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The Dolomites in mid-June – Day 11: Pordoi Pass

March 5, 2023
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With fine weather forecast, we planned a long trip for Day 11, south by bus through Arabba to the famous Pordoi Pass at 2239m.


Our day started with the bus to Corvara, and then a wait for the connection to Arabba.  We took the opportunity to stretch our legs, photographing some of the buildings and the mountains above.

Mount Sassongher

A paraglider drifted high overhead, as I tried to find a position to photograph the great peak of Mount Sassongher (2665m) looming over the town.

Preparing for the Maratona dles Dolomites

The mountains were full of bicycles; teams of road racers were practising for the Maratona dles Dolomites bicycle race the following weekend.  That would be an extraordinary test of stamina – 86 miles taking in 7 major climbs totalling 4230m, usually completed in around 4 hours 40 minutes.  During the race, all the roads are closed, but on the practice days the cyclists compete with cars, buses and lorries, all toiling up the hairpin bends. We were glad to be on the bus, not on bikes, and not driving, trying to avoid them.

At the top of the climb from Corvara we had wonderful views south-east to the great massif of Monte Pelmo, before the road swung southwards and down to Arabba.  Ahead to our left, we could see the cable cars climbing to the volcanic ridge we had explored on Day 9.

Hairpins to the Pordoi Pass

The spectacular scenery of this ridge continued to excite us, as we swept through crowds of bicycles in Arabba, and set off up the hairpins, westwards towards the Pordoi pass.  Depending where you start counting, and which bends you include, there are between 22 and 33 hairpin bends in the climb to the pass.

Some of the cyclists made the climb seem easier than others, but there were plenty at the top, preparing to descend to find their next climb.

Which way to go ?

At the top of the pass, we had a choice of three potential walks:

  • A long slow climb southwards along the Viel del Pan, rising some 200m to the volcanic ridge we had visited two days previously at Porta Vescovo. Here there was the potential to see some different species, including Pulsatilla alpina, though we may well have been too late for them.
  • A level walk for a couple of kilometres along the northern, limestone side of the pass to the German ossuary and War Memorial. We planned to climb up the side of the pass there and returning across the bottom of the screes.
  • A cable car even higher to the top of Sass Pordoi at 2950m, where it would still be cold, and we might see some higher alpines, including plants which had gone over at lower altitudes. The weather was so good this was a tempting option.


In the end we chose the second, most level option, though part of the party went south, and at least one rode the magic carpet to the top of the mountain.


From the pass, there were views in all directions:

  • North to the Sass Pordoi (you can see the cable car station perched on the brink
  • South up the volcanic ridge – you can just see walkers starting the long slow climb
  • Best of all, back eastwards, along the ridge and down the hairpins towards Arabba.

It was hard to get me to pay attention, and start the walk.

Aster alpinus

Almost before we had left the car park, in the wall beside the path, we encountered beautiful plants:

  • Aster alpinus, in various colours, together with
  • some very short scabious (Scabiosa lucida ?), and
  • the foaming cream flowers of Galium megalospermum (syn. helveticum).

We progressed down the track at a snail’s pace, stopping repeatedly to admire the wonderful view down the pass.

Knautia (formerly Scabiosa) arvensis (?)

All around us, the meadows sparkled with scabious flowers, in colours ranging from pink to lilac.  It is hard to believe that these tall waving beauties are the same species as the short plant growing in the path. shown just above.  I have found these plants impossible to identify with any degree of confidence.  However, I am slowly coming to the view that these taller plants might be the Field Scabious, Knautia (formerly Scabiosa) arvensis.

Gymnadenia conopsea

Among the scabious marched ranks of stiff Fragrant Orchid spikes (Gymnadenia conopsea), including some particularly dark magenta specimens.

As we moved slowly past this profusion of flowers, a sudden explosion of dandelion clocks rang a striking note amongst the clover.

Geum rivale

Where rivulets trickled out of the bank, Water Avens (Geum rivale) flourished, with seedheads already, as well as flowers.

As we walked further along the hillside, the view down the pass varied constantly with changing light.  It was hard to stop taking pictures of this magnificent landscape, or of the flowers blowing in front of it.

Orobanche gracilis

We encountered several clumps of parasitic broomrape in bud or in flower. The shiny red throats of the flowers suggest that these are Orobanche gracilis, the Slender Broomrape.

Onobrychis montana

Among the many magenta flowers of Mountain Sainfoin (Onobrychis montana), we found one beautiful plant with white flowers tinged with a hint of pink.

Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. vulparia

Among the meadow flowers were a few taller species:

  • Golden Rod (Solidago virgaurea) and
  • Wolfsbane (Aconitum lycoctonum subsp. vulparia).

Silene vulgaris

Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) was also abundant, particularly where water seeped out of the bank.

We passed many now familiar flowers:

  • Astragalus alpinus with its white pea flowers with violet striped petals
  • The (yellow and) brown clover, Trifolium badium
  • Orange (Crepis aurea) and yellow hawkweeds
  • The magenta spikes of Alpine Sainfoin (Hedysarum hedysaroides), masquerading as Marsh Orchids.

As we passed one foreground hut after another, the shadows of the clouds moved across the landscape, and I couldn’t stop myself photographing the view. Rather basic accommodation, but what a view !

Lilium martagon

The view made a particularly fine backdrop to the magnificent spikes of Lilium martagon which dotted the slopes.

x. Gymnigritella suaveolens

We had seen very dark Gymnadenia conopsea here, but only encountered Vanilla Orchids (Nigritella) later, when we were higher up towards the screes.  So it was a surprise to encounter two more specimens of the hybrid between the two (we found this previously on our Pralongia Plateau walk).  Beside them lurked a few less conspicuous Frog Orchids (Dactylorhiza viridis).

Arnica montana

Behind us the green slopes led up to limestone cliffs and screes, glistening with the golden stars of Arnica montana.  Ahead, we could now catch glimpses of the German War Memorial and ossuary.

So many of these plants were familiar now:

  • A few late flowers on Erigeron alpinus
  • … and on the yellow Oxytropis campestris
  • The short meadow grasses harboured large plants of Helianthemum nummularium
  • Elsewhere the deep blue heads of Round-headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare) dotted the grass.


Tofieldia calyculata

Where the path crossed a stream we found typical bog-plants:

  • Kingcups (Caltha palustris)
  • Some really fine, heavily spotted specimens of Dactylorhiza majalis
  • A wonderful clump of the little asphodel, Tofieldia calyculata.

As we approached the ossuary, the view of the volcanic ridge to the south of us seemed to grow more and more impressive, with the snowy top of Marmolada just peeking over it.

German War Memorial and Ossuary

The War Memorial itself is an octagonal tower, build of close-fitting stone blocks.  It has magnificent views across the meadows, down the valley to Arabba, and away to rocky peaks beyond.  Behind it, benches made a convenient place to stop for lunch, and soak in the view.

Achillea clavennae

As always, I couldn’t sit still for long.  A white yarrow clothed the rocky outcrops around us.  The silver leaves suggest these are probably Achillea clavennae.

Minuartia species

Another large limestone boulder was home to a number of different Minuartia species, but I have struggled to identify them.

Whilst we ate our lunch, our group was joined by two more walkers, who were on their first day in the Dolomites.  They had been in the part of our party who started the long slow climb up the Viel del Pan.  After struggling on the climb, they had turned back, and joined us for an introduction to the mountain flowers.

This delayed our departure a little, and we set off up towards the scree in a long chain.  Of course, I was towards the back.  As we climbed higher, the views just got better; mountains around us and across the valley, and clouds collecting around the top of Marmolada.

The first plants I found were familiar:

  • the big yellow hawkweed which I think is Hypochaeris uniflora
  • the blue and purple flowers of Oxytropis jacquinii, surrounded by yellow Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)

Geum x. sudeticum

Without warning, I suddenly encountered the unfamiliar.  In a grassy depression next to me there were yellow flowers which were not buttercups.  Initially, I thought these were Geum montanum, but the plants were too tall.  The tall stems and nodding flowers had distinct echoes of Geum rivale, but with yellow petals, and more open flowers.  I am sure this was the hybrid between G. montanum and G. rivale, Geum x. sudeticum.

Sadly, most of the party had gone on ahead, or was way behind, with our two new members.  There was no one I could show this discovery to, or discuss its identity with.

Potentilla aurea (?)

In the longer grass with the Geum, I found a Potentilla with long stems, and large, golden-centred flowers.  Although it prefers acid soils, I am inclined to think this might be Potentilla aurea.

Primula auricula

Higher up the slopes, we encountered more limestone boulders, fallen from the cliffs above.  These held the potential for some unusual plants.  The first boulders I investigated held good clumps of Primula auricula, but all were now in seed.

Pinguicula alpina (?)

Another limestone boulder hosted a colony of butterwort (Pinguicula species).  Sadly, there were no flowers to help me identify this. The leaves did not look quite right for Pinguicula vulgaris which we had seen elsewhere.  They seemed quite fleshy, and had a reddish tinge to the underside. I have seen this in photos of Pinguicula alpina, but I don’t know that this is a diagnostic feature.

Leontopodium alpinum

Also growing on these boulders I found and photographed plants of Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum).

Chamorchis alpina

Only when I was back at home, reviewing and editing these images, did I realise that the last one held two flower spikes of the tiny orchid, Chamorchis alpina, in the top left corner.  This is one of the smallest European orchids, and a plant which I had never seen.  What a shame I did not notice it at the time, and take its picture properly.

Although I wanted to climb higher up towards the screes, the members of the party in front of me had now turned left across the slope.  Reluctantly I followed them.  Walking here was difficult, with no established path, and very uneven terrain.

Traunsteinera globosa

Between the hummocks of grass I saw scabious, and Globe Orchids pretending to be scabious.  Also the little fern, Botrychium lunaria, or Moonwort, and a few plants of Dryas octopetala (Mountain Avens) in what seemed a most uncharacteristic habitat.

Nigritella miniata

Vanilla orchids dotted these higher slopes.  Most were the red form which fades to pink – I have labelled these tentatively Nigritella miniata.

Nigritella nigra subsp. rhellicani

A few were the darker, almost black, non-fading form which I have called Nigritella nigra subsp. rhellicani.

Valeriana montana

On the sides of a small, stream-cut ravine I found Valeriana montana.

Gentiana acaulis

Nearby, just one trumpet gentian still had flowers.  On limestone, this ought to be Gentiana clusii, but the pictures are a better match for the descriptions of Gentiana acaulis.  I am struggling to see any differences between this plant and the ones we photographed two days earlier on the acid ridge at Porta Vescovo, where we happily labelled them Gentiana acaulis.

Pedicularis hybrid

Again I encountered the very pale Pedicularis with a pink beak which had puzzled us all holiday.  I still don’t have a secure identity for it; it most resembles pictures posted on the internet as Pedicularis ascendens x. rostratocapitata, though neither putative parent appeared to be present.

Lilium martagon

The Lilium martagon spikes up here were, if anything, even more spectacular than the ones lower down.

Pseudorchis albida

In between the lilies, I was finding magnificent, solitary specimens of the Small White Orchid, Pseudorchis albida, which we had seen in such abundance at the Passo della Erbe.

Paederota bonarota

Every time I passed a limestone boulder or outcrop, I checked it carefully for plants.  Some held fine plants of Paederota bonarota, another plant familiar from earlier in our trip, most memorably at Falzarego.

Often, in the scree around and beneath the boulder, there would be a marmot burrow.  I could hear them whistling as I traversed the slope, but didn’t once see one.

Potentilla nitida

One plant we had particularly wanted to see here was Potentilla nitida, with its pink flowers and silvery foliage.  This was something we had only encountered a couple of times on the holiday; on neither occasion was it a particularly good specimen.  Here, on the limestone boulders and outcrops it was abundant, in near white, pale and deep pink forms.

Campanula cochlearifolia

In the scree around one of these outcrops, the little Campanula cochlearifolia was just coming into flower.

Pyrola rotundifolia

Eventually, we reached a path which wound down the side of a small stream, back to the metalled track we had started out on.  It seemed sensible to follow this, and return that way.  In the marshy areas beside the stream, we found chives (Allium schoenoprasum), and wintergreen again.  These plants had flowers wider open than any we had seen before, with long S-shaped styles.  Even I could be reasonably confident that they are Pyrola rotundifolia.

Platanthera bifolia

I also found just one Lesser Butterfly Orchid (Platanthera bifolia).

Arnica montana

Here we were crossing the meadows shining with golden Arnica montana which I had seen earlier from below.

Onobrychis montana

Before long we were making our way back up the gentle incline towards the pass.  The Hoary Plantain (Plantago media) and Sainfoin (Onobrychis montana) glowed with the sun behind it.

Unfortunately, we needed to hurry; we were in danger of missing the bus, and having to wait an hour for the next one.  I soon found myself a long way behind the rest of the group; climbing is easier than descending, but climbing fast is not on my list of available gears.

Hieracium villosum

As I neared the top of the pass I stopped briefly to take one photo of a fine specimen of Hieracium villosum, before stumbling into the car park.  There was just time for one shot northwest off the other side of the pass towards the massif of Sassolungo.

As we boarded the bus, the clouds were gathering on the ridge to the south of us.  Suddenly, the gods threw their dice, and daylight all but disappeared. The bus zigzagged down the pass and out from a torrential downpour.

Finally, we emerged into sunshine, to wonderful views eastwards down the valley to Monte Pelmo again, wreathed in clouds like Olympus.

Image of Jon Evans Jon Evans

Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. Jon is interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.

However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He still visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors, and is actively involved in other plant photography, both in gardens both public and private, and on outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.

If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at