At first, I thought that the blond hairs shooting like sunrays from Annie’s head were nothing more than static caused by taking off her hat. But when a crack of lightning ricocheted off the face of a cliff, it was clear the air was electric and we had to think fast. It was July, and Annie and I were on the third day of hiking with our husbands, Fritz and Walter, and our dear friends Kate and David in the Dolomites—the legendary pocket of the Italian Alps that is known for mountains the brochures describe as jagged but up close make you think of a dinosaur’s snaggletooth smile or a medieval king’s dinged-up crown. Like most mountainous regions, it’s also known for unpredictable weather.
I’d been warned by my friend Guenther, an Austrian who considers hiking through backcountry powder a relaxing way to spend a Sunday, that lightning strikes can be fatal in the Dolomites. “If there’s a storm, run down the mountain,” he warned. Our problem was that while we were at an altitude of 7,000 feet, we were standing in a valley; there was no obvious route down. Still, the fact that Annie was charged like a Duracell battery meant we had to find some kind of shelter.
When we spotted a lean-to that was probably used to store wood, we scrambled in, with just enough headroom to sit crouched with our knees up against our chests. We didn’t know that within 15 minutes the clouds would disappear behind the cliffs, leaving us with a day so clear and calm you could hear cowbells clanging in the high pastures. The truth was that even with thumping rain and lightning flashes (and panicky sips from David’s passed-around flask even though it was barely past 10 a.m.), each of us was deliriously happy.
We’d cooked up this trip two years earlier, from the comfort of a cabin on Lake Vermilion. All six of us had lived in Europe, where we’d each developed a passion for hiking. The Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are a storied experience among the Europeans we know, kind of like Yosemite is for Americans. Each of us wanted to do it the way the locals do—hike without a guide from mountain inn to mountain inn (called rifugio in Italian) with everything we needed on our backs. This dream vacation was sweetened further by another unanimous decision: Our kids would stay home.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t have any concerns about striking out on our group adventure. While our relationships stretched back decades, we all knew that the stresses of the trail—not to mention very little alone time—could bring out the crank in anyone. What if Fritz wanted to go at a pace that was more Seabiscuit than The Sound of Music? Would Walter’s fondness for quoting Paul Krugman turn dinners into yelling matches?
With the help of an adventure travel company to make reservations and plot our course, we decided to hike a four-day portion of the Alta Via 1, a historic footpath that crosses from pre-World War I Austria into Italy. The Austrians ceded the entire Südtirol region (Alto Adige to the Italians) to Italy when they lost the war, a topic that still nibbles at their national pride. So while the entire journey would technically take place in Italy, we experienced three national identities: the dirndl-wearing German-speaking area at the trail’s northern tip, an Italian-flavored experience to the south, and valleys where the Tyrolean Ladin culture—which dates back to the Roman Empire, with its own language—dominates.
We were all in our 40s and in decent to marathon-ready shape. Still, when we unstuffed our backpacks on the first night, when we were staying at a hotel near the Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Reserve, it was clear we each had our own anxieties about the toll the adventure could exact on our not-so-young bodies: Prilosec, asthma inhalers, several bottles of Advil, diaper cream, bandages, moleskin, sunscreen, lip balm, melatonin, a tiny foam roller—all spilled onto our beds. Mindful that the six of us would be sharing a room on our third night, Walter even brought Gas-X. And when I realized I had packed only cotton underwear, I sprinted five minutes into the center of Welsberg/Monguelfo (all towns in the northern section of the Dolomites have both a German and Italian name) to stock up on some sweat-wicking options.
Photo by Paola Dandrea
Our route was graded strenuous to strenuous-plus, although we saw families pushing strollers accomplish a switchback on day two. And while we were right to feel humbled at what six to eight hours of hiking would do to our bodies, we never encountered a challenge we couldn’t finish, even if it meant we took more breaks than we’d planned. That doesn’t mean that a few of us didn’t stagger into a rifugio at the end of each day, the soles of our feet beating in pain, our shirts in desperate need of a rinse in the sink. But a local beer or three, sipped while watching the sun dip behind snowy peaks, put most of the discomfort behind us.
As did the food. One of the astonishments of a Dolomites trek is how mountain inns that are so remote they feel as though they could be plucked straight out of Heidi can serve such glorious meals. At the Rifugio Scotoni, which sleeps 20 people and is where the six of us shared one room you could get to only by a ladder-steep staircase, our dinner started with homemade pasta with handpicked local mushrooms, followed by grilled meats and vegetables, a salad, and tiramisu. (They offered soup instead of the pasta, but after all that work I certainly wasn’t going to deny myself any carbs.) What’s more, the wine list consisted of 300 different varieties of local vintages. At each of our stops, we ate and drank and laughed late into the night.
Fanes-Sennes-Prags Nature Reserve
Photo by Alessandro Trovati
The main draw in the Dolomites, of course, is the scenery. In a single day you can wind your way through fir forests, wildflower meadows, and boulder-strewn moonscapes. But it’s the mountains that truly impress. Whereas most ranges gradually slope upward, the Dolomites seem to have pushed themselves straight through the earth with one cataclysmic heave. It’s not unusual for their chalky coat to flash pink in the afternoon light.
What’s more, each day of the Alta Via 1 brings its own adventures, including reading the maps, which, while intricately detailed, could easily lead you to take a left turn to nowhere. One afternoon you are wearing a hat and mittens, while the next you’re so hot you want to jump into one of the many lakes that shine in the sun like pools of liquid turquoise. You might struggle all morning not to slip on scree only to muck your way through a bog after lunch. And while there are a few blessed moments of flat trail, vistas can open up seemingly out of nowhere, exposing views that drop thousands of feet to valley floors. We often had the trails to ourselves.
There are manmade wonders, too. On our way from Rifugio Scotoni, we walked down 2,000 feet of steps—an experience so brutal on my knees that it was the last hike I ever did without walking poles—through the galleria, tunnels built by Italian soldiers during their campaign against the Austrians in the war. Cramped and at times pitch-black (helmets are provided and flashlights are necessary), they’re a physically challenging peek into world history. The Italian government has turned the tunnels into an open-air museum that gives you a look at the abominable conditions the troops endured, with kitchen and sleeping quarters that are still burrowed into the rocks like animal caves. If you manage to avoid claustrophobia and vertigo, you’ll be rewarded with views of green pastures bumping up against the limestone peaks.
When you leave the tunnels, you are literally on the other side of the front line, called the Martini Ledge. Italian instantly replaces German at the inns, and the Tyrolean vibe is softened by a whiff of the Mediterranean—goodbye lederhosen, hello patterned tile floors.
On our final day, the skies opened up again, with no sign of stopping. We huddled under a limestone overhang—not the safest spot, but the best we could do—and wiggled our way into our rain pants and jackets and waited. And waited. When it became clear that this wasn’t a passing storm, we cut the day’s hike short and headed straight to Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy’s version of Aspen, where turned-down beds and hot showers were calling.
When we planned the trip, we all agreed that this final weekend would be spent in different hotels so we’d all have some couple’s time before heading home to our families. But the truth is that our journey had deepened, not weakened, our bonds. So we kissed each other goodbye—and then agreed to meet for champagne before dinner.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the author of Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.