Easter Break in the Alps

Coming from the U.S. and a non-religious family, I never thought about Easter all that much once I grew up and stopped having Easter egg hunts. But in Europe, the Easter weekend is a major holiday, a kind of spring break of sorts. Even in places that are no longer particularly religious (or, no longer very observantly religious), Good Friday and Easter Monday are often off from work, making a long weekend for family, friends, and maybe travel. Many people tack on a day or more on either side, or take the whole next week off.

If you follow any Scandinavian or Finns, you probably saw pictures of their Easter holidays spent skiing (cross-country, downhill, or touring), snowmobiling, ice fishing, and getting sunburnt up north. This always makes me jealous – the days are getting long up there, the sun is warm, and there’s still snow to play in. Exhibits A, B, and C.

This year we decided to go to the Valais, one fo the parts of Switzerland with the highest mountains, for our Easter weekend. We arrived Thursday night just in time to take in the views across the valley from our AirBnB. Clearly, this was going to be a nice time.

We were staying in Riederalp, a car-free village accessible by cablecar. The offseason had begun and many hotels and restaurants were closed. There were tourists, but only a few to add to the less than 500 people who live there (some of whom were certainly off on their own holidays in warmer places). Our rented apartment was between the two village centers, and so very quiet. This was exactly what I needed. Every morning we would wake up and have a coffee on the porch looking at this view and how the light changed on the mountains.

Riederalp is just below a ridge, and if you hike up there you are offered a view of the Aletsch glacier, the largest one in the Alps. It’s 23 kilometers long, surrounded by 4000-meter mountains, and by 2100 is predicted to lose 90% of its 27 billion metric tons of ice.

The “Aletsch Arena,” as the greater area has billed itself, is one of the big tourist draws. But we realized that it wasn’t the perfect time of year to have all kinds of adventures.

Riederalp is on the south side of the ridge and much of the snow had melted even at 1900 meters where we were staying. I thought maybe that meant we could make a trail running loop around the closest small mountain, but once we got going, reality set in. There was kind of a lot of snow.

This was one of those days where I made a plan and Steve was maybe not thrilled to be tagging along with my bad plan.

Still, part of the reason I had wanted to go to the mountains – other than the extreme happiness I get from just looking at them – was to do some running with vertical, as I’m training for a trail running race in the Alps in July. So I tried to make better plans. A few days, we ended up hiking/running on the “Winterwanderweg” winter hiking trails.

These were pretty high up, so the views were spectacular. They were also packed down – occasionally groomed, and then walked on by people in boots and sometimes snowshoes. Depending on whether the snow was still frozen or soft and slushy, this made it quite challenging running, either sliding around or constantly stretching your ankles in different directions as your feet landed in frozen ruts. It wasn’t the most fun running and by the end of the last day my ankle was sore, but at the same time it was the most fun running, because who can argue with this scenery!?

Two other days, I mapped out routes of about 20 km each that we hiked/ran. Both had a lot of vertical, and some snow patches despite my attempts to route down to lower elevations. The first was through villages and involved losing and then gaining about 1000 meters of elevation to get back to our porch, and it pretty much destroyed me.

The other was a new favorite loop following two local trails, the “Massaweg” and the “Hexeweg”, which curved over singletrack around the side of a mountain and then down a stream valley.

Anyway, we certainly got in some miles and some vertical.

But the nicest part of the holiday in many ways was just being quiet and not worrying too much about work. Sleeping late, sitting on the porch and looking at the mountains. We took some walks around the near-empty village and wondered what it would be like to have a place here. What it would be like to grow up here. What it was like to live here 200 years ago.

Spring is a great time to stop and take a breath. And this was a great place to take that breath.

My Guide To Cross-Country Skiing in Eastern Switzerland

 

A lot of people have asked me: where should I go cross-country skiing? Or, I’d like to try cross-country skiing – but where can I go around Zurich?

Well, I’ve made a post with the answers! Check out my guide to cross-country skiing in Eastern Switzerland, HERE! I’ve picked 12 favorite spots to recommend, and summarized the trail system, how to get there, rental and ticket information, and where you can leave a backpack of dry clothes.

If you run through those suggestions too fast, I add 10 more possibilities at the bottom, with fewer details.

Happy skiing! Please get out there and enjoy winter!

autumn in the Engadin.

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.

Bye for now, Holmenkollen.

A few weeks ago I headed to Oslo for the last* World Cup biathlon races of the season. I had some serious flip-flopping about whether to go or not: FasterSkier didn’t cover the trip financially, but I wanted to go see the races, I wanted to get away from PhD work for a few days, I wanted to go ski in the Nordmarka, I wanted to have one last hurrah. But it was expensive! Norway always is, especially last-minute. After lots of soul-searching and budget-considering, I bought a plane ticket, got accredited for the races, and arranged an AirBnB.

As soon as I arrived, I knew I had made the right call. In mid March the days are already starting to get longer in Scandinavia. I arrived in the late afternoon and went for a jog in the evening light, skidding around on icy paths and sidewalks.

Then I made dinner in the absolutely perfect apartment we had rented. I had worked on some manuscript revisions on my flight, so I sent those off. I felt like leaving work early on a Thursday hadn’t made me much less productive. As a reward, I pulled up the extremely extensive trail map of the forests around Oslo (the marka) and got ready to head off skiing the next morning.

It turned out to be the perfect trip. The skiing was the best I’ve ever had in Oslo in all of my visits there – I was remembering a few years before when I went skiing with my Dartmouth friends Hannah and Knut. Knut had been living in Oslo for a few years at that point, and he picked out a loop for us in the marka. But it was so slushy and warm that we were dodging dirt and rocks, ice sheets above streams of snowmelt the whole way.

Quite a contrast. This year, it was quite cold overnight (and in the mornings!), but getting balmy by midday, true spring skiing but with a phenomenal base of snow. On my last ski, I was passed by a guy decked out in University of Denver gear. He saw that I was wearing an old Dartmouth Ski Team jacket and stopped to chat. I gushed about how beautiful the skiing was.

“I grew up in Oslo, and this is the best winter we have had in 15 years!” he exclaimed.

It was truly great. That first ski that I went on, I meandered for 35 kilometers, over hills (a lot of them: nearly 1000 meters of climbing on the day, Strava told me, explaining why I felt way more worn out than 35 k would suggest…), across lakes, through the woods, and past huts serving hot chocolate and waffles (I didn’t stop).

I could not have been happier. I was glowing.

“Why aren’t you looking for a postdoc here?” People kept asking, seeing just how happy I was and as I raved on and on about how you could ski for 100 km or far farther than that, if you wanted to, without ever doubling back. And all this, accessible from the metro line!

It was a good question, but also highlighted why I was there. At this time next year, I will be done with my PhD, and I don’t know where I will be but hopefully I will be starting a postdoc. The chances are pretty high that I will be back in North America. Oslo won’t be just a quick hop across Europe like it is from my current home in Zurich. I won’t be able to make a last-minute decision to fly over and watch the World Cup. Probably, I won’t be going to any World Cups at all.

So I enjoyed watching the races. The weather couldn’t have been better – instead of the fog that sometimes characterizes the Oslo fjord, it was spectacularly sunny every day. I got sunburned, and for one of the first times ever while reporting at a race, my hands didn’t even get cold operating the voice recorder app on my phone. The races almost didn’t seem long enough: standing out on the side of the trail, I could have just stayed there basking in the sun and the atmosphere for hours. When the racers were heading for the finish line and I had to get back to interview them, it was only grudgingly that I headed in that direction. In a way there didn’t even need to be a race. I would have sat outside anyway.

I enjoyed the culture, jogging through the Vigeland Park sculpture garden and visiting the phenomenal Fram Museum with Susan. Steve and I lit a fire in the wood stove in our AirBnB and cooked salmon for dinner, feeling cozy.

And I enjoyed the skiing.

On Sunday, before the last races of the weekend, I headed off on a ski – as always. Because I look more or less like I know how to ski, I can usually cruise around the race trails during training if I have my media accreditation and nobody looks at it too closely. So I headed out of the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere but trying not to attract any attention, and then off onto the bigger loop – the trails used in the cross-country World Cup but too long for biathlon, the ones that wouldn’t deliver skiers back to the shooting range fast enough.

I remembered what it was like there in 2011, my very first reporting trip with FasterSkier. It was cross-country World Championships, and we got a bib that allowed us to ski around the race course before the 50 k. I think at least two, if not three, of us took turns with that bib so we could each head out on the trails.

That morning, I skied two laps (which was maybe 8 k or maybe 13 k? I’m not sure…) and the 100,000+ people were already out there ready to cheer, having been camping in the woods around the trails and already drinking and grilling sausages. I had been to Norway before, for the 1994 Olympics when I was a little kid and then with two Ford Sayre trips. But to ski the trails before that race exponentially altered my understanding of our sport even above having been a spectator at the Holmenkollen in 2003 and 2006. Two laps of the loop used for that 50 k are no joke on the legs, but the adrenaline of all the half-drunk and fully-drunk fans screaming for me as if I was an athlete and the race had already started, rather than being two hours away, pushed me harder and harder, barely noticing the lactate building up.

This time, as I skied up the huge climbs of the Holmenkollen race trail loop and headed for the marka, they were quiet. I found myself crying. For seven years I had been going to World Cup races, and this pre-work ski was an integral part of my ritual. We don’t do this job for the money, and the chance to get out on ski trails in new and special places is always one of the best parts of a trip for me.

Oslo hadn’t been a new place in a while, but it will always be one of the most special places.

When would I next ski on these amazing trails, with all their lore and all of my own memories of famous battles which unfolded there?

When next would I be able to turn to the right as I climbed, and look out over the city and its fjord?

I kept thinking: this the the last time I’ll ever go for a ski before a race like this. I’ve done this so many times, and this is it. Not only it for skiing before the Holmenkollen races, but who knows when I’ll next be in Oslo, period.

The fact that it was such a perfect day didn’t help make that any easier to take.

Nor did the fact that when I got back to the stadium, I would be covering the last World Cup race ever for Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke of the United States, and Julia Ransom of Canada. The retirement parties planned somehow made my own upcoming life changes come even more to the fore.

But, of course, that is being melodramatic and overblown. Oslo isn’t going anywhere. Probably I won’t be back there reporting for FasterSkier. But that’s not to say that I can’t go back, during the World Cup or any other time. I have my whole life ahead of me. In theory, I will have a job and some income. (Ha!! That’s delusional!! I’m a scientist!!) I can come back whenever I want, if the pull is so strong. It’s not my last time on these trails.

I kept repeating this to myself and by the time I peeled off of the cross-country race loop and headed into the marka, the tears had stopped.

On the slightly-less-manicured trails, I passed dozens, probably hundreds, of skiers. Some in trendy Scandinavian ski clothes. Others retirees, on old skis, moving slowly. Families with kids, with the parents carrying backpacks for a picnic later. Guys pulling babies and toddlers behind them in pulks. People my age who weren’t out there because they were great skiers, but because it was a beautiful day, skiing around in old sweaters and knit headbands. Women of all ages, some wearing lipstick, several with dogs bounding beside them or ahead of them or, in the case of one lady with a dachshund, trailing behind her working very hard but utterly unable to keep up on his stubby little legs.

The whole world was out skiing because, in the end, it was a perfect day. And I was out with them.

I didn’t forget that in a way this was the end of everything, but the acute grief faded. I enjoyed the ski without thinking constantly about what it meant. I basked.

I skied the longest loop I could manage until it was almost time for the races, then snuck back into the stadium past some course marshals who just nodded instead of checking my credential. I took off my skis and stood for a moment, looking first at the ski jump just across the bowl, then at the grandstands full of fans. The television cameras were panning back and forth. The commentators in their little booths were already commentating. The stadium announcer was pumping up the crowd. A few athletes were starting to do pickups, speeds, or threshold work as they skied out of the stadium, the final pieces of their pre-race warmups. Photographers were starting to filter out onto the trails and their special priority positions hauling their gigantic zoom lenses, bigger than my head.

I took several deep breaths. I smiled.

I told myself, this will still be here.

And I went into the media center to change into dry clothes, grab something to eat, and then get out there and do some reporting.

 

*Oslo was last World Cup of the season that wasn’t in Russia, which is currently not in compliance with the WADA Code. A number of teams and athletes skipped the Russia finals.

Seiser Alm and perfect ski vacations.

I’m seriously late with this trip report, but no matter. I want to tell you about a trip I took back in early February.

Earlier this winter, when I realized that I was not going to the Olympics and thus had more time to play with in Europe (ha! only kind of! I need to finish my dissertation!), I asked on Facebook: what were my friends’ favorite places to cross-country ski in Europe? Places that I shouldn’t leave next fall without having visited?

Yes, I am in that mode. I anticipate defending my PhD in September, which means that I am looking for postdoc positions and in all likelihood I’ll be headed back to North America. It’s not that I’ll never take another ski trip in Europe, of course, but doing so will be a lot harder once I’m based on a different continent. There is such a world to explore here, and I’ve had so many great trips and experiences – many of which you can read about on this blog, like this, this, or this – but there are so many places that I still want to go, and not enough time to visit them.

So I wanted some help narrowing down my list.

A suggestion from multiple people was Seiser Alm (or Alpe di Siusi) in Italy. I had known for a while that this would be a nice place to go, as evidenced by the fact that oh so many national ski teams do training camps there: it is a favorite of the Americans, the Canadians, the Swedes, the Norwegians, and the Finns, among others. Marit Bjørgen and Charlotte Kalla each decided to ditch their teams’ pre-Olympic training camps and train in Seiser Alm instead. (And that turned out to work out well for both of them, as each came home with individual gold medals.)

Seiser Alm isn’t all that hard to get to, if you’re coming from afar. Go to Milan, take a train to Bolzano, and then it’s a quick bus ride to Seis/Siusi, the town below the plateau. You can stay there and take the cablecar or bus up to the plateau of Seiser Alm/Alpe di Siusi every day to ski, or you can travel up the big hill and stay up there, for example in the village of Compatsch, as we did.

Pro tip, do some work on the train.

The reason I hadn’t been to Seiser Alm so far, however, is that if you are coming from the north it is not so convenient. With a car, it’s probably not that bad. I don’t have a car, however, so the trip was a long combination of train and bus connections. Crossing the Alps is never a simple feat and I took the train into Austria, then another train to the top of a pass, then a another train down the other side of the pass into Italy, then a bus from Brixen/Bressanone to Seis/Siusi*, then the cablecar. I had wanted to take this trip before, but the logistics put me off. From Zurich it’s literally as fast to fly to Oslo and then take a train to Lillehammer, as it is to take public transportation to Seiser Alm!

I’m bad at writing blog posts, because my introductions are always longer than the meat of the post. But here, I’ll finally get to the point: I took a few days off work and made it a long weekend, reserved a hotel, and traveled to Seiser Alm. I went with my boyfriend, who had never cross-country skied before. I was hoping he wouldn’t hate it, and figured that if I wanted him to love my sport, I might as well introduce him to it in the awesomest place I could think of.

Because of all those logistics, we arrived in the mid afternoon. After checking in I immediately wanted to go for a ski before the sun went down, so I grabbed my skate skis and headed out. It had snowed the day before and the grooming was imperfect for skating (classic would have been better, but I didn’t want to take the time to pick and apply kickwax, I just wanted to get out there).

But it was beautiful. Everything I had dreamed of. And I had plenty of time to appreciate the scenery, because skating through the powder up some big climbs at 1800 meters of elevation (around 6,000 feet, and higher once I went up some of those big climbs) is really hard. I just skied until the sun was setting, maybe an hour and a half, but I was already pooped.

Luckily, I could refuel. Our hotel was delightful. As is probably the case for most or all of the hotels in Compatsch, half-board is the default: breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. That’s because Compatsch is a tiny, tiny village at the top of the cablecar. There are a handful of hotels, some of them fairly big, but maybe only two or three bars/pizza places that aren’t associated with hotels. There’s just not many other places you are going to eat, and the hotels aren’t really going to get dinner guests who aren’t staying up there because the cablecar stops running at 6 p.m. and you aren’t allowed to drive up to the plateau unless you are staying there (which makes the plateau very nice and quiet!). So, half-board makes sense for everyone.

The dinner was superb, including a great salad bar, some handmade pasta (of course), and a *dessert buffet*. I generally try not to eat dessert, but this was too much to resist. When I saw the 70-something-year-old German guy from Hamburg who was sitting at the table next to us get up and choose a second dessert, I decided that’s what I should do too.

Yes, even if you don’t count the phenomenal skiing, I was spoiled on this trip.

The next day we enjoyed a similarly great breakfast, and then set out to ski. That first afternoon I had remembered how exhausting it is to skate at altitude. I haven’t been doing a lot of skating this year because I’m still recovering from an ankle injury that has really affected my mechanics, so I had somehow forgotten that fact.

So we stuck to classic skiing. After the moody weather of our arrival day, it dawned bright and sunny. I slapped some blue hardwax on my skis, we rented some skis for my boyfriend, and set out.

Same view, this time with A+ grooming.

I can hardly explain how spectacular it was. I tried to be a good teacher but was distracted by the scenery, the perfect conditions, the feeling of sun on my skin (we hadn’t been getting a lot of that in Zurich). Every few minutes I would look around and grin, and sometimes spread my arms like, can you believe this?

From Compatsch, it is a few kilometers up to Ritsch, which is the true center of the trail system. From there, there’s a few kilometers of easy, rolling trails (and actually even a one-kilometer “practice loop” which is totally flat). We started there, but continued around the 12-km “Hartl” loop that goes far out the plateau to the northeast, and at its farthest point loops around alpine meadows with overlooks across a valley into Val Gardena.

I live in Switzerland, so I’m used to mountains, but the mountains in the Dolomites are totally different. They are made of, well, dolomite, and they are sharp and craggy. I think this is one thing that made me so awed by the scenery: it was just so different than what I was used to seeing. Take my wonder at the Swiss Alps, that feeling I have in Lenzerheide or Gantrisch or even Einsiedeln, and increase it by an order of magnitude, because these mountains are simply not what I usually look at. And throughout the day, the sun plays across them. Different parts are lit up or shaded. Clouds and snow squalls play around the spires. Every time you look is a little different.

My boyfriend survived the loop and we stopped in Ritsch for lunch at the hotel/restaurant there, devouring some excellent local-style dumplings. One was made with cheese, another spinach, a third one beets.

After replenishing, we parted ways and I skied down into Saltria and cruised around the 6 k loop there. Now is a good time to explain Seiser Alm. It is really just a huge alpine plateau, with hills and meadows, and sharp mountains on several sides. On every edge of this plateau are ski lifts and tiny resorts with a one or two hotels each; many of these areas are accessible from one another, albeit not by steep ski runs. Sometimes the cross-country ski trail would be running parallel to an alpine run, on a gradual downhill across the plateau. Even just in a tuck, on my cross-country skis I would be going faster than the downhill skiers on their heavy equipment, who couldn’t get up a head of momentum on such a gradual hill.

Saltria is another medium-sized village, a bit like Compatsch, but nestled down in a mini-valley a bit instead of totally perched on a plateau. To get down to Saltria, I dropped almost 200 meters of elevation in about two twisty kilometers, which was a lot of fun. I then cruised around the medium loop there, which was comparatively deserted and quite lovely, going up this mini-valley along a babbling river/stream instead of offering the bam-bam-bam of the plateau’s mountain views. And then I had to climb back up those 200 meters in two kilometers, which was slightly less fun.

Again, I was exhausted. But as I waited hungrily for dinner time, I appreciated the view, again. Perhaps some of the most special views of the spiky mountains are in the morning and the evening. As the light gradually disappeared, the spires were framed in different colors, just there right outside our window. The beauty and the quiet are so striking. Unless you have a really good reason to do a budget trip, it’s worth spending a little bit more money to stay up on the plateau and experience the mountains through whole days and nights instead of just enjoying the views from your skis during the day.

We had another great dinner, after which we sat in the hotel’s lounge area with a couple of beers. We were joined by two German couples, and the two men in the group began playing music on a guitar and singing. They were great, and played songs from several cultures and in several languages. The experience of this type of hotel, where everyone sticks around for meals, is a very different atmosphere from the impersonal settings of bigger resorts, and it was a lot of fun.

The next day was again beautiful and sunny, and we skied the “Panorama” loop, in total about a 20 km round trip from Compatsch, with a huge elevation gain.

Suddenly you find yourself skiing past the top of a ski lift, an experience you rarely get in the U.S. or Canada! The way that nordic and alpine skiing are integrated into the same space in Seiser Alm (and a few other places I have been, like Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees) is really neat. Groomed winter hiking/snowshoe trails are also embedded into this matrix, so up on the plateau at nearly any point you can look around and see people doing three or four different kinds of recreation. I wish more resorts would do this, instead of making these all totally separate activities, each with their own “area”. It’s great to be able to use the same space, and simply provides more terrain for everyone – why is that not a win/win!?

The panorama loop indeed offers spectacular panoramas. Again I was on blue hardwax, cruising around perfect classic tracks. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Perhaps because we set out directly after breakfast, we encountered relatively few other skiers, particularly in the outer parts of the loop.

The loop was so great that I went back the next day, when I skied as much as I could – the Panorama loop, the other loop overlooking Val Gardena – before reluctantly putting my skis back in their bag, getting on the cablecar, and starting the long journey home to Zurich. I had skied about 30 km each day, on average, and I was satisfied, exhausted, sore – but wished I could have just stayed and kept skiing.

I know exactly why so many people, from the world’s best skiers to that old guy from Hamburg who told us that he comes to Seiser Alm for two weeks every year, want to go there. I can’t wait to go back, even though it might be five or ten or twenty years before I have another chance.

Not only the snow, but that handmade pasta and an excellent glass of wine are waiting for me when I do.

*Why does everything have two names? Südtirol is an interesting region with an interesting history. It’s currently an “autonomous province” of Italy, but more than half the people living there speak German as their first language. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia explanation of the region’s history, and a link to a 1927 article in Foreign Affairs stating that “the German South-Tyrol and its people are purely German. Never in history has the Brenner been the frontier of Italy… Italy nevertheless has an international obligation with regard to the rights of the German population of South-Tyrol.” That article is obviously not completely unbiased, but it’s quite interesting to read.

Haute Savoie and the Best World Cup Yet?

Men’s mass start, Le Grand Bornand, 2017.

France has its own way about many things, and the Biathlon World Cup turns out to be one of them. The recent weekend of competitions in Le Grand Bornand was one of the most fun, atmospheric, and exciting events I’ve been to, although I’ve struggled to explain in words exactly what made it different.

“I could go for the greatest skiing right from the venue!” Yeah, but I also had amazing ski adventures in Norway, Austria, and Germany.

“The crowd was so huge, and so energetic!” Yeah, but see also, Ruhpolding and Holmenkollen, not to mention the Czech Republic for 2013 World Championships.

You begin to see the problem. It was different all right, but is there a word for how?

But whatever it was, which I will try nevertheless to articulate, it was amazing. Not only the races, but also everything else I did while there: the extra day I got to spend skiing up on a plateau, the ventures into a historic city nearby, the tartiflette I ate two days in a row in perfect happiness.

My usual reporting gig goes something like this: take a plane or train until I’m in the closest big city, take a train or bus until I’m in town, walk to wherever I’m staying or else beg for a transport from the organizing committee. Usually, walk. Sometimes far.

As the beginning of this World Cup weekend drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to work very well. The distance from Zurich to Le Grand Bornand is not too far, but the connections were terrible. There was a bus directly from Geneva to Le Grand Bornand, but as a ski-season bus it only began to run the week after the World Cup came to town (come on, guys!). An email to the organizing committee asking for a suggested alternative went unanswered. Sleuthing revealed that instead I would have to spend a long layover in Geneva, take a bus to Annecy, spend a long layover there, and take another bus to where I was staying.

Knowing that FasterSkier wouldn’t be able to reimburse me for it, I nonetheless rented a car. The weather forecast was terrible. I began to slightly dread the trip.

It was dark by the time I left Geneva on a Friday night, when everyone else is also trying to escape from the city to the mountains. Traffic was at a standstill on the highway. I eventually reached Annecy and turned up to the mountains, creeping along in a line of cars through the increasingly snowy roads. The mountains were hidden in snowsqualls and I had no sense of where I was going. With few named roadsigns, I drove past the place I was staying three times before actually finding it.

France, it must be said, is not always convenient or straightforward.

But when the World Cup was last held in Le Grand Bornand four years ago, everybody raved about it. And I had been told that La Clusaz, just on the other side of a ridge, was one of the best places in the world to go for a ski. Maybe when I woke up in the morning, I figured, I would see what all the fuss about Haute Savoie was really about.

The next morning, it was snowing – a lot. I had hoped to go for a ski nearby, but knew the trails wouldn’t have been groomed so early. Instead, I tried to get to the race venue to get my accreditation and snag a spot in the media center. The roads were terrible. I walked up to the main road and spotted a bus coming, clearly heading for the venue. Traffic slowed and as it happened, the bus idled to a stop just next to me. I put out my thumb to hitchhike. The bus was completely full, but the driver, an aging French man in an excellent beard and sweater, opened the door and folded down a sort of jump seat for me. I was in luck. We were off!

I was deposited in the old town of Le Grand Bornand near the beautiful church at its center. The mountains were still partially hidden, but provided a gorgeous backdrop. Even though it was three hours before the race, the town was already packed with spectators, dressed up patriotically and happily chatting, having a beer or hot mulled wine to get in the spirit.

After dropping off my laptop and snagging some cheese from the media cafeteria, I wandered around the venue, trying to figure out the stadium setup and how I would get between the shooting range, the finish line, and the mixed zone.

Spectators were filing in and music was blasting – good music, creating a party atmosphere. The French athletes had all made playlists and up on the big screens you would see, “you are listening to the playlist of Chloe Chevalier!”

This sounds silly, but playing good music goes so far in creating an atmosphere. And I’ve never particularly noticed or not noticed the music at races, but this time, I noticed it. The music was good, and it was fun, and it made everyone excited.

As race time drew near, the stands were already so loud. There were 15,000 or 16,000 people there, between the stands and the various hillsides out on the course. In the stadium, they were doing the wave. On the hillsides, fans were going crazy when a French athlete skied by. At one point, those filling the stands sang the Marseillaise. Someone had a trumpet they would play occasionally.

And then – race time. Off they went, and the crowd went even wilder. In they came to the shooting range, and the crowd cheered every hit target from a French athlete. They cheered for everyone else, too, although at two points they also cheered when other athletes (Johannes Bø and, I think, Anastasiya Kuzmina) missed shots, before seeming to remember that this was really rude and not doing it again.

The crowd cheered for everyone. In press conference after press conference, non-French athletes would say how the energy of the place helped them, how it was one of their favorite races, how crazy it was how the fanbase in France had grown in the last four years.

In the men’s mass start, Russia’s Matvey Eliseev ‘dirtied’ his first stage: he missed all five targets. That put him a minute and 15 seconds behind the next last competitor. When he reached the shooting range again, the crowd cheered him – the last place skier, and a Russian to boot – nearly as loudly as they had cheered Martin Fourcade. And when he went out on the course, the hillside cheered him up the climbs every bit as loudly.

That is something I don’t see (or hear) very often.

After a frustrating three days of racing for the French, they finally swept the mass starts. Both Justine Braisaz and Martin Fourcade carried the tricolore across the finish line. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

“This was tougher than some World Cups where we are less expected,” Fourcade later said of the pressure. “But it’s also what we want, asking for a World Cup at home.”

Biathlon wasn’t a big sport in France just five years ago, even though Fourcade was well on his winning ways. What happened? When asked what she would suggest a North American organizing committee do to try to mirror this success, Susan Dunklee said, “marketing.”

Whatever it was, it was magical. The crowd was big, but it wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen. Instead, something about their energy was completely different. It was French. It was more joyous than you would find at most other venues. The happiness at being outside, on a beautiful day in the mountains, watching an exciting sports event, was expressed totally differently than anywhere I’ve ever been.

But I didn’t work all weekend, and the other stuff was just as great as the competitions. Before Sunday’s race I had gone for a ski with fellow Dartmouth and Craftsbury alum Mary O’Connell, and Dartmouth alum Jenny Land Mackenzie. Because of all the security and closures around the race course, we had to walk maybe a kilometer up the road before finding a ski trail to hop on. Then we simply followed it up a long valley. It was a sunny morning. There were the mountains.

Mary and Jenny, rather excited at the good skiing we found ourselves having.

And there was all the snow! It has been so long since central Europe has had a good December. I was blown away at how good the skiing was. We saw Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the Canadian team, out for a classic ski too.

“This is so amazing!” I said.

“Isn’t it!” he said.

We had a quiet Sunday evening, and I resolved to go to La Clusaz the next day. I’d been told it should be on my bucket list of places to ski and I was beyond excited. Jenny and Susan were considering alpine skiing, and I was torn: I knew going with them would be a blast, but I had wanted to cross-country ski La Clusaz for a long time and this was my one day of opportunity.

When we woke up in the morning, it was a blizzard. We couldn’t even see the hill across the valley. It was supposed to keep snowing all day. Downhill skiing was out of the question. We had a long and slow breakfast. I despaired: part of the La Clusaz experience of my dreams was the blue sky above and the mountain views all around. That clearly wasn’t going to happen.

But we had all day and nothing to do, so my companions pointed out that we should just drive up there and check it out. The drive was fairly harrowing, as the road got more and more snowy and greasy as we went. The rental car was steering like a large boat, climbing slowly, stopping slowly. Also, I had no idea where I was going or what the touring center even looked like, so I was afraid we would pass it without knowing.

That was no concern, as when we finally made it up, up, up to the plateau, the ski center was one of the last things on the road. It was still snowing, but we saw a groomer heading out. We were in luck!

I had only two pairs of skis with me, so I skated and Jenny classic skied, and Susan went for a walk. As we followed the groomer down a big hill to the Lac des Confins, we thought, now this is pretty good! The groomer stopped to work on a snowfarming project, though, and the skiing got a lot more difficult. We climbed to cross the road again and get onto the main trail system, where we spotted an uphill trail that seemed to have been groomed… not recently, but at least that morning.

Photos of La Clusaz taken later in the day, after lunch, when it was only snowing a little, rather than SO MUCH.

“Let’s go!” Jenny said. And off we went.

After maybe 200 meters, I was absolutely dying as I tried to skate up the big climb through the soft powder. It seemed like a death march. After what felt like forever, we had made it one kilometer. I regretted giving Jenny the classic skis. The trail was five kilometers up, and I wasn’t sure I would make it. But slowly but surely, we reached the top of the trail, where there was a picnic table. It seemed that we were on a small ridge and that there were taller mountains on every side, although we couldn’t really see them. On a sunny day, it would have been the ultimate spot to stop and have a snack. This wasn’t that day, but as the snow kept falling it was completely magical and quiet.

We were covered in snow, and wet, and I worried about how cold it would be descending the 5 k back to the touring center. But we covered the ground in literally just a few minutes, screaming at the hairpin corners, and eventually shooting out into the huge field back down on the plateau.

We tossed the skis in the car, and went inside to drink coffee and have lunch with Susan as the blizzard continued outside. The restaurant/café was cozy, the atmosphere warm and charming. I devoured more tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, the local specialty), and gradually warmed up.

We spent the afternoon driving down to Annecy, wandering the Christmas markets and eating roasted chestnuts. We admired the old architecture, walked past a huge castle, wondered how the canal system worked. And then it was back to the chalet for another quiet night before we all flew back, separately, to the U.S. the next day.

Perhaps part of the reason this was such a happy trip for me was that it came at the end of the work year. I was embarking on two weeks of ‘vacation,’ or, at least, time away from the office. I was free of all the things I had said I would do before I left. That creates a certain jubilation.

But the amazing scenery and atmosphere, the ski trails and the cheese, all of that was pretty special and I think even if I had been in a bad mood it wouldn’t have lasted long.

I’ll conclude by saying what I heard so many people say during that weekend: “why doesn’t the World Cup come here more often!?”

Jenny and me, giddy!

Hiking hut-to-hut in Slovenia.

For quite some time, I have been wanting to go to Slovenia. I’m not quite sure who the first person was to tell me that it was very cool, but whoever it was, it stuck in my brain. Slovenia is a young country, formed after the breakup of Yugoslavia, but it has everything from Alps to beaches on the Adriatic Sea.

For my 30th birthday, I decided to finally go. The capital, Ljubljana, is just an hour flight from Zurich, so I could put together a meaningful trip of only a few days by not wasting much time in transit. It was a very last-minute decision – I think I booked tickets two weeks in advance, bought a map of Triglav National Park in the outdoor store, and called a few mountain huts to reserve a place to stay. I was heading out on a hiking trip!

I flew to Ljubljana and spent an evening wandering around. It’s a very cool small city with rivers winding through and tons and tons of nice little outdoor restaurants and cafes. Despite the threat of a rainstorm (which eventually unleashed its torrential downpour while I was eating dinner), it was summer and everyone seemed so thrilled to be out in the streets drinking beer or wine and hanging out with friends. The atmosphere was so great.

 

 

The next morning, I took a slow local bus up to Lake Bohinj. The buses leave every hour from the main station in Ljubljana, are pretty cheap, and don’t require advance reservations. Seriously, getting around in this country was sometimes slow, but very easy.

I had decided to start my hiking here basically just by reading a few blogs of other people’s trips in the National Park. There are many other potential starting points. But the lake is beautiful and was a nice place to start. I could see the mountains where I was headed and got really excited.

I started by accidentally wandering up the Mostnica gorge – it was simply a trail in the direction I wanted to go, and I was surprised to find a manned info desk in the woods charging me €3 to enter the gorge!

It was funny, because as I started walking, a couple people actually asked me if I was going to “the gorge” and how to get there (apparently I at least LOOKED like I knew what I was doing). And then that’s where I ended up. It was money well spent, because it was gorgeous (of course). I was utterly unable to capture the beauty of it, but here’s a taste.

Then I wound back and took the steep climb up to an outcropping overlooking the lake, where I stopped for lunch. I could look back from where I had come from in the morning and it was rather rewarding.

After lunch I continued above the lake, up and over Pršivec – a lovely peak (1762 meters = 5780 feet) and my favorite spot of the day. As I got to the top however, I saw very dark clouds and instead of stopping to take pictures ran down the other side of the mountain. I kind of regret that now as it never thundered and I could have survived the rain for a few extra minutes, but oh well. Just know, if you make the trip to the area, that Pršivec is a super worthwhile destination! It was quite a scramble at the top, but I saw some people with small children or even less appropriate gear than I had, so that illustrates that it’s very doable.

After 20 minutes in the drizzle I arrived at Koča na Planini pri Jezeru, my hut for the night. It had a cozy dining room, good company (six fun Belgian guys who shared their wine, cheese, and apple strudel with me, and a cool Croatian family), and a nice outdoor terrace where I could sit and read my book after the rain cleared. There’s no camping allowed in Triglav National Park, but the hut system is fantastic, cheap, and allows you to travel light. And make new friends!

During the trip, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It was a really interesting pick for the trip. I thought a lot about what wilderness means and what national parks should be. The Slovenian national park was in a lot of ways so different than an American one – for one thing, basically no car access except to a few small farming communities mostly on the edges. And unlike most of the places I hike in Switzerland (which aren’t parks, but nevertheless an interesting comparison), there are no ski lifts/gondolas to take people up and down in winter or summer. With no cars or gondolas, that meant that everyone I met had gotten there completely on their own two feet – and it was a lot of people. At the same time, the huts were all half a day or less apart (at average hiking speed), so you never had to go super far to be able to do a hiking trip in the park. That makes hiking an approachable goal – I saw lots of people fairly high up in the mountains who definitely weren’t experts. Around Triglav itself (I’ll get to that later), it was quite busy. But many other parts of the park are very quiet, and at points I would go an hour or more without seeing another person. How to make nature accessible to people certainly varies by culture, but I appreciated the Slovenian approach more than many others I’ve seen.

Anyway, after a very good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast with my new friends, it was off to really get up high!

I set off into the forest. Such a morning is alive with possibilities and it felt like everything could happen. I knew that today I was going to the big mountains, and just 45 minutes later I saw them, providing a backrest to Planina v Lazu, a very old tiny village where they make cheese. Not even the cows were out and about yet as I passed by, bound for higher places.

I walked the high route to Vodnikov Dom for lunch, enjoying the alpine gardens – one of my favorite landscapes – at Lazovški preval and Mišeljski preval. This was hands-down my favorite spot of the day. On my way down from the pass it started drizzling, but I was so giddy with my mountain high that I didn’t even care.

I had lunch at Vodnikov Dom, reading a bit while a rain shower passed, and then continued up to the flank of Mount Triglav, the highest peak in Slovenia. I crossed the Konjsko sedlo pass and took a slightly detouring route up to Dom Planika, a hut at 2401 meters. Click to enlarge the panorama from Konjsko sedlo:

The area around here is not only above treeline, but almost completely devoid of vegetation. It’s just scree and a lot of rocks – but of different colors and sizes, and it’s very beautiful.

The hut is a key spot for people wishing to summit Triglav the next morning. The dining room was crowded and I ended up sitting with four German guys: three friends from Stuttgart on a trip together, and a fellow solo traveler named Chris. We discussed all of our adventures and how to summit the next day. We all had varying types of equipment, from helmets and harnesses to me in just my trail running shoes, and we also had varying willingness to wake up early. After a fun couple hours of chatting we headed to bed at 8 pm (!) wondering what (and what weather) the next day would bring.

Getting to the summit of Triglavinvolves via ferrata (cables fixed to rock with iron bars), and if it was crowded it would mean a lot of waiting. I knew breakfast would start at 6, so the next morning I left just before that to get up the mountain while the rest of the crowd was eating. There were some clouds on the summit (obscured on the left of this photo), but I decided to just go for it anyway.

I had only my trail running shoes, no helmet or harness, and was worried I was unequipped. But there were no problems – I had tons of fun racing up the mountain, climbing my way along the via ferrata with my hands. Don’t look down! The summit was clouded but still lovely, and just 50 meters below it the views were spectacular.

I had made it up in 45 minutes but took much longer to carefully descend, passing people who were on their way up (including my German friends from the night before). Highest peak in Slovenia, check! I enjoyed my breakfast back at Dom Planika.

After breakfast I set off to the west, crossing a few places and stopping for lunch at the Zasavska koča na Prehodavcih hut. From there, I dropped down onto the 7 Lakes Trail, which is one of the places which had initially drawn me to Slovenia – it is part of the Via Alpina and famed for its beauty. It did not disappoint. The trail meanders past high alpine lakes and I was there at the perfect time of year: the wild flowers seemed to be in peak bloom. I took my time this afternoon, stopping to look at flowers, watch marmots play, and read my book on a rock next to one of the lakes. What an amazing landscape.

By dinner time I had made it to the Koča pri Triglavskih Jezerih, where I would spend the night. I had dinner and a beer with two Irish teachers who were walking around the National Park for two weeks as part of their summer break. They were awesome ladies and once again, I was surprised how happy I was to have some new people to talk to.

I woke up before 6 a.m. to hit the trail. This time it was because I had to be on a bus to Ljubljana by 11:40 and I had quite a way to walk first. Leaving the Triglav Lakes Hut in the dawn light was beautiful.

It had rained hard the night before and as I hiked through the forest water was still dripping off the trees. The birds were singing and the landscape was peaceful, but alive. I painstakingly descended the steep, technical trail by the Savica waterfalls, entering the cloud of fog sitting like a second sea over Lake Bohinj.

Finally, I was into the hot morning sun and walked along the lake back to “town”. Before getting on the bus I took a swim to try to spare whoever I was flying with from the smell of four days of waking with no shower…

After that, it was onto the bus and then onto the plane and then back to Zurich. It had been an amazing four days.

Some of my friends expressed surprise that I had celebrated my 30th birthday alone, rather than having a big or small party, or at least inviting friends on my trip with me. If I had planned a bit farther in advance, maybe I would have invited friends. But actually, it was really perfect. I had lots of time to think to myself, and I could do whatever I wanted: I could wake up as early or late as I felt like, eat breakfast fast or slow, stop to take as many pictures as I wanted, or ID flowers; I could hike fast sometimes and slowly other times; I could stop to read a book, and given the technical nature of a lot of the trails, I didn’t spend any mental brain space worrying about others’ safety, just about where I should put my own feet (and hands). It was nice to be totally the master of my own days. Solo travel can be incredibly rewarding.

In the end, I’m so glad I finally decided to go on this trip, and that Slovenia is close enough that I could pull it off at the last minute.