• Natalia Roman Lopez

The beauty of the known

My answer to ‘How is the nepali Himalaya like?’ tends to disappoint. It is like a world shifted 2000m upwards. Banana plantations at 2000m above sea level; Snow starting at 5000m; Hanging glaciers at 7000m. The real answer is a bit more complicated than that, of course. What I try to convey is the idea that we do not necessarily need to travel far and beyond to appreciate the magnificent wonders we might have at the tip of our fingers. Moreover, uniqueness matters. I have yet to come across limestone creations as those from the Italian Dolomites. That is the same reason why places like Yosemite or Mustang are close to my heart. One of a kind!

Then there are other familiar places that seem to show us a different face every time we visit them. From welcoming kindness to hostile severity. From the green tonalities of a spring day, to the white winter coat. Sometimes (re)visiting such places becomes some kind of ritual: it marks the change of the seasons, the anniversary of a life event, the place where we met… Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, is to me all of those at once. Ticino is where I found myself; where I met some of the most beautiful souls; where I learnt and keep learning about nature. Ticino casa mia.

Unsurprisingly I return to some of Ticino’s valleys, ridges and summits with the regularity of a grateful daughter. Sometimes to discover unexplored corners, other to re-discover the beauty of the known. In this post I want to talk about my summer and winter adventures at Pizzo di Claro.

Pizzo di Claro dominates Bellinzona, the administrative capital of the canton. And believe me, Claro does not lack competition from nearby mountains! Three things make Pizzo di Claro stand out: its pyramidal shape, 2500 meters of vertical prominence, and stand-alone location. It is a summit that never goes unnoticed and exerts the attraction of mountaineers, rock climbers, and skiers alike. For the mountain racer, October is discounted time. After a long season of racing not much juice is left in the legs, the engine or the heart. Races that late into the season are either a long-term goal or a totally improvised act of optimism. The first time I faced Claro clearly falls into the latter category of blind optimism.

On the first weekend of October a family-like organized uphill race takes place. The concept is simple: Claro –> Pizzo. That is, from the village of Claro at 250m to the summit of Claro at 2727m. +2500m in less than 9 km. Straight up. No kidding. Not for the heart-fainted. Trail running (not much running involved anyway) was getting more and more popular back in 2015. Still, not popular enough for a local race to sell out when it pours. If there is one thing to know about Ticino: when it rains it really pours, Honestly I don’t remember much of the race itself. Just that I burnt out after 1km trying to follow the fast girls on the ‘flat’ section. The rest was a four-legged uphill in the forest. The race was stopped after 1500m of vertical climb due to the bad weather. My most precious memory of that day is walking down & chatting with a fellow female runner, each rolled in a couple of old bed blankets! That sense of shared celebration is, in my view, the essence of mountain racing.

The first summit attempt had been called off. A bigger reason to try again! Over the following 4 years I visited Pizzo di Claro at least once per year – always with running shoes. A couple of times on my own, which allowed for plenty of introspection and interaction with nature & the wild animals. Back in 2018 with my good friend Peter and his alpinist kick-ass dog Kenya - both deserve a separate post and will get one soon. That day we explored a new aspect of the mountain by running down on its southeast face. It was cold autumn day and we enjoyed a bit of late sun heading towards Calanca valley.

Then 2020 happened. Even though there was no real lockdown in Switzerland during the spring months, we took social distancing very seriously. No ski touring to avoid accidents. I spent most of the time running on my own. By the time I headed to Claro at the beginning of June, the loneliness was really getting to me. I couldn’t understand all my close friends refused to meet after 2.5 months of isolation! I was emotionally disturbed enough to make the journey to the base of the mountain and.. go back home! We must respect mountains and our feelings too.

Climbing up 2500m is overwhelming when standing at the bottom. The best strategy is to break it down into pieces. These can be mathematical blocks (5x 500m, for instance) or route-related (X to the lake, Y to the hut, Z to the ridge…). Since the route is permanently marked by the race organizers, it would be easy to follow the math approach. I prefer to play with the map. Quite often I’d say ‘look, just climb the first 500m and then we talk’. In my opinion, the most relevant waypoint in the route comes after +1500m: Alpe di Peuret. It marks the end of the forest and a psychological yes/no decision point.

On June 6th 2020, five days after my initial bail, I was back in Claro determined to reach the peak and test some theories about glucose metabolism on the way. Solo runs gift me plenty of time to listen to audiobooks and podcasts. Specially now that my interest for nutrition, physiology, and type 1 diabetes grows at a furious speed! The first 2h just fly by, listening to Jake Kushner MD being interviewed by Peter Attia (link below). Jake’s empathy really touches me to the point some his patients’ stories bring tears to my eyes. First tears of sadness, then of hope, and lastly of anger. It is simply criminal the kind of ‘advice’ families are given when their kiddo is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Eat the pancakes, eat the waffles, add some syrup…. we need more Bernsteins, more Kushners, more common sense!!

If you wonder what type 1 diabetes is and how to successfully manage it... here are your answers. Thank you for educating yourself and growing some empathy :-)

I have been observing a curious pattern: my blood glucose stays flat during long uphills, even if there is bolus insulin onboard from breakfast; but it raises the moment I switch to downhill run. That is indeed curious since uphill implies a greater effort and a higher heart rate. How come I experience no hypoglycaemia despite the insulin and exercise? What explains a rise of at least 2.0 after hours moving and without any food ingest? Writing this more than half a year later, I still can’t tell. But I have theories. My favourite: in situations where I ‘should’ experience hypoglycaemic episodes, glucagon kicks in to save the day. Well done, glucagon! However, there is a delay between the end of the effort and glucagon secretion being shut down. How bad I wish we could measure both glucagon and insulin hormones continuously, just like we do with glucose!

As predicted, my blood glucose goes from a perfect 4.2 to 8.0 shortly after reaching the summit. The uphill had taken me 3.5h during which I needed no food. Just water. It annoys me. Luckily there is no hypo risk in injecting a small fiasp correction. I do that just before tackling the first challenging section of the downhill. There is a couple behind me and the risk of getting hit by a stone from above motivates me to push the pace – it is quite fun too! I love how the landscape changes throughout the downhill. When I am 10 minutes away from reaching the village, it starts pouring down as if there were no tomorrow – this is Ticino! Instead of getting angry I think it is a great way to wash out all the mud and the sweat.

During the 30 minutes’ bus ride back to Bellinzona my body finally relaxes and glucose drops sharply. All in all, it was a close-to-perfect blood glucose control. I am aware that for many fellow type 1 – even those following a strict low-carb diet – the idea of moving for so many hours without a low sounds remote or even surreal. My only advice is to trust the process of teaching your body to efficiently use fat for fuel. You know how GRIT feels like!

Just a couple of weeks ago I started thinking about skiing Pizzo di Claro. BINGO! There are in fact 2 routes on its SE face. We are going through some massive snowfalls in the Alps which keep the avalanche danger constantly critical. The unique characteristics of the mountain (height, isolation, weather) play in our favour. If it is rare to come across people in summer, doing so in winter is close to impossible. We follow the ridgeline with astonishing views: the Bellinzonese more than 2000m below us, nearby the Calanca and Verzasca vie alte, and in the far left: the queen, Monte Rosa. I feel immensely fortunate.

Fat adaptation works like a clock. No highs or lows. No hunger. It takes us 6 hours to reach the top – including some delicate passages in the upper slope of the mountain. The later it gets, the faster the times flies by! Skiing down is a labyrinth of changing snow, small re-climbs and long traverses. Until we find ourselves in the dark. That is when the emergency headlamp becomes handy! Luckily we are all properly equipped.

Another glucose insight: skiing down systematically rises glucose. My heart rate is at its lowest compared to the effort of going up with all the gear! Just 20’ before reaching the car I am fed up seeing that CGM line stuck in the yellow area. I inject 2u fiasp to correct the 'downhill effect'. It is dark and with all the clothes I stick the needle somewhere near the shoulder. By the massive hypo that followed I bet it went straight into a vein! 15gr glucose and a bite of cookie (I am hungry too!). One hour later we are sitting in the empty train. It is 8pm, that is, at least four hours later than our planned schedule. All I care about is devouring my grilled chicken!

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