Between the Lines: A day of hiking with ‘Superman’

I met Superman in New Haven last fall.
At the time I didn’t realize that Alberto Schiavon was Superman. I thought he was just a fit and articulate Italian, in town to talk about his family’s small hotel in the Dolomites. 
Gregg and Caroline Marston, the New Haven residents who for many years owned VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations, introduced me to Alberto at a wine-and-cheese event for friends of VBT. 
The Marstons’ daughter, Sarah, has launched her own business, Pathways Active Travel, and Alberto was on hand to talk about an upcoming trip.
Alberto owns Hotel Chalet del Sogno, in the small Italian mountain town of Madonna di Campiglio. He’s hosting a group of walkers at the chalet as part of Pathways’ offerings. He showed us slides of spiky mountain peaks and flower-strewn paths.
Alberto seemed like a really interesting person but again, not Superman.
Not, that is, until C. and I met him on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Italy last week.
Far from being your average hotel owner, he is widely known in Europe and in the world of competitive snowboarding as a champion.
His sport? Snowboard cross, AKA “boardercross.” He began competing seriously after graduating from the Italian equivalent of getting an MBA at Harvard.
To the untrained eye, boardercross consists of four to six boarders riding down a steep course of banked curves, jumps and obstacles. If the competitors don’t wipe out on an obstacle, they crash into each other. And then they wipe out.
Not really, but that’s what it looks like. Mostly they make it across the finish line.
Alberto Schiavon made it first across the finish line many times in his career. He represented Italy at two Winter Olympics. He would have competed at Sochi in 2014 but for suffering a massive injury in the Italian finals. 
He was in his mid-30s at the time, competing against suicidal 19-year-olds.
That injury essentially ended his competitive career. But not before he had won several World Cup races and taken a bronze medal at the X Games in Aspen.
These days he’s a technical advisor to the FIS, which regulates ski and snowboard competition. His LinkedIn profile locates his office “all over the world.”
So what were C. and I doing on the deck of the Lido Palace Hotel in Lake Garda, drinking expensive Italian bubbly with Alberto?
We’d used an invitation to a wedding near Genoa as an excuse to go to Italy for two weeks and spend every last dime we owned. We’d hope to stay at Alberto’s chalet for a few nights, but they weren’t yet open for the summer season.
Alberto met us in Lake Garda. He was on his way home from Bali, where he’d spent a month surfing. Along with his Korean girlfriend who is an internationally known ski instructor.
Lake Garda is like Lake Champlain. Except with 2,000-foot mountains, world-class windsurfing and paragliding, and 50,000 vacationing Germans competing for table space in three restaurants serving pasta, 10-euro wines that would cost 100 bucks in the States, and a couple of variations on broiled horsemeat.
Anyway, the bubbly was kicking in about the time Alberto invited us to come up to his chalet anyway. “It’s just an easy 45 minute drive,” he assured us. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
What he failed to mention is that driving on mountain roads in Italy is suitable only for people who have had all fear removed from their frontal lobes.
The roads are approximately 4 feet wide. During warm weather they are packed with bicyclists, motorcyclists with a death wish, Porsche drivers passing on blind curves, and the occasional drunken Italian.
Or maybe they’re all drunk over there. At least they drive like it.
C. had long since ceded the driving in Italy to me. So we fearfully crawled up the mountain road toward Alberto’s hometown, my foot more on the brake than the gas pedal. I was so petrified by the chaotic driving conditions that it would have been faster to walk.
It fell to C. to do the navigating. She managed not to scream at my meek driving or to directly back seat drive. Instead she offered helpful suggestions “as if you were now attending Italian Driving School.”
(I told her that if I was in fact attending Italian Driving School, I would certainly want to ask my instructor out on a date.)
Thank goodness for the map function on iPhones. You can’t get decent cell phone coverage between Cornwall and Middlebury. But the coverage is perfect in the Italian Alps. Go figure.
We arrived at Alberto’s chalet — located directly at the base of a long chairlift — with our adrenals fully blown. But somehow I had managed not to sideswipe a single bicyclist, and no Porsches had collided with us on blind curves.
Alberto calmed us with a lunch of prosciutto, bread torn from a dark brown loaf, and thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar poured over some of the excellent local cheese.
Then he took us out driving and showed us what a real Italian can do. His hotel has a sponsorship with Audi, and his A4 has the apparent ability to climb 90-degree walls. Or at least 45-degree ski slopes, which we ascended to hike to a glacial cirque and a gorgeous little lake.
We drove back down into the valley and up the other side, to where the lifts topped out in meadows at the base of mountains that vaulted straight into the sky.
We hiked up perhaps a mile, clinging to a narrow path that sliced through scree and chirping marmots. In the distance back across the valley, we could see the glacier where Alberto had trained through many summers.
Like so many other pieces of ice on this slowly melting planet, the glacier is drastically receding. Wherever you go, climate change is there.
But I’m already making plans to go back to Madonna di Campiglio. 
This time I’ll bring footwear better than the red running shoes with which I traversed the scree slope. I’ll buy Alberto some more good Italian bubbly. And of course I’ll bring my Superman cape.
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Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.GregDennis.WordPress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter:@greenGregDennis.

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