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The 9 systems of the Dolomites | Marmolada

Description

The 2,208 hectares of land divided between the Provinces of Belluno and Trento, make up the Marmolada system, known as the Queen of the Dolomites. This system includes the highest peaks in the whole region, among them Punta Penìa, at 3,343m above sea level, the highest mountain in the Dolomites Unesco World Heritage Site, making this system unique for the beauty of its landscape.

Separated from the Sella chain by the Cordevole and Avisio valleys and bounded to the south by the Biois mountain stream and the Rio San Pellegrino river, the Marmolada chain marches on toward the west in the shape of Cima di Costabella, the Monzoni chain and Monte Vallaccia. The system can be divided into two sections, the southern section with Cime d’Ombretta (2,983m), Sasso Vernale (3,054m) and Sasso di Valfredda (2,998m). The highest peaks, Punta Penìa, Punta Rocca (3,309m), Punta Serauta (3,218m), Gran Vernel (3,210m) and Piccolo Vernel (3,098m) are in the northern section.

Marmolada is a mountain of contrasts. The softly rolling contours at its foot, covered in woods and meadows, are abruptly broken by the dizzying height of its upper slopes with their pale calcareous rock and breath-taking crags. The northern face, home to the most extensive glacier in the Dolomite region, slopes down gracefully to the banks of the little lake of Fedaia. The southern face is one of the most challenging routes, much appreciated by the world’s mountaineers, a wall of nearly 1,000 metres, starting from the Val Ombretta screes, standing out against vertiginous peaks. The first ascent of the Dolomites was attempted right here in 1802, when the chaplain of Pieve di Livinallongo, Father Giuseppe Terza, tried to scale its heights with four more local climbers from Agordo, but he was killed on the way when he fell into a crevasse.

A picturesque narrow canyon, Serrai di Sottoguda, opens from the slopes of Mount Marmolada, linking the district of Malga Ciapèla with the village of Sottoguda. This route of about 2km, for years the only way of reaching Passo Fedaia, has for some time been designated a nature reserve closed to traffic. The rocky walls of this canyon, reaching up hundreds of metres, have been carved out over the centuries by the mountain stream Pettorina, and, when they ice over in wintertime the wall is a magnet for ice-climbing enthusiasts with some of the most magical climbs in the Alps.

Geology

An organic island in the Ladinian archipelago crossed by lava and covered in volcanic material

This system tells of the first Dolomite sea and the establishment of an island in the Triassic archipelago until eventual its covering with Ladinian volcanic material, although some of this story is rather disjointed, it is nonetheless unique.
The Marmolada massif is an exceptional example of a pre-volcanic island built from organic matter in which the relationship between the organically constructed sections and the deep sea sediments is preserved in various places. In the Padòn, Auta and Monzoni subgroups, the area also contains some thick layers of volcanic material, such as tuff and ashes, deposited as a result of the eruptions of the mid-Triassic period.

This island was split in two by the river of rising magma travelling along conduits and it was covered by material from the eruptions, presenting us with vertical sections that provide much information about the relationship between the carbonate and the volcanic deposits. The volcanic material covering the fossil island contributed to the failure of this massif to become transformed into dolomite rock, hence the references to Marmolada limestone, and it also accounts for the excellent state of preservation of the fossil fauna.
Another exciting feature of the Marmolada is that it contains eloquent traces of the Triassic tectonic upheavals in addition to the more recent ones that lifted up the Alps.

Geomorphology

The Marmolada massif is at the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is known as the Queen of the Dolomites in that it reaches a height of 3,343m at Punta Penia. The northern face is home to the largest glacier in the Dolomites, making it a very special place for observing the formations associated with both past and present glaciation and for further study of glaciology and climatology.
Here too there are some magnificent examples of morphology associated with the rock variations and the lines of the faults and fissures created by tectonic movements.

The Marmolada, Gran Vernel, Cime Ombretta peaks and Val Fredda present an overall picture of an isolated calcareous massif rising abruptly from the centre of the Dolomites with sheer faces and dizzying walls. They emerge from more gentle slopes carved out of the soft Ladinian volcanic rock and the Anisian marl. The silhouette of the massif is markedly asymmetrical with vertical walls to the south contrasting with a broad, slightly inclined plateau to the north. This geometry is the product of the thrusts suffered by the crust when the Alps were being raised, causing the northerly inclination of the layers of rock, forming a monoclinal structure. The orientation of the main walls, crests and little valleys inside the massif, Val di Contrin and Val Ombretta, also displays the reticular geometry of faults and fissures. Numerous fractures run across the imposing southern wall, some of these open, that developed along the vertical faults or ancient fractures across which travelled the Ladinian magma.

The Marmolada glacier has made a significant contribution to remodelling the northern face of the massif. It is a mountain glacier bounded upstream by the rocky crests culminating in Punta Rocca (3,310m) and Punta Penia (3,344m). At times it reaches these crests framing the dizzying south wall in spectacular fashion. The glacier is thawing rapidly. In the 1960s it covered a surface of 305 hectares and by 2006 this had shrunk to only 170 hectares. Today the leading edge of the glacier has retreated to above Sasso delle Undici and Sasso delle Dodici that up till only a few years ago formed the boundaries between the eastern, central and western sections of the glacier. Once enveloped in ice, these ridges resemble shark fins, also known as nunataks, narrow, elongated calcareous outcrops their sides abraded by the glacier, rendering them smooth and marked with deep striations. These rocky outcrops modelled by the glacier, also known as sheepbacks, which are smooth, rounded and marked by streaks and furrows, are quite common all over the area. Among the many other signs of glaciation, Valle Ombretta deserves a mention as a magnificent example of a hanging glacial valley.
The highly soluble grey Marmolada limestone is ideal for creating karst and glaciokarst formations that increase as you head downhill.

Dolomiti Project

Natural history and cultural museums

Marmolada was a theatre of war during the First World War with the Austrian and Italian fronts divided by just a few metres of rock and ice-field. The tunnels, shelters and walkways constructed by the soldiers of both armies almost a hundred years ago can still be visited today. The City of Ice was constructed inside the Marmolada glacier and it is indeed a city with its networks of tunnels, stores, kitchens and dormitories extending over some 12km underground and reaching a depth of 50m.

Hikers and visitors reaching Punta Serauta, either coming up in the cable lift and getting off at the second of three stops, or arriving on foot through Vallone d’Antermoia, can travel over part of the trenches and walkways trod by the soldiers of the Great War in what is now designated the Monumental Zone of Punta Serauta. In recent decades, major restoration work has been carried out by Alpine regiments, now making it possible to negotiate the trenches, walkways and tunnels built by the two armies between 1915 and 1917.

It is possible to reach the Austrian base Forcella a Vù through the Rosso tunnel, or along a walkway in an exposed position on the ridge. This is quite a challenging route and is equipped with cables. The Punta Serauta Great War trail however, is an easier route taking about two hours that runs through the old Italian positions. The trail, on the south-eastern face of Punta Serauta, is a narrow footpath, well laid down and sign-posted, equipped with cables in the more challenging stretches. Here you can visit the walkways and tunnels hewn out of the rock, caverns hosting the command posts, the infirmary, the observation post and the cable lift station. The end stretch of the trail is the most challenging, leading to the ridge and the last tunnel. Visitors wishing to reach this last post should carry with them a harness, rope and hooks.

A few hundred metres from the Punta Serauta monumental zone, is the Grande Guerra in Marmolada Museum to the Great War in Marmolada, at an altitude of 2,950m, the highest museum in Europe. The exhibits include writings, weapons and other relics from the two armies on the Marmolada front. From its broad windows you can see the posts where the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies observed each other and fought almost a century ago (www.museodellaguerra-marmolada.com).

The Passo Fedaia, which is within easy reach of the Belluno side of Rocca Pietore and the Trentino side of Canazei, is also home to a fascinating museum dedicated to the Great War in Marmolada. The Museo della Grande Guerra 1915-1918 houses numerous relics, most of them recovered from the glacier, coming to light as the ice retreats to stir memories of those long years of conflict among the mountain peaks (www.lagrandeguerra.net).

Footpaths and mountain trails

High Altitude Road

Alta Via no. 2 crosses the Marmolada massif, its 13 stretches linking Bressanone and Feltre along high-altitude hiking trails, dotted with shelters and refuges for a short break or an overnight stay. Alta Via no. 2 is also known as Alta Via delle Leggende (The High Road of Legends) because, over the centuries its extraordinarily atmospheric landscape has inspired popular legends peopled with fabulous supernatural creatures.

Malga Ciapèla – Alba di Canazei

This stunning trail is quite long and because it presents some challenges it is recommended for expert mountain hikers. It can become a family outing if you stop at the Falier refuge, if you are coming from the Belluno side or the Contrin refuge from Trentino.
Starting from near the Malga Ciapela camp site, you take footpath 610, a mule track that climbs up to the pasturelands of Valle Ombretta with its charming refuge. From here you follow the path that crosses the valley dominated by the sheer southern wall of the Marmolada, then, after a short climb, you reach the Falier refuge. The path continues to climb on a steep, somewhat difficult scree toward Passo Ombretta and the nearby Dal Bianco shelter. On the descent you travel over Forcella Marmolada and walk through Val Rosalia on footpath 606 as far as the Contrin refuge after which the mule track, footpath 602, takes you to the Locia Contrin refuge and Alba di Canazei.

Malga Ciapela-Franzedas-Forca Rossa

On this trail you will explore the lesser-known but equally delightful face of the Marmolada system. Starting from Malga Ciapèla you head toward the eastern part of the system, the Forca Rossa pass linking Marmolada with the San Pellegrino pass. This pass was yet another strategic location during the Great War as the main artery between Malga Ciapèla and the San Pellegrino pass.
From Malga Ciapèla you reach the camp site of the same name, where you can leave your car and take the mule track to the Falier refuge. After rounding a few bends, the trail forks and you take the left-hand trail, footpath 689, for Valle di Franzedas. The way up continues with a few bends taking you to a refuge, followed by a long, steep stretch. With Col Becher on one side and Piz Le Crane on the other, you can see Forca Rossa and Cime d’Auta that enclose the valley to the left. At the top the trail forks and you take footpath 694, a wide military mule track that, after a short way will take you to the Forca Rossa pass.

The Dolomites of legend

The majestic shape and stunning colours of Mount Marmolada and its mysterious glacier have, over the centuries, stirred the imagination of the residents of these valleys and travellers venturing though its passes and wandering in its woods. Thus were countless legends born, peopled with fabulous beings, often as a way of explaining natural phenomena or particular rock formations. The legend of Conturina is just one of the tales known to all the people of the Dolomites and collected by journalist and academic Karl Felix Wolff and retold in his book “I Monti Pallidi: leggende delle Dolomiti” (“The Pale Mountains. Legends of the Dolomites”) (Mondadori, 1931).

The legend of Conturina

Conturina was a lovely young girl who lived with her stepmother and two stepsisters. All the noblemen and knights who came to visit the castle of this wealthy woman, the stepmother, took absolutely no notice of the two stepsisters, having eyes only for the beautiful Conturina. The stepmother ordered her stepdaughter never to speak in the presence of visitors, telling everyone that the girl was dumb and an idiot. However, the guests’ admiration for Conturina’s beauty never waned so the stepmother then ordered her to stand motionless as well as mute. Now the stepmother informed guests that not only was her stepdaughter dumb and idiot, but she was also paralysed. Still the noblemen and knights continued their courtship of the lovely young girl. Driving the wealthy old woman into a fury. Now the stepmother called in a witch, asking her to turn Conturina to stone. But even as a statue, she still drew admiring glances from the men, much to the annoyance of the two stepsisters. The stepmother then decided to have the stone maiden carried up to the high cliff that looms over the Ombretta Pass in the Marmolada chain. The servants drove the statue into the rocks and abandoned Conturina there. For years nothing was known of the fate of the lovely young girl, although the shepherds in Valle Ombretta said that at times they could hear the sound of a woman singing reverberating through the rocks. One night a soldier on guard duty at the pass heard the singing and understood. He promised Conturina that at daybreak he would climb up and rescue her. But by now it was too late, once seven years had passed the spell had become eternal. There are those who say that still today, while walking in the valley, especially at dusk, you can hear the mournful song of the unfortunate Conturina.

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