Dolomites: Selva, Italy    August 2017 

Passo Sella from Canazei
After I damn near killed us both some years ago by putting us on the very low sodium, DASH diet, Bill started referring to himself as a lab rat. Bill all but collapsed on the ground from weakness on that diet and I was so wobbly I could barely steady my bike with a foot on the ground at traffic lights. When we returned home, our respective physicians shouted “Don’t do that!” Ironically, being on a ketogenic diet, we now actually have ‘dangerously high’ sodium intakes, though not high serum sodium levels. But my, what the keto diet is doing for both of these lab rats. 

Sassolungo from Compitello: soon we'd be biking up the pass flanked by Sassolungo & Gruppo Sella.
We headed up Passo Sella on our last biking day of the season, a climb that would be our hardest, single day effort for the year. I’d irritated my right knee about 2 weeks prior and we both worried about my ability to perform. Bill had been whaling on my knee with a hiking pole handle for 3 nights to relieve tissue ‘densities’, which was helping. Even so, we expected the day to be a struggle, recently questioning how many more years we could bike tour, especially after my poor showing on another pass earlier in the month during the heat wave Lucifer.

In deference to my knee, I began the ascent as slowly as I could. But like on our first climb of the season 6 weeks prior, I bypassed each of the initial restart spots where I could have rested and then restarted with minimal knee strain. I proposed taking a break at 30 minutes but the grades happened to abate then, so we pressed on. Not realizing how far it still was to the pass, Bill cavalierly said “Let’s try to go all the way without stopping.” To make a 2 hour story short, that’s exactly what we did. 

About 2/3’s of the way up, the intermittent shade disappeared, the grades got steeper, and we both got a bit unsteady but we stuck with it. No doubt coincidentally re-reading the night before about the cognitive benefits for the aging brain of pressing beyond your usual limits (going for “yuck”) steeled our resolve. We were stunned: we made it even though it was totally unplanned and riding any pass without a pause was a 'first ever'. Our average speed was a mere 3.3 mph! It’s actually pretty hard to ride that slowly.

What was even more shocking was that we both easily caught our breath at the summit and felt capable of doing more, if it wasn’t too steep. And delightfully, like when we’d recently done the big push on foot to the lift at San Martino, we weren't gasping or wheezing, nor did we have the impulse to collapse on the ground. I vividly remember so many times in past years when I’d stop after a heroic effort to make it to a restart spot on a curve, drape over my handle bars, and struggle for air like I was having an asthma attack—a really scary, nasty, feeling. 

Triumphant! We'd pedaled to the pass in 2 hours without a pause—a first.
Bill, who understands the physiology of that response, said the change was because of our keto diet. Almost no carbs in our diet means almost no glycogen in the muscles, so the muscles produce almost no lactic acid, which means there is no transient pH imbalance causing that desperate struggle to breath. Way-cool! I love being able to breath comfortably whenever I want to. Like in San Martino: as soon as we stopped exerting at our maximal effort, our breathing readily returned to normal without that “I’m going to die” transition.

Bill had barely had time the night before our climb to the pass to meet my request for an app that would record my maximum heart rate. My guess was that it was at its highest on the bike because unlike hiking, stopping on a hill requires planning and often pressing on more than I’d like to. Stunningly, the new app was far more credible that any others we’d tried and it indicated that my average heart rate for the 2+ hours was 151 bpm, with my max being 171 bpm.

It was a stellar performance on a stellar day. The weather at the pass was perfect for our season finale.  Pleasantly warm but not hot; sunny; brilliant skies; and a gentle breeze at over 7,000'. Not needing to shelter, we found a new perch for our celebratory picnic at the familiar pass that afforded a 360 degree view of peaks with more than half of the head swivel revealing peaks less than a mile away. The far-off ones were less than 10 miles away. Passo Sella is one of our favorite places to be because of the in-your-face experience of the mountain tops. Very reluctantly, we finally mounted our bikes for the fast descent to Selva only a few miles away.

Bummer About the Slow Starts
One aspect of our active lives that hasn’t improved a smidgen is my need for warming up to be comfortable on the trails or on the bike. I’m still as out-of-breath as ever when I climb the flights of stairs to our apartment or to a room for the night. And when we take-off for a fitness event, I know I’ll be uncomfortable to miserable for the first 30-40 minutes every time. And it’s not only a physical thing but the physical distress triggers an equal amount of emotional discord and reluctance to keep going.

I always favor doing a longer activity over a short one because regardless of the duration, chaos reigns in my mind and body during those initial 30-40 minutes. I need to go well beyond that for the benefits to outweigh the misery of the start-up. And we always try hard to organize our outings so that we go downhill or at least flat after eating. If I have to warm-up again after eating and if it involves the extra exertion of going uphill, I’ll be bogged down even more. I am so envious of friends that can bolt like jack rabbits after a lunch break when I’m left struggling to breath. I don’t have much hope that that distress will ever diminish but I’ve certainly come to anticipate it.

Wow! We'd shaved almost an hour off of our previous time on the wire.
Last Flings
Back in Selva, we had 1 week to wrap-up our 3 months in the Dolomites and in Europe. Foul weather was in the forecast beginning Friday, our last full day in the mountains, which immediately structured our week. And not in the forecast, was snow falling above 6,000’ when we left 5,000’ Selva in the rain on Saturday morning.

It didn’t take long to settle on 2 big hikes for the week, which would leave us enough downtime to hurriedly finish our electronically-generated photo album for the traveling year. Bill was feeling more confident about the health of his injured tooth, so we did 2 favorite, all day events: Punta Puez and our new via ferrata, Possnecker, that we undertook for the first time a little over 6 weeks earlier.

Both were memorable hikes. High overcast took the pizzazz out of the views from 9,500’ Puez but they didn’t interfere with the pleasure of being there. Rain on the way back was disappointing, but we were well prepared for it. And much to our delight, we shaved about an hour off of our ‘on the wire’ time on Possnecker. Because it had short bits of climbing that would be at my limit, I carefully paced myself on our first experience. It’s terrible to be stuck on the wire because you lack the strength or skill to go on and unlike the last time that happened to me, there was no bail-out, no backdoor off Possnecker. It’s an all or nothing via ferrata.

Since I’d been successful the first time up the challenging Possnecker route, I tossed out the carefully applied pacing of before and dropped our time on the wire from 3:40 to 2:45. I pushed at my sustainable limit to make those gains. It’s not just an ego thing—time matters on these events. Keeping moving can make the difference between being on or off the steel cable when an unpredicted thunderstorm rolls through at close to 10,000' or making the last bus of only 3 in the afternoon to get back home.

The last minutes on the trail for the day, for the season, for the year…it had been grand.
Even though my better performance on Possnecker reflected more knowledge and more confidence and not improved athleticism, it was hard not to notice that we’d had 2 grand finales in the last 6 days—this ascent on the via ferrata to the top of Gruppo Sella and the non-stop pedal to nearby Passo Sella. What a way to finish the season!

Next up was our usual series of bus, train, and plane rides to transport us back to the Pacific NW. We keep the travel days short to keep the anxiety level down when and if things go wrong. Buses in Italy can be cancelled without notification; we’ve seen drivers just whiz on by leaving travelers stranded on the road if they are full; landslides can knock out rail lines; trains delays can cause missed connections; and labor strikes can spring up unexpectedly. We’ve been delayed by them all so we budget extra time in our itinerary to improve the odds of making our high-stakes, international flight with a minimum of stress.

The week-long forecast of 102 degrees in Portland on our arrival day had put us in a state of panic. Our little apartment would be an oven by the time we arrived, especially since the high temperatures would persist for a week or more. It was unbearable thinking about being at home in that heat with jet lag, so we decided to extend the trip: we’d spend 3 nights in a hotel upon our return to capture as much sleep as possible with the aid of commercial grade air conditioning. The AC should also filter out some of the particulate matter from distant forest fires that were sure to crud-up my reactive lungs. It was incredibly soothing to us both once we decided to extend our travel expenses by being guests once at home.

Mercifully, the number of searing days in the forecast for our return diminished as our arrival date drew closer but the smoke from forest fires would be hideous. What we didn’t know when we stared at the thick blanket of pollution from the plane was that our favorite hiking area in the Columbia River Gorge had been burning for 3 days and it was that fire which was depositing the visible ash on the tarmac.

We were heartbroken like much of the community: selfish, careless play by teenage boys triggered a fire that was only 5% contained on Day 4 and had jumped the Columbia River itself. We had hiked our favorite trail to the top of Larch Mtn twice in April in snow and had planned to hike it the upcoming 2 weekends. Reports of landslides and exploding trees made it hard to imagine that we’d be hiking there again in our lifetimes, but little was either known or reported about the anticipated effect of the damage on trail access. And then there would be the next wildcard: the potential for massive erosion with the winter storms.

The good news for us was, as travelers, the miles we hiked in the Gorge were a tiny fraction of our annual miles whereas for so many in the area it was THE focal point of their outdoor time. We felt our loss deeply but knew it would be felt much more profoundly by many.

Interspersed with the new, sad reality were the practical matters. We’d lost a week of fitness activities with our travel home and now my asthma from the “stay indoors” level of air pollution was expected to curtail any outdoor exercise for me in the near future. (We both immediately experienced sore throats and stinging eyes with relatively little time outside.) And we’d been counting on doing the 4,200’ pull up Larch Mountain twice in 10 days to tune-up our flagging endurance capacity. 

Then there was the matter of driving to the SW in 2 weeks given that much of the West had been in flames for most of the summer. We’d need to quickly learn the specifics about the other regional fires and stay on high alert for new outbreaks to plan our route. Hanging on every thread of new information about the Eagle Creek fire made it hard to focus on our travel plans but there was also no incentive to linger in the toxic brew of sadness, heat, and smoke.