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.

Hochfilzen

I’ve been in Hochfilzen, Austria, for a bit over week now, and dang, it has been AWESOME!

I spent all my mornings in the first week skiing, including one great 40 k day on classic skis:

The last time I was here, in 2013, it was one of those bad winters the Alps have had recently. I showed up with some brand new Fischer skate skis that I was dying to test out. I did test them out, but barely any of the ski trails were open and I ended up hitting some rocks that were poking through. After just a few days in Hochfilzen, my skis were no longer pristine (and I felt pretty stupid – although luckily the scratches weren’t too bad and those are still my favorite race skis).

This winter could not be more different. There is tons of snow, thanks in part to good grooming. It has been warm and some of the south-facing slopes have melted down to brown hillside. But where the trails were packed, it’s no problem. Pillerseetal, as this region is referred to, advertises 100 kilometers of ski trails. I’ve checked out a lot of them. The trails connect different villages, each with their own little flavor, and it has been a blast to explore around.

I’ve had some great skiing in Switzerland this year, but only being able to ski on the weekends is tough. To have this whole week to literally ski my brains out, I’m in heaven. Before I left on this trip I had reached a big milestone in my PhD, submitting the first chapter from my dissertation to a journal. Being able to take a mental break after that was perfect.

(Of course, while I was here, I heard back that the paper was rejected and I had to reformat and rewrite bits and submit it somewhere else but… that’s academia. Get used to failure.)

While I have definitely been taking some recharge time, I’m also here for biathlon World Championships. (And in fact, that’s why I’m in Hochfilzen instead of somewhere else – thanks, biathlon, for bringing me to this place I have totally fallen in love with!) The weather was sunny until Friday, which meant that watching the races from behind the shooting range was a real treat:

The races have also been great. A highlight was seeing Lowell Bailey win the 20 k individual, the first World Championships gold ever to an American biathlete. I’m really proud of the story I wrote about that; I think it might be the best race story I’ve ever written.

It was fun, and funny, to be an American journalist on that day. Often, I’m the only one in the mixed zone who wants to talk to the Canadian or American athletes. There are a few exceptions – Lowell has been doing more interviews because he is doing really well this season and also his work on anti-doping issues has raised his profile. Tim Burke and Susan Dunklee get some attention from the foreign press and anyone who does well on a given day might get one or two questions. But mostly it’s me.

On the day Lowell won: not so much. Every single television crew wanted an interview. He took longer to go through the mixed zone than any athlete of the entire Championships so far, I think. The media coordinator actually pulled him before the last TV crew could get an interview, and sent him to the press conference. Then, he had to take photos with his medal, before popping back to take more questions. Because television always gets first priority over written press, I didn’t get to talk to him until more than an hour after he finished – even though I was basically the only home-country press on site! By then, I was getting pretty hangry, so I have no idea how Lowell held it together through the whirlwind. Although I’m sure he just wanted to have some quiet time, it was really cool to see how much interest there was in American biathlon, all of a sudden.

Here’s Lowell answering questions from Norway’s TV2, while a journalist from France’s L’Equipe looks on:

All the races have been fun to watch, though. When the race is over every day, it is sort of a bummer to have to leave the beautiful weather to go inside to do the writing. At least the press center has some good windows, that’s not always the case.

Recently the weather turned, with a big snowstorm rolling through during the women’s relay. The coaches looking through scopes on the shooting range put up little umbrellas to shield their expensive scopes and the whiteboards they use to track where shots go. Photographers were wearing ponchos and fashioning protection for their telephoto lenses out of basically anything they could find. Personally, I wished that I had a hard-shell jacket… but luckily it was still warm, so a raincoat would do.

My time here is almost over, and soon it will be back to work on science stuff. I can’t say that there has been any day here that I have taken completely off from my PhD, but it has still been a nice break. It has also given me time to catch up with Susan Dunklee, who has been one of my closest friends for ten years regardless of the fact that we occasionally have a reporter-athlete relationship! It was Susan’s birthday earlier this week. She organized a little pizza party for herself using an outdoor grill made by one of her sponsors, and then her coach Jonne organized a second little party too.

And, I’m feeling better and better about my skiing. I’m way more fit and strong than I was last season, and I’m looking forward to hopping in some races again, maybe as soon as next weekend.

autumn alpine adventures.

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This summer I was on quite a string of trail running/hiking jaunts, accumulating miles of distance and thousands of feet of elevation every weekend.

It’s funny how these things go in fits and starts. Work gets crazy and all of a sudden it’s hard for me to put energy into planning weekend trips. Or I prioritize a rollerski instead, and bid the mountains farewell til next week… or the week after… or the one after that, when I spend hours planning where to go only to then look at the forecast and see rain.

Plus, to try to fit in so much exercise (let’s not exactly call it “training”, shall we?) I had tried to find routes which were not more than an hour or two’s train ride from Zürich where I live. There’s plenty there, but it led me to start from similar places a few weekends in a row. There’s a lot of different pockets of mountains – infinite pockets, really – but I wasn’t seeing much of that diversity. Good workouts though. I was running myself all around a two-hour radius of the city.

But not recently. And it also happens that I hadn’t seen my friend Greg in many weeks- maybe months? We finally connected when planning a trip to La Sgambeda, a ski marathon in Italy, in early December, and remembered: yeah! We should go hiking! In a moment of serendipity, we had been both looking at doing the same hike earlier this summer and neither of us had ever gotten around to it. So we met up on Sunday to finally conquer the beast and get some high elevation views in.

We took the train to Schwyz, a city in the region outside of Zürich and one of the closest places with relatively big mountains. Then we took a bus up a winding valley to Muotathal, a town of a few thousand people on the Muota river. Muotathal is most famous (or only famous?) for having six men who are called the “weather prophets” who predict the weather with various strange methods. One basis is, for example, anthills. You can see their latest predictions and stories here.

But I digress. We wound up in Muotathal and started hiking up through steep cow pastures and then past small “alps”. In Switzerland, the Alps are not just mountains. An Alp is also a hill farm, and is likely but not guaranteed to sell cheese or other products.

Looking back across the valley as we climbed higher, the views were amazing. Although we had taken the bus just under 30 minutes from Schwyz, it felt like we were infinitely further into the mountains: deep in them, surrounded, far from anything. Schwyz, on the other hand, feels very much like the border of the mountains. It is surrounded by a few charismatic peaks like Rigi and Grosser and Kleiner Mythen. But those peaks are filled with people and have restaurants on top. They look out in one direction to the mountains and glaciers, but in the other over large, beautiful lakes dotted with cities, and towards the Swiss Plateau.

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We were definitely not on Rigi.

And I was reminded that autumn is one of the most beautiful times of year to be in the high mountains. The alpine tundra vegetation was turning completely golden. Not so many deciduous shrubs and trees here, instead the gold was bordered by the dark green of Switzerland’s ubiquitous conifers.

We stopped to eat lunch and admire the view.

Then we kept going. This turned into one of those hikes where we kept seeing a height of land ahead, or a space between two hills which we assumed we would go through and then be on our way down the other side. Mostly, we weren’t there yet.

Greg and I both suffer from a problem with scale in Switzerland. No matter how many times I look at a map, I can’t internalize how big 1000 or 1500 meters of height is. In my head I can say, “yes, this route will take us up 1500 meters. That’s almost 5000 feet.” But I still don’t understand what 1500 meters is. And so I’m hiking and I keep thinking, I must be there yet. And I’m not there. And I keep going up and up and up.

Stupid Americans.

But we were excited (even if exhausted and in pain) because we were creeping closer and closer to the snow. We passed a surprisingly large collection of farm buildings – what are they doing up there!? – and at one point walked along a perfectly graded dirt road. Seriously, there are roads in New Hampshire which get regular traffic and are in far worse shape. It was hard to picture anyone driving up here.

After 2 1/2 hours, we finally got to Chinzig peak/pass, and it was definitely worth it.

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Here’s some culture. We were hiking along a section of the Via Suworow. I know very little about Swiss history, but it turns out that Napoleon’s French army invaded Switzerland in 1798. A Russian general named Suvorov (Suworow spelled more like in Russia, I guess) marched up from Italy to try to push the French out. He and his army couldn’t handle the French, however, and had to turn around in Glarus, the canton south of Zürich. As they marched to escape south, they crossed this peak/pass and many others. The scenery is beautiful, but I’d rather not be walking it as I fled.

After eating lunch, we began wandering down to a cablecar station where we could save about 1000 meters (that’s 3000 feet) of wear and tear on knees and legs by getting a ride down. A very expensive ride, as it turned out.

And then we had just barely missed the bus into the nearest big town, Altdorf and Flüelen. It only came once an hour. Shucks! We wandered down into the small town of Burglen to look for a cafe or somewhere to wait out the time. We weren’t really successful….

…. but, it turns out that Burglen was the hometown of William Tell. William Tell! Did you even know he was Swiss? I’m not sure if I remembered that or not, but it was in Altdorf, just down the hill, where he assassinated a lord representing the Hapsburg dynasty. Swiss don’t like being ruled by monarchs; Switzerland is a confederacy. Therefore, Tell’s act is a legend of action against tyranny. Also, that one time he shot an apple off his son’s head. Another thing I didn’t know, and probably you didn’t either, is that actually there’s no proof that William Tell or the Hapsburg lord ever existed. They might just be fiction.

Anyway, we saw a sort of creepy statue of Tell and his son. There was also a Tell museum which we didn’t go into. Burglen was a pretty little town.

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Eventually we made it to Flüelen where we could buy some chips to get that salt craving under control, and hop on a direct train to Zürich. With the bus snafu, our 15 k hike which was just one canton away from Zürich had turned out to take pretty much all day. I crawled home to cook dinner.

I’m hoping to get in at least one more high altitude hike/run before it really becomes winter, but ski season is coming. More importantly, we’re nearing the time when it’s not so great to hike (too much snow) but not yet time to ski (not enough snow). Most importantly, I’m swamped with fieldwork and trying to prepare for a PhD committee meeting.

But we all need some personal time, and for me the best personal time is in the mountains. So I’ll find a good route and get up high one more time, at least.

braunwald hike.

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It has been a little while. Sorry. Oops. I’ve been busy, but when am I ever not? Sometimes I still find the time to write. Other times I don’t. I guess this was one of the “don’t”s.

Let’s see. I was doing fieldwork and lab experiments, for one thing. I also went to Lausanne to cover the International Olympic Committee meetings and candidate city presentations by Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, each of whom want to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It was quite the experience in a lot of ways and I think it might shape how I approach reporting in the future.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was being a bit more editorial. IOC-speak is cloaked in code and references. I felt that in order to convey any information at all, I had to decode that PR-speak for my readers. That meant a lot of contextualizing. So I figured, why not go for it? And I threw in some opining as well. Here are a few of the results:

Six Big Problems With the Beijing 2022 Olympic Bid

By Severing Ties, Bach Kills SportAccord; IOC Carries Full Weight of Sport’s Future & Reform

Almaty 2022 Bid Fights Back; A Games With Real Snow Still Possible

On the whole, the new approach seemed to be enjoyed by readers. But now it’s back to “normal” FasterSkier operations. And more importantly, normal PhD operations. I spend 4 or more hours a day, every other day, counting amphipods in the basement laboratory where there is not even a window for sunlight. On one hand, this is nice, as my office has no cooling system and it can get pretty hot in there. In the basement? No problem. On the other hand, though, we are finally having some nice summer weather and I’m trapped in a basement.

There had been a lot going on, so I decided to take this weekend truly to recover. On Saturday I went for a long rollerski, which tired me out so much I had to take a nap. Sunday I reserved for hiking. I had been trying to fit in a hike the previous two weekends, but the weather just didn’t cooperate. Finally, I had my window.

I took the train out of Zürich and up the Glarus valley almost all the way to Linthal. Taking the train to go hiking on Sundays reminds me of one reason that I love Switzerland.

The train is full: young people, old people. Rich (ish) people, poor (ish) people. People with walking sticks, people with babies in backpacks. Thin people, chubby people, people with knee replacements. People with husbands, people with school friends. Every kind of person is on the train. The things that unite them are their hiking boots and their Mammut expedition pants that probably zip off into shorts.

At each stop up the Glarus valley, a handful or two of people get off the train, backpacks slung over their shoulders and a bright look in their eyes (unless they are teenagers with their parents, then they still look sullen). There are dozens of different trails to explore. And the Swiss explore them.

I’m not sure that I have ever, in the U.S., felt this sense of community and solidarity between people going to do something outdoors. For one thing, we all drive our cars because public transport generally doesn’t even go to the places we want to get to. So as we hurtle towards our day’s adventure, we are insulated from all but our closest friends or family. But for another thing, rarely in the U.S. does such a large cross section of society all end up hiking on the same trail system, exchanging very quiet pleasantries (maximum, three words) as they pass each other.

I finally got off at Linthal Braunwaldbahn, the second-to-last stop on the Linthal line. An especially large number of people got off here too. They were waiting for the Braunwaldbahn, a funicular that runs up the steep mountainside to the village of Braunwald, perched on a plateau above the valley and inaccessible to cars.

No cars!

pure nature – no cars – real winter” is one of their slogans. I love it.

I did not take the funicular, instead hiking up about two and a half kilometers of steep but thankfully shady forest trail.

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Then I came to Braunwald, which wasn’t really what I was expecting. The community is quite large – a lot of summer and winter vacation homes and a few farms scattered across the plateau. (Wikipedia lists the population as 308, which okay, is not a lot, but it’s still at least 200 more than I would have guessed…) Limited electricity; lots of solar panels. There were horse-drawn wagons, street signs, gardens. There were ski lifts criss-crossing everywhere. There were a lot of people and lot of potted plants flowering along the streets.

I walked from the top of the funicular up through the houses and towards the top of one of the ski lifts, which thankfully wasn’t running in the summer (others are). I began to leave people behind, more or less, and it began to get quieter. Okay, so maybe this wasn’t the place to find solitude, but I re-evaluated. This wasn’t bad.

And if you wanted to have a farm, why not have it here? The Swiss government will subsidize you for your hardship.

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At the top of the ski lift, I found a crowd eating at the restaurant, but I also found the Panoramaweg, a nine-kilometer loop trail which was actually what I had come for. After hiking up five kilometers and probably 3,000 feet, I finally got to the “start” of my hike.

It was incredible. It was quieter – I probably saw as many cows as people, although still more people than I would have expected – and for a long time I was primarily jutting through forest, spotting the snowy mountains across the valley every time there was a meadow opening. But then I turned a corner and caught my breath: an amazing peak was just before me.

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The next few kilometers of the loop were simply spectacular, surrounded by amazing views at every turn.

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Seriously, get a look at the cool geometry of that geology.

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I didn’t know much about Canton Glarus before moving to Zürich. I was snobby. I thought of Graubünden, home of Davos and the Engadin and Lenzerheide and most of all haunts from 2013, was the best thing ever. I’m not saying it’s not. But besides the mountains that I got to see close up today, there was simply a dizzying array of peaks receding into the background. It felt so good to be in the mountains today, up high, breathing cool air with a breeze drying out my sweaty shirt.

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Also, the trail itself was pretty cool. At one point it went into a tunnel. Who, when building a hiking trail, says “it would be easier to just hollow out this huge unavoidable rock instead of going around it”? The Swiss, that’s who!

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(This is just the beginning of the tunnel, with one gallery/window opening you can see. It actually wraps around the the left with two more windows chiseled in, and complete with a dank interior and water dripping from the ceiling.)

After making my loop and then hiking back down the super-steep forest access trail, I arrived just in time to catch the train back to Zürich. Perfect.

I’m tired, but I feel a little more ready to tackle the week after clearing my head with 4,000 feet of climbing and a lot of great scenery.

The message of today’s experience? “People live/hike here” doesn’t necessarily mean that, sans solitude, it can’t be a great place to go. All those people wanted to hike Braunwald for a reason. It was a pretty worthwhile reason, turns out.

sledding as an extreme sport.

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I always kind of wondered where bobsled came from. I mean, you could say that of plenty of sports which I like – who had the idea of biathlon? I understand horse racing, but why stadium jumping? Like all of these sports, there is an answer to where bobsled and luge originated. With their carbon-fiber sleds, spandex suits, and bobblehead helmets, it had never occurred to me that after all, it’s just sledding. But it is. It’s just sledding.

Don’t believe me? Watch this amazing video of the first Olympic bobsleigh competition, held in 1924 in Chamonix, France.

Switzerland won, natch.

And I’m in Switzerland. All across the alps they take sledding, or sledging, a little more seriously – something which U.S. skiers are always delighted to discover when they have an off day from a competition trip or training camp. Rubber inflatable tubes? Flying saucers? No. This is sledding in a different form.

The trails are groomed (at times I wished I had my cross country skis… the climb would have gone a lot faster!). And go on for kilometers and kilometers, in some cases.

This weekend my friend Daniel came to visit us, and we took the opportunity to go to Thun to see our buddy Reto. From there (after his mother fed us a lot of amazing food) we drove to Grindelwald. Reto has his learner’s permit for driving and there were a few scary moments, but actually he’s a pretty good driver.

Grindelwald is home to what is assumed to be the longest toboggan run in the world. First you take a gondola up through the First ski resort (yes, it’s called First, not a typo), then you walk about two hours pulling your sled behind you. When you reach 2,680 meters, you turn and go down.

And down. All the way to Grindelwald. It is 15 kilometers and 1600 meters of elevation drop, although the weather is so warm right now that we had to walk the last bit because the snow had turned into slush or just melted completely.

Up high though, it’s amazing. It’s so white. It’s so wide open. It’s the last place I would imagine to take a sled… but I’m sure glad we did!

I didn’t take any photos once we started the descent, but here are a few from the climb up. The saddle of this ridge is more or less where we started the sled ride. Wow!

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belatedly, hochfilzen.

IMGP2912A long time ago, back in December, I visited Austria. I was so busy, drowning in my thesis and also working at World Cup biathlon races while I was there. Then I flitted over to Davos to keep working, more thesis, more World Cup. I never got to write about my time in Austria.

So here it is! My thesis is handed in, I have a bit of a cold so I can’t go skiing today, and so I will write a few words about Hochfilzen. First off, it was amazing how easy the trip was. I hopped on a train in Munich and was soon floating past the Austrian Alps. We went by Kitzbühel, one of those places you hear about over and over again if you pay any attention at all to the alpine ski racing scene. It’s among the most famous destinations in the Alps and the hardest downhill courses on the World Cup. I pretty much never thought I’d go there.

Hochfilzen, my destination, is just a few stops on the train past Kitzbühel. The total travel time was just over two hours. Munich folks, get to this part of the Alps. It’s an easy trip and it’s beautiful. And, unlike much of the Alps at that time, it was snowing, big, glorious dumps of snow! The mountains were actually covered in white, which was a very welcome sight given that most ski races were being held in the middle of brown.

I checked into my little hotel, which was conveniently located just across from a trailhead for the ski tracks. So I gobbled down a sandwich for lunch and immediately headed out. It was my first time on snow all season and it was a joy! There was not so so much snow but enough for a few kilometers of a loop. As always I felt that freedom and exhiliration that comes from having glide, no longer being weighed down by friction or the pause of your feet on the pavement. Snow! What a wonderful thing.

In the next days I went for a few more skis, and Hochfilzen is truly a great place to cross-country ski. The trails connected several little village centers, so it was possible to ski back and forth up the valleys that extend in several directions. Just look at all of this. I didn’t get to explore very much of the total extent of the network. (click to enlarge)

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Often I was the only one on these trails (okay, one day it was dumping buckets of snow and the trails hadn’t been groomed, that might be why). With the mountains rising up all around me, I just felt incredible. The Tyrolian Alps aren’t particularly tall – the mountain at Kitzbühel, called Hahnenkamm, is just under 6,000 feet – but they are rocky and craggy and look very epic. You forget that you’re not at a much, much higher elevation.

Another nice thing about Austria is that it’s sort of cheap, at least compared to Munich or Switzerland. I stayed in a quite nice hotel with a wonderful breakfast – I would say the best, except these breakfasts are standard in the alps. Bread, jam, cheese, hams, yogurt and muesli, fruit, you name it. All healthy things, but such a spread that it’s hard not to smile as you get out of bread.

The town of Hochfilzen is very very small (just over 1,000 people – about the size of my hometown of Lyme, and it’s crazy to think of such a place hosting a World Cup), so there wasn’t much to do. I did go out one night for a “business meeting” which devolved into a much less formal situation. The only place we could find to eat and grab a beer was a little smoke-filled bar/restaurant. The food was good, but I left smelling of cigarette smoke.

Another highlight was the fact that I got to spend really a lot of time with my friends on the biathlon team. Hannah, Susan, and Sara were all racing, as well as Annelies and Lanny, who unlike the first three were not my teammates at Dartmouth but whom I’ve gotten to know over the last few years. Twice I went over to their hotel in the evening and just hung out. It was so great to be able to have some unscheduled time with them and just let the conversation wander wherever we wanted it to. It’s very rare that I get to see my American friends when I’m over in Europe, and it’s the same for them. I owe a big thank you to the U.S. team staff who let me waltz in on the team and spend time with them.

Finally, I worked a lot a lot a lot. They were exciting races with beautiful scenery. The only pictures I took were on the race course, but I think that is a great way to show you what this part of Austria is actually like. So, without further ado, here they are! Click any photo to enlarge (better quality!) and start a slideshow you can tab through.

the next and the next and another day.

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From today I have exactly 21 days left in Switzerland before I move to Munich for the fall and begin writing papers.

That’s why I have been a little bit silent: I feel that every day is something that I must seize and make the most of. I imagined that I would spend this summer exploring the country, but in fact I have rarely left this little area of Graubünden. And yet there is so much left to see! I want to climb every mountain, cross every pass, run along the best of trails. Every morning, still, I wake up and wonder, am I dreaming? Is it really possible that I actually live here?

I only have 21 more mornings where I can wake up with this wonder in my mind.

Things are even more complicated because I am getting cracking on my project. Working in ArcGIS, extracting weather station data from the SwissEx platform, learning new programmin in R – it is busy and exhausting. (Do you know anything about structural equation modeling? Please help me!) It feels nice to be using my brain again to try to solve problems – fieldwork is great fun but not always the most stimulating mentally – but when it is sunny out I chafe to be outside using this last bit of time. Luckily this weekend it rained.

Last weekend, I didn’t have all my data yet so I could get out into the mountains without feeling guilty about abandoning my models. I woke up on Sunday to a lot of rain, so I went back to bed for another hour before setting off up the Dischma valley and parking my bike at Teufi. I had a long hike planned in front of me, but I didn’t know exactly how long, yet.

A constant frustration for hikers and mountain bikers in Davos is that there are two lovely, beautiful finger-like valleys extending out of down. One is the Dischma valley, and the other is the Sertig. You can explore either of these valley, but it is difficult to connect them. If you want to hike from one to the other – for instance by linking two well-known passes, Scalettapass and Sertiglass – you either have to take the bus back, or your bike is stuck at the starting point while you are in a completely different valley, or something like that. You get the idea.

Yet as I looked at the map the day before I saw a new trail: it ran from Teufi, which is halfway up the Dischma valley, over the mountains to Sertig, the last stop on the road in the other valley before it turns into trail. Why had nobody told me about this?

So bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I set out from Teufi. Up the steep switchbacks, along a boulder-lined stream pouring down from the peaks, and past Alp Rüedischtälli, pictured at the top. ‘Alp’ is the name for a farm in Swiss-German. It had the tallest and neatest stone walls I have seen anywhere in Switzerland and was perched high above the valley. Maybe I will become a shepherd after I finish my masters, I thought.

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From there the trail continued up a huge, wide-open valley that was empty except for cows. At one point I passed the shepherd and his dog, but that was it. It felt vast and wild, which was incredible since I was so close to Davos proper. I’ve hiked on trails far further into the mountains that nonetheless felt like highways. But here I was, alone in this cavernous basin. That’s what weekends are for.

Eventually I scaled the ridge to the Tällifugga pass, where I did encounter some other hikers. The ridge extends all the way from Jakobshorn, the mountain that juts into Davos Platz and is easily accessible by gondola. The cable cars are always packed and I suspected that unlike me, many of the people I encountered had not earned their vertical meters the hard way.

First pass of the day: I celebrated and ate some wasabi peanuts.

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From there, I assumed it would be a hop, skip, and a jump down to Sertig. It wasn’t. It took nearly an hour to get down, and that is the boring part of hiking. Down down down, trying to go fast and get to the next interesting part.

But I did make a friend on the way down. I turned a corner at 2400 meters and found a herd of horses grazing in the meadows. They were shiny, well-fed, happy and healthy. Just casually munching on the side of a mountain. A few were standing directly in the trail, oblivious that this was a way for people to walk. I stopped and rubbed the face of a yearling Haflinger filly. She was so friendly that as I walked away, she followed me. So I stopped and scratched her ears some more. Usually the cows you find on these mountains are unaccustomed to people, more or less. But the ponies had obviously been ridden and loved all summer, and maybe were out to pasture now in the fall, missing their human company and attention.

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Finally, I was down at Sertig. It was 12:30 and I began to realize the size of the hike I was attempting. I had crossed between the valleys once, the short way; what was left was going around the long way, connecting the two famous passes. It wasn’t going to be short. Just to get up to Sertigpass is quite a hike. I had somehow suppressed this from my mind as I was planning. As I walked up the dirt road along the bottom of the valley, the sun was shining down hotly. I had planned to crest the pass and then eat lunch at the Lai da Ravais-ch-Suot lake on the other side. This was obviously not going to happen. I found myself sitting on a boulder and ravenously devouring my pork and root vegetable handpie.

Soon after that, the clouds that had been sitting just on the other side of the ridge began to drift closer and look a little blacker than they had before. As I hiked the last few hundred vertical meters before the pass, I felt rain drops. I was walking through a huge scree and boulder field, and the rocks would soon become wet and slippery. Three men passed me hiking fast on their way down, and they looked at me like, it’s this time of day and this weather and you are just going up the pass? What is wrong with you? I wondered what they were scurrying away from, and what I would find on the other side.

Indeed, at the pass it was a little blustery. The view of Piz Kesch was BAM! And it was, Bam, Winter. Soon it began to snow and I could see the storm swirling around over the lakes where I had planned to eat lunch. For the second time in a row, it looked like I would not be making it to the lakes. Given the weather, I thought it would be best to hurry along. I still had a lot of hiking in front of me. I was wearing just spandex capris, and although I had another jacket in my small backpack, I had no rainpants or anything warmer for my legs. When you’re moving fast, that’s okay, you stay warm. But the prospects of a few more hours in the rain-slash-snow sounded less than pleasant.

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Luckily, 20 minutes later I had dropped out of the storm and back into the sun, which illuminated the huge Val Funtauna, a valley where I had hiked before with my coworker Gunther when we accidentally took a wrong turn looking for the lakes (that was the first time I failed to reach them). I skirted along the side of a ridge, happy to be heading this time not towards Piz Kesch but towards Scalettapass and home.

But when I reached Scalettapass an hour later, it started to rain again. I looked down the trail and saw wet, slippery rock. I had planned to eat a celebratory chocolate bar in the sun here, happy to be atop my third and final pass. Instead, I retreated into the emergency hut atop the pass and ate my chocolate as the rain battered the windows. Ten minutes later it was definitely still raining, but it wasn’t so windy. I went back outside, bundled up in many layers and my raincoat, and started down the trail. I ran in the places that I could, hoping to cut down on the time I had to spend outside in the rain. But much of the trail was slippery so I had to hike.

It wasn’t the most fun way to end my epic loop, but I enjoyed the scenery of Dürrboden, the end of the road down in the Dischma valley, coming closer. Finally I was on the flat. And then I was at the restaurant.

I was presented a choice: did I want to finish the loop in style, hiking back halfway down the valley to Teufi and my bike, or would I take the bus down? I was exhausted by this point, and decided to at least check the bus schedule. But my choice was made for me: the last bus of the day had left ten minutes ago. Because of the rain and ugly weather and it being a Sunday afternoon, there were only three cars in the parking lot. The chances of hitchhiking were zero. I started walking.

There’s not much to say about the last hour of walking down along the bottom of the Dischma valley. I was tired. I tried running, so that I would get back sooner, but I would stop after a few minutes. The Dischma is remarkable in that it doesn’t seem like it should be that long, but actually it goes on and on. It is the longest of the valleys extending south from Davos, and you remember that when you are walking or biking along it.

Finally, back to Teufi. Three passes, eight hours of walking, lots of weather. The day started and ended with rain. I hopped on my bike and went home.

I was psyched to have discovered the first pass, a new connection between the valleys. Alp Rüedischtälli and the valley behind it are now my favorite place that is easily accessible and close to town. Yet as I told people about my trip, they never knew what I was talking about. (For one thing, it turns out that “Tällifurgga” just means mountain pass in Swiss German, so even though that’s the name of the pass it doesn’t sound like anything specific.) But I’ll go back again.

These are the sort of things you do when you only have 21 days left in the Alps.

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