A table fit for a king & his family.

An (Almost) “Typisch,” Lower Elevation, Hike in the Dolomites  
We were delighted to be on the trails above Suisi (near Castelrotto, Italy) in the Dolomites on Tuesday morning after taking-off from the Pacific Northwest the previous Friday afternoon. Crisscrossing gravel and asphalt roads was a less-than-auspicious start, but at least we were hiking. The high humidity under the trees from the recent rain was uncomfortable but was better than being in the showers forecast for the morning. 

Starting at 3300’, our available trails were under a mixed forest canopy rather than being in the glorious, above-tree line ambiance that we’d be enjoying in a week. The conditions and circumstances were less than ideal but I kept coaching my jet-lagged brain that this was fine, especially for Day #1. We were relieved to be out of the Columbia River Gorge’s poison oak-lined trails but I was surprised to have my glasses fog every time we stopped because of the damp air.

I perked up upon seeing a giant, weathered, wooden table when the trail crossed yet another road about a half hour into our hike. We gleaned from the information plaque in German and Italian that this odd forest find commemorated Oswald Von Wolkenstein, a familiar regional noble from the 1700’s. Too soggy to sit upon it for even a moment, the king’s table signaled that additional, engaging displays honoring the local history and culture could lie ahead.
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Gotta love the playfulness of the mountain artisans.

Whoa…what a find!

About 10 minutes after seeing the unexpected table, we passed under an arch crafted by another local woodworker. The sense of fantasy at the entrance to a ‘proper’ trail lifted my spirits as did the steepening grades. We seek-out such trails for the highly efficient cardio-vascular workouts they deliver and in the coming days we’d learn that very steep—probably as much as 30% grades--was common on Suisi’s lower elevation trail system.

My grumbling about my sticky skin from sweating heavily in the humid air and the lack of viewpoints from the deep forest trail was completely displaced by big grins when we encountered an eagle head carved into a threatening downed tree about 90 minutes into our hike—another nice surprise. It wasn’t long after delighting in this 3rd piece of  woodcraft that we enjoyed our first view, which wasn’t the panorama out that we were expecting but a dramatic look up at a few of the many peaks overlooking Suisi.
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At last, a grand glimpse beyond the forest.

A typical rifugio (hut) serving lunch & snacks.

The relentlessly steep trail was almost too abruptly conditioning our calf muscles for the mountain slopes of the Dolomites but we were getting the workout we craved. Bill expected that we’d get relief atop a ridge after about 2,000’ of elevation gain and the first sign of that approach was a carport-like structure tucked in the trees above us. It had 2 taunt cables angling downhill from it and there was no mistaking: it was the supply lift for a nearby mountain hut. 

Many small alpine huts lack road access and receive their deliveries of beer and strudel for their guests by such cableways that are too small and dangerous for transporting people. Once at the level of the shed, we spotted narrow tractor tracks in the mud showing the way to the hut.

Perfect! A rock slide had cleared a viewpoint & provided picnic seating.
The mountain hut owners had cleared a patch of the forest for their compound, which also provided us with our first panorama. Given that it is not proper to picnic on hut grounds unless a ‘free zone’ is apparent, we pressed on, looking for our own vista point. Less scenic but serviceable, we parked ourselves about 10 minutes beyond the hut and slightly uphill from the trail where it crossed a rockslide area. It was a narrow slot of a view but we welcomed the chance to gaze beyond the trees while we ate. Unfortunately, we were a tad late and what had been the last chance to dry our damp clothing under the warmth of the sun was gone. Disappointingly, we had to put our warm, puff jackets on over sweat-soaked clothes.

The forecast for several hours of afternoon sun didn’t materialized, the clouds darkened, and our ponchos came out to deflect the intermittent drizzle shortly after eating. “At least we ate lunch before the rain” was our cheer. That’s always a measure of a good hiking or biking day—being able to rest and eat our midday meal in relative comfort. But we’d chilled more than we realized while eating and quick-stepped through the rocks on the next stretch of deep forest trail trying to warm ourselves.

We  headed up the steepest available trail after emerging from the cold forest to generate more heat and were pleased to see a wooden post loaded with trail signs. We always welcome the information noted on the signs in both German and Italian and savored yet another reminder that we were already in the Alps. 

We ventured up a bit further to ogle the panoramas we’d longed to see on our way to the ridge. The sight of the vibrantly green, higher elevation, rolling pastures that were dotted with farmer’s huts and backed by views of the patchy snow on the jagged mountains finally satisfied our yearnings for grand views. 

Green pastures, farmer’s storage huts, & a great panorama.
Now warm and contented, we began our descent down a new trail admiring the creativity of a local bridge builder and the ever present mountain cows when suddenly the drizzle turned to rain and then a downpour. There was no time to extract our waterproof  jackets and pants from the bottom of our packs and we scampered in the quickly forming mud until we found a small patch of trees. As we’d done a number of times over the years in the sudden afternoon storms in the Dolomites, we each backed into a thin spot between the branches, hoping for adequate shelter. 

I joked to Bill that when the rain lightened up enough to look, that we’d find ourselves standing on an ant hill. Sure enough, when he stepped out to assess the cloud movement, Bill noticed that we were on the edge of one. Lucky for us, the residents were all staying indoors.

We waited and waited for the rain to abate but it became clear that this wasn’t just a passing cell. The narrow track we’d been on a few steps below our tree completely filled with water and we started looking for a higher bypass to use when we made our break. Then it hailed. 

Bill kept stepping out to update his forecast and finally concluded from the look of the clouds that we were doomed to continuing on in significant rain. Fortunately, it wasn’t one of the many pounding mountain deluges like we’d never seen at home, but it was a persistent, soaking rain.

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Usually bridges at this elevation are focused on function.

Hail backed up in the hut’s downspout.

After 15-20 minutes of futile waiting for a reprieve, we continued our descent in a very brief, relative break, in the rain. We managed to dodge the deepest standing water on the trail and discovered that the hail had been more intense around the next bend. 

Luckily, the 2nd of 2 hiker huts adjacent to our trail that day wasn’t far ahead and we darted up the muddy, squishy bank to their deserted compound. We immediately parked ourselves under 2 intersecting eves that completely sheltered us from the wind and rain. It was perfect: a concrete pad under our feet and a window ledge on which to set my glasses. At last, we could locate and put on our rain gear without getting soaked in the process.

Our little bivouac was actually in front of the doors to the hut’s 2 public toilets. I finally relented and paid 50 cents to use the facilities with scant TP and no hand washing option. There were plenty of bushes on the trail to go behind but my now 7 overlapping layers of clothes at my waist and a soggy pack and poncho meant I was guaranteed to get even wetter if I pee’d outdoors for free.

Feeling well armored by our rain clothes, we left the comfort of our sheltered corner to continue down off the mountain. In minutes, our newly won confidence was shattered by the sight of a thundering waterfall that had eroded and flooded our trail on a tight bend. More dangerous because of the fast moving water and precipitous drop-off than we’d normally consider crossing, a quick look at the time convinced us to find a way through it. It was 4:30. We’d been on the trail since 10:30 and turning around now would have had us finishing in increasingly treacherous trail conditions after dark.

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Bill couldn’t find a way around the washed out trail.

Another day, another hut--Rifugio Bolzano near the summit of Petz—with spartan overnight accommodations.

More immediately intent on making the crossing than Bill, I had him remove my trekking poles from my pack. The first sounding with my stick was encouraging: it was only inches deep. We rolled up our pants legs and ever so carefully ventured across, one at a time. Most of our steps were into deeper water than anticipated and the rushing water put a lot of pressure on our legs. The poles were a huge help in maintaining our balance with each blind step and we made the small crossing without a mishap.

We were of course even wetter than before but most importantly, neither of us was chilled. As we continued our descent on the muddy trail I challenged myself to recall the phrase in German and Italian for “Do you have a drying room?” Most places don’t and, as feared, our Suisi hostess was gone for the day when we arrived in town, but it was a good mental exercise. I also vowed to find a good Italian word for “drenched.” We weren’t actually ‘soaked to the bone’ but everything was wet from the rain, the wading, or our sweat. “Zuppo,” which sounds a bit like “soup," was an Italian word for “wet" that would be easy to remember after this day.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t see a soul during the hour and a half trek to close our loop but we arrived back still comfortable and in good cheer. It wasn’t a typical end to a day in the Alps but we were still pleased to have made the hike.

Way To Go!
Amazingly, our 4 hiking days out of Suisi was one of our biggest weeks for 2016: we knocked out over 50 miles and 12,000’ of gain in 4 consecutive days during the first days after leaving the US.  De-conditioned from our 5 week stay at home, still stupid from jet lag, and only having begun our altitude acclimation by sleeping at 3,300’, we were stunned by how well we’d done.

Back in December of 2015 when at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon, we were repeatedly saying “something has changed” when we easily did 50 miles and 10,000’ of gain in 5 days. Both then and 7 months later in Suisi, we hadn’t set any training goal for the week but instead did what felt right given the weather opportunities. Indeed, something had changed and is continuing to get better. We had to assume it was our ketogenic diet but didn’t understand the physiological effects of it on our performance 2 years on. 

I was especially stunned when Bill reported that on the last mile of our 20 mile hike on our 4th and last day in Suisi that our pace was just under 3 miles an hour even though we were going slightly uphill and our packs were unusually heavy. We were pooped and beyond being ready to be done but our bodies had no trouble keeping our legs moving briskly. I concurred with  Bill’s comment “This gives me more confidence about doing Rim-2-Rim in October.”

Even more surprising than our rapidly improving athletic performance was that we were changing at about the same rate.

Rifugio Bolzano’s bigger cargo system & transport tractor.
On To The Next Valley
After 5 nights in Suisi, it would be on to Ortisei in Val Gardena, a place we’d been many times. We literally could have walked up the mountain from Suisi and down the other side to Ortisei in a day had it not been for our 100 pounds of luggage. 

At 4,000’, Ortisei would further our altitude acclimation which would make our summer in the mountains more enjoyable. The always fickle weather would continue to lean towards cold and wet and finding that 1 good day in the week for a big hike could be even more challenging than it had been at Suisi. But we knew that the not-so-good weather is why mid-June is “pre-season” in the Dolomites and we were reconciled to taking what we could get.

While at Ortisei, we would repeatedly reflect upon the “This is where it all began…” part of our story in recently becoming novice endurance athletes. In July of 2013, I saw the sandwich board announcing the Val Gardena mountain run that would begin in Ortisei’s town center in 2 days. We weren’t currently runners, but I proposed to Bill that we train for the 2014 event as a motivational device for improving our hiking speed and endurance. He of course thought I was nuts but joined in the challenge by searching for hikes with 4,200’ of gain the rest of the year to match that of the course. 

It was the horrid indigestion from charging uphill as fast as we could for two and a half hours—the maximal allowed time for completing the mountain run--that triggered our discovery of the ketogenic diet almost 1 year later. Curiously, the keto diet that could put Type 2 diabetics in remission happened to be perfect for endurance athletes too. And quite unexpectedly, the keto diet catapulted our athleticism to a new level, being the foundation for the amazing performance boost we were currently reveling in. “Yes, this is where it all began….” would be uttered with gratitude many times while in Ortisei, rain or no rain.