the World War I-era, Italian army supply chain repurposed for adventure loving travelers.
Seeing the Dolomites, the imposing, monstrous and jagged peaks of limestone, had already exceeded my expectations of the type of nature I wanted to immerse myself in.
But truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect at all.
Photos can’t do justice to the experience of sliding yourself across, down, or pulling up on a sheer rock face. Steel cables lay out what seems an impossible route, challenging the novice climber to swallow fear and doubt, and engage the whole body to conquer the route.
A few months earlier I had stumbled upon Discovery Dolomites while researching options for a multi-day hiking trip with lodging. I emailed DD’s owner, Roberto Iacopelli, laying out who I am – an outgoing, young professional looking for adventure with interesting people – and my available dates.
His response was quick and thorough, saying that two other Americans were planning an end of September trip and that I could join them if the route, in the Pale de San Martino, looked appealing.
I asked an Italian friend if she thought the itinerary and price was fair.
“The place is absolutely gorgeous, probably one of the best spots on the Dolomites!” She wrote to me. “The price also sounds right for the type of trip, so that’s great.”
She warned, however, that the hike looked intense – but I assured her it was exactly the type of adventure I wanted.
Now that I completed the trek (with lots of chocolate, beer and wine!), I thought of five things that can help the next person who chooses this unforgettable adventure.
1. HIKING POLES ARE YOUR FRIEND
I’m a seasoned hiker, having trekked across Israel and the U.S. But, I’m prone to injury as much as I try to deny it, especially when it comes to my knees on long hikes with weight in my backpack.
I’ve never hiked with poles before, mistakenly regarding them as a possible hindrance – as extra weight, which I thought was unnecessary.
But our four-day trek was long and tough. We had a particularly lengthy and challenging descent on our third day, with the longest descent occurring mostly on scree, the loose rock and gravel a torture for my knees.
I slid most of the way down by leaning on my right leg and using my left as an anchor, straining the tendon on my left knee. The decision nearly crippled me for a week after.
I could barely finish the trek the next day. Roberto lent me his poles to finish the hours-long descent to our final pickup point in Passo Rolle and I don’t know if I would have made it without the aid of walking sticks.
If you hike with hiking poles, bring them. If you’ve never hiked with them before, try them out and give them to yourselves as an option. It’s better to have it in an emergency situation than to not.
2. WATCH YOUR WEIGHT — IN YOUR PACK
I’m always conscious about having as light a pack as possible, discarding anything unnecessary. On this trek, I left behind my Kindle, thinking I could access my library of books for downtime on my iPhone (I couldn’t) and for some reason, thought baby wipes were too heavy to include.
What I should have done was been more strategic about my clothes. The men I traveled with never seemed to change. Maybe this is overkill, but I definitely had an extra pair of pants and some shirts that I didn’t wear. Who knows what can help lighten the load?
Roberto’s PDF suggestions on what to pack are essential.
It’s hard to say what else I really could have left behind. I had a few electronics and chargers that seemed necessary, first aid, camping towel, toiletries and sun cream.
I was really happy that I decided to include a point and click camera (Canon SX280 HS) for my photos, because my iPhone camera stopped working properly. Roberto was a great photographer on the trip and snapped some of the most epic shots of us on the ferratas. I’m so grateful to have those, but am happy I contributed to our group’s photo album.
3. CONFIDENCE IS KEY
Beyond logistics, I was happy with the strength of my body and the confidence I had in myself on what challenges I could take on.
I’m pretty active in my exercise, lifting free weights as part of my normal workout routine, participating in multi-day hikes with backcountry camping and heavy packs. I’ve rock climbed in a gym a handful of times and am certified in scuba diving.
I look at all of these things as training my body and mind to deal with the physical and mental hardships of challenging treks, allowing me to enjoy the accomplishments instead of focusing on the difficulties.
On some of the most demanding parts of the via ferratas, I was surprised with my focus on the trail, my feet finding the footholds on the rock face and my hands working suredly to reclip the carabiners.
I used the strength of my legs to propel myself up, or the strength of my arms and hands to gingerly step down, traversing the ferretta.
Roberto was patient, encouraging and watchful. He attached a rope between me and himself on our second day to increase my confidence in the safety of the trek. As I descended backwards down, what I considered a particularly difficult ferrata, I was surprised to look up and see Roberto standing upright on the steep incline like a mountain goat, just casually walking down the side of the mountain. I didn’t expect that I could mirror his leisurely stance but it boosted my confidence that I was in a safe place and could accomplish the path in front of me.
4. THE MOUNTAIN IS FOR MEDITATION
To get through hours-long treks, I often develop mantras to propel myself forward — mostly to do with food.
On one long ascent toward the rifugio, I repeated in my head, in time with my steps “sandwich, beer”. The Italian salami and cheese was burning a whole in my pack and I couldn’t wait to wash it down with a cold beer, getting closer to that moment with each step.
These mantras help put me in a meditative state, to distract from the pain and exhaustion and have a tangible goal beyond just finishing the trek.
On the trail, all of my frenetic thoughts about daily life are pushed out of my head and instead focused on a singular goal of one foot in front of the other and looking forward to simple pleasures of a tasty meal and a relaxing drink.
Sitting at my computer back in my apartment in Washington D.C., I’m nostalgic for these moments.
5. ENJOY THE BEAUTY
The Dolomites are one of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen. There’s always a tension between wanting to take so many photos, knowing that it will never truly capture the moment or the view, and deciding between living the experience or documenting it.
I’m so happy with all the photos I took and I’m glad for each moment I stopped to snap a shot. It didn’t take away from experiencing it.
Scrolling through those memories, even if it’s poorly framed or slightly out of focus, I’m instantly transported to the mountaintops.