A hike up the Italian Alps' Passo Falzarego is tough to top
August 28, 2003
Did you ever wonder what it’s like to be on top of the world?
One way to find out is by traveling to the Italian Alps and Cortina d’Ampezzo. It’s a few hours’ drive from the U.S. military communities in Aviano and Vicenza and a day’s drive from most of Germany. But the majestic mountains are a world away from the concrete and asphalt lifestyles of the base.
Cortina, site of the 1956 Winter Olympics, is a well-known destination, a prime ski village filled with swank shops, hotels that range from fancy to plain, restaurants and cafés. The backdrop of towering peaks makes every view look like a postcard.
But for sheer tranquility, there’s a mountain pass 10 miles to the west named Passo Falzarego. The twisting drive from Cortina climbs 2,900 feet up into the sky. The destination is scenery straight out of “The Sound of Music.”
Once there, the best thing to do is go mountain hiking. It’s high enough so ears pop as if on an airplane.
Even on the warmest summer day at sea level, it’s cool enough to remind visitors of the main use for these slopes.
The elevation at Passo Falzarego is 6,893 feet. A gondola takes visitors to the top of the mountain, which is 8,996 feet. The gondola also takes passengers back down.
But if you’ve got the guts, you hike.
The drop is equivalent to nearly two Empire State buildings and, frankly, the terrain can be deadly. There are places where one or two missteps could send a hiker plummeting to certain death.
The hike is not recommended for people who have fear of heights, vertigo, high anxiety or suicidal tendencies. That extra cup of coffee in the morning might not seem like such a good idea when balancing on a mountainside path overlooking a 500-foot drop.
Yes, it is that dangerous.
But the Europeans don’t seem to mind. They strap on their hiking shoes (highly recommended for traction) and backpacks, grab their walking sticks and hop around on the cliffs as if it’s nothing. So if they can, why can’t Americans?
It helps to be flexible and in at least average physical condition to make even the downhill hike, which will provide a nice little workout for the muscles of the thighs, calves and buttocks.
Otherwise, the gondola ride down might be the way to go.
One of the main attractions at Passo Falzarego are three open-air museums of Italian and Austrian entrenchments from World War I. Hikers can actually climb down a good portion of the mountain through the caverns.
A vendor at the base of the hill rents coal miners’ helmets for a few euros, a wise investment if you want to spare yourself some nasty bumps on the skull inside the rocky caves.
Hikers with much gusto actually hike up the mountain and through the caves.
The main mountain at Passo Falzarego is called Monte Lagazuoi. Atop its peak is a hotel called the Mountain Inn. It has a restaurant and viewing deck and is a great place to bring a camera.
This is what it’s like being at the top of the world.
The view is endless in all directions: nothing but lush green valleys way down below, towering mountain peaks on the horizon framed by blue skies and white, puffy clouds (weather permitting).
After a few minutes or hours of gazing in stunned wonder, a decision has to be made: Hike down to the bottom or ride the gondola down?
Riding is easy. The gondola leaves every 15 minutes.
So the hike begins and right away it is treacherous.
The path leading to the opening of the cavern — if you choose to go that route — is along the side of a cliff. There’s a cable to hang onto part of the way.
At one point, the trail is 4 feet wide with a 500-foot drop on either side and nothing to hang onto except a couple of big rocks.
You find yourself thinking like a mountain goat, planting yourself to the ground and praying that no strong breeze kicks up.
After those first jitters, the hike is quite refreshing and glorious. Eventually, the hiker becomes one with the mountain. The knees are bent to keep a low center of gravity. Arms are spread for balance, as though on a high-wire.
Scenery isn’t the only thing that takes your breath away. The air is sharp and crystal clean — but it is thin at 8,000 feet. Even a well-conditioned person who is new to the altitude will spend time sucking wind until he or she has acclimated.
It’s dark inside the caverns and can be wet and slippery. Fortunately, there’s a cable to hang onto during the steep parts. The lantern on the helmet provides adequate light.
Sometimes, if it is sunny enough, hikers peel off their shirts to catch rays. But normally it is too cool for that.
Opportunities will present themselves to use your Italian 101. Most of the hikers you come across happily respond to a friendly “Buon Giorno!” Say “Grazie” (thank you) to a slower hiker who yields the right of way.
Every now and then the caverns come out on the side of the mountain. There are no guardrails, but there are places for a person or group to sit and rest.
Since the mountain is rocky with loose stones, high-top hiking shoes with good treads work best. Anyone wearing low-tops will need to stop a few times to empty the stones from their shoes. The hike is doable in sneakers but more difficult and dangerous.
A hiking stick or two can help maintain balance on the steep slopes. Backpacks come in handy for carrying water, sandwiches and apples. The openings and landings that jut out of the side of the mountains are perfect places for lunch.
If you choose the cavern route to the bottom (there is an all-trail route), the cavern ends about halfway down and spills the hikers back out onto the trails.
The path zigzags the rest of the way down the hill between sun-bleached logs. There are times standing there on the steep mountainside looking at the snowless slopes when one can almost hear the cowbells and cheering crowd and see Franz Klammer schussing between the gates on his way to a gold medal.
It’s wise for hikers to take time to savor these moments, not just for enjoyment but for rest and safety. There are a lot of ways to be injured — even fatally — on the loose stones and sharps rocks.
Some places are steep enough so that some actual mountain climbing (i.e., hands on rock) is almost required.
The parking lot at the base of the mountain is way down in the distance but at least it’s in sight. Toward the bottom, the first vegetation appears: wild gardens of thick, neck-high evergreen shrubs have somehow sprung from the rock.
And high in the crisp air of the Italian Alps, there’s nothing like the smell of pine needles at 7,000 feet.
If you go
• Getting there: The drive is about two hours from Aviano and three hours from Vicenza, Italy, but traffic can be slow on the two-lane roads into the mountains. Take A27 north to Belluno, then pick up NR51 to Cortina d’Ampezzo. It’s about nine hours from Frankfurt. The nearest airport is in Venice; the nearest train station in Calalzo di Cadore.• When to go: June to October. Skiing season begins on the last weekend in November.• What to see and do: The swank ski town of Cortina is filled with markets, restaurants and hotels. Camping is available. There are great chances for mountain biking, horseback riding and, of course, photography. There are many lifts open in the nonski season to take visitors up and down the mountains.• Hours: The lift at Passo Falzarego opens at 9 a.m. The last one down the hill leaves at 5 p.m. Many other lifts are available in the area.• Money: Italy uses the euro. A one-way ride up the mountain costs 7.70 euros; down costs 5 euros and a round-trip is 10.40 euros. It costs 6 euros to rent a coal miner’s helmet (highly recommended for the caves) and a radio that narrates attractions in the caves.• For more info: Try http://cortina.dolomiti.org.
Also try www.grandeguerra.dolomiti.org or phone (+39) (0) 436-867301 for Passo Falzarego and (+39) (0) 436-3231 and (+39) (0) 436-866252 for Cortina tourism information.
— Charlie Coon