1000 km completed!

With a short and easy day today, almost a day off, we hit our first 1000 km of walking!

Here are some stats for you:

Days: 37

Distance Hiked: 1003 km (623 mi)

Km/day: 27.1

Days off: 3

Km/hiking day: 29.5

We hiked all the way through Sicily and tomorrow we exit Calabria and enter Basilicata. We are a bit behind our goal of 30 km per day, but that being said, we are pretty positive with how things will go in the future! Italy, being so mountainous, is probably the toughest part of this trip. Add to that the fact that we are hitting these mountains in winter time and have had to deal with snow. The official E1 trail doesn’t start until around mid-Italy. Not being tied to a specific route has allowed us to seek beautiful paths while avoiding some rough terrain, especially on the high, snow-covered peaks. We have followed the Sentier Italia (SI) for a good portion of the trek, but unfortunately the marking can often be poor. Confusion over this has also cost us time. So we are enjoying ourselves but are looking forward to longer, warmer days on well-marked trails!

Only about 7500 km to go!

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Day 20 (Jared)

I was able to get a bit of sleep last night, but not much. I looked at my phone at 5:15 am and thought maybe it was time to get going. I wanted to get off this cold mountain and continue on my way. I heard thunder and saw lighting at about 5:30 and considered whether I should just stay in my tent or not. But that was the only time and I felt it was best to find my way down. The worst part of days like this is usually getting out of my warm sleeping bag and putting on cold clothing. My socks and boots were frozen stiff and so were the bottoms of my pants. Starting out the day with cold toes is no fun, but the best way to warm up is to move! It snowed last night so my tent was pretty wet as well. The fresh snow also made it a bit harder to walk.

The going was slow but steady, and soon I reached the short trail that would lead me to the summit of Montalto with a climb of close to a kilometer. I had been considering whether or not I wanted to go to the actual peak because it was out of my way. I knew it would take some time with the deep snow, but dang, it’s hard to pass up when you’re this close! So I made up my mind at the last minute that I would go for it! The trail was hard to follow, but I eventually found my way to the top, where a large statue of Jesus was waiting for me. Apparently back in the day they put these on many of the higher peaks in Italy. Up on this snow-covered peak my sense of aloneness really hit. I wondered when the last time someone else had been up here. I also realized this was the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed on foot! The wind and snow hit me hard so I didn’t stay for long. On the way down the snow was extra deep at times, and after a slight struggle to stay on trail I had a somewhat pleasant cruise down.

The trail changed from a path through the forest to an open, rocky area with markings here and there telling me where to go. They were few and far between, so again, I lost the trail and somewhat had to make my own way. Not much of a difference when the actual ‘trail’ is worn about the same, but it’s frustrating because you don’t want to waste energy and time going out of the way or getting lost. It snowed all morning until I got to an elevation low enough for it to be rain. I tried to follow along with the map on my phone, but it was getting wet and didn’t have much battery left. This added to the frustration of losing the trail and descending through wet rocks and thorns. I slipped on a rock and hit my knee on another pretty hard. I realized that it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as I thought it would for how hard I hit it. Maybe I was too cold to feel much. Around 45 minutes later I looked down and noticed that there was blood staining the outside of my pants. I remembered my slip and looked at my knee. There was a decent gash that was actively bleeding, but still didn’t really hurt. It was clean though with the rain and slowed on it’s own so I didn’t do anything with it.

Up until around this point I had been recording my trek with the app AllTrails. I have an external battery that’s good for around four full charges, so I wasn’t too concerned with how quickly the app drained my battery. But cold and wet weather like this isn’t the best thing for electronics, and my phone also likes to do this cute thing where it just won’t charge when plugged in. So at the convenient time of being in the middle of a National Park by myself in a foreign country without a trail map, getting colder and colder due to the rain, my phone decided to be stubborn and not charge. So now it was down to 1%. Fortunately, a strange thing it also does is charge just enough to bring my phone back to life after it dies, or just for a minute or so, keeping my phone alive at 1%. It’s weird, but at least I had this going for me. I stopped recording my activity, but did keep the map open in order to see which way to go.

I found my way down and wandered through the town of Polsi. From the signs in town and also on a map, I learned this town is one of religious and historical significance. Tens of thousands of people make a pilgrimage there every year to visit the church and celebrate Our Lady of the Mountains. This all sounds pretty neat, but I saw not a single person as I made my way through! It almost seemed like an abandoned place. Maybe it was the weather or maybe it was siesta time. I definitely want to come back to interesting places like this in the future, but today I had distance to make and I was cold, so I was happy that I had some climbing up next to warm me up.

I turned onto a trail that I was supposed to stay on until reaching San Luca. This trail didn’t have the most obvious markings, but I basically stayed on a ridge at a pretty consistent elevation. Then the trail led me down next to a river, along which I would have some of my least favorite hiking experiences I’ve ever had. The trail corridor got thinner and thinner, with different kinds of thorns impeding on the trail. After getting lost and finding my way again, I crossed the small river. At some point I slipped a bit and one of my water bottles fell out of the side of my pack and into the water. I was able to retrieve it before the river swept it away.

After continuing on for a couple minutes I stopped for a short break. It was then that I realized I had lost a pair of socks that I had tucked next to my water bottle. Definitely not the smartest place to store them, but they were soaking wet and I thought I would let them dry over time on the outside without getting other things wet inside. I left my pack and retraced my steps, making my way back to where I had slipped crossing the river, hoping to find the socks but knowing it was a long shot. No luck. Later on I discovered I also lost a glove that was tucked on the other side. Simple things to replace, but the main reason I’m sad about them is because the socks were a gift from my friend Kelly, and the gloves were borrowed from my buddy Mason for a run (years ago…I really had the intention of giving them back). Sorry Kelly and Mason!

My mood got worse and worse as I followed these poorly marked trails. They were pig trails, so they split off from each other often with no indication of which was the trail meant for me. At times the thorns encroached so much that I had to pretty much crawl underneath them like a pig would. I got scratched all over my hands and my gear took damage as well. At times the hat was pulled straight from my head and rain cover pulled from my backpack, left dangling behind me. I lost my way and attempted to bushwhack, but the thorns stopped me and made me turn back. I went back and forth, unable to find where I was supposed to go, all the while being scratched by thorns. The trails seemed to lead nowhere. At this point I was yelling to some unknown trail master, begging them to tell me where I was to go. Pleading for a decent trail. Giving them my very negative feedback on their trail. (A trail that runs 6000 km through the whole country. A trail in the National Park I was currently in!) I very nearly shed tears of frustration. I even startled some pigs, sending them running off after thrashing about in the bushes. This reminded me of scenes from Lord of the Flies and succeeded in taking my mind off the annoyance for a moment.

I was on the side of the river, which consisted of a huge river bed of rocks with a stream running through the middle. It gave me the impression that it was once a gigantic river. It was basically a huge gorge in a valley between the mountains. I made up my mind to forget trying to follow the trail completely and to walk along the river bed instead. All I had to do was follow it straight into San Luca. So I scrambled down and did just that. It was fun seeing the dot that was my location on my phone be in the middle of the water. Although rocky and sandy, I moved much more quickly and consistently on this section. I got my confidence back and forgot how upset I had been recently. Sometimes a quick change in environment will improve our lot immensely. I didn’t put the thorns there, but it was my decision to keep following the paths that led me through them. I certainly played a role in my own situation and stopped seeing the big picture.

It started getting dark, so I stopped at the next sandy spot close to the river and pitched my tent. I couldn’t be mad with such a beautiful place to camp, with the rush of water next to me and the lower elevation with no rain giving me hope for a warm night of sleep. That’s when I discovered that basically everything in my pack was wet. I couldn’t catch a break! My backpack and almost all of my clothes were soaked. I focused so much on forward progress and staying warm earlier today that I neglected to pay attention to my rain cover and other details. So, needless to say, this wasn’t the best night of sleep either. But at least I wasn’t up at 1800 m with wet gear!

I didn’t have too much water left and I didn’t feel like getting out of my tent to pump water from the river, so for dinner tonight I had dry oats that I’d been carrying since Catania (shout-out to people who leave food at hostels), with honey, Nutella, and peanut butter, all stirred together with a splash of water. It was actually freakin delicious. Things aren’t so bad with sustenance like that to keep you going.

Day 19 (Jared)

This morning we were really hit with the laziness that comes with being in a comfortable place. We hung around the hotel until around 10 am, at which point Björn and I went our separate ways. He had decided to take the roads in order to avoid the snow like we had on Mt. Etna while I decided to stick to the SI (Sentier Italia) trail, which meant I had longer to hike. Because the E1 still isn’t defined in this part of Italy, we had been following the SI but really have the freedom to take whatever path we wish. We decided to meet in Fabrizia at the Starlight Bakery Café, where I saw that they stayed open later than places usually do in smaller Italian communities. We knew that it would take me longer to get there, so Björn said he’d wait for me there.

Starting in Gubarie at around 1300 meters high, I hit the snowy trail to begin climbing up to Montalto, the highest peak in Aspromonte National Park, at 1956 meters. The snow was packed early on, which made for pretty nice hiking despite the climb. That didn’t last too long though, as I soon hit softer snow that caused me to post-hole my way along, slowing my progress greatly. Things weren’t too bad when the incline was gradual, but there were a couple steep sections where I had to clamber up, gaining ground and losing just a bit less. What usually makes for wonderful hiking in good weather, going along a steep ridge on a single path trail, makes for something harder to call ‘hiking’ in the deep snow. I felt like a gorilla as I used both my hands and feet to shuffle sideways along the incline. Kicking my foot in the snow to gain a hold, then crossing my other foot in front of it to do the same, while punching into the snow with my hands. It was pretty fun but definitely slow and exhausting, especially with a heavy backpack. There was one time where I started sliding down on the surface of the snow and had to kick in to stop myself.

Then I transitioned from a challenge due to lack of human impact straight into one directly caused by people. The trail led me across – and straight up – an active ski slope. This didn’t make the employees happy, but I did get some cheers from skiers as I climbed the steepest section yet. While the slope itself was obviously packed down well, I didn’t want to intrude and put myself or anyone else in danger, so I walked just outside of the barrier, which of course was made up of deep, soft snow. Occasionally the barrier ended and I got some relief by walking on the very edge of the packed snow. Looking at the map on my phone, I was apparently on trail. Eventually someone skied down and tried to tell me I couldn’t be there. I was near where the trail cut back into the woods, so I explained to him what I was doing and pointed to the trail sign up ahead. I would soon be out of his hair. He spoke to someone on his walkie-talkie and gave me the ok. He watched me turn and I pointed to the trail marker as I did. It kind of blew my mind that a trail like this was entirely unknown to the people skiing right past, and even to the people who worked there. They probably don’t have many hikers during the winter, so that makes sense I guess.

I got back to some pleasant hiking without significant post-holing, and I even followed wolf tracks for an hour or two! There were several pairs of tracks, one of them being significantly larger than the others. They were heading in the direction I came from. I remember reading in a map/pamphlet that they gave me at our hotel in Reggio Calabria (The Pelicano Guest House. They were so hospitable and kind there!) that there were some packs of wolves here in the park. They stuck right to the trail for a long time! When I follow tracks like this in the snow I wonder if the animals are aware they’re walking on an established trail. Do they choose that path because it’s worn and easier, or have the people who made the trail just done a nice job of following the natural contours of the land, so much so that it’s the natural path the animals take? I can’t help wondering these things after a season of trail work!

The sun began to set and I hadn’t even reached Montalto yet. I was dreading where I would set up my tent. It would obviously have to be in the snow, seeing as everything was covered, and that would likely mean a pretty uncomfortable and sleepless night. I don’t exactly have the gear to camp comfortably in winter. My sleeping bag is pretty warm, but the down inside of it has clumped up in places, leaving certain parts unfilled. I haven’t been able to remedy this yet. This makes me cold at certain places on my body and has definitely cost me some sleep on this trip. Lucky for me, I found an old abandoned building around two kilometers or so before the peak! I couldn’t believe it! It was concrete, didn’t have any doors or windows, and had snow covering most of the inside, but it was a shelter gosh dangit! I saw signs of human activity there, and even some of animals. I had to set up my tent in a bit of snow, but it wasn’t too bad. What was pretty rough was that my shoelaces were frozen. This made it hard to undo them. I struggled with them for a bit with my hands that were rapidly losing feeling, and then I used my knife to pry the laces loose. I left my boots outside the tent with the microspikes that I hadn’t used much and I brought everything else inside with me.

I was able to warm up for the most part, but didn’t get the greatest sleep. The wind was strong outside, and I was somewhat protected, but I kept hearing something that seemed like more than just the rubbing of my rainfly. I could tell that something was poking around near my tent. My first thought was a wolf, but the creature seemed smaller. It didn’t make much noise, but I started to calmly talk to it and it reacted. I said things like “Hey, I know you probably just want some food, but can you please leave me alone. I’m just trying to get some sleep.” It became obvious that it wasn’t just my rainfly, and it even poked my tent, but it wasn’t aggressive so I stayed calm. I was annoyed that it came back several times throughout the night, but my growing sleepiness and awareness that it wasn’t dangerous made me care less and less. I didn’t sleep much but I was happy to have my shelter and my quiet solitude.

See more photos from my adventure at www.instagram.com/jaredturtlechip

Day 12

Today we got a bit of a late start, but what’s the rush when you’re warm and have breakfast waiting for you downstairs?! After breakfast I think it’s safe to say that the amount of food we ate in the past three meals would have sustained us for almost a week on trail. And of course we took some extra for the road…

We found the trail that we were to stay on for the rest of the day and began our ~1000 meter descent! This walk was an incredible relief after the past couple days. Even when there were no other footprints the snow was shallow and/or hard enough that we didn’t have to expend a ton of energy with every step. While we walked down we noticed the snow thinning, and this gave us that Spring-like feeling of survival, hope, and expectation of what is to come. This combined with the wonderful views of the mountains we were headed towards and the city in the valley below made today a very pleasant walk. Add to that the fact that we were going down instead of up and not even the cows giving us territorial stares could kill our vibe today.

Once we reached a level where the snow was sparse we changed from our boots into our sandals, giving us much relief. For myself it was particularly freeing as my achilles has been in a good amount of pain the past few days. The intensity was certainly lessened with the softness of the snow, but the pain was apparent on roads and even lying in bed at times. I hurt much less while wearing my sandals, and I think the fact that they are very minimalistic and allow my foot to take a near-natural stride is the key ( not to get too Born to Run on you 😉 ).

We strolled into town (Castiglione di Sicilia), which we had a view of most of the day. Our plan was to stock up on food before heading back up into the Peloritani mountains, where we will be unable to resupply for several days. We didn’t realize that the supermarkets here are closed after noon on Wednesdays. It was getting late, so once again we decided to get a room in order to get to the store first thing in the morning and hit the trail! We aren’t complaining about having to sleep in a bed before heading back out for another mountain adventure.

See more photos/videos on Facebook here

And even more on IG here: www.instagram.com/jaredturtlechip

Hiking stats.

Day 11

We started this day a bit refreshed, with dry clothing and warm bones, due to our fortunate shelter for the night. But we knew that we still had at least one more tough day in front of us before getting off of the mountain. We typically get started walking around 7 am, but our game plan was to start at 6 in order to potentially utilize the frozen snow to walk on. We didn’t get started until 6:25 and were SOL as far as the snow went. We began our slow climb with headlamps on, post-holing every step of the way.

While we are following the official and way-marked E1 trail, the signs are sometimes hard to find. Get up high in the alpine environment, where all you see is snow-covered lava rock, and finding your way comes down to mostly intuition and experience. We had a hard time finding our way this morning, especially in the dark, and the idea was thrown out there to bail off the mountain into the nearest town. We put off discussing it until, with the help of Björn’s GPS, we finally found our way back on trail in the woods. There we discussed the pros and cons of heading down for the day, and we ultimately decided against it. Today was just one of those days you have to get through to get through, ya know?

I led most of the day, creating the footsteps for Björn to step in and save energy; Björn took over at times and gave me some relief. We climbed up to our highest point of the day at 1723 meters. On the way we had little water, so I scooped some of the snow that was actively falling and put it in my mouth every couple of minutes. My hamstrings had hints of cramping but I held them off. When we got to our high point, it was all worth it and we were both thankful that we pushed through.

Some relief came on our descent, and at times the snow was frozen so we could walk on top! Eventually we saw the first face we’d seen in two days: a man snowshoeing (how nice that would have been). He told us we were getting close to the refugio (a bar/hotel type) and even took a selfie with me when I told him what we were doing.

Around an hour later, at 1 pm, we finally reached “civilization”. Still at around 1400 meters, there were lots of skiers and cars, as well as a couple restaurants and refugios. We both ate an incredible amount and decided on getting a room instead of descending for the remaining 20 km to the next town. It felt nice to shower and we essentially just laid in bed until dinner time, where we gorged ourselves again.

If there is no other reason to hike long distances and deprive yourself of most modern comforts, the great appreciation for things like a warm meal or shower make it all worth it, even if just for a moment.

To check out some videos and pictures, see the Facebook photo album

See other pictures at www.instagram.com/jaredturtlechip

Hiking stats can be found here.