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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Power Hiking

My visit to Grindelwald this month coincided with the Jungfrau Marathon. This brutal race has more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain, yet roughly 4,000 runners attempt it each year. (In a coup, Colorado runner Galen Burrell finished fifth this time.) The local minder for our media tour, Martin Strahm, frequently runs from his office in Grindelwald to a hut about 1,800 feet higher, and he claimed he wasn’t in good enough shape for the Jungfrau Marathon. The 200-plus kilometers of trails around Grindelwald are packed with hikers of all shapes and sizes, and I haven’t seen as many big mountain boots on the feet of downtown pedestrians since Boulder in the 1970s. So...these people are fit, and there's no doubt they could hike (or bike or run or ski) up the local trails as often and as fast as they wanted.

But here’s the thing: With convenient lift access to the high peaks and meadows around Grindelwald (and throughout much of the Alps), it’s not surprising that many people don’t bother to hike both ways, up and down. Personally, I’m all for power hiking, as in the power assist of a speedy gondola. It's easier on the lungs going up and on the knees coming down.

In the afternoon of Day 1 of our media tour of Switzerland, we rode gondolas in several stages to the First (pronounced "Feerst") ski station north of Grindelwald, rising from around 3,500 feet in the center of town to over 7,000 feet, high above the trees, in a matter of minutes. A cold rain had fallen in town the previous day, and a few inches of new snow lay on the ground at the top. But, though the temps were still brisk, the sun shone brilliantly.

Our small group followed a gravel road for about 40 minutes to the Bachalpsee, a tarn nestled among high peaks. We were in the middle of a ski resort, but it didn’t feel like it: The lifts were far in the distance, and the only signs we saw pointed out hiking routes. In the winter, the road we were following is packed with Sno-cats, and winter hiking is a popular way to explore the Swiss mountains—no skis or snowshoes necessary. This road also leads to the start of a remarkable 15-kilometer, 1,500-vertical-meter toboggan run that is packed out of the snow each year—a must-do someday.

Now, the full scope of Grindelwald’s peaks was revealed—one of the great mountain walls of Europe. The Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, Lauteraarhorn, Finsteraarhorn, Fiescherhorn, the Eiger, the Mönch, and Jungfrau. Ironically, among all these giants, the Eiger doesn’t top 4,000 meters, but its presence is palpable. From the valley floor in Grindelwald, the Eiger rises more than 9,000 vertical feet to the 13,025-foot summit—nearly 6,000 feet of that in the Nordwand itself. From Grindelwald and the First side of the valley, the Nordwand doesn’t appear quite as steep as it does in the classic view from Kleine Scheidegg, and I couldn’t begin to grasp the scale—at first I was underwhelmed. I had to force myself to imagine two El Capitans stacked atop each other on that steep wall.

In late afternoon, we hiked down a steep valley to the Waldspitz restaurant and hut, perched on a forested ridge at about 6,250 feet, still 3,000 feet above town. We drank a beer on the sunny deck and then, as the evening chill descended, we moved inside, where there were tables for about 30. During dinner we had to keep running out to the deck as alpenglow fired up the great peaks of the Bernese Oberland. Martin said Grindelwald residents often hike up for dinner and spend the night at the Waldspitz, or make it the midway stopover on the spectacular two-day hike from Schynige Platte to Grindelwald. But we were power hiking today, and long after dark a taxi driver appeared at the door. After stepping inside for a quick coffee, he ushered us into his van and drove our tipsy crew down the winding road to our hotel.

Next up: Melting Mountains. Read the first Swiss report here.

1 comment:

robinb said...

two of TGU were running in it: