Something New Lurking Behind An Old Fear

Tackling Passo Gardena
The Same Old Issue
Darn it anyway, but the fear and trepidation surrounding my ability to steady my loaded bike that has haunted me since becoming mini-tour cyclists in 2011 were there again in 2017. There is no way to train for having 55-60 lbs thrown on your bike and then pedaling up a steep mountain road other than doing exactly that, which means the first day of our tour each summer is also our first training day for the tour.

We always strive to look more together than they do.
At my insistence, we forced ourselves to make 3 round trip training rides of about 15 miles each from our current village, Selva, to Ortisei this year. It’s a tough return ride but it is largely out of traffic. Any other training ride would be in the scary traffic and I’m not willing to take those risks solely for conditioning. As a result, each year we launch with relatively little cycling since the previous summer. One May, my very athletic internist asked what we did for training for the mountains and he rather gruffly said “That’s not enough” and ended the conversation.

Yes, we know it’s not enough but there is a long list of constraints and we’ve done it enough times to know how to survive. We’ve become experts at finessing our bodies to perform without injury but it is the fear I haven’t mastered. 

So, once again we set out on a busy Saturday morning to hold our place on the narrow road with the numerous huge buses, scores of motorcyclists (many of whom tow their ‘motos’ so as to only ride on the most thrilling roads), and both experienced and overwhelmed auto drivers. 

I know many wish I would pull off to let them pass when oncoming traffic means that they have to wait rather than drive around me. What they don’t understand however, is that if I stop I can’t restart. I would often have to push my bike for 5 minutes or more to find enough lessening in the grade to power start my 90 lb bike. I steel myself, quietly ask for forgiveness, and press on, stubbornly taking the space I need.

Possnecker Via Ferrata: Bill climbing the crack on the heels of a guided group of German speakers.
My performance anxiety rode on my shoulder, filling my head with self-doubt and nervous anticipation of failure. I thought back to the very difficult Possnecker via ferrata that we’d done 2 days earlier and remembered how successfully I had calmed myself. Bill had found YouTube videos of the climb less than an hour before our scheduled 7:30 am departure—videos that threw us both into near panic attacks because of the difficulty portrayed. With little time to sort out the information, I’d suggested that we catch the bus as planned and make a go/no go decision on the way. After our discussion on the bus, I very successfully soothed myself, pumped up my self-confidence, and slowed the profuse sweating, especially in my hands and feet. As I pedaled towards the pass, I wished I could do the same for myself on the bike.

But, But, But….
But, like what unexpectedly happened on Possnecker, the most difficult via ferrata (a cable assisted climb) we’d ever done, I performed well on the bike this day, exceptionally well, unimaginably well. I still had difficulty muscling the front end of my bike to track a straight line, but my legs and lungs were all “go” like never before.

On this Passo Gardena ride which we had done many times, I’d always failed at counting how many times we stopped to rest. Here, like on every other pass, the exertion at my limit that forced me to rest frequently also created a haze that interfered with remembering to count those many stops. 

Wildly unexpected this time, it was easy to count. Instead of the estimated 20-30 stops, there were 3. Two stops were early in the first hour and the 3rd was at the beginning of the 2nd of 2 hours. We guessed that we normally took more than 3 hours to make this climb. Because of the traffic logistical issues, it is unlikely that we could make this ascent with less than 2 stops.

We both were stunned. Bill lagged a bit but that was actually a reflection of his greater strength. His superior upper body strength allows him to ride more slowly than me; my minimum speed to keep from dumping over is higher than his so he enjoys more recovery while pedaling than I do. Out of ear shot, he of course kept expecting me to stop at one of the places proven to be a successful launching point, places which are a combination of good visibility in both directions, slackening  grade, and a little extra width in the road. To his dismay and mine, one by one, I passed them all by.

I continuously scanned my body for fatigue or brewing retaliation. I wondered if I would pay later in the climb for my seemingly reckless imprudence in pressing on. I assessed if I could make it to the next possible stopping place, as best that I could remember from 2 years ago. The quiet message from all systems at every decision point was “go” and so I did.

Barb on a dangerous segment missing the expected safety pitons.
But Why?
The fear was gone. The front end wobbles persisted but my new power countered the fear. My confidence soared: I knew that I had crossed the line into a new reality. I turned my attention to “Where in the world did this bizarre strength and endurance come from?” rather than fret about the next steep pitch.

I ran down the usual list. The year of intense myofascial release had transformed my knees and should have allowed my legs to be more efficient but Bill was doing equally well without that targeted work. We were perhaps carrying 5+ lbs less, but with a bike plus gear total weight of 90 lbs each, that shouldn’t have been it. Our vertical climber workouts had substantially improved our core strength but it had been almost 2 months since we’d used it. The unusually cool temperatures kept us from excessive sweating, but that wasn’t a big factor. Combined, could they account for the huge change? Neither of us thought so.

Curiously, we had catapulted ourselves to new levels as felt on this bike ride and in hindsight, on the recent via ferrata. They were both activities for which we were far from being at peak conditioning and yet we calmly poured it on during both activities. For both of us, it was all so natural feeling that it seemed like we’d always been this way but we knew too well that that wasn’t true. 

A month ago after yet another a 12 hour hiking day, this time from Ortisei, we said “something has changed” because we felt so much better than usual that night and the next morning. Our  best guess as to an explanation was a late-stage metabolic change from our now 3-year-old ketogenic diet. But during a relatively flat stretch in the climb to the pass, I suggested a new theory to Bill, that we were experiencing a broader physiological change. 

It seemed that our 14 month emphasis on endurance hiking might be creating profound changes that spilled over into everything we were doing. It seemed odd because we were likely only 15-20 minutes into our climb when we could feel that we had become different animals than we had been whereas awareness of our improved endurance when hiking hits after 6-8 hours.

Hours yet to go, but the hard part was behind us.
Via Ferrata Possnecker
Bill had excelled on the very difficult Via Ferrata Possnecker 2 days prior. Thank goodness, he finally concluded that it wasn’t I who had become slower but he who had become faster, a lot faster. His strength in general had been growing for the last year and gaining mastery over his freestanding headstand since the first of the year had improved his balance and body awareness. It made perfect sense that his talent on the wire was leaving me in the dust. I was happy for him but was chagrinned at being the laggard. Indeed, the dozen or so other people on the wire that day effortless passed me by while Bill politely waited.

But when we got in for the night, Bill found his missing electronic guide book which revealed that Possnecker was one of the most difficult via ferratas in the Dolomites. The British book rated this route a 4C with a 5C being the most difficult. The dual coding reflects 2 different aspects of the challenges and risks. The projected time “on the wire” was 3 hours and we completed it in 3:40, including a non-essential break. I was slow, but not that slow. In hindsight, the fact that we could even do it so comfortably seemed remarkable.

After these 2 exceptional performances in 3 days that weren’t done with setting records in mind, we indeed had to conclude “something has changed.” Oh, how we’d love to know what it was so we could cultivate it. We sensed that something deeper, something more fundamental, was evolving: increased capillary beds, reduction of oxidative damage, and mitochondrial enhancements were tossed around as we searched for explanations. Was it the keto diet or the endurance hikes or an interplay between the 2? We were left with huge gratitude for our good fortune and little wisdom as to why we were the beneficiaries. 

Making it to the hut at the saddle on our second attempt.
Joan Would Be Proud
Six years ago, AARP magazine reported on older, masters athletes that were forcing scientists to accept a new model of “exceptionally successful aging.” A dramatic, close-up photo from that article featuring an 80 year old swimmer, Joan Campbell, still hangs on our apartment wall as inspiration to us. We didn’t know how to age exceptionally, but it was our new motto. 

Over the years, we'd often joke about Joan being critical of us on days when we were slacking. On this riding day to Passo Gardena, we knew that Joan would be proud that we’d catapulted our exercise capacity to a new level. Whether we’d arrived at exceptional or we’d finally become normal was still an open question. Or perhaps we’d returned to normal? Is that what exceptional aging is: hanging on to normal?

Ahrntal or Valle Aurina, Italy
“Freeing The Serpent”
The first hike out of our new village of Predoi in the Ahrntal valley on the Austrian border was feeling like a bust. The forecast 4:00 pm thunderstorms began about 9:30 am and we scurried back to our apartment for shelter from the pelting rain. Out again at 10:30, it wasn’t long until we knew it would rain again. We and several dozen other hikers pressed on in intermittent rain; we sheltered for 10 minutes or more twice because of the accompanying sharp wind and absence of our trusty rain pants.

Along the way, a late 50’s Italian woman who had paused at a bench called to us, inquiring about our latest weird shoes. We frittered away the current dry spell chatting with her about minimalist footwear while she translated for her husband. Shortly after the 4 of us launched, the rain and wind hit again, and we chose different strategies for coping. About 2 hours later we joined them on our early descent and opted to match their slower pace to be social. Sylvia was an English teacher though confessed that her performance anxiety got the better of her when around native speakers. 

The sun was finally out and stayed out, raising everyone’s spirits and fostering more laughter on the tricky descent. After a few of her queries, it became clear that an easy game to play with Sylvia was to educate her about the differences in particular phrases between British, which she taught, and American, that had tripped us up as travelers. I started with “pavement,” which isn’t an asphalt road in British but a sidewalk. She clearly enjoyed the sport and clarified her own points of confusion with us, particularly around the American synonyms for “yes.” The more we talked, the more fluent she became.

The distinctive look of granite instead of our usual dolomite rocks.
I knew that the nuances of toilet words were under-taught and I treasured the opportunity to set a teacher straight. Sylvia was dismayed that “toilet", which readily translates into any European language as “I gotta go, where is the toilet?”, wasn’t the polite word to use in American though it would be understood. We proceeded with “restroom” and “bathroom” being the only proper American terms and differentiated how they should be used. “Yes, they are synonyms but they really aren’t interchanged".

She was surprised that British expressions “the loo” and “WC” didn’t cut it in American and then we moved on to polite slang, like “going to pee". Since she was clearly enjoying having new material with which to engage her students, we dredged up "pit stop"; "taking a leak" (not “leak-a" as she said); and "bio-break" that’s used by the SW hiking club but skipped “returning nitrogen to the soil". She carefully recited each and committed them to memory. Her husband, Paolo, who was basically limited to receiving her real time translations, then tossed in an Italian school boy phrase which Sylvia translated: “freeing the serpent”. We couldn’t top that.

The next day, I chuckled about our exchanges with Sylvia and Paola while we made our second assault on the wickedly steep mountain face to complete the loop to 8,500’ that we had abandoned because of the rain. Overcast all day and drizzling in the mid-afternoon, we were pleased to be just warm enough to enjoy our picnic near the hut at the saddle. We had barely begun our descent when the first few driving rain drops had us digging out our rain gear. We never got soaked by any of the several passing storms and considered the day a success though blue skies would have made for better photos.

Juncus jacquinii: our first look at the tiny, stunning, flower on a familiar alpine rush (using the standard iPhone camera).
Krimmel Pass
Our 3rd and 4th hiking days in Ahrntal were on long distance but less traveled trails on the other side of the valley than the previous 2 days. Both started on the same, straight-up trail through a forest with no views so we charged up as fast as we could. After about 40 minutes, dripping in sweat, we emerged from the heavy conifer canopy into open fields of fallen rock. Now being around 7,000’ and on trickier trails, we continued pushing ourselves for another 90 minutes, but at a necessarily slower pace. The grand panoramas of the granite mountains were less engaging that the usual dolomite formations, which lulled us into near-meditative states on both days. 

On the 4th day, the haze of relatively low stimulation was pierced by my yelp, to which Bill reacted like I’d spotted a rattlesnake. "No snake”, I said. The jarring utterance was in response to spotting a little flower, but a flower I desperately wanted to see but had given up hope of finding.  On this very quiet day, it was huge. We both agreed that it would likely be the most memorable event of the day. I purred with delight: even my regular phone photo app was delivering sharp images though Bill used his more sophisticated program to be sure we had keepers.

An hour later, we were jarred from our trance again, this time by the sight of about 20 mountain bikers walking their bikes down an intersecting trail. We’d been all alone for so long and now it seemed bizarre to see a crowd in the distance. We spoke with laggards. It was 2 different groups and they’d walked for 4 hours up the Austrian side to the pass we were headed for and had found the Italian side of the pass unridable so were walking down it. Walking on stony steep trails in bike shoes while pushing a bike from one side is miserable and they were doing it for hours.

The stimulation from those 2 encounters, the flowering rush and the mountain bikers, wasn’t enough to prepare us for the emotional overload when we hit the 8,600’ saddle the bikers had just traversed. On the previous hike on the same ridge, we were greeted by a crucifix, which is standard on European saddles and peaks, and an Austrian/Italian border marker. Those spare objects were before us on Krimmel Pass too, but they were dwarfed by the other stories.

On one side of the trail at the summit was a small shrine to a family of 3 who had perished in a snow storm in August of 1926. Their photos, names, and birthdays were still intact in the little memorial as well as recently placed votive candles. Their fate sent chills down our spines because of the wildly unpredictable weather we’d been experiencing in late July. 

We couldn’t help but imagine what those deaths had been like. How long did they debate whether to press on or stop? Where exactly did they huddle? How quickly had the weather changed? Suddenly, our new little bivvy sacks that we proudly carried seemed woefully inadequate when we looked at their pictures again.

A shrine to the family lost at the pass in an August snowstorm.
Still cringing from the agony of their deaths on this very turf, we noticed a new metal plaque on a nearby rock face and on the opposite side of the trail, we slowed decoded a very modern memorial. These 2 memorials honored the flight of Eastern European Jews fleeing to Israel across this pass by starlight in 1947.

The information was scant but made reference to hoping the Italian police would look the other way as they passed. About a 10 minute walk away from the memorial was a defunct, 3 story, stone Italian border control building. We wondered if it was a dozen, 50, or 100 people making the illegal crossing. That evening, the scant information I found revealed it was 5,000! That didn’t require looking the other way by the border patrol but falling asleep.

A little below us on the Austrian side, was a tidy stone building we assumed was an emergency bivouac. Perhaps 50’ from it was a large “H” outlined in white stones on a relatively flat bit of earth that was likely a helicopter pad. We’d never seen a helipad so high up in the Alps and wondered what was the story behind it and the bivouac. Perhaps they were in response to other sudden-storm related deaths at this pass.

Our un-amored nervous systems were so jolted by these stories of death and survival that even the normal, bright yellow Austrian trail signs and a hand made sign to a peak were disturbing. They were of the present and seemed so oblivious to the stories of suffering and loss on the saddle that they felt irreverent. All of this emotional overload closed in around us when we were only looking for a place out of the wind to eat our lunch.

Ironically, I’d previously said that I’d hoped we wouldn’t find a body on these trails and here we were encountering the stories of bodies. It had been a very low-snow winter and, in addition, glaciers had been retreating, so a record number of  bodies were being discovered in the mountains while we were there.

We were lucky--we finished our grand hike to the historic pass several hours before the predicted storm hit. Multiple thunderstorms and downpours continued through that night, into the next day, and through the second the night. 

The clutter of memorials & signs at the pass was a jarring as finding a souvenir stand in the desert.
The skies partially cleared while we were astride our bikes to leave the valley the second morning after our hike. We were startled to look back to see that our village’s persistent rain storm had dumped snow on our high mountain trails.  Only hours had separated us on our hike in late July from the snow storm. Bill commented that the family’s timing for being at the same mountain pass in 1926 could also have only been a matter of hours in relation to the snow storm, but in the wrong direction. It was yet another chilling moment of reliving the parallels and differences between our experience and the unfortunate family in the same location and at the same time of year.

Heading Out
When at Predoi, we were literally at the end of the road. Going up valley was on your feet and over the mountain passes into Austria like we and the mountain bikers had done. On wheels, there was only 1 way to go, which was down.  Our little road was at the bottom of the  deep valley next to the narrow, fast moving river and would return us to the Dolomites.

The mountains framing the Ahrntal valley were granite and not Dolomite and though grand in their own right, we missed the distinctive look of the Dolomite formations. Our next hiking venue at Sesto-Moos would be back in the dolomitic rock. With that relocation, we’d again be hiking amongst the ruins of the WWI front, which weren’t present in Ahrntal, and that would include via ferrata routes which had their origins in that war.