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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Snowshoeing in the Dolomites in Northern Italy - Part 1

Three feet of snow were forecast the night we arrived at our hotel in Cortina de Ampezzo, high in the Dolomite mountains north of Venice.  When we got up the next morning, there was plenty of snow on the ground, and it was still snowing.  As soon as we got up that morning, we carefully separated all the things we would carry for the next five days from all the things we would leave behind in the hotel.  No laptop, no city shoes, no jeans.

Since we knew this trip consisted of hiking for several hours every day, in the snow, with backpacks, at altitude, we prepared for weeks by running stairs.  Paris is mostly flat, so every Saturday, we put on our backpacks stuffed with books and our hiking boots, and went to the Trocadero.  There, we dodged between selfie-taking tourists as we climbed seven stories of stairs ten times.

On the first morning of the trip, our guide, Jiri (pronounced 'yee-ree'), met us at our hotel.  He lives in Italy with his Italian wife, but he grew up in the Czech Republic.  He's spent his life traveling and guiding, and he'd been where we were going on many occasions, which was good, since there was little sign of a trail under the snow much of the time.

Jiri provided us with mini snow shovels, avalanche transceivers, and collapsible aluminum rods.  This is the same basic avalanche survival kit that we had on our snowshoe trip last year.  Everyone has to  to carry their own, because you never know who might be under the snow, including the guide!  Later that day, we practiced finding a buried beacon.  While we closed our eyes, Jiri went somewhere and buried a transceiver in the snow.  Then, we had to switch our transceivers from beacon mode to search mode. It tells you the direction and distance away of another beacon.  First, you scan back and forth to figure out the direction, then walk toward it until you find the minimum distance.  Next, you take out the search pole and poke down into the snow, trying to find the body of the person buried in the avalanche.  Finally, you pull out your shovels and dig them out.

Time is of the essence.  Last year, our guide told us about a man who took too long finding his son's body and his son suffocated by the time he could dig him out.  So, even with all this equipment, your chances in an avalanche are not so great.  The latest invention is an airbag that inflates and helps to keep you near the surface as the avalanche rolls you down the mountain.

A van dropped us off at the trailhead, where we strapped on our snowshoes, put on our packs, picked up our ski poles and headed up the mountain.  We could hear the tiny flakes filtering down through the branches of the trees and feel them pricking our faces.

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

We were the only people around.  Snow started to cling to our hoods and packs as we hiked.  I brushed all the snow off once, but it didn't take long to realize there was no point.  At first, we were in a dense white forest.

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

Amidst all the white and gray, the bright orange bark of some types of pine trees was a reminder we weren't in a black and white world.  

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

It didn't seem like we were moving very quickly, but every time I stopped to take a photo, I would fall far behind in a really short time.  That was how it was for the whole trip.  If I got really far behind, they would stop.  Jiri said, "Difficult is the life of the photographer, but more difficult are the lives of those around them.", to which Jennifer said amen.   

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

As we gained altitude, we could see back down to the valley floor, where someone had a little house.  The still have shepherds here, who only inhabit these little houses in the mountains in the milder months of the year. 

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

We knew the Dolomite mountains are famous for their rusty tint, but we couldn't really see much yet.  This was one of our first peeks.

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

We passed through a wide open meadow above the first hut, on our hike up to a small peak.  

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

View on the way to the peak.  Clouds slid through the valley and over the mountains, so the view was always changing.  Jiri kept saying we were only seeing the lower parts of the mountains - the tops were far above.  We said - sure - if you say so.  

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

This bronze plaque was at the base of the cross at the peak.  There's almost always a cross on the peaks in Europe.  The plaque is dedicated to (German?) soldiers in World Wars I and II.  It made me want to review history.  This is in Italy, and the Italians were against Germany in WW I, so it's a bit puzzling. This area is only about 20 miles south of the Austrian border, and a lot of people here speak more German than Italian.  

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

The view on the way back down from the peak to the refuge.

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

There were lots of people in the refuge when we arrived around 2 or so, but they had all skied in cross-country from another direction.  They were all going back, and it turned out we were the only guests staying there that night!  The owners had completely forgotten, so they had to go turn on the heat for the guest room area when we arrived.

This refuge was two stories, with a bar/restaurant on the first floor, and the guest rooms upstairs.

snow mountains Dolomites Italy spectacular large format color photograpy snowshoe outdoors adventure travel wilderness pristine solitude silence beautiful Vick Fisher copyright 2016

If the photos are too large to fit on your screen, click on any photo to get a slide show view. 

The bar restaurant had about 8 or 10 tables, all around a central round ceramic tile chimney about 7 feet in diameter.  There was no visible fireplace.  The ceramic tile was very warm to the touch, as the fireplace was a in the basement.  It was great to warm up and dry out, eat some excellent pasta, and have a drink after a long, cold day.

I promise some photos of sunny days with views to the mountaintops soon.  In the meantime, if you want to see more beautiful, and in some cases exciting, photos of snowshoeing in Europe, check out this series of our trip last year in the Haute Savoie region of the Alps.

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