Tag Archives: hiking

The Alps

Sorry for the long delay in finishing the posts from my summer trip. Since I didn’t have my laptop with me, I wasn’t able to download, keyword, or sort until I got home and then “regular” life and a couple other trips distracted me.

The walkers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, covering about 187 km (over 100 miles), is typically covered in about two weeks, in 14 stages. Before we started, we planned to combine a few stages and skip a couple, shortening this hut-to-hut or village-to-village hike to eleven days. Though we hiked about as many days as planned, we ended up abandoning the route, partially because of weather and partially because it was more difficult than expected, especially carrying 20 pound backpacks.

24 July – Forclaz (Stage 1-2) – Rain

It rained heavily during the night and when we saw the forecast for more of the same, we had a pow-wow and considered skipping the route entirely and heading to Italy for a week. Instead we took the train further than planned, to Le Châtelard just across the Swiss border, and then caught a bus to Trient. From there it was an hour hike uphill in the rain to Col de la Forclaz. We arrived before lunch and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon drinking tea, sharing apricot and raspberry tarts, napping, showering, strolling during breaks in the rain, drinking beer, and chatting. Though postcards implied that we were surrounded by snow-capped peaks, we say none of them.

25 July – Lac du Champex (Stage 3) – More Rain

Anne and I decided not to join Hennie and Lynne on the Bovine Route, due to predicted rain and mud. Instead we spent almost four hours in transit (bus–train–train–train–bus) at a cost of over $50, including a snafu with our train ticket purchase (a lot of time and money to avoid walking in the rain). When we got to Champex, a small town along a lovely lake, we had lunch at one of the only open restaurants. I picked the cheapest thing on the menu, a small pizza and a simple green salad. My meal came to about $30; this is an expensive place.

As we headed back to our lodging, we encountered Hennie and Lynne returning from their wet, muddy hike. We checked into Hôtel du Col de la Forclaz and were assigned to a seven-bed dorm room; we were later joined by three young American men.

After placing my bags down, I walked uphill a few minutes to the Jardin Flore-Alpe where I spent a pleasant hour photographing alpine flowers. It drizzled on and off. Afterwards, I had a nice gluten-free dinner, rice with a small but yummy piece of chicken, and once again we talked about replanning to reduce rain and avoid thunderstorms.

26 July – Mont Fort (Stage 4-5) – Fog

Based on Hennie’s past experience, we combined two stages of the route, hiking in the fog through pastureland to Sembrancher, then catching a train to La Châble, bypassing a stretch along the road. We got a few peeks of the nearby peaks along the way in between the clouds.

In La Châble, we were fortunate to find the supermarket right before it’s midday closing. We quickly purchase food for three lunches – cheese, olives, nuts, hard-boiled eggs (dyed red), and energy bars. From there we took two cable cars up to Les Ruinettes, where we had a picnic lunch. By then, the fog had once again surrounded us. The hike up to Cabane de Mont Fort was pleasant, along a stream much of the time. We arrived with plenty of time to shower, relax and take pictures when the sun peeked out. The recent snow provided a beautiful dusting, like powdered sugar, on the craggy mountains. We had our own four-person dorm room. Dinner was delicious, including minestrone-like soup and a rare salad with lots of veggies. The main course was spaghetti, but since I requested a gluten-free meal, I was served a delicious raclette, a Swiss dish similar to scalloped potatoes, and in this case, crispy bacon. We all liked this hut with its friendly staff.

27 July – Prafleuri (Stage 6) – Boulder Fields

After such a delicious dinner, I was surprised to see no protein was served at breakfast, so I ate one of my hardboiled eggs.

I wasn’t worried when I read the hike description, after all I had recently completed a hike in Colorado that was longer, steeper, and at higher elevation, however, this was one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ever completed – more boulder field than trail. It took us 11 hours to reach Cabene de Prafleuri, almost twice as long as the book estimated. I was exhausted, and there was some grumpiness in the group, but my injured body parts held up well and the views were amazing.

We reread the hike description in our guidebook (Chamonix to Zermatt, the classic Walker’s Haute Route by Kev Reynolds), but there is no mention of rocks or boulders! An easy-to-miss comment does state that the estimated times do not include breaks. We took two, one for a snack and one for lunch; I finally consumed the can of tuna I’d been carrying for days.

We arrived just in time for dinner, served community style at long tables. It’s nice meeting up with the same people each night and comparing notes. This was our least favorite hut — no Wi-Fi, we had to either sterilize or purchase water, and there were only two toilets for the whole place. There were ten futons laid side-by-side on either side of our dorm room. The bedding clearly wasn’t changed nightly, so I used my sleep sack. I lay awake for hours with aching legs, finally falling asleep around 1:00 a.m. After the chatting people beneath us in the kitchen went to bed, it was surprisingly quiet.

28 July – Arolla (Stage 7) – Shortcut

Anne and I opted to take the easy way out, hiking for only two hours. We started straight up through a boulder field, taking about a half hour to reach the ridge with nice, if somewhat cloudy, views.  From there it was a pleasant half hour down to Lac de Dix, where we bid goodbye to Hennie and Lynne. They turned right to continue with the next stage of the Haute Route, while we turned left and hiked along the lake. It took about an hour to reach the dam, the tallest gravity dam in the world (taller than the Eiffel Tower from it’s base).  Our trail took us through multiple tunnels. After barely finding our way in the dark, we found a light switch for the next one. From the dam we caught a cable car down to Le Chargeur where we enjoyed tea/coffee and reconnecting with Wi-Fi while waited for the bus to Vex. Though less than 6 miles away, it took us almost 4 hours to reach Arolla from the dam.

We checked into Hotel de Glacier, a tremendous improvement over last night, where we showered, washed our clothes, and enjoyed the view from our flower-lined balcony, the sound of cowbells drifting across the valley. It was luxurious to have room to move about and repack our bags.

Lynne and Hennie arrived around 3:30, tired from their hike. It sounded like a good one, except for a steep uphill gravel stretch before a set of ladders.

Though this was my favorite hotel, and I enjoyed a very nice beer on the patio, dinner was disappointing. The salad was good, though with too much dressing, but the raclette was a great disappointment after my previous one. It was a do-it-yourself version with a pool of melted cheese on a plate, plain boiled baby potatoes, pickles, and various unappealing dried meats.

29 July – La Sage (Stage 8) – A Pleasant Hilly Hike

Anne decided to return home early, the injuries she incurred before our trip didn’t allow her enough time to get in shape, so she departed this morning, catching a bus and train to Zurich, then flying to London. Lynne woke up feeling ill, so she caught the first bus with Anne, while Hennie and I hiked.

We were on the trail by 8:00 and we saw no one for several hours, hearing only the sound of a stream and birds. It took us four hours to get to Les Hauderes, an hour longer than estimated (no surprise). We opted for the higher, more scenic route with lots of ups and downs. The section near Lac Bleu was especially pretty with nice views looking back at Mont Collon. There we met many day hikers heading out for a Saturday outing.

We crossed the road and continued downhill through trees and meadows to Les Hauderes. From there, we took a bus to La Sage, bypassing the last uphill portion of this stage. My legs were again aching, obviously needing more rest to recover from our arduous boulder field hike.

Lynne was napping when we arrived around 1:00. She slept for hours and felt much better afterwards. Our rooms aren’t as nice as last night’s (smaller with no view), but the lounge is huge with windows on three sides. After a shower and a nap, we spent the whole afternoon lounging there, watching storms move across the distant mountains. Our dinner was delicious: a salad with a small quiche, chicken breast with rice and herbs, fresh fruit, and a surprise bottle of champagne from a friend of Lynne’s.

30 July – Sion

With rain and thunderstorms in the forecast, we decided to skip the rest of the Haute Route and head early to Zermatt (see next post), stopping for one night in Sion on the way.

After breakfast at Hotel de la Sage, which included delicious fresh, warm croissants with homemade jam, we strolled through town watching vendors setting up for a festival. We decided to walk down to the next stop rather than take a chance the bus wouldn’t make it to our stop with booths lining the narrow street. In less than an hour, I was back at the bus stop in Les Hauderes for the third day in a row. This time I took a short walk through town before relaxing on the lawn behind the bus station.

It took us about 45 minutes to reach Sion, a huge town by comparison to where we been (34,000). It’s the capital of Valais, the canton in which we’ve been hiking for the last week. Our hotel was only ten minutes from the train station at the edge old town. It felt hot, after the cool mountains, in the mid-80s (about 30°C). After checking in, we had a yummy lunch on an outdoor plaza (tuna with rice and veggies for me). It was the only place serving food midday on a Sunday. Afterwards we walked up to the ruins of a castle, Château de Tourbillon, and the Sion Cathedral, both provided nice views of town and the incoming storm. We got down before it arrived and rested in our triple room – showering, napping, and listening to thunder. Again, most the restaurants were closed, but we found an open one and enjoyed a pleasant dinner at an outdoor café. Accordions were playing as we walked around town, and vendors were setting up for Swiss National Day.

Hello Virginia

October 21-22 – Powhatan and Richmond

 I relaxed at my sister’s place in Powhatan, a rural county in central Virginia to which she recently moved. She and her partner live in a spacious house surrounded by acres of deciduous trees; theirs are just beginning to turn color. Her younger daughter is living with them, along with three dogs and five chickens, young hens just beginning to lay eggs. Jennifer has a part-time job at the YMCA teaching swimming and lifeguarding. I met her one day after her shift and we swam laps in the pool now covered in a bubble for winter.

On Wednesday, Jennifer’s birthday, we drove into Richmond, about a hour away, and visited Carytown, a hip street lined with restaurants and shops. We had a delicious Thai lunch at Mama’s Siam, bought sweets at I Love Chocolate, a giant candy store, and pet a small pig at The Stolen Pig, a shop with an eclectic mix of stuff. We also stopped at the Tredegar Iron Works where canons and other munitions were manufactured during the civil war. Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America and it’s capture lead to the end of the war.

 October 23 – Crabtree Falls

We drove a couple hours to the George Washington National Forest, southwest of Shenandoah, and took a four-mile round-trip hike along Crabtree Creek. The trail, covered with fall leaves, led though a beautiful yellow-leafed forest. Along the way we saw many cascades and waterfalls, cumulatively forming the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi.

Apparently I damaged more than the lens when I dropped my camera in Pisa. The automatic functions have been failing one at a time and I’ve now resorted to using it in full manual mode. Fortunately the light meter is still working; I hope it lasts until I return home and can send it in for repairs.

Walking in Tuscany

When I imagined Tuscany, I pictured gently rolling hills covered with vineyards and tall, narrow cypress trees. That may be true for southern Tuscany, but the north, where I spent a week hiking with thirteen other women (eleven Brits, one German, and one Canadian) is hillier and more forested. I’m glad I wasn’t the only North American bumping into language differences. I learned to refer to my vest as a gilet (“g-lay”), half nine means 9:30, not 8:30 as in German, elevensies is break time, and route is always pronounced “root”.

We went on five “8-mile” hikes in the Garfagnara Valley. The first several were through forests, vineyards, villages, and fields with an occasional vista. The last two involved 750-meter (almost 2,500’) assents, first to the highest point in Tuscany, Monte Prado in the Appennines Mountains, and then to Monte Sumbra in the Marble Mountains (Alpi Apuane). During the steepest parts, in beautiful Beachwood forests, conversation ceased and all I could hear was my breath and the rustle of dry leaves beneath our feet. There were hints of fall color, but most of the trees were still green. When we popped out of the forest, the views were wonderful.

One day we got back early enough to enjoy the swimming pool, but usually there was just time to shower before rejoining the group for drinks before dinner, most often Prosecco or Aperol Spritz. With all this exercise, I’d hope to be losing weight, but given all the bread, pasta, and liquid calories consumed, I’ll be lucky to stay even. Our fourth day was free. Most of the women took the train into Lucca; a few of us stayed behind and enjoyed a relaxing day doing very little.

Postscript:

It took two days to get home, thanks to my desire to use mileage points for my flight and misreading the train schedule before I booked it. After getting dropped off in Tuscany, I had lunch with a fellow hiker and then took the train to Geneva (three trains, almost eight hours) where I spent the night. In the morning train service was disrupted due to “an accident involving a person” so I shared a cab to the airport with another stranded passenger. I transferred at the Dullas airport, with a four-hour layover, and got home late Monday. Zelda, Timbre, and Abby (my dog and cats) greeted me at the door. I’ll only be home for a week, and then I’m off again, this time traveling domestically.

Zermatt

11 September, Gornergrat

OMG! Today alone was worth the trip to Switzerland. When I changed trains in Visp, it was cloudy and drizzly and I was worried. Then when I got to Zermatt and saw how gorgeous it was, I bought a ticket for the cog train to Gornergrat. It climbs a 20% grade to about 10,000’. Best €42 I’ve spent yet! (That’s half price with my Swiss Pass; this is not an inexpensive country). The view of the surrounding peaks and glaciers, including the Matterhorn, was jaw dropping. I hiked partway down, stopping about every 10 seconds to take another picture.

The walk uphill to the hotel, Alpenroyal, was more difficult than the hike. When I checked in, I learned that there is a tunnel and an elevator I can use to bypass most of the climb. I later took it down to the charming, car-free village, filled with expensive tourist shops. There I satisfied my rare craving for a hamburger at half the price of an average meal. But first I enjoyed a relaxing soak in a jacuzzi and swim in the indoor pool.

12-13 September, Schonbeilhutte

I woke early and spent a bit of time catching up on my travel log before enjoying the complimentary breakfast: delicious whole grain fresh bread, cheeses, yogurt, fruit, and beverages. They also had sliced meats and cereals.

I then headed up to one of the many mountain huts in the Alps, Schonbeilhute. This “4.5 hour” hike took me a bit over six hours. I stopped for many photos and had a nice chat with an artist from London and his Swiss friend. After climbing out of the trees, much of the trail was along a ridge overlooking the valley and the Matterhorn. I saw several types of colorful butterflies and one very cute green frog, none of which sat still long enough to be photographed.

Much of my slowness was due to steepness. If I had realized that the elevation gain was 1075 meters (about 3500’), I may not have started out. The last half hour was especially difficult, as the hardest section came when I was tired and the sky was threatening rain.

The hut holds quite a few people; I think there were able fifty that night. Hikers are provided a quilt, a pillow, and a spot on a mattress, five in a row; the room I was in could have held twenty. I’m glad they weren’t full, so there was a gap between me and the others on my lower bunk. I paid to get dinner and breakfast, but beverages, including water, are extra. (Supplies are delivered by helicopter). Most of the hikers were German speaking, but I found a few Brits and Canadians who had just finished the Haut Route from Chamanix with a French guide, which sounds both amazing and difficult. Over dinner I enjoyed a conversation with a young gay couple, one from Zurich, the other from Germany. Switzerland allows civil unions in lieu of gay marriages.

In the morning the valley below was filled with fog and just a few peaks rose above us. It was already clearing by the time I finished breakfast, bread and jam. I chose a different route back. The hike down and up to Schwarzsee was easier on my knees and provided more amazing views. From there I took a cable car back to Zermatt.