Saturday, August 17, 2019

Europe 2019: Finding My Limit, Sightseeing, and a German Wedding!

First, a disclaimer in case my 15 year old self is reading this. I have come so far from my travel-deprived childhood, but I will never forget that girl who so desperately wanted to see the world, particularly the mountains, and as such, I will never take any trip for granted, especially not a trip to Europe. I am so thankful for where I am in life and my travel opportunities.

That being said, this was a follow up to our Italy 2017 trip where we did 3 days of via ferrata. That wasn’t enough so we decided if ever one of Erik’s German cousins got married we would go back. And that happened to be this summer.

Second, another disclaimer. If you are wondering how a trip to Europe relates to cross country ski training, obviously you have never gone on “vacation” with me. Read on for more.

Via Ferrata is italian and translates into English as “iron path.” It can be described as aid climbing but is essentially bouldering and rock climbing with the optional use of clipping into a cable with occasional ladders, pegs, and rungs on more difficult sections. Every few feet the cable is anchored to the rock with a piton. One wears a climbing harness and attaches to the cable via two carabiners and a shock absorbing rope. Two carabiners are recommended so that one can be unclipped at a time to move past the piton to the next section of cable. Many of these ferratas date back to WWI but have been updated throughout the years. We planned to do 10 days total of these routes with lots of hiking in between. It’s a great workout for cross country skiers as it involves the upper and lower body.

Third and last disclaimer: I’m not good at rock climbing (I do like 5.7 pitches but that is really mostly because I don’t rock climb and I’m not very brave) but I do have good upper body strength and no fear of heights, so keep that in mind as you read on.

To get there we flew into Venice and then took a bus (ATVO bus) to Cortina, Italy. We based our first 5 nights and 4 days out of Cortina.


Day 1: Day hike. Ferratas: Ra Gusela, Nuvolau, and Averau


After my knee injury, I was quite excited for a hard day. Like up and down a vertical mile and 15 miles. It proved a long day but the ferrata was quite easy. I didn’t even clip in on the first two ferratas. The third ferrata was a touch harder and we went down the ferrata, too.

This is the view from our hotel room and it shows Nuvolau in the center and Averau on the right. It was quite a ways as you can see.
Hiking from Ra Gusela Peak towards the hut on the top of Nuvolau. Photo: Erik

Yay for cooler weather and snow in July! This was on Averau but we crossed snow almost every day we were in the Alps. Photo: Erik

Very easy, bouldering ferrata. I clipped in here while going down but not while going up. Photo: Erik

Looking back on Nuvalau from Averau. Photo: Erik

Day 2: Day hike. Ferratas: Punta Anna and Oliveri


My excitement for hard physical days lasted exactly one day. I was tired and sore after yesterday's excursion. Despite this, I decided we needed to try some harder ferrata and so we hiked up to the Punta Anna which tops out at the hardest on the difficulty rating. The ferrata actually started pretty easy- mostly bouldering with really great foot holds.

This photo shows a good example of how the piton and cable connect. Photo: Erik

This photo shows the carabiners and ferrata kit that includes the shock absorber to soften a fall. Photo: Erik


Instead of bouldering with both hands, I like to keep one hand on the cable to always move the carabiners from the ferrata kit farther along. I find this overall makes the ferrata easier. Sometimes the bouldering is good but if not constantly moving the ferrata gear along then it will get stuck down at the last piton and sometimes even requires down climbing a bit to retrieve.

There ended up being some small exposed aspects of the ferrata but these were always followed by places were both feet could rest on rock. My arms didn’t get tired at all. Unfortunately, weather wasn’t great. This route was in the clouds with the forecast calling for thunderstorms starting at 2 PM. There was a cable car down at the very top of the route but we weren’t sure we could make it in time so we did a bail out route that had some ferrata on the way down. My feet really started hurting as we hiked downhill and I felt pretty beat up despite only doing 10 miles and 4,000 feet of up and down.

An example of really nice breaks before more difficult sections. Photo: Erik
Descending on the ferrata Oliveri with Cortina below. Photo: Erik

A ladder section on the ferrata Oliveri. Photo: Erik

Day 3: Day hike. Ferratas: Alpini and Laguzoi


We decided we needed an “easy” day.

The Alpini started very difficult- it was hard for me as we were on a vertical wall without great hand or foot holds. I was using the cable to pull myself up and even sometimes jamming my foot into the piton that holds the cable in place. After this section, the rest of the route was easy bouldering except for one more slick vertical wall (it had seeping water) just below the top of the ferrata. I didn’t clip in on some of the easier sections.

An old WWI hospital and the rock face of the Alpini ferrata. Photo: Erik


On the wall with Averau in the background. Photo: Erik

And the other side with Lagazuoi. Photo: Erik

At the top of the ferrata with the Marmolada, the glacier peak in the background, highest in the area. Photo: a guy from Holland


This was the day we started with the WW1 tunnels and relics. The Alpini ferrata was on a small mountain but near the top there was a tunnel, some trenches, and even an old bunker- plus lots of barbed wire. Wow, that barbed wire is 100 years old!
Old WWI trench. Photo: Erik

Us with the Tofana di Rozes, our goal for the next day. Photo: random chick


Next up we hiked over to the pass and partway down the neighboring mountain before we entered into the Lagazuoi Tunnels to climb that respective mountain. The Austrians and Italians were fighting each other in this region of present day Italy during WWI and built very extensive tunnels into mountains. It obviously wasn’t scenic to climb 1,000 vertical feet on super steep stairs in a tunnel, but probably something I will never do again. When we got out of the tunnel it was raining:( Fortunately this didn’t last long and the weather gradually cleared up. We spent some time on top of the mountain and then took the cable car down to the big pass and the bus back to our hotel for an “easy” day of 6 miles or so (the GPS doesn’t do well inside tunnels and climbing up 2500 feet.

Not the best photo (because it was in the tunnel) but a good example of the tall stairs and what it looked like (although it was super dark which the flash hides here). Photo: Erik


Day 4: Day hike. Ferrata Lipelli


We had it in our minds to do the Lipelli ferrata up the Tofana di Rozes but we needed a perfect weather day and that’s exactly what the weather forecast called for. We left from our hotel which meant another vertical mile up and down day. As we hiked to the start of the ferrata, we witnessed a helicopter rescue of some climbers on the vertical face of the mountain- not exactly the best way to start our day.

Helicopter rescue! Photo: Erik

This ferrata started out in a tunnel (you may notice a theme here) as well. The beginning ladders were a bit rickety. We had scoped out the ferrata route the day before and it looked pretty intense, but as usual, once on the mountain, it’s a lot less vertical than it looks from afar. The ferrata was quite fun- usually easy bouldering with a scattered hard move here or there- just enough to keep things interesting. We encountered some gullies with small waterfalls that were tedious as they were slippery.

Heading into the tunnel. Photo: Erik

Looking back on the two peaks we were on yesterday with the Marmolada way in the background.

An easy trail section on the route. Photo: Erik

Then the hours started to stack up. Ferrata is incredibly slow going, always clipping, unclipping, repeat, walk or boulder another ten feet, repeat. The weather held, then we were delayed by slow climbers above us, the threat of people kicking down rocks, etc. It was late afternoon before we were done with the ferrata and on top of the mountain. The view was amazing but given the hour we didn’t feel we could linger too long.

Erik on top. The mountains above his head are where we were headed the next day.

In Italy there is a giant cross on top of every mountain. Photo: some random dude

The classic jump shot a little ways below the summit. Photo: Erik

The first 1,500 feet down were difficult. It was a mix of scree and small cliff bands, frequently bouldering down as we went. Once we got to the pass, there was a very nice hiking trail and the view was amazing. Later, as we hiked along the road, we got offered a ride by a German group. This decreased our elevation but dropped us off farther up the road so we still had miles to go. It was 8 pm by the time we got back to our hotel room. Suffice it to say, it was a long day. Not particularly challenging, but very long.

The small cliff bands on the beginning part of the descent where there was a "route" but no trail. Photo: Erik

The spectacular view on our way down looking back towards Nuvalau (center) and Averau on the right. Photo: Erik

Day 5: Hike from our hotel above Cortina to Rifugio Vandelli with Ferrata Sci Club 18


We hiked down to Cortina, across Cortina, and up to the rockwall east of Cortina to start the Sci Club 18 Ferrata. I had my comeuppances this day with hard ferratas. When I read about this ferrata they said it was for “experts only” to which I immediately asked out loud “Am I an expert?” The Sci Club 18 was constructed about 10 years ago and we had learned that the new ferratas all started out difficult to scare people off. So the Sci Club 18 started hard, no big deal, I figured, it’ll get easier. But it didn’t. This was also the first day I was doing ferrata with a pack since we were hiking to a hut rather than just day hiking. The vertical walls kept coming at us with very infrequent breaks. This was not bouldering, this was solid rock climbing. I used the cable to haul myself up. My forearms started to burn. I tried to remind myself to find some foot holds instead of keeping my feet vertical on the rock.

Going up the Sci Club 18. Photo: Erik

This was by far the hardest ferrata we did. It was definitely near the top of my limit. The thing with ferrata, even though there is safety gear, it is not like being top roped. You DO NOT WANT TO FALL. If you fall, you will first fall back to the piton below you- probably an average of five feet. Then, assuming you’ve clipped in correctly and your carabiners hold, you will fall the length of your ferrata rope- another three feet or so. It sounds pretty unpleasant, so I held that cable really tight and tried to not make any sketchy moves.

There's an easier way up this mountain. It's called the cable car. It's not what Elspeth does. Photo: Erik

At the top of the Sci Club 18 ferrata. The mountain on the left is the one we did yesterday and on the right is the one we made it most of the way up. Photo: Erik

After three hours and 1,000 vertical feet, we completed the ferrata. We still had a few more miles to go. I had the expectation that this trail, which was marked as a big solid red line on our map, would be easy, but it was anything but. There were places where it was washed out which meant loose rock and snowfields to cross. I wanted to be to our hut by 5 PM to enjoy some time at the glacially-fed lake, but as we began hiking down to the lake- it became anything but hiking. I got really down on myself, declaring I was worlds worst hiker. I mean, why am I so timid of this steep loose rock and cliff bands? I mean, come on folks, you don’t need to use your hands on a hiking trail:)

So close and yet so far to Lago di Sorapiss which was right by the hut. Photo: Erik

We eventually made it to the hut at 6 PM which ended up being OK because dinner wasn’t served until 7 PM which actually gave me 20 minutes to sit by the lake once we got settled. And after like 10 minutes of sitting by the lake I was ready to move again anyway:)

Lago di Sorapiss. Photo: Erik

Day 6: Hike from Rifugio Vandelli to Rifugio Carpi. Ferratas Vandelli and the one that wasn’t marked on our map!!!


We planned to do another longish ferrata this day. By now we knew the ferrata is quite slow going and given we had 4,000 feet of vertical, I suggested to Erik that maybe we should take the easy way. BUT, this would go against our 10 days of ferrata so we took the hard way.

The Vandelli ferrata was easy and provided good views down to Lake Sorapiss, but we had to keep moving and as such could hardly enjoy these views. There was lots of bouldering to do and I bouldered for the first hour or so but knowing how much more mileage and elevation awaited us, I became impatient. I can really only progress at a quarter mile per hour for so long before my attention wanes.

Looking back on Lago di Sorapiss. Photo: Erik

After two hours, we completed the ferrata and began a 3,000 foot descent before contouring over to our next trail, a “route” marked on our map. This route started benign- steep but not too loose. We stopped for a chocolate break. We could see the valley floor below. We resumed and quickly discovered some ferrata that was not marked on our map. That was fine. It was easy to hold onto the cable and go over the cliff bands. There was no ferrata marked on our map so we had taken off our harnesses. Here’s where my bravery noted above in rock climbing contradicts itself. Apparently I’m a lot more brave if there is a cable.

The beginning of the descent. Our goal for the day was to make it to the saddle on the very right side of the photo. In two days we would be on the other side of the far mountains (the Tre Cime). We have no photos of the rest of the day, because when the going gets tough, it's too much in the moment thinking to consider taking photos. Photo: Erik

Then the trail got steeper, the rocks looser. I went down these sections sideways. Soon there was more ferrata- more cliff bands. And then the trail got even steeper. I kept going down sideways, slowly. My feet kept slipping on the rocks. I caught myself with my right arm, slightly tweaked my shoulder. This was ridiculous. This was so hard. It was taking forever and by now it was after noon and we weren’t even half way into our mileage yet.

Then I fell on a tree root I hadn’t quite discerned, landing in some soft-ish arctic bushes which saved me from sliding down the mountain. I started to sniffle. Within a couple minutes I slid out on the loose rock, landing on my butt. That was it. I began sliding down the mountain on my hands and feet. Then, I lost it.

Apparently Elspeth isn’t on vacation unless she is crying on some mountainside.

It’s nary two years since this happened the last time. That time it was only a few tears shed after I thought I had up-climbed something I couldn’t down-climb. This time it was a full-blown temper tantrum.

I had found my limit- many days in a row of hanging off cliffs, making slow progress, ascending and descending a vertical mile. This “trail” on top of all that was simply too much.

After several minutes I collected myself. We continued down the route- often Tarzan style- literally using tree branches and roots to help us at times. Occasionally when there was ferrata- a nice cable to hold onto- these were the easy sections but ironically, these were the sections that I could have bouldered. I really needed the ferrata on the steep loose rock. Then we got to a super steep gully. This was the hardest part of the whole route. I was immediately glad I had already had my meltdown. Crying does help. Now I could focus.

Erik was behind me in this section. I found myself hanging onto a shrub, everything below me gravel sized. It was loose and surely would slide with me down the gully into a pile of rocks. I looked around- there was nothing else to hold onto save one boulder about four feet away. It looked like a solid boulder being mostly buried in the gravel. Given it was my only option, I lunged for it, held on with a small grip, and was very glad it was indeed solid. From here there were a few more scattered rocks I could use to descend farther into the gully, and then stay out of the way while Erik kicked down some small rocks as he came down.

We were almost to the valley floor. It was a few more frustrating minutes of feeling like world’s worst hiker, and then we were down to incredibly large, flat, fast traveling hiking trails. It was 3 PM now. We’d been going for seven hours and only gone four miles.

Once again, I had succeeded in kicking my own ass. I’ve done this before- hiking on the Tour de Mont Blanc for our honeymoon, “hiking” the state high points out east (Mount Marcy and Washington in particular), the day we climbed Half Dome- but it had been awhile. A long while. Almost a decade. I thought maybe I was through with the really hard days after hiking rim to rim on the Grand Canyon and a horrible route choice on Granite Mountain, Montana’s highest point, didn’t phase me so bad. But no. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s kicking my own ass.

My eyes wouldn’t focus after we got to the valley floor. Mentally I was done. Fortunately all we had to do was walk a couple miles on really easy trails and then hike up 3,000 vertical feet. That wasn’t too bad. I just got into my zen state and didn’t really need to concentrate, not even on the small section we had to go on off-trail through a bunch of blow downs.

It was almost 7 PM by the time we got to our hut. Dinner was already being served. I felt better after pasta for first course and a giant plate of polenta and cheese for second course. It must’ve been combined the equivalent of six servings of grains but I needed it. 

Day 7: Hike from Rifugio Carpi to Rifugio Locatelli

We were headed up into these mountains- not through the obvious pass in the center, but through a higher pass somewhere on the right.

We had grand plans for this day (at least before we had left for this trip) but our effort the day before was astounding and as we climbed the boulderfield and ferrata to what Erik called our “high mountain pass” we knew the extra ferrata up a pinnacle was a bad idea. We commended our decision a couple hours later while we waited out a thunderstorm under a rock overhang. We didn’t do much ferrata this day, but it was enough.

This day we hiked to the Tre Cime National Park, so called for three big spires which would be the source of many photos for us the next three days. We approached from the south and walked around them to the hut on the northeast side of these giant rocky outcroppings. The days total: 11 miles, up 2500 feet, down 1500.

What we went up to get to the pass. If you look closely and enlarge this photo you can see some ladders on the left.


Descending on ferrata from our high mountain pass. The Tre Cime are in the clouds. Photo: Erik
Looking back on our high mountain pass from the opposite direction as the morning photo.

Day 8: Day hike from the Rifugio Locatelli with Ferrata de Luca.


There was a tunnel ferrata near Rifugio Locatelli (that climbs Monte Paterno) and I wanted to make sure we had plenty of time to do this ferrata so we planned a layover day at Rifugio Locatelli. This was another remnant from WWI. From certain aspects this pinnacle looks crazy but we went up the backside which was pretty easy. There were even a couple non-protected (no cable) bouldering sections.

Monte Paterno from our hut- the first summit for the day. Photo: Erik

Another summit, another cross, guess we're still in Italy. Photo: another random dude

Looking back down at the hut from the summit. Photo: Erik

From here we still had some extra time so we climbed a nearby mountain from the plateau that didn’t have any ferrata but did have another tunnel and a bunker! We were going to climb more (we had only done 7.3 miles with 3500 feet of elevation change) but the thunderstorms rolled in by 2 PM so we hung out at the hut.

The view from this bunker. Photo: Erik

Day 9: Hike from Rifugio Locatelli to Toblach. Ferrata up the Torre di Toblin


Given that we had a long way to hike this day (13 miles) and catch a train to Innsbruck, we set the alarm for daybreak to do a quick ferrata up the Torre di Toblin before breakfast.

The Torre di Toblin is on the left side in the middle foreground. Photo: Erik

And doing a bit of yoga on the summit:) Photo: Erik

The hut preparing for the day with lotsa pasta! Photo: Erik

After breakfast we began our hike to Toblach. We kept moving to catch our 4 PM train, hiking up one more high mountain pass, through a pit of old barbed wire, and down a ferrata. In total we descended over 7,000 vertical feet.

The view back towards where we came from our last high mountain pass (you can see the Tre Cime on the right. The crazy thing was, just a few hours before, we were back in those mountains!
Some sheep on the west side of the pass. These ones had horns so I approached carefully. Most of the sheep we saw had bells, too! Photo: Erik

Lake Toblach! Photo: Erik

I wanted to end the hike in Toblach so I could hike over this iconic building that I watch every year on the World Cup:) Photo: Erik

We made our train but with WiFi on the train we learned our AirBnb in Innsbruck had been cancelled. Now, I’m not the fly by the seat of my pants type. I had made this and all reservations months ago, and not having a place to sleep in a city kinda sucks. In the end, things worked out, we just paid twice as much as I wanted but we did get the best continental breakfast of the trip.

Day 10: Innsbruck


Given we had to sort out our lodging and change hotels, we spent the morning walking around town which was pretty fun. Then it began to rain and rained decently hard the rest of the day. Fortunately the next day’s forecast looked promising.

A dreary Innsbruck. I came here to see colorful houses backed by giant mountains, but those mountains were obscured by clouds.


Day 11: Klettersteig (word for via ferrata in German since we were in Austria now)


Our plan was to take the cable car most of the way to the top of the mountain to do one final ferrata but since we were totally socked in, we decided to postpone plans in the hopes the clouds would clear and we walked around town again. At some point Erik made a comment that “maybe the mountain was above the clouds” and this, in combination that I wanted to do this Klettersteig, had us taking the cable car into the clouds in the early afternoon.

What ensued was a comedy of errors. We didn’t really have enough time to do the route and get back to the cable car (that we paid for) that would eliminate 3,000 feet of descent. As a result we really pushed the hike to the ferrata and the ferrata itself. The start of the ferrata was quite difficult and the cable slippery owing to the cloud but then the ferrata was easy. Often I didn’t clip in, partly to save time, partly because it really wasn’t necessary. On a lot of the bouldering sections I would fall the same distance whether clipped in or not. Occasionally there were glorious breaks in the clouds and we could look down to Innsbruck below us.

We saw an Ibex! Photo: Erik

Occasionally the clouds cleared a bit and we could see down to the valley floor. Photo: Erik

There was one swinging bridge on this klettersteig! Photo: Erik

We knew we were cutting our time short to get back for the last cable car. Erik had read about possible bail-out options and said we could bail out anywhere. We found a gully that looked reasonable and began our descent.

Almost immediately we realized this gully wasn’t “reasonable.” It was steep grass mixed with rocks. It was so steep that half the time I was turned around, down-climbing (bouldering down the mountain).

After a bit we came to a game trail that in hindsight we should have taken to the marked trail, another gully over, but this was just another error. We continued on down our gully. Soon the grass ended and it was just a pile of loose rocks and the occasional snow patch. We were kicking down rocks like crazy and fortunately one gully turned into many and so Erik and I descended in parallel fashion so we wouldn’t kick down rocks on each other.

Painstakingly we continued- staying on our feet when possible but more often than not bouldering or crab walking/sliding. The whole time we wondered if we would get “cliffed out” but never did. Once it became apparent our efforts were so slow we would most definitely miss the last cable car down, we relaxed a bit. Occasionally the clouds lifted so we could see down to the area where we would encounter the good trail.

I could have easily cried again. This route was super hard, but I knew it was hard for Erik, too, and it was at least half my fault for this gully mess we were in. Besides, I had gotten all my crying out a few days earlier.

It took us two hours to descend 1,000 vertical feet. Amazingly, around the time we got back to the cable car station, the clouds cleared and the sun came out. We finally got our view that we came to see. Thanks to our multiple errors, we were rewarded. After two more hours and 5500 feet total of going downhill, we arrived at our hotel.

Looking down to Innsbruck, now cloud-free

I decided I had had enough adventure for awhile and put my “adventure” outfit in our dirty clothes bag- not to come out for the rest of the trip. It also helped that these clothes had some sheep poop on them as well:)-

We did our off-trail gully hike down the V in the center of this photo. It's obvious from here why it was so difficult!


Day 12: Travel from Innsbruck to Ulm, Germany


We traveled on the FlixBus- kinda like the Megabus. Tickets were cheap and easy to buy online so I was sold. Adventures for this day included convincing the German border patrol that our passports were in the luggage compartment and riding on the Autobahn. It was an easy day but we still ended up walking around 8 miles and climbed 763 stairs to the highest church steeple in the world.

The church steeple was so tall I failed to get it and Erik in this photo.

The view of Ulm and the Danube from partway up the church tower

Day 13: Travel from Ulm to Esslingen, Germany


I was bound and determined to let the running begin so some drizzle couldn’t keep me inside. We ran along the Danube in Ulm, through the old fisherman village, and the old area around the big church. It was a 7 mile run- my longest in 2 months and best since my knee injury, not to mention the spectacular scenery.

Running in Ulm in the fisherman village. Photo: Erik

Then it was back on the Flixbus to Esslingen. We discovered big traffic jams on the Autobahn but finally arrived in quaint Esslingen. This is where Erik’s cousins grew up and I had heard and seen pictures of this town and really wanted to go there. It definitely met expectations!

The quaint street we stayed on in Esslingen
The iconic Esslingen Marketplace!

Day 14: Esslingen to Trier, Germany


This was another easy day with a five hour bus ride, walking around town, walking to our AirBnb, finding old city walls, and playgrounds of course! Trier was the location for the German wedding.

A colorful part of Trier

And playgrounds, of course:) Photo: Erik

Day 15: Trier


We began the day with a run to the old part of the city where we met Erik’s family for a walking tour. Listening to someone talk and standing around in one place isn’t really my thing so I had fun hanging out with the young kids. After a long family lunch, we had more family time, Erik got locked into the old city wall, and we played more on the playground:)

The family in front of the old city wall in Trier.

Day 16: Trier and the German Wedding!


It was time to get back to nature and take a break from looking at old buildings so Erik and I headed into the woods for a run/walk on some hilly terrain. We were surprised to run into the remains of a Roman copper mine from 200 AD but enjoyed the swinging bridges we had set out to find. In the end it was 13 miles and 1800 feet of elevation change.

One of the swinging bridges we crossed on our morning run. Photo: Erik

Then it was time for the German Wedding. Here’s my takeaways:)

1. Beer is served DURING the ceremony!

2. The ceremony is in German.

3. Cake is served before dinner. There were actually like 5 different kinds of cake. I had to try most of them.

4. Dessert is served again after the main meal.

5. The whole event lasts until 3 AM or so. We didn’t make it quite that long.

Erik and all his cousins (including the bride).


Day 17: Trier to Luxembourg city

We took an easy day, sleeping in late, took the train to Luxembourg, and then explored some old city walls!

Old city walls in Luxembourg.

Day 18: Luxembourg and back home


After a short run in Luxembourg, we began our journey home: some walking, a bus ride, and two easy flights later we arrived home in time for an afternoon rollerski!

Early morning run in Luxembourg. Photo: Erik


Rollerski back at home. Photo: Erik

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