Bressanone from our hotel window: never mind the clouds, there was no missing that we were in Italy.
BACK IN ITALY   (June 2015)

Bressanone, IT
Positively beaming with delight, we strolled into the old town of Bressanone after walking across the street from the train station to ditch our 140 lbs of luggage in our hotel room. An old traditional hotel, Bill’s request for a corner room on the garden side of the building was honored, giving us cross-ventilation, a view of the mountains and vineyards, and buffering us from the train noise. It was a one-night stopover that we’d made before, one that gave Bill the needed time to make the tedious, in-Italian only, transactions to secure cell phone and internet service for our 3 month stay. We had arrived and we knew it.

Bill’s carefully planned itinerary had gone like clockwork. Somewhere around 36 hours earlier we’d boarded an Icelandic Air flight for Reykjavik, Iceland where we changed planes for Munich. A metro ride into Munich's city center delivered us to our hotel and the next morning we hopped another train for Bressanone. After a night there, an hour bus ride would deposit us in Ortisei in our beloved Dolomites for a month-long stay at 3 different locations in the high mountain valley.

Budget airline Icelandic was a joy. The planes were new and fresh and the flights were delightfully calm. The absence of the obligatory meal service made all the difference. The youthful and cheery flight crew weren’t harried, the aisles were clear most of the time, and passengers weren’t prisoners in their seats because of food, beverage, and duty-free carts. A minority of passengers bought boxed meals that, like the supplies for duty free, water service, and garbage collection, were primarily hand carried. It was the most tranquil long-distance flight we’d been on.

Taking Icelandic Air was a cosmic joke for us because we’d so carefully been on “volcano watch” when flying since the 2010 eruption of one of Iceland’s volcanoes that snarled air travel for a week. Boldly (with an eye to our pocketbook) we flew into the eye of the storm by changing planes relatively near the volcano rather than taking a carrier that flew farther south. 

One of his 2 new shirts from Bressanone made it for the hike on the backside of Seceda.
The 2 flights and subsequent ground transportation had gone smoothly, our jet lag recovery was again phenomenally improved since being on our ketogenic diet, and we were where we love to be. Northern Italian cities and villages are so idyllic, so nurturing. 

The “kick back and enjoy it” response had been instantly triggered when we hit the streets of Bressanone. The slightly uncomfortable heat and humidity of the early summer afternoon reminded us to stroll and we sought the tree-shaded sidewalks. Many stores were still closed for the long lunch break, reinforcing the sense of calm. 

Soon enough however, we were ducking into small shops in our endless search for trim, colorful hiking shirts for Bill. A knife shop opened and in my lighter haze of time zone confusion, I remembered we were long overdue to replace our small hair cutting scissors. The merchants were all patient and doting even with our clumsy German and Italian language skills, especially at the TIM cell service store. We felt bathed in calm, in goodwill, in the good-natured mountain culture even though we were only in the foothills. Yes, this is why we keep coming back.

Cross Currents
Towards the end of our almost 4 hour train ride from Munich to Bressanone over the very familiar Brenner Pass, we were disturbed to see several clusters of very thin, very dark, and somewhat limp north African men at the Pass train station. Larger groups of such immigrant men were a familiar sight on the streets of more southern Italian cities, but definitely not at Brenner Pass. We wondered if we were seeing some of the displaced people flooding into southern Italy from Africa, but at “Brennero” on the border with Austria? Brennero isn’t even really a village, it’s little more than a busy transit junction with a new outlet mall.

I watched as a lone man approached a small group on the platform with a train ticket conspicuously in his hand; I nervously anticipated his reception, expecting violence. The tense body language of all, the clear defensiveness of the ticket-holder, the animated discussion that ensued when one man took the ticket and eventually returned it, worried me. The dynamics seemed on the verge of bullying, then the tension slowly dissipated. Once our train began to move again, I noticed another cluster of young men and a few young women at the far end of the building. They all shared the same heartbreakingly resigned, distressed, “going nowhere” affect.

That evening in our hotel we did our best to understand the Italian-only TV news. Like on the Italian language radio station we’d been streaming for months, there were multiple stories about the crises caused by the mass exodus of people from Syria and north Africa into Europe, especially into Italy. 

A TV newscaster was reporting from one of Milan’s alleys lined with squatting young adults, primarily male, sheltering from the sun in a sliver of shade. She approached several docile men holding train tickets. I caught “Brennero” as one of the destinations, as well as Ventamiglia, which is a coastal town in which we’d stayed on Italy's border with France. 

Horrifically, it appeared that one response to this invasion of unwelcome refugees was to literally give them dead-end tickets. The refugees were given a presumably free ride to the Italian border where there were no social services at all for them. In response, the Austrian and French officials had selectively closed their borders to these individuals who were piling up.  A day later, we saw that the authorities had, in their words, "cleared out" the refugees that had been sheltering in the train stations in Milan and Rome.

It was very sobering to know that while we had been deeply enjoying our train ride south from Germany into the Italian Alps and reminiscing about previous bike and train travel on the route, that we simultaneously had been going south through a counter current of unhappy immigrants being driven north to disperse them. We were horrified by the extreme disparity in sense of certainty and well being between them and us and felt helpless to contribute anything to ease the suffering of so many.

Italy, and Europe, is in spasm as to how to deal with this huge flood of immigrants that are fleeing the conflicts in the Middle East and those that have resulted from the Arab Spring. We were seeing it first hand, though extremely diluted. 

The refugees weren’t evident in Bressanone or at its train station and we thought it highly unlikely we’d see them in the Dolomites which are noticeably “sanitized” of unpleasantness. The homeless, the disadvantaged, and the overtly mentally ill are conspicuously absent in the mountains—so absent that the system to keep them invisible is also unseen. It of course makes for a pleasant vacation from reality but we’ve always been highly conscious that it is an altered reality. It was now clear that yet another harsh reality in Italy and in the world was being added to the list of things from which mountain holiday-makers would be shielded.

The first rule of our fitness focused travel is to never pass up a chance to play.
Weather: Always the Wild Card
We were immediately poised for a wonderful summer in the Dolomites, with the weather being the huge wild card. Our hostess in Bressanone cringed when saying that there hadn’t been a summer last year, which we knew all too well. She commented that the hotel supply drivers had said how miserable in was in the mountains when they made their rounds. She also added something we hadn’t known, which was the excess snow had spoiled the long distance treks on the Via Alpi last summer, a mini Pacific Crest Trail in the mountains with over night stops at huts. It sounded like some visitors had to abandon their long-anticipated trek altogether while others had modified their routes.

I chimed in with “We brought extra gear this summer because last year was so bad.” The Bressanone hostess immediately responded with “That was the problem, they didn’t have the right equipment.” Her tone made me wonder if there had been some lives lost or life-threatening situations with hikers on the Via Alpi. We’d heard in the past about the uptick in alpinist deaths when the winter snows had been heavy or their snows lingered long. Last summer we heeded the personal advise given at many venues which we summarized as “hike low.” 

Last summer we skipped some choice via ferrata hikes and other higher elevation routes Bill had built into his itinerary because of lingering ice and too many summer storms. Safety is always #1 for us. And this year we made our suitcases bulge with bulky cold weather gear for our month of hiking before we mounted our bikes. Waterproof boots, warmer jackets, heavier pants, and waterproof trail running shoes for me were our additional ‘travel insurance’ to increase the odds of keeping active in the mountains independent of the weather. If it was another non-summer, we’d again ‘hike low’ but hike. 

New views of old favorites on a long hike from Ortisei.
Like last summer, we’d only know when it was over if the wet start to the summer was a trend for the 3 months or a fluke. Either way, we hoped that our new training regime built around a single big hike each week would keep us satisfied should there be a stormy weather pattern. In the meantime, we’d focus on our other big daily challenge, which was quickly deciding whether to greet oncoming hikers in German, Italian, or English. Disappointingly, I only get it right about half the time.

Ortisei in Val Gardena, IT
Creating the Opportunity
We generally avoid staying in 4,000’ high Ortisei, the lowest of the 3 villages in the valley of Val Gardena in the Dolomites, but spent our first week there this summer. Ortisei is expensive and, if you are anywhere near the center, it’s very noisy at night. Even in low season, it frequently has loud outdoor events that often begin at our bedtime. (Think cannons being shot repeatedly in rounds of 3, marching bands, and boisterous party-makers.) But this year the strong dollar made town center lodging prices (barely) acceptable to us and we were there earlier than usual, before low season, during the ‘non-season.’

After deciding to head straight for the mountains instead of spending our first week in Europe in a lower and warmer location like we’d done in the past, we picked Ortisei because we knew it wouldn’t feel abandoned like our favorite village, Selva, which was higher up the valley at 5,000'. Ortisei is the big draw in this mountain valley for tour buses and their wowed riders would impart a pleasant energy on the town during the day but there would be no programs to entertain them at night, which was perfect for us. And it was: the shops and lifts were open and we enjoyed the liveliness of the foot traffic by day and the quiet by night.

Bill looking at the back side of Secede in 2014.
And, happily, we were wrong in thinking that we already had done all of the best hikes from Ortisei. We were immensely pleased with our trail choices from the first day.  No matter that we finished our first hike in a downpour, the unfamiliar trail, new panoramas, and floral display had made the day. New-to-us secondary routes delivered previously unseen views and a deeper understanding of the terrain and geology in the area. 

The ‘Seceda Effect'   (suh-CHAY-duh)
In July of 2013 while in Selva, I noticed a sandwich board ad for a mountain run in 2 days that began in the lower village of Ortisei. At 9 miles, with 4,200’ of elevation gain, and finishing at the top of the Seceda lift at 8,200,’ it was out of reach for us given the event had to be completed in two and a half hours. Bill thought I was a bit crazy but agreed to set an intention to participate in it in 2014, which included beginning a gentle running program. When we returned to the villages for a week in September, we walked the course on the south side of the mountain, which added to our confidence  and cemented our quest for 4,200’ elevation gain hikes.

For the next year, we were in search of bigger gain hikes than we’d ever done before, both in the Alps and in the US. The extra conditioning focus paid-off and we brought up the rear of the 200 participants in the 2014 mountain run, coming in just under the cut-off time.

Finally: off the scree & into the crags near the top of Seceda.
While on a relative-rest day hike before the event in 2014, we had gazed at the near-vertical backside of Seceda and Bill commented that he would plan a hike to include the route in our 2015 itinerary. True to his word, hiking up the steeper north face of Seceda was done on the best weather day of our week in Ortisei. It was a glorious hike with endlessly changing terrain and is now a contender for my favorite trail in the area. And while on this great route in 2015, he revealed that he was already planning a 2nd assault of Seceda's north side in 2016 but from a more distant starting point. 

One of our prior complaints about Ortisei was not only was the lodging pricey, so were the lifts. And unlike Selva where we spend the most time, at Ortisei we always had to take a lift to get to the best trails. But ironically, the Ortisei mountain run planners inadvertently reversed that situation for us with its ’Seceda Effect’. 

Training for the mountain run from Ortisei town center to the top of the Seceda lift—the highest readily accessible point around—had made 4,200’ of elevation gain ordinary for us. Initially unplanned, we averaged a 4,300’ gain hike once a week for 4 months during the first part of 2015.  So this summer while in Ortisei, we started all of our hikes from the town center and included the distances that would have been covered by the lifts as part of our workout. What an amazing change in fitness and attitude!

We had been focusing on increasing our hiking range in horizontal distance for several years and this last year we also increased our vertical range, which made Bill salivate. For years he had studied his hiking maps for new hikes for us in the Dolomites, always factoring the limitations of our range into the equation. In 2013 and 2014 our range was up enough that he could add more hikes to the list of possibilities and our capacity for difficult hikes clearly had popped up a couple of levels for 2015. Our increased ability however made snow-free trails and predictable weather even more precious because we were on the trails longer.

Passo Sella
“Contented, I feel contented” were Bill’s words after the commotion settled from unpacking our luggage in our new home for a week, the mountain hotel at Passo Sella. Like our lovely town center apartment in Ortisei, the new hotel up the road at Passo Sella was well beyond our usual price point but we’d convinced ourselves it was time to indulge. 

Sassolungo from our balcony: we couldn't see beyond the trees for the snow when we arrived.
The stronger dollar (1 Euro = $1.05-1.13 vs $1.45) had broken the old barrier of resistance and we finally caved-in to spending more knowing that both accommodations delivered great locations and unusually pleasing interiors. Both would make us purr and that was a very appealing way to begin the summer,  especially if the weather was disappointing. Amusingly at Ortisei, even though we were paying double our preferred price, the ultra-modern shower design still had us mopping the bathroom floor every night as is too often the case in Europe.

Our first hour in our Passo Sella room promised an even better experience than in Ortisei even though we lacked a kitchen. Our new balcony faced the much admired peaks of Sassolungo. No matter that it was snowing when we arrived and the mountain was obliterated from view, we knew it was there and that we’d love having glimpses of it all week. And having a room at this pass rather than taking an infrequently scheduled bus up to it like we did last year, meant that we could pick our hiking times to synchronize with the weather in the moment, not just with the forecast, like we did on our arrival day.

We busied ourselves unpacking our gear and almost all of the food we’d eat for a week while it snowed. There were the over 4 lbs of smoked salmon, sun dried tomatoes, a big bag of walnuts, freeze-dried vegetables, and over a pound of chocolate we’d lugged from home. In Ortisei we’d added 14 avocados, 7 cucumbers, 7 red peppers, a pound of olives, cheese, tuna, and other items. Looking at our food stash and our clearly essential extra cold weather clothing added to the sense of contentment—we were in a stunning, somewhat isolated location and had everything we needed to live the way we prefer to live for the week.

The woman had just given their turntable lounger at a hut a spin.
Arriving in a windy snow flurry wasn’t our ideal beginning but the storm passed by the time we finished unpacking and eating our lunch and the next one barely bypassed us. We bundled up in almost all of the warm clothing we had with us and went for a stunning 3 hour walk at 7000’. Like at Ortisei, we were seeing new views of favorite venues from Day 1.

The glum forecast of significant rain every day of the week had improved and we quickly earmarked the 2 best weather days for all-day hikes. Colder and stormier than we hoped for but unlike last year, there was less lingering snow at the higher elevations. Bill’s hike planning mind went into high gear upon seeing exactly where the snow was on the peaks and trails.

Our daily outings at the pass ranged from relative rest days of scrambling up steep slopes to identify wild flowers to the all day hike around the base of our centerpiece peak, Sassolungo.

Peaking Experience
It was among the high peaks of Passo Sella that we solidified our belief that the serendipitous decision in July of 2013 to train for the Ortisei mountain run had transformed our lives. We understood at the time that actually participating in the event was secondary and that the biggest expected benefits would come from training for it. We knew at the time of the run in 2014 that we'd cashed-in big time on the effort but now, a year later,  we had an even deeper sense of the fundamental transformations that had occurred in our bodies.

The hut on Sassolungo at 8500' & the view back down the lift line we hiked.
Not being able to eat after speed hiking up 4200' elevation gain trails while training for the event had created a potential crisis because we had to descend for about 3 hours on empty bellies. We managed, but the potential gravity of the problem propelled me to answer the question as to how endurance athletes dealt with the problem during even bigger efforts. Unsatisfied with the common strategy of main-lining pure sugar, we embarked on a fringe approach, which was to all but shun carbohydrates and force our metabolisms to become highly efficient fat-burning machines—all the time. It was an uncomfortable gamble, both physically and intellectually, but it worked like a charm. It's the closest thing to magic that I've ever experienced.

What become strikingly clear as we charged up the very steep lift line at Passo Sella from about 7,000' to 8,500' in a little over an hour with only 4 days of acclimation at 7,000', was that we were operating in a whole new realm. And while we hiked for 6 more hours that day and added another 2,700' of elevation gain without feeling depleted, we knew we had transformed ourselves.

It had been an amazing, self-reinforcing process over the last year: the hard training had necessitated a new dietary strategy and the new fueling regime allowed us to train harder and become stronger; and the harder we trained, the stronger we became. The ketogenic diet gurus say that as some people age that they become carbohydrate intolerant and that the incomplete metabolization of carbs 'cruds-up' multiple systems in your body. Neither of us could comprehend the details of the ‘carbs-as-crud’ analysis,  but we sure were impressed with the results. 

Our first & only Yellow Lady's Slipper Orchid.
Even a year into the diet we were experiencing improvements in muscle recovery with exertion, cognitive functioning, jet lag recovery, and altitude tolerance. It indeed seemed that some of the effects of aging in each of us had really been secondary damage from faulty carbohydrate metabolism and we'd effectively reversed some of the damage. At the end of my last visit with my Portland body worker, I was startled when he concluded the session by uncharacteristically saying "I don't see any aging here." I suspect the comment was driven by the healthy texture of my tissues under his hands. ( Unfortunately, the diet has done nothing for wrinkles, sagging skin, or thinning hair.)

Not only did we enjoy a very contented week at Passo Sella being nestled in its glorious mountain peaks, the challenging hiking conditions there amplified the depth and breadth of benefits from adhering to our very strict ketogenic diet and exploiting the conditioning opportunities it had created. That huge affirmation made these first 2 special-venue weeks all the sweeter. 

Heading Downhill
Next up would be a 2 week visit down the valley in the upper village of Val Gardena, Selva, where we had stayed many times. There we would have more ease in our daily living because we’d have a kitchen and easy access to markets. And there Bill would again be studying the hiking maps to take further advantage of our new range.

We looked forward to being warmly greeted in Selva by Susy, the owner of our building and Catalina, the Moldovan housekeeper. And there we’d be reunited with our bikes that had wintered in the Alps. In 2 weeks time, we’d load them up for a 7 week hiking and biking tour of other areas in the Dolomites.