We Went Hiking In South Tyrol And Fell In Love With The Dolomites Mountain Range
The walking trails of Northern Italy are second to none.
Words by Jack Clayton | Photos by Jack Clayton
We recently attended the International Mountain Summit in Brixen, South Tyrol (northern Italy). The International Mountain Summit, if you're not familiar with it, is a celebration of all things mountain-flavoured. Climbing, hiking, mountaineering; if it's got something to do with mountains, you can bet your bottom dollar that it was getting discussed by someone, somewhere, at the IMS.
Mountains, mountains, mountains. What it's like to be in the mountains, why people can't get enough of mountains, the difference between big mountains and small mountains; all mountain-based matters were dealt with (all by people with intense passion for mountains). Now, I love the mountains as much as the next person. Sure, I'm no Edmund Hillary. And I'm not exactly risking life and limb, like Tamara Lunger, to climb 8,000 metre peaks. But, yes, I like the mountain air. I like the feel of it on my face, and the smell of it in my nose. For evidence of this, you only need to see how I responded when I visited the Matterhorn in Switzerland. I responded positively, let's put it like that.
However, the International Mountain Summit is the kind of event that puts things into perspective for the average mountain enthusiast like me. It reminds you that no matter how much you yourself enjoy being in the mountains, there's probably someone out there who loves them more. And while you might love nothing more than spending a week or two in the Alps every year, there's people out there who struggle to go a week or two without being in the Alps. They live and breathe mountains. They dedicate their whole existence to them, and don't really have time for all the overcrowded bullshit of big-city living.
Now, in case you were wondering, I didn't just spend the whole of my time in South Tyrol feeling overwhelmed by people's enthusiasm for the mountains while sitting in a conference hall. That would have been no fun. And as headlines go, "We Went To South Tyrol And Felt Inadequate While Listening To Big Time Mountain Heroes" is pants, plain and simple. I realised that I needed to go out there, hit the paths, and enjoy the magic of the mountains. Not as an elite level athlete, but as a normal human capable of normal human hiking.
We meet early one morning, a big group of us. The group is made up of a wide range of experienced and far less experienced hikers. I survey the group and feel reassuringly "mid-table". Surely, I think to myself, there's no way I can be the worst hiker here. There's no way I can be figuratively relegated. Is there? There's clearly some serious hikers in amongst us. You can tell just by looking at them. They look so well equipped that I start to question whether they're actually from the future. There's a South Korean man in the group who's literally wearing body armour. Upon seeing him, the hike itself instantly feels a bit more intimidating.
We pile into the minivans, that are going to take us halfway up the mountain, and I secretly make a note to keep track of the South Korean man's location. If, god forbids, it suddenly kicks off up there I feel like any hiker who's wearing body armour will know exactly what to do in any situation. In hindsight, of course, he might just have been a crazy man with an uncontrollable urge to wear body armour at all times. Who knows? I never did find out.
We get to our drop-off point, after driving up some truly breathtaking mountain roads, and disembark accordingly. We are here as guests of Gore-Tex, and so kindly get furnished with the latest in high-tech triple-layered adventure jackets. My one is a garish red, orange, and yellow set-up but I know as soon as my hands touch it that it's a quality product. Those doubts I had about the severity of the hike fade like flatulence in a hurricane. My confidence restored by something as simple as a well-made coat. What can I say? I'm very impressionable.
Following a little pep talk from the group leaders, we set-off on our hiking adventure. First observation, first. There's snow! More snow than I was expecting, bearing in mind that it's only the middle of October, and it's glorious. It really is. There's conversation about mountains and snow, but it's interspersed with the best kind of silence; a silence that in itself is interspersed with the crunching of enthusiastic hiking boots. This is the life. Trekking through nature with like-minded people, and all without a care in the world.
After about an hour or so (it's difficult to tell when you lose yourself to the meditative powers of walking), we come to a clearing. Here Andy Lewis, who we're planning to dedicate an entire article to in the not-too distant future, and mountaineering extraordinaire Tamara Lunger put on a highly entertaining slack-lining demonstration. Lewis pretty much invented the sport of slack-lining and, as such, makes the whole thing look ridiculously easy. He even throws in a few of his trademark tricks, just for kicks.
Of course, normally Lewis would do this sort of thing on a line that's much higher than a metre or so off the ground. He'd then BASE jump off the line, because that's the kind of guy he is. But, anyway, like we said. We'll be talking much more about Lewis in a future article so you'll just have to sit tight and wait for that. Now, where were we?
Before too long, the circus-style shenanigans come to a close and we carry on up the mountain. I stop. I take a photograph. Then, I take another photograph. And then, I take another seven. This pattern repeats itself multiple times throughout the hike. Now normally I like to use my camera sparingly on a walk. I like to live in the moment as much as possible. However, if you've ever been to this part of the world you'll be able to testify to how beautiful the scenery is and how difficult it is to keep your camera stowed away. The Dolomites, in a nutshell, have the power to turn you into some sort of fleshy camera-wielding puppet.
We stop at a cosy little cafe and Andy Lewis talks about his life, and the friends he's lost to BASE jumping. He talks about his life before BASE jumping and slack-lining, and reveals exactly why he turned down a touring opportunity with pop music legend Madonna. Such is Lewis' enthusiasm for the way he lives his life, he's able to turn the most morbid of talking points (looking into his friend's eyes seconds after he died) into something life-affirming and inspirational. As I've already mentioned, we'll be focusing more on this fascinating character at a later date.
And so we're hiking again. You can tell, just by looking around at various members of the party, that there's a few people in the group who are a bit surprised that there's more uphill walking to be done and that we've basically only done a quarter of the entire day's walking schedule.
The air starts to feel thinner and I'm not sure whether that's because I'm getting tired or because we've somehow hiked 7,000 metres up a big one in Nepal. The second idea feels unlikely so I keep it to myself, and continue hiking. I like to think of myself as a fit human being, capable of climbing some stairs without passing out and/or without filling up a washing up bowl with human sweat. However, the steepness we encounter in certain areas makes for some genuinely tough going.
After one particularly steep section, we turn a corner and see an even more ludicrously steep section up ahead. "Oh shit," I say at exactly the same time as the middle-aged Swedish hiker named Thomas that I've been walking with says exactly the same thing. We laugh at this odd coincidence, and then carry on doing what we've been doing for the entire morning. We hike. We hike as if our lives depend on it.
And then, we see it. We see a church perched atop the summit. I'm not a religious man, not in the slightest, but from where we're standing it looks like heaven. It's still a considerable distance away but with something to aim for, something as jaw-dropping as this, I know for sure that I'll make it all the way to the top. The sight of the little church above us, and the vastness of blue sky hanging behind it, reinvigorates my legs and I power-hike this final section with relative ease.
Standing next to the church and surveying everything below us feels absolutely awesome. I see other hikers in our group, still wearing their brightly coloured Gore-Tex jackets, and encourage them to the top inside my own head. We haven't hiked up Everest today, but a satisfying sense of accomplishment injects itself into my veins nevertheless. I stand there taking photos of other hikers who then, in turn, take photos of me. The collected sense of triumph, even for a relatively microscopic triumph such as this, is a wonderfully feel good thing.
We head into a summit-based restaurant owned, and run, by Tamara Lunger's parents. There's photos on the walls featuring Tamara's most inspirational and impressive moments in mountaineering and suddenly you get a clear sense of how the foundations of an ultimate adventurer are formed. This is a cosy, family set-up. Tamara's mum tries to take my order, hears my English and immediately hands me over to Tamara herself (who has now taken on the role of waitress).
German is the language of choice in these parts. I'm not good at German, and I'm not that hot at Italian either now you mention it (Italian is South Tyrol's second language). And while Tamara's English is fine, I struggle to convey that I'm interested in the vegetarian option. Jale Bartholomäus, a German journalist from Hamburg who is also interested in the vegetarian option, steps in to help me but she finds herself having similar problems. Vegetarianism, as we discover on this trip, is not common in these parts.
The issue is resolved and we eat heartily. Tamara's dad is the chef and, in a strange way, it seems to bring an added sense of grandeur to the food. We drink wine, and discuss a wide range of subjects. There's camaraderie on show, borne out of a successful hike and it's a really nice atmosphere to find one's self in.
At one point, I spot Tamara loading the dishwasher in the corner. It's an odd moment that highlights the day-to-day reality of mountaineering, and the down-to-earth nature of the people that are part of the scene. Lunger may have climbed up some of the world's biggest mountains but she doesn't get pretentious, or big-headed, when there's boring jobs to be done at her parent's restaurant.
Once pudding has been polished off, we listen to Lunger talk about her life growing up and why she loves the mountains so much. We hear, via a translator, what her parents think of her achievements and what she was like as a child ("curious," we're told by her exasperated mother). And then, before you know it, we're off hiking again.