Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Trying to get to where we've always been

Last photos from Switzerland — I'm coming close to being caught up with this blog. Beat and I spent our final week in Europe at Beat's mom's apartment, a time we usually use to catch up on work and visit his family members. This year, we'd already been away from home nearly a month, and I felt worn out. I had little mental energy for anything besides sitting quietly at family parties and smiling (sometimes the introvert in me is grateful I don't understand German) ... and recharging with long walks in the mountains.

On Wednesday, Beat and I planned to meet in Baden and have dinner with our friend Chris. So of course, I wedged in time for a hike. Slicing through the city is a razor-sharp upheaval called the Lägeren. These rock plates are traversed by a route described as a "beautiful and imposing tightrope walk on the Jura mountain trail." We walked part of this route with Beat's uncle back in July 2013. I have a distinct memory of feeling a little nervous on the ridge, and noticing that Beat was as well. This observation brought the thought, "Well, Beat thinks this is scary and he's finished PTL. So PTL probably isn't that bad." (HA! HA! HA!) In addition to sorely unearned confidence ahead of the 2013 PTL, I also remember beautiful views from the Lägeren. I was still feeling rueful about backing out of the Schreckhornhütte on Monday, which extended to shame about all of the unjustified anxiety I'd amassed amid this beautiful and objectively low-stress European vacation, so I decided to confront my stupid height vertigo yet again.

The heat on this day was nearly unbearable. Probably high 80s with humidity. My arms and legs were slimy with sweat — just the type of lubrication I didn't want on the tightrope. It's difficult to depict in a photo, but there's a vertical, 200-or-so-foot drop to the left, and occasional high-angle scrambling to the right. The brush lining the ledge is thin and brittle, and won't save anyone who falls into it. What the brush does do is hide the real exposure, which changes perception. Amid the heat and some labored breathing, I was slow to the top, and had to rush to close my loop in time to meet Beat at the train station. So I just walked, step after quickening step, as though this knife ridge was a sidewalk. If I slipped it could have ended badly — a number of people have died on the Lägeren. I didn't even care about the danger. I swear, my vertigo is so weird.

Thursday was forecast to be the last warm, brilliantly sunny day — of which we enjoyed a surprising number in Europe this September. I made plans to visit Interlaken, but shifted my focus to Kandersteg when I realized only 15 more minutes of driving would bring me to the higher reaches of the Bernese Alps. A quick Google search brought screen shots from a book titled "Full Day Walks From Kandersteg." One flip-through landed on a photo from a ridge called Ueschinengrat, which, although I could not pronounce the name, looked sublime.

From the town's cable car station, I followed a severe path — steep and crumbly — as it zigzagged up a veritable wall. This brought me to the Gällihorn in no time — 3,500 vertical feet in an hour and 23 minutes. From here I would walk along the sharp edge of the ridge for four miles.

The views were stunning. It was, for lack of better words, sublime.

I believe the far mountain is the Balmhorn. Annoyingly, my camera had built up condensation from the humid sauna afternoon in Baden, so I had to use my phone. The Pixel does a good job, but I was still disappointed.

My ridge — still quite narrow in spots. Here the exposure was more prominent, and that swirling abyss tugged at my peripheral vision as I clicked along with the trekking poles.

Standing on top of the high point, 2,471 meters on Wyssi Flue. Here I enjoyed a nice lunch of apples, pretzel rings and a small Jif-to-Go container of peanut butter (during these long trips, I always save one U.S. snack to consume during the final days so I can relish in my homesickness, because I know I will miss this place when I'm home.) I sat looking toward the Daubensee — "see" being the German word for lake and pronounced "say." However, I still read it as "sea" and conjure pacifying daydreams about droplets of the ocean trapped within the confines of these mountains.

I needed those pacifying daydreams as I approached the junction that would force me to choose — left toward the gentle descent to a dirt road along the Daubensee? Or right beside a shadowy cliff dropping into a steep mess of talus? My vertigo tugged left, and I defiantly turned right.

Unreliable ropes lined the narrow cut of a trail, which was damp in the shade and felt crumbly beneath my bulky shoes. I had to gulp down a disorienting dose of dizziness, which made me angry. I chose this, so why now, vertigo? Why now? Whoever calls vertigo a survival mechanism is kidding themselves. All this phobia does is turn you to a stumbling drunk at the worst possible moments.

Luckily the ledge was fairly short-lived. The objectively dangerous section came when I lost the trail while descending into the valley, and ended up balancing atop a cascade of loose boulders on a precariously steep slope. Still, I was glad I picked this valley over the easy way. The quiet solitude amid these towering cliffs was, yes, sublime.

I thought Kandersteg would be my last hurrah for Swiss mountains, but then Beat found a few hours open on Saturday. The weather forecast wasn't great, but it looked like there might be a window between rainstorms in the late morning and early afternoon, so we headed to the closest quick mountain access we could find, Brünig Pass.

Beat was the one who researched and made a GPS track for this route. I knew little about it, beyond it being the "far end of that narrow ridge above Interlaken." I've obsessed about this ridge for at least three years now — it's known as the Hardergrat, and looks as spectacular as it is intimidating. I think this route's steep, grassy exposure is a little beyond what I can reliably manage — thereby risking that "dizzy drunken liability to myself on exposed terrain with nowhere to bail," which is why I have not yet attempted it. But this far end — just beyond the reach of the traditional Hardergrat route — would be a good, small taste.

Ibex in the mist. Fog closed in and at times visibility was bad enough that I couldn't make out the often-faint trail from any other part of the slope. Beat employed his expert trail-finding skills — honed from years of navigating garbage in the PTL — and I followed him.

The fog began to clear after we reached the ridge, and we could enjoy fleeting views as we walked the sharpening ledge.

Pastoral valley above Lungern, still my favorite village in Switzerland.

Trail register at the summit of Wilerhorn. I got the date wrong (it was Sept. 22), and cringed at my atrocious handwriting, which I rarely see these days, but still looks just as sloppy as it did when I was a reporter. Ah well.

Beat enjoys his las gas station sandwich lunch on top of the Wilerhorn. There was a bench there, of course, because there are benches everywhere in Switzerland. Random hairpin on a mountain road? Bench. Intensely steep ascent to the top of a 3,000-meter peak? Bench. Narrow ledge barely wide enough for a singletrack trail let alone a bench blocking the way? Bench. The Swiss love their benches.

We lucked out while eating our lunch, and the views really opened up.

Making our way down the ridge to close our lollypop loop. We sadly only had time for this one peak.

The Brienzersee, just another one of those inland oceans that the Swiss dye a lovely shade of aquamarine.

The lower route turned out to be unexpectedly exposed. The trail itself was perfect — smooth and hard-packed — but the dropoffs were a little vertigo-inducing (again photos don't depict perception, and I didn't have my camera out on the steep segments.) Even Beat said he felt nervous. With seven PTLs behind him, I know he knows what he's talking about.

Ah, Switzerland. I don't think there's a easy trail in this country. But you know each and every one of them has a bench.

Yes, Switzerland. It didn't bring out the best in me, but I do miss it. 


  1. So many mountain hiking options there. I think fear of heights can be tamed one exposure at a time but never totally eliminated...except for that guy who free-solo'd El Cap!
    Box Canyon

    1. Increased confidence would seem logical. That hasn't been my experience over my lifetime, but I will probably keep poking the bear.

  2. I'd read that the folds and faults of the Jura are so huge and overwhelming that back in the 17th-18th centuries, royalty would wear eye shades during their carriage rides because looking at the wild geology so upset their sense of order.


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