It Didn’t Take Long
“Contented, I feel very contented” were Bill’s words while he enjoyed a late morning cappuccino at the 8530’ elevation Principe hut in mid-June in northern Italy. We never stop for time-sucking treats like that, but it was the perfect moment and he knew that that was exactly what he wanted to do. It was Day 2 in the Dolomites for 2018 and we’d blasted up tough grades at air-robbing altitudes for those of us living at sea level for the last 6 weeks.
It had been a hard push but we’d done it a year ago and knew that the misery would abruptly end. Every other aspect of our minds and bodies were primed for the effort so it was better to play that harsh edge of too little oxygen than give in to it.
We are fervent believers in the benefits of going at our ‘maximal sustainable pace’ rather than stopping to rest and that’s what we did. And like so many times before, we felt fully recovered within moments of stopping without any disagreeable gasping or grumbling.
The snow near the Principe hut was passable but much of the route was shaded & out of sight.
This was a scouting mission. We’d thought about asking in Vigo as to whether the trails were open through the 3 passes to Ortisei, our next village that we had walked to last year. It was an exhausting but grand hike that few do and we were eager to do it again. But upon arising that morning, Bill suggested we do the first 5 miles to the hut and size-up the snow conditions for ourselves.
It only took a moment to decide it was a “no go” for us. Clearly people had been getting through, but there was deep snow on much of the visible trail, which would be slow going. It was surely deeper yet in the shaded segment out of our line of sight. We were out about 10 hours last year, so there would be no time to spare for plodding through snow. We were disappointed but not surprised. The plan developed rapidly in 2017, in part because it was an exceptionally low snow spring, and we realized then that we should seize the opportunity if at all possible.
The big climb for the day was done, the recon work yielded a decisive conclusion, so why not have a cappuccino—it seemed like a very Italian response. It was fun to linger indoors out of the icy wind doing what most European hikers consider a given, at least once if not twice, on a hike. We enjoyed the pause to revel in last year’s crossing even though we couldn’t repeat it this week.
There had been no snow or sudden thunderstorm on our hike the day before.
We reminisced about the glorious hike the day before, our first day in the mountains. Like our current hike, it delivered many hours of incredible views. “We are so lucky to be here; we are so lucky to have the capacity to get to these places; isn’t this wonderful?” And we’d already made 2 great hikes on a week that was forecast to be loaded with rain. It sounded like a endorphin high, but that seemed unlikely.
With our extra shirts and rain jackets on for wind protection, we headed back down the steep trail looking for the first wind sheltered, lower elevation point for our picnic. Instead, the 3 pm thunderstorm rolled in early, dishing out hail along with rain and sharp winds. We whipped on rain pants and ponchos but decided it was coming down too hard to take time for waterproof socks, plus shoes for me.
Rarely do we find much shelter from such storms but that day we were in luck. A group of about 25 German-speaking, hardy hikers had been heading our way when the storm hit and they occupied the bit of outdoor, covered eating area of a hut. Picniking on restaurant patios is of course taboo, but it appeared that special ‘rain day rules’ were prevailing, so we squeezed in among them to eat, not knowing if the storm would pass in minutes or hours.
Their hike leader apparently worked out a deal with the hut hosts and after bit, they all filed indoors. We stayed outside, happy to seemingly have gotten a rare, free-pass to picnic on sheltered hut grounds. The rain abruptly stopped and we were on our way before finishing lunch so as to stay in good graces.
“Contented” was washing over us. At Principe, we’d learned that we wouldn’t be able to make our big hike to Ortisei this year, but Bill was noodling other options. Walking in the thunderstorm wasn’t what we’d wanted for the day, but we were again pleased with ourselves for having the right gear. Lunch on a rock in the sun was the plan, but sheltering with an engaged group of strangers while we ate was entertaining in itself. We didn’t know if we’d drenched or dry by the time we returned to our lovely, 2 bedroom, corner apartment in Vigo di Fassa, but the sweet space and rare, unlimited use of a clothes washer AND dryer would take the sting out of being wet. What a joy to feel so contented in a place we love so much.
We never stop at the Piera Longia hut but it is a favorite spot on the high trail.
Once back on the mountain trails the question arose: “What should our training objective be for this summer’?” The short answer became “Forget the goals, let’s just enjoy ourselves, let’s cultivate contentment."
The longer answer meandered through the analysis of our goals and achievements since we stepped up our athleticism in 2013. We’d increased our capacity for speeding up steep slopes for hours; we’d met Bill’s desire to increase our range, as in more miles in a day; we’d increased our hiking speed; and, most recently, we’d anchored our tissue durability with longer hiking days and more miles per week. It seemed that we’d nicely elevated all of the major conditioning components. We could always do better in every way but we’d evened out our capacity one year at a time, which seemed good enough.
Being the self appointed coach and conditioning program director, I announced that this would be an integration season. We’d keep aiming for 40+ miles per week but would drop our weekly 20 milers down to 1 per month, preferably at the end of each month, so we’d get one in shortly before heading to the Grand Canyon in September to do a couple of Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim events.
Bill was still soothing his tib-fib subluxation and had just discovered that his lifelong, unconscious mode of "expend the least amount of effort when lifting your feet and legs” was probably contributing to the 4 destructive falls he’d had in 6 months. That realization dumped a new assignment in his lap, which was to lift his legs from his hips, his knees, and his toes to gain the strength he needed for better clearance when walking, especially at the end of hard days. His left foot tended to rotate inwards, which was likely a self-tripping habit. Re-patterning his gait, especially on his left side, would be his summer job. It made sense to decrease the miles and elevation gain per week to aid in his movement studies.
I had smaller re-patterning projects that I was addressing and my most pressing one was getting a more robust contraction response out of my right buttock muscles with each step. And we both are always working on our posture, especially on the trail. Whether wearing a pack or sitting at a computer, the tendency to go retro and hunch like a Neanderthal is always there. My new posture mantra was “elegant carriage” and Bill’s key concept was combining uprightness from his hips with getting more power from his legs by lifting them more robustly.
Who could forget this privately commissioned, bronze eagle on the high trail?
Setting a training goal for the year hasn’t really been all that serious but it does help give us direction. The unexpected pay-off for proclaiming less targeted hiking this season made it easier to buy the expensive, 6 day lift passes ($105 each) while at Ortisei—something we’d never done. It’s never penciled-out as a good value for us for a number of reasons.
Having 6 days in a row in the mountains that are dry enough to go to the higher elevations on the pricer lifts was rare, but this looked like a stellar week for just that. And in recent years, we cherished the conditioning value of hiking to the top of the lifts and beyond instead of truncating our conditioning with a ride. But it only toork a couple of days before we were congratulating ourselves for the brilliant purchases.
We’d hiked up from Ortisei many years and had some favorite areas to linger, areas that we’d never gotten enough of because they were so far away. But taking the lifts every day put them all in striking range, even on relative rest days, and we purred with delight when we walked to those areas for lunch. “Why settle for second-best for our daily picnic by walking in the lower elevation forests when we could have a 5-star experience at 8,000’?” Amazingly, this ‘cheating’ and taking the lift every day still resulted in impressive numbers. In those 6 days of hiking, we did over 50 miles and 16,000’ of elevation gain—an excellent showing.
Nope, It’s Not the Endorphins
“There really isn’t any other place I’d rather be” was Bill’s spontaneous comment while we were quick stepping along a narrow, well-trodden, dirt path in one of the valleys above Ortisei which was in the 7,000’-8,000’ elevation range. The stunning, varied views with so much detail to absorb were mesmerizing to us both. You can focus on the overall structure of the uplift and tilt of the right-there mountain peaks. You might find yourself studying the shades of green that vary from livestock trimmed grasses; tough, low, spreading evergreen shrubs; occasional clumps of scrub pines; or the varying amounts of light green lichens partially covering distant rocks. There were the fields of blooming buttercups and half dozen other wildflowers to admire. Or you can guess at the nationality and destination of the oncoming hikers; study the clouds to estimate the risk of afternoon thunderstorms; or look for the next saddle to be lunching on. So much to choose from, so much to take in, we are never bored when surrounded by these magnificent peaks.
Gentians are always lovely.
Even Repeats Have Their Surprises
Our last hiking day from Ortisei was a loop hike—the kind we usually do when in Ortisei but didn’t do this year. The Mittags Scharta pass is one such loop and we’d been over it at least 3 times. Once had been in a hail storm, twice had been at the end of very long days doing the associated via ferrata. None of the prior visits had allowed us time to stare at, to examine, the peculiar rock formations at this pass, so we decided to do it as a shorter day by using the lift. It was up the back, more difficult side of Mittags Scharte and down the easy side, using a different lift at each end. The day before, we’d done a recon hike out-and-back on the easy side, checking for show-stopping snow at the top. We’d turned around from the top of adjacent passes in prior years and didn’t want to do that again. Luckily, the only patches of snow at the highest point on the pass this week could be circumvented.
The loop hike was expected to be a relatively low mileage, vigorous CV event but it turned out to have one of the most dangerous traverses we’d experienced as hikers. Bill had been in the zone and steamed up the steep, switched-backed north face with impressive ease. I was making an acceptable, but not stellar, showing with my ‘maximal sustainable pace’ which happened to be registering a steady heart rate of about 130 bpm. Bill had passed the only other hiker on the trail to the saddle, a hiker I was slowly gaining on. After about an hour and a half of closing in on him, I was suddenly upon them both.
Almost down: the trails to the saddles above Ortisei each had their challenges.
Nope. Wrong. All of the time advantage that Bill had had on me had been squandered trying to move beyond the point where he was sitting. I saw him just as he’d managed to halt his slide down the steep slope. Bill estimated that he’d skidded about 10’. He’d being using 1 leg out front as sort of a rudder that eventually became a brake. It was alarming for both of us because neither of us has ever slid on a steep slope.
Luckily, Bill didn’t do a face plant or somersault. He went down on his side, was able to right himself, and then somewhat direct the skid. Fortunately, he had on his heaviest pants that protected his skin from the potential shredding forces, though they became water saturated. And luckily, his still-recovering leg injury near his knee was unscathed.
Bill had taken me up on a casual suggestion before we left in the morning to do a favorite new pose for evaluating and stretching his injured tissues. Everything checked-out fine in the room but that happened to be the exact position he skidded in, the injured leg fully bent with the knee up and foot on the ground, the other leg out straight. That injury was a bit cranky in the evening, but didn’t complain while on the mountain—no doubt the ‘warm-up’ in the room had helped.
Bill had been making his second attempt to pass through this area where the scant trail had been completed washed out, perhaps during the horrific, overnight thunderstorm that seemingly dropped inches of rain 4,500’ lower in Ortisei. There were boulder piles, swathes of mud mixed with softball-sizes rocks, scree patches, mud piles, and snow patches.
An easier obstacle on another day.
Upon hearing which strategies and courses hadn’t worked for the 2 men, I took on the challenge of making my own way. I wasn’t keen on turning around at that point, though we had done it before lower down on that very route because of snow. Indeed, it was dangerous, it was risky, but I thought I could do it. Bill and the other man both complained of how much sliding that they were doing, so I made that my #1 hazard to avoid. Once one starts sliding, it can become very difficult to stop and on some of these faces, it’s life-threatening.
What made me a tad more optimistic about this situation than the steepness suggested, was that the soil and muck were frozen or near frozen. If I stayed out of the snow, nothing was slick from overnight freezing or hail, but the freezing temperatures were enough to consolidate some of the loose material. Perhaps being a little lighter weight helped, but I found that if I was extremely deliberate, I could navigate the difficult surface without sliding at all.
Both Bill and I independently discovered on our treacherous traverses to the intact trail that our much loved Altra King Mountain trail running shoes were exquisite on this bit of terrain. Unlike most any other shoe, the very deeply profiled tread extended slightly beyond the sole. We could chop a bit of rocky material out with our shoe to make a small ledge to step on to, a familiar technic that often doesn’t hold in loose material, and then angle the overhanging shoe tread into the slope like cutting the edge of a ski into snow. The almost spiky edges of the new tread worked like little crampon spikes and bit into to loose material. It was amazingly effective, something we’d never been able to do before.
Our pseudo ‘spikes’ saved the day.
Even as we worked our way down the easier side we’d come up on the recon day, we carried on about how pleased we were with our performances on that difficult bit of the route. We noted the wash-outs under our feet from the colosso thunderstorm as we happily floated down the now more challenging ‘easy side.’
Coaxing Our Bodies Along
Our contentment on the trail was further heightened because we were both also getting out from under difficulties with our bodies.
Receiving targeted treatments and guidance from body workers at home in May had helped us both turn the corner on our recent body challenges. Bill’s tibular-fibular subluxation that resulted from a fall in Palm Springs back in January had hit a new point in its recovery on our last hiking day in England 2 weeks earlier. His confidence with his leg soared upon discovering its sturdiness in the mountains, especially on the most recent fall and skid.
Bill’s attention then shifted to a gait issue with the same leg. Active observing of his leg swing and foot movement patterns by both of us suggested a cause for his stumble-tumble in January and perhaps the other 3 spectacular falls last summer when he damaged 2 trekking poles in a week and then had a tooth-loosening face plant a few weeks later. At last, he had a more concrete issue to pursue to interrupt this destructive trend.
I too was happily tapering on a sometimes show-stopping pattern of muscle spasms in my low back, buttock, and inner thigh muscles. Rather than due to a traumatic injury like with Bill, mine seemed to be more the result of ‘peeling the onion’, of working through the historical layers of dysfunctional, compensating patterns in my body.
Something new this year: arrows!
Our latest issues had been suggesting to me that perhaps we were arriving at a point in our body maintenance where we needed to focus on subtle patterns, like muscle firing sequences, rather than big releases like I had been doing with myofascial release technic. Perhaps the big shifts were largely behind us and that we needed to learn more subtle technics to refine our bodies. That seemed to be Bill’s next step with his injury and I had decided that a muscle contraction sequencing issue was contributing to my current right side issues.
Regardless of how were were getting there, we were both extremely pleased with what we’d achieved with our athleticism over the last 5 years—outcomes that we didn’t know to strive for. We were still on a roll with ever-increasing capabilities and durability. And all with my “bad knees” that were predicted to have sidelined me 30 years ago. I long ago decided that they weren’t bad. They are structurally imperfect and challenging but they’d only gotten better over the years by exquisite finessing, which in itself is amazing.
Our gait studies became more refined when at our third Dolomites venue, Passo Sella-- there we began taking short videos on our phones of each other while descending. We both received useful feedback and we identified 3 distinct descending movement patterns, which if we alternated them, will give us more durability on big descent days. Even over the course of a few minutes, Bill could feel the benefit of mixing up these options for his tib-fib subluxation comfort. That was especially helpful because the downhills are the most irritating motion for that injury.
PLAYING WITH OTHERS
Regardless of whether you are hiking in the US or abroad, the social connections on the trails are highly unpredictable. Some days our engagement with strangers doesn’t go beyond nods and “Hello” or “Ciao" and other times unexpected fun ensues.
Daniela, a member of the front desk staff at the Passo Sella hotel, joined us for the first couple of hours on a hike. Italian and about half our age, we weren’t sure how the conversation flow would go. But ever-cheery, she filled the air with endless stories and we enjoyed primarily being listeners.
What a hoot!
With a curious stealthy affect, a scrawny old guy in leathers carefully mounted the bike, presumably testing to assess if it would bear his weight. Not yet knowing he was a German speaker, I used my new Italian word for “Smile”, and snapped his photo. Soon, a second biker, also chronically hunched in riding position, carefully placed himself on the back seat. The 4 of us were having separate but shared experiences and we chuckled all the way back to the room at the bit of unexpected fun and the trophy photo.
On another day, I’d so wanted to inquire about a woman’s sun hat that I adored but they had gotten ahead of us. Luckily, they stopped to consult their map and I had my chance. It was a Nike golf hat that she’d bought at a thrift shop, so I was out of luck for getting one myself. But even more interesting, she commented that only Americans compliment strangers on their gear.
Another day, another cappuccino, for Bill.
Word play also enters in on the trail. I’d asked Daniela, the front desk clerk at the hotel, which Italian word she had used to prod her Dad on a hike—the word for “Come on!” She had used the English expression in one of her vignettes and though we knew several phrases, I presumed that she would have used other words with her Dad. Quite unexpected, the word sounded like ‘die’ in English and she merrily told a long story of how she’d unwittingly terrified an American roommate when using that phase when talking about terrorists in Basque Country, where they happened to be at the time.
On another day after offering to take a photo of a German couple, I asked how to say the equivalent of “Cheese” in German. Bill had looked it up the day before but was stumbling over the pronunciation. “Spaghetti” was their unexpected reply. When I later tried “spaghetti” on another pair of German speakers, I got zero response. I must say however, that “Cheese” seems to be universally understood in the northern hemisphere for producing the required smile.
ON TO SELVA
We floated on to Selva, still enjoying our contentment trance, after 3 weeks in the Dolomites. We’d be in Selva 2 weeks and be reunited with our bikes. Hiking and preparing for our 6 week bike and hike tour in the Slovenian, Austrian, and Italian Alps were tops on our agenda while there. I’d finally use the new cooking pot I’d traveled with for almost 2 months. It would be such a pleasure to use on the apartment’s ceramic cook top with its flat bottom instead of the round-bottomed pots provided. More simple pleasures.