Finally, My Almost-Perfect Davos Ski Day

Midway up the Sertig valley, striding along the classic tracks. This is what dreams are made of.

(Before I start: I’ve been featured two places online recently, talking about being a scientist. Check out Episode 4 of the MEME Stream podcast talking about my research on climate change in the arctic tundra, grad school in Europe, and the importance of hobbies (like skiing!). And fellow ecologist xc-skier Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie invited me onto the Plos Ecology blog to talk about reading a lot of papers and combatting imposter syndrome.)

If you’re a cross-country skier, you have probably heard of Davos. There’s a World Cup there every year, and it’s also a favorite training camp location for the U.S. Ski Team, among others. There are always blog posts and Instagram stories showing sunshine and powder days that recharge the soul.

Despite living in Switzerland for four years – and visiting a few times before that – I’ve never had what I’d consider a great Davos ski day.

The best part of the Davos trail network is probably its extensive classic-only trails which go up long side valleys out of town. When I was living and working there in the summer of 2013, these were some of my favorite places to get out for a hike or rollerski, and my gateway to mountain passes.

I immediately looked forward to coming back in the winter so I could ski them.

When I was in Davos for the World Cup in 2017, it had snowed, so I wanted to explore the Dischma valley. They hadn’t groomed yet though. D’oh.

But things didn’t really work out. For several years I went to the December World Cups to work for FasterSkier, but those years happened to be times when there was barely any snow, just a snowfarmed loop on the race course. (It’s been a bad few years.) This year, there was apparently good skiing, but I was at a conference in the UK that weekend.

I went back a few times to skate, but then you can’t access those long valley trails. And last year I had a long classic ski in a rain/snowstorm, where I did traipse up one of the valleys, but visibility was basically zero and the huge temperature swing made my classic wax a complete disaster.

So I’ve been to ski in Davos at least once each year, but I’ve never had the kind sunny alpine day that dreams are made of.

This really is my last winter in Switzerland, and I realized at some point that I was running out of chances. So on Sunday I woke up early and took the first train to Graubunden. Davos is quite far away (by Swiss standards), so even catching that train, I only arrived just before nine.

If you’ve been watching World Championships, you know that the Alps have been going through something of a heat wave. Switzerland is no different than Austria in that regard, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I stuffed hardwax ranging from blue to red into my drink belt and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t need klister instead.

Scenery.

Click. Click. Into my skis. It was cold when I arrived, and after days of freeze-thaw cycles the tracks were fast as I double-poled down to Frauenkirch, at the bottom of the main valley. I skied in and out of the shadow of the steep hillsides, and through hollows by the river where the cold had really settled overnight.

But an hour in, the sun had come over the mountains and suddenly, it was hot. I stopped to re-wax my skis. Blue clearly wasn’t right anymore.

I meandered through the Junkerboden, a forested hillside. After a week of relatively hard (for me) training, my legs were feeling tired as I climbed the steep trail through the woods and traversed its switchbacks. But this is a part of the trail system that relatively few people visit, and I sank into the quiet and peace of the forest.

Then I dropped down to the Sertig valley proper, and all of a sudden I was in 50-degree heat and immediately sweating. I took off my headband, unzipped my jacket, took a swig of water. My skis were slow, but miraculously my wax was still kind of kicking.

Heat is not my strong point, and I bogged down as I ticked through the kilometers up the valley. But it was so beautiful. I’d stop to take a breather and look around, captivated by the scenery. This wasn’t the extra-blue skiing of my dreams, but the sun was so bright, the mountains so crisp, the sky so blue. Aside from overheating, it was everything I’d imagined the valley to be as I hiked and ran it so many summers ago.

Everyone I passed was smiling, as if we couldn’t believe our good luck to be out here in the sun. It was the kind of day where even if you don’t feel great, you feel happy.

And I was particularly happy to be striding up the valley. Every time I classic ski, I’m reminded that it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. It’s so natural to settle into the rhythm of kick, kick, kick. In this snow, a little less glide.

Nearing the top of the valley.

I eventually reached the top of the valley, where you are faced with a large mountain face and, for a ski tour or hike, the choice of two mountain passes, one left and one right. For cross-country skiers, it’s the end of the road, although you can stop for food or drink at a restaurant looking out across the meadow.

Sweaty. Go away tropical heat wave, I want winter back.

I opted out, and instead headed back down the valley. Despite the snow rapidly becoming slush, I whizzed down the trail, trying to thread between the skiers coming up the narrow trail. The fresh air on my face a welcome respite from the heat. Several kilometers were gone in no time, and I was back in the main valley, heading towards town.

By the time I clicked out of my skis, it was almost 60 degrees, and I was happy I had done this ski today. Unless the weather pattern changes drastically, I’m not sure how long the lower-elevation trails will last. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have skied another hour easily, but I was wiped out from the heat.

It wasn’t a completely perfect day, but maybe that doesn’t exist. I got to see the mountains, and the groups of classic skiers striding ant-like up the narrow classic-only trail through the valley. The next day my face was a little more tan and my legs a little more tired, and I added one more happy memory to all my summer memories of Davos.

Keep on skiing.

schnee!

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One of the promises I made to myself recently was to spend more time outside, more time on skis, more time exercising because it makes me feel good. I had sort of forgotten that for a while, or rationalized that I was “so busy” with starting my PhD that it was okay if I didn’t exercise for days on end…. then I wondered why I felt shitty.

On Saturday I gamely headed to the train station an hour before sunrise and hopped on a train for Graubunden. It was raining in Zurich. I got to Chur and switched to a bus. As we climbed up to Churwalden the rain turned to snow; I eventually got off in Valbella and headed into the Lenzerheide touring center. I’ve learned that in Switzerland, trails might not open until 9 a.m. on Saturdays. I guess the Swiss, with all their leisure and their money and their time, don’t start skiing at the crack of dawn like so many of the endurance junkies I know in the States. The kiosk was not open when I arrived at 8:30 so I didn’t buy a ticket: I just hit the trails.

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It had been snowing all night and was still snowing, so they weren’t exactly groomed. But it was really exciting to be back on skis for the first time since Christmas, and I had a great time tooling around for 2+ hours. It was slow going – I covered far fewer kilometers than the time would imply – but also totally beautiful. Unfortunately the connector trail from Valbella to the World Cup Cross Country trails and biathlon arena was closed, which was a bummer because I wanted to check out their biathlon stadium and see the course where Simi Hamilton won his first World Cup last season. Oh well, I’ll have to make another trip back.

As I was on the train home – hurrying to get back so I could meet my friend Lore at the train station as she arrived from Paris – I got a text from my friend Brook. He was taking a van full of high school skiers to Davos the next day. Did I want to come?

I thought for five minutes. I had planned to do work all day Sunday, and there was definitely a lot of work that needed to be done. But… a free ride to Davos… to ski… with a new friend…. yes, I was definitely going.

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Day two had all of the lovely snow, but it was no longer actually snowing and instead it was beautiful and sunny. I was tired from my snowstorm slog the day before, but I had a blast with the Zurich International School crew and it was the best snow conditions I’ve seen yet in Davos (I always seem to go there when there’s no snow).

By the end of our three hours skiing, I was completely exhausted. But when I collapsed into bed that night I did, indeed, feel very happy and satisfied. No matter what (and no matter if I’m out of shape and tired), skiing feels easy to me. My legs move in the right way, my core crunches. If I was running and I was the same amount tired, it would feel worse. Skiing I can rely on; skiing I can do. It’s nice to feel competent at something, especially as I start a new PhD where I often feel like I’m in completely over my head.

Cheers to more skiing!

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coping.

When I got back to Switzerland after Christmas, I arrived in a snow storm. It snowed for four days straight in Zurich, finally blanketing central Europe in the white stuff we so desperately needed.

Then it rained. All the snow melted overnight.

Finally, it got beautiful.

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I went hiking, from the Zugerberg to Wildspitz and then down to Sattel. I was in canton Zug, just to the southwest of Zurich proper. A 30 minute train ride took me to the city of Zug, where I started walking up. Once atop the Zugerberg, I had a long stretch of highlands to meander my way along before climbing – and here it got snowy – up to Gnipen and then Wildspitz, the highest point in the canton at about 5,100 feet.

It’s not a mountain, exactly. But it gives you great views of the other ones.

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I needed the time outside, the nearly six hours in nature, the scrambling focus of ascending a summit (Gnipen) with the last pitch so steep that it had bolted-in rope to hold onto – made more treacherous through slushy snow. Last week I got some very bad news. I learned that my friend J had died in a rock climbing accident in Mexico.

It was an immediate gut-punch. It’s so incomprehensible that something like this would happen to someone so wonderful, so generous, so young, so excited about life. Someone who was a careful outdoorsman. J was not one of my ten closest friends, or my 20 or even 30 closest friends. We had great times together, but he wasn’t excellent at staying in touch over e-mail. But he was such an amazing person that it hit me really hard – I can only imagine how much harder it is for the people who are his ten closest friends. For his parents. For his girlfriend, A.

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I can’t describe everything that made J special, or everything that made me sad, or everything about what I was thinking. I will say that I went to a comically Teutonic counselor; we did not connect. Walking in the woods helped me far more.

But two things I will say. First, thinking of J made me re-evaluate what I want from life. Both because in his own life he did what made him happy – surfing, climbing, outdoor trips, music, good food, good friends – while still being an excellent and hardworking scientist, and because, as always when faced with death, you think ‘what should I be doing in order to make this time count’? I realized that I spend a lot of time on things I don’t love. I do a lot of things that are less fun than being with the people I love. We all do. It’s inevitable. But I think I can prioritize and shift the balance. Don’t we owe that to ourselves? I haven’t been getting outside. I’ve been crossing things off the to-do list, the to-do list that gets longer and longer and never shorter. That’s no way to live. Do as J would do, and go to the beach and go surfing.

J had just finished his PhD. As I am just starting mine, it was a very odd notion. Is this ultimately futile?

But I’ll move on to number two. Talking to Günther, my co-worker from Davos where we met and worked with J, we seemed to have both come to a realization: our time in Davos was spectacular and unmatchable. Now we are both starting PhD’s. Neither of us is unhappy; we are thrilled to have amazing opportunities. I love my lab. I can’t imagine a better situation.

But that doesn’t take away the fact that, in all likelihood, never again will I have so much fun doing work as I did in Davos. It was as if we were going out every day, and the work just happened to get done – not that we were forced to go do it. It was a unique combination of things: the beautiful mountain surroundings, the fact that we were very good and very efficient at getting things done, our team’s camaraderie, energy, and love for adventure. The pizza and brownies we’d bring with us into the field. J’s fun and generous presence, when he was around. The fact that we were responsible for our work and could feel pride in it, but did not bear the ultimate responsibility in the end.

After finishing our PhD’s, we will be overqualified to have that feeling again. We’ll be the bosses. That will change things.

So many ideas, feelings, fragments swirl around in my head. I thought of J and how it happened a continent away from his family and best friends. I thought of myself in Europe. What am I doing? Why am I placing myself so far away from those I love the most?

At almost exactly this time, I saw a posting for two PhD positions, paid for four years, at the University of Vermont. Maybe I should just quit, I thought. I can go back to New England and start over. I can be surrounded by my community.

That lasted about ten minutes.

Of course, it gets better. I’ll stay. I love it here. Eventually, I will find my way back to North America, and I’m confident in that, and it’s fine. I had a really hard time when I first moved over here, as evidenced by a certain gloomy and desperate blog post. But I’m over that hump. I was moving cheerily onwards towards the Christmas break, and now things are really going: I start my first course this week, I’m working on my official PhD proposal, and I’m starting my first experiment.

Doing work! In the lab! It’s very basic but very exciting. The time of reading papers endlessly and feeling bewildered is over. (Instead, it’s doing many other things and knowing that still, actually, there are an infinite number of papers that you should be reading at this very moment, or rather, that you should have already read and be able to cite by heart, including not only the methods and results but the author names, year, and journal….)

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I will be okay. There are others who are hurting more than me. I will be there for them.

In the meantime, go hug someone you love. Or better yet, go to the mountains. With someone you love. Hug them there.

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on top of the world!

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I’m in Davos, and I’m on top of the world! Okay, not quite literally, I’m not on top of the biggest mountain here and the mountains here certainly aren’t the biggest in Switzerland. But I’m on top of something, and I can see quite far, and thankgodI’mbackinthemountains.

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But also… I feel emotionally like I’m on top of the world. I have an exciting announcement: I’ve been accepted to do a PhD at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. I will be working in the lab of Dr. Florian Altermatt, which I’m really looking forward to. My project on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning using a meta-ecosystem framework will be fun and challenging. I’ll have to learn a lot! Already, I know that I will need to learn to identify and work with amphipods, small crustaceans which will serve as our main study taxa, and how to set up mesocosm experiments. There’s also talk of using stable isotopes to track carbon and other fluxes through ecosystems, which I’m excited to tackle. I was at Eawag on Thursday for a visit and interview, and I think that it will be great group to work with. A lot of smart people but all really friendly and, most importantly, everyone seemed very happy. That’s something important when you are deciding whether to make a 3-year commitment!

I’m really relieved to have my future worked out a little bit and to think that I won’t be unemployed once I finish my masters. I’m looking forward to settling down in one place for 3 years – I want to continue traveling and having adventures, but I haven’t felt like I have had a home base to come back to in my time in Europe so far, so that will be a very welcome change. I can have a few more belongings than fit into one suitcase, and hopefully my road bike too. I never realized how much I would look forward to a little bit of stability.

And, I’m excited to be at Eawag for a few more reasons. It is a very amazing research institute, highly respected and covering all aspects of freshwater research, not only ecology but also more applied things. For instance, on the news page you can find, in close proximity, an announcement of Dr. Altermatt getting the big grant which will fund my project; “Combining the best of both toilet worlds“; “Cocktail of pesticides in Swiss rivers“; and a notice about extending the wastewater treatment plant. I think that working in a place which has multiple fields of focus will be a great opportunity and hopefully make my research more dynamic. It’s great to think of being able to check ideas with people looking at other aspects of river ecosystems. And, because of their focus on sustainability, the main building is the amazing Forum Chriesbach which is built from a lot of prototype materials, harvests rainwater for the bathrooms, and is so energy-efficient that it doesn’t have a heating or cooling system!!

Finally, my degree will be through University of Zurich, which is also pretty cool. While I was in town for the interview I stayed with my friend Timothée and visited the campus and his lab. There is a lot of very cool research going on there, and in general, Zurich is an amazing academic environment. There’s also ETH Zurich, the Swiss university, and the two institutions collaborate on seminars and courses. It is going to be a very stimulating few years.

So, I have a lot of joy in my life right now. For the weekend, I’m focusing on tying up some loose ends and spending a bit of time in the mountains which I have missed so dearly.

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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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eventually this is a post about science.

Ten days ago, you would have found me sitting here in Davos moaning.

Something like: “But I don’t want to go to the Netherlands! It’s so flat! And all we’re going to do is drink for a week! Why do I have to leave this Swiss mountain paradise? Maybe I’ll pretend that I’m sick….”

It was time for the yearly Summer School in my masters program. The program itself is disparate – with five partner universities and students rarely spending two semesters in a row in the same place, we sometimes lose track of each other. Summer School seeks to remedy this sad side-effect of an otherwise unbeatable situation by bringing together the new students, the graduating students, and the cohort in between. That’s me. For a week, everyone meets at one of the universities for lectures, excursions, and thesis defenses.

My memories of the last edition, held in Montpellier, France, are hazy. Was it fun? Yes. But I was jet-lagged, my luggage was lost and only returned the last night of the program, and I was trying to put my best, most sciencey self forward so I could impress people. As a new student your first week of school, with two older cohorts and all the professors, is a bit nerve-wracking.

So as much as I wanted to see my friends, the prospects of a week like that seemed pretty dire compared to the Alps.

Here’s a reminder of what Switzerland is like, seen through the four days before I left. Thursday:

day 1

Friday:

day 2

Sunday:

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Nevertheless, I got on a plane to Amsterdam. After taking a train into the city, I met up with my dear friends Daniel and Inga and all of a sudden – bam! I could not be more happy to be in the Netherlands! I realized immediately that this was going to be an amazing week and that I would absolutely not regret coming.

We wandered around Amsterdam and I was amazed at all the canals, the markets, the narrow three-story buildings lining the waterfronts. We drank beer at a picturesque old wooden two-story bar that was listing to one side, about to fall into a canal; we ate piles of Chinese food at a greasy restaurant, and then got waffles. Somewhere along the way we picked up Min Ya, then found an amazing distillery. The chatty, comedic gay bartender who would ask you what types of flavors you liked, and then pick you out a glass of something that he thought would suit you. It always did.

Finally, we got on the 10 o’clock train and tried to stay awake all the way to our final destination, Groningen, a university city far in the north of the country. Checking into the hostel at 1 a.m., we assumed that everyone would be asleep – especially since we were arriving a day early and most people weren’t there yet. But as we walked up to the desk, we ran into Flora and Maryam, two graduating students. They were just grabbing dinner. Despite being exhausted, we sat down with them in the lounge and chatted for two more hours.

It was so great to see my schoolmates again! I filled with a warm, tired glow before passing out in the tiny hostel bed.

The next day, more of our cohort arrived. While the new students were off getting introduced to the program, we reveled in seeing each other again. We got coffee where Nikki works as a barista; Daniel, Min Ya and I tried the local specialty of raw herring rolled in raw onions; we all played pool, where Lore showed her prowess as a mathematician by understanding physics much better than all of us, and then went bowling, where everyone got a strike except for me.

Coming from Switzerland, I had the added bonus of feeling like I was queen of the world. For the first time in six weeks, I felt like I could go out to dinner. Everything was so cheap! I could order a million beers! I could choose whatever I wanted from the restaurant menu! Not only did the city offer infinitely more options and more to do than here in Davos, but I could afford to sample the options. This was the lap of luxury.

This happiness at social and financial freedom continued all week. In our eagerness to spend time together, we accepted every activity, every new idea. Not once did I go to bed before three in the morning. Once, tipsy, we were drawn to the fair downtown and strapped ourselves into a ride that ricocheted us back and forth on a giant pendulum, tumbling and spinning us upside down in the process. Another night we saw that the locals’ favorite bar had a good brand of Mezcal, so we drank the whole thing and told them to order four more for the next night. We played endless rounds of the game Jungle Speed.

But by Wednesday, we had more to do. School started. We listened to lectures – good ones and bad ones, featuring results or just professors imploring us to go forth, be fearless, and do a new kind of science. We listened to the new students introduce themselves one at a time, listing far more research projects and travel experience than we had had.

That was the first moment I got the feeling that I had better try harder: shit, these new kids are good. Get in the game, Chelsea.

Thursday was a pleasant excursion to a national park, and then Friday the graduating students defended their theses. They had been drinking and partying just as much, in fact almost always more, than we had all week. But they showed up to the presentations and told us about amazing projects. Many had traveled to cool places, but others had simply done lab work where they discovered something – actually discovered something. That’s pretty amazing for a six-month masters project.

While the older cohort had, for two years, been having a good time, they also had not been wasting their time. Many already had impressive PhD opportunities lined up. As I thought of trying to apply for a PhD while still finishing this program, shudders ran down my spine. How did they do it?

My friends and I found ourselves often turning to each other and muttering, “maybe this is a prestigious program after all.” Our three-month projects in Montpellier had been on the whole unimpressive, and we assumed that was how things would continue. But this gave us a new view: there was real science going on here, good science, and we had better avail ourselves of the opportunity.

(Or at least that’s how I felt. I can’t speak for the others.)

This could not have come at a better time. Davos is the perfect place for me in many ways, and I am living the dream with all of the mountains and hiking around me. I’m making the most of finally living back in a community where, like me, everyone is crazy about the outdoors – I’m the normal one, not the recipient of side-eye when I describe my weekend to my friends.

But my project is not going perfectly. Things weren’t set up quite right, which is a combination of my fault and my supervisor’s fault, and it’s creating a big headache for the analysis phase that is drawing ever closer. Fieldwork is all well and good, but soon I will have to buckle down and do some statistics. And how to do them? I’m about to walk into a nightmare.

Listening to the older students, though, it became clear that many of them also experienced significant (p < 0.05) difficulties with their projects. And yet they would say: if you like your project, then stick with it, push through, keep working. You can find a way to do it. And they did. They had results, they learned things.

It was a clear message for me that I need to put some time into finding away around my problems, and that my project still has a lot of potential to have some interesting and relevant findings. Will it be exactly what I imagined in my first interview? No. Definitely not. But that’s no excuse to half-ass things.

As I traveled back to Davos, I was exhausted. Usually my body protests after one night of staying out late and drinking. This had been a whole week. I struggled to stay awake; I lost my voice the next day, developed a sore throat and cough and fever.

But I had a newfound motivation when I walked back into the SLF lab. I am going to do this project right. I’m going to do my homework so I know how it fits in to what we know, and what we don’t know. I’ve already made a major decision about what kind of model to use for analysis. I had been paralyzed at the decision-making step, because I had no impetus to get moving – but now, one has been provided.

Summer School was a jump start. Sometimes you need to see a different set of people, listen to new ideas, hear about diverse experiences. We get stuck in our own heads and our own labs, but that isn’t always productive.

So, no more moaning. Long live the Netherlands!

camaraderie and gluttony.

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I recently received a great e-mail from my friend Susan. I had been telling her about my rollerski adventure up Fluelapass and she told me, among other things: “I think you are a glutton for punishment.”

This took me a bit by surprise. I’m not going to deny that it might be true, but it was a pretty serious case of the pot calling the kettle black. I know a lot of athletes, a lot of very good ones in a variety of sports, but out of all of them, Susan has the most gut-churning ability to dig deep of anyone I’ve ever met. This is the girl who literally pushed so hard on her bike trying to keep up with the guys that she blacked out and crashed off the road. You will seldom see anyone on the biathlon World Cup who is so willing to go deep, deep into the pain cave as Susan. It is her superpower.

So when someone like that calls you a glutton for punishment… you think, shit? Am I doing something wrong? Am I doing something right? You begin to wonder what, exactly, you are doing with your life – after all, there is no professional reward for such behavior. We “adults” with normal “jobs” (okay, my job barely ever feels like a job) don’t have any reason to attempt stupid feats of athleticism.

But, for some of us, it’s a way of life. It’s true. And some of us understand that. At the end of the work week – or even in the middle – what better way can you satisfy yourself than trying something that requires you to fully test your limits?

This weekend, my friend Rosalie came to visit. She’s living in Bern and I hadn’t seen her in a while, but our lives overlap so much: she’s four years younger than me, but went to the same high school, through the same ski club, to the same college, and knows many of the same people. We’re both deeply interested in environmental issues, although Rosalie has gone admirably further than I have in doing actual on-the-ground research on a bunch of cool topics, including social ones. People sometimes marvel at the way I pick up and move to another new country every few months, but Rosalie is so much more fearless than I am. I’m in a masters program; she has, on her own, landed herself in Rovaniemi, Finland, or in Bern, to do projects that she conceived herself with little to no supervision. And both of us hope to end up writing about these things we care so much about.

She wrote a great blog post about the weekend, starting with a snafu at the train station that left me feeling like the worst host in the world. I was a little late to meet her, and couldn’t find her; the cell number she gave me wasn’t working; after circling the station for 20 minutes, I headed to the other station, where I didn’t find her, and then to the office to see if I had e-mail. Finally I returned to the original station, over an hour after she was supposed to arrive, only to find her there! She had been there the whole time, but we must have each been walking in circles and always on opposite sides of the building. But anyway, we found each other. And the weekend began.

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And what a weekend it was. We looked eagerly at maps that first night and decided to hike out the door as much as possible; buses go to cool spots up the valleys, but here in Switzerland, they are expensive. Luckily, I’m housesitting in an amazing location and there’s more than enough terrain out back to keep you occupied for days. So come Saturday morning, we were drinking coffee on the front lawn when my friend and coworker Sofia pulled in on her bike to complete our hiking trio. It turned into a 13-mile day with one continuous 3,000-foot ascent, a lot more smaller and more gradual ones, and some incredible, awesome, unbelievable scenery. We were so tired we soaked our legs in the stream and took a nap before we could muster up the energy to grill up sausages (once again in the front yard) for dinner.

Day two dawned a bit cloudy, and since Rosalie had made me rhubarb crisp for breakfast (ROSALIE YOU ARE AMAZING) we enjoyed a long, relaxing breakfast. I never get to do that during the week – I’m up at 5:30 at the latest, and I have a half hour bike ride before arriving at work by 7. So to have an extra hour to lounge around and talk about interesting, funny, deep, serious matters with a buddy felt like heaven.

IMG_1246We started hiking and we were both tired. But you can’t admit you’re tired, right? My calves were burning but we both pushed on. I had made a grave mistake in my map-reading and it took us over two hours to reach Oberalp, the “start” of our planned hike. But once we were there, things seemed better – we were heading up an incredibly beautiful valley, past idyllic cabins for farmers and shepherds, and cute cows. You know, typical Switzerland stuff. Finally, we reached the last pitch and climbed up to a windy pass. On the other side, we stopped for lunch. It was perfect. We were in the middle of nowhere, seemingly, with towering mountains and snowy glaciers as our backdrop. Life was good.

From there… we descended. Some sketchy loose dirt paths at first, down to the valley floor (still very high actually), then down some sketchy loose singletrack to the next dropoff which happened to be above a tall, Yosemite-esque waterfall, and then down past the waterfall to the hamlet of Sertig. At this point, the watch read about what I had projected for our total hike to take. We were pooped.

I had offered several options for getting home. The first would be to take the bus to Clavadel, but it didn’t go back towards our house, so we’d have to hike a bit from there or else go further and connect to another bus to get home. I also mentioned that we could try to hitchhike to Frauenkirch, but Rosalie vetoed that (probably good, I’m not so adventurous with the hitchhiking). Or we could walk – I estimated that it would take us an hour and a half. As we stared at the bus schedule and tried to decide whether to get on or not, we hesitated. Walking didn’t seem soooo bad. Just an hour and a half. Then, the bus pulled out of the parking lot and left. Too slow. The decision was made for us.

And… it turned out to be much more than an hour and a half of walking. We were in pretty serious bonking territory, armed only with water and a couple of carrots for snacks. By the end, we had to stop and by ice cream at Frauenkirch to make it the final 15 minutes back to the house. When we walked in the driveway, Rosalie checked her Garmin: 18 1/2 miles. We had been out from nine to five, like a regular job. Later, she realized that the GPS didn’t pick up satellites immediately, so it was actually 20 miles.

That certainly justified how exhausted we were.

I am kicking myself for being shitty at reading maps. The main, interesting part of the hike? It was exactly as long as I thought. But the traversing of Rinerhorn to get to the start, and then the long way back from Sertig, wow, I totally blew it there. And we were in for a rough ride because of it.

Yet we each had the chance to bail and take the bus, and we each turned it down. That’s what it means to be a glutton for punishment, I guess. Maybe that makes us bad adventure partners; we’re ambitious and don’t want to admit any little weakness, ever.

But maybe it makes us good partners. We both take responsibility for the crazy situation we got ourselves into, and despite the fatigue we’ve suffered in the few days since (and the fact that I came home and ate everything in the kitchen… really everything….), I think we both have pretty fond memories of Sunday. It was great! It was fun! It was beautiful! Rosalie made a snow angel!

We’re already planning to meet up again, this time in Bern. I may be crazy (my dad told me recently that I “didn’t have to be the ‘crazy American’, you know”), but it feels so amazing to know that I have kindred spirits among my wonderful group of friends, and that we can satiate ourselves with whatever ill-advised physical tests we want. What is better than that?