Zermatt: Hiking Season recap

s, happy November?  I sound like a broken record as I repeat “Time is flying”, but it IS.  We have just over a month remaining for the program, which seems incredibly short. And, ski season begins tomorrow.  I cannot wait – although I’m also nervous about it!

In addition to feeling SOME trepidation about skiing (will I make a fool of myself in front of a group of 16-year-olds?!), I’m also sad to see that the official hiking season for our group has come to an end.  To back up, the program is split between hiking season and ski season.  For hiking season, we have 4 classes in a row and then a ‘break’ in the middle of the day, during which there are 4 activity blocks: long hike, short hike, climbing, and geology lab.  Teachers and students are pretty busy during the activity blocks – while I did have one free block a week (thanks to no Geo Lab), I spent the other afternoons on the trails or climbing.  I actually ‘led’ the hikes, and I use quotations because, especially at the beginning, I lacked the knowledge of the area to do anything that resembled leading.

However, as the weeks passed, I did get to know the mountains and trails around the Zermatt area and discovered some favorites, especially as the weather changed and the leaves turned from green to golden, the larch trees in particular.  While we did not have time for an all-day hiking experience, fitting in a 3-4 hour hike in the middle of the day was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, especially when we had to return and teach (plus change from hiking clothes to something more… professional – that was the WORST!).  For the hikes, some we would walk the entire time, others we would take a train or chairlift up and then hike, or we would hike up and take the chair lift or train down.  I am a huge fan of hiking up and taking some form of transportation down – it certainly helped my knees stay happy and healthy!  In recent weeks, there were a few “oh shit” moments – when you realized that the schedule changed or that the lift wasn’t running anymore.  But the hikes were really amazing, and there were times when maybe I didn’t *feel* like hiking as I set out, but then I would catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn or take a lunch break in a beautiful spot or grab a mug of hot chocolate at the end of the hike and…  How could I complain?

The ubiquitous hike in which you walk into a pasture.
A picturesque Swiss ‘village’.
Those goofy kids!
Goofy kids!
And, it's not a hike in Zermatt if you don't see the Matterhorn!
And, it’s not a hike in Zermatt if you don’t see the Matterhorn!

I really enjoyed getting back into hiking (if you couldn’t tell).  In recent years, that is an activity that I haven’t really made time for, with everything else (ahem – triathlon), and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to spend so much time outside this fall, exploring these trails, and doing so at a different pace from the swim/bike/run world.  While I have my Garmin here, I decided that I didn’t want to track time, distance and elevation for the hikes – I wanted to focus on the act of walking, of putting on the pack, finding the right trail (that was a challenge at times) and meandering for a bit.  There were plenty of days when I was tired, worried about the next class, felt behind on grading, but those concerns faded once we were on the trail.  Leading a group definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone too.  I felt responsible not only for the students’ safety but also for their experience.  Were we going to fast or too slow, had they already explored this trail before, would we return with too much time or too little time, how was the conversation, was anyone left out?  Fortunately, most of the hikes and the groups were great!

In addition to hiking, as I said, climbing was another scheduled activity, and, again, I enjoyed it but always felt somewhat ‘on edge’ when we climbed.  Maybe if we had gone climbing more often or if I had learned more techniques, I would eventually have developed confidence on the rock.  This wasn’t the very first time that I had climbed, but it was the first time in many years.  Also, as I discovered, climbing in the Alps – with Swiss guides – differs from climbing with guides in the States.  The Swiss guides are way more impatient with their students/clients and will often hurry you along.  This is not, by the way, a complaint but an observation.  Mind you, they were trying to corral a large group, so I understand that they needed us to hit a certain pace, but I do think that Swiss guides have a different.. perspective from climbing guides in the US?  At any rate, the climbing season ended for me with the via ferrata climb here in Zermatt.  For most of our other climbs, the guides really set the pace but we were roped together, climbing different routes around Riffelhorn.  For the via ferrata, a fixed cable route, we didn’t depend on the guides, which was great, but it was a long day of climbing – we were probably on the rock/climbing for several hours.  There wasn’t anything as technical as what we had climbed previously, but there were some challenging sections – not technically so, but from a physical standpoint, especially sections when we were climbing up these rather sketchy ladders.  Ultimately, I finished, and as I look back, it was an accomplishment.  What was hard was that I couldn’t appreciate it at the time – it seemed that I had to stay SO focused on each moment and each section that I lost the sense of a ‘bigger picture’.  Once I arrived at the top – and I was so happy to finish! – I looked down at Zermatt and felt that I deserved a pat on the back.  I would love to climb the via ferrata again so that I could appreciate the experience a bit more.

Trusting Swiss engineering here! Photo thanks to a colleague who gave me chocolate at a key point.
Trusting Swiss engineering here! Photo thanks to a colleague who gave me chocolate at a key point.

We’ve also said farewell to weekend activities, such as bike trips and hiking overnights.  After enjoying a more passive chaperoning role for much of the fall, I had to take on more of a lead role for the last overnight hike I did to Leukerbad, the highest spa town in Europe – meaning, I carried the maps and, a bigger deal, all of the cash.  I was nervous about getting lost and/or going to slow and missing our train on Saturday.  Fortunately, neither of those happened, nor did I lose the 2,000 Swiss Francs that I had stuffed in an envelope in my backpack.

For the hike, Friday was a travel/enjoy the “spa” day – we arrived in Leukerbad around 3:00, hit up Migros, one of the 2 Swiss grocery stores that we’ve all come to love (the other one is Coop – pronounced “Co-op”), for Saturday’s supplies – bread and nutella, mainly.  We had some time to hang out in the thermal baths, which were pretty funny and just seemed so stereotypical European.  No nudity, but lots of older people hanging out in the baths for therapeutic reasons.

After we enjoyed a ridiculous dinner on Friday night (pizza and ice cream for everyone!) and an impressive breakfast spread, we hit the trail around 8:00 am.  That was perfect because I promptly led us through a field that was not the trail but a cow pasture.  Ahem.  So, we retraced our steps and started over again, this time, on the trail!  We hiked from Leukerbad to Montana (the same town where we finished the Rawil Pass hike).  It was a long day on the trail, and I would have enjoyed the experience more if I hadn’t been so worried about timing and whether we were following the right trail or not.  The trail system in Switzerland is wonderful, and I love the yellow signs that indicate where certain landmarks are, but, even with a map, it isn’t always 100% clear.  This was a lovely hike – it felt like a nice, fall day and we were able to spend the entire time outside.  Talk about luck!  Although, I didn’t complain when we finally arrived in Montana, an hour earlier than scheduled, and I could switch my boots for regular shoes and take a load off.

Setting out from Leukerbad
Setting out from Leukerbad
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Marching along
The ubiquitous sheep!
The ubiquitous sheep! And some other nice scenery.
My favorite sign ever!
My favorite sign ever!

Again, we made it safely to Montana which was something of a relief to me, as I was happy to be off trail after a long day on my feet, and I looked forward to shedding my responsibility for the group.  Despite that constant anxiety, I appreciated the opportunity to, once again, spend a beautiful Saturday in a part of the world that I’d never visited before.

Perhaps that is what I’ve enjoyed most about this entire experience – the sense of discovery as I travel to places that, just a few weeks ago, weren’t even a part of my vocabulary.  Before traveling to Leukerbad, I didn’t know it existed, and now I can reflect back on that night I spent there and the hike that followed.  The same can be said about the places around Zermatt that have become common-place – Sunnegga, Blauherd, Furi, Zmutt, Zum-See, Schwarzsee, Edelweiss…  In one way or another, these little dots on a topo map have helped form my experience in Zermatt.

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