After the successful trip pre pandemic, hiking Toubkal with Exodus, the autumn of 2022 saw me book a second trip heading on an epic adventure to the Italian Dolomites.
In a desperate attempt to deal with two years of grief, loosing two very close family members in two consecutive years, a hiking trip away seemed like the perfect opportunity to get away, reset and heal from the pain grief causes. Hiking, in particular routes that offer stunning views, is where I find solace during the most difficult times. Pair hiking with my love of Italy and it was my perfect idea of therapy.
One week in the north of Italy, The Dolomites, close to the Austrian border. Read on for the adventure.
Flying into Venice on the group flight, I met some of my fellow hikers on the plane and during the transfer to Villabassa.
Driving northwards through winding roads, passing Cortina – famous for the 1956 Olympic Games – was quite a treat. As we left the flat plains of Venice and into the mountains we were all stunned by the views and it gave us some idea as to what to expect from the coming days – mountains, mountains and mountains.
After a swift check in – I opted for a single supplement room – we had a welcome drink and dinner, whilst our guide gave us a run down as to what to expect over the coming week.
Day Two – Lago di Braies to Rossalmhütte
Our first hiking day started at Lago di Braies, covering around 9 miles to the ascent of Rossalmhütte. Starting the route around the edge of the lake was a breeze, though after a quick pit stop the only way was up, up, up. Following a rocky terrain path the climb was incredibly challenging.
Whilst the views back down to Lago di Braies were simply breath taking, the mixture of covid weight gain, and emotional grief and stress was a little too much to handle with the climb. It was by far the worst I have ever felt during a hike and with the fellow hikers ploughing ahead I found myself heading into a panic attack.
Luckily for me, one of the amazing fellow hikers, was holding back taking pictures and our leader heading back to check on the “back of the pack” were near by and helped me through. Though it was by far one of the worst starts to an adventure I have had ever.
I had climbed Toubkal with no issues, no break downs and in the middle of the pack – not at the back. So I could only assume with recent start to grief therapy my mind and body were just both broken.
That said, I got through to the next stages and carried on to the end of the day (much of which was a descent).
Day Three – Kreuzberg Pass to Knieberg
Plagued by fears of being the last one in the pack, day two brought nothing but nerves. However with a clear upward climb there was no fear of loosing the team. The hike started with a forest track before zig zagging to the summit of Kneiberg.
On this route, I simply took my time during the tougher sections. Stopping when I reached a high heart rate, grounding myself by taking the in the astonishing views.
As we approached the peak – there was an option to head to the very top, with a very thin ledge. Something I was not keen on. Myself and a few others were able to wait just below the peak for our lunch stop whilst those more daring of the group headed further up.
The hike on day three was by far the longest, with the descent long, but equally stunning, looping back through the forest via a Alpes Nemes hut for some refreshments.
Whilst, again the day saw me struggle physically and mentally it was less of a challenge than our previous days hike.
Day Four – Durrenstein Summit
On day four I battled majorly with wanting to start the day. As our group bus climbed higher and higher I felt myself enter another state of panic.
Looking at the challenge ahead it was a straight upward climb with some Via Ferrata expected. My biggest mistake with booking this trip was not understanding the difference between a level three and level five week. I had booked the level five week and on this day I just didn’t want to hold any of the group back.
So instead of joining, I stayed at the hut and waited for the rest of the group to descend. It was one of the most serene days I had and probably one that I needed. Half way up a mountain, with no service, no Wifi, no connection to the outside word, for hours allowed me to focus on my inner feelings. I mediated, I cried a little and I just took stock on all the feelings I have held inside – and I let go.
Once the group returned, I joined them for the descent back to the bus and I did not feel an ounce of regret. The steady downward climb offered stunning views, with streams, forest and surrounding mountains as back drop.
Day Five – Free Day
On our fifth day, we had scheduled free time. As a group many split to do different activities. Some took advantage of a lay in and enjoyed the spa, some went shopping, some went on a solo hike. I joined a group of four others who decided to spend the day cycling across the Italian/ Austrian border to Lienz.
Jumping on the train one stop on the train to pick up bikes we travelled 30 miles following a beautiful cycle track. With spinning being one of my strongest activities, cycling felt like the best choice to flush out the tight hiking legs. However, I had not been on a bike outside for around 20 years – so it was bound to have its own challenges.
Despite coming away to enjoy a hiking holiday, cycling across border with the Dolomites and then river views to Austria as a back drop made it one of my most enjoyable experiences on the trip.
Stopping a few times to regroup, have a snack or two and to paddle feet for some, we made it to Leinz in around 2-3 hours after setting off. The company where we hired bikes offered a service to drop them back at the end of your trip – as such we could leave the bikes in Leinz and hop back on the train to Villabassa – not before stopping for a well deserved drink and lunch first though.
Day Six – Tre Cime di Lavaredo
The Dolomites trip would not be complete without a hike to Tre Cime (Three Chimneys). Whilst we had lucked out with weather so far, day six saw heavy rain and slippery conditions. As such our planned 11 mile was reduced to a gentle six miles.
That said, to walk around the iconic peaks was one of the highlights of the week. The route still had challenging moments, with steep climbs and ridges. But the views were out of this world and whilst pictures look great, they just don’t do Tre Cime and the surrounds justice.
Day Seven – Monte Piana
Our last day of hiking saw the split of the group. Like myself, a couple of others didn’t feel comfortable with level five climbs which would include Via Ferrata’s (ropes, helmets and all). As such one bus dropped those wanting to experience these levels head off to meet the second bus at the top of Monte Piana.
By the last day I had started to feel like I had settled into myself and my current ability. Yes, I was not where I wanted to be or had been in previous years, but I was enjoying moments in a country that was in my heritage.
Monte Piana was the final day that offered a steady climb, offering views over to Tre Cime, to the flat topped open air war museum of the first world war. Here the trenches, dug outs and craters were something to be seen to believe. After years of preservation, with barbed wire in parts, the museum was rather chilling and humbling. Seeing the top of Monte Piana was certainly a way to end such an epic trip.
It was at the peak that we were reunited with the rest of the group. Listening to their stories about the via ferrata and the pictures too, I was certain I had made the right choice for me. Many others said the same too.
From here we hiked back down the mountain together to head to the final night of celebration. A week of hard work and tears (for me), meeting fantastic like minded people.
Whilst I was not in the best place both physically and mentally for my second exodus trip, I do not regret any moment. Every decision I made was right for me, I had spent a week with wonderful people, I had enjoyed fantastic views and I had allowed myself to open myself up to my emotions. So not only was it a physically rewarding but in many ways a form of extended therapy.
Following on from the trip I have made it my aim to regularly push myself with long distance hikes, mountain climbs and clambering, on top of my usual spinning classes.
As such as my third trip with Exodus to Cinque Terre approaches, I know I am in a better place for the challenge!