Saturday, September 29, 2018

Along the edge

After Beat finished the Swiss Peaks 360, we spent a sunny, hot Saturday in Geneva. Beat slept away the afternoon while I milled about, feeling strangely on edge. I couldn't shake off this edginess. Finally I went for a run along the Rhone River — my first "run" in more than two weeks. My legs were terribly sluggish and my breathing was labored, but at least the edge softened while I was active. I drug out this lumbering jog for more than ten miles. I crossed a bridge and returned on the other side of the river, where I wandered onto a faint singletrack, whacked through some brush, and ended up pressed against a cliff where the "trail" had collapsed into the river. There was no way through but to leap from a sandy ledge, over a two-foot-wide chasm. I nearly leapt. It would be such a poor and uncharacteristic decision for me, but such was my mindset. Push forward. Don't turn back. Luckily vertigo kicked in, and I backed off. 

I was grateful to board a plane to Berlin, where we were going to visit Beat's dad and his wife. It would be a relaxing week of typical family and tourism activities — we visited several museums, looked at remnants of the Berlin Wall, ate good food and listened to compelling modern compositions performed by the Berlin Philharmonic. I spent most of the week feeling like I was just a few steps away from total exhaustion. Beat, after all of those hard kilometers of racing, seemed to be faring much better. 

 We did take one outdoorsy trip to Saxon Switzerland National Park, on the Elbe River in eastern Germany. This area is well-known for its fissured sandstone cliffs. Beat's dad guided us on a seven-mile loop, wending through the rock formations and crossing the river on ferries. In addition to being an brilliant physicist, Beat's dad was once an accomplished alpinist, and is still in excellent hiking shape for a man who will be 80 next year. I could barely keep up with the two of them for most of the outing.

 It was clear Beat's dad loves this spot. He knew every turn in the trail. His eyes sparkled when he described what was coming up, and seemed hurt when Beat and I raced up the final climb too quickly and didn't stop to take enough photos. I found this endearing for a man who has climbed some of the most intimidating peaks in Switzerland, during an era when they tied ropes around their shoulders in lieu of modern belay devices and harnesses.

 My sleep continued to improve throughout the week. For the first couple of nights I was still waking up feeling feverish with night sweats. By the weekend I was able to sleep more hours, but still woke up four or five times a night (not great, but an improvement.) For four weeks in Europe, my daytime state was as though I'd never gotten over jetlag. I was mentally sluggish, sleepy, and prone to confusion. Nights brought unwelcome alertness and jitters. But things were getting better. By the time we flew back to Switzerland to visit Beat's mom, it seemed both Beat and I had mostly recovered from the Swiss Peaks 360.

 Beat took the train into Zurich each morning to work at the Google office there. I may have used my "brain fog" as an excuse to do less work and more escaping into the mountains. I mean, how often am I in Switzerland? On Monday (Sept. 17), I took a day trip to a village I have always wanted to visit, ever since I read about it in a book as a child. The rest of this blog post is going to be a gratuitous number of photos from Grindelwald.

During my limited research the previous evening, I became intrigued by the route to the Schreckhornh├╝tte, a mountain climber's hut at the base of the Schreckhorn. The mountain looked spectacular, but even the route to the hut was intimidating. There was a trail carved into cliffs that faded to a rockier and even narrower trail carved into the cliffs, ending with 300 meters of scrambling that was partially secured by cables and ladders. Given how jittery I'd been feeling, it didn't seem the kind of route I was up for mentally or physically. But then I found some photos of the scenery, and, well ...

After sitting in traffic for two hours and cursing myself for choosing to drive in Switzerland yet again, I arrived in Grindelwald around 9 a.m. The town was eerily quiet. I know mid-September is the off season here and it was a weekday. But it was strange to have a world-class tourism destination, on a perfectly clear and warm day, more or less to myself. I had to climb nearly 2,000 feet before I encountered anyone, after my route intersected with the trail from the cable car.

Not long after I passed a mountain refuge, I noticed the trail was now marked with the blue- and white-painted bars that indicated a technical alpine route, where via ferrata gear is often required. (Simply challenging Swiss trails are marked red and white. Easy trails, which in the U.S. would still be labeled as strenuous, are marked in yellow.) Perhaps because of this knowledge — or perhaps because the trail sliced through an extremely steep slope and was covered in obstacles just waiting to trip me up — I began to feel the eeks early on. But I decided to continue for as long as I could muster the courage.

The views were worth it. I stopped often to look up, because there was no looking up while walking.

The Kalligletscher glacier, beneath the Eiger.

The Unteres Eismeer. The hut is somewhere at the top of the cliffs to the left.

I'd managed the two miles of exposed trail fairly well, but then I came to this sign. It reads, "The path to the SAC refuge Schreckhorn marked in white-blue-white as "alpine tour" is only suited for experienced mountaineers." This was definitely not me. I knew this was the beginning of the secured section I'd read about. I'd promised myself I'd try it out. Since descending is much more difficult than climbing, my plan was to climb for ten minutes and then descend all the way back to this sign. If my brain managed that short segment well, I would be allowed to embark on the climb.

The chains and rock were wet with condensation and runoff, and exposure was high. If I slipped and let go of the chain I might not die, but I'd likely end up injured and in pain and wishing I had. Ten minutes brought me just beyond the point that I photographed here. I followed the chains up to that blue and white marker in the upper right hand corner, then rounded a rocky ledge to find a ladder scaling five feet of rock next to a bowel-loosening dropoff. I did climb the ladder, then instantly regretted it. Only now was it time to descend.

I lost my composure before I'd even finished downclimbing the ladder. My ass was hanging over oblivion, and I couldn't cope. My hands began to tremble, and my field of vision began to sway. When I realized this was happening, the hyperventilating started. Damn it, I'm going to have another panic attack, here on this mountain where it really matters that I don't panic. This is why I should avoid precarious terrain, especially when I am alone, because I know what it is to become a liability to myself. I don't know why I tried to be brave on a day already filled with jitters and insecurities, but now I hadn't given myself a choice.

I sat in that crouched position for some time, then wrapped my still trembling fingers around the cable and willed my hand to hold still. It wouldn't. I chanted my mantra. "Be brave, be strong." I am neither, and I've always known this. I do manage to fool myself from time to time, but I could sense that this would not be one of those times. I inched my way downward, battling vertigo with riotous indignation. "People are always prattling on about overcoming our fears. Maybe we should just respect our fears, and then we wouldn't feel so stressed out and panicked in beautiful places."

Of course there are no easy answers. I don't choose to be so afraid of heights. I understand the difference between objective danger and dangerous phobias. But that doesn't make me any less of a liability to myself (and potentially others) when I stick my neck out too far.

My hands continued to tremble for some time after I cleared the warning sign and, having failed my own test spectacularly, continued to descend. I felt mildly upset because not only did I push an uncomfortable limit, but I'd done so needlessly because I chickened out of my objective anyway. Still, it was a beautiful day and I was in Grindelwald, so I certainly wasn't losing at life just yet. After I returned to the cable car trail, I decided to traverse to the end of the valley and climb something else — something gentle with sweeping views.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking — a total of 22 miles with 8,600 feet of climbing — but it was like I was on a moving walkway, relaxing as I watched the views change around me. It was such an incredible day, and I was able to quickly put the chicken-out shame behind me and just enjoy being here.

While rounding the other side of the valley, I heard an deafening boom and looked over to see an icefall pouring off the Wetterhorn.

At the time I was engaged in a daily photo challenge on Twitter, so I took some black and white shots. I don't often bother with black and white (it seems to be somewhat of an artistic contrivance, and I am secure in my identity as a straightforward photo-journalist) ... but I thought this one turned out really cool.

Evening approached, so it was time to head down. Thank you, Grindelwald. I will return someday. Maybe not for another attempt at the climb to Schreckhornh├╝tte, but I never say never.


  1. What a spectacular place. I would be saying "wow" the whole time. ha

    The thing that bothers me about the pic with the chains is the vegetation. Solid rock is one thing, dirt, moss, etc is another. I think I saw on Strava you scrambled Freeway, right? Was that something that confirmed that you didn't like it, or made you more comfortable? For me, scrambling has been huge in developing a calm when near drops. It still creeps me out but I can manage it.

    1. I went up the Freeway once. It was a couple of years ago now. I had a great guide in my friend Chris, and also approach shoes to boost my confidence. However, it also was fairly soon after I had carpal tunnel surgery, and I still had a lot of weakness in my right hand. I was proud of myself for managing that one.

      I've managed a number of difficult scrambles in the Wasatch Mountains, back in my teens and early 20s. I also did fairly well with scree fields and knife ridge traverses when I lived in Juneau and Montana. I've always grappled with a bit of vertigo, but it has definitely intensified as I've grown older. Sometimes I blame my traumatic experiences with the PTL in August 2013. But years of trail running have also convinced me — consciously and subconsciously — that I am irredeemably clumsy, which makes me nervous about terrain with no margin for error. I don't think more experience is going to help me ... if anything it just contributes to my eroded confidence. I need to either try this from a new angle — perhaps take a rock-climbing class, or work on balance exercises — or let it go.

  2. Another place to add to my bucket list. Those photos are stunning. I'm not so sure I would make it to Schreckhornhutte. The trail sounds terrifying. Yet another great post thank you for sharing your adventures with us.

    1. The trail is fine, really. It's the 1,000-foot wet, mossy cliff that got to me. (Emphatically not a trail. If it weren't for the cables and ladders it would be class-five climbing.) But I do hope your travels take you to Switzerland! You would love it.

    2. I went on a trail in Ecuador that was also "fine" I thought I was going to die because of the 1,000 drop directly beside my foot. I had to count to keep my fear down :). I hope to get to Switzerland as well!

  3. I do love vicarious trips to Switzerland's mountains. Thanks for the photos and "edge" narrative.

  4. The Swiss Alps are SO spectacular, they defy words! I hope to see them thru my own eyes one day, but I also have a fear of heights that has intensified as I get I'm not sure how well I'd do on serious knife-edge trails or worse. Just like when MTB'ing any route w/ serious risk vs reward spots, my brain goes into hyperspeed reminding me what COULD happen. And hey, you want to talk about RISK? Just last week I saw a photo in Backpacking mag of Alex Honnold doing his "Free Solo" climb of El Cap in Yosemite...just the picture gave me goose bumps! A crew made a documentary of his climb, and I'm not sure that I could even WATCH it (here's a link about it if you are interested:

    Talk about MIND BLOWING! I can't imagine how ANYBODY can top that! Just WOW!

  5. Thanks for sharing your spectacular photos - and your experience with pushing your own limits. I know the "eeky" feeling that you had before you even got to the scary part. I tend to try the parts that may be beyond my limits, like you did, because I never know if I will get calmer as I tackle it or more scared. It can go either way - as I suspect that it can for you too. After seeing your photos, I'll visit Grindelwald if I ever have the chance.


Feedback is always appreciated!