#11 Europe: On To The Austrian Alps (Summer 2011)


Something Old, Something New

    Climbing the 2400’ to Passo Pordoi and the lesser effort up Passo di Costalunga, our last passes in the Italian Dolomites, and then making our descent out of the region to visit the Austrian Alps had us pondering “Is it more satisfying to revisit a favorite place or to discover a new one?” It was a perfect time to ask that question because we were doing both new and old roads each of several days but we soon discovered that there was no easy answer.

Saying “Goodbye” to the Dolomites again.

    Revisiting the 2 passes was delightful. There were all of those forgotten memory pods that were activated as we approached eventful spots. “Oh, this is the pass where....” or “I didn’t realize that this was the place that...” came in rapid fire. Vivid memories of struggles in the heat or the rain or with the altitude or the load of our bikes rushed back.    

    “Passo Pordoi is the only pass that always seems to have rain when we are there,” “This is where the East German family sheltered us from the rain in their car,” “This is where we cut your hair while we waited for the rain to stop,” and “I remember being so hot on this curve.” It was energizing to have the flood of memories rush through our brains and it was satisfying to get refreshed about the origin of fragmented memories.

    During our descent from Passo di Costalunga I called for a time-out when we were below the grand Rosengarten peaks. I vividly remembered the mountain huts and the rustic old hotels we were seeing along the road but they weren’t attached to any particular place in my memory. I could see that the tricky junction in the road on the steep descent hadn’t given me the time to anchor them on my mental map in the past and I wanted to pause to finish that work. I stopped, looked around, and took in the experience with all of my senses so as to give the images a proper context in my memory, to give them a better place to reside.

    Moments later we were on a road to Bolzano that we were sure we’d taken years ago but gradually became convinced that we were both wrong. It was instead a new adventure and we quickly re-tooled our brains that had been trying to make matches between our memory banks and what we were seeing to being ready to take it all in as a new experience. We immediately enjoyed the sense of discovery once we made the switch to it being a first experience.

    Going downhill required many rest stops because the constant braking was so fatiguing to our hands and the pauses underscored our prior conclusion that there was no good way to get from Bolzano into the Dolomites without doing a difficult road. We also noted how the first languages of the villages alternated between German and Italian even though we were in Italy and were moving farther away from Austria. We admired the many rustic images, including the artisan work on a fence. And we laughed at the familiar experience of peeling off all of our warm layers needed in the mountains as we passed through the wall of heat as we approached valley-floor Bolzano.

Pausing to admire the detailing on a roadside fence.

    I tensed in the hot, humid air as we left Bolzano the next morning and became increasingly anxious as we headed towards Reschenpass/Passo Resia on the Austrian border. I remembered the white-knuckle riding on the too-narrow road on the outskirts of Bolzano 4 years before. There were bits of bike path once we got past the steep, windy section, but it would take all my resolve to survive the perilous traffic going uphill under the hot sun.

    And then there was Reschenpass that had been so difficult when we traveled from the opposite direction that we’d used the rare bike shuttle service instead of pressing on. Bill assured me that it would be better this year because we were going the other way over the pass but I recalled deciding at the time that the other side was forbidding as well.

    But the several days we took getting to and over the pass were filled with more positive, new experiences than redo’s of the old, bad memories. There was now a completed bike route--almost all of it dedicated multi-use pass--most of the way from Bolzano to the pass. We did the dreaded white-knuckle segment of the highway on lovely new bike path instead of the road. Granted, the 15% grades and 7 switchbacks still made it an athletic event, but we only had to contend with inexperienced descending cyclists instead of potentially intoxicated drivers on their cell phones on the windy, scenic road.

   Each day towards the pass was filled with hard work for our bodies; our minds however marveled at the success of the new bike route instead of wondering if this was the day we’d die on our bikes. By the time we made it to the pass, we’d decreed that this Passo Resia-Merano route was now the busiest bike route we’d ever traveled--busier than the iconic Donau River.  We were stunned and wondered how it had been transformed from a hardy-cyclotourist-only route to a family fest in 4 years but soon it became clear.

    This newly cut route had rapidly become heavily commercialized, but in a good way. It was now one of the better  segments in the 435 mile-long Via Claudia Augusta route. There was a system of rental bikes for our segment with a half dozen pick-up/drop-off points as well as train and trailer shuttle services. A family could ride the train to Mals, which is almost at the pass, rent bikes, and coast down hill for a couple of hours or a couple of days, then drop-off the bikes at a designated train station. Some services hauled the rental bikes up to the top and other services hauled private bikes up. And of course, there were luggage shuttle services. Stunning scenery; easy downhill riding; and loads of hotels, restaurants, and children’s parks along the way made it an obvious hit.

A family of 4 was traveling on 2 heavily loaded electric bikes.

    Unfortunately, we were riding uphill with heavily loaded bikes instead of coasting downhill with a water bottle, but we loved it anyway. And since we were literally going upstream, we had the benefit of watching the thousand or so people going the other way each day, which was very entertaining in itself. We reveled in the success of the new bike route and were delighted to see so many people enjoying the out-of-doors, enjoying longer distance cycling than they likely had ever experience before.

    And even better news awaited me at the Resia Pass: it wasn’t the dreaded pass I had remembered. I finally checked my own “Country Details” file on velofun.us to discover that we’d taken the bike shuttle service to the upper reaches of Resia Pass, not over it. Resia Pass benefited from a long-overdo correction in my mental notes and will now be known as the gateway to the delightful family bike path to Merano. And the experience of the approach to the pass underscored that riding an old route could both conjure up old memories and create a startlingly new experiences of discovery.

More Unexpected Changes

The Tourism Industry
    One of the unwelcome and unexpected challenges of our abbreviated 2011 touring season was the difficulty in securing lodging. Places we’d normally just show-up and grab a room were fully-booked in the moderate price range. Bill’s proficiency with German had him making most of the inquires and many of his evenings were filled with internet searches and phone calls to make reservations. Of course, we were asking “Why is this suddenly a problem?”

We spotted these iconic Donau riders on the newer Merano route.

    The answer was a collision of factors, several of which we could identify. One problem was the outrageous success of the above mentioned segment of Via Claudia bike route north of Bolzano. Hotels were still in low season but they were packed because so many families were doing this cool ride. We had wondered what was going on when we discovered lodging was so tight and being on the bike path made it perfectly clear. The Italian government also had instituted a “Vacation in Italy” campaign urging its citizens to travel domestically last year and the success of it was compounding our problems.

    We were shocked that the Swiss were also gobbling up accommodations in the mountains in 2011. I’m a habitual license plate reader when we are biking and I was stunned at the number of Swiss plates I had seen. We normally go weeks without seeing a single Swiss plate and this summer I was seeing dozens per day.

    On a rare night when we had English news on the TV, I happened to learn why we were suddenly competing with the Swiss for rooms. The Euro currency had been tanking in value along with the US dollar when compared to the Swiss Franc. Switzerland is surrounded by Euro-currency countries and its citizens were vacationing in the EU (and the US) in droves this year because of it.

    Along with us, the Swiss hospitality industry was suffering from the pressures of these currency issues. The weak dollar and weak Euro meant that travelers with either of those notes in their pockets were avoiding vacationing in Switzerland just like the Swiss themselves. The consequences of these currency issues had devastated the Swiss tourism industry, which was experiencing massive lay-offs and triggering the predictable domino effect within the Swiss economy. It seemed that the Swiss government needed to copy Italy’s “Vacation at Home” campaign to support their hospitality industry, which would have helped us out too.

Trail Chit-Chat

    A far more trivial but fascinating change for us this year was the about-face in the reaction of other hikers to our minimalist footwear. Wearing Chaco sandals in the past when hiking always triggered dreary lectures from well-meaning fellow hikers on the trails and wearing our Vibram 5 Fingers last year didn’t help matters. But shockingly, this year we weren’t reprimanded once while wearing our 5 Fingers. Instead, we were greeted with curiosity and frequently had to take 5 minutes out several times a day to answer the inevitable string of questions. It was a stunning change in receptivity.

    We guessed that there were several factors contributing to this trail culture change. One difference was in the number of people that had either seen the 5 Fingers in the stores, had a friend who had bought them but didn’t know what to do with them, or had read articles about the glories of minimalist shoes in general. Many skeptics quickly grasped the benefits to the knees but none believed that we weren’t writhing in pain with every footstep on the trails--somehow our calm, smiling faces weren’t convincing enough.

Darn it anyway: more fresh snow in the Alps this summer.

    In addition, mountain and trail running as sports are catching on in Europe and so low top, sturdy running shoes are in all the hiking stops. Those shoes plus the explosion in low top ‘approach’ shoes over the last few years has meant that boots command a smaller percentage of the shelf space in mountain shops, which people must be noticing. During our last week in Europe we also learned from a pair of young German men giving us a lift that one of the popular US barefoot running books was recently translated from English into German, adding to the collective understanding of the foot and knee issues.

   Ironically, it was quicker for us to accept the lecture about our improper footwear and go on than it was to answer so many questions, but we were happy to spread the word. Middle-aged women were by far the most interested and we know why--it’s the knees. Almost every graying woman is seriously distressed when she descends steep trails because of her knees (we can see it in the way they hold their bodies and trekking poles) and they are riveted when I say that I could instantly do a 3,000’ steep descent without knee pain when I made the switch to forefoot striking (becoming surefooted took longer).  Their husbands were usually very quiet, with some carefully looking the other way during the discussion. Only the few men with significant knee pain seemed genuinely interested in the alternative footwear.

Ironman Walter with Mr. Barefoot.

   One 5 minute discussion about our footwear in Austria turned into a delightful several hours of hiking with 77 year old Walter from Germany. Walter’s receptivity to new ideas shone through in the telling of his own story about signing up for the Frankfurt Ironman on a dare from his friends. Walter finished the Ironman; came in first for the 60, 65, 70, and 75 year old brackets; won the 1000 Euro bet (about $1400) with his friend; and won a place in Hawaii’s Ironman, in which he finished 7th in his age bracket. Needless to say, Walter moved right along on the hiking trail and loved calling us “Mr & Mrs Barefoot” even though we were wearing our 5 Fingers.

Hiking from the Austrian Ski Villages

Where are the Trail Runners?

    Nauders, Serfaus, Imst, Soelden, Obergurgl: no special sections in the guide books for these destinations but they were Bill’s 2011 picks for summer hiking in Austria. They are all ski villages with good tourist infrastructure--infrastructure that is embellished for the summer hiking season. That means one or more of the lifts is operating; there are several hiking trails starting from the top of the lift; there is likely local bus service; the apartments and B&B’s are well represented online; there is more than a mini-market for groceries; and we can get there by bike.  

Outclassed: these guys were definitely in a whole other league when it came to hiking.


    Much to our surprise, several of these villages were major destinations for families with small children. Veritable mini theme parks were pulsing with young children and their parents at the bases or tops of the lower lifts.  The shift in clientele was evident on the trails too with most of the hikers being out of shape, overweight, and not going very far. We were happy for them all that they were out enjoying scenery but we missed seeing our mountain mentors--mentors we consider an essential part of our Alps experience. We have significantly improved our skills over the last 6 years by studying the gait and gear of the more capable hikers but in these areas we were more often modeling, rather than observing, “how it’s done.”

August 2009:  Delighted with our first barefoot hiking day.

    We keep returning to Austria in search of new steep hiking venues and to dodge the high season rates in Italy, but to date none of them have ever measured-up to ease of getting around in the Dolomites or the drama of those more southern peaks.

    At Imst, each day’s hike began with a 90 minute routine to get to the trail heads. We had to walk about a half hour to board the bus to take us to the lift. We budgeted more wait-time than usual because the bus only ran every 2 hours. And riding the 2 old chair lifts to the top took about a half hour. This 3 hour ‘transportation overhead’ each day at Imst was the worst of any of our stays and it severely shortened our hikes. In addition to trail access issues, it was hard not to notice that in Austria we are also more likely to end up hiking in mud or on an unexpectedly more dangerous trail than when we are in the Dolomites.

Where’s the Sun?

    The weather was a real disappointment this summer, both in Austria and in Italy. We didn’t have to completely sit-out the storms, but Bill was frequently instituting “Plan B” for our hikes.  The crowning disappointment came in the last weeks of our stay when it snowed mid-day in August in Obergurgl, Austria, poised at about 6,300’. Two years prior in Obergurgl we’d slipped off our Chaco hiking sandals on a warm August day and experienced our first minutes of barefoot hiking. We were instantly hooked and racked up about 15 hours of barefoot hiking that week, much of it on rocky slopes.

August 2011: Hoping to barefoot at the same spot.

    That moment of kicking off our footwear on the hiking trail was an epiphany for us and we have been migrating to minimalist shoes ever since. Actually being able to do prolonged barefoot walking, running, or hiking has been tough because we never seem to be where there is suitable terrain for our level of conditioning. Our compromise has been wearing Vibram 5  Fingers toe-pocket shoes and other minimalist shoes. We were looking forward to celebrating our 2 year anniversary of having literally outed our feet by barefoot hiking at Obergurgl again, the place where our revolution began.

    We squeezed in 30 minutes of barefooting the day we arrived by bike in the heat but the next day the temperatures dropped from the mid 80’s F into the low 30’s. Determined to have our event, we headed out in the the drizzle. The drizzle turned to rain and then pelting hail. When our feet became too numb from the cold, I slipped on my sturdy flip-flops and Bill snuggled into his Vibram 5 Fingers and we pressed on. We surrendered to defeat only when the unforecasted lightning storm presented itself. The persistent hail and winds were so fierce that they had closed the lift we’d taken up and we had a longer than expected walk back to town.

    As we arrived back to the small village of Obergurgl, the streets and buildings were turning white from the blanket of hail. Others chose to wait-out the storm in the portico of the small market, but we headed back out in it with our groceries tucked under our ponchos. Not waiting had been the right thing to do that day because by the time we reached our lovely apartment, the unrelenting hail had turned to snow, which continued falling for 5 more hours--and this was August. 

    Most of the snow was gone from the village streets the next morning but that day’s hike was almost entirely done in snow even though we were doing lower elevation “Plan B.” We wracked up far more hours hiking in snow in  our minimalist footwear this year than we ever intended to do, but that was part of the reality of the “Summer of 2011” for us. We learned that it had been a generally cool, wet summer for much of Europe, not just for those of us in the mountains. The weather had been so bad that European beer sales were down significantly, severely cutting into the brewers profits during their most important season.

    Our barefooting in Obergurgl wasn’t a complete bust--we did have 2 snow-free hiking days left before we headed back to Italy over the iconic Timmelsjoch/Passo Rombo on our bikes but we had hoped for more time to indulge ourselves.

Heading North Again--Heading Home

Making our way back into the Dolomites.

    One of the pleasant surprises of our short summer season had been the kind offer from our favorite Dolomites hostess to stash our bikes for us until next year. We had planned on taking them home with us in September, perhaps for the last time, because of the 9 month storage issue. The storage locker fees would have approached $1000 and more importantly, I wasn’t willing to risk leaving our bikes for so long in this difficult economy. Storage lockers are a very new business concept in Europe and we’d have no way to tracking if our locker company was failing. I didn’t want to risk losing our bikes to the bust. But our hostess and her parents live in the building in which our bikes would sit, making the sense of risk extremely low.    Our “penalty” and her reward for the deal was 3 weeks of guaranteed stay on our part: an extra week in her building in September and 2 weeks next July.

   Bill’s end-game for 2011 was rewritten in July and on September 1 we began following the revised homeward-bound plan. The extra week in the Dolomites turned out to be a time of reflection and celebration. We had both turned 60 this spring and we had earlier enjoyed the humor of us finally getting our fitness concepts right--albeit a little late.
    Reading the “Younger Next Year” book during our spring RV trip in the US SW had bumped up and anchored Bill’s commitment to his fitness. The chance purchase of a heart rate monitor around the same time quickly had him confessing “I’ve been doggin’ it.” Another chance purchase of the “P90X Extreme Home Fitness” DVD’s to counter my resistance to resistance training had revolutionized our cross-training for this summer’s cycling--something we only understood in hindsight. And our last 15 months of experimentation with minimalist footwear and the obligatory forefoot striking gait had transformed our hiking.

Coming in for a landing after flying down the steep trail.

    The footwear/gait shift had delivered the postural change I needed to reduce my risk of slipping and dislocating a shoulder again, which was getting my weight off my heels. And while we were enjoying our last days of European hiking for the year, the final major adaption to the gait change clicked into place allowing me to be transformed from a tentative steep-trail descender to a sassy trail runner/jumper, even on the rolly little rocks. We had unexpectedly become stronger, faster, more powerful, and more capable in 2011 and being on the difficult trails in the gorgeous Dolomites in early September allowed us to revel more deeply in our new mastery.

    One of my evolving goals for 2011 that was seemingly neglected was retrieving running as a fitness activity, but as a forefoot striker. Putting the time into it since I injured my foot at the end of our spring RV trip just hadn’t worked out. But on our very last hike in the Dolomites I answered Bill’s challenge to speed down a steep trail the only way I could make the time limit, which was by jogging. It was only the 4th day of my new found ability as a competent steep descender, but since it was our last sports day for a week I figured I could risk an injury.  Thirty minutes of jogging and I just barely met Bill’s time challenge to reach the road but better yet, I discovered that I was sufficiently well adapted to the jogging motion from our speed work on trails that I was unscathed. Yet another unexpected accomplishment to celebrate after the culmination of our more athletic 3 months.

Field testing a lawn chair in the Augsburg, Germany botanical garden.

    Suddenly I was a runner again, which was perfect timing for our journey to Amsterdam to board our flight home. I now had a new way keep my fitness level up while we took trains, buses, and planes home. I could alternate days of 30 minutes of jogging on the city streets at sunrise with 30 minutes of doing laps on the back stairs of our hotels. And we could use our exercise bands and P90X routines keep our upper bodies tuned. We’d finally gotten it right!

    The long trip to Amsterdam, mostly by train, went smoothly. Bill had built in 2 layover days, one in Germany and one in the Netherlands, to keep us relaxed and rested for the long flight. Heading home in mid-September instead of December as was our usual rhythm meant that we weren’t greeted with frigid temperatures at every stop along the way. However it was still hurricane season and so we were again blasted by strong, cold winds in Amsterdam.

    Once home, it would be time to turn our attention to implementing our new traveling lifestyle as snowbird hikers in the US. This year a big truck and an all-season camper were on the shopping list along with more usual items, like new Vibram 5 Finger shoes and toe-pocket socks.

More images from our time in the Austrian Alps: