Wilderness Travel: So Long, Farewell

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Phil, Richard, Kris, Virginia,Stuart, Dale, Killian and Michael

The end of any trip is bittersweet and the end of this Swiss adventure is particularly so.  We didn’t know any of these people one week ago; we were just names on a list of program participants.  Now, after a week of walking, laughing, eating and drinking together, of talking with each other sharing our thoughts and hopes and fears, of experiencing incredible landscapes through different eyes but at the same moment, we have become friends.  Some friends you see every day, some friends you don’t see for years, some friends, upon parting, you never see again.  But you remain in each other’s hearts and souls.  A shared experience alters each of us forever.

I will never be able to eat Wisconsin cheese without thinking of Phil’s outspoken and genuine pride and love of all things Wisconsin.

I will always remember Dale’s incredible knowledge of plant life and her story of Fern Fungus and Albert Algae.

Systems will make me think of Richard and his quest to explore them and write about them . . . even if he did occasionally get the time wrong.

I have been delighted to see the great big world unfold before Kris’s eyes and to remember how incredible it is to experience different countries and cultures for the first time.

We were blessed with our guides, one just ending his long career in European guiding and one just setting out on his:

Stuart brought his extensive knowledge of alpine culture, history and hiking along with his vast experience of guiding a disparate group of people and helping them coalesce into, if not a well-oiled machine, a companionable group of friends.  And he did it all without losing his sense of humor.  His hard work behind the scenes made our trip seemingly effortless and completely enjoyable.

Killian is a treat.  At twenty-five, he is still a boy filled with joy for life and an exuberance for the mountains that cannot be contained . . . not that he tries. But he is wise beyond his years, and his ruminations about life and the healing power of nature are inciteful and thought provoking.  His lovely Irish voice and goofy Irish laugh never failed to make us smile just as his gentle encouragement never failed to get us over whatever hurdle we might be encountering.  This young man is going to accomplish a lot in his life.

Finally, sharing this trip with Michael made it perfect.  You live with a person for years and you think you know them; but plop that same, familiar person down in a different situation and you become aware of facets you never suspected the person had.

Michael had genuine concerns about the chair lift/suspension bridge aspect of this trip.  It’s not that he is afraid of the chair lift or the suspension bridge; it’s that he’s afraid that his vertigo will paralyze him.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, he did all of the scary bits of this hike.  I know that a huge part of his ability to overcome his fears was due to Stuart’s and Killian’s perfect encouragement but I know that part of it was due to the fact that he loves me and knew how much it meant to me for us to be able to share all of this trip and for that I thank him with all of my heart.

See you on the trail.

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WT: Day 7 – Our Last Hiking Day

 

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Michael, Dale, Kris, Virginia, Richard and Tarasp Castle

We began our last hiking day with a most excellent walk: Ardez to Tarasp.

First we hopped in the van for a quick drive over to Ardez where we were treated to a brief explanation of the importance of these villages as the “front line” during the 30 years war.  The protestants prevailed, a fact that is graphically illustrated by the fact that there is a larger protestant church within the town itself with a much smaller Catholic Church outside of the town.  Of course, all now live together in perfect Swiss neutrality and happiness.

Our walk began with a fairy steep descent to the Inn River.  We began on lovely, wide, grassy paths, which soon gave way to steep, narrow, rocky, shrub-lined paths.  Thank god for the shrubs, which disguised the drop off, or Michael’s vertigo might have kicked in.  As it was, he chugged along using his walking sticks with such finesse and aplomb that one might have justifiably mistaken him for a man about town.

The happiness at reaching the bottom of this chasm was marred only somewhat by the suspension bridge crossing that awaited us there.  In a feeble attempt to allay Michael’s concerns about his ability to get all the way across this bridge, we had taken to referring to it as “the crossing.”  I don’t believe he was fooled one jot but with Stuart’s final words at the beginning of the day “You can do it, mate,” and with Killian’s gentle “I’ll carry your sticks, you just watch my pack, and we’ll do it together,” Michael marched over the contraption as if he had been doing it all of his life.

So, it’s the double trifecta for Michael in Switzerland:  Rösti, raclette and fondue; and chair lifts, gondolas and suspension bridges.

The walk up from the river seemed steeper than the way down but the terrain was so delightfully varied it scarcely mattered.  At points, we were climbing up muddy, slippery, root-woven pitches and, at others, through crocus scattered meadows while  at still others we were surrounded by such great heaps of moss covered boulders you expected hobbits to pop up. Through all of it, we encountered mushrooms of incredible variety;  the whole experience was enchanting, almost otherworldly.

Stuart and Phil, who decided against the big descent and ascent, met us with the van on the other side of a landslide for a ride into Tarasp for lunch.  In spite of the fact that we knew we would be having a hearty dinner, we all had the Wiener schnitzel and none of us regretted it.

 

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WT: Day 7 – Health Miscellany

Did I mention that Michael had (has) a cold and Kris has a cold and a couple of the other guests have colds and maybe even one of our guides is fighting a cold?  I did?  Well, good.

I too am fighting a cold but a more notable (to me) health incident is the spider bite I got on the night we had fondue and raclette.  Well, I think it was a spider bite.  We had no sooner sat down at our table at the restaurant than I felt a sharp bite on my left calf.  I reached down and squished something medium sized and soft.  It certainly wasn’t a mosquito or a crunchy wasp; so, I think it was a spider.

And the little bastard took a nice little chunk out of my leg, which immediately began to swell up.  I’m thinking it is a similar reaction to what I get when a wasp stings me but antihistamines don’t seem to have done much to help.  Last night, I looked up spiders in Switzerland and was reassured to discover that there are no poisonous spiders here.  Nonetheless, my leg looks like I have some sort of flesh eating bacteria at work.  I will monitor it closely but I just needed to share.

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WT: Day 6 – Pontresina to Guarda

 

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Susch to Lavin

Today we moved from the upper Engatine Valley to the Lower Engatine Valley. . . a relatively short distance in miles but quite a difference in landscape and decorations on buildings.  Guarda is a tiny village with number of buildings that are beautifully decorated with sgraffiti, which is a plaster on plaster technique in which the second layer of softer plaster is scratched to create a design and then, sometimes, colored. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We departed the extraordinary Hotel Walther in the van and, as we made our way down the Engatine Valley along the Inn River, we also left behind the snow.  By the time we reached our walk’s starting point in Susch, rain gear was all that was needed although, in all honesty, it was a pretty cold rain.  Gloves were nice.

Originally, our walk from Susch to Lavin was going to be along the Inn River, which would have made it a nice downhill ramble.  Unfortunately, the path that paralleled the river was closed as was the next higher path.  That meant we had to take the next, still higher, path, which did require somewhat more elevation gain than we had anticipated but was not, in all honesty, that high.  Still and all it was a good walk through forest paths and along side vividly green fields.  We descended into Lavin and crossed the river via a covered bridge and made our way to our lunch stop.

After a lunch of soup and risotto, we dragged our ever plumper bodies outside and walked on from Lavin up, up, up to Guarda.  More beautiful fields and vistas to admire when we stopped to catch our breath.

Our hotel in Guarda, Hotel Meisser, is very different from our last:  Not so elegant and most certainly not so huge, but very charming with lots of wood and extremely gracious hosts. And Michael and I lucked out by being designated a room in the annex, which room turned out to be a complete apartment. Very comfy, indeed.

 

 

And a couple more photos for some dear friends and you know who you are:

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Phone box lending library

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Sgraffiti outside carpenter’s shop

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WT: Day 6 – Leaving Pontresina

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Hotel Walther Pontresina

Our room is the middle bay window. . . floor two here or floor three in the states.

We awoke to snow and it is still coming down fairly heavily.  But this morning we head down into the lower Engadine valley so we should be okay.  Just wet.

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View from window

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WT: Day 5 – Morteratsch Glacier and Diavolezza

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Smoothing an ibex at Bernina-Diavolezza gondola station

Another fabulous day in Pontresina and environs; although, a number of our party are suffering from various stages of colds, including Kris.

Our morning’s walk saw us taking the van to Morteratsch station (1896 meters) to begin our walk up to the face of the Morteratsch Glacier.  The weather was brisk.  Last night it was below freezing and there were still icy bits along our path, which followed the river flowing from the glacier into the Bernina River.

It was a fascinating walk because the location of the glacier’s leading edge has been marked with standards and it shows quite dramatically how the receding has excellerated over the last 20 years.  In fact, the last marker is from 2015 and it is at least 200 meters from the face of the glacier.  We had great views as we walked up and were surprised by the appearance of a WWII Fokker overhead.  It made a couple of passes up the valley at a fairly low altitude.

We walked right up to where the river flows out of the glacier.  Pretty cool.  Actually, damned cold if you dipped your fingers into the water.  Walked back down and had a beautiful cup of hot cocoa at the Morteratsch station cafe before heading back to Pontresina to pick up Dale and Phil who had opted not to do the morning’s walk due to Dale’s cold.  We also dropped Kris off as he opted not to do the afternoon’s excursion due to his cold. I think he made the wise choice even if it was not an easy one.  It is very difficult to forego one of the day’s activities.

Michael resolutely boarded the gondola that swept us up to Diavolezza, an elevation gain of 900 meters.  He’s my hero for doing these things . . . seemingly simple to most of us but very difficult for him.  The weather was semi-okay on the way up but, by the time we got to the top and had our lunch, the clouds closed in and the wind was howling.  It was not conducive to wandering around outside.  A quick dash out to snap some pics and then back into the restaurant.

Back into Pontresina by 2:30.  I went to the pharmacy to buy cold medicines for the boys (and maybe me since my throat is a bit raw, too).  We brought both DayQuil and NiQuil with us and are very glad that we did.

All of us made it down to the lounge for the 4 o’clock cakes and tea.  These are the things that differentiate one hotel from another.

Michael is beginning to feel better; Kris has a way to go but we are optimistic.

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WT: Day 4 – Raclette and Fondue

One can’t come to Switzerland and not eat rösti, raclette and fondue.  We have now had all three.  We’ve had rösti a couple of times in Zermatt and tonight, in Pontresina, in the Diavolezza Gondola Café we had raclette and fondue.  Well, Michael and I had fondue and Kris had the raclette.

The fondue was the brand new “autumnal” fondue, which had mushrooms and chestnuts mixed into the cheese goop.  It was fabulous! The raclette was about eight ounces of raclette cheese that is broiled, then the crispy, melty layer scraped onto your plate full of boiled potatoes.  It also looked and, apparently, was fabulous.

After consuming so much cheese, if we are lucky enough to be able to poop, we will be pooping cheese curds for the next three days.

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Broiling the cheese

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Scraping the cheese

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Eating the cheese

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WT: Day 4 – Alp Languard to Muottas Muragl

 

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Virginia and Michael, Swiss flag and flag of Graubunden canton

Even though we were still sated from last night’s repast, we began today with an amazing breakfast buffet.  It was so incredibly beautiful that I am going to take a camera down tomorrow morning.  Several years ago, I resolved to stop taking and posting photos of food but I feel that resolution slipping away like so much wet snow off a steep mountainside.

As I may or may not have mentioned, our group consists of six paying clients and two guides.  With the exception of Kris, all of the guests are, if not wrinklies (a kind, British way of referring to old folks), at least very well ironed (as Killian put it so elegantly the other day).  In other words, most of us are content to take the easier hiking option for each day.  Today, that option was to be assisted up to either 2454 meters at the top of the funicular at Muottas Murgl OR to 2325 meters at the top of the chair lift at Alp Languard.

Now, those of you who know Michael know that he has a thing about heights . . . mostly exposure.  As in, you know, having your legs dangling off of a chair lift.  So, he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the day’s plans.  However, he is such an amazing man and such a good sport that he went for it.  Stuart decided that we should go up the chair lift as the weather report for the afternoon was not good and because he figured that Michael should get that piece of the day over with straightaway.  It was a stroke of genius and worked like a charm.  Michael only blanched once or twice when I foolishly turned around to take a photo. Michael also said that if he knew I would cuddle him so much in a chair lift he might have tried one sooner.

The hike was great; we walked below a ridge line and had breathtaking views out over Pontresina, St. Moritz and a number of the other little villages that are nestled in the nooks of these mountains and valleys.

Killian and Kris broke off from the rest of us and headed up to 2713 meters to a little lake at the foot of Piz Muragl, Fuorcia Muragl and who knows what other peaks.

We had a restorative lunch at the restaurant at the top of the Punt Muragl funicular station.  Just as we were finishing, the young lads showed up glowing with good health and satisfaction at having completed what was apparently a fabulous dash up the mountains.

Back to the hotel in time to clean up and head down for 4 o’clock tea and cakes in the  lounge.  It’s a rough life here in the mountains.  I just might make it.

 

 

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WT: Day 3 – The Actual Glacier Express

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Our train going over the Landwasser Viaduct (65 meters high and 142 meters long)

They call the Glacier Express the slowest express in the world.  That may be true but it is also provides one of the most beautiful rides in the world as well.

Wednesday, September 13, began with a walk to the Zermatt train station under brilliantly clear skies, which provided us with a final glorious view of the Matterhorn.  We certainly struck it lucky with the weather.  All of our bags went into a van that Stuart, one of our guides, was going to drive to Pontresina, our next stop on this wonderful Wilderness Travel excursion.

The train ride took us up the Rhine watershed and then over and down into the watershed of the Rhone.  It was a long day; the journey took about eight hours but it was spectacular.  Although our first class carriage was full for the first hour or two of the trip, for most of it we had the carriage to ourselves, which was great because it allowed us to go from one side of the carriage to the other to get the better views.

Of course, none of my photos do it justice because of various reflections, shadows, extraneous passengers but I share them with you all the same.  I am particularly fond of the one of a l o n g suspensions bridge with Michael’s reflection in it.  I think he looks terrified just looking out the window at it.

We had a nice lunch on board, which was accompanied by four bottles of lovely French wine.  We were all feeling quite jolly by the time the train  rolled into the terminus at St. Moritz.  From St. Moritz, we took a walk of about 75 minutes along St. Moritz Lake and then up into the forest and over to Pontresina.  It was a excellent stretch of the legs after being on the train for so long.  However, it wasn’t enough to eliminate the swaying sensation that most of us were still experiencing when we convened for dinner at 7:30.

My meal began with the clear beef broth with barley, moved on to the smoked eel, then salad, then filet of venison crusted with pistachios and served with a variety of wonderful berry sauces and, finally, a lovely plum clafoutis served with plum sorbet and whipped cream.  All washed down with buckets of mineral water and an excellent Italian red.  Michael’s meal was similar except that rabbit appeared in place of eel and, I think, chocolate mousse instead of the plum dessert.  If we were swaying before dinner, we were staggering after.  It was a wonderful experience.

The Hotel Walter is quite something.  Very posh.  We have a beautiful big room with gorgeous views and Kris’s room has a closet bigger than most bedrooms.  He even unpacked everything again!

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WT: Day 2 – Zermatt – Gornergrat und zurück

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Kris and Virginia at Gornergrat looking towards the Breithorn

At least that’s what it says on our tickets, which means we were good to go on the Gornergrat cog railway up to Gornergrat at just over 10,000′ for panoramic views of the Alps.

Unfortunately, Michael began getting a cold yesterday and by the time we made it up to a very cloudy and slightly snowing Gornergrat station he was weak, achy and miserable.  He just stayed on the train and headed back to the hotel.  The rest of us, however, clambered out of the rail car and walked up to the lodge for a hot chocolate.  It was fairly miserable with extremely limited visibility.  A great disappointment for all of us.

After consultation over cocoa, we decided to take the train down one station to Rotenboden and walk down to the next station, Riffelberg.  We would then assess the weather and, perhaps, head back up.  And that is precisely what we did.

The walk between the two stations was somewhat reminiscent of hiking in Denali:  Beautiful in an above the tree line, low growing grasses, slightly snowy sort of way.  As the clouds scudded about the sky, little patches of sun peeked through illuminating bits and pieces of the alpine landscape; it was just lovely.

We did return back up even though it turns out that when the ticket says “Zermatt – Gornergrat and back” it means only one up and down.  We were able to get ourselves on and off the necessary number of times to make our day a complete success although it did require some soulful looks at the railway gate minders.

It is a good thing we did go back up because, as we had our lunch in the restaurant,* the clouds continued to move and we ended up with unbelievably beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.  All except the Matterhorn, which didn’t give up its topping of clouds until we began to head back down on the railway.

We got off at the Findleback station for a nice walk down through the forest and back into Zermatt.  I am so sorry that Michael had to miss this experience but I have high hopes that he will be on the mend and will be able to join us for hikes at our next destination, which will be Pontresina (near St. Moritz).

*I am also sorry that I had the spaghetti with pesto for lunch because Michael informs me that I am reeking of garlic with every exhalation.  I know that it’s true but don’t know what to do before heading off to dinner in eight minutes!!  Sit at the end of the table, I think.

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