Monday, March 23, 2015

Testing our fear of heights on a Via Ferrata

If hiking and rock climbing had a baby, then it would be a Via Ferrata.
We first learned about this unique alpine sport from the same friend that recommended Las Fallas - it's great having adventurous friends.

What is a Via Ferrata?

Via Ferrata is Italian for the "iron road/way." It began during the First World War as an Italian strategy of moving troops across the alpine Dolomite Range through a fixed series of ladders, cables, and rods. The Via Ferrata has morphed into a sport activity that is open to the public at varying levels of difficulty. Routes have expanded outside Italy and are found primarily throughout the Alps. "Via Ferrata" remains the commonly used name except in some German speaking regions where it goes by Klettersteig. Routes are often available for self guiding and are often free to access although some advise getting a guide for the first time. Once you know how the system works, you just need a few safety items that are available to rent at local sporting stores.
Italian soldiers during WWI.


We waited multiple weekends for the ideal conditions - clear skies and dry trails. Finally when a pleasant weather was forecasted for the weekend, we looked for a route. On we discovered that the number of nearby routes were overwhelming. Being our first time, we decided to try a mid difficulty level: the Klettersteig Mürren - Gimmelwald route located over the Lauterbrunnen Valley. This is one of Q's favorite regions and we would take any excuse to go back there.
Trail head began in village of Mürren, just above Lauterbrunnen Valley.
An absolutely an amazing day to be outside.

All the equipment one needs is available for rent for 50 CHF per person at INTERSPORT sports shop near the start of the route - harness with lines, carabiners, and helmet. Best of all: there is a drop off point near the end of the route in the village of Gimmelwald at The Mountain Hostel. For comfort we brought along a few items from home - leather biking gloves, a small backpack, water, sunglasses, a sweater, sturdy hiking shoes and comfortable hiking clothing. 
Equipment needed to safely complete a Via Ferrata.

No special skills are required. As long as you learn how to put on a harness and how to work a carabiner, you're set. If you have any questions, the shop attendant will happily help out by showing how to work the equipment. The route is clearly labeled and the trail goes in one direction with a steel cable the entire way so there's no chance of getting lost. The only requirement is that you don't have a paralyzing fear of heights.

Clipped in and ready for action

We found the entrance to the route by the Sportchalet in Mürren, which is a short walk from the rental shop. The trail started off tame allowing one to become familiar with the equipment. Slowly things became more interesting as we started to hug the cliff edge.
Signs leads you through a tunnel where you find the cable to clip in.
A chance to get comfortable with the equipment.
Within minutes things get interesting.

Shortly into our trek, we were passed by a couple of guys carrying large backpacks and then three others with no equipment. Since the entrance door is not manned, anyone can enter without any special gear (that is classic Switzerland). The group of three friends eventually turned around once things became too challenging. It turned out that they just wanted to get a peek at what the two guys with the large backpacks were about to do. We caught up with them at a wooden platform as the two guys unpacked their backpacks and put on their squirrel suits. Ha - this was a base jumping platform! We knew Lauterbrunnen is famous for extreme sports like base jumping but we didn't expect to be next to people actually jumping.
No way I'm signing up for this sport.
Makes the Via Ferrata look like kid's stuff.

Our first rush of vertigo

We have a healthy fear of heights, no free climbing El Cap for us, but we have rarely truly freaked out. I do hate knife ridges while ski touring, but I had worried while rock climbing or while roped in - until that day. Looking down at my feet and seeing the valley floor hundreds of feet straight below me brought a moment of pause. Even Q had a moment where he needed to stop and collect his wits before moving forward. We knew we were completely safe but that view below was frightening.
Taking a deep breath before moving to the next rod.
Q's past the worst part and I've calmed myself long enough to snap a photo.

Obstacles along the route

Once we conquered that portion, everything else seemed manageable. The route led us through a variety of obstacles, which kept the afternoon interesting. We descended metal ladders, walked across a tight rope over a water fall, moved along sideways by iron rods sticking out of the rock, and lastly walked across a suspension bridge hovering over the valley. There are plenty of opportunities along the path where it's mellow enough to take a break.
U-shaped rods made scrambling over rocks a breeze.
Fixed metal ladders
I was surprised that I actually enjoyed the tight rope.
Funky staircase of rods coming out of the rock wall.
Nepal Suspension Bridge
Sometimes the route looks like a regular hiking trail.

Final thoughts

Q isn't much of a hiker but would be up for doing another Via Ferrata. Either this one again or something slightly more challenging. Since this is a summer and autumn sport, we'll have to wait until next year.

We defiantly recommend those without vertigo to give this sport a try. For those that have never climbed before or have doubts, it's worth considering hiring a guide.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cinque Terre

Laure and I visited one of the popular spots in Italy: Cinque Terre.
A six hour drive split up into two parts.
All five villages, each one worth visiting.

Cinque Terre are five villages with pastel colored houses lying on the hilly coast of the Italian Riviera. For the most part, the towns are free of cars and vacation resorts, which helped us experience some of the fishing village charm from a few centuries ago. Unfortunately, some of that charm was rudely destroyed by the overwhelming throngs of tourists that we were trying to avoid by visiting during the shoulder season. We were two such tourists.
We based ourselves in Riomaggiore, which is the southernmost of the five villages.
We later passed by the small village of Vernazza and encountered thousands of other tourists.

Since we dragged our feet about booking lodging, we ended up with a simple bed and breakfast in the outskirts of Riomaggiore. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the owner was a humble Italian old lady that did not speak a word of English but had a very positive attitude and lots of energy. As the situation required, we communicated using lots of hand gestures and hand drawings all while I once again butchered the Italian language.
La Terrazza was humble but had an amazing terrace.

We walked through vineyards to the center of town from our Bed and Breakfast.

For those not afraid of some hills, Cinque Terre is very walkable and mostly protected from new development. The main streets hold most of the commerce, but the arterial alleyways hold most of the old charm.
Despite the flocks of tourists, Cinque Terre still has many charming local shops.
Here Laure enjoys some deep fried anchovies in Riomaggiore.
The Piazza at Manarola.
I suggest straying a few blocks away from the busy streets.
Cool walking paths throughout each village.
Despite Cinque Terre's popularity, you can still find everyday traditional houses.
According to travel writer Rick Steeves, the house colors are regulated
You can also find some traditional fishing boats like these in Manarola.

There are basically three ways to travel between towns: by train, ferry, or foot. The train is by far the fastest option; albeit too fast to take in the scenery. The ferry is supposed to be very nice especially during sunset, but unfortunately we could not work that into our schedule. Lastly, hiking between villages is possibly the most gratifying because it provides different views of the towns and surrounding hills. One caveat is that portions of the hiking paths might be still closed for reconstruction after 2011 mudslides. In true Italian style... they are still working on it might they should be fully open summer of 2015.
Routinely running trains connect the five lands.
Some walking paths are nicely paved with stones.
Whereas others were simple dirt paths.
The hikes between towns reminded us of the California coast.
But with cute old towns.

As is always the case, the food in Italy did not disappoint. We discovered what turned out to be our favorite restaurant almost by chance. While we were relaxing at our roof terrace during the first night, we heard jovial laughter coming from the restaurant across the valley, which piqued our interest. Next night, we checked out Ripa del Sole -- a restaurant with a friendly staff and delicious dishes made with local ingredients while preserving the regional cuisine. We knew we were in the right place when the waitress handed us a menu in Italian.
Anchovies are a local specialty heavenly paired with olive oil.
Pesto originated in the surrounding region because of the favorable climate for growing basil.
We also found a great gelataria in Coniglia.
The genlataria also made artisan popsicles.
We came here twice for frozen treats.

Cinque Terre reminded us of our old home in California not only because of its rugged coast and fresh seafood, but also because of the sun setting over the sea.
Never gets old.
At night, Manarola's lights bounce off the pastel colored buildings and reflect against the water.

Another unexpected benefit of staying somewhere outside the city center was that we had a terrace overlooking the village and sea below.
The best way to wind down after a long day is to share a drink outside and shoot the breeze with those you love.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Aletsch Glacier Trek

I previously assumed that we would need to go to Argentina or to Norway for glacier trekking, but it turns out we can try it basically in our own backyard. Aletsch Glacier, the Alp's longest glacier is located in Bernese Oberland, Switzerland - a few hours train ride away from Zurich. The glacier starts at the Jungfrau (above Lauterbrunnen Valley) and heads southward for 23 kilometers. At its thickest point it allegedly 1 km deep. It is also a popular spot for a one or two day guided trek.
The Aletsch Glacier is actually composed of three smaller glaciers converging at Concordia.

I had been eying this summer time activity for a while but conditions had to be just right in order for a guiding company to organize a tour - no summer lightning storms (which had happened a lot this summer) and ideally a clear sky. After watching the forecast with my fingers crossed for a couple weeks, an opportunity finally came up. We signed up to join a weekend group tour with Swiss Alpine Guides. The package cost included everything expect transportation, lunch, snacks, and drinks at the hut.

Before setting out - Acclimatize

We arrived Friday morning in Lauterbrunnen Valley to help acclimatize to the altitude. The glacier trek begins at an elevation of 3,454 meters or 11,332 feet, so it's best to start getting used to the thin air before the trek. Instead of hiking the day before the trek, we spent our day we just worked and studied at high altitude. Friday night we stayed in Grindelwaldblick Hut to further help with the altitude (at 2116 meters or 6,940 feet). Because it was located one train stop away from the Jungfrau (where we would be meeting our guide and group bright and early Saturday morning), we could sleep in a little later.
Looking back at Lauterbrunnen Valley as we make our way by train up to  Kleine Scheidegg.
Able to keep working online at Grindelwaldblick Hut.
Dinner is not included at Grindelwaldblick Hut, but its restaurant has a filling menu selection.
The view of Grindelwald from the just outside the hut.


Meeting our group

We met our group around 10 in the morning at the Jungfraujoch Observatory. We had been there before in 2013 so we didn't leave much time walk around before meet our group. If it's you're first time there, leave yourself over an hour to explore the building.

We arrived early and some time chat with our guide, He was older guy raised in the nearby city of Interlaken -  I love having experienced local guides because of their knowledge of the terrain. He turned out to be quite a character. He had a ton of energy and looked like a 80's rock-star. We were joined by two German guys who were living in Switzerland and a young couple - a Swiss woman and her boyfriend from Mexico. Within a short time of meeting, we were out on the snow, setting up our gear, given a quick run down of how to walk as a group, tied up together (so kinky) and on our way.
Our guide pointing out the route we'll be taking down.
And this is the reason we're roped together.
Our two day route


The Glacier

Our trek started out looking similar to what we would see on a typical ski tour - lots of fresh untouched powder. Since it had been snowing, we could only see powder and not the glacier ice underneath. As we descended south, things slowly started to look more unique as the crevasses got larger and the ice showed through.
Looks similar to a ski tour, except for those long crevasses up ahead.
Snow is thinning out and we can actually see the ice of the glacier.
This sweet little stream....
....grows into this....
And becomes a waterfall into the glacier, with no visible bottom. Gulp.
Air bubble trapped in layers of the glacier.
Crystal blue glacier ice beneath the dirt and pebbles.


Konkordia Hut

From the glacier, we ascended a grueling staircase up to Konkordia Hut where we would be staying for the night. As much as those stairs sucked climbing up, it was well worth it for the view. This was the first gorgeous weekend it weeks, so the Hut was fully booked with 150 people. Our group was assigned the Winter Hut just below the main building to sleep in. This building wasn't heated but at least we were far from the crowds of potential snorers.

After a bit of scrambling over boulders, we were faced with this seemingly never ending staircase.
Konkordia Hut's terrace and drying area.
From the front step of the winter hut.
I'm not a cat person but this one wants to convert me.
Full view from the Konkordia Winter Hut

We spent the rest of our day relaxing, enjoying snacks and drinks on the deck while soaking up the sun, going over the next day's itinerary and even spotted a Steinbock (an alpine goat, or ibex). As with most Swiss mountain huts, a set dinner and dessert was served in the dinning hall. And as always, it was very satisfying.

For better or worse, the guides agreed that our group would be one of the first ones to depart in the morning. Upon receiving the news of a 5am breakfast, we didn't spend much time socializing before hitting the hay.
Getting the rundown for tomorrow's route.
Our first wild steinbock sighting just behind the hut.
Assigned a table in a cozy corner. Felt more like a restaurant than a hut dinning hall. 


Back on the Glacier

After packing our bags and eating a light breakfast, we headed down a narrow rock path fit for a mountain goat - at moonlight no less. And to make things even more fun, we were tied up together.
Once on the glacier, we were required to wear our crampons for the remainder of the time. The crampons cause us to walk a little slower but considering the depths of some of the glacier waterfalls and crevasses that we were walking along, you'd want to be wearing crampons.
Finished breakfast and getting ready for the rocky path down.
Our guide wanted us to concentrate on our steps, so he did not allow us to take photos on the steep rocky path.
By the time we got down to the glacier, the sun was just rising over the mountains.
Our guide dropped a small boulder down this hole. Probably 7 seconds later we heard a huge boom when it hit bottom.
Damn that's deep.
Boulders have been slowly moving along with the glacier river.
Some of them are nearly falling in the crevasses.
We are starting to cross some serious crevasses.
This is what we came to see.
A maze of seemingly impassable crevasses. And that's why we have a guide.


Glacier Trekking, Minus the Glacier

We did not plan to complete the entire glacier - there's a longer tour for that one. After covering approximately three quarters of the glacier's length, we stepped off the ice and hiked the rest of the way along a trail back to town.
One can't tell from this perspective, but that wall of ice behind us was roughly 30 feet tall.
Making our way back to town.
I wonder how long ago this area was covered by the glacier.
Sometimes you are unlucky in the Alps.
View looking back at the smaller arm of the main glacier: the Fiescher Glacier

Overall the trek was not seriously physically challenging (no special skill or previous experience necessary) but it required a little bit of stamina because it covered two 5 - 6 hour of trekking per day. We did a good amount of walking (especially on the second day in crampons) and my legs were happy to reach our finish point of the mountain tram.

Check out our friend, Jose's (AKA Pepperazzi) post on our Aletsch Glacier weekend. He included a lot of great photos with a very cool layout.