#11 Into the Italian Alps (July 2013)

Selva di Val Gardena
Home Coming
Overcast skies, drizzle, and fresh snow on the peaks weren't what we wanted to see when we arrived on the last Saturday in June in Selva di Val Gardena for 2 weeks of hiking, but that's what greeted us this year. It however fit with the gloomy forecast we'd seen online for our first week in the Dolomites. Upon unloading our two, 50+ lb bags from the standing-room only bus, we discovered that the wheel on one suitcase had split and we'd be grinding plastic off one side of the wheel as we dragged it up the steep hill to our apartment, which of course did nothing to cheer us. Our spirits were further dampened when we later learned that the lift we use to access a favorite trail was closed for major renovations for the season.

Regular low balance beam practice with our packs during our approach to Vallunga paid-off on the dicey trails.
An inauspicious arrival in Selva to be sure but the disappointments dropped into the background as soon as the shy but smiling Croatian housekeeper ran to open the door for us and greeted us with kisses on the cheeks. Monika escorted us to our usual apartment and it indeed felt like coming home. We got a quick update on business and family affairs since we saw her last September: there had been too much snow for an optimal ski season but plenty of customers; the unusually cold spring had meant that Monika had only enjoyed 1 week of pleasant weather during her 2 months at home in Croatia; we were the only guests in the building for our first week; and that Rosa, the matriarch, has succumbed deeper into dementia. Multilingual Rosa had a strong presence during our first years in Selva, greeting us every day in English, leaving little gifts in our apartment, and singing out "Monnnn-i-kaaa" in search of assistance far too many times a day.

Luckily, the weather the next day beckoned us. It was cold, but the bright sun coaxed us to hike to the snow level on a difficult trail. Like children with new toys on Christmas morning, we tackled the familiar trail, anxious to compare our performance with the previous year. Two years ago we were dazzled with the extra power we had on the trails from 6 weeks of doing the DVD workout P90X; this year it was the exercises we discovered last September to counter 'gluteal amnesia' that is thought to be a major contributor to knee problems that were the source of new power. We were thrilled with our endurance during both the ascent and descent on the 2700' gain route. Our conditioning in Riva certainly paid off but starting at 5,000' elevation instead of finishing there as we did in Riva took its toll.

The Case of the Lame Luggage
The damaged wheel on our old suitcase became a drama in its own right our first week in Selva. Apparently suitcase repair shops don't exist in Italy, or at least in the mountains, so a DIY project would be encroaching on our play time. Bill spend hours online learning the in's and out's of inline skate wheels and their bearings, expecting to order a pair from Amazon's German branch. After navigating through an unsettling number of unknowns, he made his selection and proceeded to order, despite the horrific shipping charges for something that fits in the palm of your hand. But it was not to be: his carefully selected item would be back-ordered for months, so it was back to the drawing board.

Losing the Amazon option threw the task of locating a suitable wheel back at me and I resumed with the European problem solving approach, which is to ask for help face-to-face. I asked at tourist and each of the sport shops in town as to what store in the valley with 3 villages would carry "rotelle" or wheels for rollerblades. Especially in Italy, the European approach often has one going in circles but in-your-face persistence pays off, especially in Italy. After too many rejections and a 3rd visit to 1 small shop, we finally learned that a well hidden business at the opposite end of Ortisei, the far village, carried rotelle. When we arrived there by bike several days later, we realized that this wasn't just a shop, it was the warehouse for a regional ice hockey business.

"Our's is the black suitcase with 1 purple wheel."
The English-speaking young man at "Prifa" fully participated in our final decision making process, pulling out 3 different sizes in 2 different colors of their cheapest rotelle. Black, like our original wheel, wasn't an option and he suggested white as the next best option. When he said pink was available, I jumped at it. There would be no more uncertainty about whose black suitcase it was on the airport baggage carousel: ours would be the only piece of luggage with 1 pink wheel. His pink was purple to us, but purple would be equally identifiable. He was a little horrified at first, then seemed accepting of the reasoning.

It probably took an hour of filing between us with the tool Monika located to cut the old wheel free from the plastic housing on the suitcase, but then it was a snap. We'd bought a suitable bolt, nut, and washers on the way back to Selva from Ortisei and soon our old suitcase was loaded with about 20 lbs of belongings for a preliminary roll-around in the apartment and later it went out for a test run on pavement filled with groceries. There was no longer any need for the contingency plans of shopping for a wheel while on our 7 week bike tour in the mountains or purchasing a replacement suitcase or buying a supplemental luggage cart for our trip back home in September. We couldn't fix the weather but at least we could fix the suitcase.

One Weird Bug
My first 3 weeks of hiking and biking in the Dolomites were made significantly harder by having a decidedly weird virus. The first night in Selva I awoke in the wee hours feeling like I was suffocating. My throat and neck were swollen and I fretted about when to roust Bill and how many hours it would take to get to a medical facility if my airway completely closed. I carefully analyzed my breathing and realized that I was indeed moving enough air to survive, it just felt like I was on the verge of being choked to death. That event turned out to be the sudden onset of a 3 week-long sore throat.
Pretty Vallunga ("long valley") was the common approach to many of our hikes from Selva.
About a week into my illness that never triggered excess congestion, one eye became swollen and gooey. I couldn't read fine print because my vision was altered for a day or so and the eye was practically sealed closed overnight for one night, then the conjunctivitis was over. My ear on the other side became involved a few days later, with the Eustachian tube swelling. My neck and jaw felt bulky to some degree for almost 2 weeks. And of course, my virus-sensitive asthma was triggered, making me gasp for air too early in a bout of exertion. I was lucky however, the asthma would ease after about 20 minutes of exercise, as long as I kept efforting. As soon as I stopped, my lungs would close down a bit. And that contributed to a nasty, persistent cough that was wildly worse when I laid down to sleep. Through it all however, I never felt like I was systemically ill--I just had a pile of head and chest symptoms, so I pressed on the best I could during our daily hiking or biking events.

Going Gluten-Free In Italy
Eating gluten-free for the first time in Italy where pasta and bread are mainstays was as hard as we expected. And our first 2 apartments, at Riva and Selva, both lacked flat-bottomed pans and cooktops that could simmer rather than boil, which made cooking all the harder. After boiling brown rice for over 2 hours and it still wasn't cooked, we ate it figuring it would take at least another hour for it to soften significantly. Boiling potatoes went better and potato salad whipped up with a bare-bones vinaigrette made a decent cold lunch the next day. The corn and rice, gluten-free pastas were tolerable when served hot, but were downright nasty in the pasta salads we made for hiking/biking lunches the following day. We're talking tough and tasteless when refrigerated overnight--something I would have normally thrown out rather than eat but we were low on options so choked it down.

I vowed in my 30's that I wouldn't spend my life in the kitchen and there we were, in the lovely Dolomites, with 1 of us tied to the stove for as much as 2-3 hours a day trying to make even marginally palatable food. Canned beans were present in at least 2 meals each day, with a rotation between pintos, white beans, and lentils (no black beans available). We slowly learned that only basmati or black rice resembled anything we knew, so skipped rice altogether if they weren't available.

The discovery of stovetop cornbread however put a smile on our faces. We found a recipe online that was designed without wheat flour, rather than being modified to be gluten-free, that was a snap to make. And it was a very forgiving recipe. I happened to be able to measure the required teaspoons and fraction of teaspoons accurately, but the 1/2c and 3/4c portions were wild guesses. We made batches 3 nights in a row when we arrived in Canazei and had a suitable pan and stove burner, and though each batch was a little different, each was delicious. In keeping with our new, vastly lower standards for what we'd call a meal since we were eating gluten-free abroad, dinner those nights was splitting the small fry pan of cornbread and a small head of boiled cabbage topped with olive oil and caraway seeds.

For our single "in day" at Canazei, I stooped to making a hack-job tuna 'casserole' for lunch: boiled corn/rice pasta, canned tuna, diced cheese, and a diced tomato stirred together on the stovetop. Hardly gourmet, but it was step-up in the palatability compared to many of our meals in the previous month. I was so frustrated by this time with the loss of our tasty, healthy, wholesome diet that I was about ready to surrender to chocolate bars and potato chips--both naturally gluten free.

A "White-Capped Flower Snapper" on the trail near Selva.
Alpine Wildflowers
Was it them or was it us that was different in 2013? We didn't immediately know the answer but we were absolutely captivated by the alpine wildflowers this year. We later learned that the heavy and late winter snows had delayed flowering by 4-6 weeks, which treated us to the earlier bloomers for the first time. Once we started snapping photos of them above Selva, we were chagrinned that we hadn't taken time for capturing the Martagon Lily and the Bird's Nest Orchid we identified above Riva. But on those days we were doing 4,000-4800' gain hikes which exhausted us and we felt we had to keep moving--taking the time to ID them and unsuccessfully looking up others had slowed us down too much as it was.

Bill's newly purchased wildflower app for my newish iPhone couldn't keep up with our demands--it seemed to lack about 1/4 to 1/3 of all the flowers we were seeing. And that was just the big ones. We gave up even looking for the itty-bitty flowers once they started blooming because they seemed to be entirely missing in the app. He downloaded a second app and I scoured online sites, but his first purchase was the best, despite its shortcomings. Nonetheless, we thoroughly enjoyed the chase of both trying to identify the hundred or more flowers we were seeing and forcing our point-and-shoot camera to the limit of its ability to focus well for the close-ups. At least it was true to color whereas a previous camera turned all the purples to blue--a defect that became immediately obvious because 1 of my 2 sun shirts that year was decidedly purple.

Mountain Running
I first learned about the sport of mountain running back in 2009 soon after our first spontaneous experiences with barefoot hiking in Obergürgl, Austria. A week of dabbling with barefooting immediately had me searching online for some sort of barefooter's slipper or moccasin for traversing gravel and sharp rocks. That footwear quest coincided with catching a few minutes of a televised mountain running race. Seeing that TV segment triggered a shift in my online searching, which revealed that mountain runners had many of the same problems that we had as mountain hikers and that for both sports, shifting to the forefoot striking technique used by barefooters was the best remedy. It was then that my fantasy of mastering forefooting merged with becoming a mountain runner. The first step however would be the slow process of coaxing my body into becoming a forefoot striker in minimalist shoes, a journey that usually takes 2 or more years. Mountain running would have to wait.

Taking time for snapping hundreds of photos of flowers, like this Martagon Lily, interfered with conditioning.
Fast forward to this summer of 2013 when I happened to see an ad for the 2nd annual mountain run near our favorite place to be, Selva. The event was 9 miles long, had 4200' of gain, and had to be completed in 2 1/2 hours. We were fairly confident we could do that much gain at elevation in the allotted time but it was the mileage that concerned us. We hadn't run that far since the early 90's when we switched from being recreational runners to cyclists in deference to our injury problems. But the good news for us was that the course was essentially all up hill and we, especially me, are at our best when going up. Downhill is the hardest and most injurious to mountain runners and many hikers.

We were quite intrigued by the possibility of making the run in 2014 and desperately wanted to size-up the 2013 course. Unfortunately, we were already booked to depart Selva and bike to Canazei the day before the race. I contacted the sponsors and they had no description beyond the start, the finish, and the names of the 6 mountain huts that the course passed by. Very frustrated, we decided we would jog the course as best we could decipher it when we returned to Selva in September of 2013 for a 1 week. That would give us a rough idea as to whether we might qualify for it in 2014. Regardless of how we did in September, we vowed to immediately begin training for it because it would be an excellent motivator for our overall conditioning.

We began training by including more 1-2 minute bouts of running during our hikes. Ten days later at Cavalese, we challenged ourselves by doing intervals of running up the steep slope to the chair lift. At 7,000' and at the end of each day's hike, the four spurts of uphill running were an efficient way to intensify our conditioning program as well as introduce more of the running motion into our routine. Carrying 10 pound packs as we do when hiking made it a less-than-ideal time to increase our running distance but it sure worked us hard. P90X had transformed us in 2011; reversing our 'gluteal amnesia' had worked magic for our power in 2012; striving to qualify for the mountain run would be the theme to jazz-up our conditioning in 2013.

Via Ferrata's

We love doing via ferrata's or Dolomiti hikes with dicey areas secured with a steel cable, but they are tricky to plan. Bill studies his 2 guidebooks, one written in English and one written in German, to careful find routes within our ability. Routes are further culled by the need to get to the trailhead without a car. And once we are actually parked in lodging within striking distance of a via ferrata, we have to assess both the condition of our bodies and the weather before proceeding with the hike.

Last year we didn't do any significant via ferrata's because my slow-to-heal left knee was still a problem. Towards the end of our stay in Europe last year it seemed sturdy enough for a moderate route but then the weather wasn't stable enough. Even moderate routes are 5-7 hour events when you include the approach/exit time and lunch. That length of time pretty well excludes any day with predicted thunderstorms because no one wants to be clipped onto a steel cable on the face of a mountain during a lightning event. Even rain can be a deal-breaker because the routes, often with 2,000' in near vertical gain, tend to be too dangerous when the rocks are wet.

The top of Via Ferrata Finanzieri on Colac near Canazei.
We felt lucky this stormy summer to slip in 2 via ferrata's into our first 3 weeks in the Dolomites. We repeated the Pertini route from Vallunga near Selva, a route that's about at the limit of our ability, by waiting 4 days for the right day. That meant dropping strength moves in our pre-breakfast exercise routines and taking relatively short hikes each day so we wouldn't be worn down when the ideal day for the ferrata came along. We felt like we were spinning our wheels, but the care paid off. The route that previous exhausted us with over 3 hours "on the wire" was completed in just over 2 hours. Of course, there was still the approach time and the descent trail to do, but we were thrilled to feel our newly developed power pay off on the wire.

A week later we did the slightly easier Finanzieri via ferrata from Canazei, though unlike at Pertini, we didn't match the guidebook's completion times. Our ascent and descent, both of which included "on the wire" time were around 2 1/2 hrs, whereas the expected time was 2 hours or less for each. Bill had become significantly faster on these hard routes this year, so I slowed him down, especially on the descent. We were disappointed that we were slower than expected, but were still pleased with our performance. Keeping track of "actual vs expected" is important for Bill's route selection, which in turn keeps us safe by not over extending ourselves. Finanzieri was a demanding route but delivered the absolutely most stunning 360 degree views we've seen anywhere in the mountains. We'll go back; we'll do it again.

The hut at the top of the lift we used at Canazei.
Like Riva del Garda, the mountain village of Canazei was well known to us as a stopover, but not as a hiking venue. Vowing to route us to all new hiking venues in the Dolomites this year (aside from Selva, our bike storage village), Bill parked us in the 'burbs of Canazei for a week. Our apartment was far from the best market in the area but, if we timed it right and hustled, we could be on the gondola and at the top of the lift in about 15 minutes. For that luxury, we settled for doing most of our shopping at the tiny neighborhood "alimentari," which was sufficiently stocked (i.e. lots of beans) for our basic needs.

Our first day at Canazei was devoted to reconnaissance hiking, during which Bill seized a trophy bit of information from a couple descending from the via ferrata, which was that the lingering snow on the route didn't cross the trail. We also learned on that first hike that Canazei didn't have a week's worth of stellar hiking. But the Finanzieri via ferrata accessed from the gondola was a gem and there was a hike with a long stretch on a dramatic, knife's edge ridge that was tantalizing enough to do it twice with some variations. A day midweek was devoted to walking into Canazei to a larger market we knew and the following day, a rain day, was devoted to making tuna casserole and doing electronic paperwork. Then "whoosh," it was time to head down the valley to our next stopover, Cavalese.

Cavalese was yet another blow-through village where we'd stopped for the night several times before but never had lingered for hiking. My spotty memory of our first visit 7 years ago could however describe the difficult approach from the riverside bike route well enough that Bill found us a less-obvious, more gentle, route up to the knoll-top ski village, a route that we would also use for our departure.

Like at Canazei, the single lift to 1 general hiking area was barely worthy for a week's stay the first time and we wouldn't devote that much time to the area again. Our stays and Canazei and Cavalese made it clear that our infatuation with Selva was for a good reason: there are 3 major directions to head from Selva, each with multiple hikes.

At Cavalese we had some unexpected thrills. In the last few minutes of the 30 minute descent on 3 cable car/chair lifts between the top of the mountain and Cavalese, the cable car stopped running. It had stuttered several times on the way down but then it really stopped and stayed stopped. We were only 2 pylons short of the lift station in town and could hear an announcement being made in Italian, but couldn't make out the words. It was just the 2 of us in our little, 8 person tub-like cable car which was poised over the river. After a few minutes a man in a company truck stopped across the river and peered up at the cables on the nearest pylon. With his head fully tilted back, he walked in small circles looking at something from several angles. After a minute spent on his walkie talkie, he drove off. And soon the cables started moving again, ever so slowly.

Cavalese hike: grabbing a little barefoot time when we could.
Once out of our car at the main station, the staff person came over and said "Blitzen problem." Like most everyone in Cavalese, he assumed we were German and had told us that the lightning had caused the problem. Bill asked him in simple German if it would be running in the morning, to which he unhesitatingly said "Yes", though I don't recall in which language.

Indeed, the lift was running at full speed the next morning. But later in the day we had an equally unexpected fright, which was being charged by a dog on the trail. Few people hike with dogs in the Italian Alps and most dogs that we see from the trails belong to hut or refugio staff. I was terrified as this medium-sized dog charged straight at us and was even more horrified that his 4 human companions just stopped in their tracks while we screamed at them in English and yelled "Help" in Italian. He repeatedly charged and circled in front of us. I was frighted enough that he'd lunge at my head and force me to the ground that if I'd had a gun I would have used it.

One woman in the 4-some called to him, started towards us, then retreated with her back to us. I was furious at their totally inappropriate and irresponsible behavior. And of course, their idyl calls to the dog had no effect. Finally the dog went back to them, more of his own choosing than because of anything they did.

This being our 3rd year to only summer in Europe and to spend relatively little time on the bikes, we were totally out of "charging dog form." I wished at the time that I'd had a trekking pole to defend myself had he become any more aggressive. And only later when debriefing did Bill remember the alternative, which is to stoop down and pick up a rock or mime it if no rock is available. We did remember to avoid direct eye contact with him to de-escalate the situation but I was definitely feeling a need to protect myself given the lack of consideration from the owners.

Two days later on the same trail, our dog experience couldn't have been more different than our charging dog episode: we were selected by the hut dog to be escorted on our route. It was the 3rd time in Europe that we had been picked by a dog to be chaperoned for a few hours. The first time was by a handsome dog we nicknamed "Siesta." We were in Sicily when the presumed stray that slept in the entrance hall of an archeological site selected visitors to accompany on their tour of the grounds. Our best guess at the time was that we had the best smelling lunch in our packs of the guests to choose from. A year or 2 later "Hütte Hund" (hut dog in German) escorted us in our hours-long walk around the base of Drei Zinnen in the Dolomites, part of which was in deep snow. Both dogs immediately headed off when we returned to our starting points, not making any gesture that said "Take me with you."

Above Cavalese, the hut dog picked us up about 15 minutes out from the lift station/hut and accompanied us for the better part of 2 hours. The very lean, miniature-Collie-like dog didn't stay by our side like Siesta and "Hütte Hund" had done but was clearly scouting the trail for us. Bill struggled to snap his photo because this hut dog was almost constantly going at high speed. One minute he dash between us from behind and then the next time we'd spot him, he'd be 250 yards ahead. Then he'd dash towards us, short-cutting the trail, and park himself like a sentry on the path. When we'd made sufficient progress, he'd be off again, chasing marmots, marking his territory, or inspecting points of interest like a trapper checking for caught game. Surefooted in the rocks, he was covering 3-5 times as much ground as we did in a given interval.

Our trail guide dog heading off for a quick dip in the snowmelt.
Our scout dog stopped when we stopped for lunch. After a quick sniff of our paltry bean salad lunch and checking the large group following us for snacks from their lunch bags, he was off-duty. He made 2 stops near us that could be interpreted as "good-bye" or as waiting for a coded message to beckon him to stay, then he headed home down the trail. We were a bit saddened to have our new friend leave so abruptly but clearly his job was done and he had more work to do.

I thought we might see our pooch back at the lift station but chaos reigned by then. Our return was slowed by snapping photos of a few more flowers, admiring blooms that had opened in the last 24 hours, and then slowed further when an afternoon thunderstorm hit with full force. We had gambled and won many days by only carrying our ponchos and sun/rain hats but on this day we were the big losers. The rain, wind, and hail hit so hard and so fast that we squatted for 5 minutes, making tents out of our ponchos and watching as the rushing water filled all of the crevices between the 3-4" trail stones at our feet and then began sheeting over the trail.

The break in the downpour that we gambled on when deciding to wait for the worst to pass didn't materialize so we trudged on with occasional streaks of lightning flashing around us. After 45 minutes of mostly wading on the rocky trail in our minimalist shoes, we arrived back at the hut. I made a beeline for the indoor public toilets both to pee and savor the warmth of the dry basement space. The cook spotted me and said in English to talk to the other staff because the upper chair lift where we were had closed an hour early with the onset of the storm and that someone would drive us down to the next lift station.

After over an hour of waiting time and rides in 3 different vehicles that were shuttling the stragglers down off the mountain, we arrived back in town. Our "home early" day ended up being a "home hours late" day and we arrived past our dinner time with nasty cases of motion sickness from 2 very rough truck rides.

After changing out of our wettest clothes, we very slowly walked to the nearby market for our dinner vegetable, hoping we'd be well enough to eat when we returned. Our anticipated leisurely evening ended with hand-washing our gritty pants and getting to bed late. But what a day it had been: fun times with our guide dog on the trail; learning first hand what happens when the lifts can't run at the end of the day; and being looked after by the father-daughter staff that spoke some English and were interesting in visiting with us during the long waits to be taken down off the mountain. It had been a day of the best of the gracious side of hut culture from both the 2-legged and 4-legged staff.

On to San Martino di Castrozza, Italy
With a string of familiar villages behind us and more than a third of the way into our stay in Europe, it was time for a 2-day ride to San Martino di Castrozza for a first visit. It would be another stop on our discovery tour of new hiking venues in the Dolomites, which would include riding over Passo Rolle for the first time. After that, we'd be heading across a valley on our way to the Brenta Dolomites for hiking, another area we'd ridden through but hadn't hiked.