The Un-Sharable Italian Bikepacking Experience
I squinted through the glare on my phone’s screen to make out the squiggly line that represented the route we were climbing on our way out of the Italian town of Avigliana. Up until that point on our bikepacking trip, the lines on the map had been sweeping arcs through parks and straight lines as we gleefully pedaled our way through a series of picturesque towns that delivered on all my dreams of this trip: narrow tiled streets, charming stone churches, and Italian espresso.
So. Much. Espresso. Molto bene! To be honest, the reputation of Italian espresso was one of my motivations in taking this little adventure with my colleague, Brent, before we attended a trade show in Germany. Classic NEMO: play before work.
But I digress. The lines on the map were no longer so straightforward, instead taking on the appearance of a jittery pencil line drawn by someone who had perhaps had one too many espressi.
That’s what laid ahead for us. Turn after steep turn we pedaled our fifty-pound bikes, packed with camping gear, up out of the valley into the Italian Alps. I’m not going to lie: sometimes we didn’t pedal, opting instead to put our shoulders into it and shove the bikes up the gnarliest paths.
At 600 meters, still below the treeline and surrounded by a lush forest, we pedaled up walkways made of slick, round, Roman-era stones, winding our way past tiny cottages built into the mountainside and rambling gardens clinging to the steep earth. We had drained our hydration packs, so we found a cool mountain stream to refill for the first time, delighting in our Katadyn BeFree water filters that guaranteed us clean water as long as we could find a stream.
Refilling our reservoirs in a mountain stream.
As we pushed past the forest into the sunlight and watched the number on our altimeter rise with each switchback, we saw the scenery slowly change before our eyes. Villages grew further apart and increasingly ramshackle. Charming little gatherings of homes anchored by a café gave way to sparse gatherings of two or three stone houses in varying degrees of disrepair. Around 1400 meters, I realized I had kissed my last chance for an espresso goodbye for the foreseeable future.
The towns still had names on the map … and then they didn’t.
There was an occasional farmer, or a dog standing in an open window … and then there wasn’t.
We had reached what we were looking forward to: the high alpine fields, where the occasional herd of cows made music for our solitary ascent. The faraway clanging of their bells was soundtrack to our climb through the impossibly green pastures in the dimming light.
These were the roads carved into the Alps by the Romans two thousand years ago. For thousands of years before that, the people of this land practiced the seasonal ritual of bringing their herds into the rich grasses above treeline for the summer, and back into the valleys in the winter. Alpiculture, they call it. Mobility. Moving with the seasons.
I felt that movement, as my summertime self (a bit fitter and leaner than my wintertime self) pushed its way up into the Alps, up into the heights of these rolling greens punctuated by steep, craggy cliffs. We passed the occasional stone hut, sometimes stopping to explore the mostly fallen-in structures that once housed shepherds and farmhands who lived their summers at altitude.
We had a goal: 1800 meters that day. And as our altimeter crept closer to that goal, we rounded a switchback and saw something striking: a rock outcropping in the shape of wolf’s head emerged from the green grasses, its nose pointed into the wind and its wild character only accentuated by the barren wildness around us. I heard a trickle of water. I smelled the evening. In the distance – miles away – there were still faint cowbells.
The wolf’s head would be our spot for the night.
As we patted down tall clumps of grass to pitch our tents, I felt a resonance with the people of the past who had traveled this land for fifteen millennia before me. The wolf outcropping felt safe: elevated above the surrounding landscape with visibility of the one lone dirt road that struggled up the remaining pass.
It also felt sheltered, as we nestled into the wolf’s neck that blocked the wind. I felt aware of the elements in the way that perhaps only happens when you’re far out of reach of civilization’s protective net. Before we pitched our tents, we scrambled up the wolf’s head to take it all in.
Our dinner, vegetable korma made with cold water (due to a propane stove mishap), tasted like five-star cuisine. We sat quietly and watched the light change, watched the clouds roll in and engulf the bottoms of the mountains, watched the scene go from orange to indigo.
I kept pulling out my phone, disturbing the peace and telling Brent to forgive me as I tried fruitlessly to capture the majesty with an iPhone 6.
I finally gave in and tucked the phone in my pocket. There was no reception up here. No Instagram stories, no low-light capturing. I settled into the twilight, walking over the lumpy alpine grass to another rock outcropping where I quietly watched the last light disappear.
The cows, hundreds of meters below us on their grassy green cliff, had also disappeared for the night into some mysterious home out of view for the evening. Our tents glowed quietly on the wolf’s head. Brent lay near them stargazing, and I sat here on my rock where I said goodnight to the cows, the peaks, the stars. All was perfection.
Brent stargazing by our tents in the evening.
Racing the Clouds
Brent and I both happen to be morning people. On my own part, this has likely been cultivated by two small kids who wake me up at the break of dawn, turning my previous night owl self into a lover of the morning light. When I awoke and popped my head out of my tent, Brent was already on the wolf’s head eating granola. I scrambled up to take it in. Oats with cinnamon never tasted so good.
We saw the clouds in the valleys – the same valley from which we had biked the day before – traveling toward us. I didn’t know if this was normal morning fog or an impending storm (as the weather report predicted), but either way we decided to pack up quickly and get on the road.
Packing up quickly to beat the clouds.
Bikes packed, we continued our trek upwards toward Truc Muandette, the peak that anchored our pass. We stopped at a few more ruins before taking a zag off the road toward a small cylindric stone memorial sitting alone on a grassy cliff. It was imprinted with a circular map of the surrounding peaks and their heights, so we could identify a few of the giants we had slept among the night before.
I understood why people of the past had worshipped mountains. When a monster of a snow-covered peak would appear through the clouds it would nearly take my breath away, and almost unconsciously I found myself in a state of worship and awe.
I speak no Italian, and my Spanish is a poor excuse for getting by in Italy, so Brent, who is fluent in Italian, translated the inscription on the memorial:
Grab a piece of the sky. Know how to read the leaves. Find your whole self. This is the essence of a proper life.
“That’s way better than a bench with a plaque,” I joked.
But as we hopped back on our bikes I made a mental note that a place like this was just the type of place I’d like to be strewn to the wind after my last breath. As we neared 2150 meters, what would be the peak of our climb, we cranked hard.
The sound of my breath in my own head fell in rhythm with the pulsing pedals and rapidly advancing clouds through the valley. The mountains and valleys, which had laid stretched before us the night before, were rapidly being engulfed by colossal clouds flying across the landscape, swallowing up peaks and cavities with an appetite and speed that was both awesome and awe-full in the truest sense.
As if orchestrated by a deity with a sense of ironic humor, when I was pedal strokes away from the peak, the clouds engulfed us. Brent watched from behind as I disappeared into a dense forest of water droplets.
And we Summitted.
Exuberant. Soaked. Triumphant. On top of the world, or at least Truc Muandette.
We pulled over, snapped a selfie on a white backdrop of clouds that veiled what would have been an incredible panorama. We laughed at the irony, hooted and hollered a bit, put on some rain gear, and hopped back on our bikes to tear down the mountain path in the rain.
There are no pictures of our descent, rip-roaring down dirt and gravel switchbacks as rain pelted us. The monsoon-like downpour mercilessly pummeled my face, filled up my eyes, quickly soaked through my shell, and permeated my phone’s several protective waterproof layers. I checked periodically to make sure my frozen index fingers still worked for braking and considered what I might do if Brent were struck by lightning this far from civilization.
But as we flew down those switchbacks I couldn’t contain my wild grin (though some might call it a grimace against the rain), intoxicated with the moment in which I found myself. So far from my “normal” life, I wished I could bottle this experience and bring it back home to share it with my friends and my husband, to convey the euphoria, to lend a second-hand glimpse of the rapture in hopes they could experience a bit of the rush.
But it can’t be done. It’s un-sharable.
Part of me knew even in that moment that these most heady, spiritual moments are only experienced firsthand, and lose most of their potency when captured and re-shared, like clipping a wildflower from a mountainside into a vase or trying to describe a piece of music that stirred your soul. The finest work of the most skilled photographer or author is a dim representation of the actual experience. We want desperately to pass it along so others can live vicariously, but it’s a futile wish.
Two weeks later, having returned to the states, I flipped through my pictures with some co-workers, enjoying recounting the adventure but fully aware of the futility of communicating very much more than just the facts. But inside, I was different. My bruises had faded, but the experience lived on inside me and left its mark on me. My cultural horizons were wider; my faith in my own strength was reinforced; my appreciation for a good adventure buddy who has your back was deeper; my gratefulness for a job that allows me these opportunities was stronger.
In short, my adventure transformed me, as adventures do when they’re at their best. They take you from Point A and bring you to another destination: they break you, mold you, equip you, strengthen you, bring you peace, help you trancend, and in the end, make you a better version of yourself. It's an interesting idea: this concept that our most pinnacle experiences are almost entirely un-sharable. They’re internal.
It’s oddly antithetical to an existence in which so much is shared on the surface via our connected digital life. Two-dimensional pictures and a few captions or funny anecdotes can be passed along, but the visceral experience of becoming something more than you were can only be lived by you. And to experience this requires everything that precedes and builds toward that moment: the climbing, sweating, pushing past blisters, pushing beyond what is comfortable and known.
It takes planning, packing, and prioritizing adventure. It takes elapsed time, watching clouds with uncertainty, evaluating risk. It’s inconvenient and hard. There is no shortcut to the pinnacle experience within yourself. It can’t be magically bottled; it must be earned.
As I near 40 years old, it’s somehow pleasing to reinforce the idea that there’s no substitute for experience. Life grows richer at each turn; each row we plow makes us better beings; each challenge we face thickens our grit; and each chance we have to push ourselves beyond comfort makes our personhood a little more complex, interesting, and full of perspective.
To this I raise a glass (of Genepre, in honor of our Italian adventure) to a life lived adventurously. May we all “grab a piece of the sky, and find our whole selves.”
Hornet™ Elite 2P Ultralight Tent - This amazing little tent weighs in at 28 ounces. Using the Divvy™ sack, I kept the tent and fly in my pack and Brent strapped the poles to his bike frame with his poles.
Tensor™ Ultralight Sleeping Pad - Packs down to a tiny 14 ounce jelly roll, yet offers this stable and cushioned sleep like you wouldn't believe. I love this thing.
Jam™ 30° Spoon-Shaped Sleeping Bag - At 2 lb., 3 oz, this bag was perfect for a side sleeper, tosser, and turner like me. It kept me cozy, and with its 800FP down, packed down remarkably small to fit right underneath my seat.
Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System 1.0L – We refilled our reservoirs all over the place, and these compressible bottles were one of the best things on our trip. Any trickle of water becomes usable in an instant.
Good To-Go Indian Vegetable Korma and Granola – Kudos to our good friends at Good To-Go for making the most gourmet food for these adventures. As we discovered, they're even delicious with cold water.
Skratch Labs hydration mix, energy bars and energy chews. Our constant source of energy in the long stretches between pasta.
Salsa Woodsmoke Carbon mountain bike, rented from Ciclocentrico in Rivoli. We were privileged to begin a relationship with Valerio and Massimo, who suited us up, set our course for this trip, and also carry NEMO gear in their shop. Thank you to our new friends for the adventure!
The NEMO GO FAR (Get Outside For Adventure & Research) Program gears employees up and sends them out to spend time in interesting places in NEMO gear. We believe great design starts with real adventures, and are committed to making sure all NEMO employees get to experience it. Kate Paine leads Marketing at NEMO, runs a lot of trails in the morning, and loves hanging out with her hilariously fun family.