Wednesday, September 18, 2019

If there's just one thing you wanted to see ...

After Beat finished PTL, we spent the next two weeks visiting his family in northern Switzerland. Both Beat's mom and brother live in a relatively rural region along the Aare River, which meanders beneath the Jura Mountains. This area always feels subdued after the grandeur of the Alps, and admittedly it's taken me a few years to truly appreciate its beauty. Usually we arrive half-shattered and far behind on work after a week of racing and adventuring in Chamonix, and this year was no different. Beat parked himself in bed and worked from home for most of the next week, but he did rally to join me for a few Stägli. 

Just a few kilometers from our home base in Vordemwald, the 1,150 steps of the 1000er Stägli ascend a small Jura mountain. Rising 700 feet in a third of a mile, this ascent is a harsh exclamation point in the usually pleasant, loamy trails that traverse these slopes. Popular with fitness folks and home to a sprint race, the Stägli are vert-lover's dream — the perfect setting to put in hard stair repeats and chase lung-searing climbing PRs on rainy afternoons. There's even a fun, very easy via feratta through the gorge that runs alongside the Stägli, as well as several options for trail-running descents. For all of these reasons, I was drawn back to the Stägli most every day that week. Despite ongoing fatigue, I still attempted to chase PRs. Each effort melted down in the rare-for-me experience of lungs outlasting legs, which buckled as muscles filled with lactic acid. My PR is 11:32. The best I could do this year was 12:16. Fastest women's time on Strava is 8:09. It's humbling to comprehend such speed — a vertical mile in an hour if she could keep it up! — but still fun to push as hard as my heavy legs will allow, once in a while.

By Saturday, Beat was done with work and reasonably recovered from PTL, and had set aside the last week in Europe for unstructured fun. In past years we've been on our way to another 200-mile mountain race for Beat, but he had nothing lined up this time — which left him noticeably disappointed, and a bit apathetic to any non-racing excursions. He charged me with setting up adventures if I wanted to have any ... and I dropped the ball. Multi-day trips through Europe are complex. There's no wilderness. Every sleep stop must be set in advance, so one must know exactly which trails they're traveling each day and how long the route will take, set schedules, make reservations, acquire exact change in cash to pay for everything, and stick to the plan. Grocery stores in small Italian towns are effectively never open, so resupplies can be tricky as well. These realities leave me longing for the American West, where I'd just load up a backpack with everything I need and rest in beautiful solitude anywhere and anytime I please. Alas, I balk at all of the necessary planning and thus have yet to experience a true European tour. I made a half-hearted planning effort this year, even going so far as to contact refugios near Courmayeur. But Beat had little interest in what amounted to a small segment of the Tor des Geants when he's raced it seven times.

Back to the drawing board. A few day trips in Switzerland could suffice for now. The weather was forecast to be wet and cold for the next few days, with snow down to 2,000 meters. So I kept it simple — a meager 5,600-foot climb up the popular Pilatus peak near Lucerne.

Forecasts proved correct and it was a gloomy day with intermittent rain and "considerable cloudiness." Although this made for slimy trails through cattle pastures, I was enjoying the more typical Alpine weather. Chamonix had been entirely too hot and dry.

Beat approaching Pilatus Klum, which I knew was a major destination accessed by the world's steepest cogwheel railway. Still, I wasn't quite expecting the development we encountered — a massive hotel and multiple restaurants stretched across the narrow and rocky ridgeline.  Fog had enveloped the top by the time we arrived, so we climbed the viewless 2,100-meter summit of Esel and paid ten CHF (which I just learned is almost equal exchange for the U.S. dollar right now, so not bad!) to enjoy two Apfelschorles in the cafeteria, out of the cold wind. 

Starting the long descent as fog continued to roll through.

I routed us downhill a long way through another valley, in case we wanted new scenery. When I'm alone I treat my own GPS tracks as a suggestion, but Beat seemed more inclined to follow them to the line — the way one would when racing — and didn't even pause at the trail intersection. He did stop often to point out rugged-looking couloirs and other off-trail routes up near-vertical slopes that could possibly be climbed  — the way one would when racing PTL.

As we made our way down, down, down the winding valley, a small Appenzeller dog tore through the brush and barked aggressively, running back and forth between us as I waved my trekking poles at it, convinced I was about to have my ankles chomped. As Beat and I moved closer together, the cattle-herding dog seemed satisfied with its efforts and stopped barking, but continued to follow us down the trail, leaping happily between us. One mile passed, then two, and as we neared town, we were both fretting about what to do about this random Swiss dog that seemingly adopted us. It had a collar but no tag. Would we have to call an animal control office? The police? We couldn't just climb into the car and abandon it on a busy street miles from its apparent home.

We left the trail and continued on the final road to town with the dog still following. He/she especially seemed to take a liking to Beat and walked beside him, gazing back occasionally to make sure I hadn't drifted back too far. As we passed, all of these cattle moved together from various locations around the field and lined up in a row at the fence, fervently watching the dog for direction. Beat and I had a good laugh about the cows — amazing what those little herding dogs can do. Shortly after this spot we were approached by a vehicle, which turned out to be the farmer looking for his dog. Such relief! The man had been out cutting wood when the dog took off. He told us the dog occasionally adopts hikers, and once followed another pair all the way to the top of Pilatus. Beat suggested he put a phone number on the dog's collar.

The weather was really terrible on Sunday. Except for a couple of Stägli, we mainly stayed indoors and watched the start of the Tor des Geants online. Beat had several friends who were racing an even longer and tougher version of Tor that started on Friday. By this point in the week he was so filled with FOMO that he was glued to updates and didn't seem to care about what came next for us. Based on photos of heavy snow covering passes near Courmayeur and a similar forecast near us, I figured we'd be safest sticking to something fairly low.

On Monday we set out from Stockalp for a ridge walk that topped out at 2,200 meters. This route I effectively picked blind off of Strava's heat map, but did a little trip report research afterward to determine which parts of the ridge were walkable, and which parts demanded more technical scrambling that would be scary for me and downright dangerous in wet weather. But I didn't look at any photos beforehand, so the sheer rock walls and waterfalls along the narrow canyon approach were a nice surprise. Beat, again, continued to spot faint game trails climbing out of the gorge and urged explorations. The trails were little more than off-camber indentations in sheer grassy slopes where any tumble would send us hundreds of feet down a cliff. "Your interest in these trails is making me much less excited to hike with you this week," I told him.

After saying this, I realized that Beat and I have done comparatively little hiking together in Europe. He is nearly always either racing or recovering, so the vast majority of my excursions here have been solo. I'm used to picking and choosing my routes and maintaining my own pace. Since Beat is used to racing, even his casual pace feels hard-driving to me, and I was often straining to keep up. It was fun to share this with him as well, though — the awe of another incredible vista over the next horizon, the quaint cheese-selling establishments and real estate signs on enviable chalets to spark conversation, the surprise of a snowline that crept lower than we expected.

Surpassing snowline on our way to the Balmeregghorn. Time for wet and cold feet (and a wet and sore butt, as I took a good fall farther up.)

Looking across the ridge as the fog moved in. This is the more complicated part of the ridge to save for another time — compelling for sure, but in these conditions, it would have been a slip n' slide of horrors.

Looking toward Tannensee and the part of the ridge we would traverse.

Brief views toward Engstlenalp and a pass I'd climb later in the week. Steep drop-offs to the right!

The steep drop-offs were still there, but obscured by clouds as we made our way down.

Dropping toward Tannensee to wrap up the loop. This outing proved to be a perfect way to soothe the sting of disappointment about not running Tor des Geants or planning a more involved adventure — unbelievably scenic the entire way, low-impact (I mean, only 4,200 feet of climbing in 15 miles), but challenging enough with snow to add spice to both trail and scenery. Of course the descent I set was too meandering and easy, and Beat insisted we run a lot of it. Oof. It was going to be another leg-crushing week, but I couldn't wait to see what we planned next.


  1. I really enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Italys nonchalance about keeping hours would bother me too...a cultural difference, I guess, which throws planning out the window. Unequal levels of fitness and/or energy between spouse/partners can be problematic, for sure. The only solution I've found is to "do your own thing" most of the time...either alone or with someone of equal "enthusiasm/fitness." Then when the "speedier" one is trashed the day after some epic event, ask them to go hiking/biking/running. It's a great equalizer :)

  3. You get to such amazing places.


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