I love shoulder season in the mountains.
Autumn is incredibly beautiful, but for a lot of alpine resorts, it is the slow time of year. Business owners take a break before the winter tourism rush begins. Kids are back in school, so the summer vacationers are long gone. Maybe it rains a lot. In many senses it’s an in-between.
And yet: the mountains are still there. The days where it doesn’t rain can bring the most glorious blue skies. The plants start turning pretty colors, mostly reds and yellows. The highest peaks start accumulating snow. The weather is cooler, and as a person who suffers greatly in even moderate heat, that sure brings a smile to my face. It allows me to play outside for longer.
Fall is a great time for the budget traveler, because it’s not high season (except if you’re headed to leaf-peeping land….) and rates are reduced. Last year I had a great getaway to the Austrian Alps and stayed in a hotel I would never be able to afford in the winter season. I had the elaborate sauna suite all to myself one rainy afternoon.
This year, we headed to the Engadin valley in southeastern Switzerland.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Upper Engadin. Cross-country skiers are probably most familiar with it as the location for the Engadin Skimarathon, which I’ve done just once despite being in Switzerland for several winters. We also had a nice ski weekend in Zuoz at the end of this winter. The Lower Engadin is one of my very favorite places, full of small villages with Romantsch writing on them, surrounded by big mountains: so quiet and peaceful. But I really had only been to the Upper Engadin once in summer, and it was a day of frustration while I was mentally processing some work-related problems.
It being shoulder season, we found a great AirBnB in St. Moritz, which again, is more posh that I would usually choose; nearby Samedan, Celerina, or Pontresina are more affordable.
The day before we left, I ran into my colleague Chris, a group leader in my research institute, on the train on the way to work. He had just returned from Val Roseg, a valley in the Engadin where he and another colleague, Amael, study biodiversity and ecosystem function. (You can find out about their research on this valley – with a big glacier at the top! – here, and watch a video they made about it here.) Chris was raving not just about a cool scientific result they had uncovered, but how beautiful it was.
“We’re going there this weekend!” I said excitedly.
We discussed a little, and when I said we were staying in St. Moritz, Chris looked at me like I had lost my mind. But, shoulder season!
Anyway, I arrived on Friday evening and picked up some locally-made mushroom pasta, wild mushrooms, bacon, and alp cheese, and whipped up a dinner as the alpenglow faded. I had big plans for the weekend: part of the reason we had come was that as part of my marathon training, I had two big runs on the schedule. 30 km on Saturday, and 20 km on Sunday, each with some elevation. It seemed a bit intimidating, and I doubted I would get out the door for Sunday’s effort if I was just doing it in my backyard. Hence, I picked some spectacular scenery to get motivated.
But where to go? There are so many trails, valleys, mountains, ridges, bowls… too much to explore in a single weekend. I pored over the Alps Insight trail running site looking at routes, and then pored some more over online topo maps looking at more routes.
On Saturday, we woke up, made breakfast, and then ran over to Pontresina, a rolling six-kilometer stretch along the lake and through pine forests. The trail was cushy under my feet and I marveled, “wouldn’t it be great to be able to run on trails like this every day?”
After going through Pontresina, we hit the big hills, climbing about 700 meters in five kilometers. I didn’t even try to run – I knew what we still had ahead, and just kept to a steady hiking grind.
But then we were above treeline near Alp Languard, and everything was spectacular. We were looking more or less straight across the valley into Val Roseg, where my colleagues had been doing fieldwork just a few days prior. The glacier hung, shimmering white, on the mountains in the back. Looking to the other side, we were surrounded by the alpine meadow playground we would inhabit for the next few hours.
Finally above treeline!
We climbed along a small ridge called Paradis – fitting. It was more gradual and a bit of a rest after all the steep climbing. We passed a small hut before descending some hard-won meters into a gorgeous bowl just below Lej (Lake) Languard. For much of the climb we hadn’t seen other hikers, but here people converged on this small alpine lake perched on the side of the mountains. I couldn’t capture its turquoise blue color, but believe me, it was special.
We descended the trail you can see snaking along the left to reach a wide bowl, before climbing back up to Lej Languard. This part of the trail is a runner’s dream.
The route was like a series of step: up to the lake, pause. Up a headwall to another plateau with tiny lakes, pause. We finally hit a traversing trail that cut below some big cliffs near the tops of the mountains. I ran off an extra kilometer or so to a pass, Fuorcla Pischa, just to see what was on the other side. It was a huge, rocky, open bowl with several more lakes, and in this direction, not a ski lift to be seen. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but it was the wrong direction.
Instead, we traversed back to the northwest, finally on gradual terrain through the scree, and spectacular view ahead of us. After a while we hit the spur up to the top of Piz Languard, which we ignored – the route had 1500 meters of climbing already, and I didn’t feel the need to add a few hundred more. We dropped down a bit before joining the “Steinbock-weg”, and a hard truth. I had looked forward to this section of the run because it was gradual, high-altitude traversing – the hard work of climbing was done, I was tired, and I expected to be able to cruise. But the Steinbock-weg was basically navigating boulderfields. I had to take care and go slower than expected. The last thing I wanted was to reinsure my ankle. That was okay, but not what I had pictured in my mind’s eye.
The last major point on our route was Chamanna Segantini, a hut where we could have stopped for something to eat and drink. But instead we descended a fun trail and than ran on beautiful, easy dirt paths around the side of the mountain a few kilometers, before taking another steep drop down all the way back to Pontresina.
30 k and more than 4 1/2 hours, and I had one workout done for the weekend. I spent the afternoon lying on the couch. It was great.
For day two, I knew I couldn’t handle so much climbing again, so I reluctantly left the Alps Insight website behind and picked an easier route. On Sunday morning I took the bus west and up the valley past a series of lakes toward Maloja. It was such an incredibly beautiful morning, it almost broke my heart to think that soon I will have to leave this country and find a job somewhere else.
I started by run by going along the south shore of the Sils lake; the path over big rocks and under the trees reminded me of running on a lake shore in New England.
But after a few kilometers I turned uphill, the only big-is climb of the day taking me over a headwall and into the Val Fedoz valley. Luckily, the climb was along a dirt road, so I didn’t have to think too much about where to put my feet – I was mentally tired from the previous day. I just tried to keep my heart rate from going too high, and savored the view out over the lake of Sils.
The view was stunning, and the valley nearly empty. The singletrack was faint and in places I lost its thread, and would have to pause to find it again. The stream meandered through the valley bottom until I got to one steep drop, where it had carved its way through with a waterfall. There, as I was climbing up through the boulders on one side, I met two hunters packing out their kill. After finally identifying that French was our only language of common currency, we discussed how beautiful it was, and that winter would come soon.
At the top of the waterfall, I climbed on top of a huge rock, stopped my watch, and ate a snack. The glacier at the end of the valley – there’s one in every valley here, it seems – beckoned, but I didn’t have the time, or extra kilometers, to explore further on the ever-fainter trail. Instead, I turned around and headed back down the valley on the other side of the stream.
Eventually I dropped down into Sils, where I caught a bus back.
Back to the St. Moritz train station, then back to Zurich, then back to home, and then, the next day, back to work.
My dissertation is due in a month now, and I have been working like crazy to get it done. Every day I feel completely mentally exhausted. Maybe hiking and running 50 k in two days doesn’t sound relaxing, but it was: relative to mental work, physical work is not so taxing.
Taking in the color and the sun, the mountain air and the mountains, was the best way I could possibly have spent a weekend, and I was thrilled to finally get to the Upper Engadin and explore with shoes instead of skis.
There were seemingly infinite valleys and mountains to explore, and I’d love to get back one day. Two friends are there right now, and they have been ensconced for a week or so, having a different incredible adventure every day. I’m jealous, but it’s not my time for that. Hopefully, in the future I’ll have more chances, because the mountains are there waiting.