Masks, disinfectant gel, social distancing—one could think Covid-19 would destroy the Alpine hiking season but not in the Dolomites which saw a dramatic increase in Italian visitors and heroic efforts by those running the refuges to remain open.
Grasleitenhütte refuge is not the highest of the Schlern-Rosengarten-Latimar Dolomites, at a mere 2,165 meters (a bit above the tree-line), but its situation is unique. At the top of Sud Tirol’s Tchaminetal valley, it sits in a narrow canyon surrounded on three sides by high, sheer cliffs, and is wide open to the West where, on a clear day, you can see the glacier mountains of Stifserjoch and Ortler over nine ranges and 83 kilometers away.
Grasleitenhütte must not be confused with Grasleitenpasshütte refuge (2,601 meters) which we will call Rifugio Passo Principe because it is on the Trentino side of the language boundary. We will come back to Sergio’s magnificent refuge later.
With the Covid virus, much changed in the mountains in 2020. The “Grüß Gott” or “Salve” greetings offered when crossing other hikers on the trail were given this year with backs turned if two meters couldn’t be respected. But the Covid virus also brought a bit of normalcy back to the Dolomites in one way; there were no large groups of Americans. US citizens were banned from entering the EU this summer.
Background: When UNESCO declared the Dolomites a World Heritage Site in 2009, the Yanks discovered a new playground. As they came in swarms with organized package tours, the most popular refuges were booked out months in advance; it was often no longer possible for hikers to call in the morning to reserve a bed for that night.
Much more changed with the arrival of the Americans and their demands for comfort — hot water, separate men and women washrooms, heat, fewer ‘lagers’ (bunk-room dorms) for greater privacy — all meant higher prices and less access for the traditional European Alpinists.
Keeping it Authentic
Which brings us back to Grasleitenhütte refuge: “If you want to get here, you have to walk,” says Félix, who has helped run the refuge every summer since 2012. And the walk is a lot of work. Whether you come from the East which means getting up to either the Molignon Pass or the Grasleiten Pass and then one hour down a very steep 500 meters to the refuge, or from the West, trekking 1000 meters in altitude up the beautiful and narrow Tchaminetal valley trail from Tiers, takes strength and determination.
As it takes effort to reach Grasleitenhütte and Hansl Resch and his wife Margot, who manage it, have kept it original and rustic, the small refuge is usually off the package tourist routes; the public you meet here are German speaking Sud Tyrolleans, like Hansl and Margot, who walk up for a drink and visit, or traditional hikers and climbers, mostly German, Austrian and Italian.
The Italians are Coming
In a bid to get Italians to spend their money in Italy this year, the government encouraged its citizens to go to the mountains and 60% of them heeded the call. There were so many taking the lifts up to the accessible hights that the world famous Sud Tirol mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, asked Rome to intervene and limit the number of people allowed up. “The Dolomites can’t handle this many people,” without severe damage to the ecosystem, he warned.
“People are in the mountains who have no idea what they are doing,” said Petra, the landlady of Plattkofelhütte, a privately run refuge a two-hour hike from the Sella Joch Pass bus stop.
In the best of times, mountain bikers and hikers have a tenuous relationship but to make matters worse this year, valley hotels are renting E-bikes to the inexperienced visitors and they were tearing up the trails badly as well as failing to respect basic mountain etiquette. It will be interesting to see the accident statistics for the summer of 2020.
But because Grasleitenhütte is so remote and there are no lifts nearby, it was possible to escape the unfit, inexperienced and badly shoed masses.
Hansl, a builder by profession and a life long climber, and Margot, offered to take over management of the refuge when the former landlords decided to retire in 2009. “I just got tired of all the paper work they make us builders go through,” Hansl told Seiser Alm Magazine.
Except for a new pine wood floor put in downstairs a couple of years ago, the retiling of the washrooms, and dim, generator powered lights, the refuge has not changed much since its last addition by the Leipzig Section of the German and Austrian Alpine Club in 1910. All the wood paneling and the rooms are the same and a wood-stove in the dining room is still where people hang their wet clothes to dry when coming in from the rain.
“A refuge can’t be confused with a hotel,” Margot said. “Sometimes guests might want their own table but it’s not possible because of the lack of room. But skepticism and shyness quickly give way to good cheer when they begin speaking to the other people at their table.”
Corona this year meant imposing social distancing which Hansl and Margot did to the best of their ability. Like so many refuges, they had to close down their two lagers and often were unable to fill the 50 beds in their 15 rooms because you can’t mix groups. The one thing Alpine refuge landlords do not want to see is another lockdown.
Managing the Crowds
Sergio Rossi and his son Daniele, who run the Rifugio Passo Principe (Grasleitenpasshütte) 500 meters higher, have to deal with the hundreds of daily valley people who do the two-hour hike up from the lifts as well as the seasoned Alpinists who come to climb the Klettersteig/via Ferratta around the Kesselkogel Antermoia.
Like Hansl, Sergio and his son are seasoned climbers, mountain guides and the local mountain rescue.
Rifugio Passo Principe was entirely rebuilt, all in wood, in 2008. More than three dozen helicopter trips were needed to bring up the material. Sergio only has lagers to offer which is a challenge for social distancing. He also put up a barrier to limit the number of people who could sit, eat and drink at his Rifugio at one time and allowed new guests to enter only when others had left. All of this hurts the bottom line of those who manage the refuges, more out of love for the mountains than as a money maker.
Some refuges like Langkopfel, Tierser Alpl or Plattkofel, for example, have made plexiglass separators to put on the tables between groups. They all have hand disinfectant gel at the entrance and in the hallways and insist guests wear masks when not eating or drinking.
You can’t expect star cooking in a mountain hut but one thing Grasleitenhütte can be remembered for is its cuisine. Rakesh, their Indian born cook is a genius in the kitchen and can whip up a Sud Tyrollean Bratkartoffeln mit Speck, or an Italian risotto, or a southern curry to die for. This summer we enjoyed a delicious Kitzbraten (baby goat stew) with Rote Beete Knödle, a Tyrollean dumpling made with red beet.
This may be a challenge for some to eat when a baby goat in Grasleiten’s small herd, grazing next to the terrace, just looked at you with its big green eyes.
History & Identity
Another great thing about Grasleiten is its authenticity. A visitor from 1900, when it was owned by the Leipzig section of the Alpine Club which first built it in 1887, would easily recognize his refuge today. He might have trouble understanding why everything in this German speaking region is bilingual as Sud Tirol was Austrian until the UK and the French gave it to Italy after WWI.
Grasleitenhütte was one of 25 refuges expropriated without compensation by the Italians in 1923. The relationship between the annexed Sud Tyrolleans and Italy has not always been smooth and this refuge is part of that history. In the 1960s, Sud Tyrollean ‘Freedom Fighters’ were hidden in Grasleiten from Italian security forces, especially around the “Night of Fire” in 1961 when they blew up 37 electric pylons near Bozen. Through the low level guerrilla war, the Sud Tyrolleans won great autonomy and the right to use their language in school and official business.
In general, the Sud Tyrolleans have adapted well to their biculturalism — German speaking Italian citizens — and get along well with their Italian neighbors. The great self-determination enjoyed by the Autonomous Province of Bozen has restored much of the Sud Tyrollean pride.
But some identity battles continue and most recently with the Schlernhaus which the Italian Alpine Club, CAI, refused to retrocede to the Autonomous Province in 2000 like the other expropriated estates were. The Sud Tyrolleans running the Schlern went as far as to stop flying the Italian flag during the dispute. A temporary arrangement was reached a few years ago and the Italian flag now flies again, along side the Sud Tirol and European Union flags.
The Schlernhaus, 2,457 meters, built in 1883, has changed little since 1900. It is wonderfully situated with a splendid view over the Rosengarten cliffs which turn red at dusk. It is much bigger than Grasleiten and is on all the tourist routes which makes it less intimate. It has 120 beds and recently added hot water to the washrooms which many guests, especially Americans, think they should lock while washing even though there are numerous sinks for all to use.
Although the old, ceramic tiled, wood stove has not worked for nearly 100 years, little has changed in the great dining hall where the view from three sides is nothing short of magnificent. A hike up to the Pez above the refuge will give you an incredible 360° view for a hundred kilometers in all directions. From the Pez, walk down to the large plateau, with sheer cliffs dropping down on three sides; an ancient kraftplatz, a power and magic site since the stone age which gave birth to the stories of the Schlern Hexen, or witches.
Like most refuges at this altitude, they function with generators for electricity, water is scarce and you are advised not to drink from the tap, septic tanks are used for toilets and everything must be brought up by supply lift or people from the valley. Hikers are encouraged to take their trash back down with them when they leave.
The building of the original mountain huts was a feat in itself. All the materials, stone, wood and so forth, had to be carried up by man or mule. The material lift has made life easier. Hansl goes down to the valley three times a week for supplies, loads them on the lift and then hikes back up from the loading point, which normally takes him 30 minutes while an average hiker would take almost an hour.
The Grasleiten team are up at 5:30 to serve breakfast from 6:30 to eight. Lights are out at 22:00. Guests must use their own sleeping bags. The dining area is thoroughly cleaned three times a day. Rooms should be freed by nine for cleaning for the next guests. They get good crowds for lunch and drinks and there is a local competition to see who hikes up the most often. Last year’s winner walked up 36 times during the season.