Dolomites: San Martino  August 2017
San Martino
“Access” Trails
Tourist vs Mountaineer Access Trails
Perhaps you, like I, have noticed a pattern in our 2017 summer travels: almost all of our destinations are totally unfamiliar names. Indeed, in the 4-village stretch named Zoldo Alto, we were at the end of line, in Pecol. It’s that “range” thing: the stronger we get, the more hikes that are available to us, and the harder Bill searches for dramatic venues. Ironically, while I maintained our hiking log, I noticed that our hikes were getting shorter and shorter.

Trails through scree slopes like this one on Pelmo near Zoldo Alto were a fluid situation at best.
In 2016, we diligently pushed ourselves to make a 20 mile, 5,000’ gain hike our new normal “big one". The intent was to insure that we were durable enough to hike the Grand Canyon’s Rim-2-Rim route with its similar demands. Last year, for the first time, we hiked 75 miles in a week several times. And this May, on the coast of England and not in the mountains, we logged our first 100 mile week.

But, as this summer's hiking and biking season progressed, our weekly mileage plummeted as our hikes got shorter, with some hours-long outings being as little as 6 miles. Rather than us slacking, these hiking areas that Bill had us exploring were becoming strikingly more difficult. A number of days, we averaged a mere 1 to 1.5 mph whereas as we consider 2.5 mph as frequently attainable.

Grinding up difficult, steep, ‘squirrely’ mountain slopes kept putting “why” in my face. Yes, I often question “Why are we doing this?” but the new “why” was “Why are we covering so few miles on our hikes?”. 

Simultaneous with our weekly mileage dropping, the typical trail mate changed. Significantly fewer people were on the trails in general and there was a big fall-off in the percentage of women. Children became a rare sight—perhaps 1 a day. A much higher percentage of the hikers were extremely hardy and weathered looking; more of them wore the codified outfits of serious European mountain people; and ropes and helmets were increasingly common accessories.

We were almost alone on this access trail in the Ahrntal.
My latest model involved sorting our trails into “tourist trails” and “mountaineer access trails.” My so-called tourist trails might be quite steep, but they were well-defined, reasonably wide, rarely required using rocky handholds, and didn’t move too much when you stepped on them. My “mountaineer access trails” on the other hand, were quite narrow; frequently disappeared entirely for a bit; had trail marker stones with red painted symbols that often had rolled some distance; and compelled us to stay in perpetual “risk assessment” mode because our feet don’t stay where we put them. You might say that foot placement was a “fluid situation” on these access trails. Perhaps it was coincidence, but our tourist trails were generally more scenic than the tougher trails.

Daily and weekly mileage is only one measure of effort and conditioning and so we migrated to focusing on our time spent on the trails to judge what we’d done. Though a bit dangerous, we both welcomed the challenges of these access routes and applauded our successes on them. We were of course, by far the slow pokes, but knew that they provided great cross-training and exceptional opportunities to hone our skills, especially on descents. Going downhill is always more treacherous than going uphill. (Weeks later however, I realized that the decreased 'stats' were likely to account for our weight gains and slightly diminished endurance.)

Our Outdoor Laboratory
I’ve always been pitifully slow on descents because my delicate knees limit me to a short, cautious stride on the way down, but every year, I’m better. Every trail we walked from Pecol was tough and yet we both saw my speed (relatively) skyrocket. I could feel a new sense of strength and stability as I pushed to go faster. I challenged myself to shift from heavily weighting my poles on a descent with a rolling surface to only holding them in the ready and was thrilled with that milestone.

My body had changed, again. It is in a slow state of evolution and this was one of the times when the new capacities of my body could be fully exploited on the local trails. The changes were a perfect match with the specific demands and I reveled in the new sense of integration from my still-recovering, 40 year old left ankle injury to that chronically in-spasm buttock muscle on the opposition side. Something, perhaps one of my daily soft tissue interventions, had finally prevailed and my lower body could move swiftly and with ease. Bill could see the changes when I sped ahead for a bit.

Well defined tourist trails like this one above Moena can deliver dramatic & challenging excursions.
Unfinished Business at Pecol
We left Pecol in Zoldo Alto exhilarated by how well we had met the trail challenges but with only about half of Bill’s anticipated hikes completed. Only 2 hikes were finished as originally conceived, with the others being shortened or abandoned because of thunderstorms. One was shortened en-route while we sheltered under a rare, rocky overhang for 2 waves of the day’s thunderstorms. And we decided that the very difficult, 11 hour via ferrata was too risky for us to undertake, so passed it by. The “on the wire” part wasn’t beyond our reach but the total projected hours on the trails left us no room for other than tip-top performance all day.

San Martino: The Ride ’n Hike
The last riding day to San Martino, which was part way to Passo Rolle, would be grueling. We knew that steep grades and heavy traffic would make for a depleting day, so we opted for Bill’s untested, alternate route that would require some pushing of the bikes up a hiking trail. We headed out, hoping for the best. We survived the day without injury, but we’ll take our chances on the road, in traffic, the next time. 

Bill pushing to San Martino before we had to resort to 2-to-a-bike, unloaded.
The dead-end service road provided intermittent, welcome shade on the hot morning, so we initially congratulated ourselves for the wise choice. The bits of 15% grade were tolerable. As shown by the map, the road degraded to gravel. Rough gravel quickly saps my upper body strength and I pressed on until the depth of the gravel and the grade both increased. I began pushing though Bill was able to carry on a bit farther until he had to stop for a car—there would be no restarting in those difficult conditions.
The asphalt resumed, likely because the road wouldn’t hold together with the now incredibly steep grades without it, and we were pushing 2 people to a bike. After the small water crossing, it was time to portage. We must have spent well over an hour shuttling our panniers and bikes short distances up the steep hiking trail, sometimes requiring both of us to push and lift an unloaded bike over the exposed tree roots and rocks. Luckily, 2 hardy mountain bikers, who were also pushing up, took pity on us and did a bit of shuttling as well. Later, 2 young brothers each carried a bag a short distance. We nibbled on lunch on the downhill bits to pick-up another load. We ended up in similar situations several times year in the early years of our travels, but it had been a long, long time since we’d worked so hard with the bikes when off of them.

Luckily, there was a break in the road barricade and we didn’t have to lift everything over the top of it when we finally reached the road. We were exhausted but relieved. We only had 3 more miles to San Martino. Short on enthusiasm but still long on resolve and daylight, we knew we’d make it, probably without any more pushing.

High Drama Hike
Making The Lift
The next day's plan was for an easy going hike from San Martino so as to recover from the varied stresses of our multi-sport, bike ’n hike day. But the terrain on the trails Bill selected for our return route that day turned out to be far slower going than the final mileage or gain would have predicted—not quite qualifying as mountaineer access trails, but persistently tough, tedious footing.

The high plateau above San Martino is rimmed with impressive peaks.
We thanked our ketogenic diet that allows us to press-on at our limit for hours without resting or additional food because we needed to do just that. We pushed at our ‘maximal sustainable pace’ for over 3 hours as the risk of missing the last lift down off of the high mountain loomed large. No other people were in sight for almost all of those hours, heavy clouds rolled in, and all indications were that we’d miss the last ride down at 5:20 pm by a lot.

Though Bill’s maps depicted our return trail with a dashed line, which typically means it is an easy to follow, well established trail like our morning route, this one was not. There was no time for hemming and hawing about finding our way, we had to be moving every moment to have a chance of making the lift, with or without a trail. We stayed in sight of each other but separated a bit to view the terrain from slightly different angles while we advanced, usually with no trail. 

It was a near-constant chatter for most of those 3 hours: “Searching, no markers here…. 3 poles straight ahead...a cairn farther on to the left and high”. “I’m on the trail” would be answered back with an additional comment “Great, heading your way.” And perhaps “Huge cairn on peak on right but stay low looking for the trail.” It was a tense, riveting exchange to maximize the benefit of every footstep.

This sink hole was easy to dodge but we needed to avoid losing time by detouring around the city-block-sized holes on our sprint to the lift.
Between rounds of route finding banter, I pondered how much cash I had and rehearsed my beg for mercy in Italian: “Can we pay a supplement for a ride down after hours?” I also refined my multitude of detailed plans for an unanticipated night’s stay in the nearby hut IF they had space. And I debated if we dare attempt a 2 to 3 hour or more, dusk descent back to the valley given my throbbing knees and Bill’s injuries.

Matters had been made worse by Bill’s face plant just before the forced march began. He’d stopped to pee and being a bit slower, I went ahead as usual. I paused when I heard moaning far off in the distance. “Someone is hurt, I better sort out where the groans are coming from” went through my mind. While I scanned the mounds of rock to my right, I heard “Barb” from the trail behind me between the moans. In moments after reversing my course, I saw Bill, side lying on the trail, motionless except for his head. I blurted out a few triage-type questions while I scampered back to him, wanting some guidance in how to immediately be of help.

He had a nasty gash on his lower lip, 2 nearby patches of abrasion, and his face was a bit of a bloody mess. A quick exchange made it clear that the damage was limited to his face and teeth. One tooth felt loose, but there was nothing to do for it on the trail but I insisted “Don’t wiggle it!” 

Bill kept still where he landed, which is our #1 first aid rule, if the circumstance is safe. We don’t rush to sit up. Remaining still and letting one’s body calm and reorganize pays huge dividends. It gives time for all of the physiological alarm bells to stop ringing, the release of crisis chemicals to slow, and for the person to reassess and update their status while the other scans for undetected issues.

Our final sprint to the lift (a few days before) began about half way up this segment of trail.
Bill applied gentle pressure to his lip with my handy viscose cloth and I cleaned up the blood on his head and then shirt while he reorganized from the inside. In minutes, he was able to sit up and confirm that the rest of his body was fine. Then he stood and was surprisingly stable. The bleeding hadn’t completely stopped, but dabbing would do at that point.

We were almost at our half way point; realized we were short on time; and decided we’d walk out rather than try for what seemed to be an unnecessary helicopter rescue. We pressed on. I checked in with Bill in a couple of minutes after we resumed and again soon after, which was at the beginning a very steep ascent. He felt well and able except for the chaotic sensations around his mouth and he was game to go. 

Fortunately, Bill's assessment was right-on and we hit it hard for the next 3 hours without him missing a beat, even though the terrain was unexpectedly difficult. As we progressed, we lost confidence that we’d make the lift, but years ago we literally learned “Don’t give up until the ferry leaves the dock,” so we kept pushing.

Amazingly, when we reached the next sign with time estimates, we’d shaved about 30 minutes off a 90 minute projection to the hut that was below the lift. We turned a bend on the now well-marked trail to the lift that abruptly became steep. It was clear that we’d easily make the last ride down and I suggested we slow to begin our warm down. However Bill recalled that there was also a 5:00 pm departure, which was in 7 minutes, and we agreed to go for it.

After having pushed at our sustainable limit for over 3 hours, we poured it on on this steepening trail at 8500’. The struggling sightseers gasping for air and stumbling on the rough trail were blocking our progress so we hopped out of queue and charged up on the adjacent open rock. 

It was sheer bliss to feel how comfortably we could ramp it up and how deep our energy reserves still were. Our exhilaration was punctuated by making the 5:00 pm lift down the mountain with 1-2 minutes to spare. And as we’ve learned to expect in pushes like this when ketogenic, we almost instantly settled into normal breathing when we stopped—no histrionics or collapsing on the ground—just satisfied smiles. 

After hiking this very edgy trail with its narrow slot, we decided to play it safe until Bill was fully healed.
We glowed for hours about how safely and strongly we’d tackled the challenges of the day. It was yet another validation of how skilled and fit we had become. It again confirmed that we were both more capable than at any other time in our lives.

Clipped Wings
Lucky for us, the following day was a forced ‘in’ day because of intermittent rain and thunderstorms. There would be no risk of a ‘light' hiking day turning into a monster and Bill had the luxury of time to contemplate how best to deal with his injuries. We did a somewhat strenuous hike the following day and then reality set in. 

Bill’s lip gash and fascial abrasions were healing rapidly with no signs of infection but he was preoccupied was his jarred tooth. All signs were excellent: his tooth seemed to be slowly reseating itself and probably was doing so as fast as it could given all of the swelling. What he had initially thought was a small chip, wasn’t. But he worried and worried some more about losing his tooth. He wanted to wiggle it to assess; I argued to leave it alone citing “micro trauma” as the reason for restraint. “Have it x-rayed when we get home in a couple of weeks” seemed to be the only thing to do.

Bill studied his maps for more trails to explore and to re-evaluate the vie ferrate that he had planned to do while in San Martino, all while fretting about his tooth. After yet another pow-wow we agreed: his top priority was saving his tooth and the best way to support that goal was not to fall on it again. The potential vie ferrate all involved long, hard days, which increased the risk of stumbling, so they were reluctantly dismissed for the remainder of our stay in San Martino.

The agenda decisively switched from hiking venues to saving his tooth. We flipped to doing shorter, slower-paced hikes with an emphasis on Bill recalibrating his walking technic. After 3 destructive falls this summer, 2 in which he smashed-up expensive trekking poles and the recent one in which he mashed his irreplaceable face, it was time to get serious about change. His chronically head-forward stance was likely a set-up for another face plant and taking his preferred longer strides when he was rushing pulled his head even farther forward. Overcoming his prior resistance to shortening his gait and anchoring a more upright posture on the trails was the new hiking goal in San Martino, not miles or gain.

“Won’t Ever” Reversals
While pedaling up to Passo Rolle from San Martino on our way back to Selva, my mind drifted to the thought of bucket lists. That concept never really resonated for me when it became a popular notion but instead, what I treasured were reversals—being able to do something I was sure I wasn’t capable of doing. 

My first really memorable reversal was decades ago when I learned about drawing from the right side of my brain. I have zero talent as an artist and knew that I couldn’t draw but was delighted to learn that I was wrong. Approaching drawing from a different direction shattered that little bit of negative self-image and I was thrilled to be free of it.

As I pedaled through a few more switch-backs on the overly-warm August morning, I realized that our 2016/17 traveling season had been punctuated by a number of delightful reversals. Our epic hikes in October, the Rim-2-Rim in the Grand Canyon and the Cactus-2-Clouds from Palm Springs, were self-image shockers. We had believed in our cores that we’d never be able to do such monumental hikes and yet we knocked-out 2 of them in about 10 days. Hiking in those 2 areas lead to several encounters with ultra-light Pacific Crest Trail backpackers and after a little online research, I gleefully reversed my sense of self from being incapable of backpacking to being capable of it. All it required was a bucket of money to buy super light gear that my knees and back could safely support.

This summer, simultaneously studying Italian and German from audio courses shattered another myth. With just a little support for my preferred visual learning style, I was indeed capable of learning foreign languages. And who would have thought that as a gray-haired old lady, I would do my first-ever pull-up this summer? Bill asked me what “I can’t” I was going to tackle next and I had no answer. I hadn’t gone looking for any of these reversals, they just fell out in the course of what we were doing. They were basically all freebies. I of course, will happily embrace any others that come my way.