Ex NORTHERN DOLOMITE was a trekking expedition conducted in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy. Amongst glorious Italian scenery, 20 regular and reserve soldiers (16 from 71 Engineer Regiment) covered over 6,000m of ascent (and the reciprocal knee buckling descent) over a 7-day expedition. The temperature and the gradient of some of the climbs proved challenging for all participants and forced expedition members to work together to scale the heights. Outside of the physical challenges of the expedition, the mountain leaders in each group encouraged the group members to practice their personal navigation skills and aided their efforts with multiple revision sessions.
The aim of the expedition was to provide challenging outdoor training for service personnel, involving controlled exposure to risk, in order to develop leadership, teamwork, physical fitness, moral and physical courage, among other personal attributes and skills vital to operational capability. The secondary aims were to promote adventurous Training qualification routes open to expedition members. The expedition achieved both; it was arduous, physically demanding and times, led personnel outside of their comfort zone; and five members are now investigating the potential to progress towards qualification.
After a morning kit issue, the two groups set off for an ‘easy’ first day with a half an hour gap between them. Straight out of Rifugio Padova (an alpine hostel) and in a tender 31oC the group entered a climb of some 700m up to an alpine pass (at 2,043m) which even at the height of summer held the remnants of the winter season’s snowfall. At this early stage, despite the advice of the mountain leader, the group made a poor effort at pacing itself, resulting in multiple stops, lots of sweating, and spreading out over a couple of hundred metres. Safe to say, it was some tired bodies that made the descent into the second rifugio (Rifugio Giaf). The diference between refugios became apparent even at this early stage! You can enter something that is a cross between a hostel, bordering on a hotel, or be jammed into sleeping quarters like sardines, with upwards of fifty people sharing a shower. One constant though, was that lights out (and lockdown) was always at 10pm, and the staff were always friendly and helpful. That night the groups familiarised themselves with the coming day’s route and prepared a detailed route card. Once this was done the Mountain Leaders chatted to their groups about the possibilities for qualifications within adventurous training and the mandatory requirements for Mountain Leader Qualifications. Following this 2Lt Mells gave a presentation on the geology of the Dolomites, both topics provided good fodder for conversation throughout the evening and the following days.
At 8am the next day, the two groups set off from Rifugio Giaf with the usual half an hour divide between them (the lead group was alternated each day). The second day was a 15km (as mapped – the nature of the terrain meant it was significantly more!) trek with 1,700m of assent and 1,500m of descent spread over three passes. This day included the first real tests for the group. Broadly the route was split into three passes the third of which was at 2,172m (Forcella dell’Inferno) and contained a final 300m of climb which was classed as a ‘difficult path for expert hikers’ and contained the first ‘real’ exposure. This was matched by a steep and scree littered descent on the other side. This terrain tested some members of the groups and it was fantastic to see the groups bond while helping each other throughout. Owing to the Rifugio (Rifugio Flaiban- Pacherini) being fully booked, the night was spent in a campsite and was accompanied by a welcome abundance of fajitas and a shop run provided by the tireless administration team. Again, a brief of the next day’s walk was given and the groups composed their route cards (something that became routine for each night of the expedition).
At 8.30 and 9am respectively the groups set off on a testing 600m climb in 34oC heat to arrive back at Rifugio Flaiban-Pacherini. At the Rifugio the groups settled for a welcome water break and quick recovery, before moving off. There is no doubt that by this point the heat and continuous walking of the previous days, followed by the morning’s sharp climb was showing. However, this was countered by an ever more positive group dynamic, far better pacing and the growing rapport between group members. So it was, with cheery optimism that the groups embarked on another 500m assent which culminated with the challenge of a near vertical scree slope just before making the top of the ridge. Perhaps mercifully, the rest of the day’s route (some 7km) was predominantly downhill and on an easy track. Nevertheless, Rifugio Pordenone, where the night was spent, was a welcome sight! The evening consisted of an interesting brief on the electronic aids to navigation and a fiercely fought game of Ludo.
The last day of the first circuit. By this point the Mountain Leaders felt confident in largely leaving the navigation to group members, and the groups set off with cheerful determination for a rather daunting initial 1,300m ascent. After a punishing climb all that remained between the groups and the end-point (at Rifugio Padova where we started) was a 1,200 metre descent. The first 1,000 metres of this descent included the worst exposure of the trip so far. Once more, the teams rallied around each other to complete it without incident. There was a feeling of accomplishment in the air following the groups’ arrival at the track which heralded a mere 1km to Rifugio Padova, and a welcome break before climbing down to meet the transport. While taking a break, we met up with numerous hikers who had had overaken us, or we had overtaken, or who had stayed in rifugios with us over the four days. It was like a little fraternity. As well as many exchanging contact details, we had a group photo and exchanged stories of our routes, and where we were all moving onto. There were native Italians and Austrians, Germans and Poles, a very eclectic grouping – seemingly without language barriers. From here a vehicle move took the team to Colfosco Campsite, in the Cortina Region of North Eastern Italy, for the second phase of the expedition.
The next morning, after a 45-minute drive from the camp site to the Passo Falzarego, the groups embarked on the first leg of a two-day circuit. The route proved the most relaxing of the expedition but played host to some of the most amazing scenery. The route followed a series of small tracks with only 400m of ascent followed by 600m of descent. Along the way both groups stopped at an old WW1 field hospital where the Expedition leader provided an overview of the Italian entry into WW1 and the battles fought through the Cortina region. The descent led the groups to Rifugio A’Dibona which was utilised for a lengthy break, and lunch stop, before dropping down to meet the transport back to the campsite.
In contrast to the jaunt the groups had on Day 5, Day 6 proved to be the toughest day of the expedition. After a drop-off at Refugio A’Dibona to restart from where we left off, the groups set off in 35oC heat. The route comprised 1,100 metres of ascent up zig-zagging scree slopes combined with 800 metres of descent on similar terrain. Despite the build-up of fatigue from the previous days of trekking and the unforgiving heat both groups persevered to arrive at the close of the second circuit at Rifugio Lagazuoi, which stands at 2,752m above sea level. From here some of the team members took the cable car down to the carpark below. With the rest opting to climb down a further 600m descent through old WW1 man made cave systems. It was fascinating to see the conditions in which the soldiers would have lived and the commanding fire positions they would have had over the valleys below.
Travel back to Venice in the afternoon meant that there was only the morning for activity. The groups returned (via cable car this time) to Rifugio Lagazuoi and from there summited Piccolo Lagazuoi (2,778m) and then returned to the Refugio to enjoy some food and the magnificent views. Those that hadn’t descended through the tunnels, took the opportunity to do so on the return to the transport, and from there the groups moved to Cortina Museum of War. The museum gave an amazing insight into waging war in mountainous terrain and some of the artefacts were truly incredible. Video clips showed the living conditions of the soldiers and some even showed the them completing the daunting task of hauling artillery pieces up the scree slopes the groups had so recently climbed. From the museum, the team was transported to a campsite just outside of Venice where we were fortunate enough to spend the next day exploring Venice and Verona; enjoying copious gondola rides, some particularly fine Italian food and the complete absence of strenuous trekking!
Overall Ex Northern Dolomite was a brilliant experience enjoyed by all who participated in it. The combination of rewarding hiking and scenery- unmatched by any here in the UK was an experience not to be missed. Add into this the team camaraderie, the skills learnt and the cultural asides and it truly epitomised the need for such expeditions within the Army.
Some quotes from members of the Expedition:
“Great opportunity and great experience, everyone worked as a team and helped each other out from start to finish. It really was awesome how everyone helped each other and made sure no one fell behind.”
“The expedition was both challenging and rewarding.”
“Trekking in the Dolomites has been one of the best experiences I’ve had with the Army.”
“I can’t remember ever doing so much map reading! It was also the first time I learnt how to pace properly. It was also great to get to know people from all over the unit.”
“I will be buying a tent and returning here next year. It is the most amazing place, and one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had.”
Several team members.
I urge anyone who has never been to the Dolomites, to place it on their bucket list. If you only do it once (which is highly unlikley), you will never forget the experience.
By 2 Lt Jonny Mells, 71 Engineer Regiment.