I got those Pandemic City Blues
Four weeks ago I’d never heard of Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Last weekend we hiked around it and I’m still struggling to find the English to describe the beauty of what we saw. How we got there is kind of a funny story.
We humans have an ability to let trauma fade, which helps us in countless ways from childbirth and broken limbs to the death of loved ones. It strikes me that many of us have already forgotten just how awful things were in April, May and June 2020. The extreme lockdown in Ireland achieved its aims but I particularly remember those three months being the hardest of all mentally. And for others, it was far far worse than that.
Whilst I love doing my trail runs and little hikes, I’m a total neophyte to the wider world of hiking and mountaineering. Apart from reading Chris Bonington books in the Kilkenny City library as a kid and watching Free Solo, I know nothing.
London Mountain Film Festival (LMFF)
By late April I was looking for any distraction from the relentless nothingness of the same loops over and over and over on the local roads. But somehow, possibly via the BBC Adventure Show or similar, I read about the London Mountain Film Festival (LMFF) on Twitter and signed up to stream the movies/documentaries to break the boredom.
I’d already watched the lovely Paddy O’Leary’s Coming Home and I recognised some names like ledgebags Ultra Damo and Beth Pascall doing Cape Wrath. But most of it was completely new to me. And what a wonderful set of movies, shorts and documentaries it proved to be. For a change I was crying tears of joy watching Mel Nicholls in Dream Big, Trevor Kennison in Day 1 and “The East German Ladies Swimming Team” in The Home For Broken Toys.
But there was so many, I never got to the end. Maybe once a month I have been dipping in over the past year+ and each one has been a gem.
This brings us up to mid September 2021. Our wedding anniversary was coming up and, like many people, we hadn’t had a proper holiday in two years. We decided to treat ourselves and book the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore for a night along with the vegan tasting menu.
Dolomite is my name and
A few days later, I was doing another dip into the LMFF playlist and I discovered this odd long documentary called The Great Peak. For a start it’s in subtitled German. It opens with an older guy who has spectacular hair. I recognise him from maybe one of the Kílian Jornet documentaries. It turns out he is Reinhold Messner and is one of the greatest mountaineers ever, having done things like the first solo ascent of Everest!
Reinhold is talking about a very special set of peaks in the Dolomite Mountains called Drei Zinnen. The camera pans to show them and my jaw hits the floor. As I said in the opener, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe them. Majestic doesn’t do them justice. Other-worldly? Perfection? I don’t know. But I was immediately glued to every word he spoke.
His thesis is that many thousands of people go there every year, take a selfie, have a drink and head home without hiking around it to see the full impact of how amazing the peaks and surroundings are. The movie then takes a strange turn and decides to recreate the first ascent of Tre Cime/Drei Zinnen in 1869, by Paul Grohmann, with actors/climbers in period-appropriate clothing and climbing gear. It was all very low budget and clunky and terrifying, given their gear. It progresses to show each of the major achievements on the peaks since then, including the still-shocking 2002 free solo of the north face. It’s a fantastic informative documentary and you should seek it out.
Step 1 - Find the right country
Later that evening I told Catherine about it and how “we should go there sometime”. At this point I still didn’t know where “there” was.
Catherine’s response? “Let’s go. Cancel the anniversary stay in Ardmore and go there instead”. I knew instantly she was right. We’ve really been embracing the carpe diem thing since last year. We could be dead. Even tho I think I only met Nigel Pim once and interacted with him many years ago on Twitter, his death from Covid hit me more than any other, due to his age, fitness and connections to those I know in Tramore.
I immediately switched into Hell-Yeah Mode. But first, where are they? Italy? Austria? Solvenia? A few seconds googling confirmed that Tre Cime are less than a 3 hour drive north of Venice and they are in Italy right beside the old Austro-Hungarian empire border.
I quickly figured out that Ryanair Dublin-Treviso and a hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo was what we needed along with a 4WD rental car just in case (just in case Conor wants to drive a jeep for the first time more like, eh?)
The plan was: Drive to Dublin because Cork Airport is run by geniuses, fly Friday night, stay in a cheap hotel in Treviso, get the car on Saturday morning along with picnic provisions, drive to Tre Cime, do the hike, stay in a good hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo, do another hike on Sunday, go “somewhere” on Monday, fly home late Monday night, back to Cork.
(Update: Ryanair has just announced flights from Cork to Venice (VCE) on Tuesdays and Saturdays from March 29, 2022!)
Overall it worked out incredibly well with only minor glitches like a motorcyclist nearly killing us both on a hairpin mountain bend. It started badly with Passport Control taking over an hour to process one plane. But the B&B Hotel Treviso turned out to be great value, basic but clean, friendly and filled with vending machines. Less than 10 mins in a taxi. Also the only hotel where I’ve ever been asked if I wanted sweet or salt for my breakfast. What a brilliant compact way of putting things.
We used Leasys for the car which worked out fine but I suspect they only have a small number of vehicles compared to the big brands. The vehicle itself was a Jeep Cherokee. How something can be that big on the outside and that small on the inside I will never know. A reverse Tardis. The drive went from motorway to small road, to smaller road, to oh jesus we’re going to die. But when we got there, we hit a multi-mile car tailback going up to the start of the hike. I was reminded of the old “you’re not in traffic, you are traffic” line. 45 minutes and 50 metres later, I did a U-ey. So much for low season and no crowds.
We stopped in Misurina and ate our picnic beside the gorgeous lake. More mind-boggling views. Then twisty-twisty mountain road all the way to Cortina d’Ampezzo.
I don’t think your uncle Harry would approve
As I’m not a skier and 1981 was a very long time ago, I had never heard of Cortina either, unless that’s what the car is named after. But it is famous as a ski resort and as the location for some set-pieces in For Your Eyes Only. For fun we tried to watch it that night. Oh dear, those Roger Moore era James Bond movies have not aged well. Interesting that Cortina looked almost identical back then.
Then another fantastic discovery happened. I wondered if the famous Lavaredo Ultra Trail LUT was held anywhere near us, given the name. Hah, it starts and finishes outside the front-door of our hotel! So once checked in, we walked the first tiny bit of the race until it went vertically up. LUT is getting added to my “not some day, 2022” list now.
Almost all of the hotels were shut in the region as we’d managed to pick the week after the end of the summer season. Hotel Cortina was just about to close but was absolutely lovely and again everyone was so friendly. I have to thank the manager who brought me to their secret car parking area and hilariously berated my driving the whole way there. By the end of it, I was Giuseppe Farina. Fun moments like that stay with you long after.
Would you like some cheese with your cheese?
Now we get to the only downside of the trip. If you don’t survive solely on a diet of meat and cheese, you’re going to struggle in Northern Italy. Remember this is a place where 60+% of people speak German and it still has that strong Austro-Hungarian thing going on. So dried meat, cured meat, hunted meat, Irish beef (really!) and cheese are your options. Even tho I turned vegan in 2020, I couldn’t help be impressed by the supermarket having an entire section dedicated to mozzarella.
The poor Happy Cow app could really only recommend one Japanese fusion place in all of Cortina plus some places that had veggie options. But we did some digging and realised many places will do a Marinara pizza which doesn’t have cheese. The ones from Ai Due were superb. And another proper Italian moment - All of their pizzas had two toppings and he literally wouldn’t let me add another. So basically ask him for Marinara con verdure to get aubergine and courgette.
The following night we ate in Il Ponte. This is a standard tourist joint with a massive menu including Hawaiian pizza :-) Rather than ask for vegan options, I realised the simplest thing in Italy is to improvise yourself from the menu. So Mariana pizza con rucola e olive was fabulous (rocket and olives, plus the capers from Catherine’s salad). Her salad wasn’t great but the simple pasta with tomato sauce was fantastic. And she could have asked them to add various veg etc. You could easily work up a multitude of variations of pasta or pizza that are no extra work for the kitchen since they are making them all to order anyway. A lovely bottle of Pinot Nero to go finished off our night nicely.
Wait a second, this post has completely gone off the rails hasn’t it?
Tre Cime, OMFG
Right, we got up early on Sunday, filled up on breakfast and drove up to Tre Cime. Catherine had to close her eyes for the last couple of miles of relentless hair-pin bends and minimal armco. Quick tip - there is a toll on the last long section up to main carpark of €30. You can park before there and hike up but it’s a couple of hours at least. There were no traffic jams at 9am but the carpark at Rifugio Auronzo was almost full when we got there. Early my ass.
It was gorgeously sunny but freezing up there. If you are doing this, possibly at any time of the year, wear warm clothing including a hat and gloves. My thin TNF gloves weren’t warm enough and my running tights were a bit too wind-transparent. Our puffas were ideal tho.
Initial views over the valleys were incredible and I was surprised to see everything from small kids to OAPs heading off on their hikes.
We turned the corner and caught our first glimpse of Tre Cime. Holy fuck. And that’s how it went for the entire hike in terms of descriptive language.
Oh I forgot to mention that I’d bought two maps - Kompass Naturpark Drei Zinnen and Tabacco 03 Cortina d’Ampezzo e Dolomiti Ampezane along with the Cicerone Shorter Walks in The Dolomites book. The route we were taking around the peaks was Walk 9 from the book. Surprisingly they don’t provide GPX files online but I found one that seemed to match their written route and loaded it on to Outdoors Online on my phone and Garmin InReach.
Speaking of which, my Strava for the hike is here along with downloadable GPX.
The first stretch of the route was fine and got a little steep up to a fabulous spot at Forcella Lavaredo that had views for many miles in all directions. Tre Cime itself just got more and more impressive as you saw it from each new angle.
Slip sliding away
Then things went pear-shaped badly. The downhill on the other side was in the shade and was covered in rock-hard snow and ice. I have no idea if that’s there all year round or if there had been a snowfall recently. But it caused minor chaos. There was a thin relatively clear strip along the edge with a drop off so we weren’t doing that (hats off to the young uns who did). My Hoka Speedgoats were gripping brilliantly, but Catherine’s Pegasus Trails were useless. But before proper hikers get sniffy about the footwear, everyone struggled except for those who came prepared with micro-spikes. One young guy ended up on his arse in expensive looking Salomon boots.
It took us forever to edge down. The Black Diamond poles once again proved to be worth every penny. Catherine was terrified but we kept going as it was easier than trying to go back up. It wasn’t particularly dangerous as the track is quite wide and it would be possible to get slowly down on your very wet arse if you wished. Some people overtook us but the majority stayed stuck at the top for a long time and we left them far behind us. I am sure most who didn’t have decent footwear or poles turned around.
It was extremely cold in the shade but we relaxed a bit once the track dried out and we headed up to Rifugio Locatelli. We’d have murdered a coffee at that stage but it was shut.
The route down to the plain was very easy and the track back up was clear but very steep. Even the twenty-somethings were stopping regularly to catch their breaths. Remember, for Paddies, our starting point was at more than twice the elevation of Carrauntoohil.
Is this even real?
Many many many pictures were being taken and the sense of “this feels like I’m in a painting” never left me.
The last time I felt like that was above the Grand Canyon in the 90s. When your brain sees something completely new and of that scale, it struggles to make sense of it. Like the first astronauts looking down for the first time maybe.
Just when we thought the last mile or so would be a doddle, we hit a repeat of the first problem. Which was surprising since it wasn’t in the shade. Interestingly, despite the drop-off, we’d both got a lot more comfortable with the edge and used that since it was clear and dry rather than trying to fight the packed snow again.
The only tiny wrinkle before we got back to the start was a spot where the trail had collapsed and what remained was covered in slippy ice. You could easily fall to your death there. Given all the tourists, it really needs to be rebuilt. We tip-toed incredibly carefully across.
When I first read about this route, I thought 6 miles would take no time at all and we might need to do a second hike to fill the day. It took us 3.5 hours!! That’s a new low-speed record for me.
We were both wrecked after the effort of it all and luckily the canteen-style cafe in Rifugio Auronzo had polenta, roasted mushrooms and roasted aubergine, almost like they were expecting me or something :-)
Here’s a fairly glitchy but still cool Fatmap flyover of the hike. Follow that Fatmap link to interact with it yourself.
The following day we did a few hours in Venice which is still to be avoided at all costs. I don’t know how they are going to fix it but do yourself a favour - skip it and do Tre Cime instead. Up there, you won’t find insane crowds in narrow passageways, ridiculous fashion shops or awful pizza, just that wonder of the natural world. But if you do insist on Venice, we had a lovely simple vegan meal in Ogio. My final vegan tip - the cafes in Treviso airport all have a range of soy-milk coffees as does Hotel Cortina.
Just do it
This post was not originally going to be very long. It was supposed to just be an ode to Tre Cime but I figured I may as well make it useful if you are thinking of going.
My two main takeaways about our trip were:
 How Covid has had some positive impacts. From finding incredible routes in Ireland like The Sheep’s Head Way to discovering Tre Cime and now seeking out other “hidden” gems. It’s ridiculous how little of Europe we have visited. What other epic places should we know about?
 How lucky we are to be European and to easily be able to get to such amazing places barely a few hours from our front door and hang out with our European brothers and sisters.
Any questions about the trip or the logistics, just shout.
I took a lot of photos. You can see them all here
comments powered by Disqus