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Hiking high for our first bird's eye view of the Drei Zinnen peaks - previously only seen by looking up.

Cyclotour 2015 - 2/2   (August 2015)  

In The Saddle
Like the first half, the second half of this summer's 7 week cyclotour in the Alps was a zig-zag route up and down a number of the 7,000' passes in the Dolomites. We had week-long stays in favorite villages like Misurina near the base of the stunning Drei Zinnen peaks; at totally new venues like Sappada; and in familiar villages like Badia that we’d only transited through in the past. And except for a 3 night stay in Sillian, Austria, we were in Italy the entire time. Like the previous weeks, most of our days were spent hiking the among peaks with the bikes only being used for 2 to 3 days at a time to transport us from 1 hiking venue to the next.

Too Close For Comfort
“Cortina…. frana (landslide)…. tre morti (3 dead)….St Vito....” were words I recognized in the blur of Italian TV news one morning while I was doing a quick set of exercises on the floor before darting out for an all day hike from Sappada. That evening when we returned, we saw the chilling footage of a massive landslide that had hit St Vito de Cadore, a town southeast of Cortina that we’d ridden through 5 days earlier. Three people were dead, all tentatively identified as foreign tourists. A bike path bridge was destroyed, the road to Cortina was closed for part of a day, and there was massive damage to the ski lift, ski slope, and flood control structures.

The often repeated news story was short on the details we wanted to factor into our safe-travel equation: Was it in the afternoon (when we are on the roads) or in the evening?? How many inches of rain is “intense??” Did it even rain in the village, which would have given some warning, or was it an isolated storm in the peaks like can happen with US SW flash floods??

We watched the variations of the story as it was repeated on the national Italian TV network for 3 days and read the paragraph-long English versions online but were left guessing as to what lesson we might learn from this tragic incident. We were unnerved, got little closure, and were now on high alert for landslides.
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By the time we arrived, they'd found the bike path under the mound of landslide material at Lorettokapelle, IT.

More Destruction
Two weeks after the St Vito landslide, we were abruptly routed off of the tranquil Drau River bike path, a major thoroughfare between Italy and Austria, and on to a fenced strip of pavement on a narrow highway. It didn’t take long to see that the rude expulsion from our lovely, sequestered path was because of a landslide. We later learned that the intense, destructive rainfall that triggered this slide at Lorettokapelle was from the same storm that was so devastating to St Vito.

The Italian village of Lorettokapelle, precisely on the border between Italy and Austria, was far luckier than St Vito. Power was out for 6-7 hours at Lorettokapelle and the road was closed, and then half-closed, for a day. Several buildings sustained damage and it looked like the substructure of a short segment of the main road was probably weakened a bit. The bike route had been buried, but the dig-out was well underway. St Vito however was facing the loss of much of its summer high season trade and possibly the winter ski season because a chair lift was buried in rocky rubble and the base of the adjacent ski slope had washed downstream.

Like at the river's edge of an even more massive landslide that occurred farther downstream on the Drau River several years ago, we paused to study the one before us at Lorettokapelle. With both, we were in awe of the massive amount of earth that had moved in such a short time. We peered to unsuccessfully identify the top edge of the slide, inspected the damage, and contemplated the engineering involved in the repairs at both sites. 

With both slides, the moving earth blocked the intersecting river, resulting in visible damage downstream. With both, the early efforts were to reopen the river, then the road. And such events underscored one of the benefits of bike travel, which is being able to stop in your tracks to gain a deeper understanding of the power of nature when we encounter it.
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They were still stabilizing the slope at Badia more than 2 years after the winter landslide.

When hiking high above the Lorettakapelle landslide area a day later, we scrutinized several fast-moving streams carving narrow, tight, mini-gorges to better understand how different the source of a landslide can look from the bottom of it. All of the landslides we had seen or had learned about in Italy terminated at a river, probably reflecting the steepness of the river valley slopes.

More Questions Than Answers
A few days after navigating around Lorettokapelle’s landslide, we saw the clean-up underway for a massive slide at Badia. It came into view on the opposing slope during the last hour of descent from our all day hike on our first full day at Badia. Quite weary, we were happy to slow to ponder where the slide began, what might have been in its path, and how recent it was.

We couldn’t help but wonder if Badia’s landslide had occurred a few weeks earlier during the same storm that hit the other 2 villages but telltale signs suggested it was older. Indeed, a reluctant young woman rallied her English at the end of our hike and said the slide occurred two and a half years ago. She didn’t say how many buildings were wiped off the hillside but offered that 32 people in 2 tiny communities were dislocated with no deaths or injuries. 

A lucky hit with online research revealed that the earth started moving the day before the slope’s surface was sheered off, which must have given enough warning to prevent casualties.  It was the combination of days of soaking rain abruptly followed by 2 weeks of continuously sub-freezing temperatures that triggered the Badia slide. The lack of snow cover during the hard freeze likely made it easier to spot the telltale surface changes.

The following day our relative rest ramble took us across the slide area on a temporary road, nicely proving a close-up view of the event. Our ensuing surmising about the different underlying geology in Badia and other Dolomite regions we visit filled our heads with new questions, new things to ponder on our hikes and rides. And the focus of 2 other day’s low-exertion walks from Badia was also on landslides: the big one viewed from the river and another, smaller slide which occurred in 2014.

Cortina PS
The Italian national TV station crew covering the landslide tragedy in St Vito seemingly popped in to nearby Cortina for a good-news story a few days later. Cortina was unaffected by the massive landslide and the mayor was all smiles while telling how wonderful it was there. Amusingly, he added weight to my prior statement that the idle rich Italians seemed to congregate in Cortina to be conspicuously idle. My translation of the mayor's statement was that “the foreigners (like us) come to Cortina in July for sport and the Italians come to Cortina in August to be sedentary and to eat."
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WWI gun emplacements cut into a narrow fin above Sappada on Mt. Lastroni.

Riveted By An Older Story
This year is the 100th anniversary of Italy’s entrance into WWI and many communities we visited were featuring special displays. All were small, some being only photographs posted in a village plaza, but we carefully studied them all. We’d seen better and more complete exhibits about the war over the years but it’s always poignant to be standing where it happened and read the details. It was fascinating to look at the old photos showing proud towns like Cortina being only a few wooden buildings back then and to read how disastrous the war was to the productivity of the land for years afterwards.

Studying the ruins of gun emplacements and cliff-dwelling barracks in the peaks above Sappada extended the story further. There like elsewhere, we pondered the struggle of the troops while chipping and blasting niches and tunnels into the rock and initially hauling all of their supplies up on their backs, especially during the winter snows. Avalanches and hypothermia took more lives in the Dolomites than the battles did in WWI.

Catch a Falling Star
Catching a glimpse of a “descending star,” one of our terms for an expert hiker on steep, rocky, downhill trails, is harder and an equally fleeting experience to that of catching sight of a falling star. Fortunately, we briefly caught our second exemplary specimen while in the peaks above Misurina (near Cortina) this August.

We, and a young German-speaking couple, were picking our way down a narrow, too-close-to-vertical slope with precipitous drop-offs that almost certainly became a mix of stream bed and waterfalls during every thunderstorm. Stubby, jagged cones of chipped native rock were punishing to our thinly clad feet but were welcome stable points amid the abundant loose rock ready to roll with every step. Parts of the descent were “protected” with a slack steel cable for a handrail, but the recurrent, gouging water erosion had resulted in it often no longer being within reach. Concentrating on every step and using our poles to control our inevitable skidding, we heard a man above us come from out of nowhere and knew before we could turn to see him that we were about to witness “one of them."
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Near Misurina: Bill emerging from a via ferrata route partially within a WWI tunnel cut inside a fin.

Six years ago another “pogo stick man,” as I first called him, whizzed by us on a less treacherous slope and I was mesmerized by his speed and ease in navigating through the rough terrain. My “I want what he’s got” reaction to his finesse lead us to becoming forefoot strikers in minimalist shoes later that year. 

Being completely upright like on a pogo stick and having a short, “rat-a-tat-tat” type gait on the balls of his feet were 2 of his secrets to speed and stability that we eventually decoded. We’d made huge gains in our descending technic over the following years because of our transformed foot work but I was still frustrated by my lack of command of the overall technic. 

In July of this year when hiking out of Selva, we spotted an older man in extremely ill-fitting, baggy clothes that had clearly mastered the same descent technic but he was almost useless as a 30-second mentor. All we could note from watching him was his shuffle-like foot steps—the refinements in his posture were completely camouflaged. But like the younger man we saw 6 years ago, the guy above Misurina was wearing tight fitting shorts and a T-shirt, clearly revealing his refined stance.

In the 20 seconds or so that we had to study his style while doing our best to stay upright, I was again taken by the ramrod straight posture of these exquisite hikers. He had the ideal posture for all of us that’s measured by a plum line, except for the tilt of his head. His neck wasn’t curved forward like our defensive descending position, his head was only tilted to minimize the shift in his center of gravity.

We had the briefest look at his art before he was completely out of sight but I was surprised a few minutes later to feel what I had learned from him. We are endlessly trying to “stand well” all of the time but with limited success. After seeing him, I redoubled my efforts to crank myself up a few more degrees towards vertical and immediately felt a slight improvement in my stability on the slope he’d just flown down.

Unknowingly, he’d gifted me with my next nugget of understanding in my study of descending stars. We’d mastered the forefoot striking; now the challenge was to maintain it while finding the sweet spot in a more vertical stance without shifting our weight onto our heels, which would land us on our hinnies.  And just maybe, it would improve our day-to-day posture along the way.
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WWI barbed wire, a hikers hut in the distance & a grand panorama from the via ferrata near Misurina.

No doubt there are many equally skilled descenders around us all of the time in the Dolomites but their talents are only evident on the steepest, most unstable descents. Their exceptional skill is absolutely invisible when they are going uphill, traversing the rare flat land, or going down easier slopes. 

The Stats
The summer of 2015 was exceptional for us in big and little ways. We saw our first ever chamois as a mother and kid pair above Cortina and then a couple of weeks later at Badia, we saw a 3rd on the run. Bill was the first to spot the 3 venomous vipers of our trip, all early in our season. And we picked up the intensity as the trip progressed, squeezing in a half dozen vie ferrate and hikes to peaks in the 9,000-10,600’ range as well as 5 hikes of over 5,000’ elevation gain. 

I always threaten to count rain days and never do, but this summer’s intrusive rain events could surely be counted on one hand. There was rain on many days, but for the most part we were able to plan around it. And even though the end of almost every 10 weather forecast closed with predictions of several days with 1-2" of rain, those dismal portrayals only materialized on the last 3 days in the Dolomites.  

We felt snow flakes on our faces a week into our 3 months the mountains when at Passo Sella and saw snow on the peaks and in our village the morning of our departure in September, but that was it for snowfall. The early snow melt, cooperative weather and our peak conditioning made for an outstanding summer. 

Heading Home
The bike trip and our time overseas both concluded at Selva. We stowed the bikes for the winter, packed our "staying" and "leaving" bags, updated our gear inventory lists as to 'what went where', and made careful notes regarding replacement gear needed for 2016. We would rewind our itinerary to Bressannone, IT by bus, to Munich by train, and to Reykjavik and Portland by plane over the course of 4 days.
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The bridge over the 1000' deep crevice on the Tridentina via ferrata route.

Once back home, we'd have our eye on getting to the Grand Tetons before the first snows. A few days before take-off, we learned that our special-order trailer was ready—that its production hadn’t slid until October 1 as forewarned. The new truck Bill wanted still wasn’t available, but we were hoping for a sudden change in that news too. One way or another, we'd be spending another winter roaming the U.S. SW in search of 70 degree weather and weekly hiking venues that would deliver 4,200’ of elevation gain.

A parallel story to the one I wrote about the end of our trip abroad emerged 36 hours before our departure for Bressannone. Our ongoing Italian TV viewing had another nugget for us: the immigrants were now flooding to Brenner Pass, presumably before the border closed because of the German government’s request to Italy to block their transit north at that point. Ironically, in June the Italian government was sending the inconvenient boat people to Brenner to extract them from the train stations of their major cities. 

We watched in a state of shock, along with the rest of the world, at the unfolding chaos in Budapest with the immigrants swarming the trains and the police pulling them off.  It was horrific situation for the refugees and one we didn’t want to be caught in the middle of at Bressannone.

We would be boarding the train at Bressannone for Munich via Brenner, an ancient trade route that was still the most direct way north from Italy.  But now we had visions of being on a packed train with people hanging out the windows like we’d seen on TV. Our reserved seats would be useless if we could even get on the train, and then there were practical matters like our ability to access the toilet and the safety of our luggage. We knew from experience that the authorities do not regulate the number of people who board and if the train is packed, they don’t even check tickets.

Next, we heard that the Italian government had obliged Berlin by “temporarily suspending Schengen,” the treaty that allows unrestricted movement between member countries. The Italians would foot the bill to house the immigrants in gyms for a few days while Germany focused on the huge wave arriving through Hungary. That was good news for us until we heard that Italy’s president said the notion of suspending Schengen was ‘illusory.’ Fret, fret, fret: we wouldn’t know until the moment what our train trip to Munich would be like.
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A typical day on the Bressanone train platform--except for all of the officials behind us.

The small train station at Bressannone was quiet when we arrived on Saturday by bus from the mountains, though there were several police and police vehicles visible. We watched the news again that night but there were no hints as to what the politicians were doing or as to what might suddenly change.

The next morning, all was again quiet in front of the train station but there were more police cars and vans. The officer positioned at the entrance door noted us as we passed. Once through the narrow station building and on to the few platforms, the scene was a bit more intense. No hoards of immigrants in sight but 2 dozen police (some with guns, which is unusual), a half dozen Red Cross workers in bright red suits, 3 individuals with “Aid Worker” on their shirts that was written in only English and Arabic, and 3 men in suits that I guessed were city officials.

The various officials didn’t quite out number the waiting passengers but were curiously poised on Track 1 that had no scheduled trains. We presumed that they were expecting a special train taking the refugees to Germany. We all waited. A few minutes before our train arrived, the uniformed personnel crossed the tracks en mass to our platform, upping our concern. It was our train, not some special run that they were anticipating. 

We boarded the already nearly full train and busied ourselves ousting 2 young German women from our reserved seats and struggling to stow our luggage. We assumed the officials all boarded at the back of the train and expected them to walk through and exit at Brenner but we never saw them again. 

During the 15 minute layover at the Pass, there were men in black commando uniforms, devoid of insignia of any kind, pacing on the platform. The train doors that are usually open at long stops were closed. Several subdued one’s and two’s of North African young men seemed to be playing a cat and mouse game with them as they meandered towards our train car door and were deflected with a stern look and raised hand.  None of the young men boarded our car and I assume none boarded any part of the train. And then it was over--or so we thought.

We actually experienced "Schengen suspended" when we crossed the border into Germany later on. A flock of police with temporary reception tents were on the platform. They delayed our train by 20 minutes while they did a meticulously inspection of everyone's passport. It wasn't the cursory culling for easily spotted immigrants we expected but instead they were using the opportunity to cast a broader net. We saw a half dozen dejected looking young men being politely escorted away from our train and a North African woman with 2 small children also being directed to a tent. My guess from her affect was that the woman wasn't a part of the recent surge of immigrants but that her papers weren't in order. Now it was over.

Lucky for us, our brush with the largest mass migration since WWII was behind us. We’d watch with keen interest from afar once at home because the end of the real story will be years in coming.