VAL GARDENA, NORTHERN ITALY (June - July, 2016)
It was hard to predict from below if snow would block our passage at the saddle.
Dangerous snow conditions 500’ below one of the saddles on the Seceda ridge forced us to retreat down 2,300’, then walk up to the same elevation on an alternate trail, to cross and complete our loop for the day. That unplanned “bonus” effort resulted in a record-breaking 7,100’ of elevation gain for our hike. That was well beyond our previous new round-trip-hike high of 5,600’ done 4 days earlier from Suisi.
“We need to increase our range” had been Bill’s mantra for several years and, to his delight, we’d been plugging away at it. But now he was on Cloud 9: in the first months of 2016, we’d bumped our usual big hike distance from 15 miles to 20 and now our usual top elevation gain that we pushed up to 4,200’ in 2013 was blasting through its ceiling as well. We had made it: we’d increased our range.
Snow stairs instead of a trail at Passo Sella’s Rifugio Demetz.
Our newest achievements had been spurred by the current goal of hiking the Grand Canyon’s Rim-2-Rim route in October but we’d had no idea that we’d been significantly underperforming relative to our capacity. We guessed that we'd recently arrived at a new point in adaptation to our ketogenic diet that was further decreasing the metabolic burden of exercise on our tissues: fatty acids are a cleaner fuel for the muscles than carbohydrates. Whatever the biochemistry and whenever it happened, Bill was scrambling to reflect our new exertion capacity in grander hikes for our summer in Europe.Passo Sella
The very late winter snow was lingering in the mountains and some of the trails near our 7,000’ elevation Passo Sella get-away weren’t accessible, like on Seceda. Wanting to utilize and retain our new abilities, Bill started planning big hikes that first went down instead of up. Not only did it solve the problem of meeting our new endurance goals out of almost all of the snow, it nicely simulated one of the aspects of the Grand Canyon that gets people into trouble, which is doing the easy direction first.
Bill was giddy with delight when we hit the trail from Passo Sella early one morning for Denti di Terrarossa (‘teeth of red earth’). It had been on a long list of previously out-of-reach high points, another one that provoked “I never thought we would get there.” It was a place he noticed on the map every year during his trip planning and immediately dismissed because of our limited range. But now that we were routinely doing 20 miler’s, yet another new world of possibilities had opened up to him. We could finally realize one of his fantasies, which was to get to almost all of the choice hut-to-hut hiker destinations while enjoying the ease of being day hikers.A Twofer
When are 2 injuries better than 1? “I know, I know the answer….it’s when they both happen at the same time.”
My pleasure at lovely Passo Sella was cut short this year by injuring my right calf on a short, steep hike on our arrival afternoon, though I wasn't aware of the problem at the time. It began with the calf muscles in both legs being unusually sore the next day and then 2 days later, the right one got downright hostile.
I'd wrapped up the 20 miler to the newly accessible Terrarossa in reasonable form, despite the burning sensations in my calf, but that was it for robust hiking at the pass for me. I limited myself to strolling the next 3 days, which didn’t dodge much of the pain.
The bustling Rifugio Alpi was almost at our high point on our newest conquest, the Denti di Terrarossa.
If that wasn’t enough, while working on dinner the day after the big hike, I had a grand, even for me, sneeze, a sneeze that triggered an immobilizing spasm in my right lower back. I froze for several minutes in excruciating pain, unable to move. I was in agony and mentally snowed from the pain for the rest of the evening, which achieved my body’s self-defense goal of immediate, prolonged stillness.
The next 48 hours saw me spending a good 5 minutes to either arise from bed or lower myself down. Each attempt at changing my position even a smidgen triggered another punishing spasm, as did supporting any of my weight with my right arm. Amazingly, I was able to sleep once I got settled as long as I didn’t budge. Doing my favorite exercises on the floor was out of the question for more than a week. Unfortunately, each day after that for almost 10 days I sneezed at least once a day, triggering another spasm and hours of feeling ill, though none of the episodes were as severe as the first.
After a week of burning leg pain and 3 days of intermittent, punishing back pain, we relocated as planned by bus from Passo Sella to Selva where our bikes were stored. I’d expected to immediately make an appointment for a massage but the therapist staffing the table at our hostess’s hotel in 2 days didn’t do sports massage and the other woman she mentioned specialized in using herbs with massage. My dark side stayed politely muffled but thought “Sweetheart, I’m in way-more pain than topical herbs are gonna help.”
The mention of the seemingly wildly inadequate herbal therapy was a good motivator however and I dug deeper to escape my orbits of pain. The next morning, our first full day in Selva, I remembered the flashy looking Dolomiti Sport Clinic on the main road in the next village. They specialize in reassembling the pieces after winter skiing accidents, especially for international visitors. Lucky for me, this particular Sunday was the 3rd day that this private clinic would be open since their 2 month, off-season, closure. According to their multilingual recording, I could call at 9 am to take their first appointment for the day at 4 pm—on a Sunday.
The 8 x-rays the doc felt compelled to take of my back at what turned out to be $155 a pair added up quickly and I was out the door an hour later $900 the poorer—about double what I expected the upper limit to be (good thing they took credit cards because my raid on the Bankomat didn’t cover it). I hoped our insurance would reimburse some of it but given we were only 3 weeks into our 3 months abroad, the clarity I got from the clinic visit felt like a good investment to both of us.
Thank goodness this clinic was so highly visible or I’d never have known about it.
As bad news goes, the news was mostly good. My paralyzing back spasms were due to a broken and displaced rib, a rib I broke with my grand sneeze. “It happens” was what the doctor tried to say in his rudimentary English. It was the bottom rib, one of the 2 on each side that are referred to as ‘floating’ because they anchor on the spine like the other ribs but the opposite ends float relatively freely whereas the upper ribs are attached at both ends.
The good news was that there was nothing to do for it but wait; the bad news was that the waiting time needed to be low intensity activity with lifting little weight, as in a backpack. He was vague about “How long?” “Weeks, maybe a month.” We ended our paraphrasing with letting pain be my guide, especially since I don’t take painkillers like ibuprofen.
The calf injury prompted a similar prescription. At home it surely would have be labeled an overuse injury. He recommended icing (Yes); swimming as a substitute for hiking (Maybe); and using a heel lift (Nope) after ruling-out rips, tears, and fractures.
Resting has never been my strong suit. My mother commented years ago that the best tip-off that I was getting sick as a child was that I sped up. Running away, numbing, denial—I don’t really know the rational but I do know I don’t like to stew in dysfunction.
The upper rib, #11, was fractured only; #12 was also displaced.
The basically reassuring news helped me be unusually at peace with the notion of more rest. I crave efficiency and how efficient to heal 2 distinct injuries at the same time by resting. Two sequential injuries requiring rest would have put me into a tail spin—2 concurrent resting intervals were a bargain. And I had my eye on the prize: Rim-2-Rim at the Grand Canyon in October. Our calendar was booked with high output activities for the next 4 months and it was compelling to get it right the first time—to rest and be done with it instead of having recurrences and more rest intervals.
In addition to the 3 clinic staffers, I also said a silent “Thank-you" to the form of vitamin B3 we’d been taking this last year for skin cancer prevention because one of its side effects is profoundly softening my irritable, impatient edge. I’ve probably said “Oh well…” more in the last year that I have in my entire life, which is a wonderful state of being in situations like this.
During my half hour bus ride from lower Ortisei back to Selva, I shrugged off the $900 expense and was extremely grateful for same-day service that had delivered clarity and good news. I vowed to at least consider swimming at our hostess’s indoor swimming pool at her hotel and began crafting a ‘relative rest’ calendar for myself.A Second Opinion—Ours
A week after my evaluation at the Dolomiti Sport Clinic, I was finally clear about my recent ailments. I believed that both my broken rib and calf injury were products of an unfortunate collision between abruptly increasing our weekly hiking mileage and the deep myofascial release work I’d been doing for 7 months and especially the focused work the previous 6 weeks.
The clinic doctor was convinced that I’d overused the big calf muscle and we were convinced that the problem was with a smaller, underlying muscle. Finally we resolved the conflict: those 2 muscles had gotten glued together with scar tissue at some point in the distant past and the restriction hadn’t mattered until the dynamics between my leg muscles had recently changed.
Once Bill tackled my calf muscles with that adhesion model in mind, it significantly improved in a single ‘ripping and tearing’ session. In fact, I literally jogged down a long, steep trail with my newly renovated calf before it could have possibly recovered from overuse. Rather than begrudging the event as an injury, I was grateful to have the underlying tissue restrictions revealed so they could be fixed now and not half way through the Grand Canyon. (A few weeks later, I discovered a similar restriction in the other leg but before it became painful.)
The same sort of tug-of-war between changing roles of and relationships between my back muscles surely set-up the conditions for my rib fracture as well. Unfortunately, advanced massage technics wouldn’t accelerate its healing—only time would do that job. The big limitation with the rib fracture was my almost daily sneezes that put the muscles into spasm and triggered a cycle of pain that lasted for hours. I was acutely aware that I wouldn’t be safe on my loaded bike if that vulnerability persisted.
Ten days after the rib fracture, we learned that the expensive visit to the Dolomiti Sport Clinic had yielded a close, but not quite right, diagnosis for my rib as well. Bill had been convinced from attempting to very gently massage my back muscles that I’d broken 2 ribs, not 1. Indeed, when he finally had a chance to look at the x-rays himself, the 12th rib was broken and displaced; the 11th was merely broken. That clarification didn’t change the treatment plan but at least now we had resolved all of the discrepancies surrounding my twofer.Moving On
In the past, Bill would have taken my prescription to rest as his own and happily stayed in reading and working on computer projects (perhaps out-resting me), but not this time. He too had his eye on the prize and unhesitatingly dashed out the door each morning to do the hikes we would have done together. The familiarity with the Selva area trails and the number of other hikers out and about eliminated both of our safety concerns for him being on such big hikes alone. His new-found commitment to himself netted him 2 weeks of hiking over 70 miles per week.
Yasuko was very curious, but a bit afraid, of the donkeys.
A few days after my formal diagnoses, Bill went for our weekly 20-miler on a new route without me; I instead choose a 14 miler with a lighter pack and couple of cable car ‘bail-outs’. When he commented that it wasn’t as much fun to hike alone, I countered with “You have different experiences as a solo hiker or traveler.” And was I ever right, except that I was the one who had the very different experience: a Japanese hiker recruited me to be her guide for the last half of my hike.
Yasuko's technic for procuring a companion was photography. She was a bit ahead of me on the trail and had asked a German couple to take her photo. It was a good shot so I pulled off the trail to snap it too. When I passed by her, she offered to take my photo. Exchanging photo taking is a social nicety among tourists, one that we usually don’t decline out of politeness. Little did I know that I’d been in her sights and snared.
A difficult but brief discussion ensued about our respective destinations and then we were off together. I wasn’t convinced that we were communicating effectively but decided to save the details until our trails split, assuming it would be easier to surmount the substantial language barrier while standing in front of a sign post. Uncharacteristically for a solo traveler, she wasn’t interested in looking at my map to confirm where she was going.
During our bike travels over the years, we’d come to understand that there is a segment of people who travel alone that don’t like being alone all of the time and some of those also are happy to delegate their route finding to others. We’ve found these folks easy to be with so welcome them on board. Also, we have received more generosity than we’ve given as travelers. I took advantage of the rare opportunity to give-back and had said “Yes” when she asked if she could walk with me.
What possibly could be more important than snacking on the trail??
She clearly wanted a companion or guide, so much so that she was willing to change her route and take a longer bus ride back to Ortisei in order to walk the entire way with me. Given it was my first big hike a week after snapping 2 ribs, it would have been better for my recovery to have gotten the weight of my pack off my back an hour earlier but I slowed my pace to match hers.
I’m sure many who saw us assumed that we were buddies because Bill and I, like the Japanese hikers we had seen, are very sun-sensible in our garb. Long sleeves, long pants, sun hats, and often sun gloves brand us all as UVA/B 'phobes’. In contrast, the vast majority of European hikers wear shorts and short sleeves, often dressing for the season and not the weather of the day. Unlike us, Yasuko, and many others from her region, usually wear hefty boots and gaiters. Llamas
Two days after musing about the image and communication problems of American and Japanese old ladies hiking together in the Dolomites, I was contemplating the complete indifference of Latin American animals hogging nearby trails.
Three minutes of watching a mixed Italian and German group doing a hut-to-hut tour using llamas was all it took for us both to decide to never, ever, do that. Instead of having the pleasure of an elegant pack animal carrying all of their gear, it looked like it was more of an exercise in escorting someone else’s animal in a group while it grazed. On top of that, it looked that most of the llamas weren’t carrying much more hiker gear than we were.
We pulled off the trail for the 10 people and 10 llamas to pass and waited, and waited. We had no choice: they were fully occupying the steep, switch-backed, narrow trail. Unfortunately, the only thing on the llamas minds was leisurely eating. The human escorts had to wait with us but had the additional challenge of not being shoved off of the cliff by their self-absorbed charges.
Amusingly, we had seen the playful side of llamas a week earlier at Passo Sella. One had escaped from around the bend at the pass, had come down to where all of the people were, and began chasing the grazing cows. At first, we thought it was trained to herd because it was exceptionally effective but then realized that there was no person instructing the llama. It repeatedly dropped its head, extended its long neck so as to look like a battering ram, and then charged the panicked cows. The llama looked positively delighted with his new-found game. Later, the cow owner’s son said “This was the best day of this llama’s boring life” and I suspect it was.
Launching on the Bikes
Another new & challenging long hike 2 days before we left Selva.
All to soon, we had to abandon our intense hiking the last week of our 5 weeks in the Dolomites in order to ready ourselves for 6 weeks of cyclotouring and hiking in Austria and Germany. We did one last 20-miler 2 days before our departure but let our weekly mileage drop from a recent high of over 70 miles to only 26 miles. In hindsight, having only 1 recovery day between our big hike and riding wasn't enough for me on the demanding first riding day.
Bill shifted his focus to replacing 1 bike chain, 2 sets of brake pads, repacking the rear hub on my bike, and doing other maintenance chores. We took 2 short shake-down rides on the bikes, primarily to test the crankiness of my back muscles that were prone to going into spasm since breaking 2 floating ribs 2 weeks earlier. My back did fine but it was our quads that were hyped and refined for hiking that protested mightily about the change in demands.
I focused on readying my body for the challenges of cycling. We took easy walks for our picnic lunches to prevent my calf muscles from gluing back together after Bill released the adhesions and to make sure the upset was 100% resolved. Concurrent with cleaning up my right calf, a huge thigh muscle on my left leg became irritated and was pulling on my knee. It was just a whisper of distress for about 3 days and then it got nasty. It was one of those situations involving confusing referred pain that required the dysfunction to become full-blown to understand the problem. Fortunately, I was then able to fix it in a day.
Bill’s body was unscathed during this period of higher output and he happily focused on the technical matters and supporting me while I recovered from my body’s various protests.
In addition to working on a lot of moving parts in me and on the bikes, readying ourselves for our cyclotour required doing the big sort of our gear, separating that which would remain in our suitcases at Selva for 6 weeks and that which would accompany us on the bikes. It was close, but we managed to leave on the bikes on schedule on a Saturday like there’d been nothing unusual going on.