June 17-19, 2017 – Sunday
Dan’s company has a sports club that informally plans outings to the mountains, in both winter and summer. Dan saw a three-day hike advertised and asked if I was interested. I was (it would be beautiful, it was a chance to see a new area of Switzerland and I could spend time with Dan) and I wasn’t (it would be hard). But the three positives outweighed the negative and I agreed. Plus, I thought it might be more like the Bhutan trip where, because there were many of us, I would find someone closer to my pace who I could hike with. I left everything up to Dan and trusted his promises of “it will be easy!” I am a foolish woman.
We got up at 5:30 am to meet the rest of the group at the train station. Instead of sleeping on the three hour train ride, I used the time to get to know some of the people who I would be hiking with. There were ten other people and they were all very nice and they let me practice my German with them. At Ambrì-Piotta, in the Italian region of Switzerland, we got off the train and walked for about twenty minutes to the foot of a very tall mountain. I was happy to see the iron rails of a funicular shooting up the side of the hill. We crammed into the tiny cars and made the quick ride to the “top”. This, of course, was not “the top” at all, but just a narrow spot on the side of the mountain where a road passed through on its way up to a reservoir, Lago Ritom.
At the base of the Piotta Inclined Railway Station
View from the top of Piotta
We settled into our gear and started to hike up the road. It was a pleasant day and the pace and elevation gain were fine with me. Dan, who had promised to hike with me for this trip, was already at the front of the group. This did not come as a surprise to me at all and I took it in stride (pun intended).
The reservoir was almost full and the brisk wind chopped the surface into a million facets that glittered in the sun. Green hills surrounded it and fishermen gathered along the shore. There was another group gathered: nature watchers. I am not actually sure what to call them, but at least a dozen people were stationed on the road with massive binoculars and telescopes trained on the hillside above us. At one point one of them jumped up and down and exclaimed loudly, pointing up the hill. Everyone else dropped their eyes to their instruments and sought to find whatever treasure had been seen. I did not understand anything that had been said, but the group agreed that it was probably a steinbock (ibex).
The trail climbed slowly and my pace slowed rapidly. No one else’s did. I found myself further and further behind. Dan came back to walk with me but even then he was usually five to six feet ahead of me. It was disheartening. Usually I use the excuse of “taking a photo” to stop and catch a break, but with eleven other people waiting for me, I did not feel comfortable stopping any more than I absolutely had to.
Lunch is on the far side of the lake – we skirted it on the left
We stopped for lunch just passed the lake and the level path to get there allowed me to catch my breath and prepare for the post-lunch hike. Everyone was enjoying the brilliant day and excellent weather. It was quite windy, which meant that I was able to stay cooler than I would have in the harsh sun.
The recovery during my lunch break was short-lived. The next leg of the trail started to really gain in elevation. Even though it was a wide, easy path, it went up and up. The rest of the group had hit their pace and kept going. Someone always made sure to keep me in sight at trail crossings, but this just made me feel even worse, knowing that I was so much slower than ALL of them. And that blessed wind that was keeping me cool? It was actually a headwind! As if I wasn’t having a hard enough time keeping up.
Catching up to the group
I had assumed that today would be a short hike: take the train to the trail and then just a half day hike up to a ridge. Sounded do-able when hearing about it at home, but by the time we reached the ridge I was done. Frustration is a cruel emotion, causing me to want to just quit rather than go on. But it is hard to “just quit” when you’re in the middle of the Alps. So I trudged along behind the group for the (surprise!) descent into the valley on the other side of the ridge we had just climbed. This went against everything I had known about this hike. Day 1 = ascend. Day 2 = follow the ridge. Day 3 = descend. If we descended on Day 1, what would Day 2 be like?
Stone hut for scale
Lake at the top
It was beautiful
Just before the descent
The descent was difficult, with tricky footing and steep paths. No photos because – surprise – I had to focus on just keeping up. Eventually the path flattened out a little bit and I was able to enjoy the actual hike – although just about everyone else was out of sight down the trail. There was one woman with me, but she hiked along silently and a few yards distant. Not that I really cared – I just wanted to be done. I was thrilled when I saw on the wanderweg sign that our destination had not only a hotel (which I expected) but a bus stop! When I finally caught up with Dan (read: when Dan finally waited for me) I told him in no uncertain terms that I was going to be on a bus tomorrow morning and on my way home. He could finish the hike, but there was no way I could, nor did I want to.
Looking back at the descent
Dan seemed disappointed in my proclamation, but he didn’t have any ammunition to persuade me to stay. If anything, the news he had of Day 2’s hike was that it would be “very difficult” and much more technical than today’s. Yep, that sealed the deal. I would be sad to miss out on the social aspect of the other hikers tomorrow night in the mountain hut, but that’s the way it would be.
We spent the night at Pro Natura Lucomagno, which is an award-winning hotel known for its goal of focusing on energy and water conservation, use of renewable sources of energy and environmentally friendly materials, and the use of mainly local products. The hotel has a long history of being a stop on the Lukmanier Pass and only in the last forty years has it gone under this new stage of its life. To me, it looked like it was still going under renovation, with concrete walls and shelves that looked like they were moved after the wall was painted. Oh well, it was clean, quiet and the food was good.
Christian, the planner of this hike, heard about my plans to ditch the group. I felt a little guilty, as this was his first planned outing with the Club. I tried to assure him that it was not his fault but mine, for not being prepared for the level of fitness required. He then surprised me with a bit of news: there was a chairlift to the next night’s stop. If I wanted to, I could take the chair lift up, walk about thirty minutes and then meet the group there when they arrived the next afternoon. Hmmm. This had potential.
I was reassured that Day 3 really was “all downhill”, which is fine by me, as I don’t mind descents like many people do. I studied the transportation schedule and looked at the topographical map of where I would need to hike once I got to the top of the chair lift (just to confirm it was not straight up). Still, I did not make my decision until the next morning when I agreed to stick around and meet them at the mountain hut at the end of the day. I made this decision primarily because I knew that Dan would be disappointed if I left. If it had been a group of eleven strangers, I would have gone straight home with no hesitation. But I did not want to let Dan down, so I stayed.
My public transportation schedule would take almost as long as their planned trek. After a good breakfast I stood on the terrace and waved them off as they headed down the road. I was so happy not be with them. When they were out of sight I sat in a corner with my book and read for a little bit. Eventually I grabbed my bags to wait for the bus that would pick me up from our hotel in Acquacalda. The first bus, that is.
Waiting at the bus stop in front of our hotel, Pro Natura in Acquacalda
Watching for the bus – and anything else of interest that came by
I watched for the bus to come down the mountain road and made sure to stand up and wave it down as it approached. I was the only passenger on the ride to Olivone, a beautifully twisting road that flowed down the valley. I looked on in envy at the numerous motorcycles that passed by. When we reached Olivone, I had thirty minutes before the next bus and I used the time to explore the town. I was hoping for a little town center with trees and a fountain that I could relax in, but instead there was just the main road and many side roads off of it. Still, the position in this high valley made for a beautiful setting and I spent my time walking around. Hey, at least I wasn’t climbing mountains!
Just me and the driver on the way to Olivone
Views in Olivone
One of the “Chocolate Mansions” in Olivone
I was not alone on the bus to Acquarossa, as there were a few hikers waiting with me at the Post stop. Once in Acquarossa, I double-checked the schedule and found that I had a lot longer to wait than I realized. I found a quiet, shaded corner near the cemetery and enjoyed my lunch and read my book some more. Finally I returned to the bus station to catch my third bus, this one to Leontica. I had this bus to myself as well and asked the driver about the connection to the chair lift. I didn’t know that this bus route ended at the chair lift station, but it was good to know that she knew where I wanted to get off.
My view during lunch
At the Leontica station I got off the bus and looked up at the sloped-roof building; the chairs were not moving. This seemed odd, but I assumed that they only ran the chairs when they had someone to ride on them and, it being only the second day of operation for the summer season, there probably weren’t so many people clamoring to ride up the mountain.
The nice guy in the chairlift station spoke German! It really is amazing how I could travel within the borders of Switzerland and find people who did not speak a common language. So far, everyone I needed to interact with spoke only Italian. Not having English or German to fall back on made me appreciate just how important it is to have a basic knowledge of various languages.
He sold me a ticket to the top and started up the motor; the chairs began their slow dance through the loading zone. I sat alone on my lift, my backpack next to me, and put down the bar so I could rest my feet on it. It was a good day not be hiking.
Taking the easy way up
At the top of the lift I walked off (I have never done THAT before!) and crossed over to another lift station. There were actually two chair lifts to get all of the way up the mountain. Only Italian was spoken here, but I knew the three or four words necessary to let him know I would like a ride to the top. He started up the motor and I took my seat. As I watched the cables stretch out above me I thought again: Yep, it was a really good day not to be hiking.
Chair #2 – Grazie mille!
View from Chair #2
It was not much of a vertical climb from here
Almost to the top
After three buses, two chair lifts and a total time of over five hours, I was at the top – or at least as far up as I would get with mechanical assistance. I eventually found the correct trailhead sign and started to walk. I figure that no matter what the trail conditions, I could handle thirty minutes of it. It turned out to be a good trail, more of a road than a path. The views across the valley below were beautiful and the slopes above me looked impressive. I was glad not to be hiking up them.
Capanna Piandios, next stop!
Just as promised, I reached Capanna Piandios, a simple mountain hut in a field of green grass and colorful wildflowers. There were just two people there when I arrived, both of them working at the hut, sitting out on the front terrace and enjoying the sunshine. I was surprised when the young woman said that she did not speak English or German. Hmmm – this might be difficult. But then the man got up and I asked him if he spoke English or German. No English, but a little German. Ah, good! All I needed was “a little German”. So I told him that I was with the group that was expected to stay here that night and could I see where the beds were. He just looked at me and indicated that he had no idea what I was talking about. I tried again, but still no luck. I smiled, shrugged my shoulders and went to a shady seat from which to watch the world go by.
It was a surprisingly short time when I heard my name called. Dan had recognized my hat and called out to me as they neared the mountain hut. He was near the front of the group (or course) as they descended the fields above and they all looked happy and much more energetic than should be humanly possible. This became even more true after I heard about the trail (“not a trail”) that they had taken in order to cross the mountain ridge. They all agreed that it had been a very difficult and hard climb. Dan confirmed that I would not have liked it. My day of public transportation seemed even wiser after hearing about their adventures.
The group arrives
The sun starts its descent
Inside the mountain hut
One of the bunk rooms
The rest of the afternoon and evening was an enjoyable social event as we relaxed in the grassy field and on the scenic terrace. Dinner was cheerfully served at the hut by the two employees and it was amazingly filling and tasty. We discussed Day 3’s hike and that while there was some elevation gain, it would be predominantly downhill. I shifted an accusing eye at Dan: what happened to the “all downhill” promise he had made me? Bedtime came with the sunset and we piled onto the bunk beds and into our sleeping bags for a good night’s sleep.
Day 3 – it was all downhill from here. Or was it? We started the day with a fine breakfast and then shouldered our packs for the trip down the mountain. We immediately started by retracing my steps from the previous day. We passed under the chair lifts cables and then continued along the side of the mountain. I would be pleased if the trail just followed the contours of the mountain all the way down to the valley below, as it was a gentle slope and would make for a pleasant day. Nope.
Sunrise hits the mountains
Hitting the trail
The trail went up a little bit, crossed a lush meadow and then went up a little more. And then some more. The first hour of hiking seemed to be mostly uphill and I resented this. Fortunately the sun had not yet burned off the clouds so it was not too hot, and I was able to generally keep up with the rest of the group. The trail wandered through the woods and across fields and cut through little hamlets of shepherd or vacation homes (one can never be sure). More uphill as the sun burned through the clouds started to put me over the edge. Dan was with me, and encouraging me, but I was having none of it. My biggest problem (well, other than being unfit) was the stress of holding everyone back. I knew that they had enjoyed yesterday’s hike, not hindered by some slow poke at the back of the group. And here we had an “easy” hike and I was holding them up again. It didn’t matter how friendly or patient or encouraging they were: I knew that I was the weak link and I hated myself for it.
Milking the goats at the farm
Passing through one of many alpine villages
We took a small break for lunch. Both days’ lunches had been packed by the places we lodged at and they were good: yesterday’s bag held two prepared sandwiches and today we had a fresh roll with a local sausage and wedge of cheese. I ate mine with Dan in the shade of a tree while everyone else sat in the full sun and joked around. After about twenty minutes it was time to head out.
This time it really was downhill and I was happy for it. The trail was narrow through the grass and then ducked into the forest. Here it changed completely and became a very steep, switch-backed path. Everyone brought out their hiking poles and we were bunched up more than we had been since we had gotten off the funicular. This was something I could do!
The downhill continued for the next couple of hours. It verged on dangerous for a stretch when we discovered that the dry leaves were hiding small, round nuts underneath. This gave the same effect as if we had been walking on marbles. Downhill. With switch-backs. Quite a few of us fell on our butts as our feet rolled wildly on top of the nuts.
We survived the nut forest and continued downhill. It was a constant downhill and it was steep. I used my poles to relieve pressure on my knees (as did most people) and for once I felt comfortable with the pace. Of course, keeping the pace meant that I didn’t stop for photos. Therefore I have no pictures of the nut forest, or the switchbacks, or the steep descents. It is a shame, as it really was interesting to see. The forest gave welcome shade but as we neared the valley floor the temperature went up. It was late afternoon when we finally broke out of the forest and took the last kilometer to the nearest road. It had been decided to take a bus to the train station rather than hike an additional 30 minutes on the valley floor. I was more than happy to agree to this compromise.
The bus came a twenty minutes later and – with a mad dash for the train connection – we were on our way home. It might be a while before Dan can convince me to go hiking with him again.