Gran Trail Courmayeur 30k

I’ve spent the last month not working, and it has been fantastic.

It was such a huge push to defend my PhD, and then I had a few more months of work at Eawag, trying to finish up projects and papers. I wanted to make sure to take some time to myself before starting a postdoc, because I’m not sure when I’ll have another chance to just completely unplug. Science moves fast and as soon as I start my postdoc, I’ll be applying for jobs all over again.

“That’s great!” People would say when I told them I was taking the summer off. “What will you do with yourself?”

“Well, a lot of hiking, sleeping late, and reading,” I’d say. “And in July I’m doing my first real mountain running race.”

Thinking back, I have realized that the race – the Gran Trail Courmayeur 30 k – isn’t really my first mountain trail race at all.

Last year I did a trail marathon, the Transruinaulta, with 6,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

In 2016, I did a trail half marathon that went straight up a downhill ski resort in Arosa, Switzerland, for 4,000 feet of climbing (and descending). Does that not count?

What about all the times before, during and after college that I time trialed up Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire? Or participated in the Presidential Ridge Relay Race?

Those were all, in fact, mountain running races. Especially the one in Arosa. But I for some reason didn’t consider them to be my “real” mountain running debut, probably for two reasons.

One was that maybe I wanted to be ready for that debut, to have prepared, to train, to take it seriously. I didn’t do that before Arosa, I just signed up and figured I was a cross-country skier so I’d be fine. Now, I’ve been preparing.

And the second one was maybe because, having lived in Europe for a while, I have this picture in my head of a mountain running race, with singletrack trail and glaciers in the background. I think in my mind my mountain running debut had to fit that image. And Arosa… it was up a ski resort. It didn’t feel so wild. Transruinaulta was as much on dirt roads as trails. Moosilauke, you only race up, not down.

Whether it was my “first real mountain race” or not, Gran Trail Courmayeur is in the books. It was awesome, and I’m excited to explore the mountain/trail race scene in North America after this intro from the Alps.

I had never really been to the Mont Blanc area, so went down the Thursday before my Saturday race. It was amazing to see this huge mountain, and so much ice crammed up in there. I’ve seen glaciers running into the ocean, glaciers filling valleys in the Alps, shrinking and sad-looking patches of glacier on mountainsides. But the amount of ice just perched up there, literally hanging off the side of the mountain, blew my mind.

I wanted to just look at it, to soak it in. What a cool place.

The Friday, I didn’t know what to do with myself – I wanted to explore, but didn’t want to get tired. So I splurged and took an expensive cablecar ride up to Punta Helbronner, 3,466 meters high and looking over at Mont Blanc.

Well, where Mont Blanc should be. It was covered in clouds.

 

The highest peak in Europe west of the Caucasus is back in there, somewhere.

View in the other direction was pretty nice though. (click to expand)

But being up there sure was amazing, and seeing ant-like figures trekking across the snowfields. I kind of couldn’t believe I was in Europe, and that the hot valley floor was just a few minutes cablecar ride away.

An aerial view down on the Rifugio Torino and onwards to my racecourse, over around and past the green ridge in the center of the photo.

Then, I went to the sports center to pick up my number. The race organization was typically Italian: everything worked out perfectly in the end, but it was very confusing. For example, I had studied the course map trying to figure out where the start/finish would be. It appeared to be in the middle of town, but on my way past, I hadn’t seen anything you’d expect for a race starting in just 12 hours.

The line to pick up our numbers; race officials had to check our medical certificates to make sure a doctor had said we could participate in such an event without dying. This is a common requirement for races in Italy and France, but explaining the request to a Swiss doctor was interesting. Also – do you see many women in this line? sigh.

“The race start is not here, it is somewhere else, is that correct?” I asked the woman who handed me my number.

“The start and finish are here,” she said, looking at me like I was crazy.

“Oh, really? Here?”

“Yes, down, outside, with the big arch!”

Okay, so I’d have to subtract two kilometers from everything on the course map/profile, because they seemed to be using the same loop as the map on their website [I assumed], but moving where the loop started and ended. Makes total sense.

I’m a pretty organized person, and I’m also a nerd, and I also worry a lot. At races like this, it can be challenging for me to prepare because I want to have a detailed plan of exactly how the race was going to go. This sort of uncertainty didn’t help.

I pored over the course map, sussing out how the 1,800 meters (6,000+ feet) of elevation gain and loss were distributed around the course. One big climb in the beginning. Then a flat that I doubted was actually flat, for six kilometers. Then a second major climb. A drop down to a valley, a shorter steep climb, and then all downhill from there. Steeply.

And I checked the finishing times from the previous year, trying to estimate how long the race would take me. Four hours? Five? It all depended on the trail. And whether there would be any other surprises in store for me along the way.

The next morning I hurried down from our AirBnB to get to the start, because it was written that we had to enter the start pen 30 minutes before the start, and then they would close it. Well, the start pen didn’t even open until 20 minutes til start time, and then it stayed open. Again, classic Italy.

Once the race began, though, everything was perfectly organized. We ran through neighborhoods out of town, with people cheering along the sides of the road. After two kilometers or so, we joined the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) trail and climbed upward: about two and a half kilometers of an average 25% grade.

This part of the race was a hiking race, and it felt a little bit silly to be hiking. The trail was crowded with hikers carrying backpacks big and small: tourists out for a day hike, or folks backpacking the whole TMB loop. We were sure moving faster than them, but we must have looked ridiculous.

I tried to stay at a steady pace, below my anaerobic threshold, and just climb away. By the top my legs were aching a bit, nothing major, but reminding me that although I had only been going for an hour, I’d already put in more than 2,500 feet of the course’s elevation.

We passed through the first aid station, then crested a pass. We had just been climbing straight up, and my eyes had been glued to the trail in front of me. But suddenly, there was no trail or hill in front of me.

Just the Mont Blanc massif in all its glory, basking a bit in the sun. Everyone around me paused and took out their phones for pictures. It was just amazing.

I really, really don’t usually stop to take photos in races. But this was such a scene, and everyone else around me was stopping to take pictures too. So I did.

That feeling, that image I had been looking for for my “first real mountain race”? As we set off on the singletrack along the Balcon de Ferret, I definitely had it. This was it. This was the stuff of dreams and legends. I was there and I was doing it.

As I had expected, the Balcon wasn’t actually flat. But for the most part, it was runnable, and a really fun trail.

There were a few guys around me and we cruised along. I felt better, like I was in a running race after all. The views were continually astounding, and every once in a while there would be hikers pulling off the trail or having stopped for a snack in an alpine meadow who would cheer us along.

“Brava!” they would shout as I passed. I wasn’t sure how many women were ahead of me, but there were few women in the field (just under a third of the entrants in the 30 k were women), and so seeing me among the sea of men was probably still notable no matter how many women were faster.

Before long, we ran out of Balcon and turned right up a steep hill. This was the start of the second big climb, and its beginning was a doozy, a shock after the easy kilometers we had been lulled into. Here there were even more spectators, because there was a hut up ahead where they were probably planning to have lunch.

We climbed for a while, and then the trail leveled off into a broad bowl-like meadow valley. Looking ahead, all you could see was mountain.

You might want to stay in such a nice, welcoming, pleasant spot. But we couldn’t. After a dissapointingly short flat section, up we went, steeply again, to the top of the second major climb.

And here I got my first surprise of the race. It had nothing to do with the organizers; it had to do with me. I wasn’t feeling strong exactly, and I was struggling to eat (not because of stomach issues, but on a hot day my food just didn’t seem appealing). And yet, I began to catch people who had hiked away from me on the first climb.

On these big hills, you can see everyone spread out way ahead of you, and I watched in amazement as I came ever closer to two women whom I hadn’t seen in over an hour.

“Don’t get too excited,” I tried to tell myself. “There’s a lot of race left. You could still blow up and they could pass you back. Just be careful and do a good job.”

But on the downhill to the next valley, I put distance on them (and passed some men, too). The “last” steep climb up to the final pass felt terrible, and my legs were screaming. For sure they’ll catch me, I thought. But they didn’t. In fact, I was catching more men, and another woman. Again, I was amazed. I didn’t feel strong.

The last pass!

And then, the big downhill. This was my second surprise.

I love downhill. Maybe it’s because I’m a skier, but running downhill is just fun. I’m pretty confident in my footwork, and I know that it’s easier to zoom than it is to be braking all the time and put so much stress on your quads and knees. I had dreamed of this downhill for kilometers. I was going to fly. My resolution: I wouldn’t let myself be passed by any woman.

Somehow, I had failed to completely account for the magnitude of this downhill. We had eight kilometers to lose 1,300 meters of elevation, and there were 150 or so meters of climbing thrown in there too. So on average, the grade was more than 15%. That’s steep. We classify “A” and “B” climbs in skiing, categorize climbs in bike racing, etc etc… but we don’t classify descents.

The beginning of this descent was unreal. Loose dirt, incredibly steep. I found myself taking tiny steps, putting on the brakes, terrified of sliding out and falling down the mountain. I was not zooming. I wouldn’t be at the finish line as soon as I had hoped, that much was clear.

And my concern was justified. A few kilometers later, I heard a terrible scream. I couldn’t place it – somewhere in front of me, but was it a person? An animal? Was it a racer, or a bystander, maybe a kid? I ran on, and eventually came across a few male runners stopped on the side of the trail. Ten feet down the side of the mountains, someone was moaning and trying to climb out of the brush and the forest. It was a racer down there, who must have tripped and fell over the edge. One of the men was on a cell phone calling for help.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“I guess you can go on,” one of them said. Not speaking Italian, I did doubt how useful I would be in helping this poor person, but as I ran on, it also felt wrong to leave.

When we reached the next aid station, the men I was following explained more to the volunteers about the injured runner. They were setting off to go assist.

I sucked on an orange slice, glad for the new option for sugar delivery. I was thirsty and knew I should eat more, but the downhill pounding and the heat made doing so very unattractive. Oranges, though? Perfect. I started running again.

Although I was so much more tentative on the downhills than I expected to be, I still passed quite a few people. No more women, after that, but some men. There were sections of trail that were less steep, or just more even, and there I could fly.

That’s what I thought, until a woman with a long braid went sailing past me. Shewas flying. I hadn’t even known what flying was. It was instantly clear that I could not keep up with her. My resolution was broken. I have to practice downhills before my next race, I guess.

We eventually hit a paved road and dropped down into town, across the river, and back towards the sports center and the finish. There weren’t many signs or markings through town; roads weren’t closed; people were watching, but they didn’t have any clues about what was happening. I had expected an adrenaline rush, but mostly, the tourists were just going about their day and we were some weird sideshow that they barely noticed.

The final 10 meters of climbing leading up to the finish line were brutal, and I felt I couldn’t push at all. I crossed the finish line exhausted, but happy, and took off my sunglasses and smiled big for the finish line photographer.

I had done my first “real” mountain race, or my second or third or or eighth mountain race. Who cares? It had been fun and brutal, which are two things I had been counting on. The trail had been technical – if 4:30 (my final time) seems slow for a 28 k race, the actual trail was a big part of that, besides the up and down.

I had felt okay, but most importantly, I had felt like I belonged there. I was running and hiking with people who obviously trained for this, but we also all had fun enjoying the spectacular scenery. The atmosphere and camaraderie were fantastic, a great combination of serious sport and doing this because we actually enjoy being in the mountains.

And I had finished ninth. I don’t know what top ten means in this field, and that’s actually something I love about racing in new places. I didn’t know a single person there, so my analytical mind couldn’t really consider whether that’s a good or bad or respectable result. A whole exhausting, self-defeating doom loop I could just skip. But top-10 always has a nice ring to it.

The next day it was a long trip back to Zurich, during which I read almost an entire book. Since I’m on vacation, I could recover on the sofa at home in the next few days, rather than dragging my tired body around at work and trying to make my tired brain be smart.

Instead of working, I’ve been dreaming up what my next adventures will be.

It’s Italy so… post-race (and post-shower!) aperitivo!

Seven More Routes on my Swiss Hiking/Trail Running Guide

I haven’t been blogging this summer, and for that I’m sorry. It has been busy, but when hasn’t it been?

Anyway, maybe I didn’t write at the time, but you can still take advantage of all the adventures I’ve been having. I added seven new routes to my Swiss Hiking & Trail Running Guide, based on the favorite spots I went this year so far. I still have a few long runs planned for the fall, so the guide could see one more update before I leave the country after defending my PhD this winter.

Click here for the guide.

The new routes:

Schwyzer Hohenweg from Brunni to Einsiedeln:

Innerthal to Ziegelbrucke over Schwarzenegg and Scheidegg:

Maderanertal Höhenweg:

Glattgrat on the way from Klewenalp to Urnersee:

Glattalpsee, from Bisisthal to Braunwald:

Glaubenberg to Glaubenbielen and into the Marienthal (pic by Annie Chalifour):

Trans Swiss Trail from Lugano to Morcote (pic by Steve Towler):

Ugly/pretty.

If you look at the photo above, maybe you will not notice anything amiss. Maybe the thing that jumps out is the cut on my right leg. But actually, if you look at my ankles, you’ll see the left one is bulging out like crazy.

I later found out, this is what it looks like when you slip on some mud, fall, and tear two ligaments in your ankle trail running, and then you cinch your shoes up real tight and say “I can do this, I’m probably overreacting”, run 10 more kilometers, begin to be in really excruciating pain, attempt to hitchhike without success, and then walk five more kilometers over uneven ground down to the nearest train station. When you take your shoe off, finally, your ankle does not look good.

When you finally get the MRI’s and the doctor explains just how much you tore, it will all make sense.

So, kids, be careful and take care of yourselves. I am not going to be doing much for quite some time while the ankle heals (this is my first major injury ever and I don’t really know what to do with myself).

The run I was out on when it happened was spectacular, but I don’t have the emotional energy to describe it very well given what happened afterwards. I will just say that I started in the Brand valley in Austria, which is quite easily reachable in Zurich and amazingly beautiful. As I passed the well-maintained traditional-style hotels on the bus, I thought, maybe I should come here for a weekend vacation. Anyway, from there I ran up to the top of Schesaplana, the highest mountain in the Rätikon Alps, and down the other side back into Switzerland. It was a truly amazing route. I hope the pictures do it more justice than my brief explanation can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiking hut-to-hut in Slovenia.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.