Day 8 – Animals and exposure

Tuesday August 1, 2017

St Niklaus to Europahütte

Miles: 11.19

Elevation: +5,392 ft / 1,612 ft

Total miles: 80.9

We had a long day ahead of us and set our alarms for 6 am with the intention to be walking by 7:30. Turns out we both slept through our alarms. Laurie tapped Andy awake just after 7 am.

We packed quickly and went downstairs for the best breakfast of our trip thus far. Fresh artisan breads, flaky croissants, yogurt, muesli, ham and an assortment of cheeses (not to mention the packets of Nutella, butter, tasty jams and honey). We were in heaven but unfortunately couldn’t eat forever. But we did manage to put quite a dent in their profit margins.

By 8:15 we walked away from La Reservé. Equipped with 2 phones and a guide book we made our way from St Niklaus uphill to Gasenried. We walked between houses and past lush green gardens, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in this city.

There was no one else on the trail. Not surprising given most people take the bus to Gasenreid or the train to Zermatt.  We strolled by goats, sheep and a bunch of alpaca.

After a long slog on relentless uphill switchbacks and old dirt roads we made it to Gasenreid and the start of the Europaweg. In a span of half an hour we passed 12 people. Still, the trail didn’t feel busy, especially when our yard stick is the JMT (or John Muir Highway as it’s often referred to).

About 10 minutes later we caught up with Tom and his daughters (the family from Maine, minus their mom, who took the train to Randa due to knee pain). It is nice to see familiar faces on the trail and it made Laurie much more comfortable to know that we were now in the middle of the pack rather than the end.

The climb through the trees was unrelenting. Tom later mentioned that this part of the trail greatly resembles the parts of the Appalachian Trail he has hiked. This validated our lack of interest in hiking the AT.

As we climbed we were quiet, both of us deep in thought. Laurie’s thoughts were about life, her goals and the next adventure while Andy’s thoughts were about the upcoming trail. He wondered when the trail would become exposed and sketchy. Was this as scary as the book described or did he have enough mountain experience to be fine?

Once above treeline, our jaws dropped.

We stood on a grassy plateau looking out at snowy mountains and glaciers with a blue sky backdrop. Laurie felt like she could frolic here forever.

“This is my new happy place” proclaimed Laurie with a smile. We didn’t have to think twice. We dropped our packs and sat on a rock, taking in the sights while snacking.

Andy took off his shirt and literally wrung it out before setting it on 2 trekking poles to dry.

After 20 minutes and 10 pictures later we climbed again toward a statue of St Bernard who is the patron saint of the Alps. The statue of him commemorates the grand opening of the Europaweg in 1997.

On the climb after the statue Laurie noticed 2 brown and beige sheep up on the hillside. They looked like neapolitan ice cream minus the strawberry. How their coats have a vertical line of color separation remains a mystery. As well as how they remain so agile on steep hillsides.

We hiked on, and this is when the trail became even more exciting. We turned a corner and gulped. There was a massive rock field filled with boulders and loose scree. It looked like there was no safe way to get across.

For the first time this trip Laurie felt scared. “We can’t get across that!” she said to Andy. “Let’s see where the trail goes.” He replied

We kept walking, following the trail as it curved around the hillside and then up alongside the boulder field. Slowly we made our way across the boulders, following colored posts and red and white blazes painted on the rocks.

Unreasurringly some of the big boulders rocked as we stepped on them but there were no sounds of falling rocks. We moved swiftly and mindfully, calling out the loose rocks and guiding each other through some of the tricky sections.

The conscious walking continued for another hour as we skirted exposed ledges and walked across more boulder fields. There were ropes to hold onto in some places, most of these we didn’t use, but occasionally they provided an extra ounce of reassurance.

It was interesting to see where each of our comfort levels lay. Andy got nervous stepping down steep sections of fine rock and dirt. These sections did not have a safety rope and it was a long 4000 foot drop to the towns in the valley below.

His solution was to sit down and scoot on his bottom. Laurie was nervous when staring at the large rock fall that obstructed the trail, however once rock hopping she remained calm and enjoyed the adventure.

In addition to boulders and ropes we crossed exposed areas on wooden planks.

The going was slow but fun. It was nice to walk on terrain that required both mental and physical strength and endurance. Plus the sense of satisfaction in the form of views were quite rewarding.

Once through what we believed to be the sketchy section, we stopped for lunch. We sat on a rock only to notice an ibex chilling about 30 feet away. He stared at us as we watched him.

The family from Maine (Tom, Helen, Jane and Natalie) caught up with us just as we were packing up to start walking again. We congratulated each other on making it through the tough section and walked on together.

The sky quickly darkened and we could see storm clouds in the distance.

“The weather forecast said no rain!” Said Laurie disappointingly. We picked up our speed, hoping to make it to the hut before the drops began to fall.

No such luck.

Within 10 minutes we heard the family behind us yelling “stop, stop, no rain” to the clouds. Unfortunately our wishes, and theirs, were futile.

Big drops fell from the sky. We walked even faster, speed walking down switchbacks and across the trail.

We could hear thunder in the distance. We saw a sign that said 45 minutes to the hut. “I bet we can make it in 30” egged on Andy.

As we turned a corner we came to a river. It was nothing like what we experienced in the Sierra and this one had a bridge upstream (but that required another 100 feet of climbing and descending). With rain falling our feet were undeniably going to get wet anyway. So we forged it, walking through the shin deep water.

With wet feet we continued our fast pace, traversing the green hillside walking past flowers and staring down at the towns in the valley below.

With every turn of a corner there lay another surprise. This time there was a bridge over the stream. The rain was steadily falling at this point. The bridge had a sign indicating a 4 person max. We were cautious and determined it to be a 1 person max crossing. Laurie went first, swaying with each step. She knew Swiss designs are thoughtful and well calculated but it still made her a little uneasy.

As Andy stated across thunder clapped overhead. “Great”, he thought, “just the place to be during a storm – please no lightening!”

He made it safely across and we took cover under a cement structure housing the cables for the bridge. We waited about 10 minutes for the storm to pass.

With the sun now shining we set out for the final 20 minute walk to the Europahütte. We made it to hut under clear skies, catching glimpses of the new bridge that we would cross first thing tomorrow morning. Andy got more and more excited with each viewing.

We checked in and took our shoes out to the balcony to dry, grateful we were finally there and proud of ourselves for what we had accomplished. We sat in the sun, creating shade out of chair cushions and chatted with the family from Maine until we got too toasty.

We attempted to play twister with a little girl whose family worked or owned the hut. She enjoyed spinning the dial and laughing at us as we tried to contort our stiff bodies. The game was interrupted by an ibex who came within 10 feet of the hut deck to lick the salt off the rocks. The little girl came to find Laurie and tougher they played more twister after the novelty of the ibex faded.

Eventually it was time for an underwhelming dinner of ramen soup, iceberg lettuce salad soaking in ranch dressing, and mac and cheese with mystery meat and bratwurst.

We were both looking forward to getting to our airbnb in Zermatt where we could make a massive meal with fresh veggies.

During dinner we chatted with 3 people from Ireland who have hiked and climbed all over the world. These huts are nice because they offer communal dining which lends itself to trading adventure tales. Apparently Slovenia has wonderful hiking.

We played a few rounds of Connect 4 before our Irish table mates went to bed. Laurie enticed the family from Maine to play pictionary with her as Andy blogged. For better or worse the words were in German so they made up our own words and had plenty of laughs.

The thunder, lightening and rain continued through dinner but cleared around 8:30 pm.

In honor of Swiss National Day, the owner of the hut set off fireworks around 9:45. Typically we are in bed by now but tonight was special. And what a shown it was. We were glad we stayed up for it.

Tonight we are grateful for shade while climbing and the company of wild animals at lunch.

Our kind of paradise

We came through that?

Grateful for the ropes!

Picnic tables in scenic but random and remote places

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Day 7 – the final pass

Monday July 31, 2017

Hotel Schwarzhorn to St Niklaus

Miles: 8.36

Elevation: +3,714/ -3,221

Total miles: 69.71

We slept well with fresh mountain air flowing in through the open window. The sun lit up the mountain at the head of the valley as we ate breakfast.

We set out a little after 8, heading straight up. The sign indicated that it would take 3 hours to get to Augstbordpass, our final pass of the Haute Route; we hoped to make it in less time.

The climb was gentle compared to those of the past week. We wound in and out of forests and meadows, walking on soft dirt and breathing in the crisp morning air. It was quite the pleasant climb.

As we climbed above tree line, the sky darkened considerably. Gray clouds surrounded us on all sides but nothing looked too threatening. We kept hiking, hoping it would pass. 

It didn’t. 

Instead it started to rain. We pushed on for another 5 minutes but the rain didn’t let up, so we stopped to put on our rain pants, jackets and pack covers. 

We slowed our pace so as not to create a sweat box inside our rain coats. The wind ripped by and clouds poured over the mountaintops. 

The rain continued for 45 minutes. Suddenly we were walking in a cloud and couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of us. Even in foul weather Andy can’t help but look in all directions while hiking. When looking back he noticed clear skies. “It’s gonna pass in a few minutes” he yelled to Laurie.

Just as he predicted, 5 mintes later the rain stopped, but the weather didn’t improve. Fog rolled down the mountain from the pass and the wind picked up. The sun pierced through the fog, making everything very bright. We still had horrible visibility and now had to squint to look ahead.

We climbed slower. 

Almost as fast as the fog rolled in, the wind blew it away. We could now see the final pass – Augstbordpass. Before reaching the last few switchbacks we had a rock scramble to contend with. The rocks were slick, so we took our time and focused on our footing.

Once clear of the rocks and back on trail, we made quick time to the pass. In less than 10 minutes we were treated to beautiful views of new mountains and glaciers. We dropped our packs and Laurie scrambled up the rocks towards Schwarzhorn peak. There was no trail or obvious route so she turned back after 10 minutes.

It was around 11 am when we began our descent to St Niklaus. We wound down through rock fields, lush meadows and soft dirt trail. The walking was easy and we were happy to be enjoying the sun rather than rain.

St Niklaus is a major division point for Haute Route hikers – some take the train to Zermatt, others (like us) hike the Europaweg which is a 2 day hike into Zermatt, while others hike along the valley floor to Zermatt.

It took longer than we expected to descend into Jungun. The trail traversed the hillside through boulders covered in lichen. After many long switchbacks we reached the town of Jungun around 1:30pm. From here there was an option to take a gondola or hike another 90 minutes down to the valley. We opted for the gondola. One of the best things about hiking in Switzerland, besides the exquisite views, is the option to save our knees by taking mechanized forms of transportation downhill. 

Shortly after we arrived at the small unoccupies gondola station, the small gondola left with nobody in it. We were told by other hikers that it wouldn’t leave until 2pm so we patiently waited on a bench. At 1:45 another gondola arrived with 4 people in it. 

The woman who disembarked spoke English and informed us that we could get in. Then a man started speaking to us in German. Laurie looked up and saw a camera. Apparently we could have gotten in the first cable car. Oops! Lesson re-learned! We should always investigate for ourselves instead of assuming others know better.

It was a fun 10 minute ride down to St Niklaus. We shared the 4 person gondola with an Israeli couple. We packed into the little cable car, placed our backpacks on luggage racks on either side of the car ansb drifted down into the valley. At times we were at least 300 feet above the ground. 

Once in St Niklaus we wandered around the streets, unsure if we wanted to eat or find our hotel. This happened in town on the PCT and it’s happening again here. We have a clear purpose on the trail, but once in town we get overwhelmed and it takes longer to figure out what we want. 

Eventually we decided to look at a town map to identify the location of our hotel. Once equipped with a direction to walk we found a grocery store. We bought food for a late lunch and an extra large chocolate bar. 

We attempted to buy bratwurst and Andy looked up the translation to ask if they were cooked. The register clerk laughed and said “nein” while shaking her finger. Darn!

We bought a tub of ice cream and sat on the cobblestone steps next to the store, eating more than half of it. It feels so good to gorge on creamy cold deliciousness after a hard, hot hike. 

Once full we walked another 10 minutes to our hotel. We showered and lounged all afternoon. It feels so luxurious to be done hiking by 3 pm.

Our appetites are finally catching up with us and today we were hungry! Even though we had a big lunch we were hungry by 6pm. Considering we had a pizzeria in our hotel, and since we were too lazy to walk back to the center of town, we went downstairs to gorge on pizza.

With full stomachs we headed to the conference room to charge our phones with the only outlets that our international adapter would work with. It was almost 1030pm when we finally went to our room and to bed.

Tonight we are grateful for short lived rain storms and gondolas in tiny mountain towns.

Storm catching up to us

Wind blowing fog down from the pass

Where’s Laurie?

Contemplation rock

Town of Jungun

Ice cream makes everything better

Day 6 – peak bagging and swimming in a lake

Sunday July 30, 2017

Cabane Bella Tola to Hotel Schwarzhorn

Miles: 10.33

Elevation: +3,065 / -4,802

Total miles: 61.35

We woke up naturally without alarms this morning. Actually Laurie did, but Andy slept without his earplugs and woke up around 5:30am to the sound of the floors creaking as other hikers walked down the hallway. 

Eventually both of us were up and at the breakfast table at 7:30am. Laurie had already put 2 pieces of bread in the toaster when one of the guys who ran the hut walked over with a little loaf of gluten free bread.

Without hesitation Andy offered to eat the pieces in the toaster and Laurie proceeded to cut and devour the entire gluten free loaf. 

Today we will walk over Meidpass, the lingustic border between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland. In addition to having passes called “Pass” rather than “Col,” we have been offered ham and cheese for breakfast rather than just jam and butter. We are enjoying noticing these subtleties as we wander through this magnificent country.

Without a feeling of urgency we packed, payed and started walking around 8:30 am. Last night’s storm contributed to clear morning vistas including a nice view of the Matterhorn along with many other high snowy peaks.

We headed out on a grassy road. It was already warm and humid and we both immediately started sweating. 

There are many roads and small buildings, some for cows, some for people, scattered across this hillside. The multiple roads make path finding more challenging, but it allows access to these homes from the town of St Luc. 

We both dream of finding a little mountain hamlet someday where we can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and wake up staring at mountains and breathing clear fresh air.

We got the junction where the trail to the peak of Bella Tola veered steeply off to the left. It was 9 am. The sky was partly cloudy but the forecast for this afternoon called for thunderstorms yet again. “Afternoon” is vague so we had to rely on our inner barometers. 

It is hard for Laurie to pass up an opportunity to climb. Even as a little kid she liked to be “queen of the mountain” (a pose you have seen quite frequently in our PCT blog with her arms raised over her head.)

“Screw it, let’s do it” chimed in Andy. 

And we were off, steadily making our way up to our first Swiss peak.

By 10:00am we were at the top of Bella Tola. We shared the summit with 3 Swiss with whom we swapped pictures and Laurie practiced her Swiss German. They helped us identify each of the major peaks on the horizon.

They were each in their late 60’s or early 70’s.  We have been surprised and inspired by the age spectrum of hikers along the Haute Route.  The infrastructure supports this with punctual, efficient and convenient transportation and comfortable huts allowing families and older individuals to enjoy the wonders of the natural world.

“I think the secret to healthy aging is eating full fat yogurt, whole milk and cheese” said Laurie with a grin. “Perhaps if I eat that way too I will be climbing mountains into my 70’s!”

As we took in the 360 view from Bella Tola Laurie noticed a gazebo looking thing across the ridge. The trail we had planned on taking down looked rocky and sketchy so we decided to backtrack. 

This took us closer to the ridge with the gazebo and  Laurie couldn’t resist the temptation to go there also. We both looked at the sky, the clouds were gathering over the peaks but were not yet dark. So we chanced it. It is unlike Laurie to gamble but here in the mountains she has a different type of confidence than she does in everyday life. 

In about 20 minutes we made it to Rothorn Peak. The 360 view from both peaks were definitely worth the effort.

At 11:15 we were back on the trail heading for Meidpass. We knew the storm was coming and with our detour we were resolved to get wet but hoped to be over the pass before the thunder and lightening started. 

The trail to the pass was a combination of grass covered roads, smooth sailing dirt curving through green meadows and a rock scramble.

We got water 20 minutes from the top of the pass. The clear and crisp water was flowing under some rocks. It still feels like we are doing something wrong when drinking straight from steams without filtering. We try to choose steams whose source is above where cows graze and so far, so good…

On our descent from the pass we skirted around a lake. “I have never swam in a Swiss lake…” said Laurie. One could hear the temptation in her voice. “As long as it isn’t as cold as the water we drank right before the pass, I’m doing it.”

We joined the 2 other groups of people near the lake and Laurie jumped in. Surprisingly it wasn’t as cold as many of the lakes she swam in on the PCT.

We didn’t dilly dally after that. It was a long downhill and the sky darkened by the moment. But then we saw blueberries.

We stopped to pick, once again wishing we had our talenti containers to save some for later.

Two British women we have leap frogged the last few days passed us as we picked. They referred to the blue berries as “bilberries”

“Blueberries, bilberries, huckleberries…I don’t care what they are called as long as they are edible and delicious!” proclaimed Laurie.

As we got close to tree line the drops began to fall. We could see the town of Gruben down in the valley below. The trees protected us for the most part but we still stopped to put on our pack covers – our rainpants and raincoats stayed in the pack since we wanted to do laundry anyway.
We got to the Hotel Schwarzhorn, wet but not soaked. As we showered loud thunder clapped overhead and the rain pounded on the roof. We were quite happy to be inside.
Prior to dinner we went down to get a stronger internet signal and ran into many familiar faces. The Haute Route, like the PCT, is a traveling community. We spread out during the day and convene in town. It is wonderful to share stories and hear other’s experiences.

The rain continued most of the evening and it was nice to be cozy under down comforters watching the storm from the comforts of a bed.

Today we hiked 10 miles. On the PCT that would be considered a nero but here it is a full day’s effort. It is amazing what a difference trail grade and elevation gain/loss can do to one’s legs.

Tonight we are grateful for surprise peak bagging opportunities and clean communal showers.

Enroute to Bella Tola Peak

Atop Bella Tola

“Oh another peak. Let’s go there!” ~Laurie

Rothorn Peak

Heading back to the trail from our double peak bagging detour

Refreshing dip in Meidsee Lake

Hard to focus on footing with these views

More blueberries. Or bilberries…

Watching the storm pass outside our window

Dry, warm, happy hikers