jura jaunt.

IMGP7392On Saturday I went with my friend Timothée on one of the first hiking adventures of the year. There’s still enough snow in the mountains to make a non-extreme form of hiking inconvenient, so we decided to use the opportunity to go to a lower-lying part of Switzerland that, frankly, we always have both just ignored. I’m always lured by the high mountains and the Alps. Instead, we took the train across the country to the French-speaking part, past Neuchâtel, and into the Jura.

Getting off the train in Noiraigue, our first target was the Creux du Van, an amazing geologic feature. We hiked up about five kilometers and 700 meters – it was fairly steep, but pleasant and hikeable – before we caught our first glimpse of the cliffs through the trees. Eek!! Even cooler that we had expected…

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As we stopped to admire the view, we saw some other hikers pausing up ahead, looking at something… it turned out to be an ibex. Oh wait, there’s another one! And another!

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Seriously, these were the tamest ibex ever. Usually when you see one in Switzerland it is up on a ridge, and you can just see its silhouette, maybe especially if you have a scope. “I think I value those more,” Timothée said. I agree. But it was so cool to see some up close! They smell like sheep, which is to be expected. We got, like, ridiculously close.

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[Some research reveals that the ibex were introduced in 1965, and there are just 17, so maybe they have some inbreeding problems, and I guess they have become much more habituated to hikers and other humans than a more truly “wild” population would be…]

So, we walked on, after spending quite some time with our ibex friends. Each view of the cliffs seemed more amazing than the last. We stopped and ate lunch. Then we stopped and just sat in the grass. It. was. awesome! The cliff walls are 150 m high, and the circ itself is almost a kilometer and a half across. The scale is difficult to comprehend.

We had done some research online before going, and the photos seemed amazing. But in person it is so much more amazing. So think, when you see these: I would be blown away if I was there, because it’s 10x cooler than in even the best photo.

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The place is one of extreme power. You feel stronger being there. I also just felt stronger absorbing the sun… and the green… but mostly the wind, and watching the birds play in the air over the huge dropoff.

It was a nice place to hang out. Here’s Timothée trying to get a macro shot of a nice blue flower….

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I also felt at home. Things felt quite similar to New England: hard rock, green mixed deciduous and coniferous forests with lush understories. Aside from the circ itself, I felt like I could have been hiking in the White Mountains. I haven’t had that feeling in a long time, and it was a real comfort. It made me think about what exactly it is that I love about the Whites, which will always be my favorite playground.

Seriously, tell me this vista couldn’t be in New Hampshire:

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Only when you turned around would you realize that, indeed, you are most definitely in Switzerland.

Farming everywhere!

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After enjoying our sun and sky, we hiked down a steep and somewhat slippery path to the center/bottom of the circ. From there, we decided that instead of heading back to Noiraigue, we would continue down to the Areuse river. We heard there were some gorges there.

After hiking down through the beech forest – trail covered in brown leaves, again so familiar to me – all of a sudden we began to hear the water. We came upon the first of the gorges, which had a nice bridge below it to walk over and look up at the waterfall, which carved through a narrow slot canyon, wearing the hard rock away over geologic time.

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After finishing the first section of the gorges walk, we had the option to hop on a train, or keep going. I was pretty ambivalent about more flat walking, but felt lame stopping… so we kept going. and were not disappointed. The gorges go on and on and are truly remarkable. They are interspersed with flatter, calmer sections of the Areuse river, often with a series of small dams and a hydropower plant. We saw one biggish fish in a pool below a waterfall, but as in all of Switzerland, all of the dams must seriously impede normal migration and populations.

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We eventually popped out in the town of Boudry, just down the lake from Neuchâtel. Note to the wise, trains only go from the Boudry station once an hour. We found this out after trekking up to the station and realizing that the train had left approximately nine minutes before we got there… oops. Down on the other side of town, on the lake, is a tram that leads into Neuchâtel and leaves every 20 minutes. Eventually we made it back to Neuchâtel and back to Zürich, very very tired. My Garmin had clocked about 16 k before it crapped out and lost satellite reception in the lower gorges.

The whole experience, from the lofty Creux du Van down into the claustrophobic and beautiful gorges, was incredible. It’s a strange corner of Switzerland, but we were very glad that we forsake (forsook?) the high mountains for the Jura and got to see this. It’s very unique and as tired as I was, I was also buoyant from the energy I gained from the mountain circ.

sledding as an extreme sport.

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

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

Switzerland won, natch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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sunny days & reindeer friends.

The past few days of fieldwork have been pretty great. Perhaps mostly because today we finished off the point-framing, which was the major work task we had to accomplish while we’re here. After spending the day entering data tomorrow, we’ll be able to head back to the field and collect some other data on particular species of interest, but basically anything we do now is like icing on the cake in terms of research and publishing potential.

The weekend days were brutally cold and windy, although not as cloudy as the last week and not rainy like Thursday and Friday. So we considered that a win. And yesterday we had reindeer visitors!

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That was fun! Reindeer are super cute and super weird-looking. Like many of the animals which are year-round residents here, Svalbard reindeer are a subspecies of a species with circumpolar distribution (this includes both reindeer in Scandinavia and caribou in North America). They are smaller than you’d expect reindeer to be – the smaller ones are the size of a large goat. Definitely not what I remember from my trip to Finland! They are actually the smallest of all the subspecies. Their short little legs only make them look funnier when they run, with their noses up in the air and their eyes bugging out of the black fur around their faces.

Today was special for another reason, mainly, it was sunny and amazingly beautiful! Still a bit windy but simply the nicest day we’ve had. To be able to look down the valley and have it be perfectly clear… the colors were completely different than anything we’d ever seen since arriving here and overall, it was just a remarkable day. After we finished our own work we walked down to a site where they had run the same experiment in a “wet” environment. It was very picturesque but while gingerly making our way over the crumbling boardwalks, built in 2003 with usually just one nail at each end of each board, we were very happy that we work up on the “mesic” meadow site instead.

Here are some pictures from today! Click any photo to enlarge.

 

birthdays & holidays.

Happy fourth of July from the very cold Arctic!

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Friday was one of the colder days we’ve had…. 5 degrees C, which isn’t that cold, but it was very windy. And doing plant surveys (which I’ll post more about some other time) means you’re not moving. If we had been hiking, I would have been in tights and a long sleeve shirt and probably sweating. But sitting there counting plants or taking data…. not so much. I was wearing four jackets, two shirts, tights under work pants, double socks. And I was freezing. Luckily we borrowed a thermos and have been having instant hot cocoa on our breaks, which improves things considerably.

When the sun comes out, the temperature rises several degrees and it’s pleasant. But in our week of working, I think we had a total of maybe two hours where the sun poked through the clouds.

So that was the fourth of July.

The next day was my birthday! We slept late and then wanted to go hiking. There is a series of hikes around Longyearbyen called “Topptrimmen“: each has a box with a logbook, and if you complete all of them in a summer I think you get a little badge or something (I’m not sure, honestly). That is what we wanted to do. So we picked out two places over near the Isfjorden coast which we could do in one fell swoop, and got excited about seeing across the fjord to the big mountains and glaciers on the other side.

However, as we drove, and then started to hike, it became clear that we definitely weren’t going to see anything from the top of the mountain. The cloud ceiling was 100 or more meters below the summit.

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Also, that river that we would have had to cross… Helen and I had strapped our rubber boots to the outside of our backpacks in preparation. My rubber boots, as you can see from the top picture, are all. We crossed all the channels of the braided river quite carefully, gingerly because the rocks are slippery and the last thing you want is to fall into a freezing cold river. But the last channel of the braid was something else. It was brown and angry and fast. It was probably deeper than my boots were tall, although we didn’t try too hard to find out. Mainly, between the slippery rocks on the bottom and the strength of the current, we wussed out. It wasn’t worth getting wet to go up a mountain where we probably wouldn’t see anything anyway. So we crossed back to the original side of the river and continued walking up the valley – named Bjørndalen, Bear Valley. I got a big kick out of this because I work in biathlon where the most successful athlete ever is Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, one of the most amazing competitors I’ve seen in any sport. Every time I put a Norwegian news article about him through Google Translate, it says, “Bear Valley said…” And here I was in Bjørndalen! Hiking Ole Einar’s namesake valley. (I’m sure it was actually named after polar bears, but whatever.)

Despite not being an epic or difficult hike and having practically no elevation gain, it was beautiful and nice to see around the corner from town for the first time. Cecilie, a friend of my supervisor’s who is actually our age and studying to be a pilot in Tromsø, came with us. It was a good girls-only adventure.

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Side note: hiking with a rifle is a pain in the ass, but a total necessity here. We still haven’t seen any polar bears, which is just fine, thank you.

Other notes from the hike: we saw some Svalbard ptarmigan, or grouse, which were really cool. They were by the exit of an old abandoned mine and at first looked exactly like a chicken. We were convinced that it was a chicken and began wondering, “what are they doing here? they would freeze in the winter!”

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But actually… they are Svalbard ptarmigan, closely related to rock ptarmigan on mainland Norway. They are the only birds that live here year-round! Badass birds.

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The birthday finished up by roasting a chicken for dinner, and then having some raspberry cheesecake pieces from the grocery store. Not too fancy of a birthday, not too exciting, but pretty happy. When you’re on Svalbard, expectations change a little bit. Also, I’m turning one of those random numbers that nobody cares about.

“Do you feel older?” Helen asked last night before we went to bed.

“No,” I said.

 

Svalbard day 1.

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On Friday morning Helen and I woke up very early (separately: her at her aunt’s house in Södermalm, Stockholm; me at my hotel by the train station) and went to the airport. We checked our bags and the giant styrofoam box of soil coring equipment that I was bringing as a favor to a researcher in Uppsala instead of them having to ship it. And then we were off! First to Oslo, then to Longyearbyen.

There were some adventures immediately. When we checked in, we were told we’d have to collect our bags in Oslo and bring them through customs, since we were continuing on a domestic flight from there. Makes sense: I have to do that every time I go to the U.S. (and Norway is not part of the E.U., so it wouldn’t be surprising that things flown from other parts of Europe would need to be examined). So we got to Oslo, followed the signs for “domestic connections” which took us to the baggage claim, and found…. our bags never showed up.

I eventually went to the SAS help counter.

“Hi, we’re flying to Longyearbyen, and our bags never came off the belt?”

“Oh, they’ve been checked all the way through! You didn’t need to collect them here!”

Okay then. Back out – to the departures hall – and back through security. Then, we checked out gate assignment and found that it was in the international hall. So, moral of the story: Svalbard may be a Norwegian territory, but it still counts as international!

I was surprised when we boarded the plane that it was actually a bigger plane than the one we had on our Stockholm-Oslo leg. And it was almost full. I’d imagined the Longyearbyen airport being a tiny thing – maybe like Visby – but that was not the case at all. So we arrived with a lot of other tourists and locals, our bags never had to go through customs, etc. Standard travel, only we ended up in a faraway and crazy place!

We got our rented car – a big black jeep – and went to the university, where we checked into our room in the Guest House. It’s really nice. More space than most places I’ve seen elsewhere in Scandinavia and they’ll even clean it for us once a week! Very cushy, not like I was expecting for Arctic research.

Since we don’t have our polar bear training or our rifle yet (we get all that on Monday), we couldn’t get up to much trouble this weekend. We mostly walked around the town, which is protected from polar bears. You’re not allowed to leave the town limits without a rifle. It was pretty cool though. First of all, we saw reindeer just hanging out…

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But also, that first evening, a lot of lovely scenery.

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And a lot of snowmobiles. More snowmobiles than people here!

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Today, we slept very late (we were both exhausted) and then went to the Svalbard Museum. It’s a pretty cool museum about the history and nature on Svalbard.

Something I learned from Helen’s research that cleared up longstanding confusion: Svalbard is the name for the whole archipelago of islands here. Spitzbergen is the name of the island we are on, which is the biggest one. So there. I guess I should be more specific with my words in the future.

After that we went for a walk along one of the roads out of town. The first challenge: it is nesting season for Arctic terns, and they nest right along the edges of the road. Thus, when you walk by, they believe you are attacking their nests. They fly at you and apparently will peck your head. We didn’t believe this, but began walking and were quickly attacked by birds (no injuries were sustained, but it was scary). We felt like idiots and went back and grabbed a pair of the long red plastic poles which are provided. You can’t use them to fend the birds off – they are a protected species – but if you carry them vertically in the air, the birds can’t fly as close to you and won’t attack your head. They will, of course, still fly pretty close and make a lot of squawking.

I still think Arctic terns are among the most beautiful birds.

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After walking a bit, we came across a sled dog kennel. OMG, so cute.

dogsRight after this, we saw a packed nesting ground for common Eiders. As we were marveling at how many there were – literally, they blend in so you don’t notice them at first but all of a sudden we saw what must have been at least 100 of the birds, hunkered down in the dirt/vegetation – a huge seagull came along. One of the eiders must have gotten up from her nest, because the next thing I knew, before I could even process what was happening, the seagull was flying to the edge of the group, and it had a fluffy thing in its beak, and then I saw it land and gulp down a duckling.

Yes. I saw a seagull eat a duckling. That just happened.

Carry on.

The rest of the walk wasn’t so eventful, just beautiful. We reached the end of the polar bear protection zone and headed back.

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There’s not much to do in Longyearbyen that doesn’t cost an excessive amount of money, so I’m not sure how we are going to occupy ourselves tomorrow. The mountains look amazing, but without our rifle we can’t go hiking. So, we can’t wait until Monday when everything gets straightened out. footer

 

calm before the storm.

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I have to admit that now that I have a PhD position secured, I’m a little bit less motivated about my continuing work on my masters. Am I excited to head north to Svalbard and Lapland? Heck yeah! But the logistics, the thesis-writing, the rule-following, all seem like extra annoyances now. Plus there’s the fact that I’m apparently in for a horrible round of paperwork, since it’s nearly impossible to enroll in a PhD program in Switzerland without a copy of your masters diploma in your hands. That makes it really tough to go directly from a masters to a PhD, immediately – the inevitable paperwork lag really ties you up. Sadly, schools don’t usually print out a diploma and hand it to you at the actual masters defense. Thus, I’m in for a world of pain. I’m looking forward to stability, but realizing that it might not come until a few months after my actual PhD start date!

And in between then and now, I have a lot of fun and a lot of stress to look forward to.

So, I’ve been relaxing in Davos and savoring the last bits of my freedom. Yes, I’ve been working on a manuscript with Julia and Christian – it’s almost ready! – but there’s been lots of fun things, too, from the morning run up Seehorn pictured above to lots of nice breakfasts with Julia. This morning it was strawberries and croissants on the balcony in the sun; a few days ago my parents sent me maple syrup, so we took the opportunity to make pancakes and bacon. YUM. Thanks so much, mom and dad!

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Working on manuscripts probably isn’t most people’s idea of relaxing, but I’m trying to treat myself to a few nice things because we won’t have them for the rest of the summer. We also had a great night out on the town watching World Cup action: first with an Italian colleague (her team lost) and then with all of Davos (Switzerland also lost, tant pis). I got a latte at Kaffe Klatsch, the Davos favorite. I bought Movenpick ice cream. Julia and I drank wine and watched goofy television. I baked banana bread; I made grilled cheese sandwiches. We cut fresh basil into our pasta sauce. I gorged on local Swiss cheese.

My mind is preoccupied trying to tie up a lot of loose ends before I disappear over the precipice for the rest of the summer, but these things are making me happy.

tour de gondola.

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The last few days have been sort of “meh” in some ways. It was foggy at the venue, so the men’s biathlon mass start – which I had been really looking forward to – has been postponed again and again. Yesterday we spent most of the day sitting in the press center getting antsy and waiting for a race to happen. Finally, the women’s mass start went off. The race for gold was totally boring as Darya Domracheva decimated the field for the third competition in a row. But behind her things were still interesting with a good race for bronze. And, Susan Dunklee did it again with 12th place, the best finish ever for a U.S. woman at the Olympics. Go Suz!

In all of the downtime yesterday I worked on a story based on a long interview I did with the International Biathlon Union’s medical chief, Dr. Jim Carrabre. We talked doping and boy, did we ever talk doping. Only about half of the interview made it into the piece, so there’s still more to come, but I think the result (here) was pretty interesting.

However, despite all the outrage about doping, apparently nobody wants to read about the nitty-gritty of what goes on. They only want to read about the scandals that consume previously famous athletes. Because, even though my piece is covering ground that I don’t think other people have covered, nobody is reading it.

At the same time that I published that, my colleague Nat published a funny piece about how much the Norwegians have been sucking in skiing at this Olympics. In an hour, it garnered 1200 reads. My piece had 120.

To be fair, Nat’s piece was excellent. I love it. It’s delicious and gossipy but still built on the back of a lot of real reporting. Go give it a read, you won’t be disappointed.

But it does say a lot about what people want to read. Schadenfreude? Yes, please more! Substantive research on an issue they claim to care about? nah, never mind.

Anyway. There’s a fun story in here, I promise! Two mornings ago we met up with Rob Whitney at the base of our little gondola. Rob is a former excellent ski racer, now living in Anchorage and working as a firefighter. He is married to Holly Brooks, who is competing here in her second Olympics. Rob snagged a job working for NBC as the in-the-box researcher for Al Trautwig, who is announcing the cross country races. So we have someone else cool to hang out with.

Our goal for the morning was to go all the way to the top of the mountains that we can see every day. The mountains are sweet and epic and huge and snowy and white! We had heard a rumor that with our credential – which says “ALL” – we could ride the gondola to the top. Rob claimed to have done “research” about which of the dozen gondolas we would have to take. He said three. We walked up to the train station and tried to get on one.

It was not immediately obvious where it would take us, and the volunteer didn’t speak much English. Rob was trying to explain that we wanted to go to the “tippy top” of the mountain (I don’t think “tippy top” is a phrase they teach you in English 101) and that it would take three gondolas. The guy was getting more and more confused. Finally he handed Rob his smartphone and told him to type his question into google translate.

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That didn’t help much. We decided to just get on the damn gondola and see where it took us. It would be up, after all. So off we went. It took us to the Sanki sliding center! huh.

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Unfortunately, the gondola going up the mountain from there was closed. We could see it extending off up the hill, eventually ending at the “tippy top”, but we couldn’t get there. So instead we did a gondola traverse of the mountain to try to reach another gondola that would.

First, we had to walk and ride past some environmental yuck. Building everything on the side of these very steep mountains has been sort of a shitshow. Things will definitely slide down the mountain. The ski jumps basically already are. One problem is that they more or less raped the hillsides where they are building things, and there are no trees or vegetation left to stabilize the slopes. When it’s snow-covered you can’t really tell how bad it is. But it has been very warm (it rained this morning) and so the snow is melting and all of a sudden, some places look pretty darn ugly.

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But anyway… we eventually got to the bottom of that gondola (let’s keep a tally, it’s out third of the day: down from the hotel, then up to the sliding center, then down this one). We hopped on gondola #4, which took us up to one side of the alpine and freestyle venues. From there we saw another gondola heading up to the “tippy top” of another mountain! Yes! It was turning into a beautiful sunny day and our heads were swimming with what the views must be like from 7000 feet. Yes! We were almost there!

…. except that we were told that we couldn’t go. Only athletes, team staff, or skiers with tickets could go up this gondola. We had missed the boat on buying tickets.

To be clear, this dog got to go up to the top of the mountain, and I did not.

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However, some team staff have a colored “sleeve” that they slide over one arm as their accreditation. It so happens that photographers have the same sleeves, just in different colors. Nat, as a photographer, had one of these sleeves. So they let him on. I handed him my camera and Alex, Rob, and I hung out on the terrace of the ski lodge. The lodge was really nice and had a huge cafeteria, where they were not serving food. We couldn’t even get a coffee. Oh well. The terrace was nice and sunny. Photo from Alex’s instagram:

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The gondola also was the one that serves the “mountain village” athletes’ village, so we got a glimpse of that. It’s definitely, definitely not as nice as the “endurance village” where I visited Susan. Still has nice views though.

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We waited as Nat went up and then down gondola #5. He was definitely grinning when he came back. Later, when I downloaded my photos, I was able to take a little tour of what he had seen from 7000 feet in Russia. You can see into Georgia, which is pretty cool.

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Anyway. Nat came back, and we realized that we were pretty far up a mountain on the wrong side of the valley and that sometime soon we would have to be over at the cross country race, which started at 2 p.m. So we had better get skedaddling. We headed back down gondola #4 and into a little plaza in Rosa Khutor. Still smarting from not being able to get a coffee at that semi-closed ski lodge – if there is one thing that reporters really need a lot of, it’s coffee – we stopped at McDonalds where capuccinos were really quite affordable. The place was hopping. Since he has a real job, Rob treated us. Thanks Rob!

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From there it was up gondola #3 and down gondola #2 (we decided that though ridiculous, this was a better option than walkig back to the train station, since part of the walk has no sidewalks and you have to be on the side of the road with buses and trucks going past…). And in our biggest gamble of the day, we decided to take the giant high-speed gondola which traverses up the other side of the valley. Seriously, this thing is huge. Each car holds about 20 people, although they weren’t filling up. And it moves FAST. Scariest to me, the cable spanned some very long distances, very high in the air. It was absolutely incredible. We don’t have numbers, but we’re guessing that the longest span must be close to a kilometer. It’s insane.

Also insane? The views.

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Yeah, gondola #6 was pretty sweet. Eventually, though, the ride came to an end. We were spit out at a seemingly random mid-station – it was totally weird that such a huge gondola went to somewhere there wasn’t much infrastructure.

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We walked outside and around the wheelhouse, and then had a choice to take a chairlift to the cross country venue, or a gondola to the biathlon venue. Since the press center is in the biathlon venue, it was a no-brainer. Gondola #7!

It was pretty crazy to go back to work after our strange morning of traveling around Sochi by air. I’m interested to know why they built so many gondolas – there are at least three or four more that we haven’t even seen, and a few others that we have ridden to other things. It could be a good way to stay a little more environmentally clean, except that we saw firsthand what they did to the hillsides in order to put these things in. Is it still better than having a road which has to be constantly maintained? I think, maybe so. Not sure. The scary thing is that like the ski jumps, these may have been built on geologically unstable soil, so I wonder how long they will last. The idea of anything happening to that giant high-speed one gives me the willies.

After the race, we took our usual gondola down to the bottom of the venue (gondola #8 on the day) and then walked back to the village, where we took gondola #1 up to the hotel. What a day.