Friday, July 18, 2008
Switzerland - The Most Beautiful Place In the World
Song of the Day: Gregory and the Hawk - Avalanche, Oh Avalanche
2nd Song of the Day: Colin Hay - Waiting For My Real Life to Begin
"Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street."
Preface: I took a ton of pictures in Switzerland, and every single one is worth seeing. To really see how amazing Switzerland is, I recommend going through all of them, if you have the time. They can be found here, and are definitely worth a look. If you'd like to view them in a convenient slideshow, click here.
Well, here goes my attempt at trying to capture the essence of Switzerland, which was by far my favorite place that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting (not just during my trip). In addition to my rambles through Europe, I've been to Australia, New Zealand, eastern and western Canada, and every single state on the east coast of the U.S., from Louisiana to Maine, including three days of hiking the Appalachian Trail through the Shenandoah Valley. And today, I can tell you with confidence that Switzerland stands alone.
You probably already had a chance to see my previous post regarding Switzerland, consisting of only a few videos and a picture or two. Those are only a tiny fraction of the pictures and videos I took (more than 750 pictures and 30 videos total) trying to capture and represent this country in all its splendor.
From where I was staying, in a tiny village called Gimmelwald (pop. 131), the Alps literally rose from the ground in every direction around me (that picture was taken from my bedroom window). The village is perched, at 4,485 feet, on the side of one of the mountains in what is called the Lauterbrunnen Valley, just north of the heavily-touristed city of Interlaken.
In Gimmelwald, life moves at a snail's pace, which is convenient as you never want your time there to end. The village, barely hanging on in today's global economy, relies mostly on dairy farming to get by. In fact, a large part of their income is now subsidized by the government, as they feel the traditions and the importance of Gimmelwald and other mountain villages is simply too much to lose to things like mass-production and outsourcing. The people that live there have been there all their life, and their children will carry on the traditions, working the fields just as their parents did (that is, if they aren't lost to the lull of the big city). My residence for four nights, the rustic Mountain Hostel, was pretty much the only symbol of commercialism in the entire town, give or take a small B&B here and there.
After spending about an hour just sitting outside and gazing upward (I hadn't even gone to my room yet), I went upstairs to get acquainted. The whole place has a really great vibe, and on the walls of my room there were quotes and inscriptions that backpackers from all over the world had left over the years. They ranged from personal thoughts to John Lennon to Harry Potter's Professor Dumbledore. On the plank of wood across from my bunk laid a quote that I thought summed up my trip quite well: "Go far. Stay long. See deep. And may the sun rise twice before you sleep."
The next morning, I decided to go on an ambitious hike through the heart of the Alps, which some people at the hostel had been told about by one of the locals. He claimed it was the prettiest hike in the area, and gave them a topographical map with the route laid out. The map was passed on to me, and I set out around 9 am with my backpack, a bag of granola, and two ham sandwiches that I'd bought from one of the small B&Bs.
Looking at the topo lines on the map, I knew there was going to be a lot of elevation change over the course of the day. The hike started out by taking me down a dirt path to the bottom of the valley (where some cows and horses were chillin by the river) and then ran abruptly into the mountain on the other side. For 2 1/2 hours, I climbed straight up, so steeply that in some parts a rope was mounted on the side of the trail to hold onto. The views just kept getting better the higher I went. At the top of the grueling climb, the world opens up before you, and you get your first long-distance views of the surrounding landscape. I had reached Tanzebodli, a grassy meadow right by a distinctive peak we all referred to as the "Shark's Fin." The shark's fin was visible from the hostel, so everyone always uses it as a reference point. Grassy meadows and snow-covered peaks surrounded me in every direction.
By this point, my feet were already beginning to blister pretty badly. In 6 weeks of backpacking through Europe, I had never once developed anything close to a blister. I had Flintstone feet - they could go through just about anything. Yet here I was, 3 hours into my first hike, and I had quarter-sized blisters on each heel. My first aid kit had some moleskin and a plethora of creams and bandages, so I slapped some of that on before I continued.
My next destination was Obstersteinberg, another hour or two away. My blisters were killing, but as I continued on, the increasingly surreal views made the pain easily tolerable. My hike took me along the ridge of the next mountain, walking with the valley to my left. Also to my left was a panorama of mountains covered with snow, with huge waterfalls forming halfway down from the winter ice melting in the hot July sun. Along the way, I filled my water bottle at numerous similar streams and waterfalls, drinking the crystal clear, ice cold water right from the source. I'd like to see Deer Park try and top that.
Reaching Obersteinberg, I realized that at this location there was actually a mountain hotel, offering weary hikers a bed for the night or a real meal. It was nothing more than a log cabin, but it was very odd to see here. It was literally in the middle of nowhere - the nearest road was 3 hours away, and the only way to get there was to hike on a trail for at least two hours. I later found out that the hotel's supplies have to be lifted in by helicopter, or brought in by mule. There is also no running water or electricity, but for about 30 francs ($28), you can spend a night at the Hotel Obersteinberg.
It was now about 3pm, and I continued on past Obersteinberg to a trail that I knew would lead to a glacial lake, called Oberhornsee. It was here that I touched, for the first time ever I think, natural snow in July. It was everywhere, including right on the very trail in front of me. At numerous points, I had to cross the snow, including one particularly steep and slippery section that I "attempted" to film (find the video in my first Switzerland post). At one point, I misplaced a step and sunk straight to the bottom of the snow, which was about a foot deep. As all of this snow melted, it formed a raging river that was coming down the side of the mountain, which I had to cross on a rickety wooden bridge.
When I eventually got to the lake, it was amazing - crystal clear blue and perfectly still. It was rather small, more of a pond, but still really awesome to see. As I walked around it (at 7,250 feet elevation), the sky was darkening around me and I got the feeling that it was about to rain. The weather can change in 30 seconds in the Alps, and the sky got dark really fast. I was so high up that the storm clouds literally enveloped the peak of the very mountain I was standing on, sending rumbles of thunder echoing through the empty landscape. I was three hours from any sort of civilization, including my hostel, so I concluded that now would be a good time to start heading home (5pm).
Leaving Oberhornsee, I knew that the quickest way to get home from this hike would be to hike to Stechelberg, the town below Gimmelwald, and to take the cable car one stop up to the village. However, as I just mentioned, I was at 7,250 feet. Stechelberg was at an elevation of 900 meters, or about 3000 feet. Thus, I had to descend 4,250 vertical feet as quickly as possible, after hiking all day with blistered feet, on a steep rock-covered trail that was soaked from sporadic rainstorms. I slipped and slid the whole way down, and came quite close to falling numerous times, after wet rocks would refuse to hold my feet. I was so tired that I could barely put one foot in front of the other, which made it all the more hazardous. However, after hiking for nearly 12 hours total, I did make it down to Stechelberg, and eventually home to Gimmelwald on the cable car. The day's hike was incredible, and I had never been happier to be so bruised, cut, and sore.
On day 2 in Gimmelwald, I awoke very stiff, and even more sore than I was at the end of the hike. I decided to take the day off, needing particularly to nurse my heels that had grown into bright red open sores after I continued to hike with the blisters. I slept in, then walked 45 minutes to Murren (the closest other village to Gimmelwald) in order to get groceries for the next few days. Murren seems to be more well-connected than Gimmelwald. They have a swimming pool, a tennis court, an ATM, numerous log cabin hotels, gift shops, a camera store, and just more residents overall. However, the majority of the people staying there seemed to be older people, who were there to "see" the alps, but not to hike the alps. The extent of their journey seemed to be a walk through town or the occasional scenic rail trip around the valley. I'm sure they have no idea what they were missing.
On day 3, I tackled the via ferrata, the "Iron Road" that I discussed in my previous Switzerland post. Refer to that post if you'd like more information, or pictures. It was awesome, but very intense. Afterwards, I threw my equipment around my neck and walked through town like I owned the mountain. I had battled the Alps and these were my spoils of war. When I got back to the hostel and people saw the equipment, they knew I had done the via ferrata and started asking me about it. Would I do it again? Definitely... but probably not by myself.
Day 4 - Happy birthday, America... it's the fourth of July. With my heels feeling a bit better, I decided to tackle the most ambitious hike in the area: the 9,740-foot peak of the Schilthorn. The Schilthorn is a very popular tourist destination, as the peak is accessible by cable car. At the top of the peak is a revolving restaurant called the Piz Gloria, and it was used to film scenes for the 1969 James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." The Piz Gloria was used as Blofeld's headquarters in the Alps, and the ski race featured in the movie was filmed on the slopes of the Schilthorn.
While most hikers would hike up the Schilthorn and then take the cable car down, I decided to do it the other way around. Whereas going uphill would put major pressure on the blisters, going downhill relieved the pressure, even though many told me it would be harder because of the toll it takes on the ankles and knees. Even so, I bought a one-way cable car ticket for Schilthorn (only $35), and made my way up around 10am.
Once I reached the top, I was enveloped in a cloud of thick white mist. I knew that the weather on Schilthorn was hit or miss, and unfortunately, I had missed. I couldn't see a thing - if I stood at the edge of the platform looking towards the center, I couldn't even see the restaurant only 15 meters or so away. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mont Blanc, but today I could barely see my own hand.
I went inside to get some coffee, but ended up staying for lunch and waiting for the fog to go away. I had spaghetti and stayed for about an hour, but the white clouds never lifted. There were a few small momentary breaks in it, however, which I used to take pictures through the windows of the revolving restaurant. Around 1pm, even though I hadn't gotten many great pictures from the top, I decided it was time to leave since I had at least 5 1/2 hours of hiking ahead of me.
Setting out, the trail descended from the platform and disappeared into a veil of mist, which made it all the more intimidating. It was about 45 degrees and very windy at the top, so I was bundled up in my jacket (although still wearing shorts). I slowly made my way down the rocky, barren, and often snow-covered slope, and the further I went, the clearer and calmer it got. Randomly on the mountain, there was a memorial to a woman who was struck by lightning and killed here in 1865. Yikes.
Further along, I came to a big glacial lake that I had been hearing about from other hikers. It was nice, and on a clear day I hear the mountains reflect perfectly in it, but unfortunately I didn't have that luxury. I took a few pictures and continued on. A bit lower, there were grassy meadows, and I began to spot some alpine flowers. Before I'd come here, I had read that June and July was alpine flower season in Switzerland, but didn't really pay much attention to it. "Who cares about flowers when you're in the alps?" I thought. But actually, the alpine flowers are amazing. They spring up all over the mountains and paint the hills with a bouquet of colors. I found myself stopping to take a close-up macro shot only every few minutes, as there are so many different kinds of flowers. There are hundreds of varieties, and many can be found nowhere else in the world than the very ground I was treading upon. I later found out that many are heavily protected because of this.
As I continued making my way down the mountain, with the massive peak of the Jungfrau straight overhead, I soon came across my favorite sight of Switzerland. By the power of deduction, that would make it my favorite sight in the world. I'm not sure if it is, but it's up there. The place is called Bryndli Peak, and it's somewhere in the middle of the hike between Schilthorn and Gimmelwald. I'd read in my guide book that it had a good view, so I figured I'd give it a shot. After walking across a very high ridge between two valleys, I branched off the main trail and made a steep and technical climb up to Bryndli. As I pulled myself onto the very top and stepped out onto the peak, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I could see for miles in every direction, 360 degrees around. From the path I had come on, I could see for about 180 degrees, but the other half was blocked by other hills or rocks. From here, nothing was out of sight. You could look up and see the peaks of the mountains, and then look straight down and see the floor of the valley thousands of feet below. It felt as if you were standing on a giant pedestal of earth, rising thousands of feet straight up from the valley floor.
As I took in every angle, I noticed a man-made cross sticking out of the rocks on the peak. At the base of it was a small wooden chest. I went in for a closer look, and upon opening the chest, found it to contain two small notebooks and a pen, inside of a tupperware container. I sat down on a rock and opened up one of the books, not sure what I would find. Inside, dry and safe from the harsh Switzerland weather, were five years of journal entries from various travelers that had made the pilgrimage all the way up to Bryndli. Almost all of the entries had the same theme - absolute astonishment and loss for words at the scenery before their eyes. Every single person that had visited here was as awe-struck and dumbfounded as I was that a place like this could actually exist. Here's a sample entry from a girl visiting from California:
"I came here once before, living in Murren, and now I have only returned after moving away. The majesty of this place and these mountains is incomparable and continually unbelievable. I have always loved it here and will forever continue to do so. From this amazing overlook, with tired muscles, clean breath, and a happily beating heart, I send love and light to all friends. All friends gained and lost, separated, re-connected, and forever lasting. Change is healthy - It keeps the world alive. I love you, and miss you, Switzerland, when I am gone." - Shannon, 2007
After reading through both books, I left my own piece of wisdom, took one last look, and made my way back down the path. If you want to see what I wrote, take the trail for Bryndli, make a left at the ridge, climb up the rocks, and look for the metal cross cemented in the rock. I doubt the journals will be leaving anytime soon.
Although sad to leave Bryndli, I was leaving on a night train to Venice that night, so I had to be on my way. I walked the last two hours down to Gimmelwald, took a quick shower, and then headed out the door to the cable car. And that fast, Switzerland was gone.
It's needless to say that I loved Switzerland. In the last few minutes before I left for Venice, I was seriously considering ditching my plans for Italy, and just spending another week or two in Gimmelwald. But, I had other places to see and other things to experience, even if they weren't 14,000 feet tall and covered with snow. Besides, at the rate I was going I'd probably be unable to walk in just a few more days of hiking. "I'll be back someday", I said to myself as the cable car descended back down to reality... someday.