Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hiking in Switzerland

Hiking in Switzerland
The plane from Madagascar to Paris flew almost directly over the route I will be hiking; looking down I noticed the high passes still seemed to have quite a bit of snow on them Alpine Hikers told me most of the passes are clear enough for safe passage, but one might be impassible – however, with two weeks before I reach it they thought it might clear.
The trip from Berlin to the first stop, Schwarzwaldalp hotel, was uneventful – beautiful scenery, a very slow bus up the mountain that cost an astounding 27 Swiss Franks for a 40 minute ride. The road from Meiringen is very steep and very narrow – like a Forest Service road with good pavement; whenever two vehicles meet one has to pull almost completely off the road and stop; sometimes one has to back up a ways to come to a suitably wide spot. The drop-off is steep enough to be rather scary for much of the journey. Schwarzwaldenalp is set in a virtual pasture, a green meadow that leads up to a modest but steep and rocky hill. It has the qualities of a rustic ski cabin – my room is so small it was very challenging to sort out my belongings and separate what goes in the suitcase with the transfer driver and what I carry in my backpack. Dinner was quite good, and ended with a lovely fruit salad topped with sorbet made from black currents – definitely something I want to repeat.
Slept well – there is a small but very steep and noisy stream not far from my window – that and the sound of cow bells were lovely. Cow bells accompanied me all the way up to the pass and along the high path, across two gondola paths to a clear mountain lake, then down to Grindle… At first the sky was quite cloudy – but as I neared the top of the pass enough of the clouds cleared that I had gorgeous views of several famous mountains including Eiger and Jungfrau. They played hide and seek behind the clouds most of the day; otherwise it was a lovely walk, wildflowers everywhere, warm enough that I finally unzipped the legs of my hiking pants to turn them into shorts.

Thursday, July 7
My room in Grindelwald was very nice – had a balcony with a good view of one of the mountains.
Today dawned warm and sunny – great day for a hike. At the advice of Alpinhikers I took a train up to Alpiglen – 2000 feet above the valley floor – to start the hike there. The train is narrow gauge, driven by a cogwheel that engages a center ratchet rail. It was packed with tourists – not one of whom got off with me at Alpiglen. Also at the advice of Alpinehikers I took the Eiger Trail – it switch-backs steeply up at least 1500 feet, then continues to climb slightly less steeply toward the base of the Eiger Face, which it parallels for a mile or so, just beneath where it gets vertical. Spectacular views – although from that bottom perspective it doesn’t look nearly as high as it actually is.
Following the directions, and not realizing until too late that an alternate trail provides a potential shortcut, I walked down to the pass, Klein Scheidegg, where my way to the recommended alternate trail (across the railroad tracks and down) was blocked by several hundred tourists queueing up to pay $50 or so to ride up to the restaurant on a shoulder of Jungfrau – tour guides were guarding the only passage through the fence, and I had to shoulder my way to the front and pretend I was part of a group from India to get through the gate and cross the tracks. That having been accomplished, it was a very nice hike through woods and meadows, with many spectacular mountain views along the way. It ended with a steep descent, over 1500 feet, to the level of Wengen, which is a small tourist village perched on the edge of a glacial valley, about 1600 feet up from the valley floor. (That descent is how I will start my day tomorrow.)

Saturday, July 9. My knee was not happy with that steep descent, so I decided to take the train down to Lauterbrunnen and walk from there. I also bought a knee brace, and dosed myself liberally with motrin. All that worked – my knee actually felt better when I reached Obersteinberg. They day was somewhat cloudy, but quite pleasant for the walk. For the first couple of hours the peace and bird-song was disrupted every half hour by helicopter racket, but as I entered the upper part of the valley that faded, leaving only bird song and cow-bells. The valley is a typical U-shaped glacial valley, close to 2000 feet deep, with sheer walls and frequent waterfalls, many of which would dwarf Multnomah Falls.
Eventually I headed up the very steep – but well-maintained – trail to the top of the canyon, where the pastures are merely steep, not vertical. (I feel certain Heidi did not suffer from acrophobia!) As soon as I broke out of the forest I found myself sitting in a meadow with a spectacular view of one of the Tschinglehorn, beyond the end of the valley. It was a lovely, idyllic place to have lunch and rest my feet. After a half hour, I continued on – the trail still had close to 500 feet to climb to get to the level of the family farm / mountain inns that line up along the top of the canyon. Steep-sloped (if they had snow on them I wouldn’t ski down them) lovely meadows with cows and sheep, frequent barns… Finally my trail joined the main trail, shortly before hotel Tschingelhorn, where several hikers were enjoying drinks and lunch on a lovely terrace. Unfortunately, lunch tends to be sandwich and pizza, and I can’t drink the beer, which is what I really want. Another 45 minutes through meadows (some almost level, although 20-100 meters back the meadow slopes steeply uphill toward a spine of sheer rock 800 feet above the trail.) I finally came to Obersteinberg, a rustic, mostly stone two story farmhouse/hotel that dates to the beginning of the 20th century and boasts a fantastic view.
I had an apfelsaft – carbonated apple juice, closest thing to a beer I could think of, checked in, the walked back along the trail a ways to a semi-secluded little meadow on the edge of the steep drop-off, where I napped for a while, then did some pushups and stretches and wandered back. Eventually I realized that the trail continues on along a more or less level stretch toward the end of the valley so I followed it for 35 minutes, past the end of the glacial valley, a box-canyon actually that ends abruptly in a wall of 1000 foot cliffs. Another half hour would have taken me to a small glacial lake at the foot of a glacier, but I had waited too late, and my knee didn’t want to climb the final 150 feet or so.
Dinner was rather odd. The innkeeper assigned tables – instead of putting me in one of the empty seats next to a window (I guess she thought the couples seated at all the window tables would not want an intruder) she stuck me with a family of four women and two young boys. She served a salad of simple lettuce leaves – good but plain – then brought the main course; rice and a kind of meat stew for everyone else, a plate full of crisp but somewhat oily hash browns for me, with one fried egg and two very thin tomato slices on top. I asked her if I would have any meat and she explained that the sauce had flour in it so I couldn’t eat it. It apparently never occurred to her to hold back a half pound of the meat and just fry it in a frying pan. No dessert, fruit, or anything.
Breakfast was downright skimpy – bread for everyone else, three rounds of puffed-oat cakes with jam for me, one small piece of cheese apiece for everyone – about an inch by two inches by a quarter inch. That was supposed to sustain us through 10-12 mile hikes. Fortunately I carried lots of snack food! I have mixed feelings about Obersteinberg. It is a neat, historic old inn, in a spectacular location, easy to find solitude and absolute quiet (except for songbirds and cow bells). However, the innkeeper made absolutely no attempt to accommodate my dietary needs – cooking my portion of meat without sauce could not have been that great a challenge.
The day broke clear and beautiful today, so I took the high route, up to the foot of the huge rocks that line the ridge. It was rather vertiginous – a somewhat narrow trail cut into the side of a hill so steep it would qualify as a cliff if it did not have grass and flowers growing out of it – don’t dare turn an ankle or stumble, because it wasn’t self-evident that you’d be able to stop from rolling or sliding down and over the cliffs below. The view is spectacular, but I didn’t look at it until, a mile and a half along, I came to a place where the slope eased off and the risk of a fall slighter. Then I came to a trail that leads up a very steep slope to an almost level flower-strewn meadow, 700 foot climb but stunning both for the mountain scenery and for the flowers. I sat there for a half hour, ate the one fruit-nut bar I’d carried up, then slowly ambled back down to where I’d left my pack, sitting down to enjoy and photograph the flowers in several spots along the way.
The rest of the trail wound along through meadows and finally ended a wooded area, where it turns steeply down – and becomes gravelly and treacherous. Fortunately it is not so steep that you can’t take really short steps, which reduces the strain on knees and other joints. Still, nearly an hour later, I was glad to be off it and back on a (relentlessly) sloping upward gravel road that leads to Murren. Along the way I saw farmers out in the steep meadow, recently cut, where they were turning the hay by pitchfork (much too steep for any farm machinery, I think). I also saw several meadows filled with triangular structures about six feet high, a post sunk in the ground with two other posts bracing it – these are placed there to slow the movement of snow down the slippery grassy slope and reduce avalanche risk. I had wondered about avalanche – I can’t see how snow could ever not slide down those slopes, and apparently they get 7-10 feet a year.

Sunday July 10
This second day in Murren was scheduled to be a take it easy, rest up day – a nice hike on the bench above Murren laid out. Beautiful weather; I started out at a nice stroll, stopping to take pictures even though the sun was still on the wrong side of most of the mountains. Around 11 I came to a junction with a trail that led rather steeply up toward a ridge; I didn’t know if I wanted to work hard enough to go clear up but decided to see. I headed up, and after thirty minutes, about halfway to the ridge, came to a level grassy meadow, containing the bottom of a ski lift. I decided that was high enough for a take it easy day, so took off my shoes, put sun block on my feet, and spent a very nice hour and a half – ate some snacks, did some stretching exercises, took a half nap (head propped up so I could see the mountains across the canyon – principally, Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. A few other people exerted enough effort to get to that idyllic place, but we spaced ourselves out enough for a feeling of true solitude.
Other highlights of the day: coming upon a herd of cows all jingling their bells; a symphony of bells with Eiger in the background. Lots of lovely flowers. Loitering long enough to get a photo of Eiger with at least some sun on the north face (not visible from Murren). Low-lights: a biting bee-like insect (it left huge patches of blood) forcing me to zip my long pant legs back on and spray with bug repellant. Coming across a youngish woman who had fainted in the trail – several people were with her, shading her from the sun while the medics arrived by helicopter – and I assume took her away. Someone said heat – although it was not a particularly hot day. But if she’s not used to high altitude and has not been drinking enough water (and eating enough salt), dehydration is certainly a possibility. I haven’t heard if she was all right. Otherwise it was a lovely, peaceful day – and I’m optimistic about the weather for tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 12
My luck held just a little longer – yesterday dawned clear, warm, and lovely. I was able to get breakfast at a quarter to seven and head up the road before 8. The trail climbs steadily until it reaches the end of the ridge, where it goes up what seems to be about 800 feet of switchbacks – then it runs almost horizontally for a mile or two, across a steep meadow to Rotstuck Hut, a cafĂ© and guesthouse located almost at the end of the canyon, at the foot of the Sefinenfurke pass (sort of like the Last Homely House). The predicted clouds had not yet begun to form, but I still wanted to get up over the pass as early as possible, so I went on ahead. Along the way, at one of the many fence crossings I overtook a couple of young me (Germans or Swiss, I’m not sure) who paused, I think studying their map, while I walked on ahead. I also passed an older man, who didn’t appear too happy about the sudden steepening of the trail. I never saw him again – I don’t know if he gave up or if he eventually made it over the pass. By now the trail was quite steep again, winding among boulders until it came up to a shoulder with a good view of the pass itself. Still no clouds, so I stopped here to take off shoes and socks and let my feet have a rest while I had some water and a fruit-nut bar. Just as I was leaving the rest stop the two young Germans caught up with me – I think they also stopped there for a rest, because when I looked back a couple of turns later I didn’t see them. I came to a turn of the trail from which it was possible to see the entire pass and the trail leading up to it – it was obvious that a large snowfield still lay just below the pass, fairly steep and at least 100-150 meters in length. But I knew several hikers had successfully negotiated it so I pressed on.
When I reached the snowfield it was as steep as it looked – over 40%, steep enough that a person who slipped would likely slide all the way to the bottom – and possibly crash into the rocks at the bottom. On the other hand, the snow was soft on top – soft enough to dig in at least 3 inches with a good hard kick, and there were still depressions from previous hikers to kick into. Looking behind, I noticed the two young Germans had reached the bend from which the snow-field was visible. Apparently they were waiting to see if I made it before coming any farther.
I climbed up almost to where somebody had strung a rope from the pass; the snow got steeper, and a little harder, but with a firm kick I could still get a pretty adequate toe-hold, so I proceeded to climb up to the rope, which I used for a while – I’m not sure how much it helped, though. Another 20 meters and I came to a section of rock the rope crossed, but it was pretty crumbly – looked like disintegrating shale, not good footing at all. So I stayed on the snow, and worked my way around the crumbly rock to an area that appeared to be part of a switchback on the (mostly buried by snow) trail. I pulled myself up onto it, and the footing seemed pretty solid, so I walked the remaining 20 or 30 meters to the pass. The young men were still watching from the curve in the trail. I sat down to rest and take a few pictures – thought about stopping for an early lunch but it was not even 10 – 3 hours after I left the inn. I did have another fruit-nut bar and take some pictures, including a picture looking back down the snow-field, with Eiger, Moengh, and Jungfrau in the background. Another hiker came up from the other side and we chatted a while, then both went our respective ways.
I was delighted to see the Swiss had built a long, very sturdy staircase up over the steepest and trickiest part – so I descended maybe 200 feet on a long, long series of stairs. Getting down through that crap would not have been fun.
The first part after the staircase section was still quite steep, not steep enough to be seriously dangerous but I still wouldn’t want to slide. Finally I came out of that broken rock to a reasonable meadow – not really flat, but flat enough that I could sit and take my shoes off to give my feet another rest – I also found a spot near enough to thistle-free that I could do a little badly-needed stretching.
The rest of the climb down from the pass was the normal Swiss hiking experience – a very steep descent through lovely (but almost vertical) meadows, with cowbells and bird-song. Although one weather site had been adamant that there would be a thunderstorm at 12:30, clouds didn’t even begin to form until I reached the Inn. After checking in and having an Apfelsaft (carbonated apple juice, almost as good as a cold beer would have been) I took a walk down to see the Wildwasserweg – an incredible place where the glacial melt (thick grey soup) has carved a narrow canyon through the limestone, so that a series of waterfalls are in a long sinuous crevasse / cave – very impressive. I took a few photos which I will upload to my photo-blog.
Finally, about dinner time it started to rain. then, about bed-time it started really storming. Because the weather stayed nice for so long, I had begun to entertain the hope that the forecast stormy spell might dissipate, but it was not to be. It stormed all night long, and I awoke this morning to dense fog and light rain. The rain stopped long enough that, along with an American couple who were also staying there, I got a nice walk down the Wildwasserweg to a village about 6 miles farther down the valley, where we caught a bus to the train station and a train to Kandersteg.
The weather forecast still calls for at least two more days of heavy rains, thunderstorm, and fog – as I sit in my hotel room in Kandersteg I can not even see the hill a quarter mile away. So I decided my hike over the Sefinenfurke pass would have to be the premature end of my Swiss adventure. The forecast for Amsterdam between now and my flight home is sunny and mid-70s; a lot more appealing than thunderstorms, heavy rain, highs around 40 and possible snow flurries.
I was disappointed to miss the last three days of the planned hike, particularly the Hohturli pass (9000 feet – not even to be considered in this weather). But it was a great adventure, a great series of hikes.