I can’t understand why ski resorts, swarming with people in winter, aren’t more popular in summer. There’s this phenomenal infrastructure sitting unused for 7 months of the year, when it should be providing access to some of the most desirable destinations on earth.
There are exceptions of course; Chamonix being the obvious year-round mountain adventure paradise, but for the most part ski resorts just close down in April. That’s where the Dolomites are different.
The Dolomites are the world’s youngest mountains and maybe there’s a youthful naivety in their business dealings, but the difference is there is life here. The villages are not ski resorts as such, but are recently connected farming villages that are slowly and sympathetically diversifying. Whereas French resorts are purpose-built, based around a seed of tradition reduced to its most elemental parts and industrially, and somewhat tastelessly, rolled out for the masses, the Dolomiti approach has been a natural progression – the families delivering today’s product are the same ones who have lived here for generations and are rightly proud of what they have to offer. You can read that sentence again, substituting the word “resorts” with “mountain food.”
Breakfast on Col Dei Bos
During my time in the Dolomites I was based in Corvara, in the Val Badia, where I made a friend in Angelo Costamoling who runs Pension Angelo. His brother runs the Sporthotel Panorama next door and he still remembers the day his Grandfather returned from a trip to the French Alps with the idea of building a chairlift. I can’t imagine hearing that story from a hotelier in Courchevel….. Yet today the Dolomiti Superski is the largest ski area in the world, and boasts the most spectacularly imposing landscape, the most efficient lift system, and the most culturally considerate development I have ever seen.
The brooding Sella Massif
But the ski industry is not the region’s raison d’etre – which is to their advantage, and yours. These are mountain folk, and they know how to appreciate their surroundings. Just approaching the Dolomites in summer is enough to spark your adrenal glands – driving up from Bolzano is like any other mountain road, until your eyes hit the soaring walls of the Sella Massif. It makes the Alps look like amorphic lumps, such is the distinction of this landscape. Rolling, flower strewn meadows topped everywhere with menacing shards of rock. Not so much mountains but more a violent meeting of gentle foothills and craggy peaks with all the in between bits missing - as if the rock plummeted from above rather than spewed from below. Unique, impressive and really, really exciting!
Panorama of Tofana de Rozes and Cinque Torri
This makes for a great variety of hiking; the rock formations are just as stunning during an easy valley walk, but get up high and you’re in another world. In mid-summer the meadows teem with colour – this is an exceptional area for wildflowers. It makes the barren scenery above the tree line all the more dramatic. But just wait until late afternoon and the onset of “enrosadira” when all the colour belongs to the rock as it catches fire reflecting the setting sun. Whether you’re moseying through flowers to the next prosecco in the sun, or scaling a vertical kilometre on a seemingly impossible path, you’re rewarded with the same visual feast.
On many walks the landscape is almost secondary to the weight of recent history bearing down on you. Before the First World War the South Tyrol was part of Austria. The front line stretched right across the region with the Val Badia being defended fiercely as it was considered a gateway to the rest of Austria. A great summit walk is Col di Lana in the Livinallongo valley, although summit is the wrong word in this case. The mountain was tunnelled into, under the noses of the troops on high ground, and enough dynamite was laid to literally blow the summit away and change the landscape forever. A simple monument is enough to commemorate the dead and the surroundings do the rest in creating a truly evocative experience; walking through the gun emplacements is like walking through history. The open air museum at Cinque Torri and the extensive tunnel network at Lagazuoi are equally understated, but powerful, messages from the past.
War memorial on Col Di Lana
If you prefer your culture more optimistic then consider this; the Alto Adige region (of which Val Badia is a part) is held up as one of the world’s most successful examples of ethnic integration. From such a recent and bloody conflict has developed an intriguing blend of Italian and Austro-Germanic cultures, and even amidst such strong influences the local Ladin culture is still encouraged to flourish. This diversity is evident everywhere, from the myriad languages heard on the street, the architecture and art, and most satisfactorily on the menus!
Sport climbing at Sas Dlacia
Naturally, with the rock architecture, the Dolomites has some stunning climbing and is criminally overlooked by Brits looking for an Alpine experience. The Comici route on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo is one of the classic Alpine north faces. The Fish on the south face of the Marmolada is among the longest routes in Europe. Much of the trad climbing is accessible in grade and wonderfully exposed in character while the sport climbing is plentiful and varied and brilliantly maintained by the Club Alpino Italiano. I’ve known total beginners and consummate experts become equally immersed in Dolomiti climbing. You can learn more about the climbing in this excellent UKC article by James Rushforth - The Dolomites - Classic Alpine Limestone
Sport climbing at Cinque Torri
I can’t talk about adventure in the region without mentioning Via Ferrata. It’s a common misconception that these ‘iron ways’ were invented by WWI troops, but in fact the earliest routes predate the war and were used for leisure – like I said, these people appreciate their mountains. Some climbers can be dismissive of VFs and some walkers are intimidated by them. The grades cover a huge range from gentle scrambling to long sustained climbing (and I do mean climbing!) but what all the routes have in common is they allow access to spectacular situations more safely than scrambling or soloing and more quickly than traditional climbing. There’s no more adventurous way to take your first steps in vertical travel, or to scale a 400m wall fast and light.
Via Ferrata Trincee
For me adventure travel should have three elements; activity, culture and a sense of discovery. I’ve been a dedicated skier for many years but even I couldn’t claim resort skiing to be adventurous, especially not on these criteria. There is far more to discover after the pistes close, and the doors of the Dolomites are always open.
Daniel Wildey is a professional photographer as well as a guest blogger and friend of Jöttnar. He has climbed, skied, worked and travelled throughout the Dolomites and is the author of Aspects of the Dolomites. You can look him up on Facebook, here.
Thanks to Daniel for the words and images.