(January 11, 2011) After our nice Dolomite mission on Cristallo Scharte, Fritz and Riki picked something a bit closer to my final destination in Italy so they could transfer me to Federico’s care for my Montebelluna boot manufacturing tour. Thus, our route for the day is another classic known as the Mulaz.
Last night we stopped at a meat counter in Cortina. Fritz got those butchers hopping and before long had a sack of tasty stuff, most of which I’d never heard of and couldn’t pronounce even after oral modification surgery.
Despite such mystery meat encounters, I do have a rule that during traveling I’ll eat nearly whatever is put in front of me. That’s to prevent the impolite and downright inconvenient diet style whereby a tourist tries to modify the local cuisine to their selfish tastes, or worse, to restrictions such as not eating cheese in Switzerland, or ordering a decaf coffee in Italy. A good attitude helps with native eating, as does carrying and using digestive aid capsules. But sometimes even my drug enhanced iron constitution can’t take it.
The meat is good. I chow down. Then off to a Cortina hot spot where we have a few of some kind of fancy pink Italian spritzers the locals were all pounding like mineral water.
Back home to bed. Around midnight the “digestive discomfort,” to put it politely, begins.
Tough it out. Yeah. So instead of staying home I skip breakfast and jump in the car with Fritz and Riki for a ski tour of the Mulaz, a classic peak of the Dolomite mountains. Of course my friends are feeling fast, having massive loads of Italian enhanced carbs coursing through their veins. My carbs were still in my stomach. At least most of them. But I was beginning to receive not so subtle hints that whatever was in my stomach needed to be located elsewhere, preferably external to my body. But when, and where?
So off I go, trying to stay on pace with the Austrian ski gods, only they’re striding ahead in such an obvious speed mismatch I immediately realize they’re headed for the summit, while I’ll probably just go around 3,000 vertical and wait for my companions at an obvious pass, where a hut (closed for the winter) yields a defined and slightly civilized location.
The climb is easier once I’m resigned to my fate, as I don’t push hard and my cardio base can get me up just about anything. Yet being fit can get you in trouble when you’re not feeling well. Instead of quitting near civilization and recovering your strength at a cafe, you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Bonked after your thoroughly efficient metabolism thoroughly uses up every last drop of glycogen in your tank.
After a few hours of burning my last calories, I’m at the pass where the huts are. A chilling breeze gnaws on my spent carcas like a hundred rats. I’m thinking I’ve got to find some shelter.
By now my stomach feels like a flaming oil drum. My body can’t take this, I think, it’s now or never. So I hurl everything I’d eaten in the last 12 hours as an offering to the spirit of the Mulaz.
With the fire in my gut thus somewhat assuaged, yet feeling like I was about to pass out from the bonk, I manage to slide a few hundred feet down to the locked and shuttered buildings of the hut. I’m thinking that by locating myself near the structures, I can call on my phone and give Fritz and Riki my exact location. More, lots of closed huts have “winter rooms” where ski tourers can take shelter. Just then, a classic European whiteout drapes over me like a painter throwing out a drop cloth. I can only see a few feet in front of me. No ski tracks. No map. Just the buildings all locked up. I can’t just stand here and freeze, I think, and I don’t see a winter room.
I want to dig out my thermos and take stock, but hands shunt and chill so bad I can hardly take my backpack off, let alone deal with a thermos cap. I’m known for my warm hands, so this is weird. I haven’t gotten “log hands” in years. Must be from the lack of calories, I think to myself. Whatever the case, this is looking more like a Jack London scene every minute. I do the old hands-in-crotch desperado warmup move. That gets my digits normal enough to dig out my cell phone to coordinate with Fritz and Ricki. What, no service!? This is Europe, where all the gear I should need for ski touring is a phone and a shovel, right? Apparently, I’ve found the one spot in Italy without cell service. Amazing.
I’m not hypothermic yet, I think to myself, and I know the way back enough to re-acquire the ascent track. So I get my skins back on and start shuffling up the short hill to the saddle, using instinct and occasional glimpses of a tram cable that drapes over the hill to my left. A few minutes into that my handy bleeps. Oh thank you, I’ve got cell service.
“Where are you Lou?” It’s Fritz. “I’m just climbing up from the Refugio,” I reply. “We’re at the saddle, where the cable goes,” he says.
Then I hear a shout, from probably 150 feet away! Totally surreal, to be so close to someone and absolutely not know they were there. I yell back that I’m coming to meet them, but the cotton candy is so thick I can’t see to ski around a big gully between us, so I just head towards the shouting. A cliff appears under one ski tip like it’s materialized from nothing. Scary. I back up and using a ski pole like an antenna, sideslip along the side of the gully until what feels like a steep snow ramp leads me down.
Still walking totally blind, I feel the angle pick back up and am able to ramp up a steep pitch to my friend’s voices. Still spooky. I don’t know how big the slope is, the snow seems a bit unstable. It’s probably a tiny terrain feature, but I reach for my Avalung thinking “this is the place where this thing would work.”
Whew… I’m soon reunited with my friends. They inform me that that he east side of the mountain has a classic pressure drop from the wind and has developed one of those cloud banks that create butter thick whiteout, while the east side is clear. By going for the refugio, I’d skied directly into the whiteout. We walk across the saddle, and in 30 seconds were in totally clear air. The demarcation between clear and cloudy is like a fence.
I’m as weak as a newborn kitten, but get down the mountain without more stupidity (as in, why did I go up here in the first place?). Yes, I should have stayed home. In this case my eyes were not exactly bigger than my distended belly, but I let my eyes lead, while a man should march on his stomach. To their credit, that morning Fritz and Ricki had asked me if I wanted the car keys so I could turn around, but I told them I’d be fine. Since their used to me keeping up but dropping a bit behind now and then, I can’t fault them for getting on ahead. Lessons learned: You’re never too fit to do something stupid, and watch out for those mystery meats!
Guidebook above is difficult to find to purchase. It’s published by these guys, and is ski touring for Sud Tirol. It is perhaps out of print.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.