Under the Wall of Death

This plaque along the Eiger Trail depicts Heckmair’s first ascent in 1935.

There I was in the heart of darkness, in the Swiss Alps, standing in a field of scree, possibly at a spot where dead bodies had layed.   Harrowing thoughts of 9/11 rushed back.  I remembered leaping bodies flying out of tall buildings.  That strange, incongruous feeling set in.  Part excitement, part sadness, part fear.

I had seen Clint Eastwood’s film, The Eiger Sanction, I’d read the stories, seen the memorial crosses of the dead climbers along the upper part of the trail.

A typical Alps trail sign.

I craned my neck so I could look up and up and up and find the icy summit of the Eiger.   But I was too close to this sheer dark wall, the North Face, the Nordwand.  Yes, the infamous Wall of Death.   I could see no more than a few hundred feet above my head.  The Red Wall, the Traverse of the Gods, the Death Bivouac, the White Spider and all the other historic points on this wall that climbers know so well, all of that lay far above my vision.

Looking east at the top of the Eiger Trail.

It was a sunny afternoon in August as I stepped along under this fearsome wall in the relative safety of the Eiger Trail.  The steep gray path down to the little village of Alpiglen, five miles away, spread out in front of me like a gently-meandering glacial stream easing through the pebbly scree, boulders, wildflowers and meadows.  Brightly-clad hikers, snow-capped peaks, blue sky.  It was dazzling and yet it wasn’t.

A memorial to one of the 64 or more who have died on the North Face.

I tried to push back bad thoughts that somewhere up there on the Eiger climbers might be in trouble.  I wanted to enjoy the hike, not think of danger and tragedy.  But it was hard.  I was exposed too much to the Eiger’s history.

Jon Krakauer, the author of “Up in Thin Air,” described the perils in his book of climbing essays, “Eiger Dreams:”

The problem with climbing the North Face of the Eiger is that in addition to getting up 6,000 vertical feet of crumbling limestone and black ice, one must climb over some formidable mythology.  The trickiest moves on any climb are the mental ones, the psychological gymnastics that keep terror in check, and the Eiger’s grim aura is intimidating enough to rattle anyone’s poise.

Cows and cowbells, the soul of the Bernese Alps.

By the time, Krakauer finished writing his book in 1990, the death toll on the Eiger was at 44.  At least 20 more climbers have perished since then.  The North Face was first scaled in 1938 by Anderi Heckmair and three others.  In one grotesque account, Krakauer tells of an Italian climber whose body “hung from its rope, unreachable but visible to the curious below, for three years, alternately sealed into the ice sheath of the wall and swaying in the winds of summer.”

Nebra and the North Face.

Just as I started to feel good something would happen.  Like a wisp of a cloud.  It was a thin grayish thing and caressed the wall ever so slightly, like a shark eying prey.  I knew that cloud could morph into a raging storm up there.  This is a land of deceit where idyllic beauty can suddenly suck you in to life’s realities.

Below the scree you see a postcard of green meadows,  ski lifts, the cog train laden with tourists chugging upward along the hillside from Grindelwald, and farther down a deep valley and yet another train, this one heading to Interlaken.  You see the station and hotels on the barren col at Kleine Scheidegg, where most climbers begin their trek, where Eastwood stayed during the filming of “Sanction,” where Krakauer himself had his tent blown away in a fierce foehn wind that reached 105 mph as he waited to take a crack at the North Face more than 20 years ago.

The Wetterhorn emerges to the east, Grindelwald down below in the distance.

But most of all you hear the soothing sounds of cowbells, big ones, clanging like sweet music from stout necks of a grazing herd.  Climbers, I’ve read, hear the bells high up on the Eiger wall hidden in cloud and unable to see the cows, and I think how eerie that must be, perched on a cold hard ledge up there in the danger zone and to hear the music of the bells float up and yet be only a loose piton, a sudden storm, an avalanche or a falling rock from disaster.

Wildflowers hug the trail below The Eiger.

It seems strange now to think, knowing the mountain’s infamous history, that I had never heard of the Eiger until about 10 years ago.  It started with a book.

Eiger’s North Face from the station at Kleine Scheidegg.

In his novel, “The Fall,” author Simon Mawer describes in riveting detail of over 60 pages an attempted ascent of the North Face by two men caught up in a love triangle.  As they scale the mountain wall, their female companion observes them from a telescope at Kleine Scheidegg.  It is one of the most enthralling pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  The book won the 2003 Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.

So I wanted to hike the Eiger Trail, to be as close to the death zone as possible.

The Swiss Alps are not like mountains in Arizona.  They are very steep.  We decided to hike down the trail rather than up, a descent of about 2,300 feet to Alpiglen,  a distance of five miles or so.

A refreshing level segment of the trail.

So we took the 10:47 cog train out of Grindelwald and 35 minutes later reached Kleine Scheidegg, at an elevation of 6,760 feet, or a gain of about 3,370 feet.  The air is thinner here but I didn’t feel it.  Breathing was fine.

From there we caught the crowded Jungrfraujoch train for a short hop of eight minutes up to the Eigergletscher station, another 900 feet higher.  Eigergletscher sets near a large glacier coming off the west flank of the Eiger.  It marks the start of the rail tunnel that carries trains up through the Eiger to Jungfraujoch, the tourist attraction and high observation point between the two highest peaks in the Bernese Alps, the Monch and Jungfrau.  Across the tracks east of Eigergletscher is where the Eiger Trail begins.

Water from Eiger carves limestone.

Near the ski lift the trail splits.  The one going upward, on the right, is the one climbers use to reach the start of the North Face routes.  We took the left one, a downhill ribbon through the gray scree.  A trail sign says our destination is 3.6 miles and hiking time is 1:50.  In our six days there, I have come to the conclusion these signs are haywire, that they are designed to embarrass hikers like me.  Only galloping horses could cover these trails in the time listed.

You come right away to the memorial for dead climbers, small crosses screwed into the base of the Eiger wall with names and dates on them.   I took a photo of one, Joze Vidmar’s.  He died up here in 1991.  I later did a short search on the Internet for him but found nothing.

They say it’s a 50-50 split between hikers going up the Trail and those going down.  That day, on August 14, it seemed most were trudging up, trekking poles firmly gripped, near-exhaustion painted on most faces.

To reach Alpiglen (center), it is a steep, rocky path down.

As we steadily made our way down, the snow-capped Wetterhorn began to dominate the eastern horizon.  Resting beyond Grindelwald, the Wetterhorn has its own memorials to dead climbers.  And less than two months before our hike, a 32-year-old man fell 650 feet there to his death.

A scenic view-point rests about halfway down the Eiger.  There is a plaque and benches set in a pretty meadow with boulders poking about.  A small herd of cows with bells hangs around waiting for hand-outs.  One tries to stick his snout into Nebra’s backpack.  The plaque depicts and the Heckmair route in that first ascent of 77 years ago.   Two women sharing binoculars claim to see two climbers on the Eiger, little dots barely discernible.  I try to pick them out using my camera’s zoom lens but come away disappointed.

It is there in the scenic area that we ran into a friendly German family.  An attractive middle-age woman sat on a boulder watching two-frolicking children, a boy and girl, chase the cows.  All three spokle near perfect English.  Their friendly little white terrier scampered about in bliss.  When we asked if someone could take a photo of Nebra and I together under the Eiger, the children insisted on shooting one of the photos with the dog.  So we bundled “Honey” in our arms and posed.  It was a very nice moment.

The end of the Eiger Trail dropping down into Alpiglen is exceedingly steep and rock-strewn, and the mud created by the three waterfalls left the path slick and treacherous.   At our rambling, lackadaisical pace and stopping to lunch on deli sandwiches, carrot sticks and fruit, we completed the trail in the whopping time of three hours and 40 minutes.  Almost two hours longer than the suggested time.

Hike over, refreshments at Alpiglen with socked-in Eiger behind.

At Alpilglen, we stopped for a bite to eat at the outdoor restaurant and wait for the next train down to Grindelwald.  Two waitresses served a dozen tables set under blue umbrellas with the increasingly clouded Eiger as a backdrop.  Nebra had ice cream and I latched on to a large glass of Hefeweiss, a tasty wheat beer I quickly drained.

An hour later we were resting back at our suite in the chalet, a wonderful hike ended on a beautiful afternoon.  But I had not forgotten the dark side of the Eiger.

Even now as I finish writing I feel somehow ashamed, ashamed in the larger context of tragedy, that I would devote even this small space to a few hours of our safe hike down the Eiger Trail.   But this is the paradox of the Eiger’s North Face, it seems to me.  When it comes to death, we are both attracted and repelled.  And I am left fascinated why climbers do what they do on a heartless mountain like the Eiger.

Back in the U.S. again, I wrote my won a short message.  I told him I could see myself in another life as a big-wave surfer on Oahu’s North Shore.  But a mountain climber out here in the Alps, never.  Never-ever.

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Porn for Republicans

I stopped reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” yesterday.  I concluded only a Republican could endure this juvenile and poorly-written piece of pornography from beginning to end.   That it has risen here in the 21st Century to No. 1 on the New York Times list of bestsellers baffles me.

Whatever the reason, it is perfect for the GOP.   A male character named Christian, a captain of industry, a filthy rich dictatorial Alpha male, young and “unbelievably” handsome, aka Christian Grey.  A naive female lead character named Anastasia Steele who is a sexually-compliant virgin, under age at least mentally and more than eager to be tutored by Mr. Grey.

Grey is apparently blessed with the only physical attribute that matters in this book and is so god-like there is nothing he can’t do.   So the author tells us.  He pilots his own helicopter and even plays classical music on the piano with virtuoso.  But reading the words, particularly the silly dialogue, you can easily adduce both characters are rather stupid and superficial.

A man of action and conquest, Christian is utterly selfish and has not a milligram of sensuality or humility.  Not to mention his kinkiness.   All of this is pure Republican fantasy, particularly if you understand the GOP, its platform and attitude toward women.

That women of this era, in large numbers apparently, buy into this mind-numbing novel is beyond me.  Ms. Steele signs a contract, a non-disclosure agreement, part of which dubs her “the Submissive” to “the Dominant, Mr. Grey.  I can feel the queen of female liberation, Gloria Steinem, bristling way out here in the arid lands.   Is this book a watershed moment?  Are women retreating to the Dark Ages?  I read somewhere “Anastasia” in the Greek means “resurrection.”

Believe it or not, there is better fare in this genre.  D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” is a good place to start.  Or Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.”  Neither is porn.  Both are regarded as classics in literature.  Those books were once banned by conservative religious zealots years ago.  But then neither glorified the GOP ideal, to be super rich and powerful, as does “Shades.”

Anyway, let the record show this.  I stopped reading “Shades” at Page 114, a few pages into Chapter 9 and not even a third of the way through.

In the unlikelihood of an insane moment overtaking me, I’ll try to dig up a Republican somewhere to tell me how “Shades” ends.  It should be easy to do in Arizona.

B-admen 101: Can we trust Jack?

NOTE:  I can not help myself.  So many bad TV ads.  I have to say something.  Don’t I?  “B-admen 101” is the outcome of my disgust and, alas, fascination.

First, let me say this about Ad World.  I know bad can be beautiful, that an ad can appear so stupid and yet attract viewers and sell products.  That ad, some might say, is so stupid it’s funny.  But it also says something awful about America.

Take the latest Jack-in-The-Box commercial shown in Phoenix, the one with the Scrabble game.

So there is “Jack,” the marketing-obsessed, socially-inept and plastic egg-headed star of the fast food chain’s commercial.  He is seated apparently at home playing the board-game, Scrabble, with his trophy wife, an attractive blonde.   She is posed on the floor, her lap ever so slightly turned toward the camera to hint at that part of her anatomy that eventually yields the punch line.

Action:  Jack scores big when he plays “swavory,” a non-word that Scrabble’s rules forbid.  He explains to his justly-mystified wife that it is a combination of “savory” and “sweet” as in a new sandwich that he is hawking.

The trophy-wife now plays the trump card, or tiles, to say,  “nonookie.”

For a moment Jack is bewildered.  He is slow to understand that “nookie” is sex and that his wife is slamming the door to whatever plans he has for the rest of the evening if not longer.

My reading of the commercial is this.  If Jack is so out of touch to not know “nookie,” a slang term of at least 50 years vintage, that he is so insensitive of his wife’s feelings that he would try to cheat her, that winning is everything, well then, why would I buy his burgers?  And it seems to champion women at their worst, using love, aka sex, as a bargaining tool.

And the ad is deceitful too.  In using “nookie” rather than “sex” the ad writers attempt to mollify the puritans among us who are quick to shutter the ears of “innocent” children.  Sex sells but, apparently, “nookie” sells even better.

This to my mind is a commercial that appeals to a certain segment of the political climes.  It appeals to those ascendant “economic Republicans” since Reagan who believe money, and money alone, talks.   If you really look at him, Jack is a horrible materialist, focused on greed and profits, no matter how questionable red meat, medium fries and colas are to our health.

Sadly, I’ll probably still buy a Jumbo Jack once in a while.

Unapparent additions in September

September 25:  Added September 16 and 24 hikes with photos to “A hiker’s journal:  September 2012.”  Added photos to August 14 entry of “A first visit to the Swiss Alps: Conclusion,” re hiking Eiger Trail.

September 24:  Added the Badger Springs Wash Trail to “A hiker’s journal: September 2012.”

September 21:  Added an entry for August 15 in “A first visit to the Swiss Alps:  Conclusion” (September 8) re an up and down day in the Swiss capital, Bern.  Still have five days to account for, August 16-20.

To read ’50 Shades of Grey’ or not to read

At the end of the first chapter of the latest publishing phenomenon,”Fifty Shades of Grey,” I stopped reading and thought of never opening it up again.  That meant kissing off the $9.99 I paid for the e-book edition for my Nook.

It was that poorly written.

I came onto “Shades”, by E L James, a woman,  late in the day.  Actually it was late yesterday afternoon when I read two Tweets by my favorite contemporary author, Simon Mawer.

In August, Mawer wrote, noting that “Shades” had outsold the Bible in Britain:  “A triumph of civilization and literary taste.”

And earlier this month, citing a news article about torching copies of the book in a bonfire:  “Are these people idiots?  They’ll have to buy the damned book in the first place!”

I had to have this book.

Critics, I read, are torn.  Is “Shades” erotica?  Or is it porn?  But most are united on one aspect.  It’s writing at its worst.

And torn too, it seems, are librarians.  Some refuse to put it on their shelves.  Others seem forced by demand to do the opposite.

As a contrarian, I pushed on.  Nothing could gain as much popularity and be as bad as I was led to believe.  Could it? I began Chapter 1.

The basics.  Written first person, in the view of the central character, Anastasia Steele.  Setting Vancouver, WA, and Seattle.  Plot: Steele, or Ana, is subbing for her sick roommate, Kate, as interviewer of a young and dashing CEO Christian Grey at his office.

Ana stumbles to the floor as she enters the room, “blushes” a half-dozen times or more in the presence of this god-like man, feels surges of hotness that she can’t explain and refuses to believe what any normal human in her place would believe, that Mr Grey is infatuated with her.

The plot is without logic.   That a guarded and busy CEO would give an extraordinary amount of time to a student newspaper reporter’s proxy and to cancel a meeting to prolong it, well, as a former reporter myself, it just seems highly implausible, pure fantasy.

And James needs a competent editor.

Surely an editor would change the over-wrought “I ignore my pang of unwelcome sympathy.”  And certainly a change of “my own feet” could be shortened to “my feet.”  And what college student says “Holy Cow!” anymore?  Maybe back in the Fifties, maybe.

If someone had shown me a copy of “Shades” written out on a laptop, I would’ve discarded it immediately as not worth my time.  It is like reading a high school term paper penned by a dreamy 16-year-old girl in an era when 10-year olds are getting pregnant.  If I had been the author’s English instructor, I would have given the first chapter a C grade, maybe a B minus.  James got the spelling right anyway.

To my credit I plowed on.  And I’m feeling rewarded.  Soon I discovered the author has a good sense of timing.  Now at page 55, not a single sex scene.  But James is building  toward one.  The attraction between the heated Ana and the reserved Christian is at the tipping point.  It is best not to rush things.  Not even sex.

So I’ll see how much further I can get.  To the first sex scene at least.

There has to be a logical reason, has to be, “Shades” is riding so high on the New York Times e-book bestseller list all these weeks, though it was conspicuously absent from the latest top 15 in hardcovers.   It rests at No. 4 now, 29 weeks on the list.  Two other of James’s trilogy, the more recent “Fifty Shades Freed,” and “Fifty Shades Darker,” are Nos. 1 and 3.  Can 10 million book buyers be wrong?

Amazing, simply amazing.

A first visit to the Swiss Alps: Conclusion

The Fiescherhorn: Looking south from our patio at Grindelwald.

It was about this time last month, on August 11, that I stopped writing about our trip to Switzerland, Germany and Austria.  Nine days were left unaccounted for.  Part of the trouble was physical.  I often came back exhausted to wherever we were staying and wanting to fall asleep immediately after supper.  But most of the problem was difficulty in getting a reliable internet connection.  At the chalet in Grindelwald, for instance, the wireless connection was so slow that it was all but impossible to transfer photos.  I waited 30 minutes one time before giving up.  Also, the mouse I used with my laptop petered out and moving the cursor by the finger pad grew tedious.  So  frustrated I stopped the journal.   Now back home in Phoenix, with a new wireless mouse, great internet service and a nasty cold hopefully laid to rest, I’ll try to fill in the missing days, August 12-20.

A flower garden near our chalet.

August 12, Sunday:  Grindelwald, Switzerland.  I awake early, every muscle beneath my waist in agony from yesterday’s 5-mile hike down from Alpiglen.  It is the descents that usually get me.  My butt, thighs, calves, quads and even the tops of my feet were unappreciative of what I’d asked of them.  I walk around our still-dark corner suite like Frankenstein’s monster, eventually nudging the sleeping Nebra to say I need a day of relaxation to recover.   While Nebra continues in deep sleep I begin an internet search for tomorrow’s rail trip to Jungfraujoch, a popular tour to an observation point high in the Bernese Alps in a saddle between the region’s two highest peaks, the Jungfrau and the Monch.

An exhibit at the museum depicts all climbing routes up the Eiger, including this one in Clint Eastwood’s film, “The Eiger Sanction.”

At 11,332 feet, the rail station there is said to be the highest one in Europe.  At almost every turn in Switzerland, you see an ad for this “Top of Europe” tour.   The ride actually takes you to your destination via a tunnel through the mighty Eiger itself.  In the afternoon at my plea, we take the village bus up  the steep hill to the Grindelwald Museum rather than walking as usual.   The museum is of modest size but contains a wealth of information and exhibits about the village’s history and climbs on the Eiger’s fearsome North Face.    We stop for supper at a clean, well-lit pizzeria on the main drag, Onkle Tom’s.  It is a great place, bustling with locals.  It is my best supper yet.  The green salad and Italian dressing are so good, I order a second.  The afternoon has darkened and a nice rain patters down.  I’d like to have had more rest but this will have to do.

Passengers at Kleine Scheidegg wait for train to Jungfraujoch, peering up at the Eiger.

August 13, Monday.  Grindewald to Jungfraujoch.  At the village’s little train station I plunk down $256 in credit-card promises for the tickets to Jungfraujoch.  The price would be even greater had I not purchased the Eurail pass which led to a 25% discount.  We catch the 12:17 train up to Kleine Scheidegg, and transfer to the Jungfrauyoch special on the south side of the busy station.  At the Eigergletscher station above, we enter the tunnel and come out 4,500 feet higher and an hour later with a few hundred other tourists at our snowy destination, Jungfraujoch.  Snow all around, but mostly sunny sky up here.

The mighty Aletsch Glacier as seen from a restaurant at Jungfraujoch.

Jungfraujoch station is like a theme park in the alps, a large building set on a knob in the saddle, white-capped Jungfrau on the west and the Monch to the east with several restaurants, souvenir shops and exhibits like the frigid underground Ice Palace.   Almost everyone ends up on the cold, open-air observation deck atop the Sphinx.  The deck, like the train, is loaded with Asians, cameras in hand, shooting stills and movies, so thick you often have to elbow your way to a good vantage point.  Four young Asian men ask me to take a picture with the Monck in the background, which I do, and they return the favor for Nebra and me.  Very collegial up here.  It is a great view today in all directions but north.  Grindelwald and the Eiger are socked in under heavy clouds.

The Monch from the deck of the Sphinx Observatory..

That big tongue of ice, the Aletsch Glacier, stretches out to the south finally sinking beneath clouds.  It is the largest glacier in the Alps, running down 14 miles from Jungfrauyoch.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001, the Altetsch is estimated 3,300 feet deep at one point.  But there is only so much to see, and after three hours in rare air, we take the next to last train back down at 4:55.  An hour and a half later we are back in rainy Grindelwald.  While I’m glad to have done the Jungfraujoch bit, I don’t think I would do it again.  Too expensive, too many other gawkers.  In short a zoo.

Dinging at Alpiglen below the Eiger’s North Face.

August 14, Tuesday.  Grindelwald and the Eiger Trail.  Last full day in Grindelwald.  Nebra made room reservation yesterday for Wednesday night in the capital city of Bern.   I sleep restlessly, don’t know why, awake at 7 to see the friendly Polish couple next door checking out.  I like them.  They read books.  We catch the 10:47 train up to Kleine Scheidgg again, so we can hike the Eiger Trail from the Eigergletscher station.  I’m sore still but determined to do the hike.

Nebra with the North Face behind.

To me, this is the highlight of the Grindelwald trip, to walk under that vertical wall on the Eiger’s North Face where so many climbers have perished in falls or frozen to death,  dead-ended on a high ledge.   [I’ll write a detailed account of hiking the Eiger Trail in a separate piece].   It’s such a treat to suck in cool air in August.  Since we left Phoenix, not a day has passed there that temps have been under 90, a sweltering 90.  Everyday here has reached into the 70s down to the mid50s at night and predominantly sunny.  We get back to the chalet about 5:20 and later walk up to a hotel at the end of the nearby paved road.   An exhibit spreads out over the patio, showing how global warming is affecting this area and the Grindelwald Glacier up the mountain a ways.  A rapidly growing lake threatens to release an enormous wall of water flooding the region to Interlaken and beyond.  Very sobering.  [I hope to write more about this issue in separate post].  Nebra goes online again to book a room for Thursday and Friday nights at the Radisson Bleu in Salzburg, Austria.

August 15, Wednesday:  Bern.  We arrive in Switzerland’s capital at 11:52 a.m., on time, after taking one train to Interlaken and another to Bern.  Nebra feels worse than I do about leaving Grindelwald but shakes it off during an effusive train conversation with a young Japanese woman on her way to Grenada in Spain to study and work on her doctorate.  She’s from New Zealand and speaks perfect English.  I’m caught up in my stereotyping, thinking at first she’s from Kyoto or Tokyo.   Our lodging for the one night at Hotel National in the heart of town is disappointing.  The old hotel is undergoing a remodel, and we have to park our luggage and wait until mid-afternoon to  get into our small corner room on the third floor.  It’s 80 degrees, and the room has no air-conditioning and the slow wi-fi connection must be renewed every 30 minutes.  Even with the windows thrown open, it’s still hot, more “burn” than Bern.  And the noise from pedestrians, trolleys and buses rise from the bustling streets, enough to drive you mad.  The only good things are the National is only a 10-minute walk from the train station and the rates are good unless you eat breakfast there.  If you dine, tack on another 18 francs apiece for very ordinary fare.  While waiting for our room, we walk across the street into the business district in Old Town and lunch at a busy cafe in a park where a zillion Bernese workers are lolling and sunning during their mid-day break.  We do our own tour and eventually wind up at a bookstore, Stauffacher’s,  on Neuengasse:  “The largest and reputedly best bookshop in Switzerland,” I read.  It is sweltering inside.  No a/c again.  In a large room on the second floor (which in the U.S. is really the third floor; Europeans do not number the ground floor) you can find a wide selection of books in English.    Starved for serious reading, I purchase a paperback copy of Edward Whymper’s “Scrambles Amongst the Alps in The Years 1860-1869,” the author being the first to ascend the Matterhorn.   In the cooling evening we leave Old Town on foot, crossing the wide Aar River 128-feet below on the old Kirchenfeld bridge and descend a steep hill to the river for supper at a place dubbed the Riviera Bern.  The popular restaurant rests on an “island” off the Aar’s south shore.  As we enjoy a meal of chicken breasts and perch with Old Town high on the north.  I can not help myself, so I order a bowl of okra soup, my first ever, and spoon up every drop.  What a setting for even okra, much less the soup!  Nearby conversations are drowned out by the white-water rapids beneath our table where colored lights add a surreal touch to the glacial river’s flow.   At the end of the day, a miserable afternoon wiped out by a great night.

Our RailJet train to Salzburg.

August 16, Thursday.  Salzburg.  Arrived here by rail from Bern about 4 p.m.   It took seven hours by RailJet, the Austrian rail company’s sleek train with its attractive red and black theme.  “What a beautiful ride!” I wrote in my trip notes.  We glided along at almost 100 mph as if the train were floating.  No bumps and nary a sound.  No clackety-clack like on most trains.

Luxurious RailJet seating in first class.

Our Eurail first-class seats were luxurious with plenty of leg room.  Plus we had Wi-Fi and a table on which we wrote and layed reading materials.   A monitor at the front of the car had GPS and zoomed in on our route, showed the train’s speed, time and date, present location, itinerary, stops and times.  The only disappointment was the slow food service.  Changed trains at the attractive station in Zurich.  Had to watch the clock there.  These trains run on time.  Traveled through Switzerland, Leichtenstein and Germany to reach the charming old-world city of Salzburg in western Austria.

Checked in at the very modern Radisson Bleu hotel near the train station and in the evening strolled up into the central part of town.  It was a wonderful night, starry and warm, and the streets were humming with pedestrians and vehicles.   Passed the house where  Mozart was born just before crossing the bridge over the wide, glacier gray Salzach River into an upscale shopping and restaurant district.  On a hilltop above, the lights of Hohensalzburg Castle added a magical look to the scene.   Nebra fell in love with Salzburg tonight, and I will put it high on the list of places to visit again.

August 17, Friday: Salzburg.  Our primary goal today was to take a tour of Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” in the high Bavarian Alps south of here.   We took the #840 bus out to the attractive resort city of Berchtesgaden, a leisurely 22-mile trip covered in 44 minutes.  It was noon when we arrived at the train station, across the bustling traffic circle from the tourism office where the tour was to start at 1:15.  At the station, I drifted through the little bookshop to the maps area and was astounded by the huge number of German-language magazines on the racks.  Amazing in this era of digital.  We checked in at the tourism office, picked up some maps of the area and met with our tour guide, Christine Harper, who has a desk there.  She was born in Montana, USA, but said she has lived in Germany for the past 25 years.  She and her husband started the tour in 1990.  Soon we were on a bus headed up and up and up into high mountains where Hitler had his summer home and then up a narrow winding road to Eagles Nest, the Nazis’ showplace. [I plan to write a separate piece on the tour].   Eagles Nest, an aerie with large windows looking out on the Alps and all the way back to Salzburg was filled with other tourists.  We were given free time to look at the exhibits, have a bite to eat and to walk up the slope for an even better view.  At 4:40 we gathered at the bus and started downhill again to Berchtesgaden.  Back in Salzburg we had a supper at Indian restaurant not far from the Radisson.  Our waiter, also the owner, was effusive about his adopted country of Austria.  For anyone thinking socialism is a bad thing, you should listen to him for a while.  Tomorrow we return to Munich for the weekend, then head home on Monday.

A hiker’s journal: September 2012

Latest entry first.

Contrails over Shaw Butte.

September 23, Sunday:  Inner basin, North Mountain Park.  I take off one of my longer hikes through the park, Visitors Center to the “southwest dam” via the “north dam.”  Distance about 4 miles.  It is nearing 5:30 when I hit the trail for the “southwest dam.”

Contrail or colorful tornado?

Only shade from the western hills makes the hike comfortable here at the end of another scorching day.  I am not alone.  I count 13 hikers, 5 bikers and 2 joggers, not to mention a beautiful caterpillar that for a few moments crawls as my companion on the trail.  And there are the two coveys of Gambel’s quail.

My traveling companion, for a short distance anyway.

The first, a covey of nine, scurries across in front of me, and I notice some small ones, recently hatched no doubt.   The sunset is beautiful, and I stop to shoot some long colorful contrails over Shaw Butte to the northwest.  It never fails.  I always find something interesting out here in the semi-wilds.

September 16, Sunday:  Inner Basin Loop Trail, San Francisco Peaks.  We are hiking through a forest of Ponderosa pine at about 8,000 feet elevation when suddenly at the start of some switchbacks an amazing sight opens up.

Trailhead into a forest of Ponderosa pine and aspen.

A huge stand of white-barked aspen lays before us.  Nothing but aspen.  We leave pine country and march upward into this dreamy sanctuary, the leaves still green but on the cusp of turning yellow, gold and orange after the first cold spell in a few weeks.  Then, with the foliage change, this lightly-traveled trail will itself change into a zoo of hikers with cameras.  The aspen sough in a gentle breeze as we approach the top of a ridge on a sunny afternoon, the temp 68 F. back at the car below.  Later, along the jeep road known as Waterline Road, Nebra locates a sunny spot for lunch.  A few steps away in the shade shivering cool awaits.  We are near the 10,000-foot level.  The ski run at Snow Bowl looms on the south.  There is a hurry to our pace as we descend to the campground and our car trying to beat darkness.  And we barely do it.  Walking down to the Prius, a fit elderly man walks out from his RV to greet us.  He asks if we had hiked up to Mount Humphreys, Arizona’s highest point at 12,633 feet.  We tell him we’ve done only a short hike of 5-6 miles up to the ridge and beyond a bit.  We didn’t even do the loop.  The man says he has been hiking in the mountains around Telluride, in Colorado, and has just arrived here at the Peaks north of Flagstaff.  He intends to do Humphreys tomorrow.   His greeting adds a nice touch to the end of the day, a day we missed the heat of another triple-digit day back home in Phoenix.

Gateway to an oasis.

September 15, Saturday:  Badger Springs Wash, Agua Fria National Monument.  About 57 miles north of Phoenix on Interstate 17, Nebra wheels her Prius onto a bumpy dirt road and drives to the trailhead in this wilderness area created in January 2000 by President Bill Clinton during his final year in office.  Although you can hear traffic on the busy highway less than a mile away, we are driving through another world. It is desolate over here, desert scrub mixed among high treeless mesas.

A sandy Badger Springs Wash.

We park near the only other car and begin a slow descent down the sandy Badger Springs Wash Trail toward the Agua Fria River.  Desert quickly evolves into riparian land with trees, green bushes, wildflowers and animal scat.   I stop to photograph a butterfly hanging to a waist-high plant with yellow flowers, a plant I believe is camphorweed.  It is pungent and sticky and I wonder how the butterfly so nimbly escapes capture on the green leaves.

Agua Fria River pool.

I am startled as I arrive at the idle river.  I did not expect this much water.  I stare into a greenish gray pool at the top of a gooseneck in the stream and deep enough to take a swim.  The pool runs maybe 100 yards in length and 30 feet at its widest with huge boulders and outcroppings on three sides.  I read where a Native American culture was based here 700 years ago, growing corn and other crops.   William Perry and his family set up camp near here in 1878 and supposedly mined gold and milled it on a crude arrastra.

A boulder field in the streambed.

We cross the river to the lush south bank, hopping atop stones and using our hiking poles for balance.  From there, we go right, following a dim path downstream and stepping through knee-high grass and then mud to a spot where huge boulders dot the streambed where maybe a week ago water flowed.  Below, the river drops dramatically into a deep canyon we can not see from here.

A Monarch butterfly at work.

We turn around and head back.  Exploration of the canyon and what must be a waterfall area will have to wait for another trip.  Traveling up Badger Springs Wash, Nebra sees a wild pig ahead, a javelina that soon darts out of sight into shrub.  In all her many desert hikes, this is the first javelina she’s seen.  This was my 25th of the 60 Charles Liu hikes and my first new one in several months, having avoided summer’s triple-digit heat.  Heading back to I-17 and a cool weekend in Flagstaff, an impressed and happy Nebra says, “Thank you, Bill Clinton.”

September 11, Tuesday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  As I walk along with my “Grindelwald” hiking pole near dusk, my mind flits back to events of 11 years ago and an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times.  The piece,”The Deafness Before the Storm” by Kurt Eichenwald, points out numerous other warnings beside the famous August 6, 2001, presidential briefing, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike U.S.,” ignored by the Bush administration in the months leading up 9/11.  I believe our government had a hand in the attack that killed thousands of Americans.  As more documents become declassified, I further believe the case against our government will grow even clearer.   As those blood-boiling thoughts subside, I hear the yelp of a coyote.  It is almost dark, 10 minutes before 7.  I think it comes from a ravine below Shaw Butte.  Then to the east, across the basin on a far hill, come responding yelps, communication eons old that make me put 9/11 in perspective and how man violates the laws of nature over and over again and how surely someday he must pay the bitter price.   It is not a good way to walk off the trail but that’s the mood I was in tonight under a dark sky.

September 6, Thursday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  Hiking was the furthest thing from my mind today.  But as I approached my car to go home after lunch, my eyes latched on to Shaw Butte in North Mountain Park.  And suddenly, like a  horse drawn to the barn, I wheeled eastward to my old stomping ground off 7th Street, hauled my gear from the trunk, filled up the water bag and headed out from the Visitors Center.  It wasn’t ideal.  The temp rested at 101 on my car gauge.  But it was nicer than that.  An overcast sky and a stout southwest wind helped matters.  I felt a tinge of urgency and walked fast.  Thunderclouds loomed in the south and another brown dust storm approached.   Although I’d hiked several days in the Swiss Alps in August, it was nice to be back.  I hadn’t done Arizona hiking since July 29 when Nebra and I got caught in a rainstorm at this very park.  Within a few steps I heard the gabbling of Gambel’s quail.  I like to think they were welcoming me back.  Nothing much had changed out here.  Maybe the leaves of the creosote were glossier.  Some had even retained their little yellow flowers.  I counted seven hikers, a mountain biker and 3 joggers.  Not many.  I hope this 2-mile hike will get me energized to hit the heated trails more often.  The cooler weather of mid-October seems a long way off.