The top of the lift at San Martino looked like a moonscape to me.
#12 Onto the Brenta Dolomites of Italy (late July-August)

San Martino di Castrozza, Italy
(not quite to the Brentas)
"It's like being high in the Himalaya's; I feel like I am in Nepal; We must be on the moon." No matter that I hadn't been to any of those destinations, the views across the rolling, ice-scoured rock left me with no doubt that I was re-experiencing an exotic, far-off place. The brooding clouds, thin air, and icy winds that greeted us at the 8,600' lift station added to the remote feeling. And all the time that I felt like I was having flashbacks about being some place I'd never been, I kept thinking "Nothing else in the Dolomites looks like this--how could this be happening--we've seen so much?"

The positively surreal experience of the rock-scape was intensified by the backdrop of Dolomite monoliths shooting upward, monoliths that were juxtaposed with squiggling, stone-lined paths sprinkled with Sunday hikers far below us. Top-of-the-lift scenes in the Dolomites are never like this. And who would expect to see hoards of strollers on a moonscape anyway? None of what we were seeing made any sense at all.

Our zig-zag trail down from the lift to San Martino.
After a few motionless minutes futilely attempting to reconcile where we were with what we were seeing, we did what everyone else was doing: we snapped a few photos and joined the serpentine procession on the stone lined paths over the denuded rock to the nearby rifugio, or mountain hut. After pausing at the hut and again trying to process the bizarreness of it all from a different angle, we headed out on yet another winding path to begin our long, solitary descent back to the real, back to town.

Snow Bridge!
The best plan for this first day at San Martino for which we had a late start and a forecast for high winds, was to buy one-way lift tickets for both of the 2 lifts rather than round trip like we'd normally do. Instead of doing a big out-and-back hike from the top, we'd nose around between the lift station and the hut and then spend the rest of the day hiking the steep, 4,000' descent back to town. We'd be sheltered from the winds part way down and wouldn't be inconvenienced if the lifted closed early due to the weather. And like when we were recently in Canazei, this first hike at San Martino di Castrozza was a reconnaissance outing, which included getting information about the via ferrata routes from hikers descending from it. As it turned out, the high winds never developed and we had a delightful day meandering off the mountain face.

The downhill hikers couldn't see this hole in the snow bridge over the torrent.
The news was good from the French couple who had completed 1 of the 2 via ferratas that Bill was most interested in: the snow and ice on the route weren't much of a problem. Taking their advise, we continued up the route for a look at the via ferrata' trailhead as they continued down. We'd seen a dozen or more hikers descending the side trail but when we arrived at one expanse of snow, we we horrified. Very apparent to the rare hikers like us going up the trail, was a hole in the snow bridge over the small river they had all been crossing. We peered inside the opening while standing on living rock and could see the snow pack was deeply undercut by the fast flowing water beneath the boot prints. If someone broke through the snow bridge there, it would be a 4' or more drop into shallow but fast torrent traveling down a narrow, steep crevice.

Earlier this spring we'd watched a Weather Channel re-enactment of a California ultra-athlete on a forest training run who fell through a snow bridge in a similar situation. It was a harrowing story. She tumbled in the raging snowmelt until she grabbed a tree root to stop herself but she couldn't break through the deep snow above her. By a series of extremely unlikely events, she was rescued. The well-told story held our attention and we carefully compared her story with the potential one before us. Yes, we knew many had safely passed over this shrinking snow bridge but when would it collapse? Today? In a week? Would it collapse under the weight of a hiker or innocently sag into the water overnight?

We scrutinized the situation for 10-15 minutes as an in-the-field learning experience. There was clearly no way to assist each other over this ailing snow bridge and should the 2nd person across it go down with the bridge, the 1st person would be useless as a rescuer. In addition, we'd each cross this bridge twice since we'd only go up the trail a short distance, then return. If the hidden, thin area of snow collapsed while we were up the trail, there would be no way to cross back to continue our route down. It seemed apparent that the trail would be impassable at this particular point for days or weeks once the weak spot collapsed--all of the snow over this steep creek would have to be gone for it to be passable again because of the depth of the snow.

San Martino is the only place we've hiked where there were snow poles marking the route in August.
We felt like wimps for turning around, for not going on. But the near-death experience of the hearty Californian athlete and the words of the Croatian housekeeper Monika 2 weeks ago, which were "There are stories on TV every week about Alpinists dying in the mountains because of the late snow", countered the imagined social pressure to press on. We are clear: we aren't experienced at reading the hazards in snow, we don't carry ropes, and to be safe we need to stay within our level of expertise. It's one thing to push for greater speed and distances on the trails; it's quite another thing to press beyond your level of expertise in dangerous situations.

As we descended and crossed a few more swaths of snow we consolidated our educational interlude about snow hazards. Inspecting the snow pack above and below a crossing area will often help clarify the risk. It seemed that stomping on questionable snow or poking it with a trekking pole as many do would either dump you into the hazard or give one a false sense of security. And for me, an important criteria for go-no go was the sound of rushing water under the snow. Melting snow, even slushy stuff you sink a foot into isn't a worry if you don't risk getting swept underneath it. Getting wet is OK, going under isn't. Day 1 at San Martino had been unexpectedly stunning and educational and we used what we learned 2 days later when needing to cross a series of snowpack areas to close the loop on that day's hiking.

The trails above San Martino were dramatic.
Mountain Run Simulator
Bill's plan for our 2nd day in San Martino was to dash up the dramatic trail covering the length of the upper of the 2 lifts, eat lunch, and trot back down to the top of the lower lift. Riding the lower lift round trip would shorten the total time out considerably. That particular combination of riding and hiking would give us a great "go out and thrash ourselves" event on a scenic trail and get us home before the predicted thunderstorm hit. But the generally reliable storm forecast was off by 3 hours and the characteristically big rain drops at the storm's leading edge starting pelting us as we arrived at the upper lift station. At least we were only damp and not drenched like we were a few days prior at Cavalese.

Disappointed to have only completed half of the planned activity on our 2nd day in the area, we gratefully took both lifts back to town. The bit of grumpiness from the unmet expectation for the outing was soon minimized when I crunched the numbers. We'd accumulated the 2200' of gain at an average rate of 28.3'/min and our target for the 2014 mountain run in Ortisei was 27'/min. We did only a little more than half of the 4100' gain of the mountain run, but we'd finished at an elevation of about 500' higher than the race's finish line. And every 100' higher at that elevation is significant especially because the risk of acute mountain sickness goes way up at 8,200'. Bill started feeling the effects of the elevation before we peaked on this day but clearly his new ibuprofen regime for altitude was a huge help.

The pleasure with our fine performance so early in our San Martino stay combined with the realization that the potential final elevation and total gain could be more similar to the Ortisei event and suddenly we were planning our next assault on the mountain. If we started from town, we could get the full 4,100' gain of the mountain run at a similar elevation, which isn't an easy combination to find. Trails in the Alps aren't measured in distance, so we didn't have a clue has to how far short of the run's 9 miles our route would be, but we'd go for it any way. Both the day's charge up to the top of the lift and the newly planned longer event were good examples of what a great motivator the 2014 mountain run was for us--it was already pushing us work harder.

And by dinner time that same day our planning had escalated. I reviewed a few numbers from our 2013 spring hiking season in New Mexico and realized that both Albuquerque and Santa Fe would be good mountain run training venues for us because of their high elevation and significant peaks. And then I realized that next June our 1 night stay in Innsbruck, Austria on our way from Amsterdam to Italy could be extended to 2 nights giving us a day to trot up one of the steep trails there. Other ideas of where we might train closer to home bubbled up too. Yes, yes, the 2014 Ortisei Mountain Run was an effective motivator even if we didn't measure up come next July.

Our big event traveled through the forest to the top of a lower peak.
Four days later, we did our 'simulated event.' Slightly nervous the night before and the morning of, we carefully laid out our clothes, trimmed the contents of our packs from an estimated 10 lbs to 5, and lined up snacks. It added to the fun that it almost felt like race day when we headed out. On 1 hand, we both considered it totally impossible for us to make the qualifying time and on the other hand, it seemed within reach.

We stunned ourselves by hitting the 4,100' gain mark at about 9,000' only 15 minutes behind the 2:30 maximum allowed time on the Ortisei route. Our best estimate was that we'd done about 8 of the real event's 9 miles. Of course it would have been lovely to come in under the 2:30 time, but had we done this at Ortisei, we might have. At Ortisei, unlike at San Martino, we wouldn't have so many tempo-sucking obstacles. During our San Martino effort we had a dozen or so special challenges: there was the short uphill snow traverse; about 4 places where the trail had washed out and we used the crude bypasses; several times we had to pause to locate the trail at a switchback; and then there were those narrow ledge-walks, sometimes with a wire handhold. It was easy to see how we could have lost 15 minutes with those successive challenges. And when we actually do the organized mountain run, we won't be carrying 5 lb packs and we will take a rest day the day before the event.

The cool thing for us about the Ortisei mountain run is that it is only uphill and it's steep, so it isn't really much of a run. That's perfect for us because we currently aren't runners. So, especially now that we've had this grand confidence boost, we will resume becoming runners. I embarked on becoming a runner again in January 2012 and ended up with a knee problem that slowed me down for a year. But the good news from that injury was that it revealed (and I think was caused by) underlying issues in my foot. Much of the recovery effort for my knee had been focused on increasing the mobility and alignment in my left foot and working on a long standing imbalance in my left hip. Now it seems to have come together and my entire left side is more comfortable. With almost 4 years as forefoot strikers behind us, we'll use this next year to build a more solid base as runners so we can safely add some speed to our performance on the straight-aways at Ortisei.

A 5 Day Journey to the Brenta Dolomites
Cycling for 5 days from San Martino di Castrozza in the southeastern Dolomites to Molveno farther west in the Brenta Dolomites was a nostalgic sampler of Northern Italy. We left the mountain ski village scene in San Martino that is transformed in the summer for hikers, mountain bikers, and ultra lean, long distance road riders ticking-off multiple mountain passes in a day to the lower elevation activities. Part way through our 4,000' descent the first day we rolled through what were called "spa towns" in eastern Europe.

Foothill spa towns have a decidedly different energy than the mountain villages--they are dominated by the seriously sedentary crowd. The huge 'wellness' hotels draw clients for multi-week stays and specialize in low energy output (we inadvertently stayed at one in Cavalese). Guests stroll from the hotel breakfast room to the umbrellas on the terrace. After a while, they mosey out to the nearby public parks and gardens to read the newspaper, smoke, visit, or just warm a bench. Typically the sound of a mountain stream running through the center of town will mix with the song of birds and that of gentle breezes rustling the leaves in the trees. A stroll to lunch at the the hotel may include admiring the flower beds along the way. After lunch and siesta, there will be more time on the terrace and in the park and with luck, there'll be a free concert in the evening.

This wooden cart with wood wheels at a valley hotel was licensed for agricultural use in 1954.
I'm always dismayed that given the stunning mountains around these spa towns that so many people come just to sit but it is surely a wonderful change in sensory experience from life in their city--I just hope they look up at the lovely peaks once in a while. Aside from enjoying the well-groomed public spaces in these towns, we often benefit from the multi-use paths in and between the villages. We rode for miles after finishing the mountain road switchbacks down from San Martino on tranquil, riverside routes, which was sweet. Long descents on windy, narrow roads with brisk and occasionally dangerous traffic are weary-making and the easy-going, low-concentration paths out of traffic are a soothing break.

But such pleasant multi-use paths only go so far and then it was back to the roads again for our westward journey. We were in luck however, and it wasn't long before we crossed a familiar long-distance bike route, the Via Claudia Augusta bike and walking route that goes for hundreds of miles. We'd intentionally followed it one year and knew that it could be a mixed bag: it would vary from being on out-of-traffic, paved routes to using tortuous gravel roads to being on muddy mountain bike tracks. We cautious followed it, vowing to be alert to when it was time to bail-out and find our own, more direct way on busy roads.

Via Claudia wound us through corn fields one day, apple and pear orchards the next, and then into the vineyards as we traveled farther. The vineyards gave way to the busy beach scene at Riva del Garda, which is were we began our Italian holiday this summer without the bikes. When in Riva in late June, we charged up the steep mountains on hiking trails, this time it was clawing our way up the steep roads on switchbacks. Here we were an oddity as travelers on bikes and one Spaniard stopped his rented car on a curve to snap our photo saying "Incredible." Lower down along the river in the orchards and vineyards we had been ordinary among dozens of loaded cyclotourists and hundreds (thousands?) of other cyclists on the asphalt multi-use paths.

The Brentas made a grand background for the sunbathers at Molveno.
Arriving in Molveno in the foothills of the Brentas was yet another slice of Italian holiday making. Sunbathing on the grass adjacent to the lake was the big draw and on a Sunday we estimated that there were over 500 cars on the grassy day-use overflow parking area. Wading and boating weren't popular--sunbathing was enough for most of the visitors to this mountain village.

We had watched the weather forecasts on our favorite Italian weather site,, for days before we left San Martino and were horrified by what we were seeing. The headline in Italian was clear: the 3rd heat wave from Africa for the season was approaching and would last more than a week. That was terrible news as we prepared to leave our snow-dotted trails in the mountains of San Martino and cycle for days in the low valleys. The daily temperatures near or above 100° were horrific enough, but the perceived temperatures elevated by humidity in the 70-85% range were jaw-dropping. Depending upon the day and the destination, we were seeing predictions of 108°, 115°, and 135° perceived temperature. Given that the mid-60°'s are ideal for hard riding, double that was unimaginable.

The actual temperatures moderated a bit from the most extreme forecasts we'd seen, but we rode in actual temperatures of at or over 100° for 4 of our 5 riding days. We were thrilled with our success at coping with the heat the first days in it and managed to wrap up each day without heat stress. Stopping in the shade often and maximizing the use of any breezes available when resting helped immensely. Part of the trick was not to stop too long when climbing so we didn't lose our metabolic adaption to those particular stresses but stopped long enough to cool a bit. We'd had plenty of experience in such severe heat years ago in Hungary, Serbia, and other countries, but we were out of practice and not in tip-top cycling form.

Our worst day in the heat was the 5th and day last when the cloud cover and lack of breezes drove up the ambient humidity and prevented our sweat from effectively cooling us. We could shelter from direct sun on the clear days and feel our temperatures drop but with cloud cover, there was no benefit from the shade and our potentially cooling sweat didn't dry. The humidity made for a long, tedious day of moderating our core temperatures as we climbing back into the mountains to Molveno.

Not overheating in our rooms in the mornings before we departed and in the evenings was also challenging during this 5 day spell, as was sleeping. We only had air conditioning in our room 1 of the 5 nights and it had the typically light touch of European AC. Eighty-two degrees seemed to be a common evening temperature in our old hotel buildings in the evenings, with our indoor overnight lows generally being in the mid-70's, with humidity. One night we were so miserable that we compromised our safety by sleeping with our door wide open to catch the breezes from the exterior hallway door that was also open. Eye covers and earplugs added to the hazard of sleeping with no physical barrier to intruders, but it was on the only way to get any sleep that night. Fortunately it was the otherwise uneventful night that we hoped it would be and we got the sleep we needed.

Molveno In The Brenta Dolomites: Stopover #1
"They're supposed to be wonderful" repeatedly rolled off of Bill's lips as we approached the Brenta Dolomites and began hiking in them from our first venue, Molveno. We'd whizzed by them years ago on our bikes and I remembered being unimpressed but we hadn't done any hiking in them at that time.

The peaks always seemed "over there" at Molveno.
If the Brentas had been our first experience with the Dolomites, I'd probably have been dazzled by the sight of the peaks this summer, but knowing the farther east peaks on a first name basis as we do now, there was no comparison in my mind. Compared to the greater Selva area, the Dolomites in the Molveno area were more "over there" than under my feet and all around me: nice, but not the stuff of raptures.

Bill enjoyed the constant sight of the high peaks and was impressed that the hiking out of Molveno was harder than he anticipated from reading his maps. Always looking ahead, he again scrutinized the trails at our next 2 hiking venues in the Brentas and concluded that there might not be as many trails to occupy us as he had originally thought. Closer inspection of the maps was revealing a familiar problem for us, which is access. Many of the trails in the Brentas were deep into their interior, as in needing a car to get to trailheads or demanding multiple night journeys to fully explore the trails. One of the grand aspects of the more eastern Italian Dolomites is that almost all of the great trails can be experienced as day hikes for those with reasonably good range and endurance.

We of course came for the hiking and so were mystified by the few hikers on the trails. It was the height of high season and on one 5 hour outing we only saw 4 other people, most in the first hour, until we arrived at the hut near the end of our loop which had a road into it. We finally decided that Molveno must appeal to many as a central location and that families were taking day trips in their cars to nearby Trento and other scenic destinations in the Brenta Dolomites, as well as sunbathing.

Molveno's "sheep dip" ski lift.
The real jaw-dropper for us at Molveno was the "cable car". Bill had alerted me that we'd be riding a cable car and then switching to chair lift for the day's hike, a courtesy head's up that helped me plan how to bundle my gear and what not to have in my hands when we loaded. But when we turned the corner and looked up on our walk to the lift, the "cable car" seemed more like an automated sheep-dip mechanism from the 1950's than a ski lift. The lift at Passo Gardena that we'd dubbed 'vertical coffins' flashed into both our minds even though it had been years since we'd ridden it. And indeed there were similarities between the 2 vintage lifts.

With both the coffin and sheep-dip lift models, the units required riders to run after it as it passed their standing position, jump into it one after another from the back end, and then brace while the attendant slammed and latched the door behind the second person on board. The coffins at Gardena are so small that the attendant also had to give the riders with packs a good shove on the backside in order to close the door. A bit roomier, we were able to forego the shove at Molveno. When exiting at the top, the attendants bought us an extra second or 2 of unloading time by holding onto the unit, which added to the challenge by putting it on tilt. By the time we unloaded at Molveno, we'd convinced ourselves that the lift was no longer used for ski season but later learned that we were wrong.

We were thrilled to experience this old lift. On one hand, it gave us a great laugh and a laugh that we'll revisit over the years like with the coffin lift at Gardena. On the other hand, we treasured the look at history. The old lift was nothing like anything we knew that existed in the Pacific NW in the same era. It underscored what a huge and early commitment there was to recreational skiing in the region after WWII and what modern engineering feats they surely were. Not as profound as the deeply riveting experiences of feeling like I was getting a glimpse of life 500 years ago upon seeing the back alleys of Cairo or the still-walled city of Dubrovnik, it was nonetheless a kinesthetic experience of history that changes who I am and how I see the world. It was a close-up look at what has gone before.

But, but, it turned out that we were caught-up in our own drama, our own nostalgic myth: our 'cage lift' as the style is properly described (and not "sheep dip") was half the age we attributed to it. The Pradel lift was constructed in 1980, not the early 1950's. Suddenly what we had assumed was cutting-edge, post-war technology looked like it was obsolete before it was built to our eyes. Yet another lesson learned though different from the one we had originally imagined; yet another laugh on ourselves.

More Brenta's To Come
Molveno and our next stop, Pinzolo, were the warm-ups to the primer destination in the Brentas, Madonna di Campiglio. I was still waiting to be impressed and we wondered how this discovery tour of new regions in the Dolomites would look in hindsight. The tension was heightened a bit by the knowledge that the short 9 mile ride from Pinzolo to Madonna would exhaust us to the core because of the unremitting, steep grades over 2400' in elevation gain.