Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Dot on the map

Between his family reunion and our trip to Iceland, Beat needed to put in a heavy week of work at the Google office in Zurich. I had a few deadlines to keep myself, but beyond that I had some free time to spend exploring. On Monday it rained heavily for most of the day. I had to complete a few chores such as taking the rental car back to the airport, buying a phone card, and figuring out the train network — somewhat time-consuming tasks in a foreign city. I've never been great with public transportation; I prefer to be independently mobile, even if it means walking for an hour or riding a bike dozens of miles. But Switzerland has an extensive train network, and it seemed worth utilizing while I'm here.

Still, any trip that looked to be less than three kilometers merited walking. I got myself hopelessly lost several times, wandering around wet streets with an orange umbrella pressed against my chin and clutching a waterlogged map in both hands. I went to a museum that was closed on Mondays and a lakeside path that was still closed after Ironman Switzerland. Shut down on several accounts with sore feet from padding the pavement, I considered taking a trip out of the city on Tuesday.

Trouble is, I had no idea where to go or how to get there. A hotel employee recommended Luzern, but Beat warned me that the town was large and touristy, and he wasn't sure how much hiking I'd find in walking distance from the train station. I opened Google maps and traced the train line south as it worked its way through a series of towns next to lakes. At Lungern, the highway veered into a tunnel, which indicated the town was pressed against a steep mountain with no room for a larger road. Knowing little more than that, I walked to the main Zurich train station on Tuesday morning to purchase a ticket.

The train moved for an hour and stopped in Luzern, announcing the end of the line. My ticket was entirely in German and I didn't realize I needed to catch a connection, so I darted out of the train and wove through thick crowds until I saw a sign for Interlaken, which was in the same general direction I needed to go. I stepped on the train, which lurched forward before I even sat down. My layover must have been shorter than five minutes. Eek, I hope I'm on the right train.

I didn't know for sure until an employee checked my ticket and didn't say anything, so I figured I was not in the wrong. At nearly every stop I stepped up to the door, just in case the platform said Lungern. A few stops looked particularly nice and I almost considered getting off early, but decided to wait. The train rounded a narrow valley and began wrapping around impossibly blue lake; it was a color I'd never seen before, a kind of electric cerulean. It was so enthralling that I decided this would be my stop regardless, but when we arrived at the train station, it turned out to be Lungern.

I stepped off the train and looked toward the mountainside, an abrupt slope that climbed into vertical walls. It didn't even look walkable from the valley, but I've learned enough about hiking in Europe to know I'd probably find a trail up this mountain. Sure enough, on the other side of the train platform were those tell-tale yellow signs with destinations listed in hours instead of distances. I've learned enough about hiking in Europe to know that when fresh and determined, I can usually halve the estimated climbing times. My downhill times usually come out pretty close to estimates, unless I make an effort to run the sections that I'm capable of running. I had about four hours before I needed to catch the train back, and "Huttstett," listed at 3 hours and 45 minutes one-way, seemed like a good goal.

 The storm had cleared out and it was another warm day. Climbing was strenuous, gaining at a rate of about 1,200 feet per mile, mainly on open grassy slopes exposed to the hot sun. But the views were consistently nice, at least when took a break to catch my breath and turned around.

Huttstett was a narrow col at 5,450 feet elevation, just over 3,000 feet above the valley floor. It had only taken me an hour and a half to get there, so I had at least another half hour to climb. The main route seemed to drop back into the valley, but if I hopped over a cattle fence, there was an option to keep tracing the contour of the ridge.

I remember doing this countless times back when I used to hike solo in Juneau, marching toward a mountain peak with a tight timeline looming behind me, and somehow justifying, "Just a little bit farther. Just a little bit farther."

There was a distinct high point in the distance and I just wanted to see what was on the other side. The grade was less steep on the ridge and I made an attempt to run until the sideslope steepened to the point where falling would have been considerably costly. There were rocky cliff bands on both sides and only a narrow trail to hold my clumsy self to the mountain.

 Eek, don't look down.

 I marched up to the peak, called "Gibel" at 2,035 meters (6,676 feet.) A gravel road came up from the other side of the valley, and there were a dozen sightseers milling about. This is hiking in the Swiss Alps — you can rip your lungs apart marching up a steep and rocky trail, skitter over a narrow ridge with heart-stopping drops on both sides, crawl over a peak drenched in sweat, and arrive at a vehicle-accessible vista crowded with people. I dropped down the backside of the peak and found a bench overlooking an incredible vista of sharp, high mountains and glaciers. Wispy clouds streamed over the ridge and sometimes obscured the view altogether, so I sidled up to a bench to await an opening in the fog. An older couple was sitting there, quietly enjoying the vast views. The woman motioned at me and pointed to the sky, which I noticed for the first time was filled with para-gliders.

Now I had 2:32 on my watch. Eek, I really only had 90 minutes to make it back to Lungern before 4 p.m., in order to catch the 4:10 train. It wasn't the end of the world if I missed the train, but I did promise Beat I'd be back by 6:30. It was only five miles but more than 4,000 feet vertical descent away. When it comes to steep and rocky slopes, I find descending fast to be more difficult than climbing. I can't really call any of this "running," but it's at least if not more strenuous than any running I do, even for 40-minute miles. Still, descending is something I do need to practice, within reason. I think I startled a couple of families with children as I clomped down the trail, catapulting rocks with my trekking poles.

In a rare display of relative grace, I arrived at the bottom unscathed with 3:47 on my watch, meaning I managed to descend five miles and 4,300 vertical feet in an hour and fifteen minutes. Where did that come from? Relative to my usual descending abilities, that was a massive leap of faith, sometimes literally. Now if I can just manage all of this over and over, twenty times in a row, I'll be set for PTL next month. But, at least for this day, I made my train schedule with enough time left over buy an Apfelschorle and crackers from a vending machine. The perfect way to wrap up a serendipitously wonderful visit to the Swiss village of Lungern.