Friday, August 15, 2014

Aug 14, 1600m, Zwischbergen (!)

For Aline

The brothers... actual size :-)


The brothers

At the Zwischbergen pass! Looking back....

Looking forward...


Hiking up to the Zwischbergen pass

Swiss technology unknown in Italy!

Easy hiking at the Moro pass ;-)

Switzerland! Seen from the Moro pass.

House in Macugnaga

Beautiful views during the descent into Macugnaga

Russell arrives at the pass!

The Walser dialect

The Walserweg at the pass

Looking back down the Macugnaga valley

Waterfall near Macugnaga

Stage 15 -- Zwischbergen to Simplon Pass

In which after a moderate breakfast we do a steep climb up to and down from a pass with power and grace, and then after an immoderate lunch we struggle up an easy path to the Simplon Pass.

Zwischbergen felt a little like the end of the world... as Thomas put it, a place so minor it never got a real name (just "between the mountains", which is what Zwischbergen means), whereas the Simplon Pass is a popular driving route between Switzerland and Italy, with lots of traffic.  So today was a bit of a study in contrasts.

Accommodation, for example:  in Zwischbergen a wooden chalet, at Simplon Pass a pink monstrosity with a round tower in which we have our rooms.  Number of hikers on the trail:  in Zwischbergen hardly any (we saw two other hikers after the pass yesterday), on the way up to the Simplon Pass maybe 40 or 50.  And then there was our own hiking performance:  strong in the morning, feeble in the afternoon, for which immense Rösti (in my case with cheese, eggs, and a bratwurst) were to blame.  Memo to self:  do NOT have more than a soup for lunch in a restaurant while on a hike!

Otherwise the day was fairly uneventful:  sun and clouds, a fair bit of wind, cool, and a hike that took just a little longer than six hours.

No WiFi here in the pink monstrosity, so that makes three days in a row without the possibility of posting these blogs.  Sorry!

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Stage 14 -- Almagellerhütte to Zwischbergen

In which we cross the highest pass we have ever done in the Alps, and one of the most difficult, and with the largest amount of downhill we have ever done on an H#H hike... all this after having slept hardly at all the night before.

The hut was packed -- hordes of climbers looking to bag a 4000m peak the following morning (the Weissmiess). The hut gaurdian asked us if we'd like breakfast at 4:30AM or 7:30AM (the former time being for those climbing the peak). We opted for 7:30, of course... and of the estimated 100+ people who spent the night in the hut, there were only five others at breakfast with us. All the rest got up at 4AM, and headed out in the dark in sub-freezing temps, so as to cross glaciers before the snow got too soft. Not my idea of fun!

Actually, the night in the hut was also not my idea of fun. The Almagellerhütte is a classic high altitude mountain refuge -- no showers, and one sleeps in bunkrooms on mattresses laid out side by side (i.e., with no space between them). In our bunkroom we were five in a row on two levels... and every place was taken. Between bouts of hypoxia (caused by breathing too shallowly for the altitude... the hut is at 2860m), feeling sticky due to not having showered after the day's hike, snorers, midnight bathroom visits, the climbers getting up at 4AM, the oscillating temperatures caused by the eternal war between those who want the window open and those who want it closed, and above all because of the unaccustomed presence of foreign bodies on (for most people) both sides, well, let's just say that sleep is generally elusive. Despite earplugs and being lucky enough to have an edge mattress, I felt like I spent almost the whole night awake... and the others said the same.

Then we awoke to find that it had snowed overnight... not much, but enough to put a slippery coating on rocks along the trail... and since the Zwischbergen pass we were going over was at 3260m, there would be not much other than rocks and snow. Oh, and the temperature was under freezing. At least the wind that had been in the forecast was absent. Still, we put on lots of layers before setting off.

The climb to the pass was fairly straightforward, for the most part along a clearly marked and trampled trail (all those climbers earlier), or across similarly well tracked snowfields. But once we got to the pass things got trickier. For one thing the pass was not the pass -- on the far side there was a vertical cliff plunging down 50+ meters -- so we had to work our way for a 100m or so along the ridge to the descent point... and the ridge was basically just a jumble of large rocks, slippery with ice, which did not leave the impression of being very stable.

The descent from the pass was equally challenging. Although not a vertical cliff, it was very steep at first (as in, if you looked at it from below, it looked more or less vertical). Then, once we were down the initial section we went back and forth between having to slide down steep snowfields (Père Ephrem did it on his back, inadvertently, breaking a pole in the process), and crossing more steep jumbles of large sharp-edged and unstable boulders. And to add a final level of difficulty, the path indications were pretty sparse... apparently because the trail was classified as an Alpine route, and in such cases the markers often have more of a confirmatory role (you are still on the trail, congratulations!) than a guiding one... so we swung back and forth at times looking for them.

All in all the initial few hundred meters of descent were difficult, tiring, and moderately dangerous. We (as in I) felt fortunate that we had a couple of very experienced Alpinists with us -- Jakob and Manfred. Somehow the teams confidence level goes up during difficult passages when there are experts present :-). Still, I was glad once we got low enough so that the trail reverted to standard markings and became a standard mountain path once more.

And the rest of the day went downhill from there... as in, a long way down: something like 1970m total descent from the pass. Can you say tired legs? I knew you could.

Around 2PM and 1700m Jakob and Manfred peeled off -- they had a second pass to do (involving 700m more climbing) on the way to the next mountain refuge they were going to stay at (probably also without showers... making five days in a row for them), while we headed down for another hour plus to Zwischbergen and to what turned out to be a very nice little inn, with real beds, hot showers, and excellent food. We (said in a pious tone) agreed not to envy Jakob and Manfred :-).

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stage 13 -- Saas Almagell to the Almagellerhütte

In which not much happens... it was only a hort hike :-).

We had a late breakfast, accompanied by pouring rain, which, however, fortunately stopped around 11AM just before we left. The climb up to the Almagellerhuette was uneventful (other than that we met Jakob and Manfred along the way -- we'll hike tomorrow with them). In fact, there's not much to report other than two tidbits that show how far apart Saas Almagell and Macugnaga are, despite being on either side of a mountain pass.

I told our waitress at dinner in Saas Almagell that we had hiked there from Macugnaga. From where? Macugnaga. She had never heard of it. The Moro pass, yes, but not what was on the other side. Amazing.

And then walking through Saas Almagell I saw some old buildings that had been built on posts with a large round disc of stone at half height (imagine a mushroom with a post sticking out the top of the cap). This is a typical construcion I've seen in many other Swiss villages that serves to keep the rats and mice out of grain/hay storage. It's a simple and (I imagine) effective solution... and yet I have never seen it anywhere on the Italian side of the border.

Anyway, that's it for tonight. Wish me luck sleeping... the bunkrooms look crowded :-(.

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Stage 12 -- Macugnaga to Saas Almagell

In which we struggle up to a high pass to find a crowd of tourists who had come up with the gondola, then descend into Switzerland to find it full of orthodox Jews.

Another excellent dinner at the end of an excellent free day... and a necessary one. After over 3500m of descent in the two days prior, I needed every hour to recover!

The weather forecast being good, we felt no need to rush despite the long hike ahead of us (8.5 hours estimate to do 17km, +1570m, -1200m), so we wandered off about 9:15. It was a nice hike, with great views back to the Monte Rosa massif, but it was also a tough one... we were both exhausted by the time we got up to the pass around 1:30PM. Which somehow made it all the more disappointing to find a crowd of gondola tourists scrambling around the moon-like landscape of rock and snow (not that there's snow on the moon, but still). Sometimes in such situations I feel superior -- they, after all, can't appreciate it (the pass, the peak) like I can because they haven't gotten there on their own legs) -- and sometimes I feel a little cheated. This was one of the latter days. Oh well.

One step further and we were in Switzerland, descending a steep rocky trail to a large artificial lake behind a dam (able to generate almost a quarter of a gigawatt of power). Neighbours separated just by a mountain pass, but it might have been a different world. Language, architecture, trail signs that indicate altitude, many more people on the trails, and, of course, all those Hasidic Jews.


There must have been a convention or a package tour holiday, because there was patriarchal family after patriarchal family complete with traditional clothing, yamulkahs, long curling side-burns and so on. I learned later that they were from Zurich, where there is apparently a large Hasidic community.

The hike down from the dam was objectively nice, but subjectively torturous because by that time we were very ready to have the day end. We finally arrived at our hotel shortly before 6PM, to find good news and bad news. The good news was that Thomas Gößl was waiting for us (he'll be hiking with us for the next few days). The bad news was that the hotel had lost my reservation. But all's well that ends well and the owner rustled up some rooms for us even before I showed her the confirmation email I had received :-).

We were not good company for Thomas that evening... at least not from the perspective of duration: we headed off to bed shortly after 9PM.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

Rest day in Macugnaga

Some technical problems with the local WiFi infrastructure are making it impossible to send photos from my iPhone, so for your sins I'll share some doggerel I've come up with while whiling away the long descents of the last couple of days.

The first is for Jean-Paul, inspired by Russell's amazement at his "Eine kleine Nachtmusik":

A genteel young man from north Utah
Accustomed to eating off pewtah
Went on a hike
But didn't much like
The sound of his bunkroom-mate's hootah.

And this one is in honor of all those, and there were many, who backed out of coming on the hike this year for health reasons:

A nice couple from Montpellier
Planned to hike Courmayeur to Closé
But they quit prophylactically
Saying quite practically
That their legs wouldn't last out a day.

Shortly before arrival in Alagna two days ago, the following lines sprang fully-formed into my jolted brain:

Three hikers arrived in Alagna
With legs that felt like Lasagna
When mocked by their guide
They salvaged their pride
By feeding him to a piranha.

Pronounced "piraña", of course. And not that I would mock my fellow hikers, but if I had then I could imagine such a fate....

The following day while going down to Macgnaga the next two limericks composed themselves:

On the endless descent into town
Opined Brother Russ with a frown
Why donna we bagga
This dumb Macugnaga?
Call a taxi and let's just drive down.

Due to a watery surfeit
The steep rocky path was quite wet
Which made Thomas Bily
Do something quite silly
An out of control pirouette.

And there you are... and here I am in Macugnaga, more than half done with the H3H/2 and thinking that maybe I'll take a nap :-). Thomas and Gabi will leave this afternoon, after which Russ and I will do some laundry and play some games, while looking forward to another excellent dinner in the Z'Makana Stube, a good night's sleep, and then another long hike tomorrow... crossing the Moro Pass into Switzerland for the first time on the H3H !!

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Stage 11 -- Alagna to Macugnaga

Halway day!! In which we see one of the wonders of Europe but not much else, and do the hardest hike on the H3H thus far.

Let's see, where shall I start... oh yes, dinner. Dinner was good, sleep was good, and I got up feeling surprisingly fit after the 1740m of descent the previous day. I think I might be getting the hang of this hiking thing once more (after the 10 months of broken-leg-enforced inactivity). Which is just as well, because today's hike was to be the longest on the H3H thus far, and one of the longest we have ever done. 1620m of ascent, 1510m of descent, and much more distance than I had estimated (probably around 26km instead of 19km... for reasons that will be explained). A lot to do with a full pack on your back.

So we set off at 8:15 under cloudy skies, walking for the first hour up the road to the head of the valley under the massive bulk of the Monte Rosa (of which, however, we caught but a few glimpses due to the aforementioned clouds... however those few glimpses were impressive, given that there is a 3300m height difference between the mountain peak and where we were on the road).

At the end of the road the trail continued on a Walserweg... a trail through the mountains built by the Walser people back in the late Middle Ages (13th-14thC). The Walsers were originally an Alemannic people that settled in the upper Rhone valley (Valais in French, Wallis in German) around the year 1000 and then, after having developed farming techniques that allowed them to thrive in the high mountains where others could not, spread to many Alpine valleys in what is today Italy and Austria. They built trails over high mountain passes to link their communities... and what trails they are! Cut and fitted stone, snaking back and forth over mountain-sides, crossing streams and with stone buttresses where slopes were particularly steep... the work involved was and is amazing.

We walked along the Walserweg all the way from about 1600m to the pass at 2738m, and although it had been damaged in some places by, I assume, land-slides and avalanches, for the most part it was still in good shape despite being several hundred years old. If there is a list of the Seven Wonders of Europe then I think that one could make a good argument for the inclusion of the Walserweg. Absolutely stunning. And despite having hiked hundreds of days through the Alps I had never heard of it before.

The smooth surface and steady incline of the Walserweg made for quick progress, although at the cost of more distance than expected since its serpentine curves were for the most part not indicated on the map I had used for planning the hike (hence 26km instead of the estimated 19km). We reached the pass about 4 hours after setting out from Alagna... a pretty rapid climb... which didn't leave much energy for looking around. Not that there was much to see, since we hiked through (as opposed to under) thick clouds most of the day. By the time we reached the windy and cold pass I for one was out of energy... so despite the wind and the cold we had a quick lunch before continuing down the Walserweg on the far side.

And down, and down, and down. Initially along the Walserweg, and then later along much rougher trails that seemed to have a double function as stream-beds judging by the amount of water flowing along them. I think it must have rained on this side of the mountain in the morning... or else the trails were just not well built. It made for some slippery hiking requiring good use of poles and a lot of concentration. We were both physically and mentally exhausted by the time we arrived in Macugnaga at 17:15... 9 hours after we started (about 8.25h of hiking time), but much faster than the 10.5 hours of hiking time that I would normally estimate. Yay for us... I was asleep by 9:15PM.

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