Wednesday, September 09, 2015

When in Switzerland

After Beat and his partner Pieter finished the Petite Trotte a Leon, Beat and I traveled to Switzerland to spend a couple of weeks with his family. The race finish was a joyful event. I'm always proud of Beat after the PTL, but mostly relieved that he has gotten his sleep-deprived self down from those exposed mountain ridges safely with no injuries. It's impressive that he's managed to finish four of these, along with five Tor des Geants, without any major issues. It's gotten so routine for him that he can't really understand why just *anyone* can't run 200 miles across extremely difficult mountain terrain in less than five days, while all of my attempts over the years have led to a lack of comprehension about how anyone can. I'm going to continue moving at two miles per hour and calling myself a hiker, and maybe someday I'll convince Beat to join me on a nice trekking trip in the Alps with refuges, actual meals, and 15-mile days.

Until then, I can hardly complain about Beat's excuses to spend time in proximity to these mountains. Although I'm a little heartbroken about UTMB, and will probably remain that way until I can put a good race behind me, it is rather refreshing to emerge from a DNF without a long-term injury or illness. I was out of commission for eight weeks after the Tor des Geants, and I'm arguably still recovering from the Tour Divide crud. Although I'm still feeling mild respiratory effects and have some inflammation in my IT band, I'm mostly healthy and can't complain about that. Even though I can't claim to be 100 percent fit, visiting mountains is something you can hardly pass up in Switzerland.

Since I don't know my way around Switzerland, I have to pick routes at random. Choices are based on an assessment of Strava's heat maps (if there's a good solid line I know it's probably a trail and not some Swiss mountain runner's iffy scrambling route), whether the start is a place I can drive to and from for a day trip, and whether there's access to alpine terrain above 2,000 meters — otherwise, what's the point? Topo maps brought me to an intriguingly sharp ridge above the Brienzersee.

On Friday I drove to the village of Brünig when a goal to climb to Höch Gumme, a 2,200-meter peak. My perception will always work in imperial units, and meters never fail to throw me off. Brünig is around 1,000 meters, so it's "only 1,200 meters of climbing" — which sounds small until I convert it to 4,000 feet. Rolling along the ridge brought the total to 5,200 feet gain, in 12 miles round trip. I was only five days removed from UTMB, trying to baby my angry IT band and not overtax my lungs, so I plodded upward.

At the ridge there was thick, patchy fog and thus erratic views, but I felt completely content. You'd think after 70 rather painful miles in UTMB, I'd feel burnt out on this activity, but propelling my body skyward through forests and over tundra just doesn't get old.

My unfortunate butt chafing had scabbed over by then. I lubed the wound heavily, but there was still some irritation there (why this suddenly became such a problem, I can't figure out. I'm blaming ill-fitting underwear.) Also, my gut hasn't fully recovered from the race and I was vaguely nauseated for most the day even at a slow pace. My IT band hated the steep descent. So, yeah, it doesn't make a lot of sense why I felt so happy. I suppose all I really need in life is a far horizon to follow. Pleasure and pain comes and goes; awe is a lasting pursuit.

On Saturday we joined Beat's brother and a small group for an afternoon of playing at a park. This park incorporates circuits of aerial challenges built into a forest — slacklines, balance beams, dangling tires, ladders, suspended wires, and ziplines from tree to tree. A parkour park! I'm bad with anything involving balance and prone to dizzying vertigo, but the park allows children as young as 4, so I somewhat reluctantly tagged along. Swiss kids must be tough, because my biceps were burning and my fingers were raw by the time I ventured out onto my first circuit for 12 and up — strung more than 40 feet above the forest floor. One of the obstacles featured a tight wire encased in rollers. I slipped off, dangled briefly with one hand clasped around the safety wire, and managed to pull myself up with this arm on adrenaline alone. I lost my nerve and had a moment of hyperventilating panic before I got it together and finished the crossing. You're clipped in with a harness, so you can't fall, but even rational understanding of this doesn't eradicate vertigo. I was pretty proud of myself at the end of the afternoon; I'd faced some fears and gotten a great upper body workout. I wish there were parks like this in California. (I don't have any photos, because they don't allow you to carry any loose objects.)

On Sunday, Beat's uncle took us for a hike in the Swiss Jura, which are the older mountains in the north. Fun fact: The Jurassic Period was named for the Jura Mountains, whose limestone cliffs are studded with fossils. We walked through a gorgeous box canyon while Beat's uncle pointed out World War I installations, and climbed to a ridge for coffee and pastries at a mountain-top restaurant. Ah, Switzerland.

On Monday I drove to Interlaken to explore the same beautiful ridge that features Höch Gumme, from the opposite end. This day's objective was a 2,150-meter peak called the Augstmatthorn, which again did not look terribly far on a map. But Interlaken is down at 500 meters ... so closer to 5,500 feet of pure altitude gain, not factoring in climbs and descents along the ridge. Driving 120 kilometers took more than two hours with morning traffic through Bern, and I felt exhausted by the time I started plodding upward toward Harder Kulm — the cog railway destination at the "top of Interlaken" — 1,322 meters.

Viewing Interlaken from the Harder Kulm. This is the first peak on this long ridge, which sharpens and becomes quite exposed after the third peak, Höhi Egg. From the map's depiction of this ridge, I expected a thrilling balance-beam-like ridge walk with big views on both sides. However, I failed to anticipate the thick forests clinging to the slopes — the altitude was still below treeline. So instead I got still-steep exposure while playing survival hopscotch on a convoluted web of tree roots. The trail cut across nearly vertical slopes and hugged rocky gullies that fell away for hundreds of feet, so I had to move slowly and deliberately. It was strenuous work with no views and little altitude gain, which quickly became tedious.

I nearly turned around a couple of times, but resolved to stick it out to treeline. I'm glad I did. This grassy knife ridge is a thing of beauty.

The big blue Brienzersee, 5,000 feet below.

Balance-beam ridge walking! At times my vertigo would creep around the edges, but the terrain was never so exposed that I couldn't deal. I'm sure there are sections of this ridge that are more difficult, but if I can ever find the time, I would love to walk this ridge from end to end someday. Interlaken to Höch Gumme would probably be around 20-22 miles with *a lot* of climbing. Walking all the way to the end, where the ridge eventually drops away into Lungren, would probably be 30 miles or more. What an amazing 50K! Someday.

As I approached the Augstmatthorn, I met a herd of ibex who were lounging right on top of the trail. This one galloped up the ridge and stopped directly above me, then emitted some high-pitched, scream-like noises. I became nervous that she was going to charge and buck me off the death-fall cliff that was only a few feet away, so I looked away to ensure no eye contact and yelled "Hey! Hey!"

I waited for a while to see if she'd move on, but she stood her ground. I eventually crept past. All the males regarded me with supreme indifference. Ibex were driven to extinction here back in the 18th century, and were reintroduced a hundred years later. It's still somewhat rare to encounter wild ibex in Switzerland.

I only saw a handful of hikers beyond the Harder Klum. This nice Swiss woman took my photo at the Augstmatthorn. She spoke quickly and I didn't understand what she was trying to communicate until she grabbed my camera out of my hand. There's a bit of German assertiveness here in Switzerland.

Suggiturm peak and the Swiss flag.

The view beyond the Augstmatthorn. Look at that line! So intimidating, and yet so appealing.

Looking back from where I came.

I didn't really want to stumble my way back through the rooty morass, so I cut off the ridge at the first route into the Habkern valley, on the north side. I had this idea that I could walk down the valley and wrap around the mountain back to Interlaken. So I descended 1,500 feet and wallowed in muddy cattle pastures for a couple of miles before I met two farmers who seemed confused about my presence. I pointed to the Augstmatthorn and made a circular motion with my arm, and then said, "Habkern." They shook their heads and gestured that there was no walking route into town. The only way to get to Habkern was "mit dem car," and then I'd have to take a bus to Interlaken. One farmer approached his car and offered to give me a ride. When I motioned with my poles that I wanted to walk, he pointed back up to the ridge. "Harder Kulm," he said, "last train, eight o'clock." Okay then.

I wasn't sure I could exit the valley by walking on roads anyway. I've been wrong about this before in the Alps, resulting in mad dashes through tunnels with no shoulder. Gaining the ridge was a grind, but by now I was racing not only the time I said I'd be home (I ended up being three hours late), but also daylight. This gave me a burst of energy and I felt the best I'd felt all day. I didn't mention that I didn't have much food with me on this hike. Basically just a small sandwich, the last of my fruit snacks, and a few small chocolate bars. I thought I'd do a relaxing hike, have late lunch at the restaurant, and be out for six or seven hours tops. I should really know myself (and my route planning) better than this by now.

The walk ended at 19 miles with 7,500 feet of climbing. I did some jogging toward the end because my IT band actually feels better when I run versus walking downhill, but it was often too steep. Still, a grand day out. Worth it by far. 


  1. "I really should know myself better by now." Bwahaha!

  2. "I really should know myself better by now." Bwahaha!

  3. As usual I LOVE your pictures, and can actually feel your pain. Give you much credit for what you do.

  4. Love the pictures and your descriptive writing. Might I suggest no panties or Patagonia (expensive $20 per pair but so worth it).

  5. Great photos! Wild ibex! Parkour parks. Sounds like Switzerland is a phenomenal place. Will have to visit there sometime.

  6. Jill, I read every single post but rarely comment, but I had to take time today to say thank you for all of your incredible pictures. Our world travels are limited a bit by jobs and young children, but you are helping me compile a HUGE bucket list of places I must see. Switzerland was not even on the list until now, but these pics have put it way on up there at the top. Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing!

  7. A parkour park in California. Sounds like a business venture!

    Great photos. I love rugged mountains like that.

  8. Absolutely stunning photos. Switzerland - or rather the alps, are now on my list of places to go. I've been to Switzerland before (to deposit my millions hahaha), but didn't make it to that altitude. Thanks for sharing.


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