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The Alps:  Biking & Hiking July-August 2018

Heat Wave! 
The New "30 Minute Rule”
Heat waves: it seems that we were all in a heat wave wherever we were at the end of July and into early August in 2018. Cruising on our bikes at 2000’ elevation and above, we had too many days in the mid-80’s, then mid-90’s, and finally it topped out at 100 degrees (38 degrees C)—unseasonably hot for our itinerary in the border regions of Slovenia, Italy, and Austria. And we knew that simultaneously, almost everyone back in the States was suffering as well. At least we weren’t contending with the smoke from wildfires. But nonetheless, each day was a challenge for us, as was each night.
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Frozen green beans to combat the 100 degree temperature.

Mid-afternoon on the 2nd biking day when it was over 90 degrees, I was literally melting down while tethered to the bikes in the shade while Bill shopped in the air conditioned grocery store. He’d had his frustrations finding what he was looking for, but I finally had to abandon my post to alert him that I urgently needed a trip to the "cooling station". The short time I required to select groceries wasn't enough cool time for me to recover but it did keep me from getting hotter. That melt-down spawned the new “30 minute rule”: if Bill's marketing on a 90+ degree day required more than 30 minutes, it needed to be done in 2 segments so Barb could cool off.

Even in my 40’s when we started cycling, I struggled in the heat, repeatedly overheating. I’ve gotten more resourceful in managing my heat stress, but there are limits to what I can tolerate. We’re not known for crack-of-dawn departures, so I’m often overheated before we finish loading the bikes in hot weather. Our sun protective long sleeves and long pants prevent us from cooling much in the shade unless there is a significant breeze.

That night after developing the new "30 minute rule", our east facing room with a balcony was in the 80’s when we checked in and just below that line when we went to bed. It was a Peeping Tom’s  delight: we retired before dark, naked without covers, with the curtains wide open as well as the window and balcony door. The privacy barrier and wooden balcony wall meant that we were discreet but not ‘peeper’ proof, but we didn’t care. I had my little fan with a USB plug blowing on my head all night. Eye covers and silicone ear plugs  were the only other accessories available to support our sleep. Fortunately, we did manage to sleep that night though I suspect the guests on the south and west-facing sides had a rougher time.

Balconies are always a top priority when Bill books our rooms for the summer 6 months in advance and this heat wave was an example of the huge pay-off for doing so. Air conditioning still isn’t the norm in locally owned lodging in Europe and it’s particularly scarce outside the cities. And you never know when you will be in the middle of extreme heat these days. 

Being able to keep a balcony door open all night vastly improves our odds of sleeping. Several years ago, we were spending a hot night in an Italian village and had no balcony. We were so miserable that, for the first time ever, we slept with our hotel hallway door open. Having a balcony door to leave open is definitely a better option than leaving a hallway door open.
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The European way: concrete pumped through your front door!

Not Alone
No one in the this part of Austria seemed to be faring much better than us. While I was having my near panic attack in the grocery store parking lot from the heat, a road bike rider seemed to be doing worse. Sitting on the asphalt slumped against the store wall (I was literally still standing) with 2 huge bottles of cold drinks, he wasn’t reviving quickly. That evening, the next door neighbor was sprinkling his vegetable garden with a beer in the other hand—soothing but a looser for rehydrating.  A woman in the breakfast room the next morning stood by the juice and sweetened breakfast drink station chugging an orange liquid. I couldn’t help but think she should have guzzled water as soon as she arose. She too may have failed to properly rehydrate the afternoon before by going for the cold beer—a cold beer, especially the German’s favorite ‘biker's beer’ with sugar and lemon, is incredibly refreshing but the diuretic effect is a net loss for rehydrating.

The other folks in the breakfast room didn’t look much better than the middle-aged women rehydrating on the equivalent of Tang. In fact, we were the perkiest looking of the dozen or so people. Perhaps they hadn’t been able to sleep much and the many mild to moderate sun burns may have added to their distress.

The next afternoon while in the grocery store parking lot with the new "30 minute rule” activated, I kept hoping the nearby driver would depart with this idling car. The windows were up, so I assumed he was trying to cool the car interior before leaving the precious shade. Finally, he drove-off, then abruptly stopped in the middle of the drive way. The hatch-back door was up, which he seemingly hadn’t noticed while idling. I wondered if his brain was also a bit overwhelmed by the heat.

On two of the hottest afternoons, I drew a few stares while I packed groceries on to my bike with a small bag of frozen green beans on my head and neck. They are sold loose in a paper box, so I always transfer them to a plastic bag from the veggie department for transport. Why not get double duty for a quick cool down? Again, cooling off in this 100 degree heat wasn’t really possible, the goal was to halt the rising of my core temperature.

Our new ebikes were the best trick ever for coping in the heat, even better than frozen string beans. Yes, ebikes are considered as cheating by us and other cyclotourists—so perhaps we’ll rename ourselves as ebike travelers--but being able to ride a bit faster to create enough breeze for our sweat to evaporate a was huge benefit. The additional speed delivered just enough more air movement to significantly increase the evaporative cooling under our sun protective clothing—the natural breezes themselves couldn’t do the job.
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Cooling off a bit by the river.

We used more battery power than we needed for the terrain challenges just to get the cooling effect on the hottest days. We were also generous with the electric motor assist when going up steep grades to passes to decrease excess heat generation from our exertion. It diminished our work out, but being able to exercise at all felt like a victory given extreme temperatures and high humidity. I presumed that the ebike benefits were why neither of us ended any of these days being fluid short.

We were in Austria during the peak of the heat wave and we quickly learned to put a lid on our hyper-viligant, decidedly American, response to seeing bikes recklessly flung into the tall grasses like people had been fleeing. At home, we would have stopped to cautiously investigate, expecting to find people in need of help. 

But “No, no, not here": these bikes belonging to adults were being ditched at the sight of a sketchy bit of access to the river to cool themselves. No need along an Austrian bike path to stand your bike up or to lock it, just drop it where you are and head straight to the river. When we did stop to dip our toes in the river under the shade of a tree while we ate lunch, we neatly leaned our laden bikes against a picnic table. Since they were in easy sight, we bravely decided not to lock them.

Heat waves never end gently in the Alps and like in the past, this one ended with thunderstorms and rain.

Bovec, Slovenia
This summer, we returned to the Julian Alps of Slovenia, an extension of the Italian Alps, to give them a second chance. It wasn’t a trivial decision: it was 4 biking days from Cortina, Italy to Bovec and then 5 from Bovec to our next venue, Heiligenblut, Austria. The heavy rain during our prior visit years ago didn’t leave fond memories, with my strongest image being that of our return trail washing out before our eyes. 
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Going down the ‘up’ trail to the moonscape at the top of the lift above Bovec.

Bill carefully selected Bovec for the hiking opportunities. It turned out to be a tiny village pulsing with eager outdoor enthusiasts from all over Europe. The single cable car operating in the summer took us from the outskirts of Bovec, situated at 1500’, to 7200’ (2200m) into the dramatic peaks. Unlike ‘top of the lift’ facilities in Italy and Austria where there are lawn chairs for sunning, colorful inflatable playgrounds for the kids, and causal outdoor dining areas to encourage all to linger, the grounds of the upper station of the Kanin lift were forbiddingly barren, like a moonscape.

I felt so sorry for the sightseers, especially those with young children, because after they paid the big bucks to get up there, there was nothing for them to do. The hiking trails had us going “Really?!” Whether you decided to go up or down, nothing was easy and the going was slow. On our 3, all-day hikes from the lift, we could only manage 5-7 miles a day. There would be no 20 milers on this difficult, karst terrain.

We of course fared better than most of us that stared with dropped jaws at the harsh, rocky surfaces surrounding the lift. Our warm clothes, grippy trail shoe treads, poles, and protective gloves allowed us to safely navigate the difficult trails and prickly, weathered limestone, but a few in a group were in tears. Many new arrivals to the upper lift station wandered around in the open expanse between the trailheads, then rode back down to the valley without even enjoying the requisite ice cream cone. 

Bovec itself was especially challenging because it was smoking hot during the heat wave and the humidity must have been in the 90% range. We’d quickly learned that the big draw for Bovec was the kayaking and rafting in the river there, so the conditions were better for the majority of visitors. Though we did notice that folks waiting for their group to launch their boats were suffering in the heat as well.

Heiligenblut, Austria
On Foot
Hiking from Bovec, Slovenia had been ‘ho-hum’ in the mountains and in murderous heat and humidity when in the valley and upon arriving in Heilingenblut, I anticipated another, less than stellar week. It didn’t help that the rolling 10 day weather forecast had been for significant rain every day, like at Bovec. But at both venues, the weather was good enough for us to be satisfied with our outings.

We’d both been redesigning our mental images of robust hiking from Heiligenblut to doing chores because of the glum forecast: getting caught-up on hand washing clothes, culling photos, working on the webpage, and doing some prep for being at home in a little more than a month. Learning that check-in at our spacious apartment had zero English language TV channels dashed any visions of easily catching up on the news when it was the other’s turn to use our single computer.
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A crag we maneuvered around near one of the summits above Heiligenblut.

But the first morning’s forecast was favorably revised and it looked to be the one day for which it was worth paying the $54 for us both to take the only cable car up into the mountains. We went prepared for afternoon thunderstorms but without a route. Bill hadn’t had time to design a hike, so we did it on the fly.

At the top of the lift, we headed towards the trailhead with the most options on an unexciting trail. On a ridge, there were big panoramas, but like a Bovec, they were hardly riveting views. At a juncture, we selected the 'black dot' trail up instead of the relatively level 'red dot’ trail to the distant road. Since it might be our only hike of the week, best to make it vigorous.

“At least we’re getting a superb CV workout” replaced my slightly bored  “Why are we doing this?” mental grumble when the trail suddenly became steep and soon after, the hike became a fun adventure. Next up, after saturating our clothes with sweat in the cool wind, there were slightly dicey straight-up bits of climbing. Nothing real hard, but it was enough to make some pairs split while one carried on and the other waited in a more reassuring area.

With an eye on the brewing thunderstorm and the 4:00 pm lift closure, we settled for summiting 2 in the series of 5 peaks. Purring with delight at our impromptu, trophy hike during our picnic, it got even better. A thirty-ish German man had parked himself near us on the tiny summit to eat and eventually struck a conversation in English. On the second round of revealing more about our respective trips, we shared that we were embarrassed to say that we were traveling for the first time on ebikes. He immediately laughed and said that almost all of his friends had ebikes and that they weren’t the least bit embarrassed. “Really?!” I treasured his reassuring comment. Perhaps rather than being wimps, we were being modern?

From the Saddle
We biked from Heilingenblut to the double summit of the high pass at Hochtor early in our touring career and it had been the most difficult climb of our history.  Too hard to repeat, it was with mixed emotions that our second conquest was on unloaded ebikes. Even though we were still feeling a bit sheepish about the power assist, we did enjoy revisiting the dramatic area with greater ease.
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Pasterze Glacier from Franz Josef Haus overlook near Heiligenblut, Austria.

We played leap-frog with a young, solo, German, road bike rider when he stopped to rest. When he gave us the thumbs up, I pointed out that we were on ebikes. He dismissed that detail as unimportant, recognizing that we were about twice his age. It seemed that the fact that we were there, that we were doing it, was enough for commendation.

And on that same ride, a sleek 50-year old local rider pedaled along side Bill to chat for a while, no doubt adding a bit of entertainment to his often-repeated fitness ride. He too was impressed with how strong we were, no matter that we were on ebikes. 

Being accepted as members of the cycling club by these more capable riders was comforting while we were still coming to terms with my performance failure. It was on this ride and the companion destination of Franz Joseph Glacier the same week, that we came to understand the respect we were receiving in a new light, which was that amazingly, we were the only ebikers on these epic rides. 

After days of noodling, we finally hypothesized that these routes that consumed almost all of our battery power even though we were using low to moderate levels of assist, were at or beyond the limit of what most ebikes, and most ebike riders, could do. That was also true when when we had our ebikes loaded with gear—we were about the only ebike travelers in the mountains. Like on our former touring bikes, were we unusual for being very ordinary riders pushing their edges out farther than most riders in their class and some people noticed that, regardless of our steads.

Moos, Italy
On this, our third visit to Moos, it catapulted to being our top hiking venue. We had really regrettable lodging the prior 2 visits and last year, after again loving the hiking, we devoted an entire day to securing a wonderful apartment for 2018.

We were dumbfounded to discover last summer that almost all of the moderately priced places in Moos were already fully booked a year in advance. We felt gifted when we found a spacious, lovely, newly remodeled one bedroom apartment with a balcony and stunning view that had an open week. Amazingly, it was about half the price we’d been paying elsewhere to have nicer places. Better yet, for 3 Euros, we could use the house clothes washer. We were a couple minutes walk from the market and just far enough off the main road for peace and quiet. And since I had already added Moos to my short mental list of hiking venues for which we needed to haul in our own supply of 85% chocolate bars, it was perfect.
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Well camouflaged WWI fortifications on the Front Line above Moos.

Of course, a to-die-for-apartment isn’t enough. Moos was the starting point for our new, #1 hike in the Dolomites, a loop up to and along the base of the magnificent Drei Zinnen/Tre Cime peaks. It’s a 12 mile, 4,000’ gain hike with constantly changing scenery. There are no ho-hum segments on this route—every bit of the many varied micro-environments are riveting. Bill was also able to design a moderate elevation gain, 20 mile loop hike for us from Moos to retain our endurance conditioning. Like last summer, we gladly put down our 100 Euro, cash deposit, a year in advance to secure our place for 2019 . With smiles our our faces in anticipation of next summer’s hikes, we then made the 2 day ride to Corvara. 

Corvara, Italy: The Secret Handshake
In late August, we’d ensconced ourselves on a rare wide spot under a massive vertical face at about the 9,000’ level for lunch above Corvara when a couple from Boston walked by on the narrow, rocky trail. They complimented us on our trophy perch in an area where there was little that was flat or stable. 

We did a brief reply of “Yes, we are very fit and by the way, our ultra low carb diet was a big contributor to that achievement.” Their interest piqued, I said we had science backgrounds and were fascinated this year to learn more about the link between this diet and athletic performance and mentioned intracellular mitochondria along the way.

She offered up that they were both engineers and that they believed in science, which I thought a very peculiar comment. After a few more exchanges, she said “Numbers matter.” Another weird comment in an otherwise very normal exchange between older, American hikers abroad. What I didn’t realize until a few more exchanges was that she was assessing our politics: these weird little assertions were successive, coy, secret handshakes.

I however was much more blunt during her verbal dance and I blurted out with an overtone of sarcastic excitement “Have you heard the news?” This was within 24 hours of Manafort’s conviction, Cohen’s guilty plea, Flynn’s sentencing being delayed until December, Michael Avanatti gloating about now being able to dispose Trump, and Trump learning of McGahn’s 30 hours of interview time with Mueller. No matter which side you were on, it was a stunning pile of news.
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On their favorite Italian playground again—above Corvara.

“No, no, they’d been electronically blacked-out for days and hadn’t heard any news.” But she added, “There is one thing I’d like to know….” and then she stopped herself. Her husband urged her to follow-up and she still hesitated but he didn’t take over. Guessing that she was being more politically correct than I and I’d already assumed that we were all liberals, I laughed and said “It’s safe here to talk.” Finally, she relented “Has the Manafort trial concluded?” I howled with laugher and we began telling them all that had happened.

It was amusing to realize that more than us, she longed for liberals to have a secret handshake to indicate that it was safe to discuss politics. My guess was that that is only an underdog issue. Sharing what we considered big news with interested listeners was exhilarating and we enjoyed chuckling about the unlikely encounter, the cultural implications, and at the subtle differences in sensibilities in this east coast-west coast encounter on our afternoon walk back to the lift.

Ebikes in Hindsight
The ebikes were an unabashed success on their maiden voyage. We loved them! We are looking forward to touring on them next year. We’re slowly making peace with the athleticism that we left behind and enjoyed the new opportunities they afforded, like moderate effort expenditures to make pleasant day rides out of summiting difficult passes.

Ironically, “it” became “them” when Bill decided at the 11th hour to buy one for himself, and Bill instantly became as dependent on his new ebike as I was on mine. I desperately needed the power assist because my new anti-hypertensive medication was sapping my cardio-vascular output. Bill however, tweaked his back the morning we left Selva on the bikes for the first time and couldn’t have made the journey under his own power for several weeks.
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Bill taking a break from the bike to tend to his angry back muscles. 

Bill’s back has been vulnerable his entire life. He has become pristine about proper lifting but back-sparing good posture and back-strengthening exercises are only employed during bouts of pain. We’d bought new bike saddles in the spring that produce significant pain if you don’t sit on them squarely and so his chronically lop-sided riding position had added a new strain ‘to the guys upstairs’, as in his back muscles. So the equation was: chronic vulnerability + new saddle/new riding position + new bike geometry = back crisis.

Our first venue was Cortina, Italy and I, the now chronically winded-one, went off on grand adventures while Bill stayed close to home with his snippy back. I did the 22 mile, 3300’ elevation ride up to Passo Falzarago and Valparola on the lowest level of power assist and the next day made a 10 mile hike with almost 3,000’ of gain, slowly. Bill stayed home, did his back exercises and took short walks. By the end of our 6 night stay in Cortina, he was taking short bike outings while I pushed for distance on foot.

We left Cortina with Bill just able to ride and then it got miserably  hot. A few days on, Bill tweaked his knee but fortunately he quickly recognized that it was the result of careless positioning on the bike and only had an issue with it for a day or 2. Later, he dumped over while walking his loaded bike over a cow grate and bruised a rib with the long handlebar when he and the heavy bike went down. It was a bad streak for him indeed and having the power assisted bikes took the performance pressure off of both of us. 

Parallel Journeys
I lived 2 separate lives this summer. One reality was constantly feeling ill the entire summer. I was combining and decreasing doses of 3 antihypertensives in search of the sweet spot between blood pressure control and acceptable side effects. I thought I’d found that balance several times, but then in a few days, I’d be flattened again with headaches, dizziness, weakness, and GI distress. Even during our last week in Europe, I was stopped in my tracks for a couple of hours, then just felt bad the rest of the day.

It was challenging, to say the least. I’m a fervent believer in ‘pressing on (almost) regardless.’ When there is no end in sight, like with this externally induced malady, I insist on carrying on every day as though I was well. On 2 of the drugs, I would feel bad all day, but would only be immobilized or nearly so, for 1-2 hours at a time. We’d slow or stop what we were doing as needed to get me through the spell, then carry on. 

The third drug was the one that sapped my cardio-vascular output and it too, was episodic. I trimmed and trimmed and trimmed the dose of it, taking ‘dry out’ days after the worst episodes, but never established a dose that I could take and be certain not to get short-circuited during the day. But, with the help of the ebikes and planning in a little extra time for the biggest days, we were able to stick to Bill’s itinerary, maintained our fitness, saw many lovely sights, and added a new set of grand images to our memory banks.  

End of the Season
Just in case we hadn’t been paying attention to the approach of summer’s end, it snowed overnight in Selva the day we returned there from Corvara. We’d been extremely lucky with the weather all summer and this day was no exception. 
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Overnight snow after arriving in Selva.

We were dressed for the cold and rain and had our gear secured for a downpour on that last travel day, but it didn’t happen. The unexpected long break in the rain allowed us to reminisce while we pedaled up one side of Passo Gardena and coasted down the other; the clouds were high enough to enjoy the constant views of the stunning peaks. The rains hit with a vengeance at 3 pm and when the clouds cleared a bit the next morning, there was significant snow to the 6,000’ level; we were at about 5,000’. It was cold enough that the snow lingered for 2 days, giving us some special views of familiar peaks on our hikes.

This last week in Selva is partial ‘payment’ to the kind Italian hostess who stashes our bikes and panniers over the winter. We book 2 weeks with her at the beginning of her season and this week at the end of it. 

This week in Selva has become a bittersweet closing ritual for us. We sort our gear into ‘stay’ and ‘go’ piles, revise our packing lists for the next year, make last minute appointments and place online orders while we have predictable internet, and begin turning our attention towards going home and then to the SW in our trailer. In between the obligatory chores and the variable weather, we go hiking as we can. 

After our closing rituals in Selva, we make our slow journey home. Many people would compress it into 2 or 3 days but we take 5 days. We say our goodbyes to the mountains on the always-crowded Saturday morning bus down the valley to one of the major train stations, and then we walk. We walk along the river, look up at the mountains, buy the day's groceries, then settle-in to our old, traditional Italian hotel for paperwork chores. 

The next morning, we walk across the street to the train station for the half day ride over Brenner Pass to Munich. The scenery is predictably pleasing and the multi-cultural experience of being in 3 countries never fails to be entertaining, though sometimes it is also aggravating. The day after that we take the short flight to London, which always consumes most of the day. To guarantee that we don’t miss our international flight because of strikes, construction, or landslides that can make a mess of our ground transportation itinerary, we spend 2 nights at the final departure city, which this year was London. Why contaminate a lovely summer abroad with a stressful trip home??

The stress will hit soon enough during our short, 2 weeks at home. In the haze of jet lag, we’ll be going to multiple appointments each day, picking up and processing our many online purchases, and hope to get some exercise, the weather and air quality permitting. Then we'll dash off to LaGrande, Oregon for a scheduled repair of a repair on our trailer; from there, it’s “Grand Canyon or Bust”. See you there!