The Ironman Vacation: A New Extreme Sports Retreat



The fixed safety lines and ladders of the via ferrata meander to the 2,400m summit of Col dei Bos. I put on the climbing harness, contemplate the 500m of almost vertical limestone rock and feel my courage weaken. As the light-hearted conversation turns into a more concrete briefing, Diego Zanesco – half mountain goat, half silver fox and 100% cool customer – calms my nerves. He is one of the most respected guides here in the Alta Badia region of South Tyrol, with over 30 years of experience under his belt, and you can feel it. I clip the carabiner, grab the cable and get to work.

It’s the first day in four in the Dolomites, where I’m a guest at the Rosa Alpina Hotel & Spa in San Cassiano – a legendary property, part luxury chalet and rustic mountain chalet, with a multi-star destination restaurant Michelin, St Hubertus. He joined the Aman hotel and resort team last year, but the Pizzinini family, its founding owners, remain a constant presence here: Hugo Pizzinini, the descendant of the third generation, was on hand to welcome me. personally with a spaghetti carbonara when I rolled from Venice at 10:30 p.m.

The author running on the Forcella Salares, with a view of the valley and the Scotoni refuge © James Mollison

I’m staying to test Aman’s new multi-day extreme sports retreat program, aimed at clients thirsty for ultra-physical adventures with all the luxuries you expect from these hotels: massages, expert guides, fine dining and spas. more refined. Each retreat is designed to make the most of its respective landscape: a desert-mountain adventure in Morocco, a triathlon through the tropical forest of Phuket, ocean challenges on a private island in the Philippines and, here in the Dolomites, serious alpine adventures. While the daily activity plans are quite complex, everything is customizable enough to suit abilities, length of stay, weather conditions, and how you feel on the day.

The author tackles the seven passes of Maratona dles Dolomites

The author tackles the seven passes of Maratona dles Dolomites © James Mollison

The author approaches the 2,477m summit of Sass de Stria on a three-hour trail

The author approaches the 2,477m summit of Sass de Stria during a three-hour trail © James Mollison

My predilection for endurance sports corresponds perfectly to the terrain and its mountain traditions, so running, cycling and swimming are the pillars of my itinerary. They vary in intensity and duration: some really limiting, others much more enjoyable, with doses of via ferrata added for alpine adrenaline.

The trail climbs to Sass de Stria
The path that goes up to Sass de Stria © James Mollison

The Alta Badia region is a hotspot for road cycling, with several breathtaking mountain passes. The Giro d’Italia is a regular visitor, and the Maratona dles Dolomites starts and ends a stone’s throw from Rosa Alpina. With an international peloton of 9,000 participants, he goes on several passes in an epic race, covering 138 km and gaining 4,230 m in altitude. (To put that in context, a race this distance in England would typically have about a third of an uphill climb.) That’s the kind of challenge I’m looking for. La Rosa Alpina equips me with a Pinarello – an ultra-light, premium Italian carbon road bike (in Ferrari red, naturally) and sends me a guide, Franz Wieser – a tall 26-year-old young man who the champion cyclist looks all bitten. Whatever the activity, it seems, the hotel is ready with expert athletes to both instruct and nudge guests.

Mountain guide Diego Zanesco prepares the author for the via ferrata

The mountain guide Diego Zanesco prepares the author for the via ferrata © James Mollison

Rosa Alpina's spa offers luxurious Thai massages

Rosa Alpina’s spa offers luxurious Thai massages © James Mollison

The initial buzz of the two-way conversation soon turns into a Franz monologue – I barely manage to answer monosyllables between deep breaths as I realize my morning walks around Richmond Park have been ridiculously under-compared. to the challenge of those endless, winding and uphill climbs. The shorter, exhilarating descents seem shorter and shorter. After four hours, with five substantial leg runs and the stress of not being acclimatized to the altitude, I’m completely broken. But the scenery – towering peaks and towering massifs all around – is truly epic.

At a crossroads, Franz offers me two choices: turn left, to cut the route of about 30km; or on the right, to enter the monstrous Passo Giau. 19.9 km long, with an average gradient of 9.3% and 29 hairpin bends, it is a prospect to give nerves to even the most seasoned rider. Two hours – and spending every ounce of energy and sand in my body – later the challenge is over. This is one of the most intimidating of my time, but it is an adventure commensurate with a bucket list.

The author and his red Pinarello Ferrari bike outside the Rosa Alpina
The author and his red Pinarello Ferrari bike in front of the Rosa Alpina © James Mollison
Affettato misto and fresh sourdough on the terrace of Rosa Alpina's Wine Bar & Grill
Misto Affettato and fresh sourdough on the terrace of Rosa Alpina’s Wine Bar & Grill © James Mollison

On the second day, my upper body trains with a swim in an open water lake. For this we drive west, passing the town of Bolzano, to a secluded private garden overlooking Lake Caldaro. Diego, always so cool, follows me in a boat. With the sun on your back and the water at 21 ° C, the 2 km swim in milletang conditions is exactly the welcome and physiologically balancing tonic it has been calculated to be. With each breath I catch a glimpse of the lush green of the surrounding fruit trees and snow-capped peaks, aware that it’s a world away from the crowded swimming lanes of the 25m indoor pool I’m used to.

The 11-course “Cook The Mountain” menu at St Hubertus

The 11-course “Cook The Mountain” menu at St Hubertus © James Mollison

Running is the other agenda in these regions; for mine, I’m joined by Pizzinini himself and his restaurant manager and head sommelier, Lukas Gerges, on a fairly advanced circular route from the hotel. With the fatigue of the previous three days permeating my legs – and evident in my walk – our guide, Samuele Majoni, multiple defending champion here, maintains a pace just gentle enough and after a three hour push, with a via ferrata thrown to do good measure, we descend a hidden valley to enjoy a lunch of crispy polenta, pork sausage and cheeky Kaiserschmarrn in the sun at Scotoni, one of Val Badia’s most beloved mountain huts.

A 2 km morning swim in the waters of Lake Caldaro
A 2 km morning swim in the waters of Lake Caldaro © James Mollison

Beyond expert guides and training, the Rosa Alpina difference lies in these indulgences. Each day is the most welcome punctuation in the form of a long spa treatment: Alpine herbal massages with anti-inflammatory arnica to relieve muscle pain and Thai massages to work on muscle soreness. Refueling is taken to a whole new level: I am greeted after each excursion with homemade sourdough, speck and horseradish – a simple but delicious (and high carbohydrate) local dinner – usually followed by fresh pasta and sparkling wine. local. The gastronomic highlight is St Hubertus, Rosa Alpina’s famous gourmet restaurant. Norbert Niederkofler and his young team run a remarkably tidy kitchen, where at his butcher’s table I taste the first three of an 11-course menu, with food and wine pairings, which starts at 7 p.m. and ends at midnight.

What makes the Four Days so special is this balance between limit testing and indulgence. Exercise, relax, repeat – to the extreme. A high mountain indeed.

Are you a game? Five adventure challenges on the program for 2021-2022

Haute Route Ventoux
The Haute Route offers cycling events of almost professional level to amateurs, and this three-day event covers 288 km including 8,100 m of ascent of the famous “Giant of Provence” that is the Ventoux. October 1-3, 2021, € 799

Source to New York City
Run (or hike if you prefer), bike and kayak the length of the mighty Hudson River, covering the 300 miles of this fully supported event. October 1-4, 2021, $ 2,447

Ultra X Mexico
Set in the Sierra Madre Mountains, this assisted, five-day staged ultra-marathon covers 250km, with 11,835m of elevation gain, as you cycle through the colossal Copper Canyons. 6-13 November 2021, £ 1,495

Each year Norway’s legendary 54km cross-country ski race crosses two mountain ranges through breathtaking wilderness, ending in the Olympic Village of Lillehammer. March 19-21, 2022, NKr 1,525 (around £ 128)

Africa Expedition
Teams of two or four on mountain bikes, treks and kayaks on an unmarked 500 km rural route through the wilderness of Lesotho, a country surrounded by South Africa. March 31-April 10, 2022, from R30,000 (approx £ 1,508)


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