Arriving in the Rosengarten group of the Western Dolomites, we found two rifugios to choose from. The first was neat as a pin - and somehow sterile. The Stella Alpina, by contrast, offered cracked walls, flaky paint and Remo, an ex-soldier- caretaker-cum-waiter/barman/weirdo/cook and resident drunk (all meant in the most affectionate way). Remo, our host, was a rotund battleship of a man with black button eyes haphazardly sewn onto his generally jolly face.
On night three at the Stella Alpina we sat down to a meal of gladiator proportions, neatly laid out on a red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Remo obviously wanted to put some meat on our bones. After the plates had been cleared, as we were eagerly discussing plans for the next day, Remo suddenly stood up and, as if carrying out an order, silently latched the door.
In the dim light Simon, Dave, Rico and I all gazed blankly at each other as our minds ticked through the possible scenarios. Murder, torture, drugs?
The Dolomites offer a broad spectrum of climbing. As if in a vast orchard, you can be fussy and only select the plums, or, if pressed for time, simply take what's within reach. My advice is simple: go for a sampler on the vertical limestone.
The alpine rifugios are reason enough to come to these historic mountains of Northern Italy. Seasonal, locally harvested food is lovingly prepared in traditional recipes; the pasta is homemade, as is the potato gnocchi and the exquisite Cansunziel (beetroot-stuffed ravioli). Full board comes complete with hot showers, fresh linen and puffy eider-down duvets. Climbers on a budget can always camp and just grab the occasional meal or shower at a rifugio.
My husband, Simon Carter, and I had started out at the Cinque Torri group, which literally translates to Five Towers, even though now only four remain after the collapse of the minor 100-foot Trephor block sometime in mid-2004. Overlooking a strategic mountain pass, the gateway to the east, this outcrop of spires rears up from grassy hillsides among an extensive web of reconstructed World War I trenches. Now an open±air museum, they are evidence of the fierce and inconclusive battles that took place here between the armies of Austria-Hungary and Italy.
An area popular for multi-pitch trad and sport climbing, the Cinque Torri group offers low-commitment one- to six-pitch routes with only an eight-minute hike and, in the event of a thunderstorm, a fast downhill retreat to the waiting Rifugio Cinque Torri, plonked at 7,011 feet right at the foot of the towers. The climbing ranges from slab to vertical, with grades from 5.5 to 5.11c. You can also tackle the smaller blocks for a few steeper, harder routes up to 5.13d. The rock is Principal dolomite, a sedimentary carbonate, and though it is generally solid, we still had to choose our holds carefully. We had selected classics like Columbus, a four-pitch 5.11c; Myriam, a six-pitch 5.7; and Directissma Scoiattoli, a six-pitch 5.11b. The clear standout for us, though, was Finlandia (5.10c) with five stylish pitches slashing the face of the Torre Grande, the most prominent tower. Stemming up Finlandia's long corners, I floated among moves that were engaging but not taxing on sharp, cubic rock with vertical slots and good gear.
On top, we met two alpine climbers from the United States: Rico Miledi, a software engineer from California, and Dave Russell, a mural artist from Colorado. The two were eyeing a long route across the valley on Tofana di Rozes (10,581 feet); in fact, we were all mesmerized by the intimidating massif. The American lads already had their bearings and sights set, and we Australians had wheels, so we decided to team up.
Rising with the sparrows, we chose the South Face Buttress No. 1, a tame 14-pitch 5.7, and the standard warm-up for some of the longer, more committing undertakings on the Tofana. The route is described in the guidebook as an almost perfect line, a slender, sharply delineated arete slicing steeply skywards with a free as a bird' sense of exposure. The third pitch, super climbing up a vertical slot, was the crux, but the most memorable pitch was definitely the exposed seventh. As I quivered up the fin of rock, I looked down through 900 feet of air, the chilling wind cutting off all communications.
Sinister, full-bellied storm clouds rolled in, circled and then left, much to my relief. On top we all shared smoked deer sausage and small discs of crispy bread baked only once a year in the village of Padraces. We descended over aged, compacted snowdrifts, following marginal paths down to our Rifugio Dibona just as the heavens opened.
The next day we all moved camp to Passo Sella, the aorta of the Dolomites and a strategic spot from which to embark on any mountain mission. In winter this pass joins with three others, making it the largest ski field in the world, ferrying as many as 12,000 skiers a day on a single lift. During the height of summer the artery may pump 24,000 cars a day through its trajectory. We pitched camp in a bunkroom on the third floor at the Rifugio Albergo Passo Sella (7,139 feet), which is owned by the Italian Alpine Club (CAI) and run with military efficiency by its host Daniela Cappadozzi.
The Rifugio Passo Sella's central location gave us access to several bouldering, sport and trad spots in close proximity. The steep bouldering of Città de Sassi has 120 problems between V0 and V11, two±thirds of them V5 or under. The sport climbing of Cansla is known for excellent technical and delicate slab climbing. Just down the valley lies Pian de Schiavaneis, a modern testing ground for sport climbing with 60 routes ranging from 5.6 to 5.14b. And for multi-pitch trad climbs, take your pick from the south-facing Sella Group on one side of the pass, or the colder, much higher Sassolungo Group on the other.
Like everything else here, food is taken very seriously. Each dish is diligently prepared and painstakingly presented, with a civilized pregnant pause between courses. Take Fish Friday at the Rifugio Albergo Passo Sella, for example: ceviche (cubes of raw fish marinated in lemon juice), risotto with radicchio, fish baked in individual paper parcels with saffron potatoes, and for dessert, lemon and basil sorbet flutes drizzled with prosecco.
The next day we were up early again to climb the nine-pitch North Ridge Thumb route (670 feet) of the Five Finger Towers. Called Il Punta della Cinque Dita (Grade IV, 5.5), the 9,688-foot middle finger towers proudly over its neighboring digits, and the entire length of the traverse is 1,900 feet. It is part of the serious Sassolungo group, known for poor rock, steep north faces and convoluted descents. These factors and the high chance of afternoon thunderstorms ensured that we caught the first gondola of the day. Fun and funky, and the oldest in the Dolomites, the lift picks up two passengers at a time without stopping. I felt like a competitor in The Amazing Race trying to edge in front of the guides and clients to gain pole position. This climb was my favorite of the trip. It had it all: mechanically assisted access, enjoyable climbing, and just enough shoddy gear placements to complement the adequate fixed pitons.
At the base of the route, we were steamrollered by several local guides, and watched as they arrogantly pushed past us, dragging their clients like puppies on a tight leash. Climbing again, I scored the out-there pitch, feeling very much isolated and caught in the shadows above a black abyss. As the clouds parted, the sun lit up a jagged ring of chalk-white peaks, much like shark teeth, that encircled me, rising up from the murky depths. Thrilled, we washed up on top, and all shared one of Rico's rolled cigarettes.
We relocated to the Rosengarten Group with a mission to climb all three of the Vajolet Towers, the Delago, Stabeler, and Winkler, (all around 9,200 feet) in a day. The Winkler Tower gained blockbuster notoriety from the filming of the movie Cliffhanger. Our intent on it, though, was to follow in the footsteps of Georg Winkler, who in 1887 boldly soloed the Winkler Crack, (5.7), a remarkable feat for its time. Though Simon and I bailed due to billowing clouds, Dave and Rico started up the first tower and only stopped when engulfed in a whiteout.
At the end of the day, we headed back to the Stella Alpina to enjoy our last night together.
Trapped in the Rifugio's deserted dining room, Rico, Dave, Simon and I watched anxiously as Remo carefully removed a large wooden bowl from the top shelf of his hutch, dusted it off, gave it a quick rinse, and filled it. None of us can recall exactly what the concoction contained®only that it was a lethal amount of alcohol and a few cups of coffee. Remo heated the mixture with his coffee-machine milk frother, then lit it. We gazed intently at the electric-blue flame before the lid covered it.
Hand crafted from a single chunk of maple, then ornately carved, the coppa dell'amicizia, literally meaning the cup of friendship, had several spouts and in keeping with tradition we passed it around until empty.
The next day revealed that Simon, Dave and I had all taken many pretend sips. So it was no surprise when Rico bore the grandest of hangovers. His face was the color of his filthy lime-green puffy jacket.
All too soon, it was time to leave. We said our goodbyes to Remo, feeling that we had left a little bit of our souls at the Stella Alpina. Rico just left a little of his stomach as well.
Monique Forestier lives in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney, with her dog, Ziggy, and photographer husband, Simon Carter.
Dolomites routes are long, committing and intimidating. Do not underestimate their seriousness. Select your routes carefully, consult the guidebook, and ask around. A little beta can go a long way, especially for complicated descents.
Getting there | The Dolomites are located in the far northeastern region of Italy. The nearest international airports are Milan, Venice, Innsbruck and Vienna, and each have good ongoing coach or train connections. For ease and flexibility it is highly recommended that you rent a car (book online in advance) from the airport, particularly if you have a lot of gear. You can manage without a car in the Dolomites, where public buses operate throughout the region, but will need patience and time.
When to go | Mid-June through September. August is the busiest time and very crowded, so book accommodations in advance.
Gear | For multi-pitch trad routes take a complete rack of cams and wires, lots of long slings (some thin slings are good to thread pitons) and double 60-meter ropes. Take bail biners and cord to back up old gear. A helmet is a necessity. For sport climbing, a single 60-meter rope is fine, and take a light rack in addition to quickdraws.
Guidebook | There are many guidebooks available but most are in Italian and only cover specific areas. Seek out Classic Dolomite Climbs by Anette Köhler and Norbert Memmel before you arrive in the Dolomites. It details 94 classic climbs from 11 areas and is in English.
Where to stay | Camping is possible in various locations. The rifugios are delightful but more expensive. The rates vary but approximate costs per night are: for a bed only, $31-$47; and for half penzione, or breakfast, bed, shower and dinner, $62-$94.
Rest-day activities | Walk the mountain trails in search of wildflowers, war ruins and lakes. Visit the Messner Mountain Museum. For shopping, head to opulent Cortina d'Ampezzo, stock up on the latest catwalk fashion and gelato, and replenish any climbing items from K2 Sport.