The kitchen light is off. Sitting in the darkness, I sip attentively at a steaming cup of coffee as I peer out of my window. The aurora casts a dark silhouette almost 3000mt high, and I can just distinguish the shapes of the Lamb’s Head, the Vajolet Towers, and King Laurino’s Croda set against a sky of rich, purple hues.
I live in Val di Tires, on a farm at the foot of the western slope of the Catinaccio. I like it here. I like the mountain; its presence, its physicality, so pervasive in nature that it almost feels as though it is inside the house. The mountain is so big and the house so small that at times, I am surprised it has not engulfed us entirely. Vertical dolomite walls enclose the upper half of the window. On the lower half, the valley narrows right at the confluence of two streams while a slice of wood enters from the corner on the right.
I work in a bike shop in the center of Bolzano. For 8 months a year, I travel by bike exclusively. I ride it to work in the morning, and within half an hour, I am at the shop. At the end of the day, I get back on my bike, and in just over 1 hour, I’m back home. The remaining months are those of ice and snow, which make the asphalt road too dangerous for cyclists.
Work is a tedious yet necessary part of my life that, otherwise, would be spent solely dedicated to wandering among the mountains. I love backpacking on my bike, it gives me the opportunity to see new things, to explore distant valleys, to spend my days venturing up and down the mountains carrying only the essentials. Sometimes, my bike is abandoned and hidden behind a tree as I continue on foot. I ensure that I always have a tent and a stove with me, especially when the weather gets colder. Even in the dead of winter, spending my nights sleeping peacefully beneath the stars is food for my soul. Knowing I don’t have to return home feels reassuring somehow. I often share these adventures with my dog Timo, who immediately leaps and barks with anticipation whenever he sees bikes and bags ready at the door.
Snow came early this winter. By October, it had already submerged paths, dirt roads, and formed a perfect, untouched blanket of white across the meadows. As time passed, snowfall continued, filling the static streams, enveloping fences that once divided the summer pastures, and connecting roofs of houses together. In the Dolomites, by the beginning of February, of 3 meters of snow had accumulated.
Unlike cycling on asphalt, riding my bike in the snow is safe and it is often the only time my bike sees any action during the winter months. There are different types of snow. You can ride fast on transformed snow which is compacted by the daily freeze-thaw, or you could test your abilities on the fresher more inconsistent snow, that has been warped by through the trampling of skialpers and snowshoers. All you need to have fun, is a pedal-able track and low temperatures.
It was the snowiest winter the Dolomites had recorded in years, as well as the most desolate due to the sudden appearance of Covid. The ski lifts and hotels are closed and there are no people around. I stand in this barren ghost town as I speak on the phone with Edi and Carlo of 3T. I have recently received the new RaceMax, and I fantasize about a multi-day trip on the snow.
It would be nice.
Tires is – as you already know – at the foot of the Catinaccio group, and its position closes the valley to the north-east as though it is a wall. Above the town, at an average altitude of 2400mt, extends the Altopiano dello Sciliar. This slopes north towards the Alpe di Siusi – one of the most idyllic hiking areas in the Dolomites – towards Sassopiatto and Sassolungo, the mountain symbol of Val Gardena. I know this territory inside out. I spread the map on the kitchen floor, and as per usual Timo attempted to sprawl himself out upon it. I scratch behind his triangular fluffy ears with one hand and draw an outline of a potential route. Monte Pana, Comici Refuge, Passo Sella, Canazei, Val di Fassa, Passo Costalunga, Latemar and Lake Carezza, Tiers.
I dedicated all my free time to my project, covering the itinerary I had in mind with snowshoes, on foot, by snowboard and by bike. From one snowfall to the next, I went out in an attempt to find the paths preferred by ski mountaineers and the forest roads that allowed access to huts and shelters.
My plan was mapped out, now it was only matter of closely observing weather reports, waiting for the perfect window of good weather to embark on my escapade.
I waited and waited, and then finally in mid-February, the time had come. I call Nico and Andrea; they don’t need much convincing: “Fancy coming on a biking adventure?” “Of course!”
We set a date for Tuesday evening and agree to meet at the small Wuhn hut, a place the shepherd stays during the summer.
The hut is located at a clearing, just above the onion-shaped bell tower of the church of Tiers. I set outreach my destination early, my huge backpack slung across my shoulders and my trusty bike at hand. The sun has yet to rise, and temperatures are at -14 ° C. The hut is constructed with a sturdy stone structure flanked by a wooden veranda that serves as an entrance and storage for wood. A second door leads to a single room, with a dark wooden floor and a bunk bed with two ragged mattresses. A square table sits at the center of the room surrounded by stools, and a small cupboard a long with a few weathered pots hanging from nails adorn the walls. Two small windows overlook the Catinaccio to the east and the Latemar to the south. Under the hut, there is the small stable containing two mangers adjacent to one another and the ground is covered with worn down cobblestones, gradually smoothed by the incessant stomping of hooves.
From my backpack, I retrieve potatoes, pasta, cans of beans, luganega, cheese, schüttelbrot, bottles of wine and grappa. I light the fire with splinters of tawny larch. The kitchen heats up quickly.
It is late afternoon when Nico and Andrea arrive. The atmosphere is pleasant as the heat of the stove warms the room and the scent of dinner emanates from the stove. We open some beers and use the last of the daylight to set up the bikes, which are 3T Race Max mounted with 650b wheels, 2.25 tires, and flat pedals. We pack the essentials: a tent, mattress, spare gloves, a duvet, stove, food, and for me personally, the mocha coffee. Arguably this is non-essential, but it is virtually impossible for me to start the day without a cup of black, hot coffee. In the backpack, we added the winter sleeping bag, bulky but necessary given the temperatures.
After dinner, the map is open on the wooden table. The candle illuminates the straw-colored bottle of grappa, its soft glow flooding the contour lines and peaks with golden light. I outline the itinerary hastily. “We will move on to the ephemeral,” I tell them. “The state of the snow on the ground changes constantly, it will certainly have changed since I last checked.” The snow changes overtime, as temperatures are expected to rise during the day but drop well below freezing throughout the night and morning. We’ll see. I find uncertainty very exciting.
It is 5 in the morning and I deliberately fiddle with the metal door of the stove. Within a few minutes, the flame begins to rise, as do my companions. It’s still dark outside, it’s not cold but the sky is overcast. The coffee is ready, and it starts to snow, individual flakes fall in a scarce an unpredictable fashion. Not good.
During the first half of the day, we embark on a singletrack through the heart of the Umes forest, that sits at the foot of the Sciliar. Driving requires attention, but the grip on the snow is perfect; we soon find the best setup of the bikes by decreasing the tire pressure which ensures perfect riding conditions. The weather has improved greatly and beyond the tips of the fir trees, we see the sky is an intense shade of blue. We make a stop at a point where the sun touches the path and have something to eat. In some places, we can see as far as the Eisack Valley, below us, and the glaciers of the Austrian Alps. Once out of the woods, we take a road that is closed to traffic, leading to Compatsch on the Alpe di Siusi. It is at this point we realize the temperatures are almost too pleasant, as we sweat under the beating sun. We leave the asphalt at the Frommer Hotel and findsnow again, climbing towards the Spitzbühel but unfortunately, the wheels begin to sink. It is almost two in the afternoon, and it is beginning to get too hot. There is no choice but to continue on foot, pushing our bikes along as we undertake one of the most idyllic stretches of land that we will encounter during these three days of travel. We push on beneath the gigantic sides of the Sciliar, a huge snow-covered table that shatters at the western end in the Santner and Euringer points. Their profiles constitute a classic image of the Dolomite iconography and are particularly well known for their presence on the packaging of a famous wafer brand.
The light is low, and there is a feeling of other worldliness as we admire the landscape. Taking this opportunity to capture photographs, we bask in the sun whilst sitting on the steps of a small wooden hut, which is one of the many that dot the Alpes. During the summer, they are used by farmers as a shelter for tools. It smells good of wood, dry moss, and hay.
We decide to go back and redo this stretch the next morning, but this time with cold temperatures and hard snow. We allow Andrea to recover as it is evident that he is fatigued, with his head slung low, just above the handlebars. Although during the day we had encouraged him to eat frequently and stay hydrated, we now have him right before our eyes… completely finished.
We begin our descent about 300 m in altitude and identify a good spot in the woods, just a short distance from a stream. We distinguish the muffled sound of water running under the snow, it will come in handy for cooking and drinking. The snow has a crust of about 5cm and beneath that, it is the consistency of coarse salt. This makes it impossible to plant the pegs and the tent cannot support itself. Therefore, I use the bike and attach three ropes to the wheels and the pedal. For the anterior apse, I reach the trunk of a young birch with another cord. I lay out a nylon sheet to act as a floor directly on top of the snow, then I mount the tent upon it. Inside it, I put an aluminum sun visor (just like the ones that you put on the dashboards of cars parked in the sun) and finally an inflatable mattress and sleeping bag. Insulating yourself from the cold ground is much more efficient in warming yourself than wearing sweaters and down jackets.
I hate single tents; I say that every time I prepare the equipment before departing. But because of their reduced volume and weight, they always win over the modern bikepacker. During winter, the night comes early, and the day comes late. That is why it is important to have a living space inside the tent, to read something or to store the equipment (such as boots), to avoid finding them frozen the next morning. At 6:00 pm I have already eaten and I have fallen asleep listening to the torrent’s murmur and the snoring of my companions. I cannot decipher whether it’s Andrea or Nico.
Folding everything up again and fitting it in the bags is a very informative activity, and it has a special charm when carried out in sub-zero temperatures. The nylon tarp used on the floor turns out to be useful again, as I fold the sleeping bag and deflate the mat. I leave my mocha to the very last minute so that I can indulge in a refill right before leaving.
“Good morning”… “Good morning”. “How is it?” No answer. At least not one that I can hear. Hopefully that means everything is great.
We carry the bikes along the forest road once again and cycle on a sheet of frozen snow that manages to hold well. In a few minutes, we get to the summit plain we have encountered the day before. A new light, and the same amazing silence. We are alone; we have not seen another human being in two days. Terrarossa’s Late and Denti can hardly contain the snow plain that before us. On the horizon is the Sassopiatto – with its south wall, a huge inclined plain swept by the winds – and, on its side, the majestic vertical profile of Sassolungo. Considering we are in one of the Dolomiti’s most touristic areas, this is really impressive. Together we are experiencing a fantastic and surreal moment.
Andrea is not feeling well, it seems like he has run out of energy. We agree to meet again near Passo Sella in the evening. He will head down to Ortisei, in Val Gardena, and from there he will get to the Passo by concrete road.
After reaching the Zallinger, we have come very close to the Sassopiatto’s wall. Reaching an altitude of over 2000mt; everything around us is covered with meters upon meters of snow. We cross a sunlit valley protected from the wind, and the snow starts to fall under the weight of our bicycles, At times we are forced to dismount and push them. Suddenly, the smell of smoke and burned wood travels through the fresh air and abruptly awakens me as if from a dream. Like a castaway who has realized the presence of other human life. The sooty smell comes from a very small wooden cabin, that has been dug out of the snow that previously buried it. Between ourselves and the cabin is a distance of about fifty meters. We stare at it, motionless, silent. Cautiously, we wait for the encounter. Then the cabin’s small window opens and out comes an arm holding a phone. “I am filming you! Hi!”, “…”, “it is rare this year seeing someone, on a bicycle nonetheless…”, then laughs.
– “I will finish shaving and then, if you would like, you can taste the bread just out of the oven”.
– “Alberto, nice to meet you”, “Ulrich, nice to meet you”; we introduce ourselves with a handshake. Ulrich had been living here since July, without ever going down to the valley. It is evident that he is the true castaway.
Born in Selva di Val Gardena, for the past twenty years he has lived in Berlin where he works as an architect and he retires in his cabin whenever he can. He gets the little electric energy needed from small portable solar panels and to warm himself he uses wood, which is stored in an external deposit that he reaches through a trench dug in the snow.
Amicably, he invites us in. It’s a very small space, fitted with a cheap kitchen and small table. On the edges of the stove’s metal top, there are big stones used as heat condensers. Once turned off, the stove’s metal will cool down very quickly, but the stones will continue to work as heaters until the morning after. On the windowsills, each jar is utilized efficiently in order to gather water from the melting snow. “Of course, it is not spring water” – he says – “But I have some stored right here for guests”, and takes out two glass jars; we dilute it with elderberry juice. He invites us to sit while he takes the big sweet-smelling loaf of bread out of the oven, and offers it to us with some butter and honey. A small pot holding pinewood pinecones placed on a heater releases a fragrant smell throughout the room. There is a reading of 26°C on the small thermometer is behind me. The warmth slowly seeps into the bones and my eyes flicker closed.
We go outside and see there is another wooden building being used as barn and tool shed. Ulrich tells us that his passion project hosting informative courses to teach people how to learn new way of leading a sustainable life on a mountain. He teaches his students of a life without electricity, mowing by hand, breeding animals to use as sustenance and not as a way of profit. Our conversation divagates from green buildings, to recognizing edible wild plants, to sustainable living. I promise to come back and visit him with a bottle of wine one day and hope we can continue our conversation. “In April, I will wait for you. Come and help me with the sheep, a fence is necessary to protect them from the wolves”. “Of course, I will see you in April, then”.
We venture North, beneath Sassolungo. It is cold and the snow is in perfect condition. We are in high Val Gardena. Before us are the Odle, the Puez and the Gherdenacia, below us are the bends of Passo Gardena. We climb Mont Seura and enter the Sellaronda skitour, one of the most famous and visited skiing carousels in the world. Pushing along our bikes, we are the only ones on the track that have been perfectly grooved in the hope of a re-opening facilities soon. We get down to Plan Sosaslonch. This is the spot where you can most accurately perceive the monumental size of the Sassolungo’s north wall. 1200mt of vertical rock walls looms menacingly above our heads. We push the bikes silently, without saying a word. We reach the Rif. Comici, which is closed and buried in the snow. Before us is the Sella, the perfect landscape to catch the last of the daylight. I stay behind and observed Nico’s silhouette reach the horizon and loom black and small against the sunlit walls of the Mount. We are lucky, alone and solitary in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
We reach Passo Sella, and we are elated. It has been the most unforgettable day. We find Andrea, and he is cold but still smiling. The Trentin side has been closed for more than a month because of the danger of avalanche; in the street, there are black choughs dancing with the wind, rising in the air and landing with two or three hops on the snow. I find a place to construct my tent. I climb the small hill a little above the Rif. Valentini, a rif I am familiar with due to my visits during the summer campfires. The sight on Torri della Sella, on the Marmolada, on the Gran Vernel, on the mountains of Val di Fassa and on the Pale di San Martino on one side, and on Punta Grohmann, Cinque Dita and Salssolungo on the other side, is unmatched. These hills are exposed to the winds, and tonight is no exception. I return to find a more sheltered space and the track left by a snowplow’s shovel is the perfect spot. Encapsulated on three sides by walls of snow, , I cook protected from the harsh winds and gaze at the stars above my head, in the dark surrounded by. The soup starts to smoke, it is very cold.
I burn my lips with my hot coffee while I watch the spectacular beginning of dawn. I find the guys as they are trying to fit the last of their items inside the bags. Andrea chooses to go back and, reluctantly, we part ways. This journey has ended for him, but he will have another chance sometime soon. With Nico, we take it easy. We are in Trentino, orange area, and the Rif. Salei is open. After a large breakfast, I drink my first beer after two days of melted snow.
We go down the very long slope 3 – Tre, entering a Canazei buried in the snow. A glorious sunny day is ahead of us, and we run quickly and joyfully along the cycle track at the bottom of the valley. We leave the track in Vigo di Fassa to climb by concrete road to Passo Costalunga and begin to near the Carezza Lake.
Our adventure ends as we admire Latemar’s towers and its vertical canals, overwhelmed with snow. At its bottom, is the frozen lake, shaded and surrounded by a dense forest.
I bid Nico farewell with a few words, but the silence could have spoken for itself. We turn away, each on our bike, with only the sound of the rotating wheels ringing in ears.
Location: Tires – Western Dolomites / Italy
Distance: 120 km
Ascent: 4570 m ascent
Best time: January-February. It depends on snow conditions
Tires: 650b, the wider the tire, the better. Forget 700c.
Gearing: the one suitable for mountain cycling
What to wear: flat pedals; winter shoes for hiking on the snow. Technical winter clothing for outdoor activities in the mountains.
Rifugio Molignon – more info
Joch 28, – 39040 Alpe di Siusi
+39 0471 727912
Zallinger – more info
Saltria 74 – 39040 Alpe di Siusi
+39 0471 727947
Hotel Tirler – more info
Saltria 59, – 39040 Alpe di Siusi
+39 0471 727927
Rifugio Salei – more info
38032 Canazei – Val di Fassa
+39 335 7536315
Hotel Vajolet – more info
Via San Giorgio, 42 – 39050 Tires al Catinaccio
+39 0471 095348
For more info you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org