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12 Dolomites II  (available 7/9/03)

 Second-Tier Sights in the Dolomites 

    The ever-diligent Map Man got us into the Alps a little early for rendezvousing with our Portland friends in Cortina so we had the delightful problem of killing some time in the Italian Dolomites. Armed with the kind of glossy tourist book that we usually only look at in the stores we headed out to visit additional second and third tier sightseeing spots and to climb one spectacular pass after another.

- Earth Pyramids at Renon-

    The earth pyramids outside of Bolzano certainly qualified as a fun detour but definitely not a “must see”.  These earth pyramids resemble the oddly capped cones of the Cappadocia region in Turkey. In Turkey the cones or columns are formed by a thin layering of harder rock (sometimes lava) over a deep softer layer. When the harder layer breaks up from erosion, it forms a cap that protects much of the softer material beneath it from extensive erosion. Many bizarre shapes form from the subsequent but curbed erosion, with the most notable being slender cones with balancing rock caps.

    At Renon, a cluster of Cappadocia-like columns formed from heaps of soft, clay-like moraine grit. When erosion finally exposes embedded boulders, the rocks form protective caps that prevent further erosion directly underneath them, resulting in a column or cone. The big difference is that the Renon ‘caps’ come from rocks embedded at any level in the grit and in Cappadocia all the caps in an area form from the erosion of a single, hard layer. And in Italy, the earth pyramids probably number in the dozens where as in Turkey the capped columns must number in the thousands.

-Tracking Dinosaurs!-

    Next on the list of mini-adventures was finding the Triassic dinosaur tracks of Mt Pelmetto (or Monte Pelmo).  About 210 million years ago 3 dinosaurs out for a stroll on a muddy beach left their tracks as a part of their legacy. For those of you who have children or grandchildren that educate you about dinosaurs, the tracks were formed by “a primitive ornithischian comparable with the fabrosaurs, a semibipedal prosauropodian and small theropodian.”

Yup, those are the dinosaur footprints on the boulder.

    We read about the prints in our glossy tourist book which indicated it was an hour and twenty minute hike to see the prints in the surface of a boulder perched on a slope at the base of Mt Palmetto. The walk would be welcome after the 1100’ steep bike climb to the top of Passo de Staulanza in the mid-morning heat and humidity. Their time estimate was sufficient for getting the first glimpse of the boulder from afar but it took us another hour, part of it scrambling on all 4’s up a steep boulder and scree riddled slope, to actually put our noses in those ancient foot prints. But since we’d come that far on our pilgrimage, we weren’t going to settle for the binocular view, especially without binoculars.

    We were heartbroken not to be able to read the Italian well enough nor find a sufficiently fluent local person to learn the particulars of these prints, like what was the incredible string of events that allowed them to be preserved and then discovered. It appears that the 3 dino’s tromped through a muddy layer on top of a harder sedimentary deposit. Presumably they slogged through on the last damp day for some time and the prints were retained in the mud. But the big mystery is “what happened next?” to preserve the muddy impressions. Some other protective material must have filled in without disturbing the prints. Then over millions of years endless other layers must have been added without crushing the delicate muddy layer the dinos had walked through.

     We are guessing that in relatively recent geologic time that just the right chunk of the mountain tumbled off during the erosion process and that the older layer protecting the prints sloughed off, exposing the dino footprints on one face of this newly formed boulder. But regardless of longing to know more, we were satisfied to have actually found the single boulder even though we were only able to intermittently follow the steep trail to it.

-The Mondeval Man-

     We were incredibly lucky to by chance arrive at the little museum at Selva di Cadore during its weekly 2½ hour open period and saw the Mesolithic “Mondeval Man.” He is the 7400 year old tribal chief named for the Mondeval de Sora basin. With his complete skeleton were found over 60 grave goods, mostly of flint, bone and antlers. He is estimated to have been about 40 years old at the time of his death, like Otzi who now resides in Bolzano. The chief was found at about the 7000’ level, whereas Otzi was cruising around at about the 10,000’ level. The Mondeval Man is about 2000 years older but isn’t as important of a find even though they were both elder statesmen. Otzi is very special because he was mummified by the elements allowing analysis today of his tissues, organ systems, and even stomach contents. Significant remnants of clothing and very perishable accessories made of bark and leaves were also found with Otzi, giving researchers more to investigate than the bones and more usual grave goods of the Mondeval Man.

-Drei Zinnen-

    We made 2 jaunts to the much photographed Drei Zinnen or Tre Cime di Lavarado peaks (depending upon your linguistic bias).  The first was with our 4 Oregon/Washington friends, 2 of whom are sitting out the lightning portion of storm with us in the most basic form of a Mesolithic shelter—the underside of a boulder. We had time to appreciate the importance of getting a larger boulder and better undercut than we had and longed for the typical ‘front door’ of tanned hides or woven plant material for more effective protection from the driving rain.

Drei Zinnen with a little snow & a lot of scree.

Taking refuge in a rudimentary Mesolithic shelter.

   Our next trip to Drei Zinnen was made while back at Cortina for a second time and waiting one more day for our missing camping gear box to arrive. We took the bus up to Drei Zinnen and unexpectedly had time to walk one of the several routes around its base. The thunderstorm that we were prepared for never arrived and we had a beautiful though rough walk filled with dramatic panoramas. Including last year’s visit, it was our 3rd visit to Drei Zinnen and it seemed only fitting that we finally make the loop all the way around it.

Crumbly rock close-up (note the brass coin on left.)

-Cable Car Rides-

   We rode our loaded bikes to 2 high passes (Pordoi at 7350’ and Falzarego at 6900’) and then took the handy cable cars to above the 9,000’ level on both mountains. We were intermittently ‘socked in’ by rain and clouds at the top of the first one but had a partly cloudy day at the other. Both were the next best thing to aerial views of the Dolomites. Describing the shapes of the Dolomite peaks reads like a laundry list of geological possibilities—they are just amazing. Flat, plateau like tops; broad sloping faces; sheer faces; razor’s edge ridges; pointy peaks; turreted-tops; towers; columns; saw-tooth; and partial pyramids were all shapes before us in these panoramas. The immense piles of scree at the bases of all of these bare dolomite massifs are also incredible. We know from tromping around Drei Zinnen and at the tops of these cable car rides that these mountains are one-step away from being gravel piles—the stone is fractured and every inch of it is visibly poised to disintegrate. (They aren’t made of rock you can have confidence like good ol’ Columbia River Basin basalt.)  In addition, on our visit to the top of the mountain at Passo Falzarego we saw and learned about the extensive tunnel systems built through many of these mountains by both the Italians and the Austrians during WWI. As in many places in WWI, the battles fought here were stalemates for years and enemy tunnels were often close enough to hear adversary’s voices. In one severe winter on this mountain, 10,000 men were lost in avalanches alone.

View from the  peak above Passo Falzarego.

    Our side trips into the valleys and up the passes of the Dolomites gave us a broader experience of the Dolomites: we zoomed in on the millions of years of geologic formations with their incidental findings of dinosaur tracks and marine fossils; saw spectacular views of the mountains from high, from low and close up; and looked at the struggles of modern and near-modern humans defending their homeland in this region. Whereas last year we only felt like we got a taste of the Dolomites, this year we felt satiated.


Motorrad” (motorbike)

    The motor bikers or ‘Motorradfahrer’ in German swarm these Alpine passes, being drawn here for the fun of the steep, curvy roads. At the top of the passes when they stop for refreshments (mostly non-alcoholic) they position their chairs to watch their peers ride by rather than to ogle the mountain peaks. At one summit we eves-dropped on a half dozen Americans on rented bikes with a tour guide and their conservations also turned to identifying the makes and models of the passing bikes--only the lone woman in the group went off to quickly snap photos of the peaks. Clearly the mountain views are secondary for them and it is the thrill of the ride and being in the company of others doing the same that draws most of them here.   

The other bikers & a peak seen from Passo Falzarego.

     These aren’t gruff and grubby “Hell’s Angels” riders but spiffy, well-heeled dudes on glitzy bikes. As I write, 2 are out in front of our hotel buffing their chrome. Guys go by in chartreuse leather suits and helmets to match their chartreuse bikes and couples often have colorful, appliquéd-looking matching leather suits. For most, the shoes, suits, helmets and bikes are carefully color coordinated and spotless.

    German riders by far out number any other group, though we see plates from Italy, Austria, and Switzerland as well. And some of the German riders haul their bikes from Germany on trailers pulled behind cars, apparently only wanting to ride the curves and not the freeways here.  Some hotels in the area have orange “Motorrad” placards hanging off their signboard to indicate that they have covered parking for motorbikes and catering to them is big, off-season business for these ski areas.

   But some days I hate the “motorraders” as long packs roar by us. On one morning on our way in to Bolzano we estimated that close to a 1000 motorbikes had whizzed by us on a single, narrow pass road. When we take sample counts, they easily out number the cars by 2-4 times.  Some are cordial and quiet but then there are the riders who seem to view us as just another exciting obstacle to cut as close to as possible. We are the most threatened when a pack of 10-15 goes by us on an inside curve as the riders seem to become mesmerized by their column, each cutting us a little closer like we are slalom poles (and we aren’t THAT steady at climbing speeds of 3 mph). The very swoopy, sculpted racing style motor bikes are usually the most deafening and their riders the most aggressive.

   I finally pulled out my earplugs one day when I was on overload from the noise. Later, Bill noticed that some of the bikers are also wearing ear protection. We resent having the peace and quiet of the magnificent mountains rattled by these barely muffled engines as we wind through the mountains. Even when we have pulled 50’ off the road to eat we can’t carry on a conversation over the din of the engine noise. Cars seem positively stealth in comparison to many of these bikes. And I pity these mountain dwellers that have the peace of their tranquil lives invaded during the daylight hours by the sounds of living on a racetrack for all the snow-less months of the year.

   We struggle to put these deafening motorbikes in perspective as compared to the US, Europe is a very noisy place.  I can imagine “noise abatement” is a little used concept in product design departments as it doesn’t seem to be valued much in Europe. We jump each time the hotel host bangs the coffee grounds strainer on the side of a metal lined drawer to empty it as he prepares to make another single cup of cappuccino for a guest. I could easily imagine a half dozen ways to do the chore with less rattling of nerves at breakfast time but I am sure it never occurs to him as an issue. Over and over again we are amazed that people living in close quarters as they do in Europe aren’t more driven to minimize the noise of all sorts of equipment and machines.  And what seems like a bias towards seeking out loud motor bikes appears to be a part of the same pattern of what is acceptable--they seem to be above criticism if they make noise with objects.

   The intrusiveness of noise, like with these motor bikes and the Italian school kids in the hotel, keeps gnawing away at us as an interesting example of the subtle but deeply rooted differences between Europe and the US. Several times a year we have experiences that again suck us into trying to put a finger on it. Our evolving hypothesis is that it goes back to some of the ideals in the founding of the US, especially the notion of individual freedom and the relatively greater importance of the individual vs the group. Bill has added a piece to our theory this year: that it seems in many ways Europeans have more individual freedom of actions, especially to do what is by our standards dangerous and reckless. In the States, it seems that we have more freedom than Europeans from intrusion by others, as in cigarette smoke, backyard burning pollution, noise pollution and people doing dangerous things around us.

   Our problem with some of the motor bikes is the excessive noise; their problem seems to be with their backs. We have been surprised at the use of weight-lifter styled back braces among some of the riders. The noisiest of the bikes are the racing type models where the riders lean way-forward in almost a superman position and we wonder if this riding position takes its toll on their backs. Our road bike handle bars also permit a very aerodynamic position, but is it one of several riding positions available to us and these ‘Motorrad’ riders appear to only have one position—fully extended. We also saw two elaborate back braces that went all the way to the base of the neck and gave the wearers the plated look of an armadillo.

    We also notice a biker now and then that has flopped on a grassy roadside bank, sometimes with an impatient companion pacing around. They aren’t picnicking or reading a book but just resting. After seeing so many back braces we now wonder if they aren’t resting their back muscles. (I remember on my first 40 mile ride on my first road bike that I had to get on the ground every ten miles to release my cranky back muscles as my bike wasn’t well fitted to me.) The bikers haven’t been sociable enough to engage about the back braces but we’ll watch for another opportunity to inquire.

    These Alpine passes that are a draw for us and the motor bikers for different reasons also beckon small groups of specialty cars: one day it was a half dozen convertible sports cars that paraded by on their way up the pass, another day it was a cluster of vintage Mini-Coopers. Though I must say our friends visiting from Portland didn’t see the joy in winding up and then down these long series of numbered switchbacks as some of these drivers clearly do.

[Click on the link (motorbikes) to read a friend's technical comments about these race replica bikes in our SideTrips section.]

Dolomite Fever

   When we are free from the motorrad noise, the riding from pass to pass in the Dolomites on our sight-seeing rounds is idyllic. Most of the nasty habits that taunt us in the Mediterranean region drop away, even though we are still in Italy. As soon as we enter the mountains, gone are the illegal backyard burning, the pollution, the roadside litter, and the piles of garbage dumped in rivers and gorges. The pitiful stray and, by our standards abused, dogs give way to well-fed, cherished pets. The well-tended homes and homesteads ooze with pride and the sense of responsibility for the community clearly extends far past the doorstep, unlike in the south. Some of the municipalities go so far as to proclaim their sense of dominion by setting up traffic lights at non-intersections strictly to control the speed of motorists on the main road through their villages. Between towns in the lush forested countryside we are serenaded by the heard but never seen coo-coo birds (they sound exactly like the clocks), the rush of steep mountain streams and the clank of cow bells off in the distance.

   All of the build-up in the Po Valley around “the” Alps crossing became a joke as we didn’t cross over just 1 pass like we usually do. Nope, in just under a month in the Dolomites we climbed 10 named passes (plus that almost 5,000’ day that should count as a pass) and did almost 10 miles in elevation gain. Waiting for the 3rd of our 3 camping gear boxes had us lingering in the Dolomites weeks longer than Map Man had planned. Though the climbs were hard, we knew that they were made easier by the lack of the camping equipment on our bikes. Many a time on the over-10% grades I wondered if I would have been able to press on if I had the additional weight. And since this is our first year with our “inclinometer” or grade indicator, we really don’t know how the difficulty of this year’s climbing compares with previous years.

   Aside from reveling in the sheer beauty and fascination of the Dolomites, we value the time in the mountains as our annual bike school.  We always learn something new in our intensive mountain class. This year we learned the benefit of riding as absolutely slowly as we could for as long as we could on sustained grades of much over 5% when loaded. Of course, if they are over 10% our sustainable top speed and bottom speed are already the same. Several times we had to start first thing in the morning on a very steep grade with absolutely no warm-up and we used the ultra-slow technique there too as a ‘better than nothing’ substitute for warming-up. Going really, really slowly seems to prevent the rapid muscle glycogen depletion (the small reserve of very ready energy) so we don’t tire as quickly and we can do more elevation gain in a week before we get really pooped.

   This year’s “mountain school” also made it perfectly clear that it is easier to ride a given amount of elevation gain as 1 long climb as we do in the Alps than doing the same amount of gain as a series of up-and-downs like on Crete and in Turkey. Warming up for comfortable riding takes ½-1 hour and warming up for climbing is a separate process. On a sustained climb (like these passes that take us 3-5 hours), there is time to warm-up and feel a certain ease come into the climbing. The muscles used in the slightly different riding position of climbing get recruited, the heart and lungs smooth-out their coordinated effort, and the mind settles into the slow pace and unique set of sensations—once they all get on the same page the climbing becomes just a matter of putting in the time and admiring the views. In contrast, going up and down over and over again on shorter climbs never gives the mind-body a chance to get organized for climbing and instead we are repeatedly going part way through the chaotic warming-up phase without ever getting the pay-off for the effort.

   We had a vague memory from Hochtor Pass on Grossglocknerstrasse last year that the thin air starts being an issue for us around 7000’ if we are carrying a load. And indeed, our high climbs this year confirmed that as the number to remember. Tidbits like that are helpful in planning the amount of time we need for a given route and in not being alarmed by weird sensations—we just expect them. Bill felt a little light-headed as we neared the summit on one pass and it was reassuring to know that the altitude was the likely culprit and that he wasn’t “coming down with something”. We stopped, he became more intentional about his breathing and when he was feeling better we rode a little slower to the top. Once the extra effort of pedaling the bike was over he had no trouble with the altitude.

    Riding in the mountains is so gratifying from both a skill and sightseeing standpoint that I am sure we’ll include a stretch of it in our travel plans each year—it just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Yet another view from the mountain above Passo Falzarego.

Leaving the Mountains

    Reluctantly we decided to wait no longer for the last of our mailed camping gear to arrive in Cortina and to resume our delayed trek east to Budapest without any of it. But even with using our new ultra-slow-on-steep-grades climbing technic we finally depleted ourselves. I had to tell Map Man that I hadn’t recovered enough for the tough mountain exit route he had planned, even though it would be beautiful. Surprisingly, the two 2-day rests in the week hadn’t given me enough recovery to happily take on a big effort. I could have managed if I had to but I knew it would take its toll by further exaggerating my recovery time. We, and especially I, reach a point in this mountain work where a long recovery is necessary, like 1-2 weeks. That doesn’t mean not riding at all, which is too abrupt for the primed-for-action muscles, but it means expending significantly less overall effort each day. Though I had to wave the white flag of surrender, I do consider it an accomplishment that the need to yield came from fatigue and not injury. It’s a combination of applying the skills we have learned over the years in listening to and responding to our bodies and a healthy dose of good fortune that we had the luxury of climbing ourselves to exhaustion.

   Bill is ever-resilient in his route planning and when I cried “uncle” he went back to his maps and discovered an easier way out of the mountains. It meant giving up some last grand sightseeing opportunities but the river ride into Austria would be the perfect recovery riding for me—lots of easy miles. His route planning job is a tough one as he always has to be flexible: finding the balance between fitting together a general plan with safe riding that is in rhythm with the seasons but that responds to our changing interests, our changing needs and the realities of the world around us. This year’s overall route was planned a year ago and likewise, scenarios for a couple more years are already in the works as we ride. But by necessity the detailed planning can only begin days or weeks in advance—in part because the best maps can only be purchased when we are in a city of given region. And even then, daily revisions are often necessary as new information bubbles up about sightseeing opportunities, lodging availability and our vigor.

7/5 Where We Are Now

   We are spending a few days in Graz, Austria to take one of the 2 largest armory museums in Europe as it was closed for the season the last time we were in town, plus a few other sights. After doing our last minute shopping before we move out of the EU for several months, we’ll start heading towards Budapest, Hungary. But of course the longer we linger in Graz the more sights we are finding in the area to visit. If we don’t get too bogged down, we should be in Budapest in about 10 days. But then Bill is having some last minute route considerations after reading that the Danube River approach to Budapest that we were not going to take is one of the most beautiful sights in Hungary—it isn’t easy being Map Man.


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