Monday, October 3, 2016

No Adventure Without a Challenge (Northern Italy)

Week 2 of the voyage was full of highs and lows! Note - there are some longer stories, so feel free to just scroll through the pics if you're short on time ;)

Interlaken, Switzerland
Switzerland was a wonderful combination of rain, fog, catching a cold, and exorbitant prices. I have to admit, I'm still bummed about not being able to see the mountains. Or rather, I saw the bottom half of them - still beautiful, but not exactly the Swiss Alpine views that people write home about! My new American friend and I wanted to do some hiking, despite the woman at the hostel waving her hands and repeating, "Storm is coming! Very dangerous!" One idea was to take a train part way up the famous Eiger mountain, hoping we'd get up high enough to see the peaks above the clouds, and then to hike down. The ticket for such a short ride would have cost 81 Franc (that's more than $81), so we changed plans. We still got some good views from the short hike we did out of town.

Looking down on Interlaken
Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
Planning my travels this fall, I literally Googled "best places to hike in Europe," and that's how I decided to go to the Italian Dolomites, even though I hadn't heard much about them. Cortina d'Ampezzo, home to the 1956 Winter Olympics and popular mountain resort town, was base camp for exploration. I immediately fell in love!

Abandoned ski jump from the Olympics
Cortina d'Ampezzo

Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Dolomiti)
Sunday, September 18th, I was determined to see Tre Cime di Lavaredo, a rock formation that was strongly reminiscent of the Torres del Paine in Chile, which is one of my favorite places in the world. Upon arriving to the hotel, I find out that the public buses to Tre Cime stopped running one week earlier. "Not possible, off season," they shrug. Car rental? "Not possible, off season," shrug. Taxi? Over $140 for the round trip. Then, I have a brilliant idea - I can bike there! A shop in Cortina rents electronic mountain bikes (yes, there is literally an electronic motor that works as you pedal to propel the bike forward). The shop owner says it's doable if I'm fit, recommending a route which climbs slowly on a bike path through the mountains for 15 km, climbs and descends 10 km along the highway and over a short pass to the entrance to the park, and then climbs a demanding 7 km up to the mountain hut where I'll start my 3 hour "easy" hike around the Tre Cime. In total, a mere 1000 meters of elevation gain between Cortina and the start of my hike. He also says that it might drizzle at first, but that the weather should clear up in a bit.

I whiz along toward Tre Cime. This e-bike is magical! I sing Steppenwolf to myself, "You don't know what you will find, come along with me on a magic carpet riiiidddeee..." Then I realize that this e-bike isn't a magic carpet, it's a flying broomstick! I've found the Muggle's version of a Nimbus 2000! The views are beautiful, and the climbing is easy work with the help of the motor. The battery looks dangerously low by the time I get to Tre Cime, but no worries, it's all downhill back, right?

At first I worry I've come all this way for nothing because the fog obscures the Tre Cime. Not Switzerland, Round 2! However, the clouds clear enough to see the formation, and I have a lovely (if rainy) trek around the base of the Tre Cime, drinking in the views from every direction.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo (top) and their Chilean cousin, Torres del Paine (bottom)
Cairns mirroring the Tre Cime

A few other Americans ask me, "Wait, aren't you the one who took the e-bike up here?!" I smile and bask in their admiration like a small time celebrity. Trek finished, it's time to bike back. At this point, it's raining harder, and I'm cold. Thankfully there's not much traffic descending out of the park, because the hairpins are tight, the roads steep and slick with rain, and my hands are frozen and having a hard time gripping the brakes. It's fine, all is fine. I decide to take a steeper, more direct route back into Cortina. When I reach the first little uphill section, I turn on the battery of the e-bike. Two minutes later, it dies. The bike is no longer magical. It is now many times heavier than any other kind of bike because it's weighed down by a dead motor. I try desperately to pedal, but my legs can't do it. Welp. Time to push this heavy bike up a 12% grade. In the pouring freezing rain. My shoes squish with every step. Surely it'll be downhill after this next turn. Ok, the next one. Downhill at last! Blast, another uphill section. Come on girl, you can do this. Crying won't fix this! Only biking will fix this! Cowgirl up! I regret all of my life choices. Then, in the next breath I take it back, realizing this is just part of the adventure.

Thankfully, once I push over the steepest pass, it's all downhill back to the bike shop. I roll in, dripping all over the floor and shivering. The owner looks at me and says, "You are very brave!" I look back and just say, "No, I'm just very wet."

Alta Via 1 (Dolomiti)
Up next is a three day hut-to-hut hike along part of Alta Via 1, a famous trek through the Dolomites. I feel particularly accomplished as I fit all of my clothes, sheets, towel, and breakfasts/lunches into a regular sized backpack! I am not traditionally a light packer, so this is big progress! It also will make the hike considerably easier.

Before I go on any further, let me just say that these mountains have some of the most amazing views I've ever seen. Just check out these pictures and videos, which don't begin to do them justice.

Or, in case you prefer panoramic videos:

Views from Mt. Lagazuoi, just above the first night's mountain hut

Views from the second night's mountain hut

Whoever planned these trails has a very different relationship with gravity than I do. As a Colorado hiker, I’m accustomed to a long, relatively moderate incline to a summit followed by an equally measured descent. In the Dolomites, throw that thinking out the window - it’s steep, demanding ascents and descents over multiple mountains in one day. The trail is incredibly narrow in places, with sharp drop-offs to the side.

Sassy face, because of course the trail goes up between those two rocks...
They even have what are called Via Ferrata, or ropes, chains, and ladders built into portions of the trail.  Many of these features date back to World War I, when this section of trails was the site of battles between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian troops. In fact, many of the hide-outs dug into the side of the mountain are still there, and open for exploration! 

All examples of WWI battle forts

The morning of Day 3, to descend from the mountain hut situated on top of a mountain, I have the option of taking the Via Ferrata but decide against it because a) it’s too foggy to see more than a few feet and b) this section consists of a 30 meter ladder, followed by an 80 meter ladder. I don’t have climbing gear, by the way, but a few crazies do it without. This is a ladder down the side of a cliff, as tall as a 25 story building.

So, a few lovely German women I met along the trail and I decide to take the “long way” down to the end of our hike. We arrive at the bus stop, and see no time table posted - a bad sign on a rural road in off season. After waiting over an hour, we decide it’s time to start hitchhiking. I can now check this off the bucket list! We fly thumbs at a few cars at first, then at all the cars as our desperation grows. There should be a special punishment for people who have plenty of space in their cars, slow down just enough to look pityingly at hitchhikers, and then just drive past and leave us on the curb. I suggest that perhaps we ride the sheep in the meadow across the street down into town, since human beings are being so unhelpful. Finally, a pair of friendly Scotsmen pick us up, and we make it back.

All in all, it was one of the best weeks of hiking I've ever had! The Dolomites forever will be one of my favorite places.

1 comment :

  1. Michaela, Beautiful scenery you captured on camera and in words. Your ebike ride - hike shows your strength and determination. Love, Mom