Through the Trento trench

Trento path

[Now that I’m back to typing with ten fingers, I’ll try to catch up on the rest of Europe.]

I had debated a few paths forward from the Dolomites. First, I could continue east to visit the former Yugoslavia and the Alps’ eastern tail, then return west by train. Second, I could head north and return through Austria, Luxembourg, and Germany. Third, I could return through Italy along the Alps’ southern side. Given my schedule, energy, and interests, I chose the last, heading back west while trying to stay both high enough to avoid the worst of the heat, and low enough not to get rained on.

Better fountain

The Alps are drained to the south by a number of rivers in deep valleys, carved down to less than 1000 feet. The first of these I encountered was the Etsch/Adige, which drains Sudtirol/Alto Adige. I had crossed it higher up in the north at Meran, where it is called the Etsch, before crossing the Timmelsjoch into Austria. This time I crossed it at Trento, where it is called the Adige, way down at 600 feet. Trento was hot and very city-like, so I got a room in a cheap Italian hotel for the night, enjoying the luxuries of a hot shower and air conditioning.


I got a reasonably early start to beat the heat the next morning, riding north up the Adige on a well-paved and popular bike path. The deep, flat-bottomed valley is flanked by impressive limestone cliffs, and climbs very little on the way north to San Michele all’Adige. I left the main valley there, continuing on a bike route (no longer exclusive path) through vineyards to Mezzolombardo, then climbing intermittently along a mix of path and secondary roads to the Lago di Santa Giustina.

Tonale monument

After a rolling ride along the lake, the road climbed more consistently to the Passo Tonale, on the old border between Austria and whatever this part of Italy was at the time (Lombardy and/or Sardinia). The pass itself, and the Adamello Group to the south, were the scene of more vicious fighting during World War I, and still held fortifications built long before. The top held a large tourist town, the usual ski area, and a monument and museum to the First World War. I sat outside the museum for awhile, then descended the steeper western side to Ponte de Legno. There I bought some food and debated crossing the high and famous Gavia Pass back to Bormio. This would have taken me back into some of the trip’s best cycling, but I lacked the time and energy, so I instead continued down-valley before finding a place to camp.

San Pellegrino, Valle, Rolle, Brocon

Climbing Valle

Completely by accident, my exit from the Dolomites took me past some peaks I climbed last time, Cimon della Palla and Cima della Vezzana. However, because I was traveling by car and navigating with my phone, I don’t remember how I reached the Passo Rolle at their base. This time, on a bike, I understand the layout much better, even if I can’t climb them.

From above Moena, I rode up the gentle Passo San Pellegrino, where I stopped at a park to get water and look at a map of the nearby WWI front. The other side of the pass is much steeper and twistier, but I descended only partway before turning to climb the Passo Valle. This was a beautiful and little-used route, steeper on my way up, with distant views of Dolomitic peaks. There is little reason for this pass to exist, but thankfully while Italy may be a basket case in most ways, its Roman impulse to create infrastructure remains strong. Build it once, build it to last, and even occasional use will make it worthwhile in time.

From there I descended to the more popular Passo Rolle road, which was a gentler climb with much more traffic. I did not realize until I was almost at the summit that I had spent a couple days climbing there, including failing to find a supposed 5.4 route on the Cimon della Palla. The other side was much bigger, dropping through the tourist town of Siror to the valley below. Rather than going all the way down to Lago di Corlo on the main road, I took the big but not especially high Passo Brocon.

There was a lot of recent logging along this road, but very little traffic, as it only serves a small ski area and connects some small towns. I stopped for groceries in one of these, then found a place with a picnic table to camp and, once again, get rained on.

Giau and Fedaia

Town below Giau

For my first full day in the Dolomites I rode the Giau and Fedaia Passes. I had already seen one side of the latter on my previous trip, when I did the Marmolada and the WWI ferrata on the other side, but I wanted to see both sides, and check out the glacier after a recent serac collapse killed several hikers.

I seem to have climbed the east side of the Giau, as I found the other to be long, relentlessly steep, and crazily switchbacked. My braking hands were stiff by the time I reached the little town at its base, so I stopped to sit on a bench before descending the last bit to the Fedaia.

This time I took the hard side, which had some brutally steep pitches near the top of well over 10%. It was late enough in the day for the motorcyclists to start becoming annoying, so I barely stopped at the top. The odd dammed-at-both-ends lake was very low, and I think I spotted the site of the serac collapse on the right lobe of what used to be a much larger and continuous glacier.

I stopped in Canazei to get some patches for my air mattress, and talked with a Welshman who worked at the shop. I was perfectly positioned to also ride the famous Sella and Pordoi Passes, but I had had it with motorcycles, so I headed south a bit to some more obscure roads.

Austria to the Dolomites

Cortina from above

Austria has plenty of Alps, and roads into them, including some of the highest. But looking at my map, it seems that many of them are dead-ends, ending at the last town in a valley instead of continuing over a pass to the next. This makes sense from a road-building perspective, but is not ideal for touring. Fortunately the Italians aren’t so sensible: if there’s a saddle between two towns, they will put a road over it. Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than the Dolomites, but first I had to get there.

From the Ötztal, I rode down the Inn River to Innsbruck, then took the sensible Brenner Pass back to Italy. The Inn valley was a pleasant ride, with high cliffs on the north side near Innsbruck. The Austrian side of the Brenner Pass was gentle and somewhat dull, though at least the parallel autobahn soaked up much of the traffic. The Italian side had an unexpected and pleasant bike path, part of Sudtirol’s extensive network. I made it to Brixen for the night, where I checked into a campground. This let me recharge my batteries, but did not help with the rain, or the dozens of slugs covering everything when I woke up.

From Brixen I followed another bike path up the Rienz to Toblach, then over a sort of pass to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Above Toblach the scenery quickly transitioned to the Dolomites’ distinctive golden limestone cliffs, and I think I passed the famous Tre Cime. Cortina was a horrible tourist pit, so I bought some food, then headed up the Giau Pass to find a quiet place to camp.


Upper switchbacks

This was another serendipitous pass, found while scrolling around the map in the evening. The Timmelsjoch is a nonsensical pass between the much lower Reschen and Brenner Passes, connecting the Etsch and Inn valleys via the upper Passer and Ötz valleys (the latter home to the “Iceman” mummy, I believe). It was started as a Fascist showoff project, then abandoned and only completed well after the war. It has 18 tunnels on the Italian side, and serves no purpose but tourism. But that’s exactly what I’m here for, so… thank you Mister Mussolini?

Though it is almost as big and impressive as the Stelvio, the Timmelsjoch sees only a fraction of its cyclist traffic. It was a long, chilly grind to the top, with views mostly obscured by clouds. I stopped in the sad summit museum, but since it was all in German and Italian, I didn’t learn much more than that the builders really wanted to emphasize that the pass was a symbol of peace, not nationalism.

The Austrian side had no tunnels, but featured an annoying climb partway down, and a toll booth that exempted cyclists. It was also incredibly touristy: my introduction to Austria was several towns with lots of boutique stores and no public fountains. Fortunately this meant there were plenty of bike shops, because my shifter cable had frayed nearly to breaking. Twenty minutes and twenty Euros later, I was back in business, tooling down the valley toward Innsbruck. I did not feel much like camping on a small lawn next to a bunch of RVs, so I found a quiet pullout for the night.


The Sud will rise again!

From my stealth campsite near Bormio I did the tourist thing and… biked the Stelvio Pass, a.k.a. Stilfserjoch. This is one of the Alps’ biggest passes, climbing 5000 feet on the Italian side and closer to 6000 on the Austro-Hungarian side. (Südtirol has technically been part of Italy for a bit over 100 years, but its residents are still adjusting to that change.) I had driven the pass last time, but only after riding it do I feel like I really crossed it. I was worried about the forecast, and while it was partly sunny on the climb, the upper descent was in the clouds, so I did not linger long. It was clear enough to glimpse the Ortler, which I climbed last time, but not to see the crazy upper switchbacks. Thanks to my early start, I got to climb largely without donor-cycles, but they were out in force on the descent. They ride like inconsiderate maniacs, using the whole road even when they probably shouldn’t, so I suspect this road prompts quite a few donations.

The second half of the day was completely different, but equally fine. I haven’t done a lot of detailed planning on this trip, so I was surprised to find an excellent bike path all the way down the Eisch to Meran, then up the Passer to Sankt Leonhard. It was incredibly popular, with a steady stream of locals and bike tourists the whole way, and a welcome relief from the traffic. Being on a human-powered touring bike and not hammering, I was passed more than I like. While some of those passing me were reasonably fit roadies, more were tourists on powerful rented e-bikes, with full suspension and fat downtubes to hold their batteries. They seem incredibly popular in Sudtirol, and seem perfect for seeing places with Europe’s density.

Catchup to Bormio

I am falling behind on writing, largely because I hate typing with my thumbs aided by Apple’s increasingly broken “artificially intelligent” autocorrect. But I have been doing plenty of riding, so here are some photos.

In brief, from Acquarossa I went over the Songta Maria pass to a branch of the Rhine, which I followed down to the main river at Reichenau. I then followed the Hinterrhein up to Thusis, where I stopped at another nice but costly Swiss campground. Most things were closed on Sunday, but the convenience store had a surprisingly good selection.

The next day I crossed the Spluga Pass, which follows the narrow canyon of the Hinterrhein, then climbs in switchbacks to a saddle, and descends via many more along the Liro. It was brutally hot down low, so from Chiavenna I followed the Mera back up into Switzerland, passing by some impressive peaks that looked to be made of good rock.

From a campground in that valley, I then climbed the Maloja Pass, then followed the high lakes and valleys through Saint Moritz, crossed several small passes through Livigno, then made a huge descent to Bormio. The stretch through Livigno was justifiably popular, and I was passed by many skinny Italians.

Money meets mountains

All this could have been yours

I really should not have let it bother me. My day from Fiesch over the Nufenen Pass was a mild and completely predictable version of what happens when money meets mountains, and Switzerland has plenty of both. It did not help that I had to defend myself against a thunderstorm at midnight, covering my gear with my rain jacket and huddling in my bivy. This worked as planned, and I survived with some discomfort and slightly damp things, but I would normally be living better on a bike or in my car. Because of my previous mission, I am traveling with the absolute minimum of gear for bike-packing and mountaineering, so when things get tough, I make up the gap with experience and suffering.

I lazed around much of the morning, waiting for my gear to dry and the weather to clear. There were lots of cyclists around, but none I wanted to talk to. There are two kinds of cyclists: adrenaline and endorphin junkies. I am the latter, but Fiesch has lots of gondolas, so the others were the former. They milled around the campground in their armor and full helmets, sometimes bouncing the suspension of their ridiculous downhill bikes, perhaps waiting for the trails to dry so they could go forth and shred. I was beneath their notice, and tried to ignore them in turn.

I finally managed to get started around 10:00, rolling back through the ski village to the main road, a winding two-lane artery. It leads to the head of the valley, then splits into three passes, the Grimsel, Furka, and Nufenen. The Furka is the most important, and has a railway tunnel beneath it to remain open year-round. I was headed for the Nufenen, which crosses the Alps’ spine into a valley that is geographically and culturally Italy, but for some reason politically Switzerland. Near the junction, I was curious to pass what looked like an enormous ren-fair, though I did not dare stop for a $20 turkey leg.

The Nufenen Pass is not as steep as the Iseran, nor is it gentle like the Grand Saint Bernard, so I found myself comfortably in my lowest gear for long stretches. I saw several cyclists, mostly roadies passing me, but it was more popular among motorists. None were overtly rude, but they were playing with their expensive toys on a weekend, and so could not help but be annoying. I did notice one large “hoonigan” decal, the international term for “unrepentant douchebag with a loud car.” I was riding into a bad forecast, and the clouds over the pass looked threatening. I looked around for possible shelter as I crossed treeline, and saw few likely prospects. So I pushed on as best I could, switchbacking to the col left of a small dam and several large wind turbines.

Fortunately the weather held, and I reached the pass to find sports cars cooling off and a horde of tourists milling around a small pond. Not wanting to take chances, I immediately put on a layer and headed down, bombing the descent to Airolo. The signs were all in Italian, but the road was striped and in fairly good shape, a jarring contrast reflecting the area’s Italian/Swiss nature.

I had a late lunch in Airola while deciding what I do. Part of me wanted to turn around and head back over the famous Gotthard Pass, but that would be foolish given the weather. Instead I headed down-valley on the winding local road, catching glimpses of the Autostrada as it passed in and out of endless tunnels. My plan was to head down to Bellinzona and over the San Bernardino pass, but by the time I reached Biasco I was sick of low elevations and main roads. I had noticed a road going up the Brenno Valley to another pass (the Songta Maria), and decided to take that. I made it as far as Acquarossa, where I decided it felt Italian enough to just camp out of the way. I sheltered from the evening thunderstorm below a shallow rock overhang, then eventually drifted off.

Switzerland has been a hard place for me to love, with everything more expensive than it “should” be and highly regulated. Sometimes it lives up to its stereotype as Mountain Disneyland. The closest I’ve come is to recognize that the Swiss like to do things right and follow the rules, two precepts with which I tend to agree. Things worth doing are worth doing right, and recognizing that you are not exempt from general rules is the basis of moral behavior (see the golden rule or categorical imperative). If you want to camp in the Swiss way, there will be clean restrooms, hot showers, and a comfortable shelter in which to play board games or even complain about the Swiss on your phone. That will also cost $25 per night, but camping right isn’t cheap. My problem is that I think some things, like campsites and trail food, aren’t worth the effort and expense to do right, and I don’t get that choice here. But I can at least respect the other approach.

Wheelchair touring

Let’s do this

So, what do you do in the Alps with a broken toe, a stitched-up shin, and a movable ticket? Most people would fly home as soon as possible and convalesce, but I am not “most people.” Since I brought my inline wheelchair (i.e. bike), I decided to at least explore the paved portion of the Alps, which is still high and expansive.

Things were too swollen, bloody, and painful at first, so I spent four nights recovering in a hotel in Aosta. The orderly who discharged me from the hospital chose it as basically the closest place that was fairly cheap and had space at 8:00 PM on a Saturday. It turned out better than I had any right to expect, costing about $50/night for a clean room with a large bed. The owner was some variety of landed gentry who had traveled extensively in the western United States, so we got along well.

I went from sitting in bed with my leg elevated, to sitting next to Roman walls with my leg elevated. Walking was a painful chore, but I could get around town on my wheelchair well enough to buy food and sightsee a bit. Aosta is an old place, once named Augusta Praetoria Salassorum because Emperor Augustus killed and enslaved the Salassi, its former inhabitants. The city was strategically located at the junction of Grand and Petit Saint Bernard passes, two ancient routes through the Alps. The modern version has grown around and through the original Roman square fort, giving it the wonderful mish-mash character of places continuously inhabited through ages of civilization. The buildings range from stone to concrete and glass, the streets from narrow cobbles to striped asphalt.

After four days I was getting bored, fat, and poor, so it was time to wheel farther afield. I chose to do an out-and-back up the Valgrisenche, one of several valleys climbing over 1000 meters above the Dora Baltea. I had visited its neighbor, the Valsavaranche, to climb Gran Paradiso on my previous trip. I was pathetically slow on the climb, only being able to partially use my right leg, but I figured out how to pedal comfortably, and reached the end of the valley at the far end of Lake Beauregard. I waited out some afternoon showers under an eave and in a bus shelter on the way down, then stealth camped on a tunnel bypass. Camping is “forbidden” basically everywhere in Europe, but the word means different things in different places. Suspecting that it meant precisely its dictionary definition in Switzerland – scan your passport, fill out form 1035D, pay CHF 200 – I was determined to save money where I could. This was better than my subsequent Swiss campgrounds, not flat, but quiet with cell service and a view of a crumbling medieval tower.

The next morning I descended back through Aosta, bought road food, then made the 6500-foot climb up the Grand Saint Bernard. With only one stretch of 10% grade, it was mercifully gentler than the Iseran. I was in no condition to pass anyone, or to hang with the cyclists who passed me, but I ground it out, stopping for a late lunch below the statue of Saint Bernard. A fifty-yard walk to look at the statue convinced me that I would not be hiking for awhile.

The descent to Martigny on the Swiss side was similarly long and gradual. There was plenty of daylight left, but I had had enough, so I found the nearest campground. It met my expectations: immaculate, full of polite people, and ridiculously expensive. Most were long-term campers in trailers with pop-out tents (a smart Euro setup), but they put me next to a German bike tourist. Unlike those I had met in South America, he was only out for a couple of weeks. He was friendly, though, and seemed interested in my travels.

The next day’s ride through the Rhône Valley was much less pleasant. The secondary road was more of a highway, and while long stretches had a striped bike lane, there were also tunnels. I am not sure what bikes are supposed to do: take a road around where possible, ride on the emergency sidewalk, or just ride through. I got honked at for doing the last once, so that was probably wrong. The valley is almost continuously developed, and traps heat and smog, giving a Los Angeles feel. I suppose the views are better, but I was glad to escape, climbing a couple thousand feet out the east end toward the Grimsel, Furka, and Neufenen Passes. Stopping in the tourist town of Fiesch set me up nicely to cross the Neufenen the next day.

Mont Maudit to Aiguille de Bionassay

Gouter path

(This is out of order and has been marooned by subsequent events, but I have free time, and it might be of some use to someone.)

Kevin and I finished our day of “high-altitude cragging with a view” with a descent to the large and popular Cosmiques hut, a short walk from the Aiguille du Midi tram/teleporter. This was my second experience after Rainier with the glacier suicide pact, i.e. walking on a glacier tied to one other person, and I thought no more highly of its safety benefits. My skill at neither pulling my partner nor tripping him with coils of loose rope is limited, but we made it down without incident.

As the base camp for both technical Aiguille climbs and the “cheater route” on Mont Blanc, the Cosmiques was predictably crowded. After changing into giant floppy slippers that were meant to either go over our boots, polish the floors, or prevent our escape, we went over to the desk to check in. The guy at the desk was clearly stressed around dinner-time, and in classic French fashion was doing his job while completely unashamedly taking that out on the closest target. I could partly gauge his level of frustration by how aggressively he switched to English when I tried to communicate in French. Now was time to eat, and we were late, so we should somehow find places to sit. He also needed to know whether we wanted the early or late breakfast, and the fact that we wanted to eat at different times finally drove him over the edge. “Just go, and take care of the rest later.”

We squeezed in next to an Austrian (or maybe German?) medical student and his friend toward the end of the soup and cheese course, securing some of each. They were both tasty but salty, making me worry about how much it would cost to drink enough water. I finally sucked it up and went over to the kitchen, and was surprised to find that the woman there politely gave her two carafes and some glasses free of charge. (She later filled my water bladder with the same politeness, perhaps pitying my fear.) The main course was chicken in some sauce on rice, also delicious, and a table-mate managed to secure a second platter. After dessert, we watched the sunset then retreated to our communal bunk-shelves for mediocre interrupted sleep.

I woke a bit before 4:00, and was in line outside the locked dining room when it opened precisely on time, lights off and each table lit with a candle. We again had assigned seats, and as a solo party I got a whole carafe of coffee and slab of butter for myself. I took my time with this pleasant breakfast, which also included granola and milk, then followed the headlamp train up the Trois Monts route.

Bypassing Mont Blanc du Tacul, I met an Englishman descending alone from Mont Maudit, then scrambled that peak along its northwest ridge, an awkward mix of choss and icy snow. From the summit, I descended the southwest face to the bootpack and resumed the plod. By this time I was regularly passing parties in both directions. This stretch felt longer than I remembered from my descent four years ago, but I eventually ground out the last 1500 feet to the summit of the Alps.

I watched people celebrate for a minute or two – circus though it may be, it is a legitimate accomplishment – then took off for Mont Blanc de Courmayeur. I was on a quest to tag that and one of the UIAA’s numerous stupid summits on the south side of Mont Blanc, Picco Luigi Amedeo. These points lie along three ridges, the Peuterey, Brouillard and Gouter/Bionassay, and I had thought long and hard about how to reach them all efficiently. The crux of the Brouillard Ridge is below Amedeo, so it is best done from above. The upper Peuterey is also easier, but the Aiguille de Bionassay is a short side-trip on the way down to the Gonella Hut, where there is food and shelter. I was also low on daytime food after so many days up high, so I chose to descend that way, return to town, and clean up the final points from the south.

Enough people either make side trips to MBDC or cross it finishing the Brouillard and Peuterey Ridges for there to be a track that far, and there were even old bootprints on the upper Brouillard. I had hoped this short detour losing 1000 feet would go quickly, but it was painfully loose, probably taking similar time going down and up. Frustrated with my project’s arbitrary demands, I was happy to return to Mont Blanc‘s summit, where the party had picked up. I traded photos with some Brits, then headed down the even more well-beaten path down the Gouter Ridge.

Shortly after a pause for a snack at the Vallot hut and research station, I left the main trail to tag the Dome de Gouter, then continued down a much fainter trail to the Piton des Italiens. The Aiguille de Bionassay was only a short side-trip from there, but surprisingly stressful and tiring. The final climb was a snow arete like the summit of Eldorado in the Cascades, but many times longer and more intimidating. This late in the day, the south side was collapsing slush, while the north remained hard snice. I made cautious progress with a mix of balance-beaming and walking to one side with my axe planted on the other, then reversed the process back to the Piton.

I had spoken to a group who had climbed the normal Italian route that morning, and saw a fresh track on the glacier below, but the snow was soft and the glacier badly crevassed, so it seemed wiser to take the rock route down to the Gonella hut via the Aiguilles Grises. This was not particularly difficult, with fixed cables on the crux pitches, but still loose and time-consuming. At the hut, I briefly considered continuing to town, but wisely chose to stay the night. It was expensive (supplies only by helicopter) and there were no seconds, but at least the hut-keepers were friendly, as were some well-traveled Swiss heading up the next day.

Without a reservation, I ended up in the older, run-down part of the shelter, but slept well enough. I woke late had a meager breakfast, then followed some cables and a winding path down to the Miage Glacier. Once off the snow and ice, this was a long, tiresome debris slog, trying to pick out cairns and bits of trail in ever-changing terrain. I finally saw some parties descending off the right lateral moraine, and rejoined trails and civilization there. The long, hot walk back down the Val Veny and up to Planpincieux gave me time to readjust to civilization. My bike was where I had left it at the campground, so after availing myself of the showers, I packed up and coasted into town to resupply, then slowly pedaled back up the Val Veny to hang out at the lovely campground before finding a bivouac near the Monzino hut trailhead.