discovering westpark.

This weekend I was sick. It was a real bummer. Daniel and Andres went to Switzerland to visit our friend Reto, and they stayed in a mountain hut, and there was so much snow I could have skied. They played games and got in snowball fights and made fondue. I am dying that I couldn’t go, but I’m trying to manage my long-term health.

So, I stayed here, hibernating in my room, watching TV shows and movies and reading an entire book. I also made sure to go for a walk each day, in case fresh air made me feel better. Luckily, there is a beautiful park nearby: Westpark. I’m excited to make it my jogging destination and might even try rollerskiing there (although only about 1/4 of the paths are paved and in no predictable pattern). Here are a few shots from the weekend.

fest.

munich

And so I left Davos. It was sad. But I was broken, a little bit: used up, run out of steam, bottom of the tank. My summer in Davos was one of the best summers of my entire life – I am pretty confident saying that – but three straight months of adventuring and hiking and running and working in the mountains really takes it out of you. I went a long time without taking a day completely off: even my off-days had fieldwork, which was a fair bit of walking up high. By the last week, I wanted to keep going into the mountains, but I could barely drag up the energy to do so.

(Don’t worry: there were a few last spectacular trips. I won’t make you jealous by posting about them.)

I arrived in Munich just in time for Oktoberfest. My buddy Daniel met me at the train station, helped me haul my bags to my new place, and then went to work for a few hours while I unpacked. Then, we met up again, with our other best bud Andres, and hit up the festival.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was different, and better, than I could have imagined. It wasn’t as rowdy or as dirty as I had been led to believe. Make no mistake, it’s the biggest party you’ll ever go to: they sold something like 7 million liters of beer. But it’s a party run with German efficiency. Everyone in the tents is completely wasted, standing on top of their benches in their lederhosen and singing at the top of their lungs. But they still get the beer and food they order in a timely fashion. They don’t puke all over the tables. They don’t fight with each other or break shit.

(Perhaps this is an argument against the silly American drinking age of 21: Oktoberfest has way more beer than any college party I’ve been to, but was incredibly less destructive both to health and property. I know it’s not a fair comparison, but seriously: picture an American college kid here. They would die.)

The other thing I definitely wasn’t expecting was that it was also a fair. Like, the kind with rides and games. Who combines beer and rides? That gives new meaning to the phrase “vomit comet,” except that here, it didn’t seem to. The centerpiece, I would say, was a rollercoaster that featured the Olympic rings: five complete tight loops going upside down. I didn’t try it, but I did admire it. There were more rollercoasters and rides, funhouses, shoot-em-up games, and everything else you can imagine. We didn’t sample too extensively but we did do bumper cars several times over the course of an increasingly intoxicated evening, and IT. WAS. AWESOME.

The entire thing takes a month to set up (and, we wondered, how long to take down?). It’s not just the rides that are trucked in, but the buildings, too. People call them beer tents, but that’s not fair. Only the roof is a tent. The rest of the structure is wood, in many cases elaborately built in the Bavarian style. They use the same structures over and over again: in one restroom building, I could see that each panel was numbered so that the small shedlike-building could be put up in the exact same way next year. Each of the Munich breweries has one of these giant halls, most of which also feature a stage with a band that plays old music like “Country Roads,” apparently the most popular song of the festival.

I arrived on a Tuesday and the last day of Oktoberfest was that Sunday. We went three times. The first time, we underestimated the potency of German beer. Both Daniel and I ended up with horrible hangovers (Andres somehow escaped unscathed), which made my trip to get registered as a resident of the city quite a bit less pleasant. The second two times I was a bit more cautious. Our last evening ended with a lovely stint on a beautifully-painted old carousel, where a bar had been installed in the middle. You could sit along the edges and be spun, very slowly, through the view of the festival. It was nice.

Most of all, though, it was great to see Andres and Daniel again. They are two of my closest friends in my masters program, and I couldn’t be more excited that they are here in Munich with me. The three musketeers ride again! Minus, of course, a few other essential members of the team. But hey, our cohort is particularly fractured right now between not two, but now five different universities. If three people are all we can have, then, well, this is an awesome group of three. It’s making my departure from the Alps much less of a tragedy.

Back to Bavaria.

I am in Uppsala, Sweden, now, having completed two days of my orientation program here – just the weekend separates me from my anxiously-awaited first day of Real Classes. But before talking about Uppsala, I want to write a little bit about what I did after Montpellier – I went to Ruhpolding, Germany to visit some friends, and I had a great time! As my mom wrote in an e-mail, the pictures look like “pictures from a … picture book about what Germany is supposed to look like. Lucky you, in the picture!”

I had to leave Montpellier at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning and drag my bags through the street to the tram station, a ten-minute ordeal that left me sopping wet and disgusting. I was so happy that the train would be taking me to cooler climes. I rode to Lyon, switched stations, and then took three more trains before ending up in the mountains of Bavaria where Pam Pichler picked me up at the station – just as she did back in March when I arrived to report on World Championships.

Back then, Pam had to leave the next morning to go to a conference in Las Vegas; luckily this time we had more time to talk. I was still exhausted so I quickly collapsed into the same big, comfy bed that I slept in last time around, joined by one of the family’s cats. In the morning, it really took all of my willpower to get out of that bed.

It was raining and gray, but even then it was beautiful. I drank a lot of tea and lounged around the house with Pam and her husband Walter and daughter Malin, who made a delicious German plum tart from scratch; older daughter Nina was at her very first day of work. It was cozy to have a cup of something hot and look out into the drizzly valley.

After lunch, my friend Susan, who was in town for a biathlon training camp, came over to pick me up and we joined her teammate Sara (both of them were my buddies on the Dartmouth Ski Team back when we were mere babes) and went on a little adventure. Somehow, this trip had aligned perfectly so that I was in town on their day off and actually got to see them. As Susan drove the van on narrow, winding roads through the hills and mountains, we caught up on everything: I told them about school, Sara talked about the classes she’s taking through the Keller School of Management, Susan said that she jumped in the pond-like “swimming pool” outside of their little cabin every morning and it had left her cold all day.

We parked outside of the Berchtesgaden National Park and wandered through little tourist shops until we ended up at the lake of Konigsee.

I’m going to use this word a lot, but: it was beautiful! It’s a long, skinny lake that has clifflike walls in some parts, and you can take a boat ride where someone blows a horn at the cliffs and the echo comes back so perfectly that it sounds like there are two horns. We opted not to do this, but walked around the one end of the lake and admired the views. Looking at a map, we could see that there were trails up the steep slopes on either side of the lake, with huts to stay in or alms to eat at. Some time in the future, I really hope I get to come here and make a hiking trip out of it. The scenery is just spectacular.

As you may know, the area also has an interesting place in history. It was here that Hitler had his Eagle’s Nest built, and you can see it atop one of the ridges near the lake. Again, we didn’t walk up there, but I’d love to read a little more about the history of the area in that era in particular before I come back. I will come back.

We drove down to the actual town of Berchtesgaden, which is perched on a hill. It took us a little while to wander our way to downtown. On our way we passed an amazing cemetery – they do things a little different in Germany than in the U.S. – and a beautiful church. Once on the equivalent of main street, we tried to look for a cafe to grab a coffee at, but this being Sunday afternoon most things were closed (and Berchtesgaden is small, so there weren’t that many shops in the first place). We had to settle on gelato, which was funny because it was actually kind of chilly. I selected hazelnut and am happy to report that it was delicious, even if it didn’t help my internal temperature.

Of course, part of my trip to Ruhpolding was to work for FasterSkier, so after we drove back to Susan and Sara’s cabin I met up with one of their teammates for an interview before having dinner with the whole biathlon team. After Susan took me back to Pam and Walter’s, we drank more tea and talked for an hour or so. Susan and I used to do so many of the same things – running, skiing, ecology research, leading outing club trips – and we still have the same interests, but we’re adults now and we both have real jobs, I guess you could say. And we are both fascinated by each other’s jobs and curious about how all these things we love might be able to fit together into a real life. It’s amazing for me to be able to catch up with friends like Susan, especially in such a seemingly random place – I have had some pretty cool opportunities in the last few years.

The next morning I ran up to the biathlon venue (my first exercise in a week, and I could tell….) to observe their training session and do more reporting work. (For lots of pictures of that experience, check here.) When I arrived back at the house Pam and Walter were sitting out in the garden in the sun. They have a little microclimate in their backyard which can grow nectarines, grapes, kiwis… what!? It was quite warm and lovely and I could have sat there for hours.

As it was, I said goodbye to Walter, who was just home on lunch break from a job helping to renovate some houses one of his relatives owned. And then it was time for me to take a shower and re-pack my bags – just a short visit to Bavaria this time around. Pam and Malin drove me back down to the train station and I was off, wishing that I could stay much longer.

I only met the Pichlers this winter through my old ski coach Dennis Donahue, who had worked at the U.S. Biathlon Association when Walter coached the national team, but they have become great friends and very generous hosts. Again, it’s just another example of how lucky I’ve been in the last few years – how many people can travel to a tiny town in a foreign country and develop a real friendship with the people they meet there? I think the explanation is that I am blessed to have many kind and amazing friends of my own, who of course know more people like themselves. Thanks, world, for offering up so many wonderful things to me.

Biathlon in Bavaria

Where can you possibly start when you are describing something so alive, so full of energy, so frenetic?

I’m here at IBU World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany, and as the days tick down I can’t imagine how I will ever leave this place. It’s the same feeling I had in Oslo last year, and on that trip I was so overwhelmed that I never even ended up writing about it.

So this time I’m going to try to do better.

I arrived on Wednesday evening, sans ski bag, which however irritating it may have been at least made my train rides a bit easier. I am staying with a wonderful couple: Walter Pichler, a former star biathlete for West Germany who then coached the U.S. team for a decade, and his American wife Pam. Pam immediately made me at home: Anything you see in the cupboards is up for grabs! Do you want some tea? Look, our cats like you!

The Pichlers live just up the hill from town, and that evening I walked downtown to pick up my media credentials. It was immediately clear that this was going to be different than Oslo. Ruhpolding is a small town, of just 7,000 people, but it had to absorb the same amount of publicity and attention as the entire 1.4 million person metro area of Oslo. The town was packed, I mean packed, like sardines with rabid fans. Biathlon is the number one winter sport in Europe and nowhere is it more popular than in Germany.

But it wasn’t just the atmosphere that was different. The IBU is extremely, extremely well-organized and has a lot of money. They also have more rules. I asked whether there were service bibs that members of the media could borrow and ski on the course – we did this in Oslo and it was great – and the man handing out the credentials actually laughed in my face.

That’s a bummer, because there isn’t as much skiing to be had here, especially since the subtropical temperatures that have hit the area in the last week have made the skiing down in town very crappy. I have skied on the trails across from the venue a bit, but they don’t groom them much because people are here to watch, not to ski, and they use all of their resources for the races. Up the valley is better – I got to do an amazing ski with my old friend and teammate Susan Dunklee – but I don’t have a car, so it’s tough to get up there.

Really, though, the lack of good skiing is the only thing where Oslo is kicking Ruhpolding’s butt. The races have been amazing. There is so much exciting stuff happening that I can’t even start to explain it. And the fans, I must say, are even more loud and crazy than ski fans. Even though attendance is capped at around 30,000 due to the logistical challenges of transporting people up and down the narrow valley to the venue, it doesn’t feel any smaller than when I saw 100,000+ fans in Oslo. When Magdalena Neuner or Andreas Birnbacher comes into the range alone, you could be a mile away and still tell whether they hit their shots – the stadium explodes in a loud “HEI!” – or not. That’s how loud and unified the spectators are.

I’ve been working very hard. This weekend there were two sprints on Saturday, with a total of more than 250 competitors, and two pursuits (capped at 60 apiece) on Sunday. I stayed up until 1 a.m. on Saturday writing four race reports, woke up on Sunday and did a roundup of everything I missed, watched the men’s race and did interviews, then sprinted my way through the men’s report before the women’s race started on Sunday afternoon.

After the women’s race, my productivity took a dip as I had been invited to a U.S. Biathlon Association banquet that evening. I met the team at their hotel and grabbed a drink with Ed Merrens, a friend from the Upper Valley who is here as the U.S. team doctor. Then all of us took a van up to a very fancy Bavarian guesthouse where we met up with the coaches and wax techs, ski reps, foundation members, and a USOC staff member who was attending the Championships. We were served fancy Bavarian food, lots of Prosecco and beer, and treated to accordion music and yodeling. All of the German ski techs as well as the team’s High Performance Director wore leiderhosen. It was fantastic to be able to chat with everyone when I wasn’t working.

I didn’t get home until 11:30, though, and was too exhausted to transcribe another interview or write another race report. I save that up for yesterday, which was supposed to be a day when I had no obligations and could just relax and go for a ski. It was raining when I woke up, so that made it a little easier to abandon my plans and keep working, but it still stung a bit.

In the afternoon I was able to kick back, though, walking into town to see the sights and check out a museum on the history of biathlon in Ruhpolding. It was amazing to look at the old pictures and see how much biathlon has changed. Of course it used to be completely with the classic technique, but that wasn’t the only major difference. Some targets used to have a single black dot. Then there were three. Then there were five, but in an “x” like on a pair of dice. The evolution of the Ruhpolding venue, too, was remarkable. From just a couple of targets in a clearing in the woods, it has evolved into a state-of-the art facility with a large stadium. I saw pictures of the Pichler family chainsawing down trees and moving them in trucks. I saw pictures of heavy equipment installing a bridge.

With only six races remaining, I’m already getting a bit sad about leaving. It’s been great and going back to real life in Oregon will pale in comparison. But instead of thinking about that, I’m just going to enjoy my last days here and make the most of them!