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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Adventuring in the Alps, Part I

Sorry, I'm a bit behind. This is primarily because of this. And this. Is anyone surprised? No? Moving on, then.

So, where was I at the conclusion of my last missive? Right, the first night in Innsbruck. I'll do my best to remember and report faithfully, but given the extended interval of time (to wit, about three days), some very minor details may be changed or misrepresented. I take no responsibility for this whatsoever.

 On our hostel host's recommendation, we set out after breakfast and caught the bus up the side of the valley to the gondola station leading up to the very top of the mountain. Now, you would imagine at this point that we paid the 27 euro (EACH!) and wafted up the mountainside suspended from a clothesline in a chairlift on steroids in a gondola, but then you would be silly and wrong and I would have to laugh at you. We are hikers. Technology is for wimps. So we walked up.

Although by "up", I mean "up the mountain", and by that, I mean "halfway up the mountain." Specifically, to a very cute little lodge/restaurant perched on the side of the slope; above, a hideously steep and spleenbreakingly vertical ascent to the top of the ridge (we did not do this), and below, a glorious view of the red-and-white city of Innsbruck nestled in the valley below. The lodge was only accessible, so far as I could see, from three ways: down from the ridge above (best if you had wings), from a windy, steep path from below (best if you're Rambo), and from a nearly level road from the side (best for cows and normal hikers). Since the sun was shining warmly and the view was fantastic, we stayed a while and had a leisurely meal before heading back down the hill.

I don't honestly remember what--oh, wait, yes I do. We changed out our packs in our room, did some laundry, and then went for pizza. There was some laughing at a kid who looked like Justin Bieber and a lot of moaning about sore calves, and then we went to bed. Eventually. I think.

Anyway, next day! (This would be the 27th). Again on Thomas' (the reception's!) recommendation, we'd booked a one-night stay in a hut on the mountain opposite the one we'd been on the day before. The hike began somewhat inauspiciously: despite the fitful but warm sunshine, we could not find any signs pointing us towards our destination, and the people we asked for directions tended to look at us incredulously and say, "You're going to hike? Well, okay..." (Or, y'know, the equivalent German.) By the time we'd slogged our way up ridiculously steep paved roads to the little chapel/restaurant combo known as Heiligwasser, we figured out that this hut that Thomas had booked for us was not, as he had said, three hours up moderately challenging hiking trails, but at the end of these 60-degree-angle roads on top of the frickin' mountain. We pondered, looked up the imposing slope before us, considered that it was already 4pm, said "Sod it" (or thereabouts), and headed for the gondola.

Turns out that Heiligwasser is positioned right near the Mittelstation (halfway station) of the gondola lift going up to Schutzhaus, where we were staying. We caught the last cable car up of the day with 12 minutes to spare to talk to Ahmed, the wonderfully friendly operator from Egypt, and so finally made it up to the top much more quickly than we'd anticipated.

The "hut" turned out to be a very-nice full-blown lodge, where we dumped our stuff before (since we hadn't had enough yet) hiking on up to the very top of the mountain, another hour or so up. At the top, it was bitingly cold and windy, but the view, even despite the low-hanging clouds, was astounding. The mountain stood right over Innsbruck, which sits just at the intersection of three valleys into one; from the top, you can see down all of them until the green valley floor and the dark blue-green peaks meld into a dark haze in the distance. The bellies of the low-hanging clouds were just brushing the peaks of the mountains, and every so often a shaft of light would pierce through the grey and illuminate a patch of the valley in brilliant gold.

We didn't stay up there long because it was too cold, so we headed back down to have a delicious dinner instead. After coffee and admiring the view of the valleys lit up in the darkness, we retreated to our room to sleep.

The next day dawned bright and clear, so we packed up and set off on the longest, most roundabout way possible back to Innsbruck. No, really, but we did this on purpose: hiking down from the top, we descended through the forests from one little Alpine hut to the next: having drinks at one, then lunch at the next, and so on. We had great opportunities to see the smaller towns in the valley as we went down, finally ending up in the town of Rinn, where we caught the bus back to Innsbruck. This expedition took us all day, at which point we returned to our previous hotel for the night.

Which brings us to today, which is mostly boring, since it involved a lot of sitting in trains, staring out the windows at the waterlogged green countryside. The journey from Innsbruck to our next destination, Gimmelwald, only got interesting once we arrived in Interlaken, our first destination in Switzerland. For a brief spell, the sun broke through the clouds, so we took a train break to walk through the town and get groceries before the sky opened up again. Once the rain'd kicked up again, we got back on another train and headed deeper up into the valley.

Since it's getting late and I'm tired, I cannot do Switzerland justice. Words can't and pictures can't; you have to go there and see it, but even then you won't believe it, because it's simply too magnificent to be real. The Interlaken/Lauterbrunnen valley is carpeted in green and dotted with elegantly decorated little huts, with the pale grey-brown river tumbling and foaming its way down towards the lakes. But above and on either side, the mountains rise almost straight out of the ground; you have to crane your neck to see the top of the sheer sides, where the dark green fuzz of pine trees mark the edge of the level ground. Streams hurl themselves off the mountaintops with wild abandon, plunging in a fine mist down the rocks to join the river below. It is altogether magical.

We took a bus through this wonderland of misty grey and impossible green until the valley simply came to a very steep dead end, at which point we caught the cable car up the cliff face--looking down at the suicidal waterfalls from above--to a group of houses just close enough to be called a town and bear a name. Gimmelwald is a haven for backpackers, free spirits, and lone wolves to hike and breathe in the wild air of the mountains, which is what we're hoping to do. If we can get some good weather.

It's nearing midnight and I'm short on sleep as it is, so here in the common room of the Mountain Hostel, listening to the obnoxious American in overalls play the guitar and the Irish guys talking about the lack of interdental fricatives in their dialect (though not, of course, in those words), I will leave you. Welcome to the mountains. Enjoy.

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