The mountains were calling. It was time to answer. After our morning work session and a longish lunch Friday afternoon in Pleigne, Sebastien, Nanda and I packed up the tiny blue Toyota Corolla and headed east, out of the hilly forests of the Jura and across the farmlands towards Zürich. We camped overnight in a wooded city park on the southwest side and left the next morning for Walensee, a turquoise gem nestled between the shoulders of the Churfirsten range and the Glarus Alps.
In little hamlet named Mühlehorn, we parked the car at the train station and walked down to a tiny swimming beach lined with stones and outfitted with a boat dock, a square of grass for sunbathing, and a diving board. The cold, light-blue water rose and fell in little waves running eastward, and within minutes of our arrival, I was out in it, swimming breast-stroke, back-stroke, butterfly, and flutter-kicking, letting the waves carry me. When I started to get a chill, I swam laps from the diving board to the dock, enjoying the feeling of the current. A family played with two young children on the grass while a couple lay sunbathing. Older couples were grilling or eating ice cream, but it was a cool, cloudy day, and no one stayed in the water long. Sebastien and Nanda swam for a while, but soon returned to the grassy square to nap.
Drawn back to the diving board, I tested out the depth of the water underneath it by holding my breath and plunging myself straight down several feet, but I couldn’t touch bottom. I surfaced again and watched as a small boy walked straight to the edge and jumped off. Then a couple of young men took their turns diving, and I determined to try as well. As I walked to the edge, my heart raced, and I couldn’t bring myself to jump or dive off the edge. I kept anticipating a sudden slip and a fall, and carefully edged my way back. “You go ahead,” I said to the blonde man watching me. “It just makes my heart pound. I can’t do it.” He smiled. “It’s easy,” he said, and walked to the edge, bounced once, and made a perfect dive, hands together and pointed, toes together and pointed, arrowlike, with an aquamarine splash at the end. I tried again, walking to the edge and looking over, certain I could make the movement. I remembered back to swim team, the quick leap up to the diving block, the sure grip on the edge, the pistol shot, and one surge of motion into the water. I imagined the diving board was as wide as the edge of a pool, stretching out in both directions, rather than the narrow strip on which I stood. This also didn’t work. I felt the rush of adrenaline, the irrational fear of slipping and hitting my head, and I backed down again. With a small shrug, I said to the man waiting behind me, “You go ahead. I’ll watch you one more time. I need to build up my strength.” He chuckled. “I don’t know that it’s anything to see.” But with a firm step he took a small running start and leaped off the edge, first up, touching his toes, then unbending into a straight line and disappearing with a small splash into the water. I watched him arc towards the surface, toss the water from his face with a jerk of his head, and then he called up to me. “Come on, it’s your turn.”
Again I stepped to the edge. I stretched out my arms and breathed deeply. And then in one movement that blended together completely, I bent my knees, pushed upwards from my feet and out over the water, pointed hands and pointed toes, closed eyes and there was air and there was nothing and there was the cold water all around me, familiar and not frightening at all; and I surfaced and breathed, and laughed. “It was nothing!” I called to the man near me in the water. “Nothing at all!” “Yes, there’s nothing to it,” he agreed, climbing onto the diving ladder. The water felt good and my heart was racing, but it was a different feeling. Not fear, but pleasure.
After swimming, I took a nap in the car and waited for Sebastien and Nanda. Around three, we drove further east to Weisstannental (Valley of the White Pine Trees), a long, narrow river valley with a rocky stream running through it called the Siez. We drove down several different gravel tracks, trying to find the highest spot accessible by car for our campsite, and then parked near a ravine which led to the Foopass. This area is part of the Via Alpina, a hiking trail which extends from Trieste to Monaco through the Alps. I’ve wanted to hike this trail for a very long time, so it was pure serendipity that Sebastien had just happened to choose this valley for our alpine camping spot.
After an evening campfire and a supper of sausages, bread, roasted potatoes and picked asparagus, we trundled ourselves into our tents. I had just my sleeping bag liner, and put on every bit of clothing I had brought with me in order to stay warm that night, as the temperatures dropped at the higher altitude. It began to thunder and lightning, and a soft rain fell for an hour or so. I fell asleep counting the seconds between the rumble and the flash.
In the morning, I awoke early, dressed, and was walking down the trail by 6:00. I knew Nanda and Sebastien would sleep until at least 8:00, which gave me a couple of hours of reconnaissance hiking. Nanda and I were looking forward to a lengthy hike, and had been discussing the possibility of heading back into the ravine towards the Foopass and exploring the ridgeline overlooking the valley. But I was also drawn to the alp on the western side, because it reminded me of a grander version of a similar mountain I’d hiked before, and I anticipated that the views would be spectacular from the treeless, exposed knoll. I explored both directions, and upon finding a paved road on the opposite side of the valley, decided this would probably be a preferable route. The ravine was steep and rocky, and led into a narrow confine which would take at least two hours to clear before we could see into the valley below. I headed back to camp, to find Nanda and Sebastien stirring. After a quick breakfast of cornflakes, eggs and coffee, I made my report. Sebastien was hoping for a shorter hike, so I suggested we find that paved road on the western side of the valley, follow it as high as we could with the car, and then hike around at the top. That suited him perfectly, as long as we avoided any further rocky tracks, as he was concerned about our heavily loaded vehicle, suspended just six inches above the pavement.
We packed up, found the road, and followed it up a winding, forested mountside to an alpine farm at 1659 meters (5442 feet) called Obersiezsäss, a wide, broad place with green living walls and stony crags rising up on all sides, and hundreds of cows grazing in three different herds on various slopes. The Siez river tumbled down through the rocks, splitting the upper valley into two swathes of grassland before scattering itself in a series of waterfalls into the Weisstannental below. After parking the car, we hiked along the river to the back of the valley, followed the path until we lost it and found it again, and continued up the steeper and steeper slopes towards the illusive ridge. The signpost at the farm had promised that we would find the Spitzmeilenhütte after three hours and fifteen minutes, but we didn’t have that much time to spare. Nevertheless, when I finally glimpsed a roofline, I whooped, “I see a hut!” Hastening to the top with a cold beer on my mind, I rounded the last rock and with a somewhat rueful sigh, I realized that this could not possibly be the hut I was hoping for. Ramshackle, surrounded with farming equipment and firmly locked, this was definitely not a Swiss Alpine Club hut of reputation and renown, where one can hope to find the friendly face of the resident hut-keeper and an expensive–but refreshing–beer. No, this was just a hut.
After a ten or fifteen minute break, we hiked back down and drove out of the valley towards Landquart. If if you’re already read my post, “An Afternoon in Liechtenstein,” then you know what happened Sunday afternoon. When Nanda and I returned to the train station in Landquart, our wet clothes had dried, and we piled happily into the tiny car, which was already stuffed with backpacks, clothes, water bottles, food and gear. Sebastien drove about two hours and we stopped to cook a gypsy dinner of couscous and tomatoes with our camping stove on the sidewalk at a rest station, snacking on pretzels and pickled beets while Nanda fussed with olive oil and spices. Whatever happened after that, I don’t remember. The night was a soundblur of zooming through tunnels, speeding along winding roads and purring at stoplights. I dozed on and off, vaguely aware of the shifting motion of the car as Sebastien rounded curves like a race car driver. Somewhere around midnight I woke up back in Pleigne.
If you’d like to see more photos from this trip, feel free to browse my Flickr photo album: Unterwegs in der Schweiz. Our route can be seen on the interactive map below.