Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tour de France, Suisse

The 2016 Tour de France arrived in Switzerland with Stage 17 entirely in Suisse. The day began in Berne at 12:00 and the cyclists wound their way 184.5km up and down the Alps to Finhaut-Emosson.

We joined the route at Aigle, 61.5km from the finish and just before the big climb up Col de la Forclaz and up to the Emosson Dam.  We saw a breakaway group of riders come through first, followed by the peloton in a long, thin line framed by the curved road and green vineyards. It was a beautiful sight!

Tour de France 2016 coming through the vines in Aigle

The support vehicles and media bikes

We watched the caravan come past an hour before the riders and the sense of anticipation was incredible! There were crazy vans decorated with all sorts of carnival regalia, with music blasting out and goodies being thrown to the waiting fans.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Eiger Trail

Last weekend Daniel ran the Eiger Ultra Trail race, 101km of trails and 6700m of climbing through the Bernese Oberland. This is an extraordinary trail through the Alps and a good one for runners and supporters. In trail races, I usually drive to each checkpoint to meet Daniel along the route, but this time I got a special pass to travel up into the mountains on the trains, gondolas and cableways! The race start was early at 4:30 in Grindelwald and Daniel was feeling confident from the get-go. As soon as the runners set off, I caught a series of gondolas up to First where I saw the sun rise over the Alps.

First is a minor summit on the Schwarzhorn and is famous for its cable car station with a walkway along the side of the mountain, including a suspension bridge and 'skywalk' view point. The runners passed close to First 13km into the race and then came into the official checkpoint at 22km so I got to see Daniel twice up there. While I waited I enjoyed the views of the sunrise, the mountains, glaciers and waterfalls.

Looking strong after 13km

A very steep ascent up to First!

The suspension bridge was part of the race route

Daniel running along the 'skywalk' into First

The 'skywalk' overlooking the Alps (See the glacier across the valley!)

Daniel ran up a few more ascents after First - such as Faulhorn at 2,680m and Schynige Platte at 2,076m - and then descended into Burglauenen, which was my next stop along the route, 53km into the race. This is a small village just down the valley from Grindelwald and is the starting point for various hikes up either side of the valley.

Arriving at Burglauenen

The next big peak after Burglauenen was Männlichen at 67km and 2,343m high. It took Daniel a steady 2 hours 40 to reach the top, but I was able to take the Grindelwald-Männlichen gondola, the third longest passenger-carrying gondola cableway in the world. It took me 30 minutes to complete the 6km trip from Grindelwald and it was breath-taking. I was surrounded by beautiful snow-capped mountains, green valleys, Alpine flowers and the sound of cow bells!

The Eiger from Männlichen

A view over Lauterbrunnen and Wengen (You can see the Staubbach Falls!)

Daniel looking good as he negotiates the avalanche barriers

The last big climb on the race is from Kleine Scheidegg up to the Eiger Gletscher. I met Daniel at the start of the climb, 78km into the race. I caught a train up from Wengen to the Kleine Scheidegg, which is the centre of skiing in the area. It is also the lower terminus of the Jungfrau railway which climbs steeply through tunnels inside the Eiger and Mönch mountains up to Jungfrau, the highest point reachable by rail in Europe.

The Eiger, looming over Kleine Scheidegg

The race ended in Grindelwald and Daniel came across the finish line in 14:05 - a super time for 101km!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Trümmelbach Falls

We returned to Lauterbrunnen - the Valley of 72 Waterfalls - and headed further into the valley to see the famous Trümmelbach Falls, Europe's largest subterranean waterfalls. These are the world's only glacier waterfalls that are accessible underground by a series of tunnels and stairs inside the mountain. We climbed up and down to many viewing galleries that overlook the ten chutes as they plunge in foaming pools and disappear into the darkness underground.

The last fall exiting into the sunlight

The falls carry the meltwater from the glaciers of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau and flow at up to 20,000 litres of water per second. The powerful torrent has carved its way through the mountain forming beautiful rock formations and 'corkscrew' passages inside the mountain. The water is the beautiful milky glacier blue and some of the falls catch a sliver of sunlight at the bottom to form rainbows in the caves!

The roaring sound of the water reverberates through the tunnels, making it exciting and fun amid the spray and glistening rockface. The falls are a natural UNESCO world heritage site and are well worth a visit.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Aare Gorge

One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the Aare Gorge in the Hasli Valley of the Bernese Oberland. A section of the Aare river carves through the limestone ridge of Kirchet creating a channel between 1m and 30m wide. The gorge has been open to the public since 1889 and is accessed by a long walkway carved into the side of the ridge with short stretches of tunnel. The water is glacial blue and powerfully beautiful.

The gorge has several unusual features along it. A natural feature is the glacier mills, vertical shafts which acted as part of a glacier's internal "plumbing" system carrying meltwater down from the surface. The gorge is an indirect product of glaciation. 10 000 years ago, just as the Ice Age was coming to an end, torrential runoff water from melting glaciers eroded the deep narrow chasm through the limestone barrier. The gorge is only a mile long, but the cliffs on either side are 50m high, interrupted only by these mills.

Note the corkscrew features of the glacier mill

Another unusual feature in the gorge is manmade. On the opposite side of the gorge from the walkways lie two underground caverns from WWII. This military installation was built at the end of 1940. The larger cavern was to be used as a dormitory for 185 officers and soldiers. All the technical equipment was installed in the smaller cavern. Offices, recreation room and dining rooms were installed in a stationary train in the tunnel. It is not known why, but the installations were never used and still exist, hidden and unused in the Kirchet cliffs. The caverns have wood-lined walls, heating, running water, flushing toilets and electricity!

Outside the caverns, carved into the cliff face is the Hasli Eagle, which adorns to official seal, banner and flag of the Haslital. When you get there and see the power of the river carving through the gorge, it makes you appreciate the genius of Swiss engineering. How on earth did they build something like that in that place? And why? It boggles the mind!

The Hasli eagle is on the left, carved into the rock face

Reichenbach Falls

We based ourselves just outside of the town of Meiringen for the day, where our first adventure was to catch the funicular up to the famous Reichenbach Falls, a series of waterfalls in the Bernese Oberland region.

The Reichenbach Falls are famous in popular culture as the location of the final altercation between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in Sir Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem". Holmes and Moriarty both plunge to their deaths down the 250m drop of the falls. However, it later emerges that Homes survived. We walked round the falls to the ledge where the fight took place, but unlike the many pilgrims who dress up as the characters and visit these falls, we did not conduct a reenactment of the final scene!

On a more practical note, the falls are one of the highest cataracts in the Alps and provide water for a hydro-electric plant, one of 40 along the river. The falls feed into the Aar river which is the longest river that both rises and ends entirely in Switzerland. The views from the top over the Reichenbachtal valley were spectacular!

The town of Meiringen

We were delighted to see some Toblerone blocks on our descent!

Bernese Oberland

Summer is finally here bringing seven weeks of holidays for me and peak race season for Daniel! We combined our respective schedules for a trip to the Bernese Oberland for a week of camping, exploring and training.

Home for the week

Our first stop was in Grindelwald where we set up camp for the week. This is a quaint Alpine town surrounded by peaks, glaciers and breath-taking views. It is favoured by tourists in winter and summer and is the gateway to the Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch, a mountainous wall overlooking the Bernese Oberland and the Swiss Plateau, and one of the most distinctive sites of the Swiss Alps.

We spent an afternoon in Lauterbrunnen, "the place of clear springs". The valley is one of the deepest in the Apline chain and is famous for the numerous waterfalls gushing down its steep sides. We visited the most famous of these, the Staubbach Falls. The height of the cascade is 250m, one of the highest in Europe formed of a single unbroken fall. The water becomes spray before it reaches the level of the valley. We climbed up a rocky mountain path and walked on a ledge behind the waterfall!

Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Staubbach Falls

Free hiking poles to borrow for the climb up behind the falls!

Exciting tunnels and stairs chiselled into the side of the mountain

Beautiful views from the top through the mist of the waterfall

While Daniel was out running in the mountains, I took a trip to Interlaken, an important and well-known tourist destination in the region. The town is located in between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz and alongside the Aare river which flows between the two lakes. The town has a system of canals to navigate to other lakeside towns and is the starting point of a sequence of connecting mountain railways to get visitors up into the high peaks of the Alps. I strolled along the canals and had lunch while watching the paragliders land in the big park overlooked by the Eiger.

The Eiger peak peeking through!