Opening the Route: A Running Adventure Through the Italian Dolomites
Three “brothers” in the running community, Matt Lowe, Jeremy Wolf, and I, Jason Schlarb, are best friends that share a love for trail running, mountains, adventure and world travel. We have been exploring the mountains and outdoors together for the last 15 years covering three continents, from below sea level in Death Valley to 20,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes. This past June, we traveled to the Italian Dolomites for a five-day, point-to-point trail run together.
As the Alps dip into Italy, the Dolomites boast some of the most unique, steep and jagged mountain peaks a trail runner could imagine. Verdant valleys separate the uniquely rugged and compact ranges of the Dolomite Mountains. The Dolomites have a vast, well-maintained and well-marked trail network that includes fantastic, full-service huts called “rifugios.” The rifugio network is designed to support the average day hiker, which means they are regularly spaced across the Dolomites, connecting these historic mountains, valleys and their trails. Nearly all routes through the Dolomites have more than ample rifugio stops which provide great lunch breaks, snacks, beer… and better yet, a place for dinner, a bed for the night and a hot breakfast.
Italian rifugios are truly a slice of alpine heaven and are a worthy destination in and of themselves. Rifugios enable hikers, climbers and especially runners to thru-hike without the limitations of carrying food, sleeping equipment and clothing for staying outside at night in the high alpine. Privately owned, quaint, clean and full of character and culture, these rifugios are located on the saddles of mountain ridges, nestled in beautiful alpine valleys and on the sides of mountains in some of the most scenic terrain imaginable.
Rifugios offer rooms of varying occupancies with rates that include delicious, home-cooked, three-course meals and an ample, runner-sized breakfast. Of course there is grappa (sometimes distilled on site), wine, liquor and beer for purchase as well.
Rifugio rates ranged between 35 to 49 Euro (45 to 64 USD) for lodging, dinner, dessert and breakfast. The reasonable costs were unbelievable considering you are purchasing nightly accommodations in such remote, mountainous locations. The rifugio network made traveling great distances with only a running pack through spectacular mountains (priceless) surprisingly affordable. While the three of us all appreciate the serenity of pristine wilderness and self-supporting, rifugios made for a spectacular way to explore miles of trails while indulging in great food, high-alpine lodging and a culturally rich experience all while carrying a minimalist pack.
We decided early in our planning to run through the Dolomites without the help of a guide company. This decision maximized our flexibility on the trip while saving a lot of money by planning the bookings and transportation ourselves. While going at it alone added complexity, the resources available through the CAI (Club Alpino Italiano) and the knowledge and responsiveness of the rifugio staff made it all possible. The early-season timing of our run, June 10 through 14, however, provided some serious logistical challenges. Firstly, most rifugios do not open for the summer season until June 15. We did not know exactly which rifugios would be open until we arrived in the Dolomites, making advance route planning almost impossible. We quickly found the benefit of running in the early season: once we identified and arrived at an open rifugio, we often had it completely to ourselves, just the three of us and the rifugio owner. This was the exact opposite of what might be expected in July and August when advance reservations are recommended. By going during the early season, we inherited the huge challenge (and fun!) of traversing deep snow on the higher-elevation trails, in effect “opening” some of the routes for the season.
This year’s European winter was unseasonably snowy, cold and unexpectedly long with some areas setting 60-year snowfall records. The snow created uncertainty on which routes we could run through the mountains, or what was even open. In the end, we essentially planned all but our first day on the fly. Talking before the trip to local guide companies and rifugios (initially not always an easy task given most had just closed with the end of the ski season) provided us with enough information to pick a starting location and get confirmation of at least a few open rifugios.
In the heart of the Dolomites, there are small roads through many of the valleys and a splattering of small mountain towns, which created all sorts of options for an exit point. Transportation from a small town via bus or taxi to a train station further north turned out to be very convenient. Our plan was simply to run the most fun, scenic and intense route possible, while averaging about 20 miles a day. The final day we would find transportation to Munich where we would toast to surviving and celebrate a successful trip. What we didn’t realize when we started our trip was that each of the five days we would be the first runners or hikers to actually travel through the route this season. Three out of the four nights we would be told that our intended route was impassible and closed. Hearing that our intended route was “closed” created stress, excitement and fortunately in the end, a sense of accomplishment. (I use the word “closed” in quotations because they weren’t officially closed for travel by an authority. Rather, they were not yet recommended for hiking or running due to snow.) More than once we would stumble into a rifugio for the night to be greeted with the statement, “you have opened the route.”
Day 1: Calazo to Rifugio Baion
We arrived on a bus from Venice into Calazo, the trip’s starting point, with only the basic gear, water and spending cash in our Ultimate Direction PB running packs to last us for the week. Our first task was to find an outdoor store that carried trail maps and hopefully some had information and advice on our proposed route. Advice was minimal and localized, allowing us insight into maybe five miles down our route, but thankfully they had a good map covering the area we wanted to travel. The shop owner was kind enough to call Rifugio Baion, where we would spend our first night, to let them know we were coming. At 4 pm on Monday, June 10, our run commenced.
After a few wrong turns navigating through Calazo, we were climbing into the high alpine with huge smiles on our faces. Our first day was the shortest but, as we would find everyday, there was no lack of amazing trail running, views, some snow to negotiate and tons of climbing and descending. We were the only guests at Rifugio Baion, a small, family-owned-and-operated rifugio. We relaxed on the porch, had dinner and enjoyed some beer and a sampling of some of the 15 different grappas that were all made on site. Inside, we enjoyed a fire in the dining area while talking to our host about our next day’s plans and called ahead to let the next rifugio know we were coming. Our first night was the only night our rifugio hosts didn’t try to put the kabosh on our alpine route selections for the next day, despite the fact that we were to climb and descend down one of the steepest and more dangerous passes on our trip.
10 miles; 5,000 feet of climbing
Day 2: Rifugio Baion to Rifugio Auronzo
Our rifugio hosts were not interested in an early-morning breakfast, a trend we found at all the rifugios. Besides being a bit anxious and excited, a later-morning start was good. We left the rifugio at 9:30 and began backtracking a few miles to a trail that would take us over a pass and down into the next drainage. The pass was probably only 40 feet wide with tall spires and cliffs on each side. On the other side was a really steep chute I would much rather have skied than negotiated in my Hokas. Matt and Jeremy lead the descent by making small indents in the 55 to 65-degree slope carrying makeshift self-arresting rocks in their hands. A glissade would have been unbelievably fun and fast, but would have resulted in vaporized shorts and skin and landed us in the rocks with our bodies mangled. Luckily the descent was uneventful other than the unbelievable views in all directions. Down safely in the next valley, we crossed a road and found a rifugio on the other side still boarded up for winter, so we enjoyed a prepackaged lunch of sugary fuels as we made our way up the next drainage. The climb up the next drainage was long and constant and rewarded us with a majority of the day’s 7,000 feet of climbing by the time we made the ridge.
Halfway up the climb we could make out a small speck of a structure on the ridgeline of a snowy pass, Rifugio Auronzo, where we would stay for the night. It really is amazing where you can stay the night in the mountains of Italy. The trail disappeared under the snow on the last 1,000 feet of climbing. We powerhiked up to the ridge while watching Ibex run on the steep rock walls around us. Rifugio Auronzo boasted the most amazing views of any of the rifugios we stayed at or passed. Sitting on top of a pass at over 2,000 meters adjacent to the famous Tre Cime, Auronzo was just plain spectacular.
21 miles; 7,000 feet of climbing
Day 3: Rifugio Auronzo to Rifugio Vallandro
Day 3 started with a horseshoe circumnavigation of the Tre Cime, one of the most famous landmarks in the Dolomites with three enormous rock towers looking like they had been plucked straight from a Patagonia ad. Running in the morning hours, we were able to scurry atop of the three-meter deep snow, which we were told the night before would be impassible. Prior to reaching the Tre Cime, we made a short climb to the pass, jogging past an earth-moving tractor burrowing through the deep, deep snow in attempts to clear the trail for the season.
Passing a group ski touring the snowfields while we were just in our running shoes was a pretty cool feeling as we made our way to the ridge. From the top of the pass, we made our longest and best glissade of the trip. Jeremy and I wore holes in our pants cruising down the snow, but it was certainly worth it. Matt took a more adventurous route, despite trying to be more cautious, which resulted in a half-hour, death-defying traverse over steep, rock-hard snow. On the far side of Matt’s traverse, Jeremy and I nervously enjoyed the show while taking video, just in case Matt made a mistake.
Down the valley we ran fast on the popular trail following a beautiful creek ending at a confluence to a river and Hotel Drei Zinnenblick at the base of the valley. At the hotel, we treated ourselves to a beer for lunch and a pretzel. We continued on after lunch, climbing the adjacent valley wall on Alta Via 3. On the steep climb following Alta Via 3, we saw a gated entrance to caves and anchors hanging overhead for rock-climbing routes. Further up the trail, we traveled on an amazingly surreal assisted trail with a wooden staircase that seemed to float out alongside the cliff face, followed by a tunnel, then a series of trail and wooden walkways carved into the cliff face. The cave, bunker, and trail infrastructure littering our route were remnants from World War I, making this section of trail up the impossibly steep valley a unique and memorable experience.
At the top of our climb, we reached Strudelkoofe Peak with possibly the best 360-degree views of the trip. Far across the valley we could see the Tre Cime where we slept the night before, also visible was our descent down to the valley that morning. A rolling jog down to Rifugio Lavaredo had us singing the “hills are alive with the sound of music” as the trail took us down into a lush, green, high-alpine valley in a sea of green grass and wildflowers. In this magic valley, we met mountain bikers and found two rifugios along with a luxury hotel with a swimming pool, spa and sauna. From this valley we split up, and I ran back up the valley and continued on to Alta Via 3 looping around a huge mountain with more assisted trail running and snow crossings. Jeremy and Matt had a sausage and beer while soaking in views of the huge red-hued Roda Rossa. Jeremy and Matt ran down the valley to Rifugio Vallandro, dropped gear and climbed an Angels Landing-like technical and exposed ridge extending out into the valley. The route was dotted with World War I tunnels that they explored with their headlamps.
Evening dinner was the best of the trip at Rifugio Vallandro. Dinner was a saucy macaroni noodle followed by polenta, beef and green beans with panna cotta and finished with a raspberry and custard dessert. After two grappa shots and beer, we enjoyed hearing our most colorful and passionate protest from a rifugio host to not continue on our proposed route. Our host called the area’s emergency services… twice, to verify that our route was both closed and impassable. Our host then called a few other rifugios, verifying with them how bad our ideas were for running the next day. We were nearly convinced into taking a far less sexy route, but luckily by the end of the night we agreed, without letting our host know, that we would at least go and check things out on our original route through the high alpine.
30 miles; 8,000 feet of climbing
Day 4: Rifugio Vallandro to Rifugio Fanes
From Vallandro, we made our way up again to the snowy high alpine and all day we would travel around the massive Roda Rossa. The majority of our time today was spent in the snow, where we ascended to our highest point of over 8,000 feet and encountered our most technical snow traverses. Literally covered in snow, the assisted cables, ladders and bridges were of minimal use as we carefully picked, climbed and scrambled our way across the steep, craggy winter wonderland under sunny, warm skies. Unlike earlier days, we were not able to finish running over snow before the afternoon, which resulted in slower postholing and wet-snow conditions. After cutting through the toughest of the technical route yet, we passed two rifugios where we were greeted with the statement, “you have opened the route,” as we were the first to traverse the route for the season. Opening the route provided us with a sense of pride and accomplishment after being told that this route was impassable.
A bit tired but happy to be getting out of the snow, we stopped at Rifugio Biella to soak in the view and share some trail knowledge with a couple hikers eager for adventure. Stopping again further down the trail at Rifugio Sennes, we had our most lavish lunch of a sausage that we split, some veggies, and of course, big beers.
The second half of the day’s running was spent descending the steepest road any of us have seen before. Think of the steepest, windiest roads in San Francisco but in an alpine setting. After the descent, we climbed up a uniquely dry and scrubby New Mexico-like landscape to Rifugio Fanes. Day 4 brought us our deepest snow, our hottest weather and, at the end of the day, we were lucky enough to dive into a lake off a small cliff not far from the evening’s rifugio. That night we celebrated our big day with a liter of wine and beers all around.
23 miles; 6,000 feet of climbing
Day 5: Rifugio Fanes to Cortina
From Rifugio Fanes, we headed towards Cortina via Trail 10. After a pretty easy climb to the pass and a run through a few patches of snow in a lush forest, we were heading down a steep trail into a canyon. The night before we had discussed looking at Via Ferrata Lucio Dalaiti. Via Ferrata Lucio Dalaiti was one of the few Via Ferratas close to our route that wasn’t under serious snow pack. We could see an impressively deep slot canyon below and decided to give the route a go.
Immediately there was a cable on the wall with the trail under foot carved out of the cliff. We descended down keeping a hand usually on the cable as we jogged along and over bridges. The Via Ferrata lead to a roaring, 80-foot waterfall that crashed down into a too-small pool which created a loudly roaring whitewater and mist storm. To our surprise and amazement, the track literally cut behind the base of the roaring waterfall and continued around. After crossing behind the magic waterfall (and putting the waterproof camera to good use), we continued down to another even taller waterfall and narrow metal bridge where the force of the water created a wet, gusty wind that felt like we were crossing a two-foot-wide bridge in a hurricane over a Class IV rapid. We really were.
The crux of the Via Ferrata was a 60-plus-foot cliff wall with meandering metal ladder rungs and a cable drilled into the rock face. After some slight hesitation, we were on our way down while people below equipped with harnesses, climbing gear and helmets shook their heads. (While we aren’t the only ones who use less involved Alta Vias without protection, we DO NOT recommend doing so.)
After a steep, assisted climb, we were back on the main trail to Cortina. We followed a rolling trail that paralleled a huge river running through scenic meadows, forests and hills. From the hills, we could look down on the iconic ski town of Cortina. We ended our 92-mile voyage across the Italian Dolomites on the cobblestone streets lined with historic buildings, churches and designer clothing and ski shops at 11:00 a.m. We grabbed some food, rinsed off in the river and were in a taxi proudly admiring and pointing at the views of our epic passage across the Dolomites through the taxi windows.
13 miles; 4,000 feet of climbing
After our taxi ride, we jumped on a train for the long ride to Munich highlighted by a delicious meal of all of our remaining gels leftover or lost in the bottom of our packs. Once in Munich, we jogged from the train station to our hotel for showers. Grabbing a shower, dinner and a “rally bottle” for the evening, we were ready to celebrate out on the town in one of the world’s most renowned drinking cities… wearing our running gear. It was a bit overwhelming to be back in a bustling city center after such a long stint in the mountains. After some kebabs, we were drinking liter steins of beer at the legendary Hoffbrau House listening to “Oompah” music in the beer hall and soaking up all sorts of Germanic heritage and drinking history. A few liters later, we were on a search for 21st Century nightlife in the younger and trendier part of Munich where there are dance clubs and music. Walking into the first club, we were turned around because of our running clothes, then the next place and the next we had the same luck. One bouncer told us we were looking “too sporty.” Finally, we managed to half sneak into a nightclub where we finally enjoyed some good music and fun before returning back to the hotel in the early hours of Saturday.
Approximately 92 miles of running with 30,000-plus feet of climbing starting Monday at 4:00 p.m. and ending Friday at 11:00 a.m.
Our run through the Italian Dolomites was a huge success. The trails, Alta Vias, Via Ferratas, rifugios and uniquely spectacular Dolomite Mountains all made for one of the best mountain-running experiences in the world. We already look forward to returning some day and running more of the Dolomites.
We all three used Peter Bakwin (PB) Ultimate Direction packs. Our packs were certainly the most critical piece of equipment we had, and they delivered. After looking at all the other packs on the market, nothing came close to the quality, weight, accessibility and comfort of the PB packs. The UD PBs have tons of room for carrying items on the front of the pack and the room to carry a lot on the back of the pack while still being light and not bulky, making for a comfortable, low-bounce ride. Given how extremely light the packs were, we were curious if they would withstand the abuse of the adventure, which they did with style.
For our running shirts, we wore new prototype “S14” Arc’teryx t-shirts. All three of us agree that the tailored cut Arc’teryx shirts are the best-fitting, lightest and most durable (we sure tested that) t-shirts we have ever run in. We all three wore lightweight Ryders Eyewear polarized sunglasses which were lifesavers on our sunny, snow-filled runs through the alpine. Jeremy and I both wore Hoka Bondis and Injinji Performance 2.0 socks for the trip.
The basic gear we wore and carried in our pack: two t-shirts, one long sleeve, one running coat, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of Injinji socks, Buff/hat, gloves, running pants/tights, Ryders sunglasses, GPS watch, headlamp, camera, map, Vitargo/gels, Euros, credit card, toothbrush, sunscreen and some emergency medical supplies.
Patagonia! This January we will be traveling to South America for more point-to-point mountain running through Patagonia.
Thanks again to our sponsors who help made our trip possible
- Ultimate Direction
- Ryders Eyewear
- Hoka One One