Friday, 29 July 2016

My First Alp Weekend

"If I may did you (meaning a foreigner) find out about this place?"

This question, asked in a friendly and genuinely interested way, was one I would get repeatedly over the course of the weekend. Considering that at the time I could barely understand, let alone speak, Swiss German (I understand it better now but am still miles away from speaking it), there was no way I'd pass as anything other than someone from another country. (To my great pleasure, I was mistaken for a German tourist - a nice sign that my German is good enough!)

My first weekend in Switzerland was spent arriving (I came in Saturday around noon, local time), getting settled, and trying to sleep off my jetlag. The second weekend I went to the Rhine Falls with my housemates. By early into the second week, I was getting antsy to see mountains.

Anytime you look up something related to tourism or hiking or mountains in Switzerland, you get the same handful of popular spots - InterlakenZermattJungfraujoch, and so on. There is nothing wrong with any of these spots; I've since been to Jungfraujoch and it is literally jaw-dropping, and visits to the others are planned or at least intended. But, I didn't just want to hit up Switzerland's biggest names, so I went up to my officemate - so avid a hiker and climber that he works as a guide when he's not doing science - and asked him to recommend places with good hiking that were not well-known by foreign tourists, and ideally fairly easy to get to as well.

His first suggestion? Stockhorn, in the Berner (Bernese, in English) Oberland. Off I went.

I took the train to Erlenbach, a small village nestled at the base of Stockhorn. It's remarkably beautiful, even by Swiss standards, consisting largely of historic brown wood buildings.
I mean, those mountain views don't hurt either.

Many of these are beautifully decorated, and have been carefully preserved.

I hadn't gone very far into the village before I saw a sign that said "Museum offen" (museum open). I'm a bit of a sucker for such little regional museums, so I went in. An older lady in period costume promptly began explaining some of the history to me and pointing out aspects of the house's construction and decor. She was very sweet and seemed to care quite deeply about the museum and its history. I was curious about the museum anyways, and after the time the lady had taken (she'd practically given me half the tour!) I felt it only proper to pay admission (5 Fr) and see the rest.

The verdict? In terms of the size of the museum and what there actually is to see, it's debatable whether the museum is actually worth the admission. That said, it's a beautiful - and beautifully preserved - historic house, and it's clear to see that an enormous of love and care has been poured into it (the lady said that the museum was fully volunteer-run). I certainly don't regret the time and money. (As well, this is Switzerland - for perspective, I would go on to spend that same amount of money on a cup of coffee more than once over the course of the weekend).

My personal highlight was the small exhibit on old tack and horse breeding - apparently sleepy little Erlenbach used to be the site of one of Europe's biggest annual horse fairs!
This is apparently an old distance riding saddle and it fascinated me. In case any of my horse friends see this - it looks like a cross between an English and a Western saddle, no?
Also interesting was the fact that there are hot springs near the village, and at one time it was a very popular spa destination with a resort and everything. I didn't get too great a picture, but these are the pipes they used to pump the hot mineral water to the resort! They bored holes into logs and then joined them by making a point on one side and a slightly larger hole in the other. I've never seen anything like it.

From the museum I went on to the gondola to head up the mountain. It was a large gondola car with big windows, which I - to my great surprise - had completely to myself, apart from two staff. One of the employees started chatting with me, asking me what my plans were and how I'd come to be here.
This was up at the gondola station. Gotta love Switzerland!
For this day, especially since it was late by the time I started hiking (and, you know, my first big hike of the season...) I only did a short hike, just up to the alpine hut I'd planned on staying at.

The first part of the hike was beautiful. The gondola station is right above a lake that's emerald green and almost completely smooth, so it reflects the mountains and scenery around it.
I mean, it'll do...
I could have picked either side of the lake to walk around; by chance, I picked the side where the trail was higher above the lake, which made for beautiful views but fewer photography opportunities (on the way down the next day I deliberately picked the other side and promptly shot far too many pictures).

I couldn't get enough of the reflections. Just look at that!
The most fun part of this segment of the hike was that it led through two tunnels!

The second had an icon (picture of a saint - I think it was Mary but I wasn't sure in the bad lighting) in it, which surprised and amused me.

From there, the hike led briefly through a field of cows before heading into the forest. I was not expecting the cows; I tend to assume a hiking trail will lead around and not through the herd (how North American of me...), although have since learned that this is typical.
This was from within the cow herd, overlooking the farmhouse. Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...
I was slightly disappointed that remainder of the hike was in the forest, with almost no views. At the same time, owing to both the weather and the late hour, I didn't encounter anyone else while hiking. With that and the mist and the strange, dark, moody light coming from the low-hanging grey clouds gave the forest a mysterious and almost magical atmosphere.

It started raining again right near the end of the hike. By the time I made it to the door of the alpine hut, the rain was quite heavy and I was not sad to wrap up my hike and go inside.

The hut - a converted farmhouse, as far as I could tell - consisted of an open dining/common room on the ground floor, with the kitchen attached, and the sleeping area up a steep, narrow staircase and through a trapdoor. The sleeping area was a Massenlager (which translates roughly to mass accommodation*), and is pretty much what it sounds like: long rows of identical mattresses side by side, under the old farmhouse rafters. It was not yet high season and the weather wasn't stellar, so there was lots of space, but at the height of the season when the place is full I suspect that you might find yourself feeling a bit sardine-like.

The downstairs area is lovely in a rustic way: wooden walls and ceiling, long trestle tables and benches under old-fashioned lamps, lace curtains on the windows.

Being me, I promptly made a beeline to the little board game/book corner. There was an old(ish) man sitting near the corner, and as I looked at the various books he kept chuckling. I finally asked him what he was laughing about, and he replied "oh, nothing." I shrugged and went back to reading book covers, but he asked me some questions (I don't remember exactly what, but I suspect it was the usual "where are you from", "where are you hiking", and the like), so I finally sat down and talked with him.

One hour later, it was time for dinner to be served. The old guy's friend had joined us in the interim and decided that I needed to learn backgammon. It's a lot more fun than I expected...maybe helped by the fact that beginner's luck had me winning the first game!

I had planned to not buy meals, but I didn't want to sit in the dining room and not eat (I wasn't sure how the proprietors would look on that), and I was enjoying my conversation and game too much to leave. Plus, the food sounded good (okay, fine, the server described it as "pasta with cheese sauce", which is all you really need to get me). The food was excellent - a traditional Swiss meal called "Alpenhörnli", a mix of pasta and potatoes with cheese sauce, fried onion, and (interestingly) applesauce. The applesauce complements the rest of the food surprisingly well (my conversation partner explained that on the high alpine farms, pasta and/or potatoes, cheese, onion, and apples were often all one would have had, hence the combination). Despite having eaten half a dinner while hiking, I downed two full plates of the meal - probably a further sign of how unused I was to the hiking.

I ended up talking with the guys until quite late at night. They seemed to genuinely enjoy the conversation and were not at all creepy (as one would easily assume in the situation of two older men talking to a lone young woman). Rather, I think they were taking me under their wing a little bit. We had a wide-ranging conversation on politics, life and history in our respective countries, hikes, and so on, and they gave me some insight and perspective into Switzerland.
The only picture I took of my conversation partners and the interior of the hut, I'm afraid.
I did take a brief break after dinner to take some pictures of the descending mist and twilight. Outside, all was completely silent and still, with the fog slowly covering the mountain tops and the colours turning to grey. It felt almost like being in a different world, and as I stood and walked outside in the silence and solitude I could feel something tight in me relaxing and unwinding. It had been a stressful, difficult week, with big mistakes at work and serious visa stress, and mountains and solitude were exactly what I needed.

And I knew that the hut, with its promise of company and conversation and the warm glow of inclusion, under the quiet golden light of the lamps, was waiting for me once I was finished.

Day 2

The next morning dawned clear and sunny, a nice change from the day before. After wishing my conversation partners a good hike (they had a long day planned and wanted to set off as early as they could) I ordered a coffee at the hut and spent a few minutes drinking it while writing in my journal what would become the start of this blog post.
Yes, I shot the hut from the same angle like four times. Sue me.
Then, I shouldered my backpack and camera bag and hiked down to the lake I had looked out over the night before to have my breakfast.

Breakfast of champions!
Unfortunately, by the time I’d finished breakfast, clouds had pulled in. The hike I wanted to do was quite exposed, so debated on whether that was a good idea. I went a ways along a different hike before deciding that I really, really wanted to do the hike I’d planned. So back I went.

The hike started out fairly level, under the ridge it would follow later on.
The hike is called Strüssligrat (grat means a ridge); you can see the eponymous ridge in this picture.
However, it quickly became very steep leading up high stone “steps”. It wasn’t climbing, properly, but I was using my hands at points. I enjoy that kind of thing, so I was ecstatic about that portion of the hike, although balancing both camera bag and backpack while doing to was tricky. From the “steps”, the hike went up an extremely steep, slippery slope…leading towards a sheer drop-off. While I have little fear of heights, I do have some and certainly respect them, and so I was picking my footing very carefully on this segment.

Did I mention this segment was very steep? Looking at the map again, you gain about 200m in elevation over around 500m on the ground.

The hike is called Strüssligrat, and after a bit more elevation I found myself on the eponymous ridge ("grat" means ridge). The ridge itself is only about 2 or 3 meters wide with fairly abrupt drop-offs to either side. The trail was wide enough that I felt quite safe, but it would probably not be the hike for those of my friends with serious fear of heights...However, I thought it was a very cool hike, if challenging at times, and enjoyed myself immensely.
This gives you an idea of how narrow the ridge is...
...and how steep the drop-off.
Right near the end the clouds started thickening, which made me a bit nervous. Getting to the peak (with a building, since this is Switzerland) was a relief. I needn't have worried, as it was just clouds with breaks in them, but I was also ready for a break (and, in particular, lunch).

I didn't encounter any other hikers on the trail until I was a few hundred meters from the peak. Definitely made the trail a bit more adventurous since I was stuck there completely on my own :). At the peak, it was (of course) crowded - there are easier trails as well as the gondola that lead right up to the peak. Thanks to the weather, the views were less than stellar, so I didn't take an inordinate amount of time to look around.

A "peak photo" is a tadition in my family - once you make it to the peak, you have to take a picture! Selfie-ing with a DSLR is difficult (unless you're in space) and there were too many people around and too little space for me to want to set up a self-timer picture (in case you're wondering, self-timer is how I took all the other pictures of me in this post). Suddenly I heard some English behind me and saw two people around my own age, so I decided to ask them, and we ended up talking for a while.
Peak photo! I know I'm out of focus - there are good reasons why I normally don't ask people to take pictures of me, meaning no offense to Florian. Photo credit to Florian!
Florian is a local, and Taylor was from Taiwan. They'd met while backpacking Southeast Asia some time ago and she had taken her vacation to go visit him and see Switzerland. Apparently she was treated like a rockstar on her way up in the gondola - if people were surprised to see someone (they thought was) German on the mountain, I can only imagine how much shock someone from Taiwan would cause! Many thanks to the two of them for their kindness including a slightly lonely solo hiker in their tour of the peak and coffee break, and to Florian in particular for explaining a bunch of little details about Swiss life to me.

I took the quickest trail back down to the guesthouse. This one is quite popular, and so I got lots of opportunity to practice my "Grützi!" and related greetings. I feel like I still haven't fully figured out the system of greetings the Swiss use...

From the hut, I went back to the lake for a (freezing old) swim. I only made it a few minutes but definitely came out refreshed...and I figured I had to keep up the reputation of Canadians ;). I then took a different, slightly longer trail than the one I'd hiked up to the hut to get back to the gondola. Imagine my surprise when I found this very Canadian-looking log hut!

At the gondola, I was faced with the choice of hiking down or taking the gondola down. In the interest of both saving money and killing time (I have a rail pass that lets me ride free after pm), I chose to hike. Bad idea!
The view down the gondola line.
I'd hoped to run, but the trail instantly turned bad. Lots of uneven, exposed roots made high "steps" as well as a tripping hazard, and I found myself picking my way slowly and carefully rather than running. On fresh legs I might have hazarded running, but definitely not on tired legs. Things didn't improve much past this point; the trail was largely in the forest (so no views), often steep and slow-going, and much, much longer than I anticipated.**

The biggest lowlight was dropping my camera bag down a scree slope (I'm still not sure how I managed this...I think I put it down for a second and didn't pay proper attention to how close to the edge I was), necessitating some rather unpleasant and panicked scrambling and bushwhacking to get it back. Thankfully, the slope, though steep, was short, and my equipment survived the tumble completely unscathed. I still could have done without the experience, but at least it ended well.

The hike down highlighted what is probably the biggest challenge (next to safety***) with solo hiking: getting through when the going is tough. When you hike with two (or ideally more) people, chances are that even if one person is flagging, the other is motivated and can keep the group going. When you're alone, you have to keep yourself going no matter how you're currently feeling and how little energy you have. It was definitely my biggest mental challenge during the weekend.

In hindsight, the unpleasant parts fade quickly. When I look back on this weekend, I don't remember the hardships; all I remember is the beauty of the mountains and the joy of being in them, the satisfaction of accomplishing a difficult hike and of successfully hiking solo for the first time, the peace and calm and solitude of being in nature alone, and the warmth and kindness of the people I met, as mentioned in this post.

They're quite addicting.

*"Lager" translates to both "accommodation" (generally in the context of a camp or so) and "storage". I may have amused myself a whole bunch throughout the weekend by thinking of the sleeping place as "mass storage" I not hilarious?

**I've since learned multiple times that Swiss hiking time estimates do NOT correspond to actual Sophia hiking time in the slightest. Even my extremely fit and fast-hiking friend likes to joke that the estimates are made by Swiss mountain guides running the trail while carrying only a water bottle.

***There's a certain risk anytime you're in the mountains. There's also a certain risk associated with hiking alone. However, in Switzerland, this latter risk is pretty minimal; you're rarely far from people, and extremely unlikely to find yourself on a trail where someone won't pass by within a short period of time.

My apologies for a long posting delay! I've been extremely busy with everything I'm doing and experiencing here, and I really wanted to this amazing weekend justice, so I took my time writing this post. I will do my best to have another post up at my usual time - Wednesday or Thursday - next week. Thanks for sticking around!

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