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Bonatti Tour III: Expedition

Bikepacking the Dolomites, from Cortina d'Ampezzo up to the Tre Cima di Lavaredo - a winter climb in 1953, that hammered Walter Bonatti's name on the list of world-class climbers...


After spending our last few days weaving through the mountains amongst either derelict, or very-much-out-of-season chairlift infrastructures and establishments, Cortina d’Ampezzo made a nice change – a perennial tourist town and Outdoor hub with several cable car options, gravel routes and world-famous passes to explore by bike.

Jordan, Dan and I parked the van up pronto and after stocking up on some key Italian Ferrero snacks, rode to the Faloria cable car that shot us up into the heartland of the UNESCO Dolomites, loaded bikes in tow. The change in look and feel of our new Alpine surroundings was remarkable; grainy and true to their ‘Pale Alp’ name compared with the gigantic granite of Courmayeur. No doubt a rock-type technical climbing change that Bonatti had to get used to, when he first arrived to climb here in the early 1950s. Our aim for the day was to reach and stay at one of the rifugios up around the Tre Cima di Lavaredo – the three huge vertical stone fingers, known as the Cima Piccola (Small), Cima Grande (Large) and Cima Ovest (West) that were “the ‘last great problems’ of the thirties until climbed in 1937, and then in winter 1953 by Bonatti.”

Unlike Bonatti, who arrived by train into (the now defunct) Carbonin station and walked/skied up with all his expedition kit in deep snow, the three of us would enjoy the gravel mountain bike and ski-service tracks, before joining the Tre Croci pass, and eventually climbing the somewhat stunning Tre Cime pass up to the famous peaks, and stunning jagged limestone moonscape…

Military Service in the Alpini had meant Bonatti spent fifteen months in the mountains, and it was during this time that the idea for climbing the north face of the Lavaredo came to him – “one day I would pit myself against these giants in the way most appropriate to this austere place—in midwinter, when the north faces are hidden from even the weakest ray of sunshine and the frost and solitude hold sway.” He trained, and returned in winter 1953 when poor Bonatti and climbing companion were so slow going up the trail to the Longeres (now Auronzo) Hut they had to bivvy on the snowy trail before it got dark, to then wake and find it closed and uninhabited anyway. An extra night out in the cold did nothing to hamper their climb and “a little after five in the afternoon on February 27 1953 [they] reached the summit of the Cima Grande, which was still lit by the last rays of the sun.” This ascent of the Lavaredo put his name well and truly on the climbing map; dwarfing our efforts on the bike, of course.

We shared the Lavaredo Hut predominantly with climbers, and spent the evening eating and sharing out the Negroni I’d mixed at the bottom of the mountain, carried up and garnished with fresh orange, under the Dolomite starlight.

Early the next morning as we packed bikes for the last time on the trip, climbers on the table opposite filled their packs whilst checking all their ropes and gear for tackling Via Ferrata and some of Bonatti’s routes in the 1950s. Funnily enough, there was an Austrian guy who’d been in Sheffield climbing at Stanage the week before, as we left for here in the van. Folk always shout about Stanage’s climbing reputation, and that kind of bolted it home for me. Anyway … our last leg, on the ace dedicated (ex-railway) cycle route between Carbonin and Cortina, was the first time we actually saw any other cyclists on either of the three mini-tours. We were overtaken by day-tripping mountain bikers and passed plenty of fully-loaded trad cycle-tourers – one entertaining group of which was towing a guy all the way back to Cortina given a rear hub and wheel failure.

It was a shame to be leaving the mountains, but a week chasing the tracks of Walter Bonatti was definitely enough of an escape on the bikes, and importantly a fun, challenging trip. As Bonatti says “Mountaineering is only one of a thousand ways of living and getting to know yourself. Climbing mountains should signify nothing more than this search for identity. It should never be mere escapism, because sooner or later we must return to our own personalities and feelings … the mountains should prepare us to go further.” I find that theming a trip really helps give focus, and reason; even more so than a simple point-to-point tour…

A final bivvy night on the Col de la Madeleine, and then morning swim in Lake Annecy on the drive back home were enough to keep our escape alive.

For one more day anyway.

Onto the next trip…

Journey | ITALY

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Journey | ITALY

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