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

22/06/16 – Pomagagnon/Crepe de Zumeles
jordinsourmannn
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.

tomclimbingrope
^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
16
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
29
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.

30

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

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