After what felt like a very long trudge (in reality it had only been an hour along trail 15), we finally were nearing the end of the east-trending ridgeline that descended from Croda Rossa. Once out beyond the termination of that ridge, we could circle around to the south and soon be at the rifugio - or so we thought.
Much newer fortifications
After a long period of descent, we had to climb up a bit as we began to turn south. After having been out for ten hours, we were beginning to feel a bit weary, and the uphill travel felt quite tiring. Distracting us somewhat from the toil was the cliff face to our right. We began to notice holes, windows, concrete facings. Probably more military emplacements, we thought. But, they didn't look like the multitude of World War I emplacements scattered about the Dolomites. These were different - they looked more advanced, made with a greater degree of skill and strength, and had a distinctively different feel to them. Almost like some sort of retro-star wars style.
Roland was turning out to be quite a fan of old military emplacements, and he was keen to examine these new-style installations more closely. Unfortunately, when we went up to look at an easily-accessible one (many were high up on the cliff face and would have required rock climbing to reach), we found that - save for little air holes and vents - they were completely blocked off.
Many interesting emplacements
We continued our rising ascent around the base of the massive buttresses of rock. Windows, flat slabs, ledges, and rounded concrete structures peppered the cliffs. We wondered if they were perhaps all connected. If so, it would mean there was a very large network of corridors and rooms hidden away up there. Roland chafed at the bit, but there was nothing we could do - especially since we had a dinner deadline to meet, and already it was now closing in on 6pm.
The Alpine Wall
The trail angled upwards until it met a perfectly straight ledge. As we climbed up to its level, we saw that it was in fact an old roadbed, and the straight ledge was its well-constructed curb. The trail appropriated this old road bed and led off to the southeast. Looking west, however, we could see that this old road went directly into one of the complex structures embedded in the cliff. Furthermore, there seemed to be an actual hole - a big hole - in one of the bricked-up doorways. I'm fairly sure that Roland's heart skipped a beat.
Despite the late hour (and the misgivings of Jenn and Stephanie, who weren't sure about entering a deep, dark, spooky maze), we just had to go have a look. We walked down the old military road to the base of the cliff, where the road ended directly at what we presumed was the main entrance. The entrance was clearly bricked-up in a manner intended to bar any entry, but a large keyhole-shaped section had been punched out. We briefly shone a light inside and saw two spacious concrete-lined tunnels leading off in different directions.
A way in
After donning our headlamps, we crawled inside. The place was big, spacious, with concrete-finished walls and arched ceilings. Clearly of a different era than the crude constructions of World War I. Near the entrance we saw some partitions that looked suspisciously like bathroom stalls. Corridors led off in several directions.
At first we feared that we'd encounter some blockage or discontinuity and our exploration would be cut short. This wasn't the case, however. As we continued on, we came to another intersection, this time with a long unending corridor with periodic doorways on one side. Our headlamps could not pierce all the way to the end, so we did not know how long it was. In the other direction, a very long set of stairs ran up into the darkness. This place was big! While Roland cackled gleefully, Jenn and Stephanie looked around nervously.
Mindful of the time, we did a short and incomplete exploration - all the while taking care to mentally note the way back. We had no idea how big or complicated this complex was, and it would be somewhat embarrasing to become lost (and miss dinner). Several corridors, rooms, and lookouts later, we decided that we could spare no further time, and turned back for the entrance.
We suspected the place to be of World War II vintage, or perhaps early Cold War. We resolved to ask the rifugio custodian Marco about it afterwards, since he was a long-time resident of this region, and he might know something.
We safely made our way back to the entrance and to daylight. It had seemed longer, but we had only been underground for ten minutes - not nearly enough, clearly, to fully explore all of the nooks and crannies. Roland had half a mind to spend a portion of the next day doing just that.
Now at 6:10pm, we knew we were cutting it close for the 7pm dinner call. Not wasting any more time, we set out eastwards along the old military road.
A few minutes later, we came to the intersection with another trail - trail 124 - that led south along the base of the cliffs towards the Rifugio Berti. In fact, the sign reassuringly had rifugio Berti written on it, so we knew we weren't too far away. As the crow flies, it was now about 1.5km back to the hut.
The first part our journey along trail 124 was fairly easy, as it led across a bump forested with low trees, and then out into the open along a narrow ledge with cliffs above and a steep dropoff below. Off to our left, we could see down into the head of Val Grande, including the small meadow of the Rifugio Lunelli - where our car was parked.
On the map, trail 124 looks like it traverses along in a relatively flat manner towards the Rifugio Berti, perhaps gaining or losing a bit of altitude here and there. There were some hidden challenges in that little red line on the map, though.
After the somewhat airy but fast traverse, the trail turned to avoid a sheer cliff face that barred our path. This turn led into a steep gully cut into the cliffs above, and began to climb upward. We thought that perhaps the trail needed to climb for a bit to surmount the aforementioned cliff. While we were right about the need for the trail to surmount the cliff, we were wrong in our assumption about what 'surmount' would entail. The trail climbed, and climbed, and climbed. And then climbed more. Soon we were sweating profusely with the effort, for we knew that if we slowed down too much, we may miss dinner. And after two dinners at the Rifugio Berti, we knew that it would be a very big shame to miss.
In danger of losing our dinner spots, we once again - for the nth time - decided that it would be best if I went on ahead at maximum sustainable speed to the rifugio, to tell Marco and his family that we would indeed be present at dinner, but perhaps a few minutes late. With sweat stinging the eyes, I struggled up to the top of the gully, where the trail re-entered some scrubby forest and - fortunately - started to flatten out. In all, the trail had climbed back up an unexpected 600' / 200m.
Dusk was approaching and things were getting a bit dim as I finally began the down slope towards the Rifugio Berti, which I could now see - still looking very tiny - ahead of me.
Home is in sight
Being very careful not to twist anything in the fading light, I jogged the final half-kilometer down to the rifugio, arriving precisely at 7pm. I poked a very sweaty head into the dining room and informed Marco that our group would in fact be attending dinner, but that we'd be perhaps ten minutes late. Marco assured me that it would be no problem.
Arriving Rifugio Berti
The others arrived in short order, looking tired but happy to be finished. It had been eleven hours and just under 14 kilometres since we had headed out early this morning. Stephanie firmly told me that future outings should not under any circumstances exceed ten hours.
Marco explains the Vallo Alpino
Dinner was - as expected - delicious and substantial. In addition to the tasty and excellent first and second course options, tonight Marco's wife had made an optional second course option that was something a bit different - a spinach and cheese knudel dish local to the region. We all chose it, and it was excellent.
After dinner, we told Marco about our troubles with the ferrata Zandonella, what with it being designated as closed and with us hearing construction work. He looked surprised, then told us that there shouldn't have been a problem, for he had known about the construction, had in fact called ahead to them, and told them that a group of climbers (us) were going to be coming up today. To which, apparently, they responded "ok!". !?!? Wow, interesting news. Unfortunately, since he didn't communicate this to us, we had made our choice given the available data we had. If only we'd known.
Roland examines the plans
We also asked Marco about the military complex we had found. He knew exactly what we were talking about, and went over to a nearby stack of climbing magazines and info binders. He pulled out a red binder that had a wealth of information about the place, which - as we suspected - was of World War II vintage. In fact, it pre-dated WWII slightly, for it was a pre-war defensive idea of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He commissioned the building of a long series of fortifications that was called the "Alpine Wall" (or Vallo Alpino in Italian), lining the land border of Italy from the Adriatic to the Ligurian Sea. This particular complex was known as the Opera Sora Colesei. In the end, the complexes weren't really used in action - Mussolini was allied with the Germans, after all, and Hitler wasn't super pleased with a mean-looking defensive line between supposed friends.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Croda Rossa Loop - click map to view
Climb Data - Croda Rossa Loop
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet