House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part II

22/06/16 – Pomagagnon/Crepe de Zumeles
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A late day run with Jordan after shopping in the morning for groceries and, of course, lots of beer and wine. We checked out the Cortina Skyrace course, which was useful because I intended to run it the following day. 

First off, it was fucking hot and I wore a black Mountain Stride shirt and black shorts. Second, neither Jordan nor myself had run a step for weeks before heading out and by the end of the first kilometer, I was dying. I know it usually takes awhile to start to feel good during a run — and figured this time might take longer than usual — but I more or less felt how non-runners describe feeling when attempting to run. There was no “conversation pace” to be had in this inferno where it was my immediate impulse to drink my entire 500mL water bottle in one gulp.

We attained some respite from the heat in the subalpine, traversing beneath Pomagagnon’s craggy face. At the notch in the ridge called Crepe de Zumelles, we searched for a “water source” marked on the map that was practically non-existent in reality. At last, I found a trickle of water flowing out of the ground and slowly filled my bottle. We headed back over the top of Crepe de Zumelles and down the front of Pomagagnon where that same spring emerges gushing from the mountain, building into a solid stream by the time it reaches the neighborhood where we’d rented our flat. Jordan and I headed directly down the mountain, sliding through cow pastures/ski slopes, and followed this watercourse most of the way home.

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^Pic by Jordan Sauer

23/06/16 – Cortina Skyrace (20km/1000m/2h26m/65° position)

21A fairly pedestrian attempt at running the Cortina Skyrace. With no meaningful training this year, I couldn’t take on the 119km Lavaredo and wasn’t sure if racing (or running) would be in the cards for this trip at all. After scoping out the course with Jordan the previous day, I felt strong enough to run the 20km skyrace without inflicting too much damage.

There were a couple elements that were essential in doing well in this race:  the course begins on a wide bike path before funneling some three hundred runners onto narrow singletrack once it starts cranking up the hill in earnest. In order to beat the bottleneck, you had to gun it off the starting line, but once you hit the climbing section you could chill. Well, “chill”.

With a lack of high-end fitness and an iffy foot, I knew I couldn’t gun it, so I resolved to run the race at an easy pace and make up any places I could later on.

The race started and most people ran way too fast. I say this because as soon as we hit the climb, movement halted and I saw everyone around me was dying: breathless, red faces, questioning motivations for even entering this race. I stood there, enjoying a (for me) moderate pace — that run on the pavement was way too fast — and politely popped in front of other runners wherever I could.

CT_skyrace_mapThis first climb eased, we swung a right turn and started traversing below the towering cliffs of Pomagagnon. Soon the singletrack widened and we reentered the forest.

The course turns vertical once again for a 300m climb through the alp called Crepe de Zumelles. I was largely locked into position in a long line-up that zig-zagged up the mountain and plumbed through the chossy forcella above.

I filled my bottle from the spring I’d recced the previous day then scooted back into line. We proceeded through the forcella, headed east and began descending on rough trail. I’d mistakenly thought from looking at maps that the descent back to Cortina was on shitty gravel access roads, but this was delightful. We hooted and hollered, flying then plummeting down rocks and roots.

The feeling of fun soon turned into one of cramping in my calves and I prayed for electrolyte drink at the ~15K aid station, the only one of the course. I soon arrived and after some linguistic mix-ups (No, not coke. Eee-lec-tro-lyte?), they filled up my bottle with electrolyte drink and I was off.

We slid through sloppy cow pastures that double as ski runs in the wintertime… Pain. I longed for the end. I wanted to see the neighborhoods, the little houses, the stream rushing beside me. Soon, we came ripping down onto pavement, running through the neighborhood where we’d rented our flat, and turned back onto the bike path for the last kilometer.

What an awful kilometer it was. Though it was a benign bike path, the final approach to town, I’m sure I cursed that kilometer with every slur in my repertoire.

We soon arrived in downtown Cortina amid a cheering crowd and I somehow summoned up the means to come sprinting through the finish line, bottle in hand, half-nude — a curiosity in a land where compression prevails.

24/06/16 – Tre Cime di Lavaredo
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Went to see the Tre Cime. This wasn’t a run, not even a hike; it was a tourist outing with components of both running and hiking.

I’d decided not to run Lavaredo, therefore I wouldn’t get to see the Tre Cime — the iconic three-peaked mountain which can’t actually be seen from town — which is sort of like visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. So I took a bus to Rifugio Auronzo, got off and marveled at the pinnacles of Tre Cime. I was hungry though, so I went to get coffee and a sandwich at the rifugio first.

Though there’s a circuit one can do around the base of the mountain, I reasoned it would be better appreciated from afar, rather than right below it, and identified a suitable hill that looked like a good one to march to.

This point of vantage gave better views of neighbouring Cadini di Misurina, a venerable cathedral of Patagonia-esque spires. There’s a technical hiking route/via ferrata with no pro, called Sentiero Bonacossa which traverses this range. Although I’d researched it before I left, it was hard to gauge from across the internet how techy/sketchy the terrain truly was.

15All this is an aside, because today wasn’t the day such a venture and my only real intention was putting around Tre Cime. I went back to the rifugio for another snack.

From that hill, I could only really see two towers of the famed Tre Cime. In order to see the third tower, I had to follow part of the circuit then cut over to a hilltop to the east.

I saddled up and booted out to the viewpoint across veins of karst pavement interspersed with terraced meadows. The view of Tre Cime from the east reveals the three peaks, an utterly bizarre-looking mountain which rises from the plain like some huge alien monument.

17I raced back to Auronzo and caught the bus back to town. For the past couple months I’d had this epic picture of the Tre Cime as the background on my phone. I looked at the picture: “The Tre Cime doesn’t look like that,” I said.

But that’s how Tre Cime looks from the north, the side I never saw.

25/06/16 – Cortina Trail 50K (spectating/support)
The 25th of June was Cortina Trail, a race two friends of mine, Jordan and Mikale, were running. The previous evening was the start of the 119km Lavaredo Ultra-Trail. About an hour before the start, the skies clouded over and unleashed what forecasts suggested for weeks but hadn’t delivered: rain poured; waterfalls cascaded off of roofs and gutters; lightning flashed every minute. One could almost feel the population of the town, bloated by thousands of runners from all over the world, collectively pooping their pants that very moment.

The next morning the skies were clear. We got up early before the race, as one does before an ultramarathon. After requisite deliberating — Do I bring this? Do I bring that? — and countless checks of gear we proceeded to the start line.

The race started at 8am and I watched as a deluge of happy-looking ultramarathoners rambled through the main street and out of sight.

I was fairly bent on obtaining a cowbell and ringing the shit out of it on a hill somewhere as a show of support. The Cooperativa possessed a variety to suit my needs. With an big honking red one in my hand, I caught a bus to Passo Falzarego, the halfway point of the Cortina Trail race.

The bus ride was hair-raising and begs numerous questions as to how they deal with this situation every day: the problem is like trying to fit a square object in a triangular hole, except we’re talking about big coach buses and crazy European traffic on very narrow, switchbacking roads. Every time the bus turned a corner, traffic coming the other way had to slam on their brakes and there would occur a momentary standoff to see who would back up to let the other vehicle by. Somehow they make it work.

I hopped off at Col Galina as runners came down one side of the valley and went trotting up the other side. I hiked up the course to find a good spot to ring my bell. Most of the runners going down to Col Galina looked pretty shellshocked; a few of them tripped or completely ate it at the techy little spot where I was posted.

It probably didn’t help anybody’s concentration that I was my clanging my stupid cowbell and shouting phrases of encouragement in three different languages. However, most of the runners looked heartwarmed to see me, the same way I felt when I’d seen and heard the locals ringing their cowbells on tops of hills and at aid stations in CCC*.

*That of course was Val d’Aoste. Cowbells didn’t seem as prevalent in the Dolomiti — I think I was the only person ringing one.

LG-H831I saw my friends and we ran into the aid station together. They were doing awesome, still feeling fresh and stoked about the course as well. The weather was still looking good too. Who could ask for more?

Jordan and Mikale trotted off to tackle the second half of the course and I was left to ring my cowbell and trip up other runners coming down the hill.

After awhile, I marched up the road to Falzarego to catch the bus to take me back to Cortina. I’m already inept when it comes to riding buses, so when the bus didn’t arrive on time I told myself to relax and wait. So I waited, and waited and waited, until I decided I’d waited long enough and was just gonna walk back to Cortina.

Within minutes of walking along the road, I learned there was an accident blocking traffic, then the bus arrived. Good thing, because I probably would’ve died if I attempted to walk down that crazy road back to town.

After a smoke and an espresso, the driver was ready to go, so I got on the bus and chatted with a girl who’d been watching the race and also got stranded up at Falzarego.

As we talked, the driver came around a corner which, as usual, forced oncoming traffic to slam on its brakes and reverse. The driver tried to squeeze past the other vehicles, but as we turned, a loud creaking sound erupted from the side of the bus as it scraped against the guardrail. The driver exploded in a flurry of Italian expletives and went out to assess the damage; he came back a minute later still muttering swear words and drove off.

Still unsure if I would make it back to town alive, we emerged from a tunnel and downshifted to descend the steep grade of the verdant hills surrounding Cortina.

After waiting for an hour at the finish line, I started thinking my friends had already finished the race while I was putzing around at Falzarego, and were probably crushing beers at the house. I waited a little longer but just as I decided to leave there suddenly appeared Mikale and Jordan, gloriously exhausted and sweaty, Cortina Trail 50K finishers, no small feat. The aura of physical brokenness but complete spiritual awesomeness imbued them.

The finish line had been set up beside a church but the main street of Cortina had become a cathedral, crowded with smiling, wincing, crying faces. Holy ghosts.

26/06/16 – Venice – Home
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I thought I had more time to spend in Cortina but realized after coming home from watching the race that I was going to have to leave the next morning. Bummer.

Jordan said goodbye as we were caught in a downpour and I ran to the station and got on the bus soaking wet. I dried my stuff on the back of the seat whilst admiring the scenery on the ride from Cortina to Belluno.

Maestre was hot as hell and I didn’t have much interest in actually visiting Venice, but I had a huge amount of time to kill before catching my flight the next morning. Also, transportation to Venice is really fast and cheap, so I bought a ticket and hoped it would be cooler on the island.

It was just as hot, if not hotter, and packed with tourists (of which I was one). I strolled past an endless series of shops selling the same cheap merchandise, which was actually educative about Venetian culture (i.e. masquerade masks and Murano glass). Indian folks persuasively hawked selfie sticks on every bridge while African dudes sold fake purses on every corner.

The elements that make Venice unique — the canals; its antiquity — were neat, but beyond that I wasn’t super impressed. Any of these places — Rome, Florence, even the Mer de Glace  — are surely not what they used to be, even a hundred years ago, but one can’t avoid that I suppose. I realized I’m not much of a “cultural city” sort of person. Transport me to the little villages of the Dolomites, Aosta Valley or French Prealps any day.

28Once it got dark (not cooler, only more humid), I returned to the airport reasoning it would be as comfortable a place to spend the night as a comfy hostel in Venice. Though I found a quiet area and ended up sprawled in my sleeping bag on the floor, I never really got much sleep — the continued lack of which eventually proved to have bizarre effects.

I left Venice the next morning at 11:30am. I took two flights, Venice to Toronto then Toronto to Calgary, totaling fifteen hours in which I further failed to sleep; I simply head-bobbed myself awake for fifteen hours instead.

My trip didn’t end once I reached home. Even when I got to to Calgary airport, I waited for a bus to take me to Banff. I wandered across the top level of the parking deck and thought, “Although I am still in the process of waiting around for transportation, is this not a perfect end to the trip?”

I stood there watching planes taxi, take off and land as the warm sun slowly dropped towards the mountains on the horizon. The breeze started to pick up and grow cool. It was a perfect end to the trip.

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28/06/16 – My Strange Trip
The bus pulled into Banff around midnight. I was so far beyond sleeping and waking that neither meant anything anymore.

I was dropped off downtown and still had a few blocks to walk my apartment. “I’ve been living out of this pack for ten days,” I said to myself. “I don’t mind hauling it one last time.” I shouldered up my hefty pack and strolled down Banff Ave., which was quiet yet sporting the usual nighttime fare.

I got home and spent a while unpacking my bags and sorting laundry. After half an hour or so, I wrenched myself from this activity and forced myself to lay down and sleep.

But I couldn’t. My mind was racing. I couldn’t disconnect from my trip. I couldn’t disconnect from travel, from waiting, from moving. I felt disembodied, like I was going to spontaneously astral project. Suddenly it felt like I was still at the airport, overlooking the planes with the warm sun on my face and the breeze on my skin. And then everything fell apart.

I wish I could describe this process more vividly, but I had a complete breakdown in identification and consciousness. My last thought was something along the lines of, “I don’t know what to connect to”, and it felt like the linkage, the adhesive that holds everything together into a cohesive experience fell apart, and I didn’t know who or where I was.

Existential terror flooded my veins like acid, my heart started racing and I opened my eyes. I was home in my apartment, I could tell myself, but even that was alien. I felt distinctly like I was on psychedelic mushrooms or LSD, and my heart was still pounding trying to hold back terror. I looked at my scrawny, bearded self in the mirror — everything appeared normal — but it was simply appearance, still nothing to connect to. I had to tell myself, “You are here, in your apartment; this is your body; everything is normal,” but it meant nothing. Everything was stark and alien and cold and meaningless.

These were not philosophical thoughts; I could easily have dealt with that. Sadly it was the psychological reality of starkness, of meaninglessness. Within a moment, my ego — the central organizing function of consciousness — had been shredded up, crumpled and disposed, and I was a naked eye on the verge of panic.

I was still able to think, and assumed circumstances had contributed to this experience — hours of travel; jet lag; lack of sleep; dehydration; having returned from a peak experience and finally laying down to rest, attempting to end the process of travel and transition back to “normal life”… These factors I assume created a perfect storm for my psyche when I finally laid down and tried to sleep. I focused on my breathing and eventually fell unconscious.

The next day was a bit weird but after a few days everything became normal. I remember having the thought during this episode, during the part where I was disoriented as to whether I was still at Calgary airport or at home in my bed that, “This must be what schizophrenia is like.” It seems from cursory research on the internet that there’s a relationship between psychosis and jet lag/desynchronization, and I feel like I experienced an aspect of it.

As much as I talked about letting go of expectation and embracing “virgin novelty” leading up to this trip, this was the deep-seated psychological reality and it wasn’t exactly pleasant.

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part II

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part I

10When God created the mountains, He made sketches of their various forms and deposited them in northern Italy. He scooped together a big lump that looked like Mont Blanc, plastered its north face with snow, and that was Marmolada. He crafted the perfect pyramidal shape of K2, with a little tuft of spindrift blowing off it, and that was Antelao. Last, He worked on towers and spires like those of Patagonia, and that was the Cadini of Misurina and Tre Cime. God, gaily at play in His mountain sandbox, was how the Dolomites came to be.

I decided to visit the Italian Dolomites last fall after returning from Chamonix. I whipped up a spreadsheet of the Alps’ coolest mountain races all organized by date; while Dolomites Skyrace was appealing for its location and tenure on the Skyrunning calendar, I couldn’t justify travelling to Europe for so short a race and wanted something earlier in the season. Lavaredo Ultra Trail was ideal, a gruelling 119km ultramarathon which took place among the same incredible scenery. It also became a focus of this trip early on to stay in some of the mountain refuges that dot the hills around Cortina before joining my friends in town before the race.

When I rolled my ankle in February, I expected it to be a small hiccup until I found myself in May struggling even to walk. My plans abruptly changed. I signed up for the 20km Cortina Skyrace but at my bleakest moment wasn’t sure my “cloven hoof” would allow me to walk around Calgary airport, let alone hike in the mountains or run a race.

Fast-forward through a series of physio appointments and rehabilitative exercises. On June 16th, vastly improved yet still on the injury fence, I stuffed ten days of supplies into my trekking pack and said, “Arrivederci, Banff!”

17/06/16 – Cortina to Croda da Lago
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After fifteen hours flying and two more on the bus, I arrived in Cortina at 2pm and immediately started hiking. It was a 10km/800m ascent to Rifugio Croda da Lago and to be honest, I was doubtful of my fitness and didn’t want to get there after dark. With the help of Google Maps, navigating out of town was easy and as all of the trails in the Dolomites are numbered and well-marked, finding the way to the rifugio wasn’t tough.

While climbing steep hills with a big pack is foreign to my body on a good day, I made fast progress up the muddy cowpath. This trail is also the final descent of the Lavaredo and Cortina Trail courses, so as I ascended I asked myself what sick, cruel course designer picked this slick, techy drop for fatigued runners in the last throes of those races.

Despite worrying about arriving at the rifugio after dark, I got there sooner than expected and dinner wasn’t served until 7pm anyway, something that was characteristic of rifugios I stayed at. So I went for a stroll to admire placid Lake Federa and returned to a meal of spinach dumplings drenched in butter sauce.

18/06/16 – Croda da Lago to Nuvolau
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For months leading up to this trip, the forecast had shown thunderstorms and rain, every single day, without any real nuance for how or when bad weather occurred. The prospect was thus a little daunting in the context of a trip based on sustained hiking above treeline. A little rain fell overnight at Croda da Lago but when I woke to a bluebird sky, I scarfed down breakfast and headed out the door.

I marched up to Forcella Ambrizzola, rounded the rear of the big spires that comprise Croda da Lago, then dropped into the Dolomites backcountry. For the next few kilometers, I played leapfrog with a couple mountain bikers resigned to pushing their bikes through the subalpine meadow more than actually riding them. Once we all reached the top of Forcella Giau I still felt relatively fresh, but one of the bikers turned to the other and asked, “Why did we bring these bikes?”

I descended the other side of this col en route to Passo Giau, a wide, paved pass that was clearly a popular destination for weekend motorcyclists and road bikers. At the rifugio, I ordered an espresso and apple strudel, then proceeded on my way.

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I traversed around the back of the imposing white tower Ra Gusela to a saddle called Forcella Nuvolau where Rifugio Averau is located. My destination for the night was Rifugio Nuvolau, precariously perched a hundred meters higher on a peak of the same name.

There was plenty of time before I needed to check in at Nuvolau, so I popped in to Averau and ordered another espresso and apple strudel. Then I headed down the hill to check out famed Cinque Torri below.

5 While the Summitpost page aptly describes these five towers as “amusing”, they exemplify the Dolomites in somewhat reduced scale. Rising from a plain, five bizarre, hulking structures seem to have been arranged — or emerged organically from the ground — as though in a great Zen garden.

6As the first storm of the day rolled in, I sheltered in one of many World War I-era bunkers built into the hill around Cinque Torri. When the rain momentarily let up, I made a break back up the hill for Nuvolau, as I heard thunder rumbling and could see another storm coming.

Before dinner at the rifugio, I lingered outside taking pictures as my skin began to tingle and the air got thick and fuzzy. The thought suddenly occurred that standing on a mountaintop with a metal box in my hand wasn’t the smartest thing to do, so I retreated beneath the overhang instead. The snow started to accumulate on the patio tables and the scene was transformed into winter.

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Dinner was spaghetti in olive oil and garlic; so simple but so tasty. I chatted with some folks from Oregon who are, safe to say, a model of how I hope to be when I am “old” and/or if I had kids. It’s supremely inspiring for me to see fitness and adventure carried into middle and old age, and furthermore to encourage it in one’s children.

After a long meal and varied discussion with the Oregonians, the storm cleared up and we rushed outside to observe Nature’s majesty. I don’t mind the crosses and Jesuses on top of every summit, but just look at the surroundings — especially at sunset, from a mountaintop, after a storm has passed — that’s the church, man.  7

19/06/16 – Nuvolau to Lagazuoi
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The day started a little stormy but not too bad. I made my way over Forcella Averau and beneath Croda Negra on a few of the more technical steps of this trek, although that isn’t saying much. It was simply that snow still choked a few steep descents through narrow gullies and a slip here would have sucked. Luckily I was able to spyly ski down them instead.

I reached paved Passo Falzarego (2105m) appallingly early so I killed time looking in the souvenir shops and brooding over an espresso — something which goes against both the meaning the word and the practice of drinking it in Italy.

After a brief episode looking for my poles (which the shopkeeper placed alongside umbrellas in some kind of storage bucket), I started the long slog to Lagazuoi. The path was like a museum of old war fortifications, which ascended to the mouth of gusty Val Travernanzes where I saw Rifugio Lagazuoi perched in the clouds.

9I’d learnt from my Oregonian rifugio-mates that the final stretch to Lagazuoi was still snowed in, and now I could see that it looked like a ski slope — in fact, I longed for my featherlight Dynafit PDGs and a pair of skins, that way I could get some turns in as well. But as it were, I only had my sneakers, so I slogged up the bootpack, cursing and wheezing in each labored breath.

I reached Rifugio Lagazuoi and proceeded to the slightly higher summit and watched as an aggressive-looking storm started rolling in. A wall of snow squall ominously devoured Antelao, then Sorapiss, then blotted out the Tofane group as well. By the time I made it back to the rifugio, conditions were so whiteout I could hardly see it fifty meters in front of me. For a group of German guys and two New Yorkers still struggling up the slope to Lagazuoi, apparently it was pretty nervewracking.

0We dined over a four course dinner as the skies cleared and the sunset lit it on fire. Then we all rushed out to take pictures. When you do a Google image search for something like “Dolomites rifugio”, this is the image that usually pops up: Rifugio Lagazuoi on the edge of a great cliff, above a sea of mountains bathed in golden light. Truly a powerful experience.

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20/06/16 – Lagazuoi – Giussani – Dibona
33I took my time leaving Lagazuoi in the morning as I’d consistently made good time and this was to be the shortest of my days. I had a few challenges navigating the snowfields in Val Travernazes but soon found myself travelling underneath a row of offensive positions tunneled into the face of Tofana di Rozes, a couple hundred meters off the deck. After spotting some chamois, I came to a big notch in the mountain separating peaks of the Tofane massif. Here I had a choice: I could see Rifugio Angelo Dibona, where I intended to lay my head , a little ways below. However, it was again too early to check in and do nothing, plus I had the opportunity to visit some neat, old rifugios up in the col above.

Going into this trip, I had planned to use the Dibona hut as a base for an ascent of Tofana di Rozes the following day. Throughout my trek, however, the summit had appeared really snowy, and though I’d brought Yaktrax expecting a little bit of snow, it looked more like an ice ax and crampon sort of scenario.

Slogging up to Rifugio Giussani confirmed my suspicions. The whole east face was still covered in deep snow with avalanche paths that streamed down and fanned out to the valley bottom. I popped into the rifugio and inspected the route a little closer over a bowl of soup. A few postholey bootprints started up the face but disappeared when they got to the avalanche path. While the route to the summit of Tofana di Rozes is supposed to be a “trail” of sorts when in good condition, it was more of a mountaineering endeavour at present.

Rifugio Giussani was one of the cooler rifugios I visited. While Lagazuoi was elegantly situated but had no real character of its own, Giussani had a true mountaineering tradition to it, as a base for daring ascents of the Tofane group.

The same was true of Dibona, down at treeline, where I spent the night. A hip and surprisingly young couple ran this rifugio where pictures of Angelo Dibona — dangling from rope ladders off the side of the Tofanes — covered the walls.

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21/06/16 – Dibona – Ra Vales – Cortina
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My buddy Jordan from Edmonton was due to arrive in Cortina later this day, but I still had lots of time to kill so I continued traversing around the base of Tofana di Mezzo and up to the last alpine rifugio of my trek, Ra Vales.

The snowy slog up (actual) ski slopes was giving me flashbacks to Lagazuoi. As I approached the rifugio, I saw no activity except for two guys smoking cigarettes who invited me inside anyways. The rifugio was still closed for the season and they were working on the cable car yet insisted on giving me coffee, Fanta and serving up a platter of meat and cheese. One of them held up an empty wine bottle with a disheartened expression and apologized for their lack of wine.

15-2After lunch we parted ways and I plummeted down the snow slope back to Forcella Ra Vales in a fraction of the time it took to get there. On my descent to town, I stopped to get water at Rifugio Col Drusie, then proceeded to visit Lake Ghedina, which was crystal clear and stocked with huge fish.

Not long after, I emerged onto the outskirts of Cortina and a big smile erupted across my face. The past five days had started out a little daunting but proved to be incredibly satisfying. On my trips to France last couple years, I’d rented a room in the valley and made daytrips into the mountains. On this trip, however, I found trekking hut to hut with everything on my back a much more fulfilling experience.

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The occasion called for pizza and beer, a combination Cortina caters in a way that is exquisitely gourmet. I took off my hiking pack and plopped onto a seat on the patio of Pizzaria Porto Rotondo, my table furnished with pristine linen, meticulously arranged cutlery and polished glasses. I was sunburnt, dirty and probably reeked; I found the juxtaposition amusing. The waiter took one glance in my direction and already knew what I wanted.

“A large beer?” he asked.

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part I

Cloven Hoof

k2With a matter of days until I fly to visit the Dolomites, almost everything is ready to go, except for my body. I’ve long spiritualized my ankle injury, thinking (perhaps a little too deeply) about the meaning of why it occurred. Because I could never just roll an ankle, of course; I must’ve fucked it up for some reason I fail presently to grasp but will see clearly in retrospect…

In my more far-out fantasies, I busted my ankle for it to be replaced with a goat hoof that will propel me to mountain running greatness. Haha, a funny scenario, until last month’s “plantar fasciitis” graduated into a crippling disability to walk down hallways and such. I returned home from an attempted bike ride to find my foot physically disfigured, my arch being painfully wrenched back, the knuckle of my big toe driving into the ground. I sat on the floor appalled, feeling like my foot was actually transforming, and suddenly the jokes about a goat hoof weren’t funny anymore.

bIn the course of this episode — somewhere between racking up a buttload of km’s and vert on a shitty ankle last month and sobbing hopelessly because I can’t walk — I came to terms with not racing Lavaredo. With zero meaningful training this year, I was cool with trekking hut-to-hut and having more time to explore an incredibly beautiful area. Plus I got my name on the starting list for Cortina Skyrace, just in case. But as I sat there on the floor staring at my deformed foot, I felt very far away from the basics needed to make any of that happen.

So I did something radical and went to see the physio. A little internet research had already revealed the relationship between the thing that hurt (the inner arch of my right foot) with the thing I knew didn’t work properly anymore (my right ankle, especially on the inside). Once my rolled ankle had seemingly healed, I simply assumed it was good enough to run on: I can hike competently, I said to myself in April, therefore I must be able to run. And though things started smoothly, when I read my record from the second part of May, it reads like a record of stupidity.

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Thank God Glenn is not my physio.

Several sessions with Fabienne Moser at Banff Physical Therapy have helped elucidate and resolve the problem, deemed to be posterior tibial tendonitis from improperly rehabbing my ankle sprain. A few measurements revealed glaring differences in strength and flexibility between each ankle, so it’s no wonder I developed issues once I started running consistently. And “running consistently” last month meant up and down Sulphur almost every other day. Now I’m relegated to resistance band exercises on the floor as my foot slowly heals and the days tick closer to my departure for Cortina.

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One thought which keeps occurring to me is how different this year is from last. Last year was the first season that I approached training in something of a structured way and felt like I performed really well. I was pretty proud of my achievements last year. This year was supposed to be even better: my training more dialed-in; my mental game stronger; my name higher up on the list of race results… But so far I feel like I have nothing, like everything has been stripped away, like I’m even being asked to suspend my hopes and fears leading up to this trip. To be objective, I have vastly improved in the past two weeks (hiking is possible now, if slow) yet my foot is still quite weak, a glimmer of my usual state of mobility.

However I’m optimistic and still feel there’s a positive outcome to be gained from all this, and that letting go of expectations and embracing the virgin novelty of this situation is somehow part of it.

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Paddy finishing in 7th place at Canmore’s 5Peaks “enduro” trail race.
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#injuredlife… No, I don’t actually own collapsible poles.

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Cloven Hoof

Reckless Abandon

After a week of daily battering — I mean running — I’m stoked to say I’ve returned to normal, that is, ripping up and down hills with reckless abandon. Throughout April I introduced longer and more sustained runs into my hiking-heavy diet, which culminated at the end of the month with a visit from my buddy Paddy. On the 31st and 1st we hit up the classic Baldy traverse in K-Country, then scoped out the route for our mountain running workshop the following day. I returned home from that weekend feeling I was done nursing my ankle injury and determined it was finally time to train.

With only thirty days until Lavaredo, there’s little time to spare, yet I don’t intend to overdo it either. I’m excited by the challenge of building something strong and finely tuned in such a short amount of time, yet feel I’ve been given all of the tools over the past few years in order to do it. Lavaredo will be challenging not only because it’s the longest distance I’ve ever ran; in terms of training, it’s like a blind exam. There aren’t months of steady conditioning culminating in this race. I’ll have to apply the various lessons I’ve learned — physiological, mental, spiritual — to a blank canvas and hope for the best.

As for our Mountain Stride Fitness Intro to Mountain Running workshop (June 4/16, Canmore), we aim to introduce aspiring mountain and backcountry trail runners to the basic knowledge and physical skills required to move fast and light in the alpine. This course came out of our participants’ difficulty in tackling the tricky trails of our Kananaskis retreat last summer. Although runners arrived ultra-fit, there was a lot of tripping and cursing the rough terrain and steep grades. Here we aim to let runners explore movement in a variety of terrain types in a low-pressure way. We also provide instruction about planning and packing for your trips and more!

Without further ado, onto the scree sessions of May!

04/05/16 – Sulphur – 11km/600m
Ran up Sulphur from the Hot Springs. Jogged the majority of the ascent, switching to a hike here and there to give my ankle a rest. Met my friend/coworker Kristina partway, then trotted off to tag the helipad (Sanson’s is closed) then the more southernly summit #3. I stopped to take in the magnificent view that S3 provides, especially at sunset, then trotted back across solid rock and narrow goatpaths to the gondola terminal, then back down the main trail to the hot pool. First Sulphur ascent of the year, not counting on skis.

405/05/16 – Tunnel – 7km/350m
Up SW goatpath, down main trail to home. Jogged towards Tunnel in Luna sandals intending to test them on some of the roughest, chossiest trail around. I deliberately chose the SW ridge to maximize hiking over jogging on the ascent. I found the Lunas’ vibram rubber spot-on in terms of purchase on the loose terrain and found the experience not much different than wearing 110s, if but requiring slightly more care not to stub a toe. I tagged the top and chatted with Tami on the phone as the rain came so I went down. Running downhill in the sandals isn’t dissimilar to wearing sneakers, however I felt the characteristic tug in the bottom of one foot — the recovering one — the underside of which is still weak after relatively little activity up until now. It will take a few more short jogs before my feet are strong enough for long sessions in these truly zero-drop footwear.

06/05/16 – Sulphur (summits 2, 3, 4, 5) – ~20km/1500m
Jogged along river from home, up steps and trail to the Fairmont then the hot springs. My ankle felt a little wonky before this run and I wasn’t sure if I should rest or not, but it was beautiful outside and I couldn’t resist. I grabbed a snack at the hot springs then consciously hiked the ascent of Sulphur, rather than jogging it. I don’t think I’ve ever hiked up Sulphur — my first time going up Sulphur was a run, in torrential rain as I fondly recall. At any rate, I hiked very competently and devoured vert like a monster, soon popping out upon the helipad (S2), congested with picture-takers. I immediately swung a left turn and dashed  towards summit 3.

At the bottom of S3, I tackled my gully of choice from its base, rather than climbing a less technical feature beside it and traversing into it halfway up like usual. This was a refreshing change and offered more sustained vertical climbing. I’m not a comfortable climber but the holds are great and the grade is perfect scrambling terrain.

8I tagged S3 and immediately made my way towards S4, which was my objective for the day. Twenty minutes or so later I was bashing choss and scrambling short pitches that deposited me atop S4.

I looked over at S5. I’d been in this same situation before, intending “only to go to summit 4”, then going to S5, then S6, and having to repeat the deathmarch all the way back… If I was gonna tag S5, I had to hurry up and do it; I had limited water, no food, and the day was only getting hotter.

S5 was glorious and alpine. I topped up my bottle with cold slush from the cornice, took a few pics then trotted back. Heading back is always the tough part, as the Sulphur ridge is akin to doing hill repeats. Now I was on my fifth repeat — sweltering and legs pooched — and still had two more to go.

Upon reaching the helipad I immediately descended, hoping to get a ride to town from work peeps who finished their shift at 4:30pm. I would normally — with almost religious zeal — never not run home unless something was seriously wrong with me, but I was really hungry and felt I’d ran sufficiently. I didn’t feel the need for an extra 4km and -300m of impact.

8 707/05/16 – Rundle – 18km/1560m
Rundle with Chris, TH to TH. An awesome day. Was a bit worried about overdoing the ankle but it just gets stronger every day. The ascent was fast and mostly a hike. The weather was warm from the get-go and only slightly cool and breezy at the top. I was also worried about having sluggish legs from my outing yesterday but I was actually feeling stronger and more coordinated; slogging was strong, my descents were quick and my left knee felt fine. As for my ankle… apparently not an issue anymore?

1008/05/16 – Tunnel circuit – ~10km/~200m
A loop around Tunnel starting/finishing at home. Headed out concentrated on jogging easily in the Lunas. “Do you know the definition of ‘easy'”? I asked myself several times as I had to pull back the pace. Not that I’m a fast runner but I seem to like to settle into a pace more suited to descending off a peak whilst going for a FKT… not appropriate all of the time. Foot fascia felt stronger than last run in the sandals, mild tightness but no abrupt tug. Also, the forest was very peaceful🙂 A delightful run carrying little, with barenaked feet.

*It then became apparent that I’d done a number on my right foot: though I felt fine in the days immediately after this run, a few days later I developed foot pain. Too much, too fast in the Lunas methinks.

12/05/16 – Sulphur – ~10km/~200m
A short session equal parts jogging, hiking, downhill running and scrambling. Jogged towards the backside worried about my foot — a tight right arch has been bugging me last two days and I don’t want it to turn into full-blown plantar fascitis. Results were not so clear — I didn’t do any more harm I think. At any rate, it was blowing snow and as I hiked up the backside trail with my questionable foot, I knew it was going to be a short outing. I hiked until I got to the first band of rock cuts which I spent a while scrambing up and down where the slabs were steepest and most sustained — a few moves tops, really, but it was fun. There’s much more of this kind of terrain on Sulphur, I just didn’t feel like walking far enough to reach it.

13/05/16 – Sulphur (20km/950m)
Up the back, down the front, tagging Sanson’s Peak at the top. Set out to more or less repeat yesterday’s outing, except to go a little further and hopefully feel a little better. After ten hours of sleep (and 800mg of Advil), the bottom of my foot felt great, so I set out into the fine day. The jog towards the Sundance/Sulphur junction felt iffy yet I continued along. I came across lots of scrambling potential on the rock-cuts — including a few pitches that would take me a while to become comfortable freesoloing — but I really required rock shoes or at least Vibram and the trashed 110s I was wearing were soaked and ankle deep in fresh pow. Thus, I continued slogging up the trail, noting the cooler climbs, until I pretty much got to the top. I tagged Sanson’s for posterity (first time this season), then trotted over to the gondi station. The bottom of my foot felt very “clenched” on the way down but I made it, via delightful singletrack through the forest above the Fairmont and then Middle Springs to my apartment.

719/05/16 – Sulphur (~20km/950m)
Up the back, down the front. A “rainy day” but mostly overcast; could have been much wetter. Jogged conservatively towards the back of Sulphur, simply happy to be out moving after four days off re: R plantar fascia + visit from Tami. Right foot felt a little tight but generally just weak; it’s a shame, really. At any rate, I jogged competently until I reached the climb, then hiked at a relaxed pace, popping out among tourists at the top before I knew it. Tagged Sanson’s in the swirling fog, toyed with the idea of tagging summit #3 (which was invisible in the clouds), but erred on the conservative side and descended the front. The sustained descent would be the true test of my foot and it held up pretty well. A few tugs at the end when I was closer to my house but overall not bad. A far cry from my fitness at this time last year and scarily distant from what’s required for Lavaredo but whatever.

621/05/16 – Sulphur – (~20km/950m)
Up the back, down the back. Started out mellow, still nursing a weak arch though better than last time. Got to the climb and started hoofing it. My right hamstring started tightening up again, just like last time, but thankfully it never truly became a problem. I reached the top in complete fog and strolled along the boardwalk to tag Sanson’s in the whiteout. On my way down, I felt bad for anyone who forked out thirty bucks a head to take the gondola up there to see nothing; meanwhile, just a hundred metres lower, the views were epic. As it was a busy long weekend, I decided to return down the quieter west side instead of taking the main trail. I didn’t need the unnecessary frustration of trying to squeeze past processions of people on the way down. Upon reaching the paved Sundance Canyon trail, I actually clicked off the remaining few kilometres at surprisingly fast pace, I think because I was hungry and simply wanted to get something to eat. (Took about 2h50m total, which is hardly “fast” but getting back into the scope of normalcy for me).

523/05/16 – Sulphur – (~20km/950m)
Up the back, down the back. A pretty stellar run, compared to all my other runs lately which have been shitty. Wore La Sportiva Anakondas, which is rare for me (they’re half a size too big and I don’t like the excessive play), however I thought their solidity and support would be useful for my foot. The jog towards the back felt good and I tackled the climb hands-on-knees, pausing only to commune with a family of marmots who come out of hibernation in the springtime. Soon I was stomping through a fresh couple inches of fresh snow which fell last night. I hoofed it to the boardwalk and tagged Sanson’s in my shorts — it felt definitively like December or March. On my way up, it was my intention to descend the front — throngs of long-weekend hikers or not — but it was the snow condition that changed my mind. I’d hiked through virgin powder on the backside without difficulty but the hordes along the boardwalk had trampled the surface into ice and slush, sure to be the case on the main trail as well. So I turned around, trotted back along the boardwalk and bolted back down the backside trail. This was the first time in ages that running downhill actually felt fluid and not awkward and overly conservative. The La Sportivas did the trick and cradled my gimpy foot as I careened back to the Cave and Basin, whistling to my marmot friends all the while.

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New Oh Sees:

Reckless Abandon

So Much Fun

ANKLE5Fresh blood of the month: (1) 5″ gash on right buttcheek resembling an exclamation mark, due to poor glissading skills; (2) mangled right ankle, as close to fractured as possible but not actually broken.

February has been largely a write-off after severely rolling my ankle while running in Canmore earlier in the month. X-rays indicated the potential for a superficial fracture or bone damage, which explains the walking boot-like immobility and colorful bruising. Three weeks later, the swelling has subsided but I’m still building strength and continuing to heal what’s been deemed a grade II ATFL/grade I CFL sprain.

ANKLE2Laying on the couch with a bag of ice on my foot reading Alpinist Magazine isn’t the worst way to spend one of the shittier months of the year, trail running-wise. This is the point in the season where winter’s grip is supposed to drag, but ’round these parts it has been unseasonably warm and all I’ve wanted is to get outside. That being said, it’s the start of March and there are many more months to get into shape for Lavaredo and the rest of the summer. I could have rolled my ankle a lot deeper into my training block, like Anton did a couple weeks out from Lavaredo in 2014… But then he went on to win that shit.

I’ve been thinking about this mishap with a surprising degree of silver lining and look forward to building something stronger from the wreckage this humbling episode has provided.

Besides, this latest Wavves album makes being super bummed sound like so much fun:

So Much Fun

Fresh Blood

bloodLast year’s cuts and scrapes are all healed up, it’s time to make some new ones. I’m off to a great start, seemingly unable to avoid kicking myself in the ankles while wearing Microspikes and there’s some weird bruise thing on my thigh… I’ll let you know if any fresh blood develops.

I’ve been running more in the past week than in the past couple months combined and starting to get my bounce back — my first few runs this month felt frighteningly Frankenstein-esque. My aim has been to get in lots of mellow running in order to develop my distance base over the next eight weeks or so; then it’s time to lay it all against the grindstone and hammer until it’s sharp.

As soon as I got back from Ontario mid-January, I headed up to Edmonton to brainstorm next summer’s Mountain Stride Fitness trail running retreats with Patrick Sperling AKA dumpster_diver. We went for a jog through Mill Creek Valley just steps from his house, romantically admired views of the city at sunset (aww), then worked on the deets over freshly cooked fries. It looks like we’ll be offering three formats this year to appeal to a range of runners and hikers of various experience levels and backgrounds — from beginner to veteran mountain goats! Now that our 2016 offerings are finalized, we’ll have more information here and on the Mountain Stride website soon.

Without further ado, on to the athletic endeavors of January!

3Jan. 04/16 – Whitehorn (ski) – 19km/1161/4h09m
Skied up Whitehorn Mountain at Lake Louise ski area after Sean and I got denied the previous week. This time I woke up at 4am and got started at 5:25am, reaching Temple Lodge in less than an hour. Groomers were humming about so I switched my headlamp to “stealth mode” and puttered up the ski-out, trying to avoid being seen. I tagged Top of the World in just over two hours, skied south along the ridge to tag Paradise in 2h12m, then headed towards my objective, the summit of Whitehorn. I tagged the top of Whitehorn in 2h46m and hung around for over half an hour as dawn broke over the Slate Range, illuminating the peaks of Lake Louise.

Eventually I had to descend and received mixed responses on the way down, including from a liftie who was stoked to see I’d skinned up there, and from a couple patrollers who weren’t so stoked… But like Calgary ultrarunner Majo Srnik joked the other day in a Facebook thread about ski patrollers, “They’ll survive”.

Max speed: 63.3 km/h😛

bramptonsucksJan. 09/16 – Run in Brampton – 11.8km/39m/1h07m
A run in Brampton while I was home visiting; a long, paved loop in which I struggled to find some semblance of nature and otherwise dodged cars or waited at traffic lights. The run started by visiting old landmarks — my primary school; grandma’s house; where we used to drink and smoke-up as teenagers — but eventually pounding the pavement started to hurt. I headed into the park near my high school where I used to train with the cross-country team but here the trails were also paved. This corridor, containing a burbling stream, some tall, bowed-over willows and small meadows of reeds, was socked in by the urban landscape at its least aesthetic: a rumbling highway overpass on one side and endless warehouse complexes on the other. I know cities have the potential to be beautiful — and Brampton has its moments — but overall this sprawling maze of cookie-cutter housing, congested traffic and drab commercial/industrial architecture is the opposite of “beautiful”.

skogan passJan. 21/16 – Skogan Pass (ski) – 17km/790m/3h25m
Skiied up a long cut-line route connecting Bow and Kananaskis valleys. During the ascent I focused on a speedy cadence, tagging the top of the pass in two hours flat. Doing the full 30km traverse to Kananaskis Village is an objective I might consider one day, though there are surely much more scenic tours out there. This kind of fare — fire road and cut-line skiing, for example — is becoming my specialty.

anntunnel1Jan. 22/16 – Tunnel – 8km/324m/1h06m
Up and down Tunnel with my friend Anne. Jogged to her place, then we jogged to the trailhead, mostly hiked the ascent, hung around on top for a couple minutes, then ran back down. A really warm day on which I wore shorts and reveled in it.

halingjan3

Jan. 24/16 – Ha Ling – 14km/1138m/2h30m
Up and down Ha Ling via Grassi Lakes. Not many people on the trail — neither on Grassis nor on Ha Ling — which was surprising for a Sunday. Maybe the trace amounts of snowfall we received yesterday scared everybody off, or they went skiing. The run in general was disproportionately labored, which is fine because I’m just starting to slog again consistently. This is “fat and lazy Tom”, as fat and lazy as I ever get. I packed a puffy jacket but wore a long-sleeve shirt from trailhead to summit, a particularly delectable occurrence for January.

Screen shot 2016-01-29 at 9.09.12 PMJan. 25/16 – Tunnel Circuit – 8.5km/196m/56min
A loop around Tunnel, starting and finishing at home. I decided to go for a “flatter” run, something more horizontal, to try to build up my distance base. Plus I think it’s good to mix up vertical-heavy days with flatter ones. Jogged at a fairly conservative pace but it was really enjoyable; nice to not be sprinting or powerslogging up a steep slope, but that will come… I need to remember to keep my pace easy for now or it’s going to undermine the purpose of my training.

tom_haling_jan292016_2Jan. 29/16 – Ha Ling – 23.6km/1300m/3h25m
Up and down Ha Ling from downtown Canmore. This is something I’ve done many times before but this is my first time doing it this season, and is my biggest run yet this year, so it was tougher than usual. Took the bus to Canmore and jogged/slogged from town to the trailhead via Grassi Lakes. The actual ascent of Ha Ling seemed easier than the other day, which was a bit of a deathmarch. Donned a puffy jacket at the col and hung around on top for only a couple minutes, enough to take one picture before my phone died, presumably from the cold.

11Jan. 31/16 – East End of Rundle – 6.3km/982m/4h01m
Up and down EEOR with Glenn from trailhead. A pretty cold day to start, with light snowfall and clouds socking in Canmore and the surrounding peaks. As we climbed, however, the top of EEOR stood out crystal clear against a blue sky. The crux of the route — grovelling up a snowy ramp then traversing along ledges to clear the headwall — was tedious but typical for wintertime. This snow climb has the potential to be perfect for climbing and glissading but I’ve never been there for perfect conditions, usually the snow is either rock hard or isothermal and the thawing headwall is pitching rocks at me.

And in other news, FUCK YES:

Fresh Blood

Past & Future, 2016

X1After two months of little running and a week spent in suburban Toronto for the passing of my grandmother, I return to the Rockies with my body and mind truly at “zero”. This hiatus has served to shore up energy to support another nine months of training, racing and sending epic projects in the high country while allowing my body to heal and my mind to relax from last season. Finally, a visit home to the sprawling suburb of Brampton — seeing many family and friends at once; hiking with my dog along the Niagara Escarpment, our old stomping grounds; and paying reverence to the old works of Canadian artist/philosopher/outdoorsmen at the McMichael Gallery — temporarily scoured me of my connection with the alpine, freeing me from momentum from the past and allowing me to spring forward into a new year from an entirely blank slate.

tre_cime_di_lavaredo_rifugioAs for what the future holds, my calendar isn’t really that blank: It looks like I’ll be running another European mountain race, Lavaredo Ultra Trail 119K in the Italian Dolomites in late June. Sean and Jordan from Mountain Stride Fitness got into Cortina Trail 50K during the same weekend so we’ll all be hanging out together and probably visiting Chamonix along the way. Lavaredo will be my longest race to date but I’m excited to take in the eye-melting scenery and even try to improve on my 25th place finish in Cham last summer.

ROBBBSON
^The Canadian Rockies highest peak, Mount Robson, painted by Lawren Harris, hanging in the McMichael Gallery, Kleinburg, ON. Not high enough.

One of my goals for 2016 is to continue exploring my abilities in the realms of decreased oxygen concentration — and by that I mean climbing higher mountains this year. My simmering love-affair with high altitude became apparent after I ran up 3544m Mount Temple in 2013 and the infatuation has only grown since. However, because the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, Mount Robson (3954m), is a glaciated behemoth and really not that tall in the scheme of things, my interest lies in higher but less technical peaks elsewhere. I feel a trip to Mexico to climb Orizaba (5636m) is in the cards for next winter but could definitely see myself traveling to Colorado or California to bag some 14ers before that.

30Another goal for this year is to offer an expanded menu of Mountain Stride Fitness trail running retreats, from single day “beginner mountain goat” courses, to weekend retreats based in a hostel, to multi-day tours covering greater distance in a hut-to-hut format. Paddy Sperling and I hosted two weekend retreats in Kananaskis last summer which were really successful and we hope to expand our offerings to accommodate a variety of skill levels, locations and terrain types in 2016. Stay tuned!

09As for the Canadian Rockies, I of course have personal projects stacked high but seem to have finally developed an attitude of quality over quantity. Recognizing that I’ve compiled a mental list of projects longer than the number of weeks available to tackle them, it seems necessary to prioritize. Therefore, I’ve come up with something of a singular project involving five big mountains which I hope to take on and present in video. This project takes the “up and down from town as fast as possible” style of Skyrunning I embodied last summer and applies it to a handful of particularly commanding and iconic peaks across the Rockies, from Canmore to Jasper. This project will hopefully not only get people stoked about mountain running as a subset of mountaineering, but also teach a little geography and why the Canadian Rockies are so awesome at the same time.

All this will surely be interspersed with the typical dose of randomness — foregoing “training” for things more interesting — as the close of last summer provided the seeds for many an exciting proposition including road bike approaches, exposed north face scrambles and even open water swimming…? I suppose I’m looking forward most of all to the alchemical process of refining myself yet again into a sharpened tool, crafted to perform a given job with precision, and experiencing all the metaphysical shit that comes along with it.

Now to go out and actually “train”… How do I tie my shoe laces again?

Past & Future, 2016