#10 Back to Italy & Then Home (August-September 2012)

Bressanone, Italy
Hiking On Nearby Plose Mountain
Bressanone, or Brixen, depending upon whether you prefer the Italian or German name, is about half way between Bolzano/Bozen and the Brenner Pass at the border with Austria. It's a city we've passed through several times though previously had only spent one night there. But in his quest to find new hiking venues on a 6 week loop that started and ended in Selva, Italy, Bill booked 4 nights in an apartment located in the heart of Bressanone's old town. Little lodging was available near the cable car on Plose mountain, so for this stay we'd make the short walk to the hourly bus to the lift, with the bus ride being just under an half hour. Walk+wait+bus+lift time was about an hour, which was snappy enough to keep the whining at bay.

We crested a low pass on a lovely day to drop down into Bressanone on the valley floor.
Bill forewarned me that this would likely be our "least best" hiking venue of the season but it made the grade because it connected the dots on the route so well. His apprehension deepened when we exited the tinny, vintage cable car and discovered that the chair lift to the next level wasn't operating. Hiking to the top of the chair lift, we were surprised to see that we were still in pastureland instead of on the broken rock terrain we love, further adding to his disappointment. But looking around, there was an incredible 360º panorama of peaks that couldn't be ignored.

Not the style of hiking we'd anticipated but we set-off with our top priority in mind, which was to get a vigorous workout in an inspiring settling. There weren't a lot of different trails to choose from but there were enough long, steep slopes and views to satisfy us for 3 days of hiking.

Even though we were in Italy, we immediately felt like we were on Austrian trails because they were wickedly steep and a few were treacherously narrow and sloughing. Bressanone enthusiastically markets itself as being in the Dolomites but after continuously staring at the rock we were stepping upon as we do when in Austria and occasionally looking up at the grand views, we finally understood that Bressanone was near the Dolomites, not in the Dolomites. The rock we were standing on wasn't dolomite but Bill could easily name familiar Dolomite peaks "over there."

Hiking above Bressanone highlighted the error in our thinking about Dolomite vs Austrian trails; more correctly, it was Dolomite vs non-Dolomite Alps trails. We love hiking in the Dolomites, which are mostly in Italy, and forget that the majority of the peaks in Italy are non-Dolomite and have the look and feel of what we think of as "Austrian" trails. But 3 days of hiking on "Austrian" trails in Italy, looking at the Dolomites "over there," drove home the correction to our thinking.

Old Town Buzz
Being in a corner apartment above the cobblestoned streets of the Bressanone old town pedestrianized area was a little noisy for sleeping some nights, but I loved vantage point it provided. I rearranged the apartment furniture so that while eating and working on my Mac I could look out the bay window and sight down one of the main streets for several blocks. Temperatures in the 80's meant that the big window was open as well, so I was immersed in the sounds (and a few smells) of the bustle as well as the visual image.

Like with the Austrian/Dolomite confusion on the trails above Bressanone, I constantly had to remind myself I was in Italy while in Bressanone. German is the first language of about 75% of the population and it is the first language on the street signs and in the shop windows. Being a tourist destination in Italy in high season however meant that the words drifting up to our 2nd story window were primarily Italian. The Italian visitors were definitely louder and their conversations filled the air even though many of the locals were stopping to chat in quieter tones in German.

I savored the vicarious experience of being on the old town streets with locals and tourists while sitting in our apartment. And I reveled at the sight of all those bikes--there were bikes everywhere on the wide cobblestone ways. Clusters of parked bikes formed tight knots here and there in the middle of the shopping district.

A dozen or more moving bikes were usually in view at any given moment, front and back carriers loaded with 1 or 2 children, groceries, or an orchid plant. In the early morning hours business men in casual suits, sometimes with a small briefcase under 1 arm, would pedal by. A little later, young mothers with a child on their bike and a 4 or 5 year old methodically following behind on their own bike began appearing. Then the teenage girls started darted out, perhaps on their way to a summer job. And then it was bikes everywhere, effortlessly pedaled on the flat valley floor, easily navigating between fellow riders that happened to be on foot at the moment. Closer to dinner time, the sport riders in lycra logo-wear cruised through town on mountain and road bikes, some stopping for a refreshment with friends before heading home after a day on the passes. Sometimes they'd dangle a small bag of groceries from their handlebars, further signaling that the hard riding was done.

Sidewalk cafes and ice cream shops made lingering in the center easy for visitors and residents alike. And the square stone fountain with a few inches of bubbling water in it were a hit with the 4-5 year old set, seemingly unsupervised by parents. But by 7 pm most of the shops were closed and the day on the street was coming to an end. By the time the ironwork lamp posts started casting their light, only a handful of people were still out. Italian speaking families expecting "passagiata" or strolling in the evening with the rest of the community to shop, must have been disappointed. The pulsing energy of the community out and about was gone and they couldn't even get a "gelato" to lick like they'd have been able to do in a less Germanic Italian city.

New public art in Selva since our July visit was an encouraging economic sign.
Back at Selva to stash our bikes for the winter, Monika the housekeeper at the apartments and the owner of the building and a nearby 4 star hotel were all smiles: August had been fully booked at both locations. The Germans didn't show up but the Italians came through at the last minute as hoped. The spring earthquake had put the kibosh on their traditional long summer vacation plans but the heat wave drove them into the cool mountains anyway. Instead of booking 1-2 weeks as is the convention, they came to the hotel for only a few nights but then didn't want to leave. More work for the money than usual with all the last minute juggling of reservations, but the Italians saved the season. Whew!

Arriving in Selva in September is always bittersweet: we love being there but it signals the end of the cycling portion of our trip and that flying home is just around the corner. But Selva is in a beautiful setting with inspiring hiking venues and we tried to focus on that aspect of being back in the village. Snow falling on the peaks at Bressanone and Selva on August 30 had us worrying about the weather at even higher Solda a week later but there was little to do but keep navigating around the wet weather as we'd done all summer.

Solda was another new hiking venue for 2012, one that had always been too difficult to get to by bikes given that its lone access road forks off of the road that soon crests on the highest pass in Europe, Stelvio. But this year we had a week for hiking after we left our bikes in Selva and before we made a beeline for our Amsterdam air departure, so it was the perfect year to explore Solda.

Quite the view of some of Solda's peaks.
Getting to Solda by bus and train in the off season was a bit trickier than expected when Bill made our lodging reservations and at the last minute, our stay had to shift from Sunday-Sunday to Saturday-Saturday to make it work at all. Even traveling on Saturday, which is considered a work day in Italy, it took 5 hours and 6 different rides to cover the 90 miles from Selva to Solda. It was a bus/train/train/train/bus/bus dance with all but 1 ride being under an hour long. We had about 5 minutes between rigs at each connection and missed 1. With a little luck and our new knowledge of the route, we might be able to make the journey in the future in 4 hours with the same number of transfers.

As Bill said, "Solda has the charming mountain-style buildings like Selva but without the zoning." Part of the charm of Selva is the zoning or conventions, the overall package of the community: flower boxes on almost every building, underground parking preserving the pastureland, the tidiness of all of the grounds, and well-developed public spaces. Both are family ski destinations but Solda lacks the 'overflowing cheeriness' that pervades Selva. Solda had a little more of an outdoorsy-crowd feel compared with Selva's non-glitzy resort spin. But the higher and more imposing peaks engulfing Solda always shifted our attention from wishing there were more petunias and geraniums to looking up, way up.

At Selva's markets I felt held-hostage by the high prices; at Solda I was held hostage by what wasn't there. The larger of the 2 small Solda markets had a tiny, unrefrigerated produce section with withered cucumbers, splitting tomatoes, and brown-spotted lemons. "Where's the carrots, where's the cabbage/cauliflower/broccoli, what are we going to eat…" was all I could say. Yes, Solda was at the end of the road but we'd stayed at a number of end-of-the-road villages that managed to carry fresh food.

Memorial plaques: most were victims of ice avalanches, one in 2011.
A visit to the even smaller market in Solda did give us the chance to pick between carrots with blackened ends and those sporting filamentous gray fungi, but neither market had reduced fat yogurt for my daily calcium hit. Thank goodness we brought our own chocolate stash. We certainly wouldn't go hungry but were disappointed to compromise our nutritional standards so much for a full week. Our apartment hostess did bale us out by buying fresh produce for us when she went into the nearest city part way through our stay. Inexplicably, she bought double what I requested for more than half of our list so we went from too little to way, way too much.

We got off to a rough start on our first hike from Solda by going up a trail that was the descent route for the hundreds of "30-something with something-to-prove" men. Enviably lean and fit climbers from both a dangerous ice wall and an expert level via ferrata were in a near-bullying mood, which set an unpleasant tone for our introduction to the area's precipitous trails. After yielding to a intermittent stream of about 50 of these guys I decided it was time for a little give and take and demanded some courtesy on the trail. It worked, but I'd rather have been enjoying the scenery rather than engaging in power plays for foot room.

By design, all of our subsequent hikes from Solda were among peaks on the other side of the narrow valley and couldn't have been more different from our jostled inauguration to the area. We chatted 3 successive days with one older Bavarian couple that were choosing the same routes as us and chatted twice with a German-Portuguese and a German-British couple. Even in a village of 400 at the end of the season it was surprising to have so many "small world" experiences on the many trails. But the friendliness of these less arrogant hikers and that our endearing 65-going-on-16 giggling hostess quickly faded the harsher memories of being on the mountaineer's trail.

The boot crowd slid around on this bridge too.
Despite hiking in 1 rain day and 2 snow days at Solda, the venue made for a satisfying close to our biking and hiking season in Europe. The worst snow day allowed us to test our new, high-traction Vivobarefoot minimalist shoes in snow, ice, and mud. We were pleased by how flawlessly they (and our feet) performed as we flew past the boot 'n pole crowd that were cautiously picking their way through the challenging trail conditions.

Being at Solda allowed us to wrap up the season with vigorous hiking on steep trails until 5 days before our flight from Amsterdam. It's numerous, unusually high peaks for Tyrol, gave us another chance to challenge Bill with exerting at altitude as we urged him on to 10,200' early in the week and 10,700' the last day. And it was in the last 2 hours of the last hike when he learned that using our altimeter to regulate his pace in terms of 'feet of elevation gained per minute' prevented him from getting the headache and poor thinking associated with pushing hard at elevation. The next morning as we stood on the curb waiting for the bus to whisk us down out of the mountains we could be nothing but satisfied with our first visit to Solda as we admired the snowy peaks all around us.

Buses, Trains, & Planes
From Solda it was basically a public transportation re-wind as though an imaginary yo-yo string snapped us back to Amsterdam from Italy, traveling through Austria and Germany. As always, Bill planned in a mix of full travel days and lay-over days in case we encountered potentially flight-missing obstacles.

We were surprised to learn that this was a weasel.
We reminisced while looking out bus and train windows about bike paths we'd ridden over the years as well as markets we'd shopped and historic sites we'd seen. Along with reflecting on some of the last 12 years of experiences in the region, we recalled what had made this summer distinctive, what it will be remembered for. The 2 stand-out categories were the unusual critters we'd seen and the personal accomplishments we'd enjoyed.

2012 Critters
For no apparent reason, 2012 seemed to be the year of critter encounters for us, both in the US and in Europe. In the US SW we encountered a rattlesnake, a packrat, a road runner, coyotes, rabbits, and a number of new birds. Normally our biking and hiking time in Europe has our close encounters with animals primarily limited to cows and sheep, with an occasional sighting of a horse and less often a donkey/burro sort and maybe a marmot on the high trails.

But this year in Europe we saw a string of "first's": our first venomous adder (and then a 2nd and a 3rd); a first red fox; a first weasel; and something akin to a pack rat, with the pack rat variant being the most amusing. We were sitting on a 9,000' peak enjoying our picnic lunch in the jumbled gneiss rocks typical of the Austrian Alps and heard a scrapping sound. We both looked behind us, assuming it was the cello pasta bag doubling as a garbage sack that was rustling in the wind, but it hadn't moved. The next time we heard the same noise, we spotted a little bug-eyed rodent head peaking out between the rocks, inches from our backsides. The scraping noise was caused by him dragging my Swiss knife towards his hiding place.

Presumably the extended shiny blade had been an irresistible trophy. We snatched the knife before he hauled it into the rocky rubble and tried to shoo him away from us. Looking between the rocks we could both see him scamper about and spy his stash of aluminum foil. Packing up to leave, I realized he'd also drawn my sun glove part way into the rocks but had lost interest in it. Far less rat looking than the single pack rack I saw in Arizona, this critter had the same fascination with shiny objects as much bigger US pack rats. A brief online search later suggested he was more akin to a "yellow-throated field mouse" than a rat but regardless of his lineage, we'll be more careful in the future about minding our trinkets when sitting in rock rubble.

He was a happier guy at 10700' without the 'hotdog headaches.'
2012 in Europe was the summer that….
Bill felt normal at elevation.
It was towards the end of our time in the Dolomites in 2011 that Bill unraveled the decade-old problem of feeling weak and ill when biking at higher elevations: he discovered that it was the combination of exerting at about 7,000' and having eaten nitrates in cured meats that was making him sick. He was falling victim to "hot dog" headaches which are caused by ingesting nitrites/nitrates. His susceptibility was mild enough that it took eating nitrates and exerting at altitude for it to make him ill but the effects from the appealing food additive would linger for days. His experience of biking in the Alps was made wildly more fun in 2012 than in the past by scrupulously avoiding cured meats. What a big difference a small change made.

Bill 'thrashed himself' worry free.
Thinking he'd had a heart attack late last spring while at the Grand Canyon and not actually having one made Bill's summer in the Alps more enjoyable than ever before. His father's heart attack when Bill was a child had left Bill feeling doomed in a way that he had under-appreciated. Getting the cardiac and then vascular workups that revealed his 'plumbing' was squeaky clean was a huge relief to him and he continued to benefit from the reassurance months later when in the Alps. When his heart pounded near its maximum rate on the trails, he had a new confidence about the accompanying sensations--that they were all to be embraced rather than feared. The peculiar feelings were those of a healthy heart and vascular system doing what it takes to stay healthy, not those of a system bordering on collapse.

He took himself to new heights.
Sharing a heart rate monitor while hiking in the Alps in 2011 revealed that Bill had a hidden 'gatekeeper,' as we called it, that shouted "Too hard!" when his exertion level pushed his heart rate to about 122 beats/min. When motivated, he could run his heart rate up into the 170's but there was always deep physiological resistance well below that level.

Confronting that gatekeeper and concluding that he had been "dogging' it" resulted in Bill being able to match my pace on the steep uphills early in our 2012 hiking season. By the end of August 2012 he was speeding ahead of me on the big ascents, tossing in short intervals of jogging when the grades slackened a bit. And when back on Stevia, our favorite fitness trail in Selva, Italy, Bill incredibly shaved 5 minutes off our our previous best time of 45 minutes going up this nearly 2000' trail, leaving me in the dust. Our lab rat just earned himself another blue ribbon and I was going to have to up my performance to keep him in sight--darn.

The start of the Obertilliach klettersteig we didn't do.
Bill had different planning challenges.
Almost everyday while in Europe in 2012 Bill enjoyed the freedom from route planning and reservation-making pressures. He'd condensed the pain and agony into a shorter time span when at home in the spring and made all of the reservations in advance except for the last 12 days. Doing so also allowed him to route us to areas typically too booked in advance to drop-in on at the last minute.

Disappointingly, the summer of 2012 fell short on the via ferrata count. Bill had visions of completing a number of routes, but it wasn't to be. Early, possible routes were set aside because of concerns about my knee and the weather. Forecasted daily rain and/or thunderstorms made it unsafe to embark on via ferrata routes that tend to be all-day activities with hours hooked onto a steel cable. My ailing knee lacked power from a squat position which is needed on the routes, but the weather took the pressure off of deciding if my knee was "good enough" each week.

When both my knee and the weather were better, it was other problems that hampered us. The times posted for the various segments on one route up from Lienz totaled the exact amount of time the lift operated, leaving no time to eat or be pokey. Too late in our stay we learned that it was indeed possible for people at our skill level to complete the route in time to catch the lift back to town. Later we discovered a route above Obertilliach that was posted for experts only and wasn't on Bill's maps. During a chat with the tourist info folks in town, Bill learned that it had no wire and was considered highly dangerous. The routes suitable for us in the area would have required a car to get to the trail heads.

Barb's knee earned its place on the trip.
Soon after I injured my knee in mid-February, we had to make the "Go/No go" decision for a summer of biking and hiking in Europe. Not ever really knowing what was wrong with it made it a guess at best. Bill grimaced when I said "Go for it" in March but he bought air tickets and starting making reservations anyway. My doc assumed travel insurance for a cancelled trip was our Plan B when it was instead Bill planning a route that could be mostly executed by bus or train if I couldn't pedal.

I like to think it was a combination of good luck and good injury management but whatever it was, my knee survived and thrived. Once we started hiking from Selva the swelling got significantly worse but overall the knee actually felt better after each hard day on the trails. We joked that that was a sure sign that it was my knee--it knew it had no choice but to get better--but it was probably benefitting from the muscle strengthening. By early August it was clearly on the mend after 6 months of disability and by early September we couldn't believe that it was nearly normal. It may take a couple more months for the last of the lost range of motion to return but the pressure to perform is off it now.

Barb Mastered Speedy Trail Descents
My triumph in 2012 was mastering speedy descents on steep, broken rock trails without slipping and sliding. It was on the trail below the Piz Boè peak above Corvara, Italy in 2009 where I saw a 30-something athlete effortlessly whiz by us on a descent while we slowly and meticulously picked our way down using trekking poles, desperately hoping not to fall. "I want what he's got" I said to myself as an image of him was etched in my brain. I had no hope of matching his athleticism but I vowed to learn what he knew: how to practically run with confidence down difficult trails.

My quest began online where I learned that the sport of trail running was the place to start. Apparently steep descents are the nemesis of most competitive trail runners and their blogs were where I learned about the "Pose Running Technique." From there it was on to barefoot hiking and wearing Vibram 5 Fingers that demanded we learn to forefoot strike. It was 2 years after the quest began, on our last 2 hikes in the Dolomites in 2011, when I knew the mastery of speedy descents was soon to be mine but our time in the mountains was up.

Oh, to have learned these trail lessons as a child.
Pursuing my goal of descending like a pro got off to a slow start in the summer of 2012 with my persistent knee problem but by the end of August I knew I had arrived. A couple of weeks prior we had discovered that the "ft/min" display on our altimeter was an accurate way to measure rate of ascent/descent and at last my descent speed surpassed by ascent speed when I did a given slope at my maximum in both directions. What a thrill, what an accomplishment: to have seen someone else performing in a way that I wanted to perform in 2009, to crack the code on the technique, and then to guide the soft tissues of my entire body into embracing a whole new movement form on the trails. (It didn't escape either of us that my prolonged knee injury was likely one of the casualties of the gait transition). I now could float down the steep of trails with speed, confidence, and sure-footedness in minimalist shoes without the use of poles.

Bill traveled this journey with me though his need was less urgent. In the spring of 2009 I'd dislocated my shoulder when walking down a steep, paved street in Montenegro after a rain. Months later I became convinced that it was my habit of shifting too much of my weight towards my backside that had set me up for the painful fall and I never wanted it to happen again. All that was involved with transitioning to being a forefoot striker looked like it would not only make me safer on steep trails, it would make me safer on streets as well. Bill was also a heel striker but without my center of gravity issue so the entire pursuit was more of a curiosity than the answer to a problem for him. Already faster and more stable on the steep trails than me, he nonetheless also upped his game by shifting to forefooting.

In addition to the huge stability benefits we've derived from becoming forefooting hikers, we hope that now that we are the ones whizzing confidently down the trails, that we are sharing the gift of the form with others. We hope that a person here and there will notice our ease and will speak my words of 3 years ago which were "I want what he's got". Maybe it will be the 40-something woman that quizzed us about my thin hiking sandals and our sure-footedness and then laughingly hollered "You're crazy" when we later ran past her and her limping husband as we all made our way down a steep slope above Bressanone. Maybe she will be inspired to ditch her stiff, confining boots and find her way to a new ease and confidence on the "Austrian" style trails that terrified her.

Cycling vs Hiking
2012 was the summer that I became perfectly clear that loaded cyclotouring dished out a harder workout than our most exuberant efforts when hiking. Our 2012 hikes were generally 3-5 hours of moving time, usually accumulating 2,000-2,500' in elevation gain, and we often pushed to our limit for 30-45 minutes without rest, generating high heart rates and high average heart rates while hiking on the steepest trails we could find. We could work at that level day after day, whether the previous day was hiking or biking. But on the bikes, less time spent accumulating a similar elevation gain as hiking could be exhausting. Our bodies demanded more food, going to bed earlier, and rest days when biking. Without a doubt the additional strains of powering the extra weight around on the bikes made for more intense exercise. Once we started hiking more, I'd always wondered if we could make hiking as intense of a workout as cyclotouring and the answer is clearly "No" in our usual range for the 2 different activities. Not the answer we wanted to hear, but at least now we know.

Heading Home
Too soon, our time for reminiscing about the recent summer high points was up. Arriving in Amsterdam meant we had to become serious about the future. The immediate needs were to get the load equalized as best we could between our large and small suitcases so as to "make weight" at the airline's check-in and to align our carry-on so that it conformed with the latest rules. Then it would be a compressed turn-around of about 2 weeks before we headed south in our camper. Our leisurely recovery from jet lag and stay at home was being compressed by attending my nephew's wedding in California. News of an El Niño-influenced fall put making further plans on hold: we'll either chase snow for cross country skiing or chase dry weather for hiking, depending on the prevailing conditions, before returning home at Christmas.