I recline in the quaint upstairs room at a small hotel in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy, listening to the rain and sleet patter against the balcony window. There is a heavy knock on the door. It is Markus, looking damp and a bit crestfallen. His normally lively voice now a dull gravelly monotone: "um, Andrew.... I think I did something bad - I think I've locked the keys in the rental car....". And then, for a moment or two... Silence.
That was an excerpt from the story of our recent trip to the alps in Europe - ups and downs, rain, snow and shine, and never a dull moment (well, actually maybe a couple of dull moments). If that intrigued you, read on...
Rewind back... to the sunny dry summer of 2002 in Ottawa. I am busy with my usual attempts at gathering a motley crew of friends into going on a half hair-brained adventure in some wild corner of the world. My thoughts settle on the Dolomites, in northern Italy - again. It was less than a year before that Brian, myself and Lorraine explored these enchanting peaks, and that exploration was, for me, much too short. And so after much planning, pleading, cajoling, slide-show showing, co-ordination, and negotiation, it is decided: there will be seven of us; and we will tackle the dolomites - hiking; fixed-protection climbing, and some general touring. Who were we? Markus Wandel, Annette Labossiere, Bob Gibson, Brian Connell, Andree Plouffe, Daryl Boyd, and, yours truly (Andrew).
The strange thing about the start of this trip was that almost none of us would be travelling together: Bob and Annette had already planned a European vacation, and would be incorporating some mountain adventures into their existing trip; Daryl had already planned a European trip with a friend, but a last-minute bailout forced Daryl to re-think his vacation, and this appealed to him as an attractive alternative; Brian, a friend working for Nortel in Europe, was already in position; Markus, a native of Southern Germany, wanted to visit his relatives for a couple of weeks ahead of time. So in the end everyone had a different schedule. The arranged meeting place was Brian's House near Friederichshafen in Southern Germany, where Brian had graciously offered to put all of us up while we organized.
Our conveyance device
Fast-forward to September 20. Andree and I arrive in Munich, Germany. Our task for the day is to pick up our rental car and then drive to a small hamlet called Wangen, where Markus has been spending the last week and a half visiting relatives and enjoying the serene and peaceful Bavarian countryside.
Our rental car is a smart-looking silver Audi A6 Turbodiesel wagon. (We rent a wagon because the typical Andrew outdoor adventure involves massive piles of rarely used gear that I insist we just must haul around). I realize too late that the car is automatic.... in Europe! Being very tired of boring slushbox automatic rental cars in North America, I was looking forward to something with a manual transmission. Anyway, too late now, and the rest of the car is nice, so off we go.
Wangen, historic section
Ah, Europe. Road travel on the Autobahn. Drivers who obey lane discipline with teutonic rigour! Effortless, high speed travel with no worries of a finger wagging and a highway revenue tax ticket! Indeed, cruising with traffic at 160 km/hr seems so ordinary, so everyday, so calm, so... normal. If only we could train drivers in this manner in North America....
The townhall (rat house)
Soon we are nearing the outskirts of Wangen im Allgau, essentially the Markus' childhood hometown. I have the GPS co-ordinates of the apartment Markus is staying at, and so after finding an appropriate place to park (which turns out to be an illegal spot to park), we wander around in this amazingly quaint, historic german town, following the little arrow on my GPS. 100 metres...., 80 metres, 50 metres... 20 metres. I am in front of a narrow cobblestone allyway, barely wide enough for a car.
That's the right street! amazing technology. 10 metres down the way brings us to door number 4, and the GPS reads less than 5 metres. I look over, and there they are: a couple of 'Wandel' labels next to the door. Very neat, navigating over the surface of our planet, from any location, and a couple of special numbers brings me to the very doorstep of this particular out-of-the-way corner of the world.
The pig farmer/shepherd sculpture
In my anxiousness I press the more legible label, which of course turns out to be the wrong one, and I get Markus' aunt instead. I simply say 'Markus' and am buzzed in. A brief bit of universal language ensues (finger pointing, gesturing), and I am directed upstairs into the proper apartment. And what a fascinating apartment. Converted from older building and part of the defensive wall of the old city of wangen, the apartment is a mix of old, mixed-up, off-angle building combined with modern appointments, fresh varnish, and stylish appliances. There is even a ball-bearing swing hanging in the middle of one room! Both Markus and Daryl are waiting. After some quick pleasantries, We head out for a brief tour of Wangen, and for a bite to eat in an authentic German Pub.
As you can see from the pictures, The old sector of Wangen is an adorable little place, nearly perfectly restored. Of special note are the neat metal sculptures of a farmer or shepherd and his 'flock' of pigs. Apparently several of the pigs have a case of wanderlust, and so here and there in the town you happen across these pig sculptures trying to run away. The pub was great: an earthy, dark-panelled place, with many mugs of beer, and a very interesting seating philosophy. Apparently one does not wait for a table to be cleared, but rather whenever there are enough seats open at any table you just sit down along with whoever is already there and start your meal.
Brian lives only about 25 kilometres from Wangen, as the crow flies. Although you would think taking the Autobahn to get there would be the fastest way, in fact it is not, we discovered. There are few rural exits on the Autobahn, and so once on you aren't getting off. This result in a somewhat longer (like 2 or 3 times longer) journey to Brian's. We'll know better next time! In any case, Brian's place near Friederichshafen is in marked contrast to the quaint old apartment in Wangen. His place is better described as a Germanified Kanata neighbourhood - new, modern, efficient, with a small little yard and lots of cars in the street. Still, his house is large and easily able to accommodate all 7 of us. It is here that we all finally meet, as Bob and Annette are also at Brian's, waiting for us to arrive. And so the fellowship is complete!
Driving to the dolomites
Turns out that due to some of the recent Nortel turmoil, however, Brian is tied up with work, and cannot immediately join us. A contingency plan is drawn up and we arrange to potentially have Brian join us in the mountains when he can get away. It is then off to the grocery store to stock up on camping food, and off we go. Our destination for the day is a campground in the Dolomites, about 400 km by road from Brian's place, through southern Germany and Austria. If there is one other thing that sticks out about driving in Europe, it has to be cost. Between highway tolls and the price of fuel, it is much more expensive to move around there than in North America.
The weather is unsettled much of the way, with some showers, interspersed with sunny breaks... and we are hopeful. And soon we cross into Italy and are greeted with the first glimpses of the dolomites in Val Gardena (famous for international ski events). Having seen many different mountain ranges, it is quite apparent that the Dolomites have a unique character: nowhere else have I seen this particular arrangement of jagged spires of blocky pale rock surrounded by gentle pasture and ski-run filled valleys. The effect is spectacular, highlighting the vertical relief of the area and creating storybook-like scenes.
It is too late in the day to do any sort of hiking or climbing (which I had initially hoped for, but was too optimistic), and so we head for a campground in the small hamlet of Colfosco, called, interestingly enough, 'Camping Colfosco'. The weather has turned grey and drizzly, so we set up our tents and then head off to a restaurant for supper. This grey/drizzy/restaurant combo was to become a familiar scenario.
(for more information on what
a Via Ferrata is, please visit this
of my web site)
Markus, ready as usual.
The next day dawned.... soggy and grey. I, being my usual overly-optimistic self, mused about how a particular white patch in the clouds might be the start of a clearing trend. Markus, being his usual overly-pessimistic self, countered with something else. In any case, we weren't going to sit around and do nothing. My plan for the first day was an 'A'-grade via Ferrata, which in reality does not really require ropes or harnesses, but is a protected climbing path. This would be a good intro, I thought, to those among us who were new to this kind of climbing. It was also a very short route, and so we would be able to gauge everybody's physical abilities as well. And to top it off, there was a very nearby 'C'-grade route in case we were adventurous and wanted more.
Farm building and cliffs
From the top of Gardena Pass, where the trail started, the clouds had parted enough that we could see the jagged outline of the ridge that contained our routes. Far up, we could see a cross on the top of the Grosse Tschierspitze (In Italian, the Gran Cir). Looked very impressive from here, and not climbable from this angle. But an 'A' Ferrata is never hard, and so I knew that was an illusion.
Our two objectives for the day
Hiking through the mist through pastureland, with the clanging of sheep's bells everywhere, was actually pretty refreshing. I was very glad to be back here, having so enjoyed it last fall. As clouds raced by and were replaced by new ones, we would ocassionally get glimpses of our objective and of the large mountain massif on the other side of the valley, known as the Sella Group.
Eventually we reached a gloomy rocky ravine near the foot of the peak itself, and the path led up there to the first of the wire cable protection. Since this was the first time for Bob, Annette, Andree, Darryl and Markus, we went over proper installation of the special Ferrata self-belay device, as well as a couple of other safety points. And then we were off. and it was indeed an 'A', with the route being a fairly well-defined path on a ramp with a big dropoff on one side, but which could be easily walked at all times. The route continued, with intermittent protection, back and forth through the easier terrain on the mountain. Occasional views across the valley were given an ethereal quality by the mist and clouds. And it had not rained for the past few hours.
Soon the summit cross, a large metal structure with stones in it, could be seen. By this time a number of people had passed us and had congregated at the summit. We reached the summit not long before a fairly large group of Italians arrived. As we were having a snack, and admiring the views as they popped in and out around us, this group started humming..., and then singing a song, in multi-part harmony. A hush fell over the other summiteers, and we soaked it all in: the swirling mist, the glimpses into the depths, and the beautiful mountain hymn. It was wonderful, and totally different from the kind of experience you'd get, say, on Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks. I recorded almost all of the song, and you can hear it by clicking on the audio miniplayer below.
Markus and Darryl on summit
Summit cross shines in the sun
Buoyed by this pleasant surprise, we scrambled back down to the grassy pastures below the peak. Annette was feeling a bit tired from this peak, so Bob and she decided to cut at that point, and the rest of us (Markus, myself, Daryl, and Andree) were eager to tackle something with some real climbing, and so over we went to the so-called Tschierspitze V (I guess so named because it is the fifth peak to the left from the highest summit, the Grosse Tschierspitze).
As we climbed up a gully to reach the start of the climb, it started to rain - hard. Great! just when we were getting to the fun stuff.... I really want to do this climb, and so we all huddle under an overhang trying to avoid the various drips and drops from the rock. Above us, some new via-Ferraters from Britain are slowly making their way off of the route. They've never done this stuff before, and I can tell that some of their group are very nervous about the steep terrain and this route, no doubt in combination with the bad weather. They have not made the top, and are retreating.
After what seems like an eternity (although probably no more than 30 or 40 minutes), the rain finally lets up, and a few ragged vents in the sky are visible. Looks promising, and we don't know how long it will last, so we immediately go for it. And this route is not like the "A" route we did this morning. It goes nearly straight up a narrow ridge, with hundred-foot drops on either side. Exhilarating! The route is short, but very sporting, going over some really airy sections before ending on an earthy ridgetop. The weather continues to hold - in fact, the sun is starting to shine! The final summit block has one more section of steep climbing, and then we are on top - a tiny little summit no more than 10 feet around, and before us Val Gardena is visible with low clouds scudding across the foreground - quite a glorious scene! It is then time for bergheils all around and a quick snack. And we are then down via the back way (which is less difficult and gets us down quickly) and we back at the car well before it gets dark. And then clouds close up and the rain returns.....
Climbing to the summit block
On summit of Tschierspitze V
Back at the campsite, we meet up with Bob and Annette. It is getting dark, it is still rainy, and so off we go again to a restaurant.