The Italian Job

flag_italySesto Dolomites and Venice, Italy

October 7-16, 2010

When someone suggests, “Let’s all go to Venice in October and talk about astronomy,” you say “Okay!” When that person is the guy paying both your salary and airfare, you say “Perfecto!” But a simple trip to Venice for five days of talking about new science results from Hubble wasn’t enough. No, Eric and I figured that being on that side of the globe called for a Swiss-Army-Trip of cultural and geographic exploration on our own dime as well. Extensive planning ensued and headed out on three days in the Dolomites before the meeting for a little late-season hiking and climbing.

Misurina Loves Company

We flew into Venice on Thursday morning, rented a Lancia Ypsillon or Similar on one hour of sleep, and drove north into the unknown. I am not the most skilled car-pilot under the best of circumstances so fortunately Eric served as chief navigational officer and photo-journalist. First impressions were that Italian road builders must have gotten a good deal on a tunnel boring machine and gone to town. The roads were quite good and didn’t seem to be bothered much by having mountains in the way. And the mountains! I fancy myself something of a conosoir of mountains, but the Dolomites quickly rose in my estimation: steep, verdant, and rocky, with all kinds of interesting nooks and spires that invite exploration and sturdy boots. We drove along alternately craning our necks out the windows and gripping the wheel in white-knuckled terror at the narrow, sinuous road through one picturesque mountain town after another: Belluno, Pieve di Cadore, Auronzo di Cadore, and finally, Misurina

Welcome to Auronzo di Cadore. Almost to Misurina!

Welcome to Auronzo di Cadore. Almost to Misurina!

Misurina had been specifically recommended to us by a kindred Italian colleague, but was still a bit different than we’d expected. Lago di Misurina is a small hanging lake surrounded on all sides by the most spectacular mountains we’d yet seen — and that’s saying a lot! Evergreen trees covered the lower slopes, half of them larches turning orange/yellow. Sheer cliffs and scree fields clung higher up with puffy little clouds floating around and between rocky spires in the afternoon sun. To the south, the valley we’d driven up (12% grades) dropped away to a stunning view of the Sorapiss group. The town of Misurina extended from the large hotel at the south end of the lake to the larger hotel at the north end with a couple more modest places along the western shore. Six hotels, two pizzerias, a small grocery and that’s it. Wonderful!

Our home was the Sport Hotel Misurina, an outdoors-oriented B&B mid-way down the lake run by the delightful, gregarious, and well-traveled Ulli and Fiorenza and populated by a motley mix of Italians, Germans, and Australians. We ate dinner at the Quinz Pizzeria (the one open restuarant in this off-season town). We shopped for groceries and supplies at the Tabacchi in the basement of the Grand Hotel. We took full advantage of the awesome wireless internet at the Sport Hotel. Everyone was extremely helpful and friendly and English, German, and Italian were heard roughly in equal parts. In the off season, it was very cozy, but I imagine it’s quite crowded during both summer and winter.

The Dolomites: Inside and Out

Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Monte Paterno, and De Luca/Innerkoffler Via Ferrata

The number-one priority for our trip (besides wowing the European Hubble community with the cutting-edge science we’ve been doing, of course) was to see the famous Tre Cime di Lavaredo (aka Drei Zinnen) and hike around the mountains immediately north-east of Misurina. As rock climbers, we were hoping to try the moderate De Luca/Innerkofler via ferrata as well. The forecast looked good on day one, so grabbed the bull by the horns. While Misurina was socked in under a thick cloud layer in the morning, we quickly encountered brilliant sunshine on the steep drive up to Rifugio Auronzo at the base of Tre Cime. This was my first encounter with an Alpine-style Rifugio (or Hutte in the German) and calling this a “hut” or “refuge” is like calling the Queen Mary 2 a boat. It was huge… and closed for the season. But there were multiple car parks, signs in several languages, and clearly a lot goes on here in the “on” season.

The guidebook says that 90% of the people hiking from Rif. Auronzo go east on the #101 trail and that we should under no circumstances follow them. From the south, near the Rifugio, Tre Cime aren’t at their full glory, but by heading west on the #105 trail and traversing around to the north, we could see the sheer faces of these improbable peaks. To say it was spectacular would be quite accurate, but there was plenty of spectacle to go around when you included the more distant peaks of Cristallo, Monte Piana, and the others in the Sesto Dolomiti. Clouds still clung to the valleys, but up here it was brilliant and clear and warmer than we’d expected. After a few hours of slack-jawed hiking equal to any I’ve had in any of my three decades of mountaineering, we reached the Rifugio Locatelli where we stopped for lunch with two personable fellows from Munich, admired the views, and interacting with a small flock of Alpine Chuffs, the local camp-thief corvids.

Despite being Italian, these mountains are rife with German hikers. Back in the day, the Austrian/Italian border (and before that, Austrian/Venetian border) ran through these mountains. In the WWI days, these mountains were hotly contested and a great deal of effort and a great many lives were invested by both sides (more on that presently). A prime example of this is Monte Paterno adjacent to Tre Cime and Rif. Locatelli. Italian troops claimed this particular high ground, fortifying the peak via an extensive system of tunnels and via ferrate.

We hiked up the north ridge of Monte Paterno and rapidly transitioned to rough hiking trail to fortified shelf trail. At the rather alarmingly small mouth of the first tunnel, we paused to don the vertical and caving gear we’d hauled all the way here. Both Eric and I are experienced rock climbers, but we had never attempted something like this. We had standard climbing harnesses and helmets (with headlamps for the dark sections), but instead of ropes and the usual 10-20 kilos of clanking metal rock protection, we each had a Y-shaped tether tied out of a few meters of ice climbing rope with a carabiner on each leg to clip into the various cables and rungs along the route. Very high fall-factors are possible, so I added a modicum of shock absorption in the form of a Yates Screamer between the Y and the harnesses. This is a rough approximation for the officially-sanctioned via ferrata gear and seemed like it should work for this relatively easy route, right?

The clouds chased us up the mountain.

The clouds chased us up the mountain.

The tunnel entrance was the narrowest part and it quickly became walking territory from there. Frequent windows, sniper lookouts, and outdoor sections limited the tunnels to a few dozen meters at first. Later, we ascended a very long, steep set of steps in a uniformly dark, humid tunnel climbing steeply up the north ridge of Monte Paterno. Side passages lead off to rooms, most with with views that would be spectacular. However, the clouds had been rising out of the valleys all day and, as we climbed, the cloud deck climbed with us and we were alternately within and just above the clouds. Regardless, we were having a blast!

ebb_cables2After the last tunnel, we emerged onto the northeastern face of Paterno to start the cable section. Approaching this as a climber, the first section was more than a little daunting: steep, loose, and with no obvious protection. Eric gamely took the lead and discovered that it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. We weren’t free climbing after all, we were via ferrata-ing. Pulling on gear was expected and hand-over-handing up the cables was acceptable; we wore close-fitting leather-palmed gloves for exactly this reason and they were perfect. We were also carrying ice axes and traction, but never needed it. There was a litle snow here and there, some of it quite slick and hard, but we managed without too much trouble. We quickly got the hang of moving our ‘biners over bolts on the cable, climbing quickly and having a grade-A fantastic time. Overall, it felt a lot like the fun part of rock climbing, but fast and without most of the protection-placing logistical hassel. The route was well protected and it felt comfortable the whole time.

We climbed and traversed a series of cables and steep ledges for half an hour to a sunny saddle below the summit where a number of other teams were hanging out after ascending from the southern (easier) side of the route. From here, the route headed down a scree gulley to continue on the southern ridge of Paterno to the Forcella Passaporte. But it was still early and we were both jazzed at the idea of summiting a technical foriegn peak. So we followed a German fellow up the vertical face of the summit wall and encountered a grade of ferrata difficulty higher than we’d seen before; still nothing too hard, but much steeper and with smaller ledges.

It was accordingly a degree or two more fun as well. The last fifty meters to the summit were easy, free-form scrambling on bright white limestone and we finally made the summit with huge grins on our faces. We hung out on the summit with two other climbers for a good leisurely while hoping for a break in the clouds below. The clouds continued to rise and we were perched along on an airy island in the clouds staring at Tre Cime across the way and dozens of other summit-islands into the distance. A big wooden cross on the summit removed any remaining doubt that we weren’t in our familiar Colorado anymore.

Cloud shadows on mountains are no big deal. Mountain shadows on clouds...? Either way, the view of Tre Cime from the summit was astonishing.

Cloud shadows on mountains are no big deal. Mountain shadows on clouds…? Either way, the view of Tre Cime from the summit was astonishing.

The clouds didn’t look like they were going to dissipate, so we reluctantly reversed our tracks down the ledges and cable systems to the saddle and scree-hopped down the gulley. The southern half of Innerkofler is mostly hiking along shelf trails hacked into one side or the other of the ridge. There are occasional bitsof cable across mild ledges and short tunnel segments. We found it technically easier and a bit less interesting than the northern portion though the pea-soup fog may have had something to do with this. Eventually we emerged from the impressive and fortified southern entrance, hiked down to Forcella di Lavaredo where, under less cloudy conditions, we would have gotten yet another spectacular postcard view of Tre Cime. Instead, we doffed technical gear, put on coats and hats, and trudged the highway-like 101 trail past Rif. Lavaredo to Rif. Auronzo.

Wow! What a day!

Exploring the Cadini di Misurina

Number 4: the larch!

Number 4: the larch!

After such an epic, wildly-successful first day, we were a little adrift as to what to do for a follow-up. Michele had suggested the Cadini di Misurina — a dense maze of improbably-pointy mountain peaks looming east of town — and it seemed like something interesting might be found in there. The weather looked like it might be a repeat of yesterday with clouds hiding everything, so we set out on a conservative hike up to the Rif. Fonda Savio where we would reassess. The first few miles were in steep larch forest in dense fog. However, as the day wore on and we got higher, the fog cleared and we saw that, like the Grand Canyon, you can’t really appreciate the Cadini without gitting down and dirty amongst it.

Looking north from the midst of the Cadini di Misurina from part way up Forcella del Diavolo.

Looking north from the midst of the Cadini di Misurina from part way up Forcella del Diavolo.

The climb to Rif. Fonda Savio turned out to be pretty easy, but the clouds still intermittently covered everything. Eschewing more ambitious, committing goals, we turned south and followed the Sentiero Bonacossa up the steep, loose Forcella del Diavolo under the triple horns of Cima del Diavolo and down the equally steep trail into Cadin di la Neve to the south. The descent was equipped with ladders and cables in places and we’d brought full ferrata gear ‘just in case’. But these trail augmentations were of an entirely different order from what we saw yesterday and we felt quite comfortable going unprotected.

Cadin di Neve was a rather barren (though spectacular!) valley full of scree, so we didn’t linger and climbed directly up the other side via a very entertaining trail to Forcella di Misurina on the southernmost ridge of the Cadini. We climbed in the fog up a series of easy cables and enjoyed a second lunch on our second Forcella (pass) of the day. Things cleared up as we dropped down the south side and we were rewarded with a stunning panoramic view of Misurina directly below, the impressive bulk of Cristallo beyond, the Sorapis, Monte Piana and more. The hike to Rif. Col de Varda was a nice down-hill stroll and the hike down the ski slopes and across to the trail head a wonderful cap to the day of exploration. It had finally become totally clear and we could now see the views we’d missing in the morning fog lit by strong afternoon sun.

Descending toward Rif. Col de Varda, we got this awesome view of Misurina with Monte Cristallo and everything else beyond.

Descending toward Rif. Col de Varda, we got this awesome view of Misurina with Monte Cristallo and everything else beyond.

Into the Trenches on Monte Piana

With two big days behind us and a week of astronomy ahead (not to mention a drive down to Venice), we settled for a less ambitious goal today. We took the first jeep taxi up the old military road to Monte Piana. Our driver was a former Italian national ski champion from neighboring Cortina d’Ampezzo and former James Bond stunt-double in For Your Eyes Only. Talk about local color!

Monte Piana and Monte Piano are two adjacent high plateaus just west of Tre Cime. In a land of technical, precipitous peaks, this high, flat ground is nearly unique and offers a dominating view of the entire area. The military in the 1910s certainly recognized this and the Italian and Austrian troops spent two and a half years up here digging fortifications, shooting at each other, and lobbing shells at their positions on Monte Piana and Piano, respectively. All told the conflict reportedly killed 14,000 soldiers with no clear benefit to either side.

The jeep ride drops you off at Rif. Bossi (our seventh Rifugio and the only one which wasn’t closed for the season). We hiked a well-signed path along the edge of the plateau on the Italian side, exploring the extensive trenches, bunkers, redoubts, and command posts. Not wanting to play favorites, we hiked down the modest Forcella di Castrati (there’s a story, I’m sure) and explored the Austrian side. Interestingly, the fortifications over here displayed a subltly different style. The weather was great and we basked in the incredible views of both Tre Cime and the Cadini, our previous days’ conquests. The history was fascinating, but it was more than a little sobering to see the trenches, redoubts, barbed wire, monuments, and scattered rough crosses which I can only only assume mark the graves of various teenagers from a century ago.


The mental transition from an early twentieth century, ghost-ridden alpine battlefield to a dense, tourist-ridden city still largely in the seventeenth century was pretty shocking. I don’t deal well with crowds under the best of circumstances and my introduction to Venice was a bewildering walk through Piazza San Marco to our hotel in the height of tourist hour, heavily laden with no clear idea where I was going. The streets are narrow, crowded, a bit dirty, and a real sensory overload. However, things got better once we moved in and wandered around a bit. Fortunately, Eric had a good knowledge of the general area.

The view to the west from the Campanille San Marco.

The view to the west from the Campanille San Marco.

After nearly a week in Venice, my attitudes changed considerably. It is a trully unique city and more packed with fascinating history (much of which is no doubt related to it’s unique nature) than even a lot of other European cities. I finally realized that the way to navigate is to not try too hard, accept getting lost, and just wander. The whole city is remarkably walkable and, short of expensive gondolla rides or similar, it’s the only way to see the city. It’s fascinating to see how everything is done by boat: police, fire, deliveries, everything! It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that I saw a car or bicycle at all.

The conference was held at the amazing Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, part of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, an amazing building on the Grand Canal. Talks were held inside, but coffee hour was out in a beautiful garden right under the adjacent Ponte d’Academia (we must appear in hundreds of tourist photos, I’m sure). As conferences go, this was a hodge-podge of different topics and nothing really extraordinary happened. But I learned a few new things and got to put faces to names of people I work with, and in some cases, in spite of.

Highlights of Venice included a really amazing chamber orchestra concert by the Interpreti Veneziani at the equally amazing Scuola Grande di San Rocco which is covered in hundreds of square meters of Tintoretto paintings. I had a surprisingly good time braving the crowds in San Marco with Lisa, Kevin and Emily to see the view of the city from the slightly-off-plumb Campanille, the over-the-top Doge’s Pallace, and the astonishingly-oppulent Basillica of San Marco. I spent a long time looking at gondolas which, from a boat building point of view, are completely unique, utterly strange boats (they’re asymetric on several axes!). I even braved a run through the twisty streets and managed the better part of five miles along the waterfront from my hotel to Quartier San Elena park at the east end of the island. Sharing San Marco in the early morning with only the delivery boats and the street sweepers was pretty neat. But there were plenty of less tangible highlights that occured on all the walks to and from the Academia and farther afield in the city.

…and back again

It was a great, varied trip; my first to Italy, but undoubtedly not my last. I would eagerly go back to the Dolomites and the Sport Hotel. Misurina was wonderful and Ulli and Fiorenza made us feel very much at home. I’d recommend the Sport Hotel to anyone. But this is just the tip of the Dolomite iceberg. Next time, I’d probably pick a different spot and explore it to the same degree we did the environs of Misurina.

After I got over my initial dislike, Venice was an amazing place. It’s extremely expensive and touristy, though both are for good reason. I’m not sure I’d go back as a tourist, but probably would for a conference. Every time I travel like this, I’m reminded that the world is a big place and there are lots of amazing things to see. However, I’m also amazed at how nice it is to go back home again, see my family, sleep in my own bed, and look through the thousand-odd photos accumulated on a trip like this.

Many thanks to Michele and Erica for helping us set up the trip. Michele specifically suggested Misurina as a destination and helped us arrange our travel and make phone calls. Erica provided maps and guide books and supplied a specific list of things to see and eat in Venice. I didn’t get through as much as sight-seeing list as I’d liked, but I ate nearly everything on the foods list. Mille grazie! Additional thanks to Ben S. for help on gear selection and his usual enthusiasm for all things alpine. Lastly, thanks to Eric for helping plan and execute this trip. Having a partner makes travel like this easier, safer, and much more fun.

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