Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ax les Thermes

My plan for the coming day was to catch the early morning flight to Barcelona (which departed at 7:10am), immediately pick up a rental car that I had booked, and then high tail it into France to Ax les Thermes to catch the summit finish of the day’s Tour de France stage in the Pyrenees at the Ax 3-Domaines Ski Resort. The timing worked out pretty well assuming that all went according to plan, with my landing in Barcelona at 9:00am and then a 3 hour drive to the Pyrenees which would give me time to position myself on the climb to see the riders go by.

I was fast asleep when my alarm went off at 5:30am, and after collecting my things I made it downstairs to check out at 5:45am and then boarding the shuttle which departed just after 6:00am. I was flying with EasyJet out of Terminal 2, and my first indication that I might be in for trouble occurred as we pulled up to the Terminal where cars were backed up for a few hundred meters from the departures part of the airport. Luckily the line for buses and taxis was not as long, and after donning my backpack I sprinted inside only to have my suspicions confirmed: everyone in the greater Milan area had booked a flight on EasyJet departing that morning. Stinker!

The terminal was a sea of people, I could barely even figure out where the line for the check in counter ended and where the crowds of people just generally milling around began. I finally found the back of the line and started waiting, but based on my distance from the ticket counter (far) and how fast the line was moving (very slowly), I soon knew there was no way that I would make it in time. At 6:28am I left my spot and began walking around, and eventually caught sight of a roaming EasyJet representative. After getting his attention I explained my situation and asked if there was a way I could get checked in right away. However, he immediately dismissed me, and summarily told me that since it was now 6:30am I had missed the 40 minute check-in window prior to departure, and that it was no longer possible for me to check-in. I began to protest but he promptly marched off to deal with some other crisis, and I wanted to yell “But Andy Schleck needs me at Ax-3 Domaines!!” but he was gone before I had a chance and I was left standing in the crowd feeling deflated with my heart sinking.

He had told me that I needed to go ask at the ticket counter about getting on the next flight, so I thought maybe there would be one leaving soon and my plans would not be impacted. I went and waited in line to speak to the surly ticket agent, and she informed me that the next flight leaving for Barcelona on EasyJet was at 7:30pm that night. My immediate instinct was to leap over the ticket counter and strangle her, but I suppressed that and asked her if there was another airline that I could get on. She made a phone call and told me that Weylings had a flight leaving out of another terminal at 9:00am, and that I would have to take a shuttle bus there and ask them about booking a ticket on their flight.

With a sigh I turned and started to walk towards the terminal exit, resigned to my fate, when I though I heard something about “Barcelona” over a loudspeaker. At this same moment I had a flash of inspiration that maybe it was still possible to get on the 7:10am EasyJet flight even though by now it was 6:40am. This sentiment was reinforced as I recalled various experiences traveling with Roanne where I have observed her aggressive, no holds-barred approach to air travel which can involve threatening ticket agents, sprinting through terminals, and spitting venom at security guards. I ran back into the ticketing area and saw that the monitor for one of the ticket counters displayed a reference to my Barcelona flight, indicating that they were ticketing any last comers for the flight. I desperately shouldered my way through the crowd and reached the ticket counter just as the information on the monitor changed to indicate the counter was now closed, but the agent was considerably more accommodating than anyone else I had dealt with so far and she agreed to print me a boarding pass and told me to fly like a banshee to the departure gate (at least that is what I heard).

So off I went, passing other people who were also running for their flights like they were going backwards. I made it though security quickly with the knowledge that you don’t need to remove your shoes in European airports, and my heart leapt as I rounded the corner for my gate and saw that they were still boarding. SO AWESOME! I felt like I had come back from the dead, and was so stinkin’ happy that I was going to be able to see the tour after all.

We took off on time and landed in Barcelona just before 9:00am, at which point I immediately headed to the rental car counter. There was a long line there that took almost an hour to get through, but I was still so happy to have made my flight that I didn’t mind at all. My car was called an Ibiza and was a compact standard (not diesel this time) that seemed like it would do just fine. I headed out of the airport on the highway and made a wrong turn at the first opportunity, but luckily it didn’t take too long to correct and I had better luck with navigation for the rest of the trip.

I arrived in Ax les Thermes at about 1:30pm, perfect timing since the riders were expected to arrive around 5:00pm, so I would have time to hike up the climb and find a good viewing spot. I parked the Ibiza just outside of town on the road that I had come in on, pointed back towards Barcelona anticipating the gridlock that would ensue after the stage was over and I needed to get back for my work meetings that started the next morning (Why did I come to Europe again? Oh yeah, it was for work!). I then walked down into the town, where the roundabout the riders would pass through was already set up with barriers and had gendarmes directing traffic in anticipation of the road closure (that went into effect at 2:00pm).

I stopped to buy some water and some sort of delicious ham-based savory food item, and then continued walking through town towards the base of the climb. It was nice to be in France where I felt like I had a fighting change of making myself understood to locals, as opposed to Italy and Spain where all I could do was say “Hi” and “Thanks”.
After a few hundred meters I reached the base of the climb, where the KOM banners indicated that there was 7.8 km of climbing until the summit (there was then a further 1 km before the finish line):

I continued up the climb, passing lots of spectators and stopping along the way to say hi to Didi the Devil:

It was pretty hot out and the climb was really steep, as I struggled up on foot I was feeling sorry for the riders who would have to race up it in a few hours time. There were a number of amateur cyclists riding up the climb, and as they almost came to a standstill on the steeper sections (up to 10% according to the sign posts) it was pretty telling as to how fit the pros are who will cruise up it at 20 km/hour. As I went higher on the climb the crowds became thicker and there was more writing on the roads:

There were also lots of tents and campers set up, as most people had driven up the night before and had been there all day drinking, barbequing, and partying as they waited for the show to arrive. Just past 2 km from the finish (1 km from the end of the climb) I finally reached the start of the barriers, and decided to set up shop just below that. While a view from the barriers would have provided a clearer view of the riders, I was more excited about being in the midst of the chaos, with the crowds and flags and their thickest and only parting to allow the riders through. Here is the view down the climb as I waited for the action to start, you can see the 2 km to go banner in the distance:

At around 3:15pm the publicity caravan began to come through, which is sort of like a bunch of parade floats that drive up the climb playing loud music and throwing things at the people in the crowd. I had planned on wearing my yellow jersey for the event, but during packing I had decided to cut down on clothing by also wearing that as my jersey if I went riding (as seen in the previous post), however an all day ride in 35 degree C heat tends to really stink up a jersey so I had been forced into wearing a plain white shirt. I managed to catch enough flying objects from the publicity caravan to deck myself out in more appropriate attire, a polka dot T-shirt and a wide-brimmed red hat (the photo is from after the stage, if you are wondering where the crowds went):

Here is a shot of the caravan coming through:

The publicity vehicles filtered through in starts and stops for about an hour, and then at 4:15pm the flow died down and it was just the occasional race motorcycle that would go buzzing through, with the gendarmes (who stood about every 30 feet on the upper part of the climb) blowing their whistles and yelling at everyone to get back and make a path. As more motorcycles came through the tension began to slowly build, until just before 5:00pm when the “thump-thump-thump” of a distant helicopter could be heard. This was the TV camera that followed the race, so it was then clear that the riders were close and the excitement ratcheted up a notch further. Finally a whole fleet of motorbikes came through followed by the lead rider, and Ag2r rider named Christophe Riblon who was the surviving member of the day’s break. I don’t think words can justice to the next few minutes (at least not words written by me at the tail end of a 14 hour flight back from Spain), so if you want to get an idea of what I saw check out the 3 minute video that I took and uploaded to youtube:

Oh man was it ever awesome! It all happens pretty fast, but again, I would say: “Worth it!!!”. Here is one photo that I took after the video:

After the majority of the riders seemed to have gone by I decided to walk up the rest of the course to the finish line. I did feel that I hadn’t seen all that many riders go by compared to the 170 or so that should still be in the race at this point, and as I neared the finish line almost 40 minutes after the leader had gone through this sentiment was confirmed as the gruppetto rolled around the corner:

This was cool to see as there were so stinkin’ many riders in there, there must have been over 100. The wearer of the green jersey (Alessandro Petacchi) was on the front marshalling the pace (“piano, piano!”) as they all rolled by at a casual pace.
I continued on to the finish thinking that I might try to see jersey presentations, but it was a real maze up there with all of the official vehicles parked and I gave up before ever finding the area where the awards would be given out. I decided I had better start back down the climb in light of my obligations the next day, since it would take an hour or two to walk back down the climb and then another 3+ hours to drive back to Barcelona. By this point the entire road down was clogged with a tour-sized traffic jam, with a mix of official vehicles, publicity caravan vehicles, campers, etc. and I was happy to be walking instead of sitting in a car (though I did inhale a lot of diesel fumes as I walked by all the idling vehicles).

I finally made it down by about 7:30pm where I grabbed something to eat in town and then walked back to my car. Traffic was insane going the other direction (into town) on the road I had parked on, but not bad in the direction I was headed so luckily I made it back across the border into Spain without too many delays. I did hit some traffic delays closer to Barcelona, so by the time I searched the city for a gas station to fill the rental car tank, returned the car, and caught a taxi to my hotel it was 12:30am. Darn, another short sleep coming up! Oh well, the adventures aren’t going to come to you if you just sit around and wait for them, better to get out there and go after them!

The next two days of work meetings went well, it was fun to hang out with Dylan and Chris from Synapse as well as the others from the various companies involved in the project. We got a chance to swim in the Mediterranean and had good times in the evenings going out to some great dinners, with the highlight being going out for Tapas with Dylan’s friends (who are locals) Eli and Lluis (apologies in advance as I’m sure both those names are spelled incorrectly), lots of good laughs and general hilarity. All told it was an amazing trip, I hope I can continue to have my employer finance vacations for me!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cortina d’Ampezzo (day 2)

As another day dawned with bright sunshine filtering through my window, I woke at 7:30am feeling greatly refreshed with my headache completely gone. I was fully recharged and ready for another day of unmitigated fun, but the burning question was what should I do? I had initially thought I might do two days of via ferrata, but I felt as though I had overdosed on it the day prior so I needed to find an alternative. Luckily I had a backup plan, as I had packed my road cycling shoes, pedals, and kit, and I felt like an epic road ride through the dolomites was just what the doctor ordered to clear away any final remnants of my bleariness from the night before. Over breakfast I mapped out an introductory Dolomites ride, a nice 95km loop that would cover 4 different alpine passes with about 8500 feet of climbing:

I left the Punta parked at the hotel, and walked over to one of the bike rental places. They seemed to be more focused on renting mountain bikes, but I was more inspired to retrace some of the mountain passes featured in the Giro d’Italia so I inquired about road bikes. Luckily they had one of our Cannondale company road bikes in my size (or at least close enough):

I changed into my kit, hopped on my pony and off I went. It was pretty exhilarating to be cruising through the Italian sunshine (much more stylish than American sunshine) on the cobbled streets of Cortina, headed for some amazing riding in the Dolomiti. The experience enhanced even further by the fact that I was resplendent in my replica yellow jersey that I had brought for the following day’s activities, and after I had changed into it in the rental shop the staff had started addressing me as “Aendy Schlecka” (to be pronounced with an Italian accent). Here I am stopped for to make a few adjustments and enjoying the sunshine:

I headed out of town the same way I had gone the prior day, towards the Passo Falzarego except that this time I continued up past the previous day’s turn-off point to the start of the route. The ascent took a little over an hour, as there was a lot of elevation gain and I was trying to pace myself in light of what I had planned for the day. During my ride I made four observations: 1) a lot of people ride motorcycles for fun on the roads through the dolomites, 2) most of them go stinkin’ faster than a bat out of hell and seem to have little to no regard for their personal safety, 3) there seemed to be a direct correlation between the width of their rear tire and how fast they went blowing by me, and 4) oh man does that ever look fun! I found myself briefly wondering if I should have rented a ducati instead of a cannondale, but then I reminded myself that the only time I have ever driven a motorbike was during the testing for my motorcycle license (which I passed, thank you very much) and Dolomite mountain passes inundated with speed-crazed Italian motorists probably aren’t the best place to refresh my memory on how one drives a motorcycle. But next time, for sure!

I soldiered on up the climb, feeling secure in the sentiment that there are certainly worse ways to die than by being run over by a high-powered sport bike while retracing the route of the Giro d’Italia. I finally reached the top, where I paused to take a picture of my pony resting beneath the sign marking the high point of the Passo Falzarego:

I then remounted and headed towards the Passo Valparola, which I soon reach as it is effectively part of the same formation as the Falzarego and is just another km or so and another 300 feet of elevation gain.

From here I started down my first descent of the day, and holy cow was it ever fun! The switchbacks are amazing to ride, they are all banked so you can really lean into them and the roads where in great shape unlike many of the high mountain roads in North America which are not well maintained. I even managed to pass another cyclist on the descent (a real Italian cyclist!) which was a good feeling even though he was probably about 50 years old. It was pretty fun to yell “Ciao!” at all the cyclists who passed in the other direction, everyone seemed really friendly (or maybe they were just humouring the maillot jaune). I stopped to eat a peach at the conclusion of the descent, and then passed through a few more small towns before starting the next ascent to the Passo Campolongo. I passed a few other cyclists on this climb, and halfway up I was passed by a Liquigas team car which was pretty awesome but I wasn’t fast enough to get my camera out. This climb wasn’t as long as the previous one, and before long I was at the high point:

By this point I was pretty hungry, so I stopped to refill my water in a café at the summit and ate the leftover pizza from the night before that I had stashed in my back jersey pocket. It was quite hot out, so the sun beating down on the pizza coupled with my body heat as I sweated my way up the climb had an effect similar to warming the pizza up in the microwave, and it tasted pretty good as I sat by the side of the road. Bene! I then started down the next descent, which dropped down into a valley that I had driven through on the way to Cortina d’Ampezzo two nights prior. Here is a shot of one the switchbacks, from the angle of the upper guardrail relative to the road below you can get a sense of how tight the corners were that the switchbacks wrapped around, well over 180 degrees, so awesome!

I continued along my route, stopping at one point at another café to drink some juice and eat an entire Ritter Sport chocolate bar. I didn’t really feel like eating the entire thing, but felt like I had no choice because it was so hot out that any remnants would have melted in about 30 seconds in my jersey pocket, dripping out of the packaging and soiling the golden fleece. I also would have liked to have had an espresso, but sadly it was too hot for that and I felt like I needed to retain fluids rather than start peeing more out. Here is a shot looking down from the roadside café’s patio into the valley below (it was partway up an unnamed ascent):

I then continued on to the base of the final ascent of the day which also happened to be the biggest, the climb up to the Passo Giau. By this point my energy levels were starting to fade, probably a combination of the previous day’s exertions, the oppressive mid-day heat, and the fact that I was on the tail end of a 95 km ride with 8,500 feet of climbing. As I started up the climb it seemed noticeably steeper than the others, and I soon happened upon a sign informing me that I had 29 switchbacks to ascend before reaching the top:

I soldiered on, but as I progressed up the climb I could feel the heat really starting to affect me, as I stopped twice to recover a bit in the shade and each time I stopped I would feel a bit faint (probably as my heart rate dropped rapidly, allowing my blood pressure to drop further which was probably already low since I don’t think I had been drinking enough) and start to shiver a bit, which is not normal when it is 35 degrees C and sunny. The only other times I have felt like this on the bike was the first time I climbed Little Cottonwood Canyon after moving to Salt Lake City (I had wisely decided to do that ride at 2:00pm on a hot July day), and during the final climb of my Canyon master birthday challenge in Salt Lake City. Oh well, if there is one thing I have learned it is that the worse you feel during a ride, the more fun it seemed after the fact. Secure in this knowledge of immense pleasure in store for me after the ride I continued to grind my way up the climb. Near the top two Italian cyclists passed me headed down in the other direction, and one of them yelled “Vai, vai, vai!” (“Vai” is Italian for “go”) as he went flying by, and this gave me the fortitude to put in one final burst and propel myself up and over the top.

The view from the top of this pass was the nicest of any that I had been through so far, with lots of rugged mountains laid out below:

I continued down the descent which was the most technically demanding of any that I had come down, making for some exciting riding. I finally rolled into Cortina and headed straight to the rental shop where I returned my bike and the employees bid goodbye to “Aendy Schlecka”. I then walked back to the hotel (stopping for a recovery gelato along the way, of course), where the worthy Punta was already loaded up and ready to go.

I had used google maps to determine the most expedient route back to Milan (which was drastically different than the one I had taken on my late night drive to Cortina), so I headed due south towards Venice to pick up the A27 before continuing west on the A4. I had finished my ride around 4:30pm and departed by 5:00pm, so with the expected minimum drive time of 4 hours and 30 minutes I should get getting into Milan with enough time to catch some decent sleep before my early flight to Barcelona the next morning. You might think that 10+ hours of driving is a lot for less than 2 days in the Dolomites, but to that I would say “Worth it!!!”. I drove straight through with no wrong turns, and with only one stop for gas and a panino I made it to Milan Malpensa Airport where I was dropping off the rental car by about 10:00pm.
After parking the Punta and dropping the keys off inside at the rental agency counter, it was time to make my way to my hotel, which was near the airport (in anticipation of my late arrival and early flight out the next day). I had a vague memory of a free hotel shuttle to and from the airport, but since it was late and I was tired I decided to just take a taxi. I showed the taxi driver where I wanted to go, and he kindly called the hotel for me and arranged for the free shuttle to come and get me. This was my first experience with an Italian taxi driver, and I was really impressed!

I then waited for the shuttle, and finally made it to the hotel at 11:00pm. After checking in, I asked the hotel clerk about getting a shuttle back to the airport the next morning, informing him that my flight departed at 7:10am. He suggested that I take the 6:00am shuttle, and assured me that it would leave plenty of time to catch my flight. I was a little hesitant, and asked him if he was sure that the airport wouldn’t be busy at that hour. His response was (translated from broken English) “At 6:00 in the morning? Don’t be ridiculous! Nobody gets up that early here!”. I thought to myself “Okay, Italians know best”, and headed up to my room.
I had a much-needed shower (removing the many layers of salt, sweat, and dust that I had accumulated during my epic 6 hour ride in the Dolomites), and then spent an hour organizing and packing for the next day’s flight. I finally climbed into bed and dozed off just before 1:00am.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Cortina d’Ampezzo (day 1)

I rose at 8:00am, still feeling a little tired after only 6 hours of sleep but what choice did I have? I had things to do! The first thing to do was breakfast, which turned out to be subpar compared with my breakfast in Monza, especially the cappuccino which seemed to have some sort of extra sweet simulated milk froth on it instead of the real thing. After breakfast I headed to the grocery store to buy some food for the next couple of days, my rations consisted of: bananas, apples, peaches, oranges, some weird little cookie/cracker things, and chocolate bars. It would have been nice to have spent more time browsing and putting thought into what I would eat, but I knew that time was of the essence and I had to get my adventure under way.

The days itinerary involved a via ferrata adventure in the mountains of the Tofana group, about 5km from Cortina. For my uneducated readers: via ferrata means “iron path” in Italian, and refers to fixed steel cables that Italians have bolted to mountain faces to establish fixed routes up and through the mountains that can be ascended solo, either using the cable itself or the rock, and clipping yourself into the cables using a climbing harness, slings, and locking carabiners so that if you were to fall, the steel cable (or more accurately, the last attachment point of the steel cable to the rock) would arrest your fall. You don’t really want to fall, as in most cases you would go about 10-20 feet before your fall was stopped by the combination of steel cable and static sling, neither of which have much give in them to cushion your fall. Luckily, most of the ascent is not that difficult (especially if you yard on the cable) so it becomes a sort of high-speed vertical hiking adventure, where your pace is limited only by your aerobic capacity since you don’t have to worry about belaying, you just move your carabiner from one section of cable to the next as you progress. Big time fun!

Based on some route descriptions I had read on the internet, I had decided to link together two via ferrata that sounded quite good, the first being the Via Ferrata Guiseppe Olivieri which ascended the Punta Anna, and the second being the Via Ferrata Gianni Agloi which continued on to ascend the Tofana di Mezzo. I drove about 5km from Cortina d’Ampezzo towards the Passo Falzarego and then cut off onto a smaller road which ascended the hill side to a parking area at the Rifigio A. Dibena. I suited up for the day’s adventure, at which point I realized that I had forgotten my sunscreen back at the hotel. Luckily a friendly looking hiker with a really big pack happened to be walking by, and I rationalized that in such a large pack he must surely have some sunscreen, which turned out to be correct and he kindly let me use some of it.

I then headed up the hillside in what I thought was the right direction, but turned out to be on the wrong side of the Punta Anna which I would be ascending. Luckily there turned out to be a short section of Via Ferrata traversing the base of the Punta Anna, so I used this as a bonus section that served as a good warm-up and also put me back on track towards the start of the intended Via Ferrata. Here is a picture as I end this traverse, with the trail that I should have been on all along visible on the right side of the photo:

Back on track, I continued on to the base of the Via Ferrata Guiseppe Oliveri where I found the requisite commemorative plaque installed that I could not read since it was in Italian. Most of the Via Ferrata were installed during World War I to enable training exercises for the alpine units of the Italian Army, though in most cases the hardware has been upgraded since that time.

I then began the ascent, and happily the angle kicked back immediately with some good exposure right off the bat. Here is a shot looking up as the fixed cable disappears off into the distance:

Pretty fun! I stopped for a breather on a ledge that offered a good view of one of the other peaks in the Tofane group, the ???. The summit was enshrouded in clouds, but that often seems to be the case for many of these peaks, even on otherwise beautiful sunny days:

Here is a shot of our protagonist, happy to be out for a day in the Dolomiti:

And here is a shot looking back down towards my starting point:

I continued on up the Punta Anna, passing a few other climbers before reaching the top. Here is a shot looking down from the summit of the Punta Anna to the valley below and Cortina d’Ampezzo:

I hadn’t been going for that long at this point so I continued on towards the next summit of the Tofana di Mezzo, ascending a rickety old steel ladder that didn’t inspire too much confidence as it swayed under my weight. I didn’t bother clipping myself to the cable provided on this fixture, since I figured that if anything failed it was going to be the ladder itself and it wouldn’t matter whether I was clipped into it or not as I would be going down with the ship either way. I held my breath and second guessed having that extra pain chocolat at breakfast, but finally I exited the top with everything still intact.

Here I am after finishing the sketchy ladder ascent, feeling happy to be back on solid ground:

I continued along the route, with a brief detour to inadvertently ascend and descend an extra bonus peak. My route finding policy is that when I am faced with two choices, I take the one that looks like it is going up. Usually this serves me well (especially when climbing mountains), but in a few cases you end up gaining some bonus elevation and being forced to backtrack. Back on track, I continued along on the correct route, re-passing a fellow climber who was also moving pretty fast and who I had swapped positions with during my detour. He seemed really nice, though we didn’t speak a common language. I think we felt a sense of inherent camaraderie as we were both doing the ascent by ourselves and moving quickly. Here is a shot of him doing one of the nice exposed traverses (though you don’t get a sense of the exposure from the photo) along the route:

He also had a good mustache, which definitely made me question my clean-shaven state. After passing my mustachioed friend I ascended the final few hundred feet to reach the summit, which was marked by a cross and had good views in all directions:

The summit was not all that exclusive, as in addition to the via ferrata route it could also be reached by cable cars. This made it a little more crowded that it would have been, but also offered the option of taking the cable car down from the top. This possibility flashed through my mind briefly, but I then scanned my surroundings and noticed another nearby peak that was almost the same size. Here is a photo of it:

This was another mountain in the Tofana group, the Tofana di Dentro, and according to my map there was another via ferrata that dropped into the notch between this peak and the one I was on and then ascended to the top of this one. At this point it was only 3:00pm (I had started at 11:00am), so, never one to stand idly by while a nearby mountain goes unclimbed, I decided to continue on and tag this peak as well. This via ferrata was pretty tame compared to the ones I had just completed, so I didn’t end up clipping into it and just used the cable as a handrail since I would have felt comfortable on the terrain even without the cable. This made for a fast ascent, and I reached the top of this peak just before 4:00pm. Here is a shot of your happy protagonist with one more peak under his belt:

And here is a shot looking back towards the Tofana di Mezzo, the summit I had just come from. You can see the cable car station on the upper left shoulder of the mountain:

I reversed my route back to the notch between the two peaks, and from an inspection of my map I noticed that there was a trail descending from the notch that should take me back to my starting point without retracing my ascent route, and avoiding the namby-pamby cable car. The trail was labeled as “difficult” on the map and it looked a little improbable based on the terrain it had to move through the get back to the starting point, but I saw some footprints in the snow field that it started down so off I went. It started by slip-sliding down a lengthy snowfield which made me question my footwear choice of running shoes, but I made it though staying more or less upright and without getting too wet:

After the snowfield the faint trail continued around the shoulder of the mountain, with a few short downclimbs that appeared to have had cables installed on them at one point. This made me wonder if a “difficult” trail was code in Italian for a decommissioned via ferrata route, but at this point I was committed so I continued on. After some more traversing I reached a really long scree field that led back down to an area that I recognized from my initial misguided approach to the via ferrata. Part way down this scree-surfing descent the Rifigio Guissani came into view, allowing me to confirm my whereabouts on my map:

After another long section of scree surfing I finally reached the base of this slope, where my “difficult” path rejoined with a “medium” path which was a real trail instead of a free-for-all down snow fields, scree fields, and 4th class rock. Here is a shot looking back up at my descent route (some trail!):

I happy dumped all the rocks out of my shoes and continued down, reaching the Punta about an hour later at 6:00pm:

I was pretty happy to be back down, as by this point I was quite tired and had a bit of a headache which could have been from any number of things (not enough sleep the previous night, spending much of the day above 10,000 feet, not drinking enough water, etc.). I jumped in my getaway vehicle and headed back down to Cortina d’Ampezzo where I briefly wandered the the town, ate some pizza and capresi salad, and then went to bed at 9:00pm. Bene!

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I rose at 7:00am to go for a run which allowed me to see a bit more of Monza and its environs, and upon returning from that I found out that my luggage had been delivered overnight, so that was excellent news. I still wore my new designer Italian outfit though, as it was nicer than anything I had packed. At breakfast I met the representative from our client’s client who was staying in the same hotel (it is a pretty complicated arrangement of companies involved in the project, with 5 different parties involved), and after a really good breakfast and a delicious cappuccino we walked over to the meeting location.

The meeting went well and lasted most of the day, being cut off at 5:30pm because some of the others had flights to catch back to their various European locales. I, on the other hand, had pressing business to conduct over the next few days in the Dolomites (the Italian Alps), so I high tailed it over the rental car agency where I had a diesel-powered Fiat Punta waiting for me. I swung by the hotel to pick up my luggage and then I was off, heading east on the A4 expressway towards Venice. As I drove I had an excellent omen, being passed by a Saeco truck:

Before leaving I had just ordered a Saeco espresso machine, so I took this sighting as a divine sign that I had chosen wisely. The town I was headed for was called Cortina d’Ampezzo, a well known ski town (akin to Whistler or Zermatt) located in the heart of the Dolomites. A few summers prior when Roanne and I had been to Italy, we had taken a train to Bolzano thinking that we would have good mountain access from there, but we learned that to get right into the mountains you need to have car (unlike in Switzerland, the greatest country on earth) so this time I had taken that approach from the outset.

I hadn’t done any precise distance calculations from Milan to Cortina, but from my well-honed instincts I had guessed it was a 2-3 hour drive, giving me plenty of time to get there in good time after my meeting ended on Thursday night. Unfortunately, it turned out that much of the drive (at least for the route I had chosen, which was definitely not the fastest) took place on tight, winding mountain roads up and over high mountain passes, which made the drive take considerably longer. I later found out from google maps (maybe I should have done this before the drive, who would have guessed?) that the base amount of time for the route that I took was just over 5 hours, and with my total time (including a few wrong turns and difficulty finding the hotel at 1:00am when I finally rolled into Cortina) being closer to 6.5 hours. I must say though, it was pretty stinkin’ fun to be driving a small manual-transmission car on those super-tight switchbacks at midnight with no other cars on the road. You get into a good rhythm on the uphills especially: gear down to 2nd and brake a little as the turn approaches, then gun it around the steepest part and shift into 3rd as you come out of the turn onto the short straight section between switchbacks, then back down to 2nd for the next turn and repeat up to 31 times (at the bottom of each pass there is a sign telling you how many switchbacks there are, and each turn is numbered).

Needless to say, I was quite tired after finally finding my hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo. There was someone at the check-in desk, but he seemed a little drunk (I could smell the liquor on his breath also) and at first could not find my reservation until I pointed out that it was sitting directly in front of him on the desk. I guided him through the rest of the check-in process, and then finally climbed the stairs to my room for some well-earned sleep.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


The coming sequence of blog posts describes a trip to Europe that I took for work (a “business trip”, if you will). I knew that such an event was a possibility for the project that I have been working on, but I didn’t want to get my hopes too high in case it didn’t happen, but about a week before we received confirmation that we would have to send someone to attend a meeting in Monza, Italy (just outside Milan) on Thursday, followed by some meetings in Barcelona, Spain on the following Monday and Tuesday. Somehow I was chosen as the lucky man who would attend the meeting in Italy, and I would then be joined by two co-workers (“colleagues”, if you will) for the Barcelona meetings.

I flew out from Seattle on Tuesday, July 13 at 1:50pm, with a connection in Paris before continuing to Milano and landing in Milan-Linate Airport (Milan has another airport called Malpensa that is considerably further from the city center, so I was happy to be flying into Linate). The connection in Paris was pretty tight, as we landed just as my next flight was starting to board, but I made it onto the plane in time. Unfortunately, as I found out when I reached Milan at 11:15am the next morning, my checked baggage was not quite so fortunate and it remained in Paris. In one way this was a bit of stinker, since I had some important stuff in my luggage (such as clothes), but on the other hand, I had been wondering if there was somewhere I could stow my luggage somewhere for the afternoon while I explored Milan before continuing on to Monza (which is about 15km or so from the Milan city center) and this solved that dilemma. The airline representative informed me that my luggage would arrive on the next flight from Paris at 3:00pm, so, unencumbered by luggage, I bought some delicious focaccia and headed into Milan for some sightseeing.

It had been pretty cool temperatures when I left Seattle so I had dressed for that weather, so the first thing that I noticed when I stepped out of the airport was that it was stinkin’ hot. I took a bus into the city center, and the first order of business was to eat some delicious gelato. Molto bene! Milan was nice to walk around as a number of the streets in the city center are open only to pedestrians. The first interesting thing that I saw (besides the gelato vendor) was a rack of bikes that were part of the city’s bike sharing program:

Awesome! The bikes looked really nice, with racks, built in locks, and fenders. I spent a few minutes trying to figure out how I could use one of them, but as my Italian vocabulary consists only of “Si”, “Grazie”, “Bene”, and “Ciao”, I had limited success and decided that I was better off to continue on foot. I think bike sharing programs are a great idea, hopefully more North American cities will catch on to this.
I continued on to one of the main sights in Milan, a giant cathedral (the 3rd largest in the world according to the travel guide to Milan that I had obtained from the Seattle library) called the Duomo. Here is a picture of the exterior, quite impressive:

I toured through the inside briefly which was equally impressive, but you were not supposed to take photos (although everyone else seemed to be), so I don’t have any pictures to share. I was happy to have checked off the obligatory old church visit for my European vacation, so I continued on my way. I wandered around through some old castle type structure, and down a bunch of narrow streets where I took this photo of a never-ending row of parked scooters:

There were tons of scooters around, it would have been pretty fun to rent one to go buzzing around the city. I then wandered through some sort of shopping structure with a really interesting domed glass roof:

By this point it was around 5pm and I felt like I had maxed out on being a city tourist, so I headed to Milan Central Train Station where I caught a train to Monza. As a side note, public transit is so awesome. Had I taken a taxi from Linate Airport directly to Monza it would have cost over 60 euros, but my trip of a bus into Milan and then a train to Monza came to a grand total of 2.50 euros. Deal!

After a bit of wandering around I found my hotel, and after checking in I asked if my luggage had been delivered. It had not arrived, so I headed up to my room and called the airport baggage service. The woman who I spoke with there could not tell me if my luggage had been found (though the person I had spoken with at the airport seemed sure it had been), nor could she tell me if it would arrive that night. I didn’t feel that jeans and a sweaty T-shirt was proper attire for an Italian business meeting, so I frantically headed to the Monza shopping district to buy some presentable clothes before the shops closed at 7:30pm. After a bit of leg work I came up with an acceptable outfit, here I am modeling it in my room at the conclusion of my mission:

Bene! With this out of the way I took a much-needed shower and climbed into bed to finally get some sleep as I had not been able to sleep on the overnight plane ride.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Garden Update

It has been a long time since I have posted anything about my garden, so I thought I would provide an update as to how things are going: things are going very well. Here is a panorama shot of the garden:
As you can see, it is coming along nicely. From left to right, the crops are: spinach (2 rows), cabbage, swiss chard, carrots (2 rows), yellow beans (2 rows), parsley, zucchini, green onions, lettuce, kale, cucumbers, snow peas (2 rows), sugar snap peas, arugula (2 rows), peppers and basil (mistakenly planted in the same row, and neither is faring very well), strawberries (planted at Roanne’s behest, I prefer to stick to cash crops), lettuce (another row), cherry tomatoes, and beefsteak tomatoes.

Here are some close ups of the star performers. The beans are flowering and should start producing soon:
The zucchinis have been going crazy since the day they hit the dirt, the flowers are spectacular and any day now we are going to have about 90 zucchini one our hands all at once:

The snow peas have already started producing, here is a close up of a fine specimen:

The strawberry plants are always flowering, but never seem to follow up with any berries. Maybe the local fauna gets to them before we do.

The tomatoes have a lot of flowers and some small tomatoes are starting to form, I am looking forward to those a lot.

Further updates as events warrant.