Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hiking Cultures

(This post will be published in the Jefferson Journal in November 2016.)

           Somewhere along the 100 miles of the Alta Via 2 trail that I hiked, with my friend Mike Kohn, in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains last September, someone asked us to describe the most beautiful place we had seen on the trail. I was at a loss to answer, but Mike thought immediately of a summit along the trail just before a descent to the Lago di Fedaia at the foot of Marmolada, the highest mountain in the Dolomites. It was at least an appropriate answer, being one of a number of most beautiful places.

            Someone else asked if we could name the most challenging part of the trail. Certainly just about any of the vie ferrate – the “iron routes,” with their cables and ladders and iron bars to aid climbs up (or down) vertical chimneys or along the narrow, crumbling ledge of a trail – would answer, though the most exhausting hike was a two-mile, 4000-foot descent.
            If someone had asked me what I found most surprising, I would not have said how beautiful or challenging the hike was, or how long it was or how welcome the food at the rifugios, but how many trails crisscross the Dolomites and the numbers of people walking on them. Trails run around every mountain bend, zigzagging up hills so steep you would think no one would be crazy enough to take them, yet hikers were everywhere – strong young people, families with children, robust senior citizens, people who came out to climb an impossibly steep pass to a small hut for lunch or to take a trail that included some dangerous via ferrata or that took hours of sweat and muscle. In many cases the trail was at least one day’s journey from any rifugio that was at least another day’s journey from a road where the hiker might have started. The rifugios, especially in the first week, were crowded, for lunch if not always for the night.

            On the second day of our hike, at the bottom of our first significant pass, Mike and I gaped in disbelief at the long line of people going up it. The people towards the top were visible only as a winding whiplash of tiny variously colored dots. On another day, I had to wait at a bit of via ferrata to let some descending hikers go first. Behind them came others, then others, then others, until at last I broke into the line and started up, making the descending hikers wait. On another day, Mike and I met streams of people going up the side of the mountain we were now going down. One hiker stopped for a moment to say, in his German accent, “It’s lighter going down.” He meant “easier,” but I think he was right with “lighter,” too.
            So many people doing such strenuous hiking! I was enormously impressed. I thought about all the hiking Mike and I had done in the Siskiyous and Cascades to prepare for the Dolomites – Sky Lakes, Siskiyou, and Marble Mountain wildernesses, numerous Applegate trails, Grizzly Peak, Soda Mountain, Table Rock, Mt. Elijah to Oregon Caves. Most of the time we didn’t see another person. In a way, I prefer that, wanting my hiking experience to be a wilderness experience, but there was something so heartening about seeing so many people in the gorgeous country of the Dolomites, exerting themselves so boisterously and enjoying both the exercise and the incomparable landscape, that I envied the country its hiking culture.
            We could have that here. We have the natural beauty and the trails. We already have a large number of hikers. All it takes, I think, is a determination to make non-motorized recreation a priority. Although the trails here are not as crowded as in the Dolomites, I feel the emergence of a hiking culture here, too. Think about the popularity of the Pacific Crest Trail, which we are lucky enough to have in our back yard. Five thousand people started at the Mexican border this summer with the intent of hiking the PCT to Canada. Think about the crowds of hikers on Table Rock in May for wildflower viewing. Think about the proposed Jack-Ash and Applegate Ridge trails between Ashland and Grants Pass.

            When I told someone, with great enthusiasm, that when the Jack-Ash and ART trails are built, we will be able to walk from Ashland to Grants Pass, she said, “But why would we want to?”
            Why did all those people want to climb those impossible passes in the Dolomites? Why did I walk the entire Alta Via 2? Why do we have such smiles on our faces as the sweat flies and the legs ache? Places that have a hiking culture don’t need to ask. We know why.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Overnight on the Trail: Rifugios in the Dolomites

            Many rifugios, like the large stone hut with blue and white shutters called Rifugio Mulaz or the unbelievable Rifugio Pordoi, were set in such wildness they looked like the last dwelling before the end of the world. 
Rifugio Mulaz
Rifugio Pordoi

 Others, like Rifugio Miralago, were part of a small cluster of buildings on a paved road. All were extraordinarily beautiful, and many were very old. 
Rifugio Treviso

Accommodations were usually bunk beds, usually in dormitories, with shared bathrooms and showers. Even the private rooms had bunk beds and were so narrow that when we set our packs against the wall, there was hardly room to walk. Mike and I were frequently the first hikers to arrive, so we got the best beds. We brought travel sheets with us, and the rifugios supplied an eiderdown-like coverlet which was sometimes lovely but at Rifugio Mulaz was heavy, lumpy, hot, and unmanageable.
            Most of the rifugios offered showers, usually for a charge of five euros for hot water. One rifugio had a squat toilet: a ceramic hole in the floor with a flush. I thought it was awfully hard on elderly people whose knees had been working hard all day.
            For many rifugios supplies were helicoptered in. At Rifugio Pradidali they came up the mountain by means of a cart on a cable. 

For water, Pradidali had a long black plastic pipe that climbed up the mountain, I assume to pick up snowmelt. Rifugio Rosetta also used snowmelt. Other rifugios – Pisciadú and Miralago – had small lakes for a water supply. 
Rifugio Pisciadú
Supplies cart at Rifugio Pradidali

Rifugio Miralago

            The first most important thing when we got to a rifugio was a beer, which was always good. Dinners at the northern end of the trail were German-related (bacon dumplings and cole slaw; ham and fried potatoes), and became more Italian as we moved south: polenta and pasta, served with sausage, cheese, mushrooms, goulash, or ragu sauce. There was always a dessert: panna cotta with berries, a cake, an unusual sort of gelled ice cream. Breakfast was café au lait, served in a large bowl, and bread with butter and jam. For lunch we snacked on half an energy bar each or, if there was a rifugio mid-way before our night’s stay, we might stop for hot chocolate with fabulous cookies (Rifugio Piz Boe), a very good custard cake (Rifugio Fuciade), or a yogurt with fruit, as at Rifugio Pradidali, where we ate at a table with a magnificent view.
Rifugio Pradidali

If we got to a rifugio in the afternoon we could have a bite to eat with our beer – a delicious linzertorte at Rifugio Pisciadú, a disappointing apple strudel at Rifugio Puez.
            Not many rifugio proprietors spoke English, and wi-fi was only sometimes available. Check-in was always at the bar. At Rifugio Mulaz the woman behind the bar had an impressive bosom and wore a low-cut shirt and a pair of very short, bright yellow shorts so skin-tight they showed the roundness of each buttock. The main point person at Pisciadú was a blue-eyed, broad-faced, good-humored young man who served beer, sold pastries from behind the counter, checked people in as they arrived and out as they left, and waited tables at dinner. At Rifugio Boz, where Mike and I were two of three guests, the man at the bar and I discovered French as a common language, so for the first time, I could have a real conversation. Mike had been curious about what rifugio owners do in the winter, so I asked the proprietor. He said he and the rest of the family went into the valley and worked in another village or, if they had made enough money during the hiking season, they traveled and skied and ate in good restaurants. He said they had been keeping Rifugio Boz for 35 years. “We were young then,” he said.
Rifugio Boz

            It was always a pleasure, at the end of a day of hiking, to walk into an inn, where a bed and a dinner were always waiting. It was a pleasure to drink a beer on the deck in that unbelievable landscape, to take a hot shower and change clothes. It was a pleasure to relax with a book, talk with other guests, or sit cozy around a stove inside while a storm raged at dinner time.

Agritur Broch
No matter how crude the accommodations, it was a pleasure to sleep in a bed every night and to get up the next morning refreshed for the trail to the next rifugio at the end of the day.
Rifugio Treviso, center, bottom quarter

Friday, October 14, 2016

Alta Via 2: What It Was Like

            There were beautiful long grassy walks, one downhill under a ski lift, one where marmots thrust up their heads between boulders, one ambling for miles across an undulation of steep hillsides where a chamois (a large goat of the Dolomites) appeared on the horizon. 

            There was gravel scree, as treacherous as ping-pong balls, so that one of the characteristic sounds of the Dolomites was the scrunch of a foot sliding down loose rock.
            There was the distant music of cow or sheep bells. Once we walked through a herd of peacefully grazing cows, their bells clanging musically on all sides of us with every nod of a cow’s head to snatch some grass, and I wondered if that constant ding didn't bother them. Once when we topped a pass, we were met, not with the pastoral effect of cow bells, but with the decidedly urban roar of race car engines. Far below us, in Passo Cereda, the San Martino International Rally was taking place. The rest of the day was haunted with the roaring motors and obligatory backfiring of race cars, a strange sound to be flung into the Dolomites.

            There were a few, a very few, glacial streams, with water so clear it could hardly be seen. There were even fewer pools in those streams, and only one small pool, a delicate turquoise in color, deep enough to lie in, so I did.
            There were crumbling trails traversing hillsides, so narrow the foot barely had a purchase, with long iron cables attached to the rock walls to prevent a tumble hundreds, if not thousands, of feet into the chasms below. “What do you do?” I asked, “if a group of hikers is coming towards you?” “Kiss,” came the reply.
            There was steep. “Sometimes steep, sometimes steeper, sometimes steepest,” Mike said. 
            There was not inconsiderable danger – of slipping and falling on the scree, of twisting or breaking an ankle, of an overhanging rock hitting your pack as you leapt across a chasm and knocking you down the mountain, of getting so tired you stumbled. At most points a fall would send you over the cliff, but when Mike did actually tumble off the trail, on the longest descent of the entire Alta Via 2 (4000 feet in about two and a half miles), he was on what was probably the only grassy bank on the whole descent. He said that as he fell and rolled down the bank, he was so tired he would have been happy just to keep on rolling. On another day, as we were climbing up a rocky pass with some via ferrata and some free-climbing (when we wished there were some via ferrata!), I saw a small white plaque on a rock with the names of two Italians, a date, and the words, “il nostri amici.” When Mike joined me at the top, I told him I was glad to see him and thank goodness I didn’t have to put up a plaque with his name on it!  
            There were vertical walls to climb, when we secured our hiking poles onto our packs, pulled on gloves, and started up, searching for footholds and handholds, hauling our bodies up by the iron cable, climbing up (or down) vertical ladders. Looking down, I could see tiny dots of people walking on the trail below, like cars seen from an airplane.
            At last, the pass ascended, I was in the peaks with the valley unbelievably distant, and I was, each time, unbelievably ecstatic. That's what it was like

Friday, October 7, 2016

Fashion on the Trail

            Because everyone hiking the Alta Via 2 has to carry a backpack, no one carries extra clothes. Therefore, everyone is instantly recognizable, day by day, by what they’re wearing, I perhaps most of all because I was the only hiker in a skirt. 

            Wearing my hiking skirt was an excellent choice. It was comfortable to hike in and dried easily overnight when I washed it out. It has great pockets for Kleenex, a small knife, lip balm, and my power rock, a small rock my granddaughter painted with a rainbow and gave to me several years ago. If the weather was cold, I could wear my long underwear (soft merino wool) under it for long pants. 

And other hikers liked it. One man told me (in Italian, but I understood well enough) that that’s the way women used to dress for the trail. He’s right that nineteenth-century women hikers wore skirts, but they were long skirts, whereas mine was short. Still, the concept was the same. The other man told me (again in Italian) that he liked my hiking skirt, and I said something about being “oh, so fashionable,” and he said, “Fantastico!”
            I also carried a long skirt with me to change into at the rifugio. After the long day and the hard hiking, it was a daily pleasure to take a shower (worth the cost, even at five, sometimes six euros – about $5 or $6 – each), and then change into evening wear, even if it was the same skirt every night. One of the English girls hiking the AV 2 told me she wished she had brought a skirt to wear, and I was delighted to see that another young hiker, an American living in Berlin, did wear a skirt, long like mine, every evening.
            However, fashion-wise, I did do one thing wrong. I had read in the guidebook that proper clothing for hiking in the Dolomites was “of violent hues,” but the guidebook I had was over ten years old, and I thought maybe the fashion had changed since then, and I was reluctant to stand out like a sore thumb in bright colors, when everyone else was demure. Bright colors on the trail are not my style. So I forewent the lurid colors.
           But the guidebook was right. Dolomite hikers wear garish hues – bright pink pants, neon chartreuse shirts, flashy red jackets, fluorescent turquoise pants, yellow shirts so bright they practically pulsate. The colors and the combinations of colors were startling. Coming around a turn in the trail and seeing Rifugio Puez in the distance, I was struck by the many dots of colors, like a Pissaro painting, in front of the building. 
The person in front is Mike, who didn't know he was supposed to wear bright colors.

             Then one day I looked at all those hikers in their gaudy colors and looked at my own demure clothes and understood. If any one of those hikers fell down the mountain, he or she would stand out like a sore thumb. 

I, in my gray skirt and shirt, would blend in like another rock. He would be rescued. No one would ever find me.
            All the more reason, I thought, to stay on the trail.