Monday 30 September 2013

Mists and mellow fruitfulness....

That blue/green jewel - the Oeschinensee
Running-wise, September has been a pretty lean month with a bare 38 miles logged in the training journal. But two of those runs accounted for 15 glorious miles, one under the shadow of the mighty Eiger's north wall and the other to that breathtaking blue/green jewel of the Oeschinensee, one of the prettiest places in the whole of Switzerland. So I've a bit of catching up to do if I'm to achieve a respectable mileage by the end of December.  In all my years of running I've never clocked less than a thousand miles but I'm in danger of doing so this year. Not that it will worry me if I don't. I'm very aware of the fact Anno Domini is beginning to cramp my style, that much of my get up and go has got up and gone, and my little legs can no longer travel as fast or as far as they used to do. I accept that, albeit a little grudgingly, just so long as I can still get out in sun and wind to enjoy all those wild and beautiful places that have become so important to me in the autumn of my life.
    Talking of autumn, it's easily the most colourful season of the year, a season to richly enjoy before it fades 
Autumn fruits...
into the bleak black and whites of winter. In order to capture this annual pageantry I've been experimenting with a new camera. Whilst on holiday in sunny Switzerland I became so impressed with results our friend Paul had achieved with his Canon whatever it was that I was seduced into buying one of the same make to replace my old Panasonic Lumix. If I needed further encouragement the one I chose, a Canon Powershot SX40, had been reduced from its recommended retail price of £299.00 to a more inviting £129.99 on Amazon.  As yet, I haven't really got the hang of it, given that the online manual runs to 241 pages - and I'm a very slow reader - so it's likely to spend the next few months stuck in 'automatic' mode. One disadvantage I've found, which wasn't mentioned on Amazon, is that although little different in size to my old camera, it weighs considerably more. I haven't quite got used to the lop-sided feeling when running with it on my belt.
Test run - for camera and new shoes...
   One of the first running photographs I took with it features something else quite new. Have a look at what I'm wearing on my feet in the photograph and try not to be dazzled. The shoes, a pair of Saucony Fastwitch lightweight racing flats, aren't exactly new but it was the first time I'd worn them and, to tell the truth, I felt a bit embarrassed. Fluorescent green might well pass unnoticed in a big race situation, but on quiet roads and trails they stick out like a sore thumb. A very big sore thumb. Fortunately the ground was bone dry when I took them for a test run so was able to cut across country, avoiding public rights of way and all known dog walking areas. First impressions are quite good so I'll have to be sorting out a nice 10K race to give them a proper whirl.   
   I'd bought these shoes using a £20 voucher awarded to 1st MV80 in the Kilburn 7 mile race, thus reducing their
Autumn tints by the suspension bridge, Hebden....
cost from £55 to £35 - a bargain, I thought.  They're intended to replace an ancient pair of Asics DS trainers I've used for racing and the occasional tempo run for goodness knows how many years. Given there's only a 4mm drop from heel to toe I wondered how they'd perform, so limited my run to around 4 miles in case of problems. There weren't any.  On stony paths, contouring across Castle Hill side, dodging between exposed tree roots down through the wood and across a bit of rough ploughland, they felt really comfortable - almost as cosy as my favourite MT101's that also have quite a shallow drop, but which New Balance have frustratingly phased out.  My only fault with them, so far, is the glaring colour which may blend well with the riotous autumn tints, but is most unfitting to a gentleman of mature years!

Wednesday 18 September 2013

From Switzerland with love....

Evening light on the Eiger north face - from inside our tent...
Oh how I wish I'd discovered the beauties of Switzerland before my late sixties. The incredible views, breathtaking colours and energizing mountain air have me walking and running the hills, clicking away with my camera, from dawn to dusk. Each evening from our camp near Grindelwald we gazed in awe as the setting sun lit the intimidating north face of the Eiger with its flamboyant hues, soft pink for starters, gradually deepening to a darker red. Then, almost in a flash, it disappeared. Time to devour our evening meal and snuggle into warm sleeping bags as a million stars put on their own dramatic presentation in the velvet night sky. We don't get things like that in Huddersfield!
Tricky bit approaching the Gleckstein Hutte....
      Our first foray into the higher regions took us to the Gleckstein Hutte, perched on a rocky ledge below the popular Chrinnenhorn - part of the Wetterhorn massif - and overlooking the often avalanching upper Grindelwald glacier that trundles down the valley hundreds of feet below. It was a hot day but fortunately our early morning ascent was in the shadow of towering rock faces where fixed cables were in situ on exposed and narrow ledges for those of a nervous disposition. From the bus stop at Abzweit Gleckstein the 2,440ft zig-zag ascent took us two hours and twenty minutes - 15 minutes less than the sign at the start of the path indicated. Shame we didn't have an indelible marker to change it! We ordered tagesoupe which came to us in a large silver tureen with some pretty expensive looking crockery. The soup was delicious and much appreciated after all the energy expended during the strenuous ascent. At 7,275ft it wasn't exactly the top of the world but it felt like it as we peered into the great chasm where the glacier frequently cracked and roared as huge blocks of snow/ice broke away and crashed into the depths below. In the clear air as the warm sun shone benevolently from a cloudless blue sky it was one of those occasions where I could honestly say "I would rather be here than any other place on earth". I was once on Ben Nevis with Hamish Brown, the well known mountaineer and writer, when he was bubbling with excitement and saying "I don't want to go down". I know exactly what he meant, but we faced a delicate descent in the heat of the day and, more mundanely, had a bus to catch.  

Forcing a smile by the waterfall on the Eiger Trail...
    That night I was violently ill, necessitating frequent visits to the faraway toilet block and, dare I mention it, showers and clothes washing in the wee small hours. With such rapid onsets I daren't go to sleep for the life in me, so it was a drained and dehydrated old Runningfox that eased himself out of his sleeping bag next morning to prepare breakfast and psyche himself up to run the Eiger Trail.  Run? Did I say run? Needless to say, I was distinctly groggy after the horrendous diarrhoea during the night but, regardless, we caught the morning cog railway train to Alpiglen and got off with several others at the beginning of the trail. I walked much of the initial zig-zag path up to the waterfall, at times feeling quite wobbly and in danger of keeling over, while foolishly disregarding my wonderful partner's advice to get some fluid down. Eventually, common sense prevailed. I gave in and half emptied my meagre 500ml supply of juice knowing I could buy more on reaching Kleine Scheidegg.
      It did the trick and by the time we'd ascended to the 'ledge of a hundred cairns' (reputedly erected as a
...and happy to make it to the top for lunch
memorial to the many climbers who've died on the Eiger) I'd eased back into a run, albeit not very fast, but quick enough to get well ahead of all the expensively equipped and well dressed walkers who'd begun the trail with us. Dressed in our scant running gear it would have been rather embarrassing if the walkers had overtaken us! We ran to the high col where cheeky alpine cows were jangling their bells and practically begging food from a group of walkers gathered there - much like sheep do on our own Lakeland hills. One of them actually gave me a nudge as if to ask "Hey, is there anything good in that bumbag of yours?" We ran on down the slope, then jog/walked the last steep climb to the Eiger glacier. Things had changed since our last visit three years ago. At the foot of the glacier all the snow and ice had disappeared to reveal bare grey rock. Also, the Mittellegi Hutte at 3,355m, where we normally sit for lunch, had been helicoptered off to a more tourist oriented spot lower down the mountain. Goodness knows why.

Freaked out?
We lounged in glorious isolation where the hut had been, basking in warm sunshine, the snow covered Jungfrau shining before us, to eat our lunch and drain our bottles of juice. After half an hour we jogged gently down to Kleine Scheidegg, passing a large party of chattering Japanese tourists who'd presumably left the train at the Eigergletcher on their return from the Jungfraujoch which, at almost 11,000ft, is the highest railway station in Europe. Below, by the newly positioned Mittellegi Hutte, an elderly gentleman with a frightened look on his face sat on a boulder, clinging to the sides, evidently suffering vertigo at the mere sight of the towering giants ahead of him. Beside what we believe to be a skating area in winter other walkers sat on metal seats cooling overheated feet in the icy bubbling water.
      A 500ml bottle of plain water cost five Swiss Francs in Kleine Scheidegg so, possibly because we're
Giant grasshopper...
Yorkshire people, decided one bottle would have to last the two of us on our run back to the Eiger Nordwand campsite - 4½ miles and 4,283ft of descent. Actually, we'd only planned to run as far as Alpiglen and catch the train down the last 1,500ft or so, but we just missed one and didn't have the patience to hang around waiting for the next. Besides, it was all downhill through woods and flower decked alpine meadows where giant green grasshoppers, as big as young frogs, leapt the width of the path. One of them kindly posed to have its picture taken. By 3.30 we were down and back in camp having raced the train and arrived before it. After a cool rejuvenating shower we relaxed by our tent, sprawled on the grass, waiting for the fascinating evening ritual of the sun lighting up the Eiger, preparing us for bed.

Lt to Rt, Jenny, Paul and my wonderful partner...
      Travelling by train via Grund, Grindelwald, Interlaken Ost and Spiez, we arrived at Kandersteg in the early afternoon and trundled our gear uphill to the Rendezvous campsite at the foot of the Oeschinensee Gondolabahn, a beautiful site with incredible views 3,770ft above sea level. We put up the tent on our high ledge (we're creatures of habit) and had a cup of tea before walking back to the Co-op for supplies. Preferring all our food as fresh as possible we seem to spend an awful lot of time shopping, almost on a daily basis. Back at camp, we recognized a tent by the communal chalet as that of Paul Dyson and his charming wife, Jenny, from Nottingham whom we'd met on a previous visit. They returned in the early evening to hugs and handshakes after missing a bus and having walked back to Kandersteg after a long day in the hills hiking to the Gemmi Pass and back.  It was good to renew acquaintances and swop tales of our individual adventures since last we met.
      Summer was rapidly changing to Autumn at Kandersteg, or was it winter? The sun was cooler, morning
Doldenhorn Hutte
mist sometimes shrouded the hills - and it rained. For our first day my wonderful partner suggested we take it easy and just wander up to the Doldenhorn Hutte. Huh! After humping a huge sack of heavy camping gear around the previous day I'd set my mind on something a little easier - like lying in the grass and sunbathing - rather than clinging to wire cables up rock faces or stomping through nigh on vertical woods to over 6,000ft. However, once I'd got my decrepit old brain into gear it turned out to be a very pleasant day, mainly sunny with bits of blue sky and a refreshing breeze, so we made good progress. Scabius, gentians, anemones, astrantia, wild mountain thyme and, best of all, fragrant orchids lined our path. We could smell the orchids before we saw them. Rowan trees were dripping with ripe berries and a number of birds, possibly shrikes, made strange rasping noises from the pine tops. We reached the hut in exactly two hours and asked the warden for hot chocolate, very hot chocolate and, lo and behold, it was too hot to drink. Usually, at best, it's only lukewarm. We were back soon after lunch, did a few bits of washing (which didn't dry) and shopped again at the Co-op. Can't imagine how we ran out of wine so quickly!

The near vertical bit below Ober Bergli
      Next morning it rained but cleared by lunchtime, allowing us a few hours to get high on one of our favourite walks. A grassy path starts right beside our tent and zig-zags steeply for a couple of miles to the Gondola station 1,185ft above. Back in 2001 I ran up to the Gondola station and back again in 54 minutes - to the great delight of a group of French kids who pointed to their wrists enquiring, presumably, how long did it take? This time it took us almost an hour to reach the top. Maybe I'm getting old. On level ground for a short while we slid past the sparkiling blue/green Oeschinensee and upwards to the attractive but isolated wooden chalets at Unter Bergli (5,548ft) where a farmer was raking hay for winter feed. From here on, over a hundred feet of vertical rock would appear to make further progress impossible, but the cunning Swiss have connected a series of ledges and placed a wire cable in situ to assist people to the top. And that meant us.
      Pretty soon we'd stepped over the lip and strolling towards
Ober Bergli
Ober Bergli which, at 6,195ft, was our turning point for the day. At just below cloud level we stopped briefly for a Brunch Bar and swig of juice before mounting even higher into the swirling gloom along the high level route skirting above the Oeschinensee on a narrow, vertiginous path. In the past we'd encountered steinbock in this area and were hoping to see this beautiful alpine ibex again, but no such luck. Dropping below cloud level the Oeschinensee came back into view through a gap in the pines, a green jewel hundreds of feet below. We paused for photographs by a seat on a rocky knoll before continuing down through the woods to eventually join the main tourist path linking an idyllically sited hotel with the Gondola station. Muslim women with nothing to show but their eyes were grouped outside the hotel and wandered along the path, something we'd never seen before at high altitude and thought rather strange.
Above a misty Oeschinensee....
Next morning was grotty, cold and miserable, and the forecast was for even worse. However, it faired up long enough mid morning for us to don our running gear and set off once more towards the Oeschinensee on a longer but familiar route we'd taken many times before. Guess what? We somehow took a wrong turning and got somewhat disorientated as we thrashed around in the trees, undulating up and down when we should have been going nowhere else but up. It was a long time before we eventually reached familiar ground near the Gondola station and strode out towards the Oeschinensee. The Muslim women, and presumably their husbands, were there again. Perhaps Mecca is getting a little overcrowded? After all the nonsense getting up there I couldn't resist a fast run down, on tarmac to begin with, then a stony track followed by a tricky path through the forest with lots of rocks and tree roots to trip the unwary traveller - which usually means me!  I was back at our tent in 22 minutes and had a cup of tea ready for my wonderful partner who arrived a little later - in the rain! We zipped up the tent and never moved out again all day.

Dramatic views walking down to the Ueschinental...
   On Wednesday we set off - running - to catch the 9.45 bus to Eggschwand for a walk up the Gasterntal valley - ostensibly hunting for flowers. The bus came with as many people standing as sitting - at which point I threw a wobbly and refused to get on. Instead we got the cable car up the impossible looking rock face to Almenalp where local farmers were putting up shutters in their chalets and cattle sheds ready for transferring stock back down into the valley three days hence. Rain the night before had fallen as snow at higher levels which thwarted our usual climb to the Bunderspitz. Instead we veered left and took the long trail down into the Ueschinental, fertile pasture land that would be left to the marmots when all its other inhabitants, animals and humans, would leave shortly for lower regions. From a height of five and a half thousand feet we'd incredible views of snow covered mountains towering all around us, appearing and disappearing as curtains of cloud rose and fell. All quite dramatic.

Easing down to the new bridge over the Kander..
   After lunching in a sunny spot during the arduous descent we continued down to the Eggschwand and turned steeply up the narrow ravine into the jaws of the Gasterntal, our original destination. The swollen river Kander foamed and thundered noisily down its rocky course and under the new metal bridge where the old one had been washed away. We clung to the wire cable down to the bridge and lingered there just long enough for a quick photograph before continuing upstream to the Hotel Waldhaus. 
      A little beyond the hotel was a delightful little
Jungle fowl and wee chick
chalet with a row of huge cow bells suspended below its roof. Jungle fowl, black/red cocks and partridge hens, strutted around it, sharing the garden with tame floppy eared rabbits, all of them seemingly unafraid and at peace with their surroundings. Back home, where I live, they'd be easy prey for uncontrolled dogs that roam wherever they jolly well like while their owners gossip. An old friend of mine, who also coincidentally kept jungle fowl, used to say "If a dog's not biddable, get rid of it". I totally agree. In another half mile, underneath a sheer wall of the Balmhorn, it became obvious the weather was deteriorating so, reluctantly, we headed back to camp - long before we reached the spot where Lady's Slipper orchids grow. Anyway, they finished flowering weeks ago. A passing wagon caught my wonderful partner's rucksack and bashed her arm on the extremely narrow road but fortunately did little harm.

Beautifully coloured gentian....
     Thursday dawned cold, wet and miserable with clag almost down to the tent. I'd have happily stayed under cover but my wonderful partner would have none of that and persuaded me to take a low level walk following the river Kander downstream to Blausee.  I agreed, somewhat reluctantly, on the premise that we first of all visited the station restaurant for a much needed draught of strong coffee and yummy nussgipfel to accompany it. Secretly, I was hoping the weather by the time we finished would have deteriorated sufficiently for us to abandon any thought of a long walk. My ruse failed but it did indeed begin to rain heavier after only ½ mile down river. Cags and overtrousers became the order of the day. Then blow me, we got to Blausee only to find it was a confined tourist trap charging five francs to walk round a miniature lake stocked with trout. We don't do tourist traps and hastily scanned a timetable for the next bus back to Kandersteg, leaving the Blausee to those who like such things. Good job we took the bus for we'd no longer got back when the heavens opened.

The Daubensee, and clouds gathering on the Daubenhorn..
    Friday was to be our last day in the hills and, fortunately, dawned sunny and clear. After a hasty breakfast we hurried to catch the 8.44 bus to the Sunnbuel lift, our minds set on reaching the faraway Gemmi Pass before clouds obscured the distant Valais Alps that include, most importantly to us, the iconic Matterhorn. My wonderful partner set a cracking pace from the Bergstation up to the Spittalmatte, past a deserted Hotel Schwarenbach and onwards to the Daubensee from which vantage point we could see thick cloud gathering to the right of the Gemmi Pass and ever so slowly moving across it. I ignored the three expletives from my wonderful partner as her pace quickened to a rate I could hardly keep up with. We arrived at the Pass in exactly two hours with only minutes to spare and were rewarded with clear views across Leukerbad to those distant Valais giants. I particularly wanted to see the Matterhorn which had recently been in the news after one of the great mountain runners of our time, Kilian Jornet, had stormed up and down it in less than three hours. And there it was in all its pristine glory, beckoning to us across the great gap.. Ten minutes later it was gone as clouds drifted across from melting snows on the Daubenhorn and blocked out the view.
      After a cappuccino and yet another tasty nussgipfel we left at 12 noon to return by a track round the back of the          
Unidentified things.....
Daubensee where monkshood, field scabius, gentians and other unidentifiable Alpine flowers grew in profusion attracting lots of equally unidentifiable butterflies. This path had been deserted on a previous occasion, three years ago, when we ran it in a 15km figure of eight circuit from Sunnbuel. Now, it has become more popular and attracts lots of walkers who've come to regard it as a more interesting alternative to the main tourist route. A solitary raven cronked overhead, the Daubensee sparkled and lapped softly along its shoreline and a marmot darted across the wasteland below the Schwarenbach. Along the left hand variation to the Gondolabahn we almost trod on an adder basking on the warm path. It curled and momentarily reared its head to strike but must have thought better of it when it saw the size of my boot! It quickly scurried away before we'd chance to photograph it.

"The cows are coming"
     Back at camp it clouded over and the temperature dropped dramatically. We cooked our evening meal in the communal chalet where Paul and Jenny had managed to get a fire going for added warmth, but my old bones still needed several layers of lagging to keep out the cold. It wasn't long before we abandoned the convivial company to slide into our sleeping bags and snooze the night away beneath the starless sky.  Paul and Jenny left for home the following morning. Amazingly, there'd been no dew and no condensation in their tent, so they'd been able to pack it away dry by 7.30am. We bid them fond farewells before making our way down into Kandersteg to watch the annual spectacle of cows returning from high alpine pastures to their warm winter quarters on the valley floor. According to the blurb they'd be passing through between 7.30 and 10.30 but there was neither sight nor sound of them as we sat waiting. At 10.30 we ended our vigil and went to a nearby cafe, very disappointed, for another cappuccino and nussgipfel to lift our spirits. It was maybe 11 o'clock when we came out, my wonderful partner deciding to walk to Eggschwand where an alpine market and traditional music was taking place.
      As we strolled towards it she detected a faint sound of cow bells in the distance. "The cows are coming"
Donkey leading the second group....
she cried excitedly. And she was right. A young girl in appropriate finery strolled ahead of them directing oncoming traffic to pull over and get out of the way. The cows dutifully followed her, clanging their huge bells as they minced past and faded into the distance.  Minutes later, another herd came into view, their heads decorated with sprigs of pine, sunflowers, and red and blue ribbons. A skewbald donkey led the way, though I'm not sure if it knew where it was going, but the traditionally dressed farmers and their wives left it to its devices.

...then the goats
     Then, amazingly, a finely attired goatherd strolled by with variously coloured goats following obediently behind. It was indeed an amazing spectacle and we were very glad we'd hung around to eventually catch sight of it. Further along, at the Alpine market in Kandertal, we jigged up and down to the lively music before strolling around the various stalls where we bought mature Alpkaze to smuggle home the following day to enjoy with a celebratory glass of wine and evoke a host of wonderful memories. As I said at the start of this posting, I truly wish I'd discovered Switzerland much earlier in my life for there is no place more beautiful on God's earth. I must start saving up.......