Don't panic!

Posted on: 29 Aug 2015

We returned from Grindelwald to a continuing heatwave, but after a couple of days of lurking indoors with the shutters down, we did get out a few times. The one attempt at running was not a great success: even late evening in the relative shade of the Bireggwald, it was oppressively hot. We gave it 45 minutes, but 5 (very slow) kms was enough. Mountain walking seemed a better bet. The first of these, something of an afterthought, did not work out quite as planned! Catching a train to Wolfenschiessen, we walked to the cablecar at Wissifluh, only to find it not running any more (or only for material transport, judging by a row of cement sacks lined up outside, and one cement sack occupying the locked cabin.) From its shabby state, it looked to have been disused for quite a while......... though my internet planning had failed to reveal this fact! Hmmm, what to do now.........? Neighbouring Dallenwil has two cablecars, so we walked there and got one of those, up to Wirzweli. This meant having to scrap the original plan and making it up as we went along. With limited time left, we settled for the simplest alternative: a walk to the OTHER cablecar back down to Dallenwil. So, only a short one, but enjoyable, cooler up here, and with some charmingly eccentric architecture to amuse us. (Alas, no camera; reason for a return visit sometime, maybe.) The Wiesenberg cablecar was also a little two-seater sardine tin, operated by using a primitive wind-up telephone to notify someone at the bottom end that you wished to travel, but ran perfectly despite its very basic appearance. I thought it rather sweet, really!

Our next attempt was a bit more ambitious. You may remember that we have a local ultra called 'Mountainman', which finished at the top of Pilatus. Or we had: it's now reinvented itself and moved to Melchsee-Frutt. Originally, we had considered doing the half marathon; we had at various times walked most of the route. But there was one section - by all accounts the hardest - we had never done, and it didn't seem the best of ideas to tackle it 'unseen'. (Nor in this hot weather - though in the event, it was actually very cloudy - apparently the winner didn't realize he had reached the finish until the very moment he crossed the line.) But it put the idea of Melchsee-Frutt into my mind as a possible walk; then I remembered that Aelggi, a few miles away, has the intriguing distinction of being the geographical centre of Switzerland. There seemed something rather patriotic about the notion of going there, especially as the next day, August 1st, was Switzerland's birthday (though maybe I should have looked at the map a little more closely, and given thought to the extreme closeness-together of some of the contour lines..........!) But decision made: off on the train to Sarnen, postbus to Stöckalp, and cablecar up to Melchsee-Frutt. For a while, it seemed absolutely perfect: clear and sunny, not too hot, fantastic views. The coloured arrows from the race were still visible on the ground, and it was even signposted, as we followed it back towards the looming peak of Hochstollen - the bit we had never done. The runners would have come up it from the other side, and come down this side. Our route didn't take us all the way up - we traversed its flank for a while before turning right - but even here the footing was tricky.

A photo stop by a signpost at the highest point, where I assumed that the hardest part was now behind us, then we set off down the other side. I was a bit disquieted to see how far below the valley was, and wondered how on earth we got down there, especially as the path seemed to be descending improbably gently. Through a gate......... then suddenly we found ourselves standing at the edge of a precipice; a sheer cliff to the left; a scree slope scarcely any less steep to the right; and what purported to be a path somewhere between them. What?!!! - I can't get down there! I stood and looked at this prospect in dismay and rising panic, while a cow leaned curiously over the fence, drooling on me. But short of turning round and going all the way back to Melchsee-Frutt, or over Hochstollen and a massive diversion via Planplatten, there was no alternative.




There has been a malevolent suggestion that this should be my new profile picture on Facebook!

J. coaxed me down, step by step, handhold by handhold. He confessed later that he was a bit scared himself, but concealed it so as not to add to my fear. There were tears, terrified whimpering, and the odd moment of full-blown panic as I inched my way down, clinging onto chains stapled to the rock (some of the staples had pulled out, leaving the chain in unhelpfully loose loops), and searching for the metal pegs hammered in as supplementary footholds, guided by the astonishingly patient J. ("Right foot down, there's a rock...... now the left one.......... here's a chain to hold onto...........") I suppose for someone with a degree of climbing experience (or just more courage - I confess I am a real chicken in situations like this) it might have seemed like a very exaggerated perception of the danger, but I was truly scared and overfaced by it. (Bendier knees would have helped too!)

Progress seemed agonizingly slow; my Garmin assumed I had actually stopped. But at last we were down - or at least back on a proper path again. A drunkenly leaning signpost pointed optimistically in several directions, including straight up (to Heaven?); I was sufficiently recovered from my fright now to find this amusing. One of them was Aelggi - oh good, lunch! It was still a way off yet, however. There was a kilometre of slithery scree to be negotiated first,

then more paths, a bit of road, more paths.......... and just when I thought we were nearly there, another cliff, dammit! This one was damp and shady, and the limestone was very slippery, but at least there was some help in the form of a metal ladder at one point. No whimpering this time, just the odd curse, and then we were down on terra firma again. J's eyes lit up - we had come down just opposite a little farm advertising cheese for sale, so he immediately went and bought a kilo. Well, he would be carrying it!


A brisk canter along the road, and there we were at the restaurant, but resisted the temptation to go straight in - well, after all this effort to reach the centre of Switzerland, I suppose we'd better go and actually SEE the damn thing! Another 10 minutes' walking, and there it was, complete with a metal pyramid and lots of reading matter (in all 4 languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch) - we felt free to remain uneducated, and just took a few photos.

Back to the restaurant, and our very belated lunch (Bratwurst and Rösti for me) on the sunny terrace. There is no public transport here, so the only way to Sachseln and our train home was on foot: another 12 kms, and 1,200 metres of descent. The route description had us following a river down through a very steep gorge, but this sounded very hard on the knees and quads, so we decided we'd stick to the road. (Longer, but less steep. And that way, we always had the option of thumbing a lift in one of the private cars driving down from the restaurant, should exhaustion strike.) It was a very peaceful road, so that was okay. Even this got a bit painful after a while, so now and then we turned round and walked backwards, which uses different muscles, and puts less stress on the joints. We got quite proficient at it, though the occasional car driver encountering us thus occupied probably thought it a bit bizarre! Reaching Sachseln at last, we made our way down to the lake, and followed the lakeside path to the station. By now we had worked up an epic thirst - it was another scorching hot evening - and the meagre puddle of tepid water at the bottom of our bottle just didn't cut it. So we let the next train go, headed to a nearby restaurant garden and sat under the welcome shade of a big horse chestnut, rehydrating on ice-cold beer and Moscht respectively. So that was half marathon distance, 21.12 kms, but with an elevation gain of just under 600 metres, a total elevation loss of 2,049 metres, and a walking (and other degrees of locomotion) time of 5:48:30. It was spectacular.......... but I can safely say I won't be doing that one again!

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