IN THE DOLOMITES
June 2017 MOENA, ITALYWay Back When
It was a dark and stormy night when we first arrived in Moena 15 years ago—well not really, it was a dark and stormy day and we were desperate to shelter from the steady rain for lunch. Standing under the eve of the tourist info office on the small central plaza with our bikes, my eyes fixed on a dark, chalet-styled, older hotel. I began visualizing spending the night there versus carrying on in the rain. It only took a moment and I was telling Bill that we should price a room.
Presumably, the dismal weather had driven the tourists out of the mountains and had also triggered a deep discount in the rate--we instantly took the room. We never stayed there again because it was always too expensive, but the price was perfect that day. The dark, classic, mountain interior felt cozy and welcoming and the spaciousness made it easy to dry our saturated gear.
At last, the multiple peaks of Latemar were in sight.
Until this summer, each subsequent visit to Moena was even more brief—usually just a quick stop for shopping. Year after year, one store carried inexpensive, book-bag like backpacks that we replaced every year or 2. That was when our backpacks were mainly used for carrying groceries and our items for a day of sightseeing in the cities. We’d restitch the seams when back home in the winter to get another season out of them.
And then there was the treasured discount grocery, Euro-Spin, where we stocked up on more favorite items. Through the years, we also delighted in riding on each new segment of the multi-use path as they appeared along the river near Moena.
This year would be different—this year we’d spend a week hiking from Moena. There are no lifts from Moena to the mountain trails, so even when we became hikers 10 years ago, Moena was still only a shopping venue at the base of the mountains. But at almost 4,000’, it is high enough to initiate our altitude acclimation for the summer season but low enough to keep us out of the snow on high snowpack years. And since we’d increased our hiking range several years ago, we could hike from Moena into the peaks for the workout we craved.Saddle Sackers
Six or seven years ago when we were scampering up the lower, open, portion of the Mt Lassen, California trail, a couple dozing on the side of the path accused us of being “peak baggers.” We’d never heard the term but could tell it wasn’t being used as a compliment.
We were shocked and amused. We were anything but peak baggers. This was a typical hike: we’d started hours too late and because we’d be turning around long before reaching our destination, we were hurrying to at least see something. But ironically, we have now become peak baggers—sort of. We’ve bagged a few day hike peaks in California, Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico though our intention is more to get a good workout than to check anything off of a list.
Lunch was among the spires at a major Latemar forcella.
At the end of our first week in the Dolomites this season, I decided that we needed a different term, like ‘saddle sackers.’ Rarely do we make it to the top of peaks in the Dolomites because they are usually the terrain of mountaineers. It’s not because they are so high but because most of them are essentially vertical ascents. The usual high points that recreational hikers aim for in the Dolomites are saddles or passes or “forcelle”, which are literally forks. Those are the named and signed high points, not the peaks. Those are the destination lunch spots that delightfully enable us to do loop hikes instead of out-and-back adventures. And we have definitely become ‘saddle sackers.’
Bill was thrilled to finally hike on Latemar, one of the dominant mountains in the Dolomites cluster, from our base in Moena. Its trailheads were hard to access without a car and it had literally been out of reach until we’d increased our range. But from Moena, we were able to traverse the upper perches on of one side of Latemar on our first days in the Alps this season.
The approach was a long trudge through a damp forest and involved crossing a small river 3 times without the aid of bridges—the small bridges recently had been wiped out in a series of landslides. When we finally made it to the massive plateau formed by a series of glacial hanging valleys, we savored the peaks and crags we’d seen so many times from far below on our bikes. We enjoyed the distant views from 2 different ‘forcelle’ though had to descend through the forest, the way we arrived.Literally, Over the Top
Deciding that we’d already had too many little glitches from planning the next day’s details at the last minute, I urged Bill to determine our bus departure time for the 30 mile journey between Moena and Ortisei (or-ti-say) 2 days ahead. We were aware of the “next valley phenomena” in the mountains, which is being able to readily scoot up and down a valley by bus but it being altogether another matter to cross between valleys and, sure enough, we were trapped. We knew that Ortisei was in the next valley but we had underestimated how horrible the travel day would be because of it. That 30 mile journey to Ortisei was going to consume 7 hours. Were it the following day, it would be half the time on the new summer bus schedule, but that wasn’t an option given our pre-bookings for lodging.
The hut at the prestige destination between Moena & Ortisei: Principe.
Last year, when on a high trail between the same 2 valleys, Bill fantasized about using a luggage service for our bags and walking over the mountain instead of taking a bus from our current village to Ortisei. He’d had it on the calendar for 2018 but suddenly, we needed the option to work now.
The $115 taxi fee for hauling our 2 bags 30 miles at their convenience was just too much. We’d been paying around $25/day in England for shorter distances. We’d pay $50 here in the mountains, but not $115. There was no Uber-like option. Online searching and pressing the tourist info woman to make calls for us left us with either paying the big bucks or spending the day mostly waiting for the next of 3 buses.
Turning the Corner
Our last ditch effort for the luggage transfer needed for our fantasy hike involved composing, in Italian, a query of our current hostess. We hoped that she knew of someone who’d make the run for $50. Her adult son heard our request in English and understood but lacked the creativity and business savvy of mama. He excused himself to fetch her and it only took mama a moment to volunteer the husband we never saw to make the run for $30. Suddenly, we were on for an epic hike that Bill had hoped to do next year. We’d perhaps spend 10 hours hiking instead of 7 hours riding and waiting for buses.
Once it was a “go,” we realized that this was the perfect window to make the trek: it had been a business-breaking, low snow winter and what snow there was, was almost entirely gone from the high trails. Plus, our selected hike day was during a brief break in the rain storms. Bill estimated that we’d do a minimum of 15 miles with about 4,000’ of elevation gain and around 7,000’ of descent. We’d be hiking to about 8,600’ and spending most of the day above 6,000’ so we needed ideal conditions to be safe on such a long day on unfamiliar trails.
Forcella #2 in the distance from Principe.
Our 6 nights spent in Moena at 3,800’ had given us some altitude acclimation, but not a lot. We felt like we were sufficiently conditioned to take on the big challenge but felt uneasy about the time constraints. Taking a bus and then a lift from Moena would make the distances manageable but would also postpone our start until 8:45 am and the office from which we’d fetch the key to our next apartment closed at 7 pm. We should be able to make it, but there were so many unknowns about the trail conditions that we regretted being boxed in by the clock.
The Fantasy Hike Team
Unexpectedly, we rather quickly had a support team behind us. Our Moena hostess relented and accepted $40 for the luggage transfer (she calculated the expenses in terms of money for gas and a coffee) and then pulled out her maps. Our age, she sat us down in her apartment and suggested an easier but less scenic alternate route and reviewed our time estimates. She also decided it was necessary that she call the agency holding the key for our next apartment that evening. And we were to call her from the mountain if we had a problem. She was beaming with excitement for our journey and gifted us with “Complementi” several times in honor of our athleticism.
Max, the young man at the agency got on board and said it would be no problem if we were late. After a series of texts while descending into Ortisei, he’d gone from stating that we’d need to spend $20 on a taxi to pick-up the key and our luggage from his office and to take us to the apartment to him offering that he’d wait for us, however late we were, and drive us himself. What a thrill!
Normally, we are so very alone on our big adventures but now we suddenly had a team. It felt like our hostess and host were handing off responsibility for our success at the summit. I remembered Adrian, the German solo hiker on the English Coast Path, who relied upon the generosity and good will of strangers to make each day’s hike work. We’d done the high-end version—we’d prepaid for some slack and support.
Getting a closer look at forcella #2.
Sacking 3 Saddles
The hike into the peaks between our 2 valleys was as glorious as Bill had envisioned. Our hostess had expected us to spend about 4 hours reaching the first saddle at 8500’ but we plowed up to it in 2 hours. All but 2 of the other 50+ hikers on the trail stopped at the prestige destination, Principe. Like those 2, we plunged down the other side on a difficult trail into loose rock and patches of snow in the deep shade. I carried on in my thin sandals, though I had expected to change into shoes for the descent to 7000’.
It was magical being in this no-mans-land between the high passes. Being at the bases of 2 Dolomite peaks and looking straight up to their tops was absolutely awesome. We celebrated our couple of years of hard training that were allowing us to spontaneously be in such an extreme setting seen by so few. And we again noted that we were among the 30-40 year olds. As mountaineers and trail runners, they were all stronger and more capable than us but at least we were there. We further celebrated during our picnic lunch at 8000’ at the base of the third and last pass because even after 4 hours of mostly ‘up’, we felt like we’d hadn’t done much of anything that day (that would change, however).
The picture-perfect blue sky day unmarred by the frequent haze of humidity had been absolutely glorious. We perched on a chunk of dolomite for lunch to extend the experience and identified a dozen well-known peaks and valleys in our dazzling panorama. By the end of our brief lunch, our jackets came out to shield us from the winds chilled by the now partially overcast sky. We had no sense of the unpredicted, 90 degree heat in the destination village of Ortisei and wore our jackets for the remaining 4+ hours of descent. Though clouds followed us down, there were always some nearby mountains illuminated by the sun which helped keep our spirits high as our energy flagged with the last of the many miles.
Back to civilization: the Alps di Tiers hut at forcella #3.
To the relief of all, we hit the door of the apartment rental agency at 6:00 pm and shortly afterwards, I called our Moena hostess in clumsy Italian. She was of course delighted to know we were off the mountain and noted we finished about an hour ahead of both hers and ours best estimates. “Complementi” and a careful inquiry to make sure 'the husband’ (as is the structure in Italian) was doing well, came from her. Too bad I hadn’t thought to script the conversation on the way down but she again did a fine job of keeping the conversation going smoothly as I stumbled—a conversation that she so clearly wanted to be having. I reported our times to the 2 main passes, where we ate our picnic, and a bit about the changing weather conditions. She of course wanted reassurance that all was well with our luggage. Yeah! “Complementi” to all!JUST KEEP TRUCKIN’Endurance
Spotting the sandwich board for an Italian mountain run in 2013 launched us in a new direction but we still don’t know where we are headed. In hindsight, training for it resulted in us becoming novice endurance athletes. Bill likened us to the Mars rover that was designed for a specific mission but keeps going long past its anticipated operational life. Unlike the rover however, we keep getting better.
Our latest break through, for no obvious reason, was after a 12+ hour hike from Ortisei in mid-June of this year. A 20 miler with average elevation gain for us (4,500’) was slow going because of the altitude and rough terrain. We were out hours longer than planned, but we finished strong. We both knew we had more miles in those legs and our spirits were high.
We were stunned to see that we not only highly efficiently took care of our evening chores when we got in close to 9 pm, but that our minds and bodies were in good form that evening and the next morning—a first. Typically we range from being groggy to catatonic. After a leisurely tissue-self-care session the next morning, we did a 7 mile hike that included a spirited ascent up a very steep segment of the mountain run course that we completed in 2014.
Once again, we found ourselves saying “Something has changed.” Metabolically, we were clearly adapting to the stresses of 12 hour events on the trail (including breaks). The improved physiologic response to the exercise stress seemed most likely to be a result of time and repetition. We were at the 14 month point after initiating training for our Grand Canyon Rim-2-Rim challenge and had sustained the level of output after making the crossing. We knew of a 6 month period of soft tissue adaptation to a new sport but this was surely adaptation of different body systems to the stress. We longed to understand what was changing and how to better enhance the processes but, like the Mars rover, we were stuck with just carrying on.
Down, then across this plateau, then down, down, down to Ortisei in the valley below.
We were highly suspicious in late May when we began dragging our 50 lb suitcases and were hoisting them on and off buses and trains, that our core muscles had significantly improved. The most compelling explanation for that change was using the MaxiClimber vertical climber that we purchased in late January. It seemed that that new, deep strength was benefitting us on the trails as well and preventing us from succumbing to the weak, ‘noodly’ feeling at the end of a long day. Thriving
Whenever we are evaluating a new wellness or dietary strategy that isn’t straightforward, Bill always reverts to an evolutionary model for guidance. Biological systems evolve very slowly, as evidenced by humans relatively poor adaptation to the introduction of dietary sugar over 500 years ago, so he always looks to our ancient ancestors for clarity. “What was the norm for them 5,000; 50,000; or 500,000 years ago?” begins the discussion.
“Walking barefoot in search of food” is one clear-cut description of our ancestral norm, which gives us courage as our indulgence in walking soars ever higher. “Is it too much? Maybe we shouldn’t keep increasing our distances and frequency?” get pondered again and again. But, based on evolution, we are doing what Homo sapiens sapiens are most adapted to doing, which is walking.
Being barefoot continues to be problematic, though this June in Ortisei I lunged at the sight of Vibram’s relatively new offering, the Furoshiki. Their new “wrapping sole” was what I had longed for: a nice flexible slab of top quality rubbery-stuff on the bottom held onto my foot by uncompressing fabric. Moccasins lacked durable soles but the Vibram’s had them. A bit more ‘profile’ or gripping quality would have been welcome, but what there was was better than the now-out-of-production sandals I’ve worn for years (I’ve destroyed 8-10 pairs).
The young Italian salesman cautioned me that these were “free time” shoes and not suitable for hiking. He viewed them as house slippers. Pricey Vibram soles on house slippers seemed preposterous to me. And 25 years ago, we rolled our eyes at a similar story that our stiff, heavy cycling sandals were really only to be used lounging around off the bike even though they sported compartments for pedal attachments. I of course intended to see what these babies could do in prickly scree fields and took them for a test hike that afternoon.
Where we love to be….
Online reviewers of the Furoshiki complained of too readily getting holes and tears in the fabric uppers, so durability was my biggest concern. But my thick, wide feet happily oozed over the edges of the inner soles and the fabric upper was still unscathed at 30 miles, so I ordered 2 more pairs from home in discounted, discontinued colors that don’t match anything I own. No matter, I grind through minimalist footwear fast enough to only be concerned about a steady supply of replacements.
Luckily, the “in search of food” part of the evolutionary equation isn’t as perilous or as uncertain for us as it was for our ancestors. Of course, the wildly increased ease of our species access to food, especially in our lifetime, contributes mightily to the current health maladies of our culture of excess. We’ve shifted our quest while walking from our ancestor's “in search of food” to “in search of an auspicious place to eat our packed lunch."
Following the Model
Following the ancestral model does agree with our bodies. Of course, it’s taken a lot of intervention to unravel the damage of not doing high volume walking and from living in foot deforming shoes for decades, but our bodies purr with delight in returning them to their origins and so we keep walking.ARBITERS OF AUTHENTICITY
Who decides what’s an authentic performance when no money or formal recognition is involved? A silly question, but one that lingered after we decided that we could take a 2 night layover when doing the Grand Canyon Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim in October of 2017. We mainly hear about the folks that do it non-stop or with 1 night off of the trail. Our 2 night break seemed somehow inauthentic and I knew I’d always be adding a footnote in conversations: “But we took 2 nights off to do it".
The first full day of our week’s stay at the 7000’ Passo Sella hotel was also the Sella Ronda Bike Day, an event we’d done in the past. The roads linking 4 passes are closed for the better part of a day while thousands of riders savor the special opportunity of traffic-free riding in an absolutely stunning setting. When we did it, they estimated that there were about 2,000 riders on the roads, including a few on unicycles. This year, they’d been expecting 14,000 people, though the torrential downpours blunted the turn out.
Rain or no rain, I’d been asking myself the theoretical question: is it really doing the Sella Ronda if you are on an electric bike? I mean, really?? I assume that since ebikes are allowed on the bike paths that forbid motorized vehicles, that they would be permitted on the course but it seemed so counter to the athleticism and spirit of the event.
Fresh snow on our trail to the forcella on Sassolungo at Passo Sella.
Still struggling with the dilemma, our young Italian hostess told us of guests who crossed the line by both of our standards. They were riding the route on electric bikes and knew that their batteries wouldn’t last for the entire event so, presumably instead of pedaling or carrying a spare themselves, they were paying a hefty taxi fare to have a driver meet them mid-route with the spare batteries. Really? Shouldn’t they at least be a little sheepish about wearing the event T-shirt? SLAM!
We are meticulous in our routines and efforts to keep these aging bodies performing at higher and higher levels. We push hard at times and take risks to challenge ourselves, but the trade-offs are always carefully evaluated. We are always factoring in stability issues because of recent snow; sizing-up small, fresh, rock and dirt slides on our trails; listening for falling rock high above, and evaluating the intensity of our outings. But I was again reminded that one can only do so much to control your outcomes.
We were exiting our 2nd bus of the afternoon in our relocation from Passo Sella to Selva and wham!, the bus driver snapped the back door closed on me. We were in a luggage-soaking thunderstorm and I was stepping down backwards to minimize the strain from lowering my 50 lb suitcase to the asphalt. Passengers gasped, but no one intervened. The door reopened so I could move but I hardly knew where I’d been hit.
Once I and my suitcase were down, I was able to move out of the street but my body was jangled. We sheltered under a narrow roof eve in the downpour for over 5 minutes to allow my strained body to stabilize. I was only able to drag my wheeled suitcase a short distance before we started uphill and that was it. Bill had to leapfrog our suitcases one at a time up the 10% grade hill to our apartment while I watched. We both wondered how may days or weeks I’d be sidelined.
Keeping one’s muscles cleared of old injury patterns does tend to speed healing and that was fortunately the case with this injury. The area of pain and weakness was quite broad through my torso the rest of the day but had narrowed by the next morning. We went for a slow walk that day, sensing that the rhythmic motion of walking might further sooth my irritated tissues.
Much to Bill’s surprise, I was able to do a proper hike the day after that slow stroll. I was on high alert all morning for any signs of weakness or weariness, but by noon I felt confident I could complete the hike as planned. My back was still a little tender for a few more days, but it was functionally fine. Especially at our age, it’s too easy to wonder which injury or incident will be the show-stopper and luckily, this wasn’t it.BACK IN SELVA
Selva is the Italian mountain village in which our bikes are stashed every winter. We’d enjoy another 2 weeks of hiking in the Dolomites from there and then it would be 6 weeks of mixed cyclotouring and hiking in the Italian Alps. Even at our walking pace, summer was rushing past us all too quickly.