The famous French architect Le Corbusier once called the Dolomites “Les plus belles architectures naturelles au monde” – the most beautiful natural architectures on earth and I must say I have to agree with him. Each time I return to the region after some years of abstinence I again wonder about the forces which created the wonderful towers and spires, the vertical walls and the bizarre formations which you find all over the place.
I can’t say which of the mountains Le Corbusier had in mind but when I came across the quote while preparing for this summer’s vacation I was wondering if it might have been the Pale di San Martino. For those of you who are not too familiar with Italian: Pala means something like shovel and is used to name blade-like mountains with two steep faces left and right and a long summit ridge across. Looking like a shovel – I’m sure you get the meaning…
(see brenta's post below for more info on the word Pala)
Pala di San Martino is the highest and most impressive of these “blades” in its mountain range which made it lend its name to the whole Group, the Pale di San Martino. Now, there is a famous round trip which circles the Pala, a trip which you find in each guidebook about the area. And being associated with that great circler of mountains, my girlfriend Judith, I had the notion that I might have to go there too…
Being located at Falcade in the north of the Pale di San Martino we had had quite a number of fine days but nothing extraordinary. It was either hazy or clouds would hover about the peaks. The apartment window offered a small view towards the Focobon Group and we used it to determine the weather and gauge our opportunities for the day. On July 17th, still in bed, I pulled away the curtains and this is what I saw:
The Focobon Group in the early morning light, seen from Falcade.
I alarm-started out of bed pulling Judith after me and in no time we were on the road squealing up and down two passes, Passo Vallès and Passo Rolle, to get to the starting point at San Martino di Castrozza. I have to admit that we intended to use the cable car which leads from San Martino to the shoulder of Cima della Rosetta. The tour proised to be long and we didn’t want to lose time switchbacking our way to the starting point at Rifugio Pedrotti. It was Sunday, the cable car was crowded but it took you to La Rosetta in 15 minutes.
Though we had climbed the summit of Cima della Rosetta a couple of days before we wanted to take advantage of the good weather and decided to scramble up the short ramp once again. From the top – which was so crowded that you almost couldn’t find a spot to look down from – we had a good view of the latter part of the circle – Val di Roda and the surrounding mountains. It looked very impressive from the top, so far we couldn’t imagine what it would look like from the bottom. But you can decide for yourselves later.
Desolation – the Altipiano delle Pale di San Martino
The desolate "plain" of the Altipiano delle Pale di San Martino
While the Pale di San Martino Group is surrounded by some of the most impressive rock walls on earth its centre is a huge flat karst plateau, the Altipiano. The word “flat” is not quite correct here – like any karst plateau this too is fractured into hills and depressions with crevices and caves in between. We learned this in the first part of our tour which took us from Rosetta across the plateau to Passo Pradidali Basso and Passo Fradusta. The Sunday crowds quickly dispersed to reach different destinations and only a few people too our direction.
Up and down – up and down, the Altipiano can get very tiring. Moreover the blazing sun was reflected from the white rock so that it left us a bit dazzled. Pala di San Martino could be seen every now and then but we were too close to get a good view only the top with its Bivacco sometimes popped up over the hills on the plateau. Finally a long slope traversing ascent led us to Passo Pradidali Basso and here for the first time I had to think of Le Corbusier’s quote.
Sass Maor and Cima della Madonna
The twin pair of Sass Maor and Cima della Madonna made me draw in my breath – huge vertical towers which seem to be locked in an embrace. I had seen a shot of them before but was not prepared for this. Moreover I was so fixated on the pair that I didn’t see the other mountains surrounding Val Pradidali. But we were to descend into the valley and we sure got a good dose of these too.
Being a bit on the fast side we decided to hike on to the next pass, Passo della Fradusta, and descend from there into Val Pradidali. This meant, however, crossing another part of the Altipiano, so up and down – up and down we went again. When we reached the pass we were just beneath the Fradusta glacier and I was musing if we couldn’t leave our round trip and climb the mountain. Coward that I am I didn’t dare to mention it but in the end – two weeks later we stood on to of La Fradusta anyway.
Framed by Giants
Val Pradidali sure is one of the most beautiful valleys on earth. It is framed by vertical walls on both sides and as we were sliding down some scree slopes those walls appeared to be closing in on us. The trail runs along the eastern side of the Valley so that Cima Wilma and Cima Canali are almost invisible at first. But Cima Pradidali, Cima Immink and Pala di San Martino make up for this. And after a while the twins come into focus again…
There are four passes which lead into Val Pradidali and during our descent the trickle of people became a crowd again. Lots of climbers came the other way hauling their ropes and gear. Our temporary destination was Rifugio Pradidali which is located beneath the Sass Maor north face and obviously the Sunday crowd was going there too. They must have been disappointed – the hut was closed due to renovation but on the meadows around it the crowds gathered for a picnic ritual…
We fled in a panic…
Passo di Ball and Val di Roda
Now came the supposedly most difficult part of the trip – a secured trail (Sentiero Attrezzato) from Passo di Ball through Val di Roda. As we were leaving the Rifugio to which still groups of people came from all directions it became obvious that the direction we were going now was an exception. There were some people perched on a grass ledge taking in the sun but apart from them nobody came our way. We trudged up to Passo di Ball already cursing that we had taking the extra loop to Passo Fradusta before. As I turned to sneak a look backwards mighty Cima Canali appeared dwarfing Rifugio Pradidali in front of it.
Looking from Passo di Ball through Val di Roda towards Cima della Rosetta
But now we reached the Pass and again we were awed. Another beautiful deep cut valley lay in front of us. At its end Cima della Rosetta was waiting – we had to get back there again to catch the cable car. The trail through Val di Roda leads along the northen side and traverses the slopes beneath Pala di San Martino. Here a few solid cables have been fixed and make the otherwise tricky section easy to traverse. The rock is polished by usage however so you still need to pay close attention. And that is not easy with all the views that slowly develop as you file down the valley, Your eyes constantly are drawn skywards to take in the many rock towers and imposing faces.
In the end, after about 600m the protected section ends and the trail leads you outwards to a real sweet spot, Col delle Fede, the obviously best place to look back towards Val di Roda and Pala di San Martino.
And back again
The drawback of being on Col delle Fede is that you have to climb your way back to the Altipiano to get to the cable car station. This means seeming endless numbers of switchbacks up the valley between Cima della Rosetta and Croda di Roda. The trail is as safe as can be but we met a guy with his wife who were equipped for ferrate (helmet, harness, rope) and they had to take a lot of time because she was feeling utterly uncomfortable. They had come our way and I cannot imagine how she had been able to get over the secured section at the end of Val di Roda. I guess she was conditioning herself for worse things to come and I hope she did it voluntarily…
Back on the Altipiano we briefly considered climbing Croda di Roda to get another top view of our route but then decided that time wouldn’t allow. So we went back to Rifugio Pedrotti to close the circle, traversed through Passo della Rosetta to the cable car and went down to San Martino again. Just as we entered the cabin I took a final shot of Cimon della Pala.
Cimon della Pala as seen from the Rosetta cable car station