Monday, September 12, 2005

Mountain Hostel Paradise...

A little bit more about our Swiss adventures while we recover from too many (or not enough, depending on your perspective) pints of Guiness...

We had seen the pictures of the hostel on the website and knew it had a scenic location, but we were not prepared to get off the cable car on the edge of the cliff wall and see the sign for the hostel just 20 yards away. (Though for those keeping track of our arrival to lodging hike distances, this reduced our average nicely). I was a little concerned that the location might make it noisy or less quaint/cozy/private, but even without the power outage shutting down the cable car for two days the lift turned out to be no disruption at all.

The hostel itself was how I imagine my idealized hostel to be (with the exception of a lack of double rooms): lodge-like with wood everywhere, free pool table to socialize around, homey bar, comfy couches, great views, a free jacuzzi outside looking at the mountains, hot pressurized showers, a laundry machine, lots of porch/deck space, musical instruments to play laying around, a professional grade kitchen (with 6 huge gas burners, lots of shelf space and baskets for dry groceries, and a huge subzero refrigerator) and enough tough love discipline from Petra and peer pressure from others to keep the place organized and clean.

The sense of community was wonderful as well. This was especially true during the power outage when we were all stranded there. We played cards by candlelight, listened to music, and hung out during the day enjoying drinks and playing pool. We met and enjoyed spending time with Erin and Fiona, Scott and Melinda, and the rest of the magnificent seven (the group of us left after the exodus post-power outage): Rob and Matt (our two gourmet chefs), Richard, Kevin, and Allison. The last couple nights there the group of us worked together to create tremendous feasts from simple ingredients: goulash and shepards pie and salads and fruit salad with vanilla custard and garlic mashed potatoes and chocolate truffle fondue and many bottles of wine. It was heavenly. .

The town itself is actually a tiny village spread along a Z-shaped road up the mountain side at the edge of a cliff wall (which requires a cable car to get up) on the opposite side of a valley from the Jungfrau. There are plenty of cows, goats, chicken, sheep, and (of course) gnomes to keep you company. About 30 minutes up a steep narrow road is Murren, more touristy town with the grocery store, and lots of hotels.

The hiking nearby is phenomenal. We went out all but one of the days, when we gave ourselves permission to just veg and enjoy the views. Our first couple hikes were in the storm, so our views were somewhat limited. I wish we had taken more pictures of the rain-swollen streams and trails that had water cascading down them etc, but it was raining so hard that we were afraid to take the camera out. Still, we had some memorable moments.We hiked up a valley along a pretty river to a very nice meadow that ended in a rock face and a glacier. The Aussies with us convinced us to do some fording of the various run-off streams, hopping from rock to rock and trying not to think about how cold the water would be if we slipped. (This no longer would be possible by that night, as the water level had risen too high) Once we reached the bottom of the glacier we got to climb up a number of moraine slopes, slipping and sliding on the scree. Our reward for all this risk of ankle-wrenching was a chance to reach out and touch our first glacier of the trip. Though it in itself wasn't that remarkable, we also found a waterfall seemingly coming out of the sheer rock that was runoff from the glacier up above. The freezing spray instantly soaked our feet (so much for all of our careful rock-hopping) and created quite a swirling wind. It was pretty cool.

On a different hike we ended up in a beautiful meadow, with shepards huts and the sound of cowbells clanging. All of a sudden out of the mist we saw a steinbock ( picture from a later hike in the sunshine) walking towards us. With the mist it almost felt like a unicorn or something, and had us quite transfixed before it decided to return to its grazing elsewhere. Most of the time this hike was covered in rain and clouds (after returning later we even got a scenic overlook before and after), but when we could see the mountains, we noticed all the new waterfalls that were popping up. After realizing that the rain had turned to sleet/hail/freezing rain on Monday (the worst day), we decided to take the more direct (1 hour) way down instead of the 2.5 hour trail we had planned. We were glad that we had decided to cut things short as the trail became a lovely combination of mud and running water and we ended up sloshing the last 40 minutes with frozen feet. (And just a view of how wet we got during these first hikes: here I am after the first stage of Monday's outing)

Our favorite hike though was up to Oberhornsee Lake. This involved walking down into the river valley from Gimmelwald, then climbing almost straight up back up the (seeming) sheer cliff wall on the other side. Once up that first part, We climbed up through fields and cows the the shoulder of the peak, then around the corner into another valley. This trail around the corner, while perfectly safe, was quite a challenge for two folks with a fear of heights like ours. The narrow trail was cut into a quite steep grassy slope, and after less room than we would like the slope turned into the sheer cliff wall. It kept feeling like you were walking off into thin air. We had to do quite a bit of singing songs and concentrating on where our feet were to make it through that section. From there we descended down to the Obersteinberg Hotel, which is situated in a beautiful location with dramatic view. All supplies must be brought in by helicopter or mule and guests must hike in. I've heard the food is fantastic; it would be a wonderful retreat for anyone into hiking and mountains. We continued past for another hour or so, climbing up to another ridge through brilliant wildflowers (and bees!) and refreshing-sounding streams.

We had heard that the lake was a little more like a pond, so we were expecting it to be fairly small, which it was, but nothing prepared us for how crystal clear and peaceful it was. Most glacial run-off mountain lakes are milky, but this one somehow filtered the water from the glacier through the soil or something and then appeared to be fed by a spring. It created amazing reflections of the surrounding mountain peaks. In the fields beyond the lake Brian was able to get his daily fix of animal chasing, walking up to a herd of grazing cows, goats, and the occasional steinbock. We loved it up there, and could have spent hours sitting up there and enjoying the peace and the view. Unfortunately, we knew that we had many hours of strenuous hiking to do to get back home, and wanted to be sure and do that before dark. After a tiring walk back up and down and up and down and up back to the hostel (complete with lots of swearing from me going back down the super steep part) we were rewarded by our first hot shower in days (as the power had just come back on) and then refreshed our sore bodies and enjoyed a drink out in the hot tub. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is the way to do the mountains....

Before we leaving the lake, however, we had had an important duty to do. We had been looking for a way to honor and observe the anniversary of my Dad's death for the past few weeks. We had hoped to find a way to do something appropriate in one of the synagogues in Prague, but the crowds (as we have already mentioned) were just horrible. Now, in a beautiful mountain locale overlooking a lake that he would have just loved, we built a little memorial to him and spent some moments saying goodbye. I think he would enjoy the view.....

From my travels with my family growing up I had always thought of Switzerland as one of my favorite places and I was thrilled to see that Brian shared the feeling. There are many more stories to be told (and many, many more pics...check them out on Flickr (tag = Gimmelwald) if you are interested) about this place and we hope to write some new ones in the near future. Like many in our 'surviving seven' group, we stayed longer than we had planned (though our couple of days was nothing compared to the extra weeks spent by Rob, Richard and Kevin) and we also hope to go back. Our current plan is to return to Gimmelwald in November after exploring some of Italy with Brian's parents. We're interested to see what the area is like in a different season and mostly just eager to go back.

Anyone care to join us?


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