trekking poles

Converting to the Cult of Trekking Poles

trek leki

Trekking Poles- Not Just for Germans

Well maybe not a cult, but I had viewed the use of trekking poles as something other people did. I admit I thought it was wimpy to use poles when I hiked. Or maybe it was just for Germans who liked to wear high waisted pants and socks with sandals (which I might add in my crunchy fashion period I also modeled the stylish Tevas and socks look)  in my life, and never with the disdain I had for trekking poles. Or maybe it was ok for old people, especially old alpiney people, who walked with a smoothed but gnarled wooden stick, someone who  probably knows how to milk cows and goats and yodel, then I had no issue.

My opposition was likely not logical, I used them for skiing and snowshoeing and so why not for hiking? In Colorado( well at least ten years ago) they were not so common. Then I moved to Italy where there were much more frequent sitings on the trails ( and not just by the Germans or yodeling shepherds). Some use just one and some used two and I had already been using them for snowshoeing so the initiation was more subtle.

Your mountain ruggedness on display for the world to see

I deliberated but I was warming up to the idea. First, if not actually using your trekking poles, you can attach them to the outside of your zaino ( backpack) This has the added benefit of enhancing any mountainy style you want to exude.  Think of all the admiration you will garner with  poles strapped to  on the outside of your backpack, indicating that you are  likely carrying something importantly rugged.

Outdoor gear design is pleasing, why relegate it to the garage? Outdoor stores are beautiful with their displays, why must we buy these things and at least not admire them when not in use? Plus there is something satisfying about having mountain gear in my city apartment. Let’s not underestimate the decorative value of hiking poles. Not to mention anything telescopic is cool. However, I like to research and thought I should perform my due diligence for such equipment. I didn’t want them to annoyingly collapse as I was walking, possibly doing more harm than good. But still, I kept thinking about using trekking poles on the trail.


The Conversion

Last summer I was in Macugnaga for a couple of days. The town is a picture-perfect Italian alpine village at the base of Monte Rosa, where chickens and cows roam free. There is a nice hike up  to the Rifugio Zamboni. ( No connection, as far as I know, to the  American who invented the ice resurfacing machine but it is located at the base of a glacier, so there is at least that icy connection). The rifugio  offers places to sleep along with  food and is located a couple of hours hike up from the town, the poles could come in handy ( no pun intended).

While I hadn’t yet performed my normal full-on research for gear, I thought that maybe I should go ahead and pick up a pair anyway, so I went to one of the local shops with a nice display of poles and spent 20 minutes chatting with a short and twinkly-eyed mountain guide who appeared to have quite a bit of experience. When not guiding people he ran his shop. He explained the benefits (especially for older knees, of which his were and mine were becoming) and laughed as at one point he too eschewed the use of them but now was a loyal convert. Why wouldn’t you use them? He assuaged my concerns of collapsing telescoping poles with the patented closure that was easy to use and kept the height where  I wanted.  the added feature was an extended grip, nice, he assured me if sweaty hands had to grab a bit lower.

The trekking pole evangelist

I didn’t spend a fortune on them the Gipron- Italian patented system closures, (read the product review here) about 50  euro, ( you can spend hundreds) but neither were they the 10 euro cheapies.   After the first hikes, I was immediately a convert. I found they actually came in handy (pun intended) even on non-snowy walks, easing some of the aches and pains  that seemed more present in my knees and ankles, plus can help with balance . Like any new convert I had become an evangelist and wondered about the years I had wasted without these poles in my life.  Plus they were useful for things like pushing branches out of the way or beating wild boars, the latter of which I haven’t yet encountered and maybe they wouldn’t stop the boar but then again better than nothing. I now can’t hike without them.

Like a new cult member, I perhaps have gone overboard in trying to have my pole-less friends see the light They remain unconvinced, but in time they too may start reaping the benefits of trekking poles.


Image credit:

Leki- Trek Together




A Small World in Piani d’Erna

2016-04-10 16.26.29 The trails in Piani d'Erna above Lecco offer choices offer rifugi, views and vie ferrate

Lecco is located on the lower right corner of the the upside down Y shaped Lake Como. Rising aggressively over Lecco are the  peaks of Monte Resegone ( in the local  dialect, resegà means saw and named for its saw like appearance due to its 11 summits of similar height ) a part of the Prealpi Bergamasche, a southern range of the Alps found in the region of Lombardia. Our all important lunch destination was Rifugio Capanna Alpinisti Monzesi. 

There are  a number of vertical rock faces that draw climbers and also options with vie ferrate, ladders, chains and cables to aid climbers requiring  you to bring a vie ferrate kit of harness and helmet and a distinct comfort  to be up high on vertical walls, plus the bonus to test out your flying Wallenda skills on the  route  named Gamma 1 one of the vie ferrate routes. ( you can harness yourself to the upper cable but the balance and gumption is still up to you)

The April Sunday I was joined by Luciano, Anna  and her son Zeno as we explored  a non harness required trail. Driving up a few switchbacks from Lecco we arrived at the base of the funivia  (cable car) for Piani d'Erna. You can take the funivia that starts at 600 meters above sea level to the Piani d'Erna 1325 meters above sea level, or you can walk the mulatierra (mule path).

We walked the mule path towards Rifugio Stoppani. There was a range of outdoorsy people some burly and hard core with climbing ropes , jingling carabiners and bulging muscles, then a smattering of trail runners and the rest hikers/walkers, dogs and kids and families and the winner for the trail person of the day was one lumberjack looking fellow with a log, jogging down the path.  Not sure if he was training for some sort of log carrying competition or just was in a hurry to carve a chainsaw bear. He was nevertheless determined and the path parted for his bulk and his log.

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There is a sign at the bottom of the funivia that describes the mountain fitness routes offered in the area. The sign not only shares  info on the types of trails but gives varied times to complete these trails based on your level of fitness. The terms are:

  1.  non allenato
  2. .trekker
  3. atleta
  4. best

I would say these could be translated into:

  1. Somone whose workouts consist primarily of remote control and bowl of chips lifting
  2. Someone who moves a bit, but their 6-packs are more likely be beer than abs
  3. Fit, someone who probably consumes kale smoothies regularly
  4. This is someone who likely irritates us in some way  due their magnificent levels of fitness and athleticism and we may console ourselves when encountering such quasi-mortals as how happy can they really be with such a rigorous exercise and diet regime, but we won't dwell on the negative.

I wonder what lumberjack's time would be with and without log?

Like many Italian trails there are shrines along the way to Virgin Mary, so if you see signs for the Madonna, don't think you will be encountering mobs of wannabes ( are Madonna fans still called wannabes, maybe that was abandoned in the 80's) . There is something pleasing though about sculptures and art in the woods.

We passed by one of the shrines arrived at Rigugio Stoppani had some water to replenish with water, but decided to wait until the next rifugio, Capanna Alpinisti  Monzesi, to have lunch, we climbed through the woods a bit more and came to a charming spot with a name I can't remember and does not seem be indicated on any of the maps. Keep in mind signage is not a strength of the Italian trail system, though apart from this nameless but cute spot the trails are well indicated and traveled in this popular spot of Piani d'Erna.

WIth no food at the nameless  inn and only ten more minutes to Capanna Alpinisti Monzesi,  off we went, passing a tethered mule to the pink-halveded bottom rifugio where we on polenta seated outside on stone benches. If  you plan on eating in an Italian rifugio, you should develop a taste for polenta or you may likely go hungry. Cornmeal must be easier to store or cook than other foods, or  maybe alpine hikers are just crazy for corn. It usually comes with a choice of toppings, like melted cheese, or mushrooms or beef stew like beef and sauce or maybe sausage. There is also wine and beer and views.

We had our polenta and then waited for the coffee, as we were eating there were some inside,enjoying grappa in incongruous plastic cups. ( all else seeming so sturdy, permanent and natural).  Hearing my accent they knew I wasn't from these parts but the grappa glow made them generous anyway. At first i declined thinking I didn't want to be sleepy or stumbly on the way down, ( grappa goes right to my head) but I reasoned that with all of that polenta I could manage the small cup. The grappa guys fired a series of questions living in Italy vs. the US and the upcoming American presidential elections and asking why my Italian friends were not drinking too. ( they clearly were wiser, though I managed to stop at one small grappa).

A little further down the path we encountered our grappa buddies again who wanted to stop back at Rifugio Stoppani for more grappa, but we were taking another route back. Turns out they were from a town where the son of my friend was born and they knew people in common. The people of provinces of Italy can be  referred to as "provincial" in the pejorative sense, at least by the Milanese who often deem themselves as more worldly than their country neighbors. Perhaps they are more  closed to outsiders having lived in smaller communities  and known the same people their entire lives, with not much need to venture out. However our new  friends were quite welcoming (maybe the grappa helped) as they stopped and took pictures together  and talked about common connections. we parted ways and moved towards the top of the funiva which we would take down back to the car. the grappa guys thought the funivia people were coglioni  (literally testicles, used in the sense of saying idiots, dickheads) and helpfully suggested I call them such, as the funivia closed at 6PM, despite much day light left and  a lot of people around. They remained perplexed by the Italian insistence to close early when there could be more business. An added note on the coglioni of the Piani d'Erna funivia , while 6PM is not an unreasonable closing time ( think US chair lifts in the summer) they did shut down for lunch. In Italy food takes priority. I thought coglione was a  bit strong a term as the guy working the cable car ticket office seemed pleasant enough, but yes the hours of availability of things in Italy do take some adjusting.

As we left the grappa guys, we followed trail one to trail five and while described as rocky, and overall relatively flat, it did have some exposure. There were chains and cables to hold on to on the narrowest parts of the trail.  A couple of sections had steel rungs to be used as ladders to move up or down over rock faces and needing use of hands too, but even for someone like myself who is not a fan of heights it was manageable. Still I was surprised that the description didn't mention this part, but then I shouldn't have been as descriptions can vary quite a bit.

We made it back to the cable car before it closed. An easy to reach spot from Milan Piani d'Erna is worth the visit.


oops waiting for Twitter to fly back

Raised Heart Rates Just Driving to the Hike

Free coffee and a Seven Dwarves tunnel on a rainy day in Parco Nazionale Val Grande.

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Taking the long and winding and very narrow road 

In seeking out new spots to explore, especially during mud season where upper elevations were still snowy but maybe too patchy for snowshoes, Parco Nazionale Val Grande seemed a good choice for a Milan day trip. The starting point was in Cicogna, which was just 17km but a world away from Lago Maggiore's less rustic lakeside Verbania. The road up was described  ..alla strada molto stretta .. (very narrow) but while accurate, the description was not  comprehensive. My friend, and fellow American transplant, Michele, was kind enough to drive so off we joined the Milan mass weekend exodus and drove towards greener pastures.

The road trip up is not for the faint of heart, serving to raise my heart rate even before doing any hiking.  The rocky walls stingily yielded space to the single lane road with numerous blind spots and curves as it switchbacked up away from civilized luxury of Lago Maggiore to a more rustic environment. As we climbed higher, even in a small car, we had to make 3 point turns on some switchbacks as the car couldn't manage the tight radius. On some sections it was possible to see down to the alpine green blue rushing rapids at the bottom of the narrow gorge we were driving up. I was unsure which was the less scary  way to look but still attractive view, the long ways down river or waiting to see a surprise vehicle around the next curve.

Hand Carved Tunnel

Like many places in Italy, the journey not only seemed to be one across distance but time, complete with warnings that there was no cell service in this part. the final 10Km is particularly stretta with an incredible tunnel  that seemed to have been carved by the seven dwarves, low and rocky with no lights or warnings , the car entires and for a moment it is completely black, then a second or two into it, the figurative and literal light is seen. I am not sure who made this tunnel, but another peculiarity of Italian front yards is an affinity for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves sculptures. Maybe it's like the past trends of pink flamingoes, lawn jockeys and more recently garden gnomes, not sure exactly about this affection for plastic Disney figures in the country which gave birth to Michelangelo. So maybe it really were the seven dwarves who carved this spooky tunnel with their pickaxes.

Largest wilderness area in the Alps

Some more twists and turns arrived at the town of Cicogna and could imagine the town itself would offer great views if the clouds had not been thick and misting, allowing us to glimpse a few skinny waterfalls across the narrow valley. Val Grande is the largest wilderness area in the Alps and word is that there are a lot of snakes in Val Grande. We didn't spot any serpents,  maybe they didn't like the rain but we did come across a big fat black shiny spotted salamander.

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Hospitality and coffee just for us

Accustomed to having coffee everywhere in Italy, we figured there would be a bar to find an espresso and bathroom break before we started on our planned  trail: La civiltà della fatica  an intermediated level loop estimated at 5 - 6 hours . I recalled the notice on the website that the visitors center would be closed for repairs for 2016. Before arriving in Cicogna, I wondered why they were allotting an entire year for redoing the visitor's center,  I couldn't imagine that the visitor's center was a large multi media creation that you might find in say the Grand canyon, it was likely no more than a room,  so a year seemed a generous allotment for redoing it, but after driving the road I am thinking they may have a hard time getting workers to make the commute, so they allowed a year's buffer.

In any case I was not too concerned,  in Italy there seems to be some unwritten law about having coffee available where more than three people may congregate. Walking a narrow pathway between buildings built on terraced hillsides we looked for signs of caffeinated life. All seemed closed and dreary when we passed  by three people who looked out of place, dressed  and asked if they knew of a bar or place for a coffee. They said everything was closed. So I said to Michele that we would have to find a tree  to pee on and go without caffeine.

The troop of 3 must have taken pity on the wet foreigners as they turned around and told us to follow them. They led us down some stairs between buildings and they knocked on the door of the Ostello del Parco ( which also seemed closed, but was open to those who wanted to stay overnight) the briefcase man  asked the man who answered if he would offer us a coffee and if we could use the bathroom. He welcomed us in and sent a colleague into the kitchen to brew us up a caffè lungo on with his stove top Moka. The room we waited in had a few dining tables draped in vinyl covered cloths with one bearing a display selection of locally made genepy and chamomile liquor. Some other hikers with their dog were checking out and had left the dog's plastic baggie of poop in the yard, a few minutes later they returned to retrieve it. It seemed Cicogna was filled with people displaying little niceties, providing a silver lining to the clouds leaking on us from above.

Our coffee and bathroom break were free but we did buy some dried genepy to make an herbal tea and a bottle of chamomile cordial. Then we started our walk up.

Eerie mist make for otherworldly atmosphere

The place seemed otherworldly, perhaps a combination of weather and that road up. The mist and clouds masked the views, but it was still scenic. Occasionally we could glimpse something in the distance giving us an idea of what it would be like on a clear day.

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The weather and a later start modified our hike to just and out and back to the rifugio Alpe Prà . The rifugio closed, some info indicates  it is opened occasionally though it is not clear when those occasions are . The loop seems like a nice walk though and now that we know how to arrive, we will depart earlier or there is the option to stay overnight at the Ostello del Parco.


English Language Links for Parco Nazionale Val Grande


We did a much shortened version of the trail to  Alpe Prà and Casa dell' Alpino (suggested time 1.5 hrs up with vertical gain of 518 meters on w ell defined trail) The trail is dotted with signs sharing information on the people, flora, fauna and history of the area. While the signs are in Italian, they are illustrated so you can get a sense of the information with the images.  It is recommended to do this tour in the fall when the leaves are changing.



Product Review: Gipron 757 Powerblast Trekking Poles

These moderately priced telescoping trekking poles work are lightweight, easy to adjust but have a few areas that could be improved. Still they are durable and a good value. If still debating whether you are a pole person or not, check out: Converting to the Cult of Trekking Poles


  •                   Cost: About 48 euro
  •                   Weight: 216 grams/7.6 oz.
  •                   Material: aluminum
  •                   Length: 62 (closed)- 135 cm/24.4″(closed) 53.1″
  •                   Conditions evaluated in: winter snowshoe, summer treks and trail runs

Each pole comes with two adjustment levers. The patented grip system is easy to use and rarely does not keep the poles at the designated height. There were markings printed on the poles at 10 cm intervals, however after just a few months of use they have faded and so one must line up one pole to the other to adjust the two length sections if you want them the same.

The poles have an soft cushioned handle, better grip for sweaty or wet hands than plastic. The grip area is also extended for those who may want to grab their poles further down. I haven’t had need for this but I can imagine some would like the extra  long grip area.

This pole comes with plastic tip covers for use when there is no snow. The plastic tips reduce the sound made of the metal points on dry rock and are less likely for the pole to slip away when used on rock, however for grass the plastic tips have the opposite effect and their ability to stay in place makes them hard to remove on the fly so for the someone fickle with pole tip preferences they are not as easy to adjust for varying situations. The same is true for the  baskets, which will stay in place even if tugged on by rocks and ice. The baskets also have a  relatively small diameter so when in deep, softer snow they don’t do much to keep the pole from sinking deep.

One of the pole straps came undone and it is not possible to remove the cap of the pole to rethread the pole strap. Probably one day I will have to sit down with a safety pin and try to thread the strap back through the hidden plastic bar.  Gipron should make it easier to rethread the straps, especially if at some point they need to be replaced.