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On Days Like These…

I adore the Dolomites.  For over a decade, I have walked, climbed and skied amongst them, gained wonderful memories and many great friends.  COVID cancelled a planned ski trip in March, but now that restrictions have eased, I couldn’t resist a visit.

I’ve never seen Luton Airport so empty, which made for a relaxing start to the trip, but the flight was rammed, racing minds as social distancing went straight out of the window.  Masks or not, it felt really strange. How the last few months have changed our perceptions of personal space. Thankfully I soon picked up my little Fiat 500 from Venice and headed for the hills.  I’ve had to travel alone for most of my life, but am lucky to have made great friends across the world.  I was heading to Canatzei to catch up with Nico and Christian, who I’d met on Himlung in 2014 (and been reported missing with, though at the time we were sunbathing and singing to the beach boys).  We’ve remained in touch and met on the mountains a few times over the winter seasons.

The little 500 needed some hard driving to climb the tournantes, but with the film soundtrack to the ‘Italian Job’ playing, we climbed and descended swiftly (and sang a lot too..!)

The last few months have brought a crechendo of stress into my life.  A combination of COVID, care and work have taken their toll.  I’m certainly not on my own in these battles, but only I can fight them and the mountains certainly help remove the stress and strain.  No amount of physical effort on a mountain can tire me like life can.

I spent my first day walking up a beautiful valley to the Rifugio Contrin. It was a sunny Sunday and many folk were out enjoying the warming sun. In the UK, we might have not enjoyed lockdown, but the Italian Government enforced a strict 100m rule of travel. Literally you needed paperwork to be more than 100m from your house. We should think ourselves lucky..! No wonder everyone wishes to be out. I wandered slowly, gorged on Speck, cheese and strudel and wandered home, peaceful and relaxed.

The next day dawned damp, so I extended my research in warfare. My father studied everything from the Vikings onwards and I sat with him as a boy, followed his studies and continue the work. The Dolomites were the scene of much fighting in the Great War and huge efforts were made to dig tunnels, blow up entire mountains (as in the Col de Lana) and generally kill the enemy. The conditions were so bad that more men fell to avalanches, rockfalls, frostbite and bodily conditions than to enemy fire. I walked through the tunnels on Lagazuoi and crossed onto the famed ‘Martini Ledge‘. All this effort so that we could shoot at each other. Few Generals fall, but many foot soldiers pay with their lives. As the old African proverb says ‘When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers’.

History is often written by the victors, but whoever creates it, it’s in the past.  Though we may wish to read our version of events, it’s happened, it’s over, it’s done. What we must do is learn and look to the future.  Only there can we build a better world.  Whoever you are and wherever you are from, we all bleed red.

The sun returned and Nico kindly guided me on the 57.7km long Sella Ronda MTB Trail. I’m no great mountain biker.  I get by, without tricks, jumps and bumps, holding on for grim death with what’s left of my hands.  I learned on the JoBerg2C that they go numb as does my right arm, and my feet, though clipped into my SPD’s feel out of place.  You may wonder why I bother..?  Possibly because I’m a daft, possibly because I’m as irresponsible as some people tell me, or possibly because I’m constantly learning about what’s left of my body.  No matter how old we are, we continue to learn.  On the advice of Cathy O’Dowd and Sibusiso Vilane, I tried an E Mountain Bike.  It really helped on the long ascents allowing me to keep up with Nico.  The scenery was stunning, the sunshine scorching and the food wasn’t bad either.

It’s been far too long since I had my Via Ferrata kit out. Christian invited me to look at the reconstructed Oscar Schuster route on the Sasso Platto.  A rockfall had destroyed some of the original route and a new cable had been fitted. Conditions were ideal and we hugged the shade as direct sunlight was burning.  It was delightful route with excellent exposure and as ever, wonderfully maintained by the Italian Mountaineering Club.  The summit allowed far reaching views across the entire Dolomites before we descended for a strudelfest and the long walk back to the pass. My feet were aching, so it was time for a rest day and an ideal opportunity to see someone i’ve been after for years…

Ötzi has been frozen in the ice for 5300 years was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley glacier. He’s been the subject of intense interest, research and speculation ever since.  I still remember the news when he was found and all the years of work which have followed. After years of debates over which country he was found in (the border between Austria and Italy still hadn’t been sorted since the Great War), he has come to a the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano.

I looked over his mummified body and noticed something close to home about his extremeties.  They were shrivelled, dark and disfigured.  My own fingers and toes were once in such a state, but I was lucky.  I only faced the cold for a day.  Ötzi had over 5000 years. I wonder where we’ll be in five millennia…

The clouds built and rain stopped play. I had a final wander over the Viel del Pan as rain rolled in across the Marmolada Glacier and the wind speed increased. I didn’t care. I’d had a lovely week.

My thanks to Nico and Christian for their help, hospitality and most importantly, friendship.

To the next mountain gentlemen…

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