Selva di Val Gardena, The Dolomites, Italy  (July 2015) 

Selva: Better Than Going Home
Returning to Selva is as comfortable as going home but more fun. We are warmly greeted by our hostesses and carefully given the same apartment each year. The housekeeper remembers that we prefer a blanket over down duvets and that we need kitchen towels as a part of the linens for which we pay extra. She has our bikes and panniers with some of our gear out of storage and ready for us to access before we cross the threshold.

The view from Punta Puez: we started on the valley floor & encountered little snow on the trail.
We have our Selva arrival routines as well. As rapidly as possible, we stow our perishable foods in the tiny refrigerator and completely empty our suitcases. Then it’s on to quickly sorting our dirty clothes into 2 piles for washing in the only washing machine we’ll have access to for 3 months. 

A first load of laundry is started on our way out the door to the market with one empty trolley suitcase and several shopping bags in hand. The typical European front loading washer will take over 2 hours to complete its cycle and we’ll just get both loads washed and hung before bedtime. Cold water wash only and air drying on a provided rack is less than ideal (in cold weather) but it sure beats hand washing.

At the market we begin stocking-up on items needed for easy living in our apartment for 2 weeks. My notes from the previous year speed decision-making about buying kitchen detergent, laundry detergent, dishwasher detergent, paper towels, and toilet paper. Usually we have enough of those items stowed in our panniers to get us started, which allows us to haul more food up the steep hill from the market on our first trip. The small size of our refrigerator necessitates additional shopping every 2 days.

Slaves to the weather forecast, we were highly motivated to snappily complete our essential chores upon our arrival in Selva this summer because the next day was forecast as the best weather day of the week.

Looking back at Punta Puez.
Punta Puez (poo-ETS)
The Bucket List
“I’d wondered how we’d ever get there and now we are doing it” was Bill’s comment as we headed out the next morning for what would be more than an 8 hour outing to the top of 9500’ Punta Puez and back. A couple of years ago he was thrilled when our hiking range had increased enough for us to make it to the Puez Hut in the saddle below the peak and now we were enough stronger that we were going to bag the peak itself.

An unusually steep, loose rubble slope at altitude, it was slow going for us and the much younger German couple in the lead to reach Punta Puez. Our new feather-weight carbon trekking poles were helpful on the ascent and would be essential for making the trip back down the out-and-back route. It was probably the first time that all of the dozen people we eventually saw on the trail were using poles. Luckily for us, in February we’d decided to use a pair of poles each on our big hikes.

While picnicking atop the peak on a lovely, hot afternoon and celebrating our success with the first and hardest half of the day, an old man came trudging up to the summit using his poles. We were by far the oldest people there before he arrived though his short, stocky build; baggy pants; oversized jacket; straw hat; sunglasses; and dropped head made it impossible to judge his age. He only lingered long enough to eat an apple and drink from his metal water bottle while standing.

We were grateful for excellent hiking conditions & our able bodies (Piz Duleda).
The nome-like creature began his descent a couple of minutes after us and in moments, zipped past us. Sort of a thick lump shrouded in loose clothing, it was impossible to analyze his movement style to decipher the secret to his speed, and he wasn’t close to us for long. “Surefooted” was Bill’s comment and the most profound conclusion we could draw as he sped down the treacherously slope at probably twice our speed.

Analyzing the most effective hikers on the mountains has been pivotal to increasing our speed and stability on rocky terrain over the years but frustratingly, his secrets remained hidden from view. The best I could do was cement an image of him in my mind and hope that my subconscious could guide me in mimicking some aspect of his style in the weeks ahead.

His descending technique was definitely superior to ours and we wanted to believe that he was the hut owner or a retired mountain guide. It was easy to imagine that he made this trek up to the peak from the hut every few days as a part of his fitness program and didn’t have to commit the entire day to it like those of us who started on the valley floor 4,500’ below. Regardless of any real or imagined advantage he had over us, we bowed to his prowess and hoped to be as competent some day.

Seeing this highly effective old guy run circles around us was deeply inspiring and he reminded me of my “Inspire, Be Inspired” slogan I coined on the Palm Springs trails 18 months ago. I love the give and take of inspiration when on tough routes. We know that some of the young German lads turned to take a second look at us on the same trail and the old guy certainly turned our heads. That is in part why I cringe when people say they want to come to these mountains when there aren’t other people around them because the interesting and inspiring community is an important part of our experience.

Our new purifier gave us peace of mind--the trough lacked a sign as to the potability of the water (Puez).
Unexpected Heat Wave
Punta Puez was 1 of 3 big hikes that Bill reveled in planning for our 2 week stay in Selva.  A week later he cleverly strung together 2 familiar routes in 1 day, routes that we usually considered enough effort for a single day each, and then he tossed in different 9,500’ peak in the middle. He was loving both our increased hiking range and the lack of snow on these high peaks this year so that we could finally get to them.  What a delight, especially after lingering heavy snows last summer kept us off even the mid-elevation trails.

We had 10 days of unseasonable heat (in the 80’s) and humidity from a heat wave that blanketed much of western Europe. It was a bit uncomfortable for our highest exertion days though it did make our newest gadget a star. We bought a light-stick water purifier because we knew that water was usually available at several points on most hikes in the Dolomites. One long, hot day we each drank 4 liters of water on the trail though had only carried 2 liters each. We’d expected 2 liters each to be enough, but being shirt-sleeve weather at 9,500’ was a surprise and doubled our consumption. Luckily, several water troughs and easily accessed tiny streams were on the last half of our route and we treated the extra 4 lbs of water we each needed.

Others weren’t so lucky with the heat wave from Africa. People in the cities were suffering and dying from the often heard “40 grad,” or 40 degrees centigrade (104 degrees fahrenheit) temperatures. Bill read that 3 expert paragliders died within 2 days near Monte Blanc, France, which is on the western border with Italy. Fluky winds from the rare weather pattern was the best understanding he could get from translating the article from an online version of an Italian newspaper as to the cause of their fatal miscalculations.

"If Only"
The hot weather brought with it hazy skies, perhaps from humidity, transported urban pollution, or desert sands, though we’re not sure which. We didn’t take many pictures because of the murky skies though enjoyed the panoramas in the moment. Too bad for us, the clearest days were the 2 days before we left Selva on our bikes, days relegated to serious rest because the prior day had been a big hike (that finished in a downpour with hail) and the following day would be our first day on loaded bikes during which we’d struggle up a high pass. Oh well, at least we already had plenty of photos in our albums of stunning days in the mountains.

We settled for the shorter, less challenging, Col di Rodella via ferrata by taking a bus to Passo Sella.
Our other disappointment while based at Selva was that a delightful via ferrata  about a 45 minute walk from our apartment was closed. It was an “illegal” route though it was always well maintained and there had always been signs to it. Over the years, it started showing up in via ferrata guides and on maps, which made it all the more surprising to see it gone. 

A local young man who spoke excellent English and sat out the hail storm and a little later, a directly-overhead thunderstorm with us, said the local mayor mandated the removal of the Pertini via ferrata. He apparently didn’t want to risk an injury or fatality on it on his watch, though the young man thought it might be restored in a few years. It was a very popular route and had to have been a huge money maker for the hut-owner near its top. Hut owners often fully or partially finance via ferrata route construction and maintenance for courses that lead hungry and thirst climbers to their doors, with beer and strudel being in high demand. And for us, it was a special loss because it is the hardest via ferrata we’d ever attempted yet knew that we could do it.

The Russians (Aren’t) Coming
The older Germans and Austrians abruptly stopped coming to the Dolomites in droves after the economic crisis began in 2007/2008 and we miss their good cheer on the trails. Their economies have both rebounded, but they are still staying away. 

One of the Italian government's responses to the hard times was to promote a “vacation at home” campaign, which did boost the presence of families from Milan and Naples in the Dolomites. Their money was welcome in the mountains but their propensity for shouting indoors and out as well as littering everywhere tries the patience of both us and our shared hosts. The next wave to rescue the Alpine hospitality industry was the newly prosperous Russians.

Growing up bathed in Cold War propaganda, I felt a little uneasy sharing my paradise with them. But our Selva hostess was thrilled to have anyone fill the void during the lucrative winter ski season and 2 winters ago our apartment building was almost exclusively filled with Russians. Our hostess responded by taking an introductory Russian course and hiring a housekeeper for whom Russian was the 2nd of her 5 languages. Russian newspapers were on the stands in the summer months and a bas relief bronze sculpture appeared on a popular walkway commemorating the Russian POWs who built the original railroad structure in 1916.

It was a great summer for wild flowers like this Hill Clover.
But this winter the ruble that is in ruins took its toll and the Russians didn’t come to ski in the Dolomites and the newspapers were missing from the stands this summer. Our hostess said that the Brits and Scandinavians filled her rooms over the winter. We assume however that business wasn’t as robust as usual because of the complete absence of discussion of our apartment building’s imminent remodeling project. She instead pursued an expensive installation of 3 hall lights in each of our building’s apartments, which suggests that the remodel is firmly on hold. Our Russian speaking housekeeper won’t be returning next summer because of her pregnancy, so we will be curious to see if another Russian speaker is hired to replace her or not.

Tracking the gross swings of the hospitality industry in the Dolomites is the closest we get to knowing the economic back story in the mountains and the region so we are always keenly interested in the brief annual update answering the question “How’s business?”

In the Saddle
Our 7 week bike ’n hike tour began the day we left Selva. It’s always hard to leave Selva but we knew we’d be back at the end of August. We’d have 1 more week of hiking there while we time-sliced packing our biking gear for winter storage and our suitcases for our flight home.

The weather had been the big wild card for the summer of 2015 and after a month of hiking as much as our bodies could tolerate, even with almost daily rain in the forecast. we were no longer worried. The snow level was high and it wasn't the wet, cold, frustrating summer like that of 2014. We knew we’d head for home in September satisfied and looked forward to our next hiking venue in Vigo di Fassa a day’s ride away.