Monday, July 6, 2009

Discovering the Swiss Pyramid

or "Getting High before we get anywhere near Amsterdam"

Here's a
photo album of our montane adventures. Now you know all its stories!

If there’s one thing you should do before climbing a Swiss Alp, it’s get a full night’s sleep. We didn’t.

We were up at 5:45 AM, lugging our bags towards the Bern train station to catch a ride to Mülenen. Shane, Marco, Glen, and Marty had taken a similar expedition a couple of weeks earlier and had described the town as “a gas station with a few houses.” I suspected such a small stop would be missing lockers where we could stash our backpacks, so I asked the Swiss station agent. He thought they would probably have those most convenient of amenities. I think you know where this is going.

As we approached Mülenen, an announcement in Italian, German, French, and English informed us we needed to request the stop if we wanted to get off. The announcement failed to tell us how to go about such a process. I wandered around like a chimp in a psychology experiment looking for the right button. A woman further down the train looked straight at me and mashed a white button by the door with the kind of disgust you can only muster when you have a button to mash. Thanks.

The train came to a stop at the Mülenen station which is roughly the size of my dorm room and it took about 25 seconds to establish there were no lockers to be found. Would my Munich beer stein and cans of Skyline need to ascend Mt. Niesen? We followed the signs to the Niesenbahn, the cog-railway that steadily rolls up the side of the mountain, offering a less strenuous option for getting to the top. A group of people were waiting patiently outside the door to the railway office. None of them looked particularly excited to be going up Niesen, and there didn’t seem to be any families. Then the woman who showed me how to stop the train walked through the crowd and unlocked the door. Everyone followed her in and filed up to the permanently slanted car (the seats are built so you sit on the level, but the floor slopes). I started to file in to talk to the worker checking everyone through.

In a thick Swiss accent - which is basically German spoken by an excited Swede – I was told this ride was only for employees and I needed to wait for the next round. I let him know we weren’t interested in riding up. We needed to hike. He looked shocked when he sized up our luggage and I took the moment to ask if he knew a place to throw the gear. He thought for a moment and grinned with a new idea. The storage room! After loading the vertical morning commuters, he lead us to a side room with a steeply slanted ceiling (most of the trip could be summed up with synonyms for steep) and thousands of brochures enumerating all the merits of a ride to the top.

We dropped our equipment among the boxes, packed our day packs, and I spent some time clarifying we would be able to get back into that room in nine hours. He seemed to think that was a pretty stupid question. Where would he get off to? Of course we would be able to get our backpacks. So, after basking in the glow of friendly Swiss hospitality we asked for directions to the trailhead. With an enthusiastic point towards a series of yellow signs, he wished us luck on our journey.

The first sign offered directions to the next towns, train stations, and to the summit of the mountain. Along with the names, the sign offered the distance in “Std” or “Stunden” that’s time. I don’t know who they timed for the hike, but they were deemed to have a more reliable pace than such disreputable measurement options as kilometers. We discovered we had 5 hours of hiking ahead of us. It was time to go up even though the summit of the mountain was still swathed in fog and clouds.

The trail looped through green cow pastures with quaint barns and sheds along the route. The trail would weave onto dirt roads, but quickly dropped us into the pine forest. As we slogged through the understory where the occasional ripe blackberry provided an energy boost the elevation fell away from our feet.

We stopped halfway up the slope of “The Swiss Pyramid (a 1890s tourism bureau moniker)” at one of the train station stops to enjoy our some fresh fruit, chunks of baguette, and fresh Swiss cheese (that is, cheese from Switzerland. It didn’t have any holes).

We felt very European (except for complimenting all of this with the bottomless animal crackers and the discovery that neither Tim nor Mike are fans of the carbonated bottled water we had accidentally purchased to keep us hydrated).

As we trudged upwards we could hear the distant clanging of cow bells and wove through a diversity of avalanche breaks. Occasionally a trail runner would need to squeeze by on his morning run up the mountain.

We broke through the tree line and hiked past persistent wildflowers. The landscape that was expanding around us was an unknown quantity thanks to the opaque grey. Occasionally an ephemeral window opened and we would glimpse the valley receding below us and the towns shrinking to ant colonies. As we neared the peak we hiked along a spine of rock which offered an expansive view of the glacial lakes far below us. Almost as soon as we noted then documented its presence we watched it be swallowed by the advancing clouds.

Only 4 hours after starting our journey we glimpsed the terminal train station and the observation platform at the peak. We’d done it. We had climbed an Alp (with an hour left which made me wonder if there were multiple peaks or, gasp, the Swiss had screwed up their timing).

We basked in our glory by studying the maps of the mountains we would be able to see on a clear day.

We ate more of our European lunch and let our legs take a break by sitting on massive wooden recliners. The peak has been host to a spa and hotel since the 1870s and it continues to draw people who want a night on an Alp. Someday.

The hike down challenged our thighs, eventually reducing them to quivering jelly. But we pushed on. The sky started to clear and we were able to take in the incredible view that made Switzerland the original tourist destination.

We opted for a different route to the bottom then we had taken to get up. The trail was well marked and we had a basic map. Again, you know where this is going.

The path lead to a cow shed and seemed to end. The farmer’s truck was parked by the shed and lines of newly strung electric fence traced over the hillside. A hand painted sign down slope directed us onto a sliver of mud that served as a trail for boots and hooves. Over barbed wire and onto a steep pasture. Suddenly we froze. Three cows stood staring at us. We were on their path and they clearly couldn’t turn around. If we stepped off our track, we could loose the trail or our footing. We stood our ground in a game of mountaineering chicken with a trio of bovids, no one giving ground.

We blinked. We decided to pick our way down the slope towards fresh electrified fence. Always the best direction to set out in.

As I creped closer to the fence I heard someone moving. It was Herr Farmer.

“Guten Tag! Uh, ist diese die weg? “ (Good day. Is this the way? It’s important to note I guessed on the gender of “way”. Usually I clip my die, der, or das to a simple d-. I let the native speaker assume they heard everything that agrees with my noun's gender).

“Ja, natürlich.” Yes, of course.

“Und hat diese…Hindernis…Sturm…Strom…uh” And does this…barrier…have charge…voltage..I may not be saying anything intelligible?

“Kein Strom.” No current, moron.

“Ah, danke.” Thanks.

So we could cross it. I told Mike and Tim as much and briefly sized up my spot. The fence rose slightly in front of me. I saw the farmer was attaching it, and didn’t want to brush it by straddling it on the slope. So I hopped.

In case you ever thought it would be a good idea to jump a low fence on a steep Alpine hill, I’m here to tell you it isn’t. I landed on a loose clod of earth that gave way under my weakened legs. The clod went down slope. So did my ankle.

Pain. Lots of pain. But I had to get off the mountain. Mike asked if I was okay as I gingerly limped down slope. They both could tell I had made a pretty stupid decision to go airborne, but thankfully didn’t rub it in. I would have been kicking myself if my legs could still kick.

Finally we were on the gradual grade to the bottom. We found the sign that had directed us to the peak and retrieved our bags from the storage room. We had time left in our day and it was time for dinner. We pushed the button at the station that would tell our train to stop in the booming town of Mülenen for a few dirty, tired hikers and tried to spruce ourselves up a bit and switch our shoes around.

We rode the train to Spiez, a small town on Lake Thun with a theoretically commanding view of the mountain we had just climbed. It also had a castle.

We set off from the train station as storm clouds gathered. The place was dead thanks to the depressing weather. People just weren’t in a mood to dwaddle in cute towns when weather was brewing. We found a restaurant near the lake front that served röstie, or Swiss hash browns. It was delicious and went down well with a well-earned beer. Then I tried to stand up. My ankle didn’t like the idea. In the time we had been sitting, it had swollen to twice it’s normal, stocky size. Then the heavens decided to open.

Mike and Tim opted to stay under the shelter to see if the rain would taper off a bit. I had to start hiking. I wasn’t sure I would make it back to the train station. The rain pelted my hobbling figure, the wet pooled in my pockets, and I swore with every step. I think it helped. Briefly the sky seemed to clear and the shadowy outline of Niesen appeared to offer encouragement.

At the station we were reunited. I stubbornly fought to carry my bags as punishment for my idiocy. Mike and Tim wouldn’t stand for it. On the train Michael went in search of the dining car to get some ice for my ankle. But, this is Europe. They don’t have ice. A chilled can of Coke would have to do. I slapped it onto my swollen foot which caused the gentlemen across from me to stare at my accessory like I had just grown a new limb.

We hopped off the train in Basel and boarded our night train, bound for Cologne. We were slowly drying from Switzerland’s final good-bye drenching and settled into our sleeper chairs. I had made the executive decision not to spring for a sleeping cabin or cot, so we were assigned lightly padded recliners. They could lean back pretty far and a welding visor-like contraption covered our heads and provided small reading lights. We drank the celebratory wine we had purchased back in Luzern and enjoyed the wonderful flavors of Erdnuss Flips (peanut butter flavored puffed snacks). I propped up my foot, downed some ibuprofen and prayed it would all be better in the morning. The very early morning.

A chattery group of French students threatened to keep us awake, but a cranky old man gave them a sharp admonishment to shut up. This saved me from being the cranky young man. It was time to drift off into dreams of castles and ankle-snapping cows. For the third morning in a row, our day would begin before 6AM, but this time we would be in familiar territory…

See you at the Dom!


The last time you'll see this photo album.


Michael said...

I actually did not witness your unfortunate hop! I thought you had twisted your ankle trying to slip under the fence.

However, I remember the Swiss cows being much more intimidating. Maybe it was their bells and their mooing, but I could have sworn they were approaching us on the path and that's why we decided to sidestep down the hill. You would think Ohioans would be better at handling some heifers... alas.

Tim said...

While some people might associate Switzerland with snow or glaciers, I will for ever think of rain and puddles.

I guess that means i'll just have to go back some day....