Saturday, July 25, 2009

Friday: Mutthornhütte Descent

On Friday morning, we woke up at Mutthornhütte, located 2900 metres (over 9000 feet) above sea level. We folded our mattresses, packed our bags, and went downstairs to a breakfast of oatmeal, toast, and hot chocolate. At around 8:00 or so, we ventured outside, put on our glacier gear, and headed off on our descent.

On the way up, we walked the langth of the Kanderfirn Glacier, while on the way down we were to walk across the ice mass and over the Petersgrat (grat is ridge in German). After a couple hours of walking across snow and fixing people's crampons, we made it to the ridge, 3200 metres in the air (that's 10,500 feet for those who still cling to the Imperial system). We later determined that the ridge was part of the European continental divide -- rivers to the north flow into the North Sea, while those to the south flow into the Mediterranean.

The way down to the other side went rather quickly, as the slope was quite steep. We made it to the bottem of the glacier without too much problem, with the exception of a couple falls and someone's crampon coming off. Once we reached rock again, we stopped for lunch and made our way down to the Lötschental Valley. It proved to be quite trecherous, as the path was not very visible and it was a steep slope down. Finally, after about five hours of hiking, we made it to Falferalp, where we caught the bus to Goppenstein and the train under the mountain back to Kandersteg.

That night, we had the International Campfire, which was a series of skits and songs by the various scout groups attending as well as the staff (referred to as Pinkies because of the colour of their shirt). We performed our perrenial favourite skit, "If Your Scoutmaster Ran on Microsoft Windows", this time updated for Vista. It went over very well with the crowd, despite the rain. In fact, while writing this, a couple of people came up and complimented us on the skit.

Right now, most of the troop is at Blümlisalphütte. I'm having to stay back due to the fact that I strained a muscle while Mountaineering on Wednesday. I managed to make it through the glacier hike, though my leg was in pain by the time we reached the bottom. However, I'm hopefully going to be able to make it to the Fründenhütte portion of the hike tomorrow. So the next time I'll be making a post will probably be Monday night.

Thursday: Mutthornhütte Ascent

On Thursday and Friday, we had the first of our overnight hikes. Eleven of us (myself included) went to the the Mutthornhütte, while the other three hiked up to Lötschenpasshütte (see map for locations). Everyone woke up at about 6:30, packed their day packs, ate breakfast, and took a bus to the town of Seldon, which was located about halfway between Fründenhütte and Lötschenpasshütte. We got to look at the oldest surviving German Bible in existence, which dated from 1696, and is in the possession of the oldest person in the valley. After that, we went on our way.

The first part of the hike was rather easy, as we just followed the Kander River upstream. However, as we approached the Kanderfirn glacier (the source of the Kander), we found that we had to get around a steep cliff. So we ended up hiking a couple hours in a steep climb in order to ascend to the start of the glacier, which tired out several people. Once we made it, though, we were treated to a spectacular view of the valley to one side, the massive glacier to the other, and mountains surrounding both.

After a break for lunch, we started to work on crossing the Kanderfirn. Everyone put on their harnesses, crampons (essentially spikes for our shoes to they could grab onto the ice), and got their ice axes on the ready. We were split into two groups, with one guide leading each one. Then, each person in a group was attached to each other by a rope. That way, if one person fell into a crevasse or something similar, the other members would break their fall.

Initially, crossing the glacier proved to be relatively easy. The slope wasn't steep at all, and the crampons provided good footing for the ice. However, what did prove to be a challenge was the fact that it was cold and windy. Several times, we felt gusts of 70 or more kilometres per hour (about 45 miles per hour) blow between the mountains that were surrounding us. Thankfully, though, it was a tailwind, so we managed to get a slight boost to our speed, provided we weren't being concerned about not falling over.

While on the glacier, we got to view the Alps in their full glory. To the left and right were mountains easily reaching over 3000 metres (10,000 feet) high, all composed of nothing but rock and ice. In front of us lay what seemed to be the never-ending Kanderfirn glacier, a huge river of white. Behind us, we could see more mountains in the distance, the valley from which we came too low for us to see.

The trouble with being on a glacier and above the tree line, we quickly learned, is that there is no way to tell how far away something is. We would see a mountain and think that it was only about half an hour away. However, half an hour later, it did not seem like it was any closer. In addition, we were crossing the entire length of the third-largest glacier in Europe, which turned out to be quite a ways longer than we thought it would be.

After a while of easy climbing, we reached a flat spot. There, the melted water does not flow nearly as fast, and so the ice became slush at several places. We had to watch out, as a person would step onto what seemed like a secure spot, only to fall knee-deep into the ice. I myself tripped and fell once, getting the entirety of my pants soaked, not to mention my socks and shoes.

Once we passed that, we ended up crossing what was almost entirely snow. Although this all but guaranteed that our socks and shoes would be soaked, it was a rather nice relief compared to the wet slush that we traversed earlier. Also, at that point, we began to see the hut, though we quickly discovered it was a lot further away than we initially thought it was. After about an hour and a half of what seemed liked chasing the end of a rainbow, we finally arrived at the Mutthornhütte.

When we arrived, we were given some marsh tea and some chocolate, and we got to take off out wet footwear and get settled. Some of us napped, while some of us played Settlers of Catan while waiting for dinner. When it arrived, we got to have all-you-can-eat soup, all-you-can-eat salad, all-you-can-eat pasta, and finally crème brulee for dessert. Everyone eat ravenously, and it was one of the best dinners I had. Then again, we were so exhausted, they could have served cardboard and we would have still eaten it up.

While we were eating, we got to watch a big hailstorm outside the windows. Once we finished dinner, we relaxed a bit and enjoyed being inside and warm for a few hours. At around 9:00, we all started heading to bed. We slept in a room that was lined with two levels of about ten mattresses each. Thankfully everyone managed to have a good night's sleep despite the thinner air (we were at 2900 metres) and the snoring.

I'm probably going to end this post for now, but later on I'll talk about Friday's descent.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wednesday: Mountaineering

First off, sorry for the delay. I ended up not having time on Wednesday to post about what we did, and Thursday night I was in a hut with no chance of Internet access. I'm going to talk about what we did Wednesday here, and in the next post I'll talk about what we did the past two days.

On Wednesday, most of us went mountaineering, which is more formally known as Via Ferrata (Iron Way in Italian). Half of us went in the morning, and the other half went in the afternoon. Since I was slated to go in the afternoon, I spent the morning relaxing and taking care of personal stuff before eating lunch in town. We then gathered at the Allmenalp cable car (which I was later informed was the steepest in Europe) for the activity itself.

From the descriptions that everyone was given, it seemed like we would take the cable car up to Allmenalp, do some activities there, and take the cable car back. Instead, we were informed that we were to climb up and then take the cable car down. The catch is that there is a 370-metre (1250 feet for those who have yet to know how big metric is) sheer cliff face between where we were and where we would be going. And we were supposed to climb up that.

We were all given harnesses and about two minutes of instructions on how to use them, and we were on our way. We had a guide who basically made sure that we wouldn't fall off or anything, but other than that, we were on our own. After a short hike to the cliff, we attached ourselves to a steel cable, and started heading up.

Most of the time, we were going either straight up or at a very steep angle (and in one case, past vertical). While we were secured to a cable that went up the entire way, a fall would still be devastating, as it was usually about 10 metres or so between where the cable was attached to the cliff (and when you fall, you fall to the next attachment). And there were a lot of treacherous manoeuvres. For a lot of the climbs, all we had for foot supports were centimetre-wide bars sticking out about 15 centimetres from the mountain, spaced about two or three feet apart.

However, despite the degree of difficulty of the ascent, the views were completely amazing. We could look straight down and see all the way to the valley, and we got to see the entirety of Kandersteg. Even if we didn't get to climb up the cliff, it would have been worth it just to see the sights.

After about three hours of climbing, we finally made it to the top. We were all rather exhausted (seeing as we only stopped once, as there are few places to stop for a rest period), and we got to enjoy a drink of Rivella at the cable car station. When we took the car down, we ended up sharing it with about six people from a troop that had just gone up and down again without even coming out of the car. While we were riding, it was clear the the scout leader was not comfortable with the situation, though to his credit we were about three people over the posted limit.

That night, several of us enjoyed a disco (basically a dance -- I didn't hear the Bee Gees once), which just proved that some things don't really change between continents. We left a bit early, as we had a big hike the next day, but we still had a good time.

After I take a shower and eat dinner, I'll post about the hike we did yesterday and today, and I'll see if I can get someone to post about the Chocolate and Cheese Tour and the other hike that was going on over the past two days. We've officially gone into high adventure territory now.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monday: Oeschinensee, Doldenhornhütte

For this guest post, we have Chaz, who stayed back in camp on Monday and had some fun activities of their own.

David, Mr. White, and I went for a day hike. First, Mr. Youmans and we hiked up to the lake. Somehow cement trucks found a way to climb and descend this very steep hill. At the lake, we went for a swim (it was cold). David dealt with this a lot better than any of us temperaturely challenged people were. We desired lunch, but were forced to settle for expensive restaurant food. After this, Mr. Youmans departed back to Kandersteg as we took on another challenge. We decided to hike to Doldenhornhütte (a hut up on an intimidating cliff). As we began, we made a very good pace. We got to the hut in less than the Swiss posted time. WOW! As we climbed we noticed an Alpineweg (translated to alpine trail), marked in blue, as a shortcut to get back from the hut (note: these trails are usually classified as requiring special equipment, training, or guidance). We did not see any snow, ice, or equipment requiring terrain in our observations. We decided it would just take "Balls of Steel" to accomplish. After a quick break of 10 minutes we departed for our decent. We reached the blue trail and embarked on our new adventure. The trail began climbing with the cliff below growing taller and taller (also with about a 700 ft cliff above as well). The trail was not more than a foot wide and sloped sideways about 30-40° downhill. We enjoyed many precarious views, constantly thinking "hmm... it would not be too good to fall right now." We got some good pictures, and continued. This fun trail continued for a while, and then finally ran into the regular trail (also significantly steep). After another hour or two we found ourselves back at home in Kandersteg. I consider this hike a great success, considering we completed every single segment of our hike faster than the Swiss posted times. (Again! WOW!). That is the story of out time.

Thank you for your time,

Tuesday: Hanging Around with Chris

For this post, we have a special guest blogger, "whose blogmanship will take us to new levels of excellence", according to him. So give a hand to Chris, who will talk about how he spent his Tuesday.

While the rest of the troop had to spend what I imagine as a excruciatingly hard day transversing frozen alpine waterfalls, I took a luxury day for myself. At midnight last night, I moved my cot to Uncle Sam's shelter, a charming little quaint fireplace shelter located a reasonable two minutes from our camp site. There, I peacefully read a star trek novel while I nursed the fire to its quietus. Wrapped up snuggly in my sleeping bag, with my recently dried pillow, I drifted off to sleep myself.

I woke up the next morning around eight, and greatly enjoyed being able to roll over and go back to sleep. Such a luxury seemed almost decadent after my five thirty wake-up of the previous day. At eight thirty, I enjoyed the same pleasure, and again at nine.

I finally left my cot around noon time, when I put it in my tent and strolled down to the bus station. The bus took me to the train station, where I began the day's true mission - to search the hamlet of Kandersteg for Internet. The terminal at the train station was broken, so I headed into the town itself. My target was a small shop, suggestively called "internet°point", but first I had to make a CRUCIAL stop.

I continued an hour later, after eating my fill of pizza at Restaurant der Post. The pizza was delicious, thin in the European style. It was a "margherita", which here is a simple tomatoes and basil pizza flavor instead of a drink.

The internet°point did have Internet, at the costly rate of 3.00 CHF per 15 minutes. Whatever. I spent a half hour frantically choosing my classes for my first semester at William and Mary.

My work done for the day, I decided to treat myself to some shopping. Unfortunately, the stores in Kandersteg all appear to sell either sports equipment or Swiss souvenirs, not a single objet d'art. I therefore sat by the beautiful white Kander river and finished off "Star Trek Voyager: Cybersong". The bus back to Kandersteg surprised me by containing the entirety of Troop 1018, but I saved an otherwise tense situation by allowing them to be my unannounced honor guards on the way back to camp.

Camp was restful, which was a relief from my oh so hectic day. I did some birdwatching and relaxing, then played Settlers of Catan with my best troop. I love Switzerland.



Tuesday: Canyoning

Today, most of us went canyoning. Basically, one goes down a canyon via several ways, including rappelling, jumping, and sliding down natural water slides and waterfalls. You would never see this in America because not only would there be a million liability suits, but you could never find a canyon good enough to do it. However, in Switzerland, where there are many Alpine valleys due to glacier runoff, there are ample opportunities.

We woke up for an early breakfast and caught the train to the town of Boltigen, located a couple of valleys over. There, we got fitted into wet suits and were sent on our way. However, due to the heavy rain a few days earlier, a lot of gravel had eroded from the nearby mountains and had accumulated in the river. That meant we had to go around some of the jumps, since no one wanted to land on pointy gravel. We spent about an hour and a half in the (cold) water, and everyone managed to have a good time, it seemed. And no injuries!

Tomorrow, most of us will be going mountaineering, while a few of us will hit up the chocolate and cheese tour. After that, we will be hitting the serious hiking. The weather's been beautiful the past few days, and we all hope that it will continue.

P.S. Chaz should be posting an entry about what he did yesterday soon. So hang on for that.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday: Italy

First things first, we're going to backtrack a bit to Saturday night, as I forgot to mention something in yesterday's post. Some time earlier, we (or Mr. White, at least) made contact with an Italian troop that was staying in Kandersteg at the same time as us. And so, one we figured out who they were, we managed to invite them to our campfire. Admittedly, it was rather hard, as none of us spoke Italian and none of them really knew any English. However, we had a few people who knew a little French, and one of their leaders was fluent in the language. So it ended up as Americans talking to Italians in French, in a German-speaking region. And despite the language barrier, we still managed to enjoy ourselves around the fire. Bet you never see that happening at Philmont.

As for today, several of us (including me) took a train trip to the town of Stresa, which was just inside the Italian border. The first thing everyone noticed was the fact that it was all of a sudden much warmer in Italy. In fact, one could even find palm trees, when not a hundred miles ago we woke up to temperatures of about 5° (you should be used to Celsius by now). It was located right on a lake, and off the shore there were three small islands. We ended up spending most of the day touring the islands, one of which was consisted entirely of a palace with some magnificent gardens.

The other group (as far as I was told) spent the day doing several activities, including geocaching, visiting Oeschinensee, and hiking up to one of the nearby huts. Maybe I can round up someone to do a more detailed blog post at some point.

After we got back, there was the International Barbecue. It consisted of grilled hamburgers and bratwurst, and there were several tables setup with specialty foods from all over Europe. There were also several games, lots of interaction, and lots of neckerchief trading. So basically, it was a packed day.

Tomorrow, we'll be heading up to canyoning, which is yet another thing that you would never see in the USA.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Note About Pictures

Due to various and numerous issues, we may not be able to post pictures for a while, if not until we get back to the United States. Sorry for the inconvenience, but we'll try to get something up at some point.

Sunday: Thun, Sun

Today, we were supposed to be rafting and tubing, but due to the high water from all the recent rain, it got cancelled. So instead, most of us took the train to the city of Thun, located on the Aare River and next to the Thunersee (or Lake Thun, I guess).

Part of the reason we decided to go there was because of the international barrel organ festival there, and throughout the city, there were barrel organs playing music everywhere. We heard classical music, and we heard ABBA. In addition, several of us went to the castle at Thun, built around 1200, back before Switzerland was its own country, while a few others went on the giant Ferris Wheel in the middle of town. And while we didn't go tubing or rafting, Jimmy did jump off one of the bridges and managed a quick swim. We ended up spending about four hours there before heading back.

In what was a great relief to everyone, it stopped raining during breakfast, and it stayed nice and sunny all day. Many of us took the time to dry off our stuff, and it quite possibly managed to hit 20 degrees today (that's 68 for you Americans)! The temperature's supposed to be in the high teens or low twenties, with a chance of a little rain each day. But it doesn't seem like it we will have the constant rain that we dealt with yesterday and the day before.

So onto Monday, this time with a hope of sun.