Walensee, two times.

The first time I went to Walensee was in the spring of 2015 when my friend Susan came to visit me in Zurich at the end of her biathlon season. As it happened, one of her close friends from high school in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, also lived in Zurich – what a crazy coincidence! Her friend suggested we take the boat to Quinten, on the far side of the Walensee lake, and walk from there back along the shore.

It was very much the end of March. That far shore of Walensee has a notoriously nice climate, so we were warmed by the sun a bit, but things were still dark and just beginning to come out of winter.

The walk, on a map, goes straight along the shore of the lake, so I was expecting something flat. Not so, that’s not really how it works. There are huge cliffs that drop down to the lake and for one section, it would be impossible to cross such cliffs. Instead, the trail climbs a few hundred meters in elevation to get above them. The going is rocky and fairly technical – not to mention steep. I grumbled a bit about the amount of effort I had to put in.

It was a lovely walk though, and near the end we detoured to the Seerenbach falls, some of the highest Switzerland. Because of their height it’s hard to capture them in one camera frame, but here’s what I got – the falls are a three-tiered affair, and the cascade on the left of this picture is just the lowest of the three tiers. The gushing falls on the right is a different source which has come though a cave system.


I didn’t return to Walensee for a long time, actually. But this summer I decided to go back and instead of starting in Quinten, start in Walenstadt and traverse the entire side of the lake to Weesen rather than starting halfway through.

It’s about 21 kilometers, and it was my first really long run of the year. The last summer and fall I had been doing longer trail runs/hikes with much more elevation gain, but I hadn’t run much all winter. This was going to serve as something of a test of my running shape and how long it might take me to get back into mountain running again.

Luckily, it was a lovely day – so much greener and more cheerful than the March day I had first visited Walensee.

The route from Walensee starts out by climbing dirt roads up most of the way to Walenstadtberg. It’s not the easiest way to start, but the roads are even and the grade is pretty run-able. I was feeling good, and then descended down to Quinten.

When I got to Quinten and started the climb just after, the memory of my last trip there suddenly came rushing back. I tried to run but couldn’t – long sections of the climb are at a 30% grade or steeper, I now know thanks to the GPS track. I slowed to a walk but after having tried to push the “running” for as long as I could, even that was a disaster. I was getting lightheaded and dizzy and had to drastically cut my pace.

With little running fitness to go on, that just about killed me. It was hard to recover from the lactate which had flushed my legs on that stupidly steep hill. I gave up trying to make a good run of things and ended up walking more sections. That gave me more opportunity to enjoy the views – of the waterfalls, the lake, and the picturesque Swiss landscape.

I now knew that I could run for a while, but I needed to work on some things before tackling any truly serious mountain runs.


Before and After the Fall: A Meditation on Healthiness

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It was a busy summer. And so, I inevitably got sick.

After a rainy ridge run in the Jura mountains confirmed that me and my friend Steve were more or less compatible overdistance-run partners, we ran across Liechtenstein. I often do these sorts of point-to-point runs in the mountains in summer and fall, but a certain amount of caution is usually maintained in choosing routes when I’m alone. Having a buddy willing to go the crazy places I suggested opened up new route possibilities and with it, more wear and tear (and fitness!) for my body.

The summer was full of opportunity and I was giddy.

We ran a section of the Via Alpina, a 1500-mile trail which traverses the Alps from Monaco to Slovenia, crossing through six other countries on the way. While I’d love to trek the trail some day, these days section runs are the best I can do. We “only” went 25+ kilometers in Switzerland’s Kanton Glarus.

Another day we “ran”, or mostly walked, up an incredibly steep headwall on the far side of Walensee lake, climbing 1500 meters in just three kilometers. The run along a small shelf below the uppermost cliffs was gorgeous, as was the relatively gentle descent back to the other end of the lake. But after that one I told Steve he could pick the route because I had caused us a world of pain.

Later in the summer, I skiwalked up to a glacier with my friend Jonas. I don’t know if Jonas knew how steep it was going to be, but I certainly wasn’t mentally prepared. By the time we hit the ice my legs were rubber. We wisely decided across crossing the glacier.

View from the glacier down to Engelberg.

At some point, I started to feel fit like a warrior, even if each of these individual crazy adventures (and a few more long ones on my own) left me totally exhausted, achy and sore. Pain brings fitness, though. I was hardening up.

But then, when I thought I might be getting onto a bit of a roll, fieldwork started.

I was asked with another PhD student to organize a big joint project for our whole lab this summer. It was/is a really great project – lots of interesting angles, and a cool opportunity to be involved in something so big. I really love fieldwork, too. But organizing everything was incredibly stressful. And I had to be at work extra early to organize everything before the rest of the team showed up, then often stay late to process samples and equipment when the day was over.

I did not run those weeks. On the good days, I forced myself to ride my bike either to work (a measly 9 km) or back, but usually not both. By the end of the day of fieldwork I was so tired that riding home seemed impossible. It was mental exhaustion above all else: after a day of remembering details and always trying to plan two steps ahead, plus perhaps driving for three or four hours, any additional feat of willpower was doomed to fail.

But… I got to see many new corners of Eastern Switzerland. And I love fieldwork! Did I mention that I love fieldwork? Why would you ever work in an office if you could work outside?

Here’s what a block of summer fieldwork for an aquatic ecologist looks like. It looks, despite what I just wrote above, like happiness.

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I think that even those of us who love our jobs lie to ourselves a little bit and say that because the work is something we enjoy, it’s easier than it really is. This kind of research is what I dream of doing. I love the science and the questions we ask and (try to) answer; it’s outside; there’s always something new and it never gets dull. For better or for worse, there’s a new challenge every week, sometimes every day, and you end up using a crazy-diverse set of skills and developing new ones. I wouldn’t trade my job for anything (well….). But there’s no denying that it totally saps me to organize such ventures.

As soon as fieldwork was over – no, not really, just in the middle of the experiment when we let nature do its thing and tried not to stress out about what might be happening in our absence – I headed back to North America to visit friends and family, go to a few weddings of people near and dear to my heart, and give a talk at a big ecology conference.

The first night I was back on Eastern Standard Time, I slept for 14 1/2 hours.

It was so, so awesome to see so many people I love! But I was flying constantly across the country to get to one thing or another and I never really settled in. For the most part, it wasn’t a very relaxing vacation. I also had to put out some fires with the experiment from afar, not being able to see anything in person, which is always nerve-wracking.

With my cousins Jess and Emily at a family wedding in Houston.

Some of the most relaxing moments of my "vacation" were walks in the Lyme Town Forest with my mom and our dog during my six days at home.

A rainy-ish hike up Mount Moosilauke with Susan and Jenny was a great way to cap off my time in New Hampshire.

And so yes: I cannot even schedule my “vacation” to be recovery time. There’s so much exciting stuff to do! I’m like a squirrel chasing every fun thing that catches my attention.

As soon as I got back to Switzerland it was back to fieldwork as we took the experiment apart. Again with the organizing and the long days.

Because I had been in the south for a lot of my trip back to the States and I am legendarily bad at exercising in hot weather, I had lost a lot of my fitness – I just hadn’t been running a lot, much less biking or rollerskiing.

Nevertheless, on the yearly goals list I had made myself in the spring I had written “do a mountain running race.” This had been an idea of mine ever since moving to Switzerland: I couldn’t really live in the Alps without doing the mountain running thing, could I?

The previous summer I had chickened out. I was doing some other fieldwork, a bit more ski-specific training, and just generally didn’t feel great about my uphill running chops compared to people who grew up in the Alps. I was sure I would get demolished, which was one thing, but more scared that I just simply wouldn’t have fun.

But in September I thought, I’ve got to pull the trigger on this or else this goal will stay as an unchecked box on my list. If I waited much longer there would be snow in the mountains. So I impulsively signed up for a mountain half-marathon in Arosa and convinced Steve to join me. Then I’d at least have someone to commiserate with, I thought, and I was certainly right about that.

Pre-race in Arosa. This dude guided our way to one of the best hotel breakfasts I've ever had.

Earlier in the summer, I had done a not insignificant number of long trail runs – longer than a half marathon – with a lot of elevation. But that day, I just didn’t have it. I’m not sure if it was simply a bad day (those certainly happen) or whether the difference between self-pacing and trying to guess a sustainable race pace just wrecked me early, but it was a brutal slog. The course climbed 900 meters in about eight kilometers at the start, then dropped off a precipitous face where you felt more like you were free-falling than running. Then it was up a second peak and a long downhill run back to the finish.

Falling off the mountain.

By the time I was running the last few kilometers, I had totally bonked. I was a mess at the finish line: rubber legs, salt-crusted face, salt streaks covering my arms and legs, dehydrated, totally depleted but with no appetite. It took me hours to get back to anything resembling being alive. A crazy thunderstorm rolled into the mountains and we sat drinking a beer and watching the lightning, me just being thrilled that I didn’t have to so much as stand up.

My first mountain running race experience was tough, but I’d probably do it again, with a clearer understanding of how brutal the race was going to be. The event was great and there’s a nice camaraderie to this community. I felt at home. So next year’s goal list: “do a second mountain-running race”…. maybe I’ll be faster?

Work got crazy again as we decided to use a student project to do a pilot test of a new experimental setup. One day I ran home from the office and titled my Strava workout “Trying to avoid a nervous breakdown about the new experiment.” I was literally running away from my problems.

Planning new experiments is so exhilarating, but it’s also frustrating and stressful and involves revision after revision of plans and ideas.

Around that time, Steve and I ran from Zurich to Zug, a nearby city. It was a 34 k run with a surprising amount of elevation gain: more than 3,000 feet, not bad for living in Switzerland’s lowlands.

I didn’t realize it, but it was going to be my last good run for a while. At the end of the next week, I noted that my supposed-to-be-easy evening run “felt like garbage”. I was just tired, I figured.

The next day I got sick. Really sick: going through an entire box of kleenex a day, unable to do much of anything, debilitatingly exhausted. I first blamed allergies but then, after a day and a half of this misery, took some flu medicine. I immediately felt better. Not good, but better. Ah-ha! If medication made me feel better, that meant I was actually sick. Right.

I didn’t get better very quickly, and had to take some time off of work. I didn’t exercise for two weeks. When I did, I felt okay, so I got excited and a few days later did a 16 k point-to-point run with my boyfriend (who was visiting, and who I thus felt I needed to provide with some workout opportunities). Predictable result: setback, more kleenex boxes. After a few days of re-recovery, we tried a 26 k run/hike up to a mountain hut. It was beautiful.

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Because of the snow and ice, we didn’t push the pace that much. My main challenge was staying warm, but my immune system seemed to handle it okay. The 20 k point-to-point going south from Zurich two days later, though, was one push too far. It required another kleenex box, more medicine, a few more days off from running.

You’d think that at almost 30 years old, I would have learned how to take care of myself better than this. But when to go back to training can be a tricky question – and I’m not exactly training for anything. When I go out for a long run in the mountains, it’s because that’s what will make me happy on that particular day. The balance of long- versus short-term planning is quite a bit shifted from my “athlete” days, meaning that I can risk a little more do get out there sooner – but the potential consequence, lying in bed being miserable, isn’t so nice either.

At a certain point, it came down to this for me. After weeks of yo-yoing back and forth between really sick, sort of sick, and sort of healthy, I couldn’t tell what “really healthy” actually was supposed to feel like. Better than yesterday, better than yesterday, better than yesterday; that seems like a good trajectory. When is better good enough?

And how do you value the trade-offs in life when athletic pursuits are essential for your happiness, but “performance” isn’t your job? Doing two jobs (now three, but that’s another story) and trying to get in good blocks of exercise is certainly pushing the limits of what I can do, mentally and physically. Yet my jobs are stimulating and fulfilling; I want to do well at them. I couldn’t quit them. I also couldn’t quit running (or, in the winter, skiing). If I did that, I’d be less stressed and I might not get sick, but I would be unhappy and the lack of exercise would leave me unhealthy for an entirely different set of reasons. I think I’d be less efficient at my jobs. To non-athletes that sounds counterintuitive, but I suspect that any recreational sportsperson knows exactly what I mean.

I’m lucky that I have some role models in this department. Most of my peers don’t pursue sports – I suspect that if I was in a similar graduate program in the U.S. the number might be higher, but without organized college sports teams many in Europe drop out of organized sports when they start their bachelors, and by grad school are focused primarily on academics – but a few do. When we see each other it’s like a relief: yes, I’m not crazy, this is a real thing that people do! And I’m not the only one who feels like doing work and sport together makes me better at each.

But it undeniably comes with costs. And so, occasionally, you run yourself into the ground and you get sick. Then the longer you sit around waiting for your mythical health to arrive, the more you stew in your own unhappiness. But pushing the envelope also might mean longer sitting around, just drawing things out.

I seem to be healthy again, finally, and I’m going to push it – but not too far. Ski season is coming and somehow, I need to break this cycle.

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Murgsee lakes.

A few photos from our run/hike up to the Murgsee lakes – a route I picked because it’s easily accessible from Zurich. What I hadn’t well accounted for was how much snow there might be! At higher elevations, the trail became quite treacherous and icy. By the time we reached the hut and asked for a warm drink – sadly they had no milk so instead of hot chocolate we had tea – we were pretty much frozen little icicles. The descent was chilly but it was a shockingly beautiful day as we experienced two seasons in the course of just a few kilometers. By the time we got back to Zurich I felt like I had really accomplished something and deserved that hot shower.

Three Countries, One Six-Hour Run

Sometime in the last year, my friend Greg casually mentioned to me that it was possible to run across Liechtenstein.

“Oh yeah, we did it,” he said.

I guess I knew that the country was tiny. But – not to diminish Greg’s running chops – it didn’t occur to me just how tiny it was. 62 square miles. I started looking into it and, of course, there are quite a few writeups of how to “cross an entire country on foot!” The shortest way across is about eight miles. A fast runner could do that in an hour.

The idea of crossing the whole country definitely appealed to me. I knew that I had to do it. But an eight-mile run along the flat part of the country? That didn’t really inspire me. I started looking at the map. There were mountains along the Liechtenstein-Austria border. That is more my speed.

When my friend Steve mentioned wanting to get out this weekend to get “above the clouds” (it has rained nonstop in Switzerland for, I swear, months), I pitched him the idea. So there it was, Saturday morning and we were on a train to Buchs, Switzerland, just over an hour from Zurich, gleefully making jokes about our day “out of the country”.

From the Buchs train station it’s just a few hundred meters to the Rhine River, which forms the border with Liechtenstein. We paused for a photo. Whee! We’ve already come so far!

First border crossing: check!

First border crossing: check!

On we ran, through Schaan, the largest municipality in the principality of Liechtenstein. It has 5,800 people and houses a major manufacturer of false teeth, as well as Hilti, a power drill company. The downtown was cute, but didn’t look that different than Switzerland.

There are actually more companies than people in Liechtenstein, and it’s a financial capital. It’s a tax haven for those too choosy to pick Switzerland, so the place is awash in money – if not residents. A major global consulting firm seemed to sponsor the local tennis courts and we saw the names of more than a few companies we recognized.

After making it to Schaan we started climbing, first along a paved street past a convent, then on a jogging path through the woods and finally into a picturesque small village complete with grazing cows and beautiful old wooden houses, meticulously kept up. We could see the Rhine below us, sweeping its way towards Lake Constance; the Swiss mountains to the north; the Austrian Alps to the south; more Swiss peaks southeast and west. A few grannies cheerfully greeted us from across the street as a got a quick drink from the public water fountain. In the Alps, the water is always delicious, especially when you’ve been running uphill.

And above us, always, was the ridge we were set to traverse. It was rocky and looked epic, even though I knew it was not as tall, remote, or technical as many places I’ve been in Switzerland. We wound up and up along a forest road until, almost eleven kilometers in and after climbing about 1,000 meters, we found ourselves in the typical alpine meadows you associate with Austria and Switzerland. There was a mountain hut up the hill on the left and we passed our first other hikers of the day, three women happily chatting away.

I probably would have ski-walked a few more of those 1,000 meters of climbing, but Steve is not a skier; he’s a runner. His backpack was heavier than mine but his shoes lighter. He’s also just faster. It wasn’t a spectacularly hot day – rain was forecast for the afternoon – but by the time we stopped after the hut we were both completely sweaty. I needed a snack so we took off our shirts and tried to let them dry in the sun.

It… didn’t work. Putting a soaking wet sweaty shirt back on is not the best thing in the world. We continued.

After only about a kilometer, mostly through the woods, we once again found ourselves in a nice meadow, this time looking out from the top of a pass over into Austria proper. And there it was: the border with Austria. After just 12 kilometers and about two hours of running uphill, we had crossed the entire country.

You can't read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the left is a stone marker planted into the ground - a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line.

You can’t read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the right is a stone marker planted into the ground – a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line. Luckily in the light, you also can’t tell just how sweaty and disgusting I have become at this point….

We had started in Switzerland, made it through Liechtenstein, and were now in Austria – but our goals were not complete. The ridge and its most charismatic peaks, the Drei Schwestern or Three Sisters, were still above us. Faced with a trail that skirted around the mountain through Austrian meadows or an alpine route that headed back toward Liechtenstein, we picked the alpine route.

We wound our way through ever-shorter stunted conifers until there were no more. It reminded me of my beloved White Mountains. The rock started and so did the metal cables to hold onto, the dizzying drop-offs below, and in a few places, metal and wooden ladders to scramble up. The Drei Schwestern were pretty spectacular. The first real peaks I’d been on this year so far, we landed just over 2,000 meters above sea level, or slightly above the top of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in my home state of New Hampshire.

That’s not particularly tall by Swiss standards, but the view was still great. Austria and the Swiss canton of Graubunden stretched out ahead of us, peak after peak after peak still lined with snow. There was finally a cool breeze. I soaked it in: why haven’t I done this in so long?

Oh right, because it rains all the damn time. 

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool.

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool. There are actually two people in the cleft of the rocks near the top, if you can spot them.

We eventually continued on the ridge, and our pace dropped precipitously (because we ourselves didn’t want to….). It was technical scrambling up and down, again holding onto metal cables bolted into the rock. What had begun as a run was now a delicate crawl. We could have gone much farther along the ridge, but after three peaks decided to bail off back down into Liechtenstein.

The path I had picked turned out to be the lightest path you could consider a marked trail in Switzerland. It was rocky and rooty and, thanks to all the recent rain, muddy. The trail was hacked into the alpine heath, with surprised-looking naked root nubs still recovering from some recent trimming.

I sort of loved it, but with his minimalist footwear Steve did not. Personally, I maintain that there are few things you can’t do in a pair of Salomon Speedcross trail runners with their beefy treads. When the company gave the Craftsbury Green Racing Project a pair of shoes each back in 2010 they hooked this one customer for life…

The forest seemed to go on forever: I could see Schaan below us now and then, and it felt like my quads were burning more and more from holding myself in check on the impossibly steep grade. But Schaan never got closer! I began to worry we were in some sort of enchanted forest that expanded with us and we would never get out.

When we realized it was nearly two in the afternoon, it all made sense. Eating lunch cleared some of the grumpiness we had both been developing from the endless, messy downhill. Soon after that we popped out of the forest and into an opulent neighborhood of modern-day castles and mansions.

I could practically taste the chlorine in the swimming pools that I knew lay just beyond each perfectly-manicured hedge. But those swimming pools were not for us, so we continued running down and down, back into Schaan. By now I was flagging – it had been well over 20 km and a lot of uphill, over 1,800 meters or almost 6,000 feet, and then the corresponding leg-destroying downhill.

Just keep running, I thought. Admit no weakness to your running buddyOkay though, he can probably tell. The bridge over the Rhine was in sight, then we were over it, back in Buchs, and I could stop. I was incredibly dehydrated and savored a lemonade bought at the train station kiosk like it was the best thing I had ever tasted.

Three countries? One run? Not too shabby. We gave ourselves a high five for being adventurous – and, as Americans, laughed to ourselves at how long it would take to run across our own country. We had to take these opportunities where they came.

The next day was sunny too.

“I hear Monaco is nice this time of year,” Steve joked.

I ♥ mittens, + my Adelboden-to-Kandersteg OD.

Atop Bunderchrinde Pass.

Atop Bunderchrinde Pass.

If you’re advertising something, you usually ask the best people in the world at using or doing that thing to endorse your product.

Therese Johaug is a famous Norwegian skier who started a glove company. She has used that platform to sponsor some of her competitors, which is pretty cool. There are some fantastic ads featuring Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, and Liz Stephen – some of the best skiers in the world, who happen to be from Vermont and Minnesota.

I am not one of the best skiers in the world. Yet, I would like to endorse Therese Johaug’s mittens. I consider myself to be a high-use mitten wearer. I have rigorously the product in a variety of punishing conditions. You don’t have to be an international star athlete to value good gloves – they are useful for lots of different jobs. And luckily, I have, like, a bunch of different jobs.

And so I present: how a pair of colorful mittens saved my bacon a whole bunch of times.

I acquired the bright blue, wool mittens in Norway in 2014. I was in the midst of my masters degree and took a whirlwind trip to race in the Birkebeiner and then cover biathlon World Cups in Oslo. As could describe most of the year spanning from October 2013 to October 2014, I was a shitshow. I got to Lillehammer and realized that I had only brought racing gloves, which would be totally inappropriate for covering World Cups in Oslo. Thin gloves are good for exercising, not so much for standing around.

The Birkebeiner was canceled on the morning of the race (maybe actually an okay development considering how horrifically out of shape I was), but the day before I had perused the famous expo when I picked up my bib. Besides buying some panic-wax, I picked up these mittens. I think they are actually a size too small for me, but I was smitten. It was mostly the color called out to me, but I was happy they were wool, too. I have little brand loyalty, in general, and most of my gloves (a) have holes in them and (b) are what I was given for free, are what were on sale, or are what people left at my house (looking at you, neon yellow Roeckl gloves).

In the end, even though I didn’t race I came away with something important. The mittens.

A few days later I arrived at Holmenkollen. Oslo can be lovely in March. Exhibit A:

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One morning early in the week I went for a ski with Susan, and it was fantastic. Sunny, warm, spring in Scandinavia. Heaven. Race gloves, not mittens.

However, Oslo in spring can also be terrible. Here’s a photo I took on my first FasterSkier reporting trip ever, in 2011 for World Championships. Exhibit B:

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Do you see the sky? It’s not blue. Oslo can get socked in with fog like you wouldn’t believe. At least it wasn’t actually raining that day.

The last two days of the 2013-2014 biathlon World Cup season, mostly, were like that, only it was raining. It was totally miserable. I didn’t take a single photo of the races because I don’t have a fancy cover to keep my camera, which costs as much as a month of (Zürich) rent and was a gift from my grandparents which I couldn’t replace, out of the wet.

Here’s the thing about reporting at a ski race: much like coaching, you’re mostly just standing there, possibly with intense bouts of sprinting from one part of the course to another in between. When you want to take notes or hit the “record” button on your phone or voice recorder, you have to take your gloves off. It’s unavoidable. And like most skiers, I have terrible circulation after years of exposing my hands to the cold.

One of the most embarrassing things that has happened to me while interviewing an athlete was when someone in Falun, after just finishing a race probably also in the sleet, offered me her jacket because I looked so cold and my hands were visibly shaking. When an exhausted athlete offers you the only things that are keeping them warm, you know you look pretty pathetic. (note to FasterSkier advertisers: who wants to sponsor us for hardshell jackets? please?)

So mittens are much better than gloves, because when you slide your hand back into your mitten all your fingers are together, warming each other up, in this case encased in wool and fleece. You warm back up faster.

Thank God for mittens.

Especially mittens which you can also fit handwarmers inside.

I went about the spring of 2014 working on writing science papers and preparing for my summer of fieldwork, which was to be done on Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago belonging to Norway.

Just how far north is Svalbard? Think of some northern cities. Fairbanks, Alaska, is at 64.8ºN. Östersund, which Sweden bills as its “northern sports city”, is at 63.2ºN. Trondheim, the northernmost Norwegian city you are likely to have heard of, sits at 63.4ºN, while Tromsø, the northernmost city you’ve probably heard of if you’ve actually spent time in Scandinavia, is at 69.7ºN.

Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Svalbard, is at 78.2ºN.

Think about that for a minute.

Much like Oslo, Svalbard can be strikingly beautiful when it is sunny out (and reminder, the sun never comes out in winter, so I’m talking summer here). Again, Exhibit A:

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More of the time, Svalbard looks like Exhibit B:

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Working in the valleys is freezing, even in July. The daily mean temperature is 5°C (about 40°F), just above freezing. You have to wear rubber boots to walk out to the field sites because the ground is completely saturated and marshy, as a result of the permafrost. You wear double layers of wool socks to try to counter the fact that rubber boots usually make your feet colder, not warmer. Worse, the wind rips its way up the valleys from the water. That water is, in case you missed it, the Arctic ocean. You wear five layers underneath your raincoat, and then pull the hood over your head.

In July.

I was happy to be in such a cool place, but my field assistant Helen and I realized that basically, we just weren’t going to have summer that year.

Surveying tundra plants means sitting as still as possible. The tundra is fragile and trampling can do major damage to plants, so you can’t step on the tundra in the plots you’re studying in. Instead, we would hang off of elaborate ladder-and-sawhorse contraptions and count the plants we saw at each point. The blood would rush to your head as you hang upside down. And up on the ladder you were even more exposed to the wind.

Helen at work.

Helen at work.

If you weren’t counting, then you were sitting there recording data on a clipboard. Also cold. And if you had a hat and your raincoat hood pulled up, sometimes you couldn’t hear the other person telling you numbers.

We’d switch back and forth on the tasks so we could warm up whatever parts of our body were coldest in a given job.

Did I mention, thank God for mittens?

Cerastium arcticum flower on a sunnier day.

Cerastium arcticum flower on a sunnier day.

Now that I’m doing fieldwork for my PhD in Switzerland, I still love mittens. I work in streams and this time of year, plunging your hands into the water to collect some dead leaves or live invertebrates is pretty chilly. Sometimes I let out a little shriek. I like putting my hands back somewhere warm afterwards.

Recently I took a hike from Adelboden to Kandersteg in the Bernese Alps. All summer I have been sticking to places more accessible from Zürich: cantons Glarus, Schwyz, the northern tip of Graubunden. I decided that before winter came, I would take one day where I sucked it up and spent the extra time on the train to get to somewhere new.

I picked this hike because it was in a super scenic region, and the bus and train connections weren’t so bad (about 3 hours from Zürich). The national hiking route Via Alpina leads through the area. There are so many places to possibly hike in Switzerland, sometimes you have to just put your finger on the map and pick something. I knew it would be beautiful.

This feeling was intensified when I got on the bus to Adelboden and saw that I was the only one under the age of 65. If Switzerland’s retired were headed here for a day trip with their rucksacks and hiking poles, it was probably pretty scenic.

A farmer shouted at me as I walked up through the outskirts of Adelboden. Hindsight is 20/20, so I’m pretty sure he was probably shouting that the pass was snowy and I looked totally unprepared. At the time I thought, “thick-accent-Swiss-German”, smiled, and waved.

After hiking up about 1,000 meters, or 3,000 feet, I crested a rise and saw this:

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It has been, shall we say, temperate in Zürich. But this was the north-facing side of a 3,000-meter (nearly 10,000 feet) mountain. Even though it was only early November, there’s snow to be had.

I had arrived in my trail running shoes, some ski spandex, and with a small backpack. I looked at the final climb to the pass – which is even steeper than the section I had just came up, nearly 60º, and covered in snow. I pictured slipping as I dug my foot into the snow, and sliding down the scree field. In classic idiot fashion, I had not told anyone where I was hiking, and I was alone. I had seen only one other man on the trail, and he had turned around long before.

But I had come this far! I estimated that the sketchy section would only take me 15 minutes of careful way finding, and pulled on Therese Johaug’s mittens.

That allowed me to use my hands as well as my feet to crawl my way through the white stuff. Sticking my hands in the snow would have sucked; I would have been way more likely to fall if  I hadn’t been confident that using my hands wouldn’t lead to several hours of frozen misery. Things were dicey at the top but I made it.

I was rewarded with incredible views from the top of Bunderchrinde pass. I sat and ate my lunch looking at Eiger, Jungfrau, and Mönch in the distance. My only company were the Swiss fighter jets training overhead.

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Click the panorama to enlarge.

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Days like these are when I’m thrilled to live in Switzerland.

And have a good pair of mittens.

People badmouth mittens, saying they look silly and don’t have functionality. I beg to differ. Mittens are da bomb.

And yes, it’s more or less a coincidence that I picked up those mittens. Would I have been happy with some other pair? Certainly. But thanks for the wool mittens, Therese. Keep making things in bright colors.

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.

training camp in the Jura.

Skiwalking in the Swiss Jura. (Photo: Roli Eggspühler)

Coming from North America, I often think that the other side of whatever country I’m in is very, very far away.

Happily, here in Switzerland things are a little closer together. I live in Zürich and while the nearest big mountains are at least an hour away, nothing is very far. Going south or southwest through the Alps takes a few hours, but driving across the Swiss Plateau to the French border is easier.

A few weeks ago I was able to take part in a training camp in Les Cernets, which is on the border with France. Literally, after dropping our bags off at the inn where we were staying, Fabian and I ran up a hill a few kilometers and peered into the European Union. We followed a well-marked trail and there was a small monument at the top of the height of land. Anyone could take this route into France, although of course you have to get into Switzerland first, which is no easy feat.

(Certainly there was no border station on our running trail; even the one on the main road in Les Verrières, the bigger town, appeared to be minimally manned and just waved cars through without stopping.)

The camp I joined was with the Swiss Academic Ski Team (SAS), a group of college and older athletes. Once you are a member (I’m not), you’re a member for life, so a few masters-aged athletes also join us and sometimes kick our butts.

cowsAt camps we train hard, double sessions a day like the pros, but only for a few days. I can’t speak for the others, but for myself, I then go back to work, train fairly minimally, and engage in magical thinking to assure myself that these few days will somehow make a difference come winter…

Ironically, the team doesn’t have any athletes I’ve met so far from the French part of Switzerland. But in an effort for geographic fairness and also to keep things new and interesting, we went there.

We spent three days in the Jura mountains. It’s at the same time remote and not remote; growing up in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont, I felt right at home. The area is a mix of farms and forest, with some small homestead always hidden behind the next roll of the hill. But the city of Neuchâtel isn’t far, and in no time at all you are back on the big lake, feeling like you’re in metropolitan Switzerland.

There are a lot of dairy farms in the Jura. We missed, by just a few days, the annual festival where the cows walk from the high meadows down to town with flowers braided around their horns. On the main road you can find an unmanned, automated cheese vending machine with the local wares.

morningThis is the region that absinthe comes from, and you can imagine perfectly how even when it was outlawed, production continued just the same. There are infinite places to hide things and you can’t travel too fast on the country roads. All you need to do is call your neighbor to warn him someone was coming, and he could take care of his materials no problem.

The mascot of the Val de Travers region of Canton Neuchâtel region is a small green fairy, and it is plastered everywhere.

Come to the grocery store! With the absinthe fairy.

Take the train! With the absinthe fairy.

Stay at our hotel! With the absinthe fairy.

Here’s some highway information! With the absinthe fairy.

On our last night we tried some absinthe, which probably ruined our training effect. We stuck to one glass each and, it turns out, did not see the absinthe fairy. Shoot, I’ll have to try some again some other time.

creux du van 1But about that training effect: the Jura is a great place to train. There are tons of trails through the forest, some of which are ski trails. Les Cernets is connected to hundreds of kilometers of ski trails, including a few long point-to-point trails like the 65 k Franco-Suisse loop, where you can do inn-to-inn touring. I can’t wait to come explore in the winter.

Jogging the farm roads in the morning through the fog felt mystical. And in the forest, clearings, bogs, and other areas are given fairy-tale names painted on old, peeling signs.

I was also thrilled to return to Creux du Van, a huge rock cliff formation which I had hiked with a friend in the spring. The closest thing I can compare it to is Cannon cliffs in New Hampshire – if you made Cannon much more even and bent it in a gently arching bowl around the valley. And plopped a picturesque farm and some happily grazing cows on top.

Creux du Van speaks to almost everyone, I think. My housemate told me that being up there, with hundreds of meters of empty space in front of you and birds playing on the wind, gives you power.

Sometimes that kind of phrase can sound woo-woo, but when you stand on Creux du Van, it’s not inaccurate.

rollerskiing 2But that’s not why we came to the Jura. A short drive into France is a rollerski loop at the Stade Florence Baverel in Arçon. So every day we would drive to France to ski.

(Inaugurated in 2009, the venue is named after the French gold medalist from the 2006 Olympics. You can also rollerski around the biathlon stadium in Le Seigne, a bit south in the Département Doubs, but we didn’t check it out. Prémanon, the training site for the French national team, is also only an hour away.)

The center has a nice biathlon range, a few kilometers of paved trails to train on. I would describe it as if John Morton had been given the assignment to design some kilometers of trail, but only given half the space that he’s usually given in North America. (After all, there’s less space for basically everything in Europe.) And, in this scenario he was also denied vital information about the length of classic rollerski shafts.

So it was with some trepidation that I first set out around the course. I’m not a particularly timid downhill skier, but the turns are, umm, very tight – and there’s a pretty decent height differential given the tiny postage stamp of land the center is crammed onto, so you come into them with momentum.

There were posters all over the main building for the French biathlon festivals hosted at the venue. I was trying to imagine mass start or even pursuit racing on such narrow trails with such sharp corners. I pictured carnage. I’m interested to try to find video of how it actually works.

That said, once I’d made a few trips around the loop, I wasn’t nervous and instead the twists and turns just made for super fun skiing. One corner was still a little dicey on classic skis, but on skate skis you can tear around with little fear of serious repercussions, at least if you don’t get tangled up with someone else.

It’s an excellent, and tough, loop for intervals. There’s not much recovery because the downhills are short and technical, so you’re always on your toes. And with limited places to easily pass, it’s good practice for rubbing elbows and making tactical choices in where to use your speed… for instance, before the beginning of the next downhill!

I was a bit sad to go back to Zürich and work, and away from the Jura and Doubs regions which seem to be a perfect playground for training in summer and winter.