We gradually learned from other passengers that our train staff had announced in Austrian and Italian that we were at a non-scheduled stop at the Vipetano, Italy station for “undefined technical reasons” and that we should stay in our train car. The heavy Austrian accent prevented Bill from translating what passed for German and we could only catch a bit of the Italian, so we were grateful for the kindness of others for the interpretation.
At one point, the staff locked us in the train car and left, as one agitated American woman reported while she hurriedly walked back and forth to nowhere. When 50 or so people without any luggage streamed passed us on both sides of the train in a brisk walk and then broke into a run, one woman asked rhetorically “I wonder what they know that we don’t?” Indeed, a good but unanswered, question.
We knew the Dolomites were worth the wait.
We chose to sit back and relax. We were less than an hour from Bolzano, our destination for the night, and this was exactly why we keep our public transportation travel days relatively short. Things happen and not booking our schedule tightly allows us to stay calm and stay on our schedule, which is designed to synchronize our arising in the morning and retiring for the night roughly with the sun. We were disappointed to burn-up 90” of low-productivity time listening for announcements in the car and eventually on the train platform, but unlike others, we had no connection crisis to resolve.
Our rescue train finally arrived after successive announcements declaring one delay after another. We knew it would be a mad dash and that we’d have to be fast and nimble to get our 55 pound duffels and ourselves on the train with any semblance of comfort. Just barely, we managed to secure 2 seats together and primo spots in the doorway for our bags. It was standing room only for many and at each stop, Bill jumped up to ensure that our bags didn’t leave with someone else and I explained in German that his seemingly available seat was taken.
“FInalmente” we alighted on the familiar platform in Bolzano. We were instantly at home. We’d been to Bolzano many times, arriving by bike in the early years of our travels and more recently, by bus or train. It was less jangling than alighting from the train in equally familiar Munich the day before. The sun-warmed air was pleasantly whipped by drying winds funneling northwards from the Sahara—an occasional phenomena in the region.
We quickly made our way to our nearby hotel to secure our room and drop our burdensome bags, then we were back on the streets. Bill was off to buy phone chips and a data plan for the next 3 months and I made a beeline to do the marketing.
The damage from the tornados was staggering.
Listening to the spring keto diet conferences the last 2 years had nudged us towards eating a bit more meat and switching to dairy-free 3 months prior had created another “What are we going to eat?” crisis. We were suddenly full-on carnivores and I was calculating how to put meat on the table for at least 2 meals a day this summer to match the 1,000 calories that had gone missing with the loss of the cheeses from our plates. My first meat purchase would be 2 pounds of tidily vacuum-sealed pork loin that surely wouldn’t leak inside my duffel.
Too Much Snow, Too Much Wind
Early June is always an “iffy” time to be in the mountains, but we head for them anyway, hoping for the best. Our first village, Nova Levante, was at 4,000’ (1100 m) and it was hot and sunny when we arrived. A quick survey suggested that the mountain snow would be a minor issue, but we were wrong.
There was 3’ (1 meter) of snow at the top of the lift where we intended to begin a stunning loop around the peaks the next day. The delayed seasonal opening of the lift would be in the morning and crews were shoveling the trail but trudging through snow wasn’t our sport. “No worries, we’ll hike on the trails below the snow level.” Well, no, we were told we really couldn’t do that either because many of the trails were blocked by wind-leveled trees from a storm back in October. “Hmmm.”
We learned that the October 29, 2018 storm had wreaked havoc the length of western Italy, from the Alps to Sicily. Extreme downpours caused massive flooding in many major cities, including Rome, and the winds had toppled trees in the mountains of Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
Our little area in and around Nova Levante was the hardest hit sector in all of the mountains with 25% of the downed trees in the 4 countries being in just this region. Indeed, it looked like a war zone and the local officials estimated that it would take 120-150 years for the forests to recover. Some private land owners lost 90% of their timber stand.
The network of forest trails had been obliterated by multiple tornados leveling the trees. A few of the graveled service roads cleared of windfall were renumbered as hiking trails but not all were open to hikers, instead giving priority to the salvage crews.
The salvage crews kindly paused so we could pass on the “trail.”
We were of course still pleased to be in the Dolomites, to be outdoors, but it was sobering, nonetheless. And our problem had a now too-familiar ring: our favorite trails at home were closed for at least a few more years because the carelessness of teen boys had burned the forest to the ground and we’d left Palm Springs on March 1 with primer hiking areas still closed from the Valentine’s Day flash flood.
After our third night of sleeping at 4,000’, Bill commented “I can tell that I’m starting to altitude acclimate” and indeed, we were both immediately more comfortable on the 20% grade trail outside the door of our lovely apartment. We motored up the hill that we’d been on 4 days prior on our arrival afternoon with a welcome ease.
This was a make-do hike up to a ridge, then down into the next valley to the first village there, Tiers. Bill planned to chat with the tourist information folks there about trail closures within their sphere. He was hoping to pull together a “walk to our next village” event on Saturday if we could arrange luggage transfer, which had been so affordable and easy in England.
We were in luck: the teenager helping to staff the information desk was clearly an avid hiker, she knew the trails and their current condition well, and could clearly communicate her wealth of first-hand knowledge in English. The secondary mission for the day had been accomplished and then it was time to find a bench poised before a grand panorama of the mountains for lunch; next would be the main event, the walk back to our apartment, for a respectable conditioning hike of 11 miles and 3500’ of gain.
The red & white trail marker was there but the trail was not.
Bill hit his goal of 160 and slowed to recover while I powered past him at my ever-increasing level of effort. Too bad we didn’t track the time more carefully, but we both hit HRs of 185, which was new territory for Bill and rare for me. Our best guess is that we powered up that steep hill with good footing for 20-30 minutes with our HRs in the 170’s and 180’s with relative ease until we hit a gravel road with miserable footing.
It was a stunning affirmation for both of us. Indeed, we’d benefited from the first of 3 or 4 stages of early altitude acclimation; we’d clearly recovered from the stresses of our 3 weeks walking the English Coast Path which we completed almost 2 weeks before; I’d finally gotten enough calories; I’d recovered from abruptly stopping my anti-hypertensive drug; and we both were apparently in fine form.
We were absolutely flabbergasted. It was an unplanned performance after a lunch stop during which Bill had felt mildly ill and the heat and humidity of the day had been building. And for me, it was validation of what appeared to be happening in England, that “Barb is back.”
My athleticism had tanked the last year because of drugs that suppressed my heart rate and I’d been “slowing down” the 2 to 3 years before that, perhaps because of my unknown dairy allergy. For years, I had tended to at least keep up with Bill on the ascents and would usually barely outperform him at the end of the day. That pattern had disappeared, I had become the predictable laggard, but no more. That old kick of power, sort of a second wind, that I would get was back and it was better than before. No more cappuccinos at the mountain huts this year for Bill while he gave me a head start.
Our elderly neighbor was in her garden every morning.
It was my turn to take the first shower after the hike from Nova Levante while Bill did the marketing. Splitting up before reaching the apartment and having only 1 key meant leaving the front door ajar for him.
While waiting for the water from the solar panels to arrive at the shower head, I contemplated my compromised sense of safety. We were the last house on a dead-end street that became a hiking trail; there was only 1 door to our daylight basement apartment; there was no window in the bathroom; and Bill would be gone about a half an hour. The limited hot water meant that this wouldn’t be a long, deeply relaxing hot shower, so remaining vigilant would be easier.
And then I remember the ancient woman next door who seemed to open her front door in the morning on these warm days and leave it open. I thought I had seen her doing her marketing that morning while we waited at the bus stop and was surprised to have noted her open door while she was away. I imagined the fearlessness of this elderly mountain village woman who had probably lived through several wars and likely had been a widow for decades.
She lived in the only old house on the street, one like several B&B’s we’d stayed in over the years that were hosted by single, elderly women. In her rumpled old clothes when working in her yard in the mornings, she had dressed for going to the market only a few minutes-walk away. Like many older women in the mountains, she wore a gorgeous plaid, mid-calf length, wool skirt, even on this warm June day, and she’d put on hose as well to go to town.
Rail came to the area around 1915, about 60 years after the first through roads.
Like the sparkly-eyed older man we studied at the bus stop who was chatting with everyone, I eagerly contemplate these village elders when I have a chance. I look at them and overlay the many old photos we’ve seen over the years commemorating the wars and the recoveries. I think about how bleak it all looked then, how few buildings there were, the lack of infrastructure, the mud where there is now asphalt, and know that that was likely their reality. I’m intrigued by putting an animated, modern face into those still scenes of such hard times and admire their courage and will to carry on.
I occasionally remind Bill “You never know when you are triggering a significant change in others.” I’m a strong believer in that phenomena because of the many big shifts that have occurred in my life that were triggered by one person, like a fleeting glimpse of several different hikers over the years that uprooted my notions about gait and footwear. The German family backpacking from hut-to-hut that we chatted with just below snowline about the trail conditions while we were in Ortisei this year will never know that that brief conversation launched our backpacking era.
A new piece of amusing public art inserted into an Ortisei ropes course.
I also lamented that I’d been looking at the hut menus since returning to the Dolomites and concluded that I probably couldn’t ever eat a meal in one again now that I needed a low carb and a dairy-free diet. Going low carb 5 years ago was extremely compelling after learning that the most readily available carbs, like wheat, have a sugar in them that upsets my gut. Eating cheese, and a lot of it, had been the best solution to my social problem of eating out, but that option was now gone forever, and I was clearly healthier for it.
In little more than an hour after again sharing my food frustration with Bill, I punched my way out of this box in which I had felt trapped and, unexpectedly, my exit strategy inspired Bill to go for something on his hidden bucket list. For some deep and convoluted reasons, he hadn’t allowed himself to make his wish a reality but when I presented my solution to my hut food problem, he jumped at the opportunity to realize his dreams as well.
Minutes after parting company with the German hut-to-hut’ers, we’d parked ourselves on a scree slope for lunch and, much to my surprise, we had enough cell reception to search “Home freeze drying food” and “Vacuum packing food.” The new plan was that we’d either dehydrate or freeze-dry the meats that I needed for my new diet, without the garlic and other foods with the sugar (fructans) that upsets my gut. I could buy those dehydrated foods in bulk, but they came in relatively large quantities and had to be refrigerated once the giant #10 can was opened.
Soon I realized that I could skip the whole cooking and drying process and instead become a “re-packager”. I could buy the beef and chicken in bulk, then vacuum seal it myself in suitable portions. Another online search revealed that my favorite source for dried foods had dried scrambled eggs and dehydrated butter. Suddenly, I could bring meals to Europe for hut-to-hut trips or, as Bill saw it, for overnight backpacking trips below the Rim on the more obscure trails in the Grand Canyon. Whoosh! We abruptly had a new sport for which we immediately began the online researching gear.
Hail, not snow, in the foreground on Seceda above Ortisei.
For us, being at familiar venues like Passo Sella, is about walking and gazing. When at new ones, like Nova Levante 2 weeks prior, we walk but are in an intense observing and analyzing mode to learn about the new place. But at Passo Sella and at Ortisei the week before, the backdrop was well known and our attention was on a softer focus setting, visually taking in the glorious panoramas and attempting to stuff them deep in our beings to fortify ourselves for the future.
At Passo Sella this year, we stumbled upon 2 novel objects for our attention. The first was recognizing that our intense study of the tornado-caused devastation that made our hearts ache at Nova Levante had deeply etched new templates in our brains. Without trying, our soft-focus gaze into the distance abruptly shifted, registering “Anomaly, anomaly!”. A second look was required to get the verbal side of the brain to process the distinctive pattern of matted, downed trees and the characteristic patterns of bare earth from Italian loggers in clean-up phase. We’d learned our lessons better than realized because we instantly recognized the patterns, then applied words to what our mind-bodies had registered.
Even far in the distance, we could effortlessly spot the grain-like pattern of trees downed by a powerful wind. These did not fall helter-skelter, but were neatly aligned. We couldn’t see individual trees, only the linear texture of the resulting fabric registering the force of the tornados.
On a lighter note, our brains similarly began spotting “load lifters” on back packs. We’d watched an online backpack fitting video multiple times and marveled at the little straps called “load lifters” attached to the top of the shoulder straps. A nifty feature that had evolved sometime in the last 30 years without our knowledge, we were mesmerized by the simple but effective bit of engineering.
Sasso Lungo: too much snow for us to hike through.
I got caught staring at one young woman’s pack too long and felt obliged to offer the explanation in English “I’m looking at your pack”. She was amused, so I explained why I was staring. Her English skills were strong enough that I then invited myself to adjust her load lifters.
She admitted that she didn’t know what they were but could immediately feel the effect of having them activated. I laughingly said that we’d just learned about them on YouTube but didn’t even own any. The mention of YouTube brightened her face further. It struck me that it was a useful reference for bridging both the generational and cultural divide. Her male companion’s pack was too ill-fitting to make his work, so we limited our hands-on engagement to her though all 4 of us shared in the laughter about the impromptu fitting session.
Later that same afternoon, our soft focus while cruising back to the hotel on a familiar trail again switched into laser mode when we spied the huge sloped, Seceda plateau across the valley—all of the snow was gone. We’d hiked there through small snowfields and in 2 hail storms the week before. Deep snow there had forced our retreat from reaching it from the snowier backside, requiring backtracking and catching the last lift back down to town with only a 12-minute margin. On this day, the route would surely be open to us and we would have been able to complete it with ease, again underscoring the gamble we make by being in the mountains in June.
Looking back at Sella Gruppo peaks & a Passo Sella hut compound.
I’m not one that often finds preparing for a trip or an event to be almost as rewarding as the event itself, but occasionally I get that double-hit and that was the case with our dip into ultra-lite backpacking. And that certainly was the case for Bill who enthusiastically took charge of the gear selection. He enjoys wading through the details whereas I am more pinpoint in the issues I consider and, relative to him, I am more of a grab-n-go shopper.
After several weeks of periodically consulting with him about gear minutiae, I found myself pondering the nuisances of conditioning for carrying our anticipated 20 lb overnighter loads. We generally carry packs in the 10-12-pound range and go as high as about 18 lbs for via ferrata approaches because of the extra equipment required, but we just groan and do it, we don’t condition for it. But for this new sport, it felt compelling to train.
On the last day of June, we decided to increase our pack weights for the 15 mile, 5000’ gain hike to the Puez peak. I cautiously loaded to 13 lbs, Bill to 14. That proved to be a bit much for his irritable shoulder and he retreated to 12.5 lbs for 2 weeks. I did well with the small increase on the big hike and managed to make our 10 miler at the end of the week with 15 lbs and quickly pushed it to 17 lbs.
I could certainly feel the beneficial strain on my core stabilizing muscles under the additional load as well as the extra effort expended through my quads to power up the mountainsides. We had all of July and August to train on the trails with ever-increasing pack weights and September, our transition month from overseas to SW hiking, would be the perfect time to emphasize resistance training.
Never A Dull Moment
One moment we were contemplating our on-the-trail training for ultra-lite backpacking and the next moment we were scrambling, hoping to buy new e-bikes in the next week before beginning our 6-week cyclotour.
This Passo Sella area roof was lifted up & then dropped 300’ away from the hut by one of the October 29 tornados.
“Really?!” was my thought. “You can, but not me!” Reminiscent of when I say: “If these garments aren’t good enough to give to Goodwill, what are you/I doing wearing them?” “Forget the dollars and cents, or perhaps, dollars and sense, why not be riding great bikes?” Of course, there was a mound of logistical issues to solve as a legitimate retort, but there was no going back at this point. “Making do” wasn’t penciling out for me and Bill didn’t want to be left out of the new bike purchase.
After 48 hours of intense online research, a phone call to an Italian bike shop, and devoting a hiking day to visiting a sporting goods chain store in Bolzano, we had little but negative information:
..despite the manufacturer’s advertising to the contrary, Bulls had no dealers in Italy, which was where we were
..we could order directly from the German manufacturer and have the bikes delivered to our door, but only if we were in Germany
..sizing information was extremely hard to ascertain, buried deep in their website in the online order section
..the largest e-bike dealer in Munich never answered our numerous phone calls, which disconnected after 10 minutes, nor did they respond to our several emails indicating we wanted to order bikes from them
..another Munich area dealer hung-up every time Bill called and asked in German “Do you speak English?” even though he’d been told that there would be an English-speaker there in the morning
Plans A, B, C, and D for buying the coveted Bulls bikes dropped away almost as quickly as we could formulate them.
Five days after my excitement of learning that proper bikes were now available had turned to agony, we had a pair ordered from the 3rd of 3 Bulls dealers within striking range of Seefeld, Austria, which was on our pre-booked itinerary. But it was the end of the season (the first week in July!) and this dealer with an English-speaker would have to bring them in from Iceland. They were expected in Munich in 1-2 weeks, but that would drift in to almost 3.
Concurrent with the seemingly ridiculous difficulties in securing a pair of Bulls trekking e-bikes were the challenges off-loading our current, 1-year old e-bikes. Multiple inquires in big and little bike shops in our area confirmed that bike shops didn’t take trade-ins (back when we thought we’d be buying in Italy) and no bike shop traded in used bikes. “Private sale” was the only way to sell a bike in the region. But we had this musical-chairs problem: we couldn’t sell our bikes before we knew that our new ones were a certainty. And given that we were relocating at least once a week, we’d never be anywhere long enough to run an internet ad and close a cash deal.
If all else failed, we could switch to touring-class Vespas with trailers.
A couple of years ago, we systematically began giving 20 Euro bills to the Sub-Saharan African pan-handlers we encountered in the Dolomites. All spoke English and Bill had made a point to hear their stories. We were conflicted however: we were giving them 20 Euros when what they needed was thousands, and this was an opportunity both to give at that level and solve our ‘excess’ problem.
We left Selva for our 6 week bike and hike tour hoping that the perfect new touring bikes would be ours half way through our riding season, that we’d love these sight-unseen darlings, and we’d find a way to dispatch our year-old bikes the day after we had our hands on the new ones. It was an excruciating amount of uncertainty but there was nothing more to do than be patient and shift our focus to the hiking and biking on our itinerary.