James Rushforth, author of the new Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites guidebook selects two of his favourite routes for adventures in the mountains of the Italian Alps.
Selecting a ‘favourite’ ski tour and snowshoe in the Dolomites seemed like a good idea for Cicerone Extra, yet after scanning the contents page for the best part of two hours, changing my mind at least five times and then deliberating the question on a run around the Lancashire hills, I’ve decided that I’ve experienced many of my best days on routes which could be considered less exciting or extreme than others, with a combination of excellent snow conditions and good company culminating in a superb day on the hill. While good conditions and company cannot ever be guaranteed, here are two excellent routes I can confidently recommend for a great mountain day in the Dolomites.
Piz Boè (3152m) with a descent of Canale del Ghiacciaio into the Val Mesdi
Ski Tour, grade 3.2
Often referred to as the ‘heart of the Dolomites’, the imposing bulk of the Sella Massif is the highest limestone plateau in Europe. Situated squarely in the middle of the four Ladin valleys of Fodom, Fascia, Badia and Gherdëina, during the summer months the four passes (Pordoi, Sella, Gardena and Campolongo) encircling the group play host to thousands of road cyclists, while during the winter months the Sella Ronda – a 44km circular network of lifts and pistes that can be completed in either direction – draws thousands of visitors from around the world. The circuit is well signed and can be completed in roughly 4–6 hours, depending on lift queues, the chosen route and navigation.
Yet above the pistes, nestled in the very rock of this impressive mountain, there lies a complex system of slopes, couloirs and open snow fields that provide the ideal terrain for a range of exceptional ski tours through this remote and impressive landscape. Undoubtedly most frequented of these is the Val Mesdì, which takes its name from the Ladin word for ‘midday’ and is so-called because the sun only strikes the valley around noon. Carving its way through the heart of the Sella Massif, the valley is arguably the most famous touring route of the area and is often described as the Vallée Blanche of the Dolomites. The relative ease of access, north-facing aspect (which often offers powder snow) and dramatic landscape make for a stunning itinerary that is usually accessed from just below Rifugio Boè.
However an alternative and incontestably more exciting approach is to incorporate Piz Boè, the highest peak on the Sella at 3152m, before entering into the Val Mesdi slightly further down via the beautiful and seldom frequented Canale del Ghiacciaio, skipping the often tracked out initial couloir below Rifugio Boè.
The route starts from the top station of the Sass Pordoi cablecar, conveniently located at the top of the Passo Pordoi between the two superbly situated towns of Canazei and Arabba. The newly renovated cablecar removes a great deal of the ascent, enabling you to start your day at an impressive 2950m above sea level. The views from here are magnificent, encompassing the Marmolada, Sassolungo, Piz Boè and the vast lunar plateau of the Sella itself. On a clear day it is possible to see the famous Catinaccio group harbouring the Vajolet Towers and even the southerly peaks of the Pala Dolomites above Pale di San Martino. The cablecar is popular with tourists who come to take in the views and enjoy the cafe at the top, but there is no piste down from here and most opt to ride the cablecar back down to the pass; consequently the crowds quickly disperse as you begin the initial descent to Forcella Pordoi.
From the forcella it’s time to start earning your turns as you traverse to the east before putting your skins on to ascend into a large open area beneath the impressive bulk of Piz Boè. Here you leave the crowds heading for Rifugio Boè and the Val Mesdi to the north, instead striking out north-east, aiming for the base of the southwest ridge and the start of the technical difficulties. The ridge itself is usually best ascended in crampons, following the summer path marked by short sections of cable and picking the best line with occasional short detours to the left and right to avoid the steeper sections. The summit of Piz Boè is reached in just over an hour from the cablecar station. Again spectacular views await in all directions, particularly to the south where the Marmolada - the so-called Queen of the Dolomites and highest peak in the region at 3343m can clearly be seen, the characteristic buttress of Gran Vernel visible to the right of the main summit. If you look closely you can just make out the miniscule figures of skiers descending "La Bellunese”, a 12km red run that winds down to the small town of Malga Ciapella. The route-finding now gets more demanding as you descend to Forcella di Ciamorces, skiing a superb but short couloir before reascending on foot to reach a saddle overlooking a large open slope above Canale del Ghiacciaio itself.
With the approach done, 1300m of continuous vertical descent remains, usually offering the possibility of fresh tracks for the majority of the way. The descent starts gently, allowing for some practice turns before a bottleneck leads into the main couloir itself. The snow is often superb and the couloir, whilst technically challenging, is wide enough to provide an excellent ski down into the Val Mesdi proper. There are now many possible lines as you ski down between the towering rock faces to eventually join up with the pistes around the town of Colfosco. If you have time (and a lift pass) it’s well worth getting the Col Pradat gondola up to the eponymous rifugio for a celebratory drink, where from the terrace you can admire the whole line of the descent while enjoying a Bombardino.
Snowshoe, grade Easy
The Latemar peaks are a seldom frequented but spectacular group that sit atop the Passo Costalunga and are perhaps best known for providing a spectacular backdrop to Lago Carezza, one of the most iconic lakes and views of the Dolomites. The area is shrouded in folklore, particularly regarding the Bambole di Latemar (Latemar Dolls) that line the western edge of the group.
The legend tells of a group of children who were playing near to Lago di Carezza and came across a man who had lost a precious knife. They helped him search but alas the knife could not be found. Sunset came and the children bade the man goodnight and set off to their homes in the village. On the way, one of the children, Minega, saw the knife gleaming in the grass. She picked it up and ran back to the old man, who was delighted and promised her that as a reward he would grant her a wish. The little girl was shy but eventually asked for a doll. As it was already getting dark, the man said if she returned the next day he would let her choose a beautiful doll from his collection. On the way home, Minega met an old woman. How lucky you are, she said, as the old man is rich and owns a great many dolls. Some of his dolls wear silken dresses, but the best ones are clothed in brocade and expensive jewels. If the dolls he gives you wear silk, you must say ‘Dolls of stone with silken rags, stay there and look at the Latemar’ and he will give you the precious dolls. The next day Minega met the old man, who presented her with a collection of beautiful dolls in gold and red silk dresses. Minega recited the words the old woman had told her, and all of a sudden the air was filled by the cackling laughter of the witch and the dolls turned to stone, creating the red and golden spires of the Latemar peaks.
While the boulder field underneath the Latemar peaks is too rocky to lend itself to skiing, it provides the perfect terrain for snowshoeing, creating a snowy labyrinth that has a distinctly fantasy feel to it. In fact, the area is so evocative that it provided the inspiration for the underground lair in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novel ‘The Big Four’ after her stay at Grand Hotel Carezza in 1926. The snowshoe route follows Sentiero Agatha Christie for much of its duration, starting from the top of Passo Costalunga and then briefly following ski pistes south-west before turning towards the Labyrinth itself. Here despite the winter snows the way is well marked on the huge boulders, allowing for a technical and fascinating traverse with several narrow passages between jammed boulders. On some of the steeper sections, it is often advantageous to lock the heels of the snowshoes to enable you to proceed by kicking steps.
The route takes some 5-6 hours depending on the depth of snow, though if you finish early it is well worth making the 15-minute drive to see Lago Carezza itself, particularly if you’re visiting at either end of the season before the lake has fully frozen.