"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fast Packing the Dolomites: A Blogumentary


I left Perth at the beginning of July and over the first three weeks of the month, was fortunate to run an amazing assortment of mountains. These included:

The highest peak in Slovenia (Triglav, 2864m) and the highest peak in Hungary (Kekes, 1014m).
Descending Triglav (Slovenia)

I got to the highest point possible for unaided runners/hikers on Austria's highest mountain (Grossglockner, 3798m), reaching Oberwalder hut, 2973m.

I ran the highest peak in the Gorski Kotar range of Croatia (Risnjak, 1528m). Crotia should be known for friendly people, but not high mountains. Same for Hungary :)

In Slovakia, I ran one of the two highest peaks possible unaided - Mt Krivan, 2495m, supposedly something every Slovak should do once in their lifetime. (The highest peak in Slovakia requires a guide and is Gerlachovsky stit, 2654m).

In between, I ran several other mountains, enjoying some awesome views and the unpredictable weather that mountains bring, to help prepare me for the five day adventure that would be fast-packing the dolomiti.

The Fast Pack Story

In some ways, this little 5 day trip was two years in the making. In August 2012, I ran the 320 km 8 day TransAlpine Run as a team with my partner, Rolf. The last two days went through the Dolomites. I said, "I have to come back here and race!" Then I realised I didn't want to race - I wanted to savour the running. I wanted to take photos and enjoy the mountains in a different way from racing.

The well-used, sometimes accurate map

It was an adventure I wanted to share. I just had to wait for the right match of person(s) to think a self-sufficient, live-in-your-own-sweaty-clothes, multi-day run was a good idea! They came in the form of a Danish mate, an Italian mate, and an Aussie mate (transplanted from the UK many moons ago). Two ended up with work issues and cancelled. But happily, my partner decided it sounded like fun after all. That made us a group of three.

With a plan of 20 - 25 km/day (+2000m), Aussie mate John and I stared down a 1:20,000 topo map and a walker's book, and devised a loop. I suggested we cut the original 7 day idea down to 5, as I didn't want either of my running partners (with less years of running in their legs) to get injured. I figured if everyone felt that good after 5 days, we could easily add some day trips.

Rifugios, alpine huts Italian style, were booked in advance. They hold them until 6pm each day - after that, if they give out your room, you'll at least get a spot on the dining room floor. It's a refuge, after all :) And on Day 3, we experienced the true meaning of refuge! (Ummm, and again on Day 4!)

Snow running - yay!
Rolf snuck in with an 8 ltr UltrAspire Omega and John had field tested his 11 ltr Ultimate Direction pack. I decided I wanted the comfort of a few more things - some "emergency" fuel that I know my stomach likes, a SPOT emerg tracker/beacon, compression bandage, flint, spare Garmin.... I used the 14 ltr UltrAspire Titan. It was modified to add zips to the front pockets, as my field testing revealed stuff would fall out of the front magnet-latched pockets.

We all opted for Inov-8 shoes. My favs continue to be the x-talon 212s and they didn't let me down. As a former hiking-boot owner who was under the spell of "boots are best," I firmly believe now that boots are not best in many cases. I had excellent grip/traction on all surfaces - snow, mud, wet and dry rock, and via ferrata. Our shoes were whispered about, pointed at, photographed, and even video recorded by some!

In five days, we saw no other fast packers. Only full-pack hikers.

The very rough daily plan was to run ~10 km to lunch at a rifugio. This usually took 2 - 2.5 hrs, as there was often 1000m of gain and technical terrain involved. Lunch took 50-60 minutes and we'd try to pick carb-rich and lower fat meals that would sustain us without causing nausea when we donned our 5kg packs to start running again. We'd get started between 8.30 - 9.30 am each day (often closer to 9.30).

Typical night. Airing the wet clothes, rugged up in a doona.
In the afternoon, we had 10-15 km to get to our destination rifugio. Afternoons tended to bring about unplanned excitement. The weather was pretty average for our trip - lots of rain, snow whenever we got to 3,000 metres, and thunderstorms in the afternoons (thunderstorms are not a good thing when you're hanging onto metal cable on a via ferrata at 2,500m!) Our arrivals at rifugios tended to be between 4 - 5 pm. Then we'd spend the evening eating, showering, eating some more, washing our few items of clothes, trying to dry our few items of clothes, and eating some more.

The Drama

Every good story needs a little drama, and luckily we had so much that I don't even need to make things up! :) Here are the most dramatic of the stories.

There was "trail #15" to Para Dai Giai on Day 2 that just seemed to vanish at the summit, requiring us to navigate cross-country in a thunderstorm NW rather than SW as we had wanted, in order to get onto a "real" trail again. Bonus k's! But this was nothing compared to what we would get tomorrow!

The cross on Para Dai Giai, within a panorama
Day 3 we ran into clouds within a few km of the start, climbing from 2100m at Rif. Frara to the 2800-3100m Gruppo Del Sella mountains. The cold rain at this altitude required us to keep moving to stay warm. We departed Rif. Boe at 2871m after lunch (enjoyed in our wet clothes) into an approaching thunderstorm. Whilst everyone else sat tucked into the hut drinking grappa, we headed for Piz Boe summit (3152m). It was less than 2km and had a hut on top; we decided to make a break for it. If we got turned back, it wouldn't be far - either way. At Piz Boe (Rif. Cap na Fassa), it was snowing and visibility was down to 150 metres. We had a hot drink and a chocolate bar. The calories get the metabolism going, which is warming. And we were burning the calories, just trying to stay warm! Leaving the hut into the snow, we had about 2.5k down to our night's accommodation at Rif Forcella Pordoi. It was going to be the "short" day, to give us a little extra recovery for the legs. Ha! Mother Nature showed us for going out in a snowstorm at 3,000 metres!
Making the best of the weather - happy to arrive at the 3152m hut.

Out of the hut I tried to turn right, looking for the trail on the other side of the helicopter landing pad. Rolf noticed the #638 trail going left. I thought it must just veer down and around the landing pad. However, as we started running, I forgot all about the fact that we should make a right and also forgot - for the first time - to check my bearing with my Garmin. In a couple km, we knew something was up. My Garmin was telling me we were going NE, but Rolf suggested it was gapping due to tight valleys and poor weather. We didn't find the junction we expected. Things weren't making sense. We tried to find a sheltered place to pull out the map, where it wouldn't be instantly soaked, but Rolf has Raynaud's Syndrome and stopping in the cold is very bad news for him. We came to "The Rope Descent of Death" as I think John called it. Down about 200m of steep snow, with a climbing rope as a handhold. It was soaked with 3 degree water, which soaked the gloved hand, but we had no choice but to hold on. John spoke aloud what also didn't make sense to me - why were we descending more? Our hut was at 2,829m. We were sure we were on the wrong trail, but decided the necessary thing was to head for the closest rifugio - in front of us. Bonus hut. Here was "refuge" coming to its full and deepest meaning. We arrived at Rif Franz Kostner (2,500m) and had another hot drink. I pulled out the map and confirmed our error - we had indeed gone the opposite direction on the #638. Caused by rash thinking in extreme conditions. Not a rookie mistake, simply a stupid one.

The "entrance" to Rif. Forcella Pordoi after a big climb to the saddle
The day ended with a bit of magic though - the new route we took to Rif Forcella Pordoi took us on a 6km traverse below a beautiful ridge and then we had an amazing switchback climb to the hut that has featured in a Skyrunning race. John and I got to "secret race" a man coming up with poles (and beat him, yay!). And the arrival at the hut on the saddle (Forcella means fork or saddle) was second-to-none. A tunnel dug through the snow led to the hut entrance! To top it off, we were the only three people to stay there that night. Very special. That evening, the clouds rose, and I spotted Piz Boe with its hut in the distance - in good conditions, we could have seen between the two!

Day 4 we got to appreciate "refuge" one more time. Again, after lunch. We headed out from Rif. Vicenza (aka Langkofelhutte) for our last mountain climb - up and over Sasso Piatto on a via ferrata, and down to Rif. Sasso Piatto. The route was a dashed line on the map, with about 5 crosses in the middle, near the summit. Dashed lines are better than dotted lines. And crosses indicated via ferrata. The whole thing appeared straightforward and we'd done what had been a lot more intense looking via ferrata. This one didn't even have the dotted lines that indicate a lesser-marked trail. And it didn't have the image of a mountain climber on the map - a sign that meant climbing equipment was essential. There was no warning sign as we started the ascent - as we'd seen on a few other sections. Nothing said "You're out of your league, kids; turn back now." The ground was steep, scree-like, and wet. Going was slow. There were some snow traverses and then a "via ferrata without the ferrata" - we were climbing hand-over-hand. After 80m of that, the metal aids appeared.
Via ferrata without the ferrata

Hooray! We thought things would get better. But the going was slow - it was technical and wet and John was most definitely NOT in his comfort zone. In fact, it was in this section of trail (if I could call it that), that John respectfully demanded that I stop calling him by the nickname I'd developed (PJ, for Pommie John, as we already had an Irish John in our group and I was trying to differentiate) and that I call him John. After a couple hours of slow climbing, we were stopped by a bent ladder and a traverse across a rockface that appeared to have been taken out by a landslide. We could see red dots on the other side of the slide. There was a saddle there and we wondered if that marked the point of descent. I went across - a series of slow, careful movements to keep the scree from racing out from under me and washing me off the vertical ledge 10 metres away. I still have trouble processing how dangerous it probably was - likely to keep myself from losing the plot with the memory of it. What I saw on the other side was more cable and rungs, continuing up. We had to make the call - with more unknown, a dangerous crossing on the steep scree, inclement conditions, and new-to-ferrata John, it was the best decision for us. Back at Rif. Vicenza, we got three beds, albeit without hot shower, but there was terra firma and all the food we could buy.
My solo traverse of the landslide to get to the other saddle. 


Two days after the dolomites, I was feeling lost. John put it well in an email back to me after I sent him a quick message expressing this. He said, "That's because we were out there long enough that it felt like a vocation, not a vacation." So I went out on a solo 26k run through the French alps north of Mont Blanc, two maps in hand, to find myself. To remember my vocation. It worked. I built up more of the invisible calluses that come with labours of love.

My only lingering angst is over John. His name, that is. PJ might not have sounded serious enough or manly enough, but it had a spirit in it for me. John isn't even short for Jonathan in his case. It's just John. And that's not enough. He's not just John.

Credits (The Gear)

Wearing most of the gear here! Luckily not activating SPOT
Besides a couple awesome blokes, I will credit some gear for adding to the happiness factor. My essentials included UltrAspire Titan pack, Mammut gloves (more hard-wearing and thicker than the Icebreaker ones I have - better for climbing/via ferrata), Inov-8 x-talon 212s, Dirty Girl gaiters,  and Icebreaker s/s top (the BEST! I easily wore it 4 days in a row unwashed and should have just made it 5). Compressport arm warmers (invaluable in the variable weather we had - up/down is so easy for regulating temperature). Icebreaker long medium weight socks and Injinji medium weight socks - both awesome. My Perth Trail Series "tubie" (aka 'Buff'). Cash (most rifugios don't work with cards). Montane LiteSpeed H2O jacket (Rolf loves his similar Montane Minimus). Icebreaker 200 weight thermal top and 150 weight bottoms. Tabacco 1:20,000 topo - keeping in mind there may be errors! Garmin 310XT x 2. Emergency Hammer gels. Phone (charged and off - only for emergency use). Camera and spare battery, though I never needed the spare. Maglite Solitaire (mini-torch) - perfect for lighting the way to the loo at the rifugios. Ryders sunnies. Sports tape - for my lax tib-fib joint and for the lax map seams! I used half a roll on that map, I think. SPOT tracker. Lip balm.

What I Would Do Differently
To infinity and beyond....

Have two identical maps, cut into practical A4 size in advance, laid out double-sided and layered in "contact" to waterproof them. Carrying my map in a Ziploc was fine, but when I had to take it out repeatedly in the rain, it suffered badly. Plus every "re-folding" wore out the seams more.

Take less sunscreen and no bug spray.

Take one less s/s shirt - Icebreaker to run in and one for the hut is enough.

Go longer.


115k + 8800m. Memories enough to fill a rifugio. And 10 yet-to-be-used Tabacco maps. Hmmmm.


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  2. How can I not have read that? Perhaps I did. Age. Anyway, a good read. Happy days. I'd like to see that video again.