Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dolomiti, Part II

Yes, this post is admittedly a little late. Things have been so crazy over that last few weeks but I promised Chris I would get this one up. I will try to make this one a little bit shorter, but its had to get everything into one post so it might end up as two. Sorry Eth, but its not like you read it anyway.

When I last wrote we had just started our hiking the the Dolomites. Our first segment lasted three days in huts before we reached another little village. From Rifugio Genova, we set out early in the morning towards another distant pass. Though I love being able to see the final destination on hikes like these, it is an bit disheartening when it looks so far away. Today the distant Forcella della Roa looked like a tiny opening in the menacing roll of rock before us. In fact, I was doubting a little our ability to get over it. There is so much rock in this area that it inevitable results in scree fields, which of course we have to cross. Steep, movable scree -- that was what was in store for us. The beginning of the hike was beautiful along the ridge.

As we approached the notch we could tell that there were going to be a few sketchy paths trying to get to the top. Not only did the trail cut across the steep slopes, by which I mean such a steep drop off that there is not way you are stopping if you go down, but they we had to scramble on zig-zags up the scree field. It was so steep! I was trying to catch my breath, but stopping in the middle of the slope was too dangerous in many places, which made the climb less than enjoyable. However, we made it to the top just as a huge tour group of people decided to descend. And thank god for our timing. As the people started to slip and slide down the trail -- we witnessed two falls within the first 100 feet -- we there so happy that we didn't have them trying to go down as we were climbing. The chances of us getting a rock in the head were probably 50-50.

The top was spectacular, views down both valleys and around the whole area are pretty crazy because of the sheer rock faces in all directions. It was also a gorgeous day, blue sky and warm. But we weren't out of the water just yet. From the forcella there were two ways to get to our next hut. Our planned route took us down from the top, along the rocky valley for a bit then up and over another pass. The alternate route was comprised of a series of ladders straight up and over the cliff. As we looked in the direction of the via ferrata, i.e. iron way, as the system of ladder and cables is called, we thought to ourselves there is no way that anyone but the most experiences climbers go that way. Boy were we wrong.

Sitting of the top, enjoying the view and our snack of cheese and elven bread we were joined by two different tour groups. The first was a bunch of English speakers most in the 50s and 60s and the second was a group of pre-teens. To our amazement both groups set off towards the via ferrata. We also ran into a group of four German guys, who we had (perhaps unfortunately because one of them snored incredibly loud all night and Chris got zero sleep) encountered at the previous rifugio. They spoke enough English to encourage us to come along, saying it was very easy and the children go on it every year.

In the end we decided against it, but our way turned out to also contain a section of iron cables along a steep cliff, so in hindsight I am not sure if we chose correctly. As we got to the top of the second pass we discovered that the trail did not go down the other side, as any sane person might have expected, but instead continued up along the spine of the ridge. Granted there was a purpose to the madness, since it brought us to the top of the cliff which turned out to be relatively flat -- and had amazing views. Still, as we climb on hand and knees at some points up the rock we were both contemplating the decisions to build the trail this way. The iron stretch was definitely the more dangerous we had encountered, and both Chris and I were a bit nervous. When we made it to Rifugio Puez, a relatively short walk along the tabletop, still both thinking about the cliff just out of view down to our right, we decided to take a closer look at the planned itinerary.

That night at the hut, after some delicious spaghetti, beer and a little World Cup action, we decided to hike around the next mountain, rather than over the top as the route originally directed us. Instead to descended into the town of Covara, a small little town at the foot of a few different peaks. In the winter the whole area is home to a ski area called the Alta Badia. We found a great little B&B before Chris read about a bike ride that went over four different passes and around the highest mountain in the area. He was able to get in a three hour ride in the afternoon while I took a little nap.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Dolomiti, Part I

The starting point for our hike in the Dolomites was the town of Bressanone. We arrived just before dinner to check into our bed and breakfast and get a few things before the stores closed. Bressanone was a tiny little town and it reminded me a lot of Austria. Even though we are in Italy much of this region is German speaking and you can clearly see the influence in the architecture. After dumping our backpacks we went walking around the town. The main square consisted our a few churches around a central plaza. The streets in this area were closed to cars, though on some I'm not sure a car would even fit. The cobble streets get so narrow in places its easy to feel lost in a maze. We had a delicious dinner here, opting for a somewhat upscale little restaurant on the street rather than the Bufalo Cantina, which looked okay from the outside. One of the main errands of the night was to hit up the grocery store to get food for the hike!

It was a bit of deja vu going into the Coop market! Chels and Ethan will remember the excitement of seeing the red lettering of this grocery store. (In Norway, we never passed up the chance to buy food!) The selection is somewhat limited but we were able to get a bunch of cheap granola bars, chocolate bars, and made some delicious GORP with M&Ms. We decided to go with standard bread, cheese, and salami for most of our lunches. We found some amazing little pepperoni sticks and some cheese that didn't need to be refrigerated (kinda like laughing cow -- somewhat sketchy but tastes good). As for the salami......we bought a big squishy thing - more on that decision later! For bread we decided to go with one of those dense loaves that resembles a brick. We have taken to referring to it as elven bread and Chris says that the only way he can force himself to eat it. Its actually not bad with cheese spread on it and given how heavy and dense it is I'm guessing we could survive on it for a few days at least in a pinch! We also found a couple pouches of tuna which has yet to be eaten and Chris is betting that we never do.

One of the pleasant surprises thus far has been the extensive system of gondolas and chair lifts in this area. In many places the valley is simply one giant ski area in the winter, so there are many different lifts. In the summer, however, they allow hikers and bikers to use the chairs and it has been a great for us right from the beginning! The first day of the Alta Via 2 is a 6000 foot climb up to Rifigio Plose, where the actual hike begins. By jumping on a gondola we were able to cut out the first 4500 feet - awesome! The day started out somewhat cloudy with what looked to be a few showers headed our way. We didn't mind too much because it helped to cool us off on the relentless climb the rest of the way to Plose, where we had a quick lunch of of bread, cheese and GORP. The rest of the day was a slow meandering across alpine meadows, occasionally dropping into valleys and crossing windy roads that lead up to tiny little clusters of homes. Some of the day was spent walking through pine forests before we started a climb to the Forcella di Puntia.

I had read in the book that the ascent to the saddle was "relentless" which is never a good sign when hiking. We were able to see the small saddle way in advance, practically from the start of the hike. It matched the picture in our book perfectly, and when I told Chris that was most likely where we were headed I could tell he was a little skeptical - it looked really far away. The mountains here are extremely wild looked because of their sheer rock faces and jagged tops. They look like something straight out of Mordor, which is why Chris has made so many LOTR references thus far. The cliffs and peaks are really spectacular, however, they lead to some pretty rocky and rough trails. There has been a lot of scree and boulders to negotiate in climbing up to many of the passes we need to cross. The first day was a introduction to it all as we climbed up and up. I was a bit tired when we reached the saddle, but the view was definitely worth it. I love being able to see into two different valleys and the feeling of crossing from one to another.

The rest of the hike was an easy slight descent along the ridge line to the Rifugio Genova. The hut system in the Dolomites, and many parts of Europe for that matter, is awesome! The huts provide hikers with a bunk and blankets, so that we only need to carry small silk sleeping sacks. They also serve up an array of hearty food throughout the day. It is great to relax after a day of hiking by sitting at a picnic table on the deck overlooking an serene panorama enjoying a tall glass of cold beer. And that is exactly what we have done each day!

One of the staple foods at the rifugios is of course spaghetti and meat sauce, but they also have some damn good salads and vegetable soup. One of the local special are a kind of bread dumpling made with bacon and herbs served in a simple broth. Though we were not quite sure what it was the first night after the waiter tried to describe it to us and thus decided to go with spaghetti, he told us "next time you try the balls."

Hats with Feathers

Sitting in the plaza after dinner, with Emma double-fisting cones of (chocolate and lemon) gelatto, we noticed people arranging their chairs towards the church as if anticipating a parade. Sure enough, a few dozen of the local men's mountain choir meander in, wearing green polos with some official-looking logo and a green felt hat with a feather; the only three guys under 50 look a bit embarrassed and make a pit stop at the bar. They sing for an hour. Before each song one man reads a quick prelude and backstory. Solid barotone resonated off the church's outside walls, and out of respect I tried not to shudder and wince at the falsoetto of vocal cords past their expiration date.

The generation gap was palpable. Older ladies mouthing the words and clapping politely at all the right places, visibly nostalgic for what was likely their grandparents' music. I thought I saw a few tears dabbed, though this might have been due to somebody's overuse of insect repellant (which Emma says was somebody's perfume). A minority of the audience was under 60. At the other end of the plaza, some 30-somethings chatted irreverently. Rowdy childern were rounded up and whisked away by parents.

As outsiders, it is a privilege to see local customs: one gets the feeling that these local communities are a dying breed.

- Chris

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On the road and trail

Few parts of the world build roads without caring about future use. (I place Spain and Italy in this category.) These are precisely the best places for road cycling. One lane roads with white painted borders meander through the countryside and curl up the sides of valleys and over passes to connect towns. These roads are converted farming lanes not planned highways, with no grade restrictions whatsoever.

I had the privilege to hit up two epic rides on rented road bikes, one out of Riva del Garda and one around the Sella Ronde group of the Dolomites. (I've been prompted to explain what "epic" means to me. For the latter ride, it included four passes for 6000 total feet of climbing with plenty of switchbacks (33 for one of the climbs). The tops of the passes had big fields where paragliders regularly launch. Huge spires of rock provide the backdrop for smooth pavement and the whir of bicycle wheels.... no wonder this is a mecca. I got back in 3 hrs on the dot so that Emma wouldn't worry too much.)

As for the hiking, the area has a network of refugios (cabins of varying size - enough beds for 10-80 people) that also serve dinner and breakfast. It's hard to hike more than 2-3 hours without seeing one. Breakfast includes bread and jam packets and tea or coffee. For dinner we mostly order a small mixed salad, spaghetti bolognese, minestrone soup, and once in a while we splurge on an apfelstrudel. The salads vary in quality since some of these huts are serviced via helicopter. All are positioned with epic views.

In several cases I have been nervous about the trail. The route we are on is famous for sections of "via ferrate" that include metal cables and ladders bolted to the mountain. Rather than being placed generously throughout the route, it turns out these have been reserved for what I see as extreme situations (ie. without them, falling to your death is 50/50 unless you have serious rockclimbing skills/gear/guts).

These sections aside, the trails trace up and over and around ridges and mountains and whatnot. A significant amount of scree and snow crossing requires confidence; the going is easier when one is (purposefully) ignorant of the cliff below. Any bad luck (perhaps tripping on a rock in the trail and botching a recovery) could send one rolling down the hillside. Though my hyperawareness/imagination doesn't help in this case, not realizing the danger you're in seems equally stupid. As far as I'm concerned, the older folks on the trail might be out for their last hoorah.

Some of the trails look worse from afar. In some of the pics, you will note it looks doubtful that a trail zigzags up the mountain side.

We've interspersed a few nights in cities along the way, unable to resist pizza diavola and house wine. They also let Emma rest her legs, especially good since (by my diagnosis) she has some achilles tendinitis flaring up.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

From Verona to Riva to Dolomiti

Hello everyone! I am writing from Corvara, Italy in a region of the Dolomites known at Alta Badia. Chris and I finished our third day of hiking this morning and reached this little ski/bike town just around lunch. The past week has been full of adventures so I will try to start at the beginning and hopefully I don't leave too much out!

Verona: After flying to Italy Chris and I met up in Verona for a few days of site seeing and jet-lag recovery. Verona is best known as being the setting for Romeo and Juliette, but is also has a lot of Roman ruins and is a gateway into the Lake Garda region - where we were eventually headed for our conference. Verona was a perfect little intro to our trip. We stayed in a great little bed and breakfast, we were the only ones there so pretty much had the place to ourselves. One key feature of the place was its air conditioning! There has been somewhat of a heat wave and it was great to be able to come back to a cool room after walking around sweating all day. One of the highlights of Verona was an awesome Roman Colosseum. They currently have operas in the arena but we were able to go inside and check it out during the day. Chris has had a great time pulling out quotes from Gladiator. It was pretty amazing to see out over the whole of the city from the top row of seating. We also spent a while walking around the city and along the river that runs around the main portion of town. We walked to an old amphitheater on a hill overlooking the city which is where we took the pictures of us eating a giant sandwich. Some other adventures - amazing gelato, pizza, and wine! We have had a hard time thus far resisting the amazing food. At one point before we were ready to head to the bus station to catch our we caught a wif of some delicious roast chicken. Chris of course had to go in and get a whole chicken, which we promptly ate standing by the river. It was delicious!

From Verona we jumped on a bus to Riva del Garda, at the very head of Lake Garda and the location of the Sunbelt Conference. We arrived at our little apartment just in time for a much needed nap! Up until this point we were still feeling a bit of jet lag.....on a schedule of two 4 hour naps a day rather than a full night's sleep. Lake Garda is a very big lake and the bus ride along the edge was very scenic - this was great for me because it took my mind off the windy road! The lake was a bluish green color and the 500 foot peaks that line the lake gave us our first taste of the sheer rocky peaks that make up the Dolomiti. It is so rocky that there isn't much beach per se but little rocky outcroppings which were packed with people suntanning. At one point the bus stopped to let on two old couples - totally sunburned, the men with tiny rolled up shorts and their shirts completely opened.

Riva del Garda: Riva is somewhat of a local tourist destination, reminding us somewhat of the Lake Chelan scene. Everyone was out tanning in the grass and the few beaches we saw were packed full of people in all kinds of bathing attire. The conference itself was four days of talks and schmoozing. Sunbelt is different from many academic conferences in that it has a reputation for welcoming newcomers to the field. While this is great for us lowly grad students it also results in huge variation in presentation quality. Overall, Chris and I were able to make some good connections, see some interesting work, and get feedback on some of our own research. Internet access was lacking and the only place with free wifi was at the conference center, we had to walk over there and sit on the grass outside every time we wanted to get online. After the conference we shipped all of our nice clothes to Paris and set out to start the hike! It was a quick bus ride to Trento and from there some navigating of the train system to Bressenone where we started our backpacking trip!

Need to take a break for now.....more update to come soon!