Saturday, September 26, 2015

And then everything was beautiful

It was as though the mountains were laughing at all the runners still milling around Courmayeur, collecting soggy drop bags and awaiting truncated race results as blue skies blazed overhead. That the sun came out just a few hours after the Tor des Geants was cancelled, and effectively stayed out all weekend, caused some grumbling around town. Beat emphasized that organizers did the best they could with the information they had. The first night's snowstorm had already created significant hazards for more than 800 runners. Around 450 people were still in the race on day four, and asking hundreds of runners to navigate high-alpine terrain in pea-soup fog, where even experienced volunteers became lost, could ignite a large-scale emergency. It's one thing to go for a mountain adventure on your own, but as part of a race, you have to abide by a safety standard that works for a large group. This is the case even among the hardest of the hard-core races. But for some runners who had slogged through rain and snow for four days only to reach an unexpected cancellation, the sudden onset of beautiful weather stung a little.

I had every intention of taking advantage of our last two days in Europe, and planned a couple of hikes. Even though he was just a day removed from the Tor des Geants, Beat didn't hesitate to join. Although his feet were a mess, he claimed he felt great. His knee pain had mostly diminished, and Beat was annoyingly speedy. I couldn't keep up with him. I swear he just gets stronger as he goes. The only time I stand a chance of matching his pace is when he's "well rested."

Look how happy Beat is! I have witnessed this guy slip perfectly into his element in two places. The first is Alaska. The second is here.

Miles, our new friend from Canmore, joined us for a trek up the TMB trail to Rifugio Maison Vieille. A light rain storm had blown in for a couple of hours in the morning, but cleared out again as we sipped espresso and lemon soda at this cozy hut in the hills above Courmayeur.

We continued hiking beyond the rifugio because, views. Beat and Miles stopped frequently to reference the GPS and point out intriguing scrambling problems on the other side of the valley. It's funny to observe mountains like Mont Blanc, where you know every single minute problem has been solved and climbed hundreds or thousands of times. But somehow, when you're a hiker on the TMB trail on a quiet Friday in early fall, you can almost pretend that you're discovering this place for the first time.

Miles making his way up to Arete du Mont Favre. Although the weather was dry, a brisk wind had arrived with the unmistakable taste of autumn. The last time I visited this mountain, during UTMB, temperatures were in the upper 90s and I saw at least one runner being treated by an emergency medic for what appeared to be heat exhaustion. I prefer the cold wind, and won't miss summer when it's gone (it doesn't really go away in California.)

We enjoyed lunch on the ridge — chocolate and crackers from Beat's TDG stash — along with nice views of scree-coated Miage Glacier, the longest glacier in Italy. I congratulated Beat and Miles on a stout post-TDG outing, as the hike turned out to be 13 miles with 4,600 feet of climbing. They just shrugged, because that isn't all that much in the scheme of things.

The following day I couldn't shake these guys, who were still up for more adventure. I wanted to climb something high, but Beat had his own ideas about traversing along Val Ferret. I felt I'd already made that trek enough times this year (once on the low route during UTMB, twice on the high route over Testa Bernarda earlier in the week), so I veered off early and continued climbing to Col Malatra.

Col Malatra is the final pass in the Tor des Geants, which runners ascend from the other side before dropping 11 miles into Courmayeur. For that reason, I think a fair number of TDG runners chose Col Malatra as a nice Saturday-morning pilgrimage where they could bring closure to their races. That, or this trail is incredibly popular for a high-altitude grind on a cold day in September. There were a lot of people on the trail. I should have been used to that, as I'd been hiking the race course all week, but I found myself becoming impatient with the crowds. I wanted to bound up the hill and see if I could hit that elusive redline once again, but settled for a scenic march.

Col de Malatra is just a tiny notch in steep cliffs.

The altitude is 2,925 meters (9,600 feet), which was disappointing, as I mistakenly thought Col Malatra was one of the 3,000-meter passes.


But the views! Sweeping panoramas more than make up for lowly height.

I felt great. Although it was no Tor des Geants, I had a decent week of foot travel myself — 69 miles with 29,000 feet of climbing — and couldn't detect the slightest hint of soreness in my legs. My IT band would only nag at me on the steepest descents, and even that pain had diminished quite a bit. My lungs had really taken a turn for the better since the weather cleared. I hadn't even realized how obstructed my airways felt before they "opened up" on Thursday evening. It's a little difficult to describe. Could it be allergies? The wet weather? Psychological? I don't know. But it felt as though I went for this one hard run, and in doing so blasted my respiratory system clear. Whatever the reason, I was pretty stoked on life up on Col Malatra.

In an effort to avoid the crowds I took an off-trail route down the valley, ascending and descending a couple of minor ridges in the process.

Looking back up the valley toward Col Malatra.

I regained the main trail but broke off again to ascend a minor col and drop into the Arminaz valley. Although I'd shaken off my early-week malaise, there was a sadness to this descent — a realization that this was it, the last day in Italy. Beat and I had a long stay in Europe this year — nearly a month between France, Switzerland, and Italy — and I was undoubtedly homesick. I couldn't wait to see traffic lights again, and ice in drinks, free water at restaurants, grocery stores that aren't closed all afternoon, English on the signs, and Diet Pepsi! (they made Diet Pepsi aspartame-free? Ew. Maybe now I can finally kick the habit. Maybe.) But leaving the Aosta Valley is always bittersweet. A sad happy. I would love to live in the Aosta Valley if I could learn Italian. And if I could accept cutting back dramatically on my cycling, because both road and mountain biking would be terrifying here.

But it's back to California and hopeful training for the coming winter. That's pretty okay, too. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How Jill got her groove back

"Accomplishments are ultimately meaningless. Experience is what matters."

I typed that sentence somewhere in a document shortly after UTMB, but ultimately scrubbed it from the detritus of post-race stream-of-consciousness. Still I continued to squint into the murky flow, trying to make sense of why I seek challenges that are well beyond my pay grade, throw aside all the medals and patches and belt buckles when I succeed, and yet feel so bewildered and unmoored when I fail.

"Four failures in the Alps. Four!" I came to UTMB in 2012 well-prepared and well-trained, only to be thrown into a shortened, dramatically different race when a snowstorm forced a major reroute at the last minute. I finished the 110K, but it's always felt like a failure. I signed up for Petite Trotte à Léon in 2013 because I really had no idea what I was getting into, but that challenge sounded so much more adventurous than UTMB. PTL was a mistake from the get-go — negotiating frequent scrambling, navigation and tricky route-finding with limited mountaineering experience, a shaky sense of balance, communication difficulties with my teammates, and extreme sleep deprivation. I held on for four days until my vision was blurry and I'd effectively lost my mind to stress and fear, and then I timed out at 200K. Terrible. Worst thing I've ever done to myself. And still ...

I came to the Tor des Geants in 2014 because it seemed like a much nicer event than PTL, and it was. TDG was hard — far more difficult than I anticipated even after watching Beat make his way around the Aosta Valley for three years. But the race was fun, and I was doing okay until I slipped, wrenched my knee, tore a ligament, and had to crawl out from a remote ridge so I could drop out of that race at 200K. After eight weeks of recovery, frustrated that I'd failed yet again, I made the decision to sign up for UTMB in 2015.

Argh, why did I have to start that thing? But UTMB was so beautiful, with indigo shadows and intensely bright moonlight. The day was so colorful and hot, the mountains so much bigger than I remembered. Even though I was nauseated and bleeding in places that you really don't want to be bleeding, I drew some incredible experiences from the endeavor. But why did I have to fail, two thirds through the race, yet again? Suddenly these vibrant memories have this gray shade drawn over them. "You failed, you accomplished nothing."

Who's telling me this? But this is the message I receive.

So I've had a bad year on the accomplishment front. I admit it's gotten me down. This is how these emotions start, and then negativity gloms onto negativity, and soon I'm mired in despair about California wildfires and drought, the Syrian refugee crisis, the prospect of a winterless winter in Alaska, and missing my cat (long story, but I recently gave away my cat of 11 years to the woman who takes care of her while we're out of town, for the cat's welfare and also for our friend's happiness. It was the right decision, but it broke my heart.) And what's up with my respiratory system? Do I have asthma? How do I even begin to address that? Does it take this long to recover from pneumonia? Is it Overtraining Syndrome? That vague phrase that effectively means "I'm an active person who doesn't feel well and I don't know why." It's become this catch-all explanation that no longer describes anything. People don't get sick for five years because of "overtraining." I'm sorry, no.

The musings keep spiraling out from there, but it all winds back to being a sad sack for the better part of a week. I tried to push the Eeyore rain cloud aside because I wanted to be positive and supportive for Beat and other friends battling out the difficult conditions in the Tor des Geants, and because damn it, I was on holiday in the Italian Alps! But denying and berating yourself for emotions doesn't make them any less effecting. I would lie awake at night, and sometimes drop a few tears while driving through the tunnels of the A1. Even that one thing that always makes me happy — hiking in the mountains — proved discouraging. My inner critic was constantly nudging me: "You're terrible at this. You're never going to be good enough."

On Thursday the Tor des Geants was cancelled due to poor weather, and it continued to rain hard all morning. Beat returned to Courmayeur on the bus around noon. We spread his soggy gear all over the apartment, and then bundled up to walk into town and have pizza with Miles. Both Beat and Miles were chipper and upbeat (they'd had a full night of sleep at the life base while the race was on pause for 12 hours.) I was probably more bummed about the race cancellation than they were; I just remember how disappointed I was about shortened UTMB in 2012. They reasoned that they'd had fun while it lasted, and both will probably be back for more soon enough (Beat almost certainly will.)

After cramming down most of a grilled vegetable pizza that was the size of an end table, I waddled outside to see sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds. Beat and Miles were heading home to take naps. "It looks like it's starting to get nice out," I said. "I think I'll go for a hike."

The quickest, best way to reach views from Courmayeur is the TMB trail to Rifugio Bertoni, which is part of both the UTMB and TDG courses. Keep marching up the ridge and you can gain 3,000 feet altitude in two miles — quite some bang for the buck. Clouds cleared rapidly as I climbed, until the sky was bright and blue. Mist rose from the saturated trail and wet grass, and the late-afternoon sun cast a rich glow on the glaciers and cliffs of the Mont Blanc massif. The air was infused with autumn-like crispness, and the effect seemed to open my lungs. I haven't been able to go all that hard since my Tour Divide illness, but for the first time since June, I found myself flirting with high intensity without experiencing the sensation that my airways were constricting. My heart rate shot skyward, so I took quick, satisfying breaths and marched faster.

People poke fun at Strava, but one thing I really like about the software is the way it allows me to quantify my efforts and analyze how realities match my perceptions. I felt great, but was I really moving any better than normal? Strava confirmed solid stats for the 1.25-mile, 2,000-foot climb to Bertoni: Just under 40 minutes, which is a full 10 minutes faster than my previous best — when I was in decent running shape in 2012 — and 25 minutes faster than my slog up the hill during UTMB three weeks earlier. Seventh out of 61 women, with the QOM owned by Stephanie Howe. Only 2 minutes slower than Julien Chorier's best Strava time (the runner who won Hardrock in 2011.) Not bad!

I crested the ridge a thousand feet above Bertoni and broke into a jog. All of the mountains were out, the air was crisp but warm, and even though the trail was a swamp, it was fun to splash through the mud as sheep bleated at me. I was grooving to my 2009 Tour Divide playlist — I'd recently rescued the files from an old, dead mP3 player and moved the whole group onto an iPod shuffle. There was a lot of music I hadn't listened to since, and I was filled with nostalgia about the good old days, when I took on challenges that were way above my pay grade, and succeeded all the same.

I kept looking at my watch, because I'd told Beat I'd be back before 7:30 — about two and a half hours after I started my hike. Even if I deferred that promise, I'd still be racing daylight, so I had to make the best use of my time. I vowed to turn back after an hour and a half, but as I jogged along the ridge, I was getting so close to Testa Bernarda. The 2,500-meter peak would make such a nice destination for this fantastic outing. Could it be done?

With 1:19 on the watch, I was still three quarters of a mile and 700 feet below the top. The peak looked like it was right there, but that annoying inner critic crunched the numbers and told me it was time to turn around. Finally, the voice of enthusiasm and optimism who had been so quiet all week piped in and said, "Run!" So I broke into a run, weaving around the bleating sheep and clawing through the mud and grass as the grade steepened. My heart was pounding and I was positive I hadn't reached this level of intensity in months, but my airways were clear. I ran harder.

At the time my iPod was playing "Read My Mind," by the Killers, which is a song I once posted on a poorly made (pre-GoPro) video about my first good bike ride after recovering from frostbite in 2009 (link here.) I still associate it this song with the sensation of breaking free, overcoming setbacks, and feeling strong again. With 1:25 on the watch, I turned off the trail and onto the grassy face of Testa Bernarda, flipped the Shuffle back to the beginning of the song, and absolutely redlined. The fuzzy tunnel around my vision narrowed, thoughts disintegrated to gasps and groans, lungs and legs seared with hot acid, but they were working. I was working! The snow-dusted cliffs of Grandes Jorasses came into view, my feet touched a bump that went no higher, and the Killers came roaring back into my oxygen-depleted mind:

"I wanna breathe that fire again!" 

I raised both arms into the air and pumped my fists, almost involuntarily. Wow. This is it, right here. The edge of livability. The fullness of experience.

Not an accomplishment, not really, but a moment I sorely needed, all the same. I bounded down the hill, wondering if I could turn this victory into a quick descent. Fears of slippery surfaces and falling on my face fought back with equally empowered ferocity. Still, I thought, maybe my lungs are just fine, or at least on the upswing. Maybe someday I will find my groove for running in the mountains, and I'll no longer be too slow or clumsy to finish a big race in the Alps. Maybe it will snow in Alaska this winter, and remain cold but not too cold for good trails and incredible experiences. Maybe California will get some rain. Maybe Syria will, too.

This flood of optimism carried me all the way down the mountain, brimming with possibilities. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Shadowing the Tor des Geants, 2015

After our extended family visit in Switzerland, Beat and I drove to Courmayeur, Italy, for the sixth running of the Tor des Geants. This 200-mile loop around the Aosta Valley holds a special place in Beat's heart. Even as we discuss focusing on different, non-race adventures in the future, the TDG is likely to continue prompting yearly returns. Beat has finished every single Tor des Geants — he's one of just 13 runners to do so. I've joked that Beat values his "senatori" status in the TDG as much as his PhD in physics. Of course that's not true, but as a senatori, Beat does have something like celebrity status in these small communities of northern Italy. Senatoris also receive guaranteed entry into this increasingly popular race.

The Tor des Geants follows an incredible and especially demanding course in the Italian Alps, but what really makes this race special is its sense of community. Most of the Aosta Valley shows up to support this event, and TDG draws participants from all over the world. It's become this annual gathering of the most like-minded of crazies, and it's fun to visit friends from around the globe. As we were walking through town the day before the race, we bumped into the man who accompanied Beat to Nome in 2013, Marco Berni. While we were exchanging hugs, Ausilia and Sebastian — an Italian couple who together completed the ride to Nome — approached, and just like that we're having an Iditarod reunion on the streets of Courmayeur.

The race started on Sunday, September 13, under steady rain and temperatures in the upper 40s. The forecast for the week was not encouraging, with below-freezing temperatures and a lot more precipitation on tap. Beat wasn't too concerned about the weather, but he had a few nagging issues with his feet and knee after PTL, and wasn't particularly enthused at the start. I see this every year, though — he starts the TDG feeling uncertain and downtrodden, and then he becomes progressively stronger.

My plan for the week was to visit Beat once a day at the race life bases, make sure he had what he needed, take his wet clothes to wash and dry, and generally just do the crew stuff that Beat doesn't really need, but doesn't refuse, either. This task involves a lot of driving (most of the life bases are far up canyons with narrow, winding roads, requiring at least an hour commute each way), and of course a lot of waiting. It always takes more time than I anticipate, but I still found time most days to either hike or work, although foregoing sleep also became necessary. On Sunday afternoon there was a short break from the rain, and I embarked from town on a classic ridge walk to Tete de la Troche and down Val Sapin. The ridge was enveloped in fog the entire time, which provided a nice atmosphere for reflection. From the moment we arrived in Italy, I developed a melancholy that shadowed me for most of the week. At times I was very sad, and also confused as to why. I'll write more about this in a subsequent post, but as always, solo walks are fantastic for sorting out errant but effecting emotions.


Just as I was returning from Val Sapin, the clouds broke open and heavy rain began to fall. This continued for the entire night as Beat and 800 other TDG runners made their way over high passes where precipitation changed to freezing rain, and then snow. A landslide on one of the passes and concerns about ice prompted the race organizers to pause the race for three hours, and runners were forced to wait at the closest aid stations. Beat and several other friends were crammed into a small, high-altitude refuge, where they were drenched and freezing, and their wasn't even enough space for everyone to sit down. Beat was well prepared with extra dry clothing and microspikes for the ice, but many other runners had only the bare minimum of required gear. The scenario sounded like something of a mess, but not unexpected in the Alps in September. There were quite a few who dropped from the race and some rescues, but as far as I know, no major injuries.

The race pause meant Beat would arrive at the 100-kilometer mark later than originally anticipated, which gave me time to hike Col Loson in the afternoon. Col Loson from the Eaux Rousse side is one of my favorite day hikes ever — a long, continuous ascent of 6,000 feet in 8 miles, topping out on a narrow pass overlooking a breathtaking landscape of 4,000-meter peaks and glaciers. It's the highest pass in the Tor des Geants (just under 11,000 feet elevation), and also the longest climb in that race.

 Despite a poor night of sleep and weird moodiness, I felt physically strong — the best I'd felt since UTMB. I managed to squeeze my hike into a nice gap in the race — since the TDG had been restarted in waves the night before, most runners were bunched up either ahead or behind. It was beautiful and quiet, with rapidly changing weather — rolling thunderstorms, snow flurries, and flecks of sun. I caught and passed one runner, and noticed him tailing me from about 50 meters back for more than a mile. When the cold wind prompted me to pull over and put on a jacket, he stopped beside me. "You go very fast!" he said in English with what I guessed was a French accent, although I can't distinguish accents that well.

"Oh, I'm not in the Tor des Geants," I said. "I'm just hiking."

"You should be in Tor," he said. "You go very fast."

Ha ha, if only he knew. I smiled. This friendly guy had already missed a night of sleep and traveled nearly a hundred kilometers of endless ups and downs. He probably had no conception of how much he'd slowed down himself, when I was well-rested — well, not really well-rested, but my legs were fresh. Still, part of the reason I'd been feeling down was regret about how slow I am on mountain terrain, so I took his complement gratefully. "Thanks," I said. "But I can only be fast because I've been sleeping."

 I do have a point of reference. I attempted the Tor des Geants in 2014, and scratched at 200 kilometers after a fall that resulted in a partially torn LCL in my left knee. Because of this, I mostly associate my own Tor des Geants experience with that extremely painful limp out from the point where I fell — it took me 9 hours to travel 14 kilometers — and the 8 weeks of recovery that followed. Before all that happened, I loved the Tor des Geants and found the race mostly enjoyable, although I've vowed not to return until I can log a whole summer of proper mountain training. Descents are my weakness by a large degree, and I can't become better at those without actual practice on long, steep, rocky downhills.

 Now that my perspective has been enriched by two thirds of a TDG, hiking a single pass feels almost effortless in comparison. I was disappointed to reach the top so soon, but anything higher is technical climbing or at least highly exposed scrambling. Even though snow was rapidly melting, it made things a little dicey on the descent. I made an effort to get off the trail for every runner who was approaching.

I bumped into Beat during the descent, as he and two friends were making their way up the pass. Chris (in the middle) is a friend from Switzerland who used to live in the Bay Area, and Miles is originally from Britain but lives in Canmore, Alberta. Beat met Miles during this year's race, and we ended up spending quite a bit of time with him this week. Yay for more friends who live in the Canadian Rockies.

 Beat with standard life base fare — pasta, tomato sauce, canned tuna, and hard-boiled egg. The other aid station food is mostly limited to dried meat, cheese, bread, crackers, pound cake, and chocolate. If you're even slightly turned off by any of these things, you better bring your own supplemental food. Last year I struggled with the lack of gummy candy, which is about all I can eat when I'm nauseated. I still can't look at fontina cheese without feeling slightly ill.

 On Tuesday I had a couple of different deadlines to meet, so I couldn't hike, but I managed to catch Beat and Miles in Donnas. Our Australian friend Roger Haney was there as well, and I met another crew person, a Irish guy named Graeme, who helped pass the time while Beat slept. The social aspect of the TDG is fun, especially if you're observing the sleep-deprived silliness rather than contributing to it.

 The weather only saw short breaks from wetness and fog on Monday and Tuesday, and by Wednesday it was completely socked in again. I made the long drive to Gressoney in the pouring rain, and embarked on a hike up Col Lauzoney in even heavier rain. It was so wet that two English runners who I think recognized me from the Donnas life base teased me — "Nice day for a stroll," one said and laughed. But I'd arrived five hours earlier than I expected Beat, and marching up wet rocks in the rain is still better than sitting in a car I'd managed to make borderline unbearable by (unintentionally) leaving a pair of Roger's wet Hokas inside overnight.

 I intersected Beat near the pass, where the rain was accompanied by a cold wind. He was in a surprisingly good mood, marching to silly metal music on a playlist I made for him, and breaking into a run as he descended. Since TDG doesn't allow pacing of any kind, I told him I'd hike for ten more minutes and then descend behind him. I promised I'd still reach Gressoney before him, since my car was parked four kilometers before the life base. Of course I didn't catch him, because Beat was becoming increasingly faster and stronger as the race went on, and I flounder when I'm at my best. During a particularly steep and rocky — and thus slippery — part of the descent, I heard someone from behind and pulled over to let them pass. It turned out to be a local shepherd — a small man with a huge plastic bag slung over his shoulders and canvas sneakers on his feet. He stopped and pointed to my feet, leaned way back, shook his head, and then leaned forward. I presumed he was giving me advice about my posture, and the importance of keeping my center of gravity over my feet. After he bounded down the hill, I made an effort to mimic his stance, and it actually helped a lot. Maybe I'm not a completely hopeless case — I just need more practice.

 Just as Beat was leaving the 200-kilometer life base at 8 p.m., he was stopped by a race official who told him the race had again been suspended. At the time it seemed like a strange decision, as the rain had tapered off, we could see skies clearing overhead, and the temperature in town was still 14C, making it seem unlikely it was below freezing even 1,500 meters higher. As it turned out, the race was paused because of thick fog. Visibility had dropped to less than a meter at higher altitudes, and several runners and even volunteers became lost in the fog. People navigate this race by yellow flags, and if they can't see them, there's a good chance they could wander off the faint path into much more dangerous terrain. It's too much of a liability for an organized race with hundreds of runners. They waited all night for the fog to clear, but by 8 a.m. it was still thick and the weather forecast promised more rain and possibly snow. For the first time in six years, they called off the TDG. Runners who were still in the race at that point were given an official finish, and bused back to Courmayeur. Only six runners completed the entire course.

Beat was disappointed, as he was finally starting to feel good. Beat truly loves the long game in these events, and he was sad he didn't get a chance to close it out. But he has run into Courmayeur plenty of times, and he understood why the race organization had to make that undoubtedly difficult decision.

I wondered if this might be an impetus to coax Beat into planning more self-supported adventures, where you don't have worry about cut-offs or cancellations. He's excited about the prospect, but there's almost no doubt that he'll return to the Tor des Geants — and I probably will too, someday. 

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.