The Sella group (Sellagruppe in German) is a extensive massif positioned at the heart of the Dolomites. It lies as an isolated range, surrounded by the valleys of Gardena/Gröden and Badia/Gadertal (in South Tyrol), Fassa (in Trentino) and Livinallongo (in the province of Belluno).
These are also known as 'Ladin valleys', as here the ancient Ladin language is still spoken; because of this, these five valleys collectively form the cultural region known as 'Ladinia'.
It is characterized by a high plateau, situated in an almost suspended fashion on the summit, out of which the highest peak of Piz Boè stands out (3,152 m).
It is an important tourist destination, both during the summer season for excursions, and in wintertime for skiers, who have the possibility to take a circular trip around the mountain, known as ‘Sellaronda’. This excursion can be embarked both clockwise or anti-clockwise, and it is often marked as one of the highlights of a visit to the Dolomites, for its majesty and the constantly varying views it commands.
In 1864 the unspoiled wilderness of the Sella group was officially violated, and its highest summit – Piz Boè – conquered for the first time (even though, strictly speaking, all the paths and trails that led to the top were already known to local villagers, and especially to chamois hunters).
This mountain is defined by some as a “rock chateau” of spectacular forms – one that changes its outlook when seen from different angles; some others say instead that it is like a grand, majestic island that points to the sky. In fact, the walls that precipitate on the surrounding valleys really give it the appearance of a massive castle, while on the underlying slopes one can observe soft deposits of sandstone and of volcanic origin that give the lower part of the mountain its typically rounded shape.
Between 236 and 231 million years ago, during the Ladinic stage of the Triassic, the area occupied by the Sella today was only partially emerging from the sea; it was in fact a small atoll. All around one could see other atolls (such as the Pale di San Martino and the Catinaccio), while two tall volcanoes stood in the background (the Predazzo and Monzoni), erupting lava and tufa: this scenario formed a rather agitated tropical landscape.
The following Carnian period was originally characterized by the erosion and subsequent dismantling of the volcanoes that surrounded the massif, after which the ancient tropical sea came back and invaded the area again. Clay started to deposit to the side of the atolls, and these formations – often intermingled with the volcanic products that still precipitated into the sea – gave the mountain the rounded aspect that it still retains to this day.
Today the Sella is considered a mountain group divided into two parts by the Val di Lasties towards the Val di Fassa and by the Val de Mesdì towards the val Badia/Gadertal. A division of the massif into three sub-groups is also generally accepted: to the W the Meisules sub-group, delimited to the SE by the Val Lasties and to the east by the Pisciadù and Setus valleys; to the N the Piasciadù sub-group, delimited to the W also by the Pisciadù and Setus valleys and by the Val de Mesdì, and lastly, the Boè sub-group, delimited to the east by the same Lasties and Mesdì valleys.
The most important – an better known – summits of the Sella group are: Piz Boè (3,152 m), Le Méisules (3,000 m), Cima Pisciadù (2,985 m), Piz de Gralba (2,972 m), Sass Pordoi (2,950 m), Piz de Ciavazes (2,831 m), the Torri del Sella and Piz da Lec (2,850 m).
On the wide ledge that divides the mountain – particularly evident on the side to the N of the val Badia/Gadertal and to the W of the Val Gardena/Gröden – are two lakes: the Lago Pisciadù to the NE and – not very distant to the W – the Lech dl Dragon (the ‘Dragon’s Lake’). On the SE side are instead the Lago Boè and, higher up, the Lech Dlace (the 'Icy lake’). More small lakes are dotted around all over the Sella plateau.
A Mountaineering Paradise
Many are the choices that a mountaineer can take, should they decide to spend a day in the higher reaches of the Sella. The ascension to the summit of Piz Boè can be started either at Passo Pordoi (2,239 m) or at Corvara. At Passo Pordoi begin both the ‘Via Normale’ – the most heavily frequented ‘via ferrata’ (iron way) of the ‘Monti Pallidi’ – and the ‘Via Ferrata Piazzetta’, which is considered one of the most demanding ‘vie ferrate’ of the Dolomites.
Otherwise, at Passo Gardena/Grödnerjoch (2,121 m) starts one of the most beautiful iron ways of the entire Dolomites: the ‘Via Ferrata Tridentina’. Much wilder is the Val de Mesdì – but nowadays it is much less frequented, as there is a certain fear of finding ice on the rocks even during the summer months.
Another must – for a trained mountaineer or rock climber – is the traverse of the entire Sella group. From Passo Gardena one can climb up along the val Setus until Rifugio Cavazza at the Pisciadù (2,585 m), and continue from there on to Rifugio Boè (2,871 m), reaching at last Rifugio Capanna Fassa (3,152 m), situated right on the top of Piz Boè. One would then gain the Forcella Pordoi, and tackle from there the descent along the scree back to Passo Pordoi.
Sights and Trails in the Area
The Sella is – for the surrounding valleys – the main centre of interest for any type of activitiy linked to mountains and tourism. It is a paradise for skiers, as it offers magnificent slopes, some of which may be used all year round.
The cable car ascent to the Sass Pordoi (2,950 m) is a must for any trip to the Dolomites, and one can expect to find visitors there from all over the world. This is often considered the ‘Terrace of the Dolomites’, and everybody comes here in the hope of spotting the Ortles (3,905 m) or the Grossglockner (3,798 m), which can be seen, however, on clear days only; closer mountains – such as the Sassolungo (3,181 m), the Marmolada and the Catinaccio – are much more easily seen, and as fulfilling as the more distant sights.
The Sass Pordoi is usually reached with a spectacular cable car, which jumps from the Passo Pordoi to the top edge of the steep rock face that precipitates on this side of the mountain, rising in a few minutes to the respectable height of nearly 3,000 metres. The Sass Pordoi can also be reached via a steep path that very few walk; at the top, there is the possibility of further connections with other mountain huts in the area.
The tiny, splendid jewel of Lago Pisciadù is situated nearby Cavazza mountain hut, by the Pisciadù ('Rifugio Cavazza al Pisciadù', 2,585 m), where the "Alta via No.2" ('Alpine Highway No. 2') between Bressanone/Brixen and Feltre also passes through. Originally built by the German Alpine club (when the area was still Austrian), the hut became Italian only at a much later stage. Today it is used as a base for hikes either to the summits or to other nearby Alpine huts, such as Rifugio Boè (2,871 m; see above).
This latter hut is situated right at the geographic centre of the massif, opposite the NW face of Piz Boè and on the watershed between the Lasties and Mesdì valleys in an eerie, lunar landscape. It can be reached with an hour of further walk from Sass Pordoi, or in about 4 hrs from the valley bottom.
Being the Sella essentially a mountain of circular shape, it is relativey easy to go all around it, circumnavigating it either by road through the “Quattro Passi” (the ‘four passes’: Pordoi, 2,950 m; Sella, 2,240 m; Gardena/Grödnerjoch, 2,121 m and Campolongo, 1,875 m ) or by using the paths and trails that collectively form the ‘Sellaronda’ ("Giro dei quattro passi"), which can be undertaken either in winter with the skis or on foot during the summer. These trails double-track the road but at a much higher altitude, and they are accompanied by continuously changing panoramas – the only fixed point being the presence of the Sella itself, which like a revolving pivot varies its aspect as one goes along, thus providing a constant motif of interest.
On a final note, it is worth reminding that the summer festival "I Suoni delle Dolomiti" ('The Sounds of the Dolomites') often organizes high-altitude concerts here during the summer season, and this further adds to the offer of the region.
The climate of the Sella group is essentially continental. During the summer it can be quite rainy – and for this reason the area is always of a very lush green. The rainfall peak is usually around July, with 130-150 mm of monthly average – so bear that in mind if you are planning to visit at the height of summer. The autumn is comparatively drier, but snowfalls can begin as early as October; usually, the precipitation falling as snow from that time onwards forms a good blanket for the upcoming season, and guarantees all winter sports activities.
The monthly temperatures are here on average about one degree inferior to those of the Western Alps – as it is in fact in all the rest of the Oriental Alps (the climate tends to become more continental the further east one goes along the range). December and January are the coldest months of the year, but they can also be quite dry, sunny and clear; precipitations are usually at their lowest at this time. On the contrary, July and August are the warmest months, but storms are frequent, and vigorous irruptions of cold air can cause sudden snowfalls even in the middle of summer – so come prepared!
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