Passo Gardena to Passo Pordoi – Whiteout!
Day 3 of our Dolomites Alta Via 2 trek took us over the impressive Sella Massif from Passo Gardena to Passo Pordoi. It was an unexpected experience to get caught in a whiteout snow storm on our summer holiday in Italy. And a good reminder of why you must prepare for any weather in the mountains.
After spending the night at Passo Gardena, we scrambled up on to the Sella Massif and crossed it to get to Passo Pordoi on the other side. An interesting day to say the least and looking back, potentially dangerous. I guess we were hoping more for walking in the sun in a cool mountain breeze, enjoying the exceptional views of the Dolomites but instead we got an otherwise unforgettable day.
Passo Gardena and Val Setus
The day before we had walked a long way from Schlüterhütte / Rifugio Genova on the north end the Puez-Geisler natural park and had earned a nice dinner, hot shower and an eat-all-you-can buffet at the Hotel Cir. We had mostly walked in sunshine and were eager to go because crossing the Sella Massif was supposed to be one of the definite highlights on this trip. Read about our Alta Via Day 2 here: https://gohikealps.com/dolomites-alta-via-2-schluterhutte-to-passo-gardena/
After a very big breakfast we set out towards Val Setus, our way up to the Sella. Alta Via 2 goes up the Val Setus and to Rifugio Pisciadu. According to the recommended AV2 staging, Rifugio Pisciadu would have been the end of Day 4, but then you would have spent the night at Rifugio Puez. We had opted for a longer day and hotel accommodation (read about the rationale on the trip overview).
It’s about a half hour walk from the hotel and by the time we reached Val Setus, it became clear that there would be snow again. Of course it made sense since we were on the North side of the Sella Massif and the snow was left over from the winter. We had seen the exact same the day before climbing up to Forcella Roa.
Val Setus is a steep climb and it was covered in snow. We couldn’t really see where the actual path was but it was clear that we wanted to stay away from the very sides to avoid any possible rocks falling from above. Navigating up was not particularly difficult but it was strenuous and the snow added to the challenge. We needed to catch our breath several times before we were came up on a secured section which leads to the top.
The secured section has steel cables and is pretty steep. Again, it’s not really difficult but because of the snow and the chance of slipping being present, we chose to latch on to the cables with our Via Ferrata gear since we carried them with us. Had there not been snow, I don’t think we would have bothered. In my opinion Via Ferrata gear is not needed in this part in normal (good) conditions.
If you want to get a real Via Ferrata experience, the Ferrata Pisciadu (also referred to as Brigada Tridentina, I think) is literally just around the corner. Instead of going up Val Setus, you would have continued until you reach it. It also takes you up to Rifugio Pisciadu and if you were on a day trip, you would then come down Val Setus. This is a real Via Ferrata, so don’t go if you don’t know what that means. Check out a description here: https://alavigne.net/Outdoors/FeatureReports/ViaFerrata/?p=vfpisciadu#_
We thought about doing this Via Ferrata because it’s right there, practically no detour at all but chose not to go. We hadn’t recently done a proper Via Ferrata on this trip and knew we had a fairly long hike ahead of us. It probably would have taken us a long time with our heavy backpacks and we would have been beat afterwards. To top off the excuses, the weather wasn’t inviting.
By the way, the Cicerone book we used (Trekking in the Dolomites: Alta Via Routes 1 and 2, with Alta Via Routes 3-6 in Outline) mentions that in the afternoons there are normally lots of people coming down Val Setus so it’s advisable to go up in the morning.
Back to our trip. Once we cleared the secured section we came at a trail crossing and continued on to Rifugio Pisciadu for coffee and sandwiches. A lunch of sorts. At this point it was really getting cloudy the trail number was 666 – somebody might have taken that as an omen…
Further up the Sella from Rifugio Pisciadu
After a break and some thought we decided to continue towards Rifugio Boè, our next planned stop. According to our maps and what we knew beforehand, the trail there was fairly easy and we already knew there was snow all over the place and hadn’t found that to be problematic.
We could see the path in the snow clearly now, on the eastern side of the lake in front of Rif. Pisciadu and went. It was an easy ascent onto Val de Tita which was completely covered in snow.
Val de Tita
Once we ascended from Val de Tita, things got trickier. We literally had to climb up into the clouds and it started snowing – luckily not a lot, but still. The wind grew and it was cold. We had several layers of clothes on and were happy we had them with us. There was snow everywhere and we couldn’t see anything beyond 10 meters.
To our blessing, there had been lots of people there before us and it was possible to follow their tracks, barely visible in the snow. It was very slow going and we really needed to concentrate on where we were going.
We eventually found our way to Forcella d’Antersass and were happy to find a signpost which confirmed we were still on the right track. We took a small break there and pondered our situation. The guidebook talks about wonderful views there but we missed out on all that.
The thought did cross our minds that does it make any sense to continue? Should we just turn back? Well, at that point Rifugio Boè was already closer than going back to Rif Pisciadu. There was no more visibility going back then continuing forward. So we continued. By the way, I think this is the only time I’ve actually used a compass to make sure we’re going the right way.
The way from Forcella d’Antersass to Rifugio Boè looked fairly simple on the map and it was, until all of a sudden we walked into a Via Ferrata. After a moment of confusion we realized that we had drifted off the path that goes up to the Antersass (the highest point on the AV2, by the way at 2900m / ~9500ft) and wandered onto Corburger Weg, a short Via Ferrata that traverses on the western side of the Antersass. Since on the map this Via Ferrata seemed to be almost lateral we decided to trust it. We put on our Via Ferrata gear and went – very slowly, very carefully.
Judging by the maps, there must have been quite a drop below the Corburger Weg. I think one of these days I need to go back in better weather just to see it. It wasn’t difficult at all as it was more of a traverse with a secure section and there wasn’t really any climbing involved. Then again, I reserve the right to change my mind if I ever see it again with any visibility.
Anyway, after we detached from the cables, we scrambled up to where we thought Rifugio Boè was supposed to be only to realize we didn’t see it anywhere. At that point there really was an uncomfortable moment. Had we missed it and ended up lost somewhere on the Sella Massif in a snow storm and no visibility? Until that moment I was very certain about our whereabouts but not seeing the Rifugio where I expected, I even started doubting my navigational skills and that doesn’t happen often.
With no choice but to continue, after re-examining our map and getting direction from my compass we carried on. It’s hard to describe the sense of relief we felt when the Rifugio suddenly emerged from out of nowhere. It had been there all along but with the weather we almost needed to walk right into it to see it. I sure am glad we didn’t walk right past it without finding it.
Shelter at Rifugio Boè
There was nobody at Rifugio Boè except the friendly folks who ran the place. I’m sure they thought we were borderline suicidal or at the very least just plain stupid being out in those conditions. Nevertheless, they were kind enough to prepare us some hot soup and give us a chance to warm ourselves up. We realized sitting there, that our little stroll had potentially been very dangerous.
At breakfast that morning we had talked about if, or not to take the Ferrata Pisciadu and chose not to. Instead, we had planned to go up to Piz Boà which is the highest peak of the Sella Group at 3152 m/ 10341 ft. The views from up there on a nice day are no doubt stunning into all directions, including Marmolada to the South (the highest mountain in the Dolomites, more about it on Day 4). There wasn’t much discussion needed to skip Piz Boè, giving me yet another reason to want to go back someday.
By the way, check out Null & Full’s “The Lunar Landscape: Gruppo Del Sella” for a description of going from Forcella Pordoi to Rif. Boè, up to Piz Boa and back.
A Walk in the Park to Forcella Pordoi
As we sat there, the weather gradually started getting a little bit better and there were still plenty of hours left in the day so we decided to continue. The path from Rifugio Boè to Forcella Pordoi is an easy one with no major ascents or descents – a walk in the park, so to speak. After our earlier experiences it almost felt rejuvenating.
The weather had improved so that there was no whiteout any longer, but visibility was still very, very limited. We were able to follow the path fairly easily now, though, as it was clearly marked and there was enough visibility to see one or two trail markers ahead of us at any given time.
We had no difficulty finding our way and once we reached Rifugio Pordoi we were just tired and ready for another coffee. There’s a lift that comes up from Passo Pordoi to Sas Pordoi, only a short walk up from the Rifugio. I’m not even sure if it was in operation or not but we had already decided at some point along the way that we’re going to walk all the way down no matter what. We just felt like we needed to.
After our coffee’s we set out on our final descent to Passo Pordoi. Our thoughts mainly revolved around food accompanied with nice red wine and a hot shower. Before that, though, we did still need to get down there. Starting from the Rifugio, the first 30 meters (100 ft) or so was a very steep descent covered in snow. I guess the Rifugio host had set up a long rope that we used to get down below the snow. After that it was just a steep descent on a rough path.
It didn’t take long walking down the path when we suddenly emerged out from the clouds and saw our destination! It still took us quite a while before we got there but at least we saw clearly where we were going. Walking down we also saw a lot of marmots. For some reason seeing them always puts one in a good mood.
Eventually down at Passo Pordoi we checked into Hotel Savioia, a historic looking place that’s been there from 1890. After a hot shower and a ridiculously large meal (with a nice red wine!) we didn’t need to wait for sleep. Over dinner we decided that the next day we would take it a little bit easier.
In Hindsight… Some lessons learned.
We were certainly reminded of some of the basics this day. You read about weather possibly changing quickly in the mountains and that you need to be prepared. Believe it, no matter how good it looks in the morning. This was the worst summer weather I’ve ever had and I was very, very happy about my habit of being prepared just in case – long underwear, compass and all that. Things I sometimes carry from trip to trip without ever using them were now essential. Also the Via Ferrata gear proved priceless. Without it we would have had do go back to try and find the path over Antersass that we had missed.
I also wonder if we somehow messed up with the weather. Maybe, but I don’t think so. We checked the forecast (again something I advise you always do!) and it looked ok. Not perfect by any means, but we really didn’t expect what we got. Did we miss something in our eagerness to get going? Sure, it’s possible.
Was it dumb not to turn back? Maybe it was. Then again, that decision would have had to be made way before the weather made us seriously think about it. Once we were out far enough, I judged it to be equally safe (or dangerous) to keep going or turn back. There was no benefit of turning back since we didn’t see where we came from any better than we saw where we were going. I know this is arguable: often turning back is wiser than continuing and there’s no shame in doing so.
Despite the challenges, we had an unforgettable day that neither of us will ever forget. We successfully used skills that are rarely needed and were forced to deal with a potentially bad situation together. It was a good experience for gaining self-confidence but also a healthy lesson in humility.
Things You Need and Hotels You may want to Book
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For this section of the Dolomites Alta Via 2, you need:
- A Map. For this section we used Tabaco Alta Badia 07 GPS Arabba – Marmolada
- Multi Day Hiking Gear. Pay attention to the things you think you never need, like a compass… Click here for the Ultimate Packing Guide for the Alps!
- We found This book helpful: Trekking in the Dolomites: Alta Via Routes 1 and 2, with Alta Via Routes 3-6 in Outline
Here’s the hotels we stayed in:
Check out the other posts about our Dolomites Alta Via 2 trek:
- GoHikeAlps Dolomites Alta Via 2 Overview
- Day 1: Brixen to Schlüterhütte
- Day 2: Schlüterhütte to Passo Gardena
- Day 3: Passo Gardena to Passo Pordoi – Whiteout!
- Day 4: Passo Pordoi to Malga Ciapela, Marmolada Behind Clouds
- Day 5: Malga Ciapela to Passo di San Pellegrino
Did you go on the Sella Massif? How did it treat you?
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