Sunday, April 3, 2011

Arolla, Switzerland ~ March 2011

We headed south to Switzerland in early March for a ski trip to the Swiss Alps (my conference in Lausanne being the impetus for the trip). Our friend Art, another Fulbrighter in Norway, joined us for the adventure, as well as our friends Seth and Ellen, whom we met in Bermuda on their way home after a 3-year round the world sailing trip and now residents of Geneva.

We arrived in Geneva Airport where we got to check out the Nissan Leaf (all electric car) while waiting for our train.
Karl and Art checking out the Nissan Leaf electric car.
We took the train to Sion (2 hours) and caught the bus up a steep narrow valley to Arolla (1 hour). Travel in Switzerland is certainly efficient! Arolla is a quaint mountain village near the end of a steep-sided box canyon. The elevation difference between the valley floor and surrounding ridges is about 1800 meters (or about 6000 feet). We stayed at the Hotel la Glacier with "half board" which includes room, dinner, and breakfast. Ellen and Seth met us in Arolla just as we finished up our breakfast.

Outside Hotel la Glacier in Arolla, Switzerland.
After stocking up on bread, cheese, sausage, and chocolate (we are in Switzerland after all), we headed to the base area and the first of the 2 poma lifts that would take us up an incredible 1000 meters (3250 feet). Let me just emphasize what I've just written...2 surface lifts up over 3000 feet. This is not your typical ski resort. We rattled around 90 degree turns, up 40 degree pitches, and giggled our way up to the top.

The upper Arolla valley with surface lift in view.
Our skin route set off from the upper lodge, where many were enjoying the sunshine while having a glass of wine, and up to a col.
On the skin up from Arolla to the col.

The final tough steps up the col.

At the top.

Preparing to ski down the other side.
Rachel skiing down from the col.
Our route took us through some incredible terrain. The snow was quite nice and we had some really nice turns.
Art ripping it up on his tele skis.
Ellen skiing down.

Our destination for the day was the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges hut. So now that we skied down a ways, we had to climb back up the other ridge.
Back up that way, says Art.

Skinning up again (we'll ski back down this slope the following day).
We arrived at the top of the ridge in the warm afternoon sunshine.
Seth and Ellen

Art, Karl, and Rachel
Now, we just need to find that hut...
On an overlook searching out the hut
There it is! The Cabana des Aiguilles Rouges.
We cruised down to the hut. We were the first guests of the season, the hut master having just opened it that day. However, people use the hut year round as it is partially open year round even when it isn't staffed. Happily, since it was now staffed, dinner and breakfast were included in our stay.
Arrival at Cabana les Aiguilles Rouges

One of my favorite photos of Karl, overlooking the Alps.

Reflections on Alpenglow

Sun setting from the Aiguilles Rouges hut.

Enjoying dessert of chocolate souffle (or maybe it was pudding) and a bottle of special label (of the hut) red wine.

Morning light on Auiguilles Rouge hut.

Outhouse cantilevered over a ledge.
We decided on a morning tour up from the hut. It was a sunny Saturday, which meant there was a steady stream of skiers skinning up the valley. We certainly didn't have that feeling of isolation in the mountains that we experienced on the previous day.

A lone person crossing the glacier

Karl skiing down - lovely snow

Rachel enjoying turns in soft powder
We made our way back to the hut, where we'd left our extra gear. As we arrived we caught sight of the helicopter taking off after leaving supplies for the hut.

In his exuberance, Art tumbled after a little air.
We set off from the hut back to Arolla. We followed our uptrack from the previous day for a while, but then set off on a more direct route for the village. Ellen, Seth, and I (Rachel) needed to catch a bus back to Sion, and then the train to Lausanne (Rachel) and Geneva (Ellen and Seth).
Surprisingly we found directional signs. I guess we were on the right track.

Approaching a high mountain summer hut, used while cows are grazing in the mountains.

Old summer lodging for shepherds.
We made it to the Hotel Glacier in time to enjoy a beer before catching the bus. While I went off to my conference, Karl and Art (and for one more day, Ellen and Seth, who couldn't stay away) enjoyed four more days of skiing. Perhaps one memorable highlight was the "No Goats" route to Cabana des Dix hut, which involved navigating a 20 meter (60 feet) ladder over a cliff.
Ellen descending the "No Goat" ladder.

Karl making the critical "Hillary Step" moving from one ladder to the next.

Having successfully navigated the critical step, Karl descends.

Ellen and Seth below the "No Goats" ladder.
It was an incredible time in Arolla. We will certainly return in the years to come.

A few days later, we all met up again in Geneva. Ellen and Seth provided generous hospitality in their flat in Geneva. We had a wonderful dinner, conversation, and a tour around old town Geneva the following morning before setting off for the airport and our return to Norway. Thank you to Seth and Ellen for their generosity and great times together!

Nordic World Ski Championship

Late February brought the much-anticipated Nordic World Ski Championship to Oslo. The events included ski jumping and cross-country ski events. There was an incredible buzz about in the days leading up to the opening of the event. In fact, Karl and I were stopped on the street while pulling our heavily laden ski bags, as the person was sure we were competitors (why else would Americans be pulling ski bags through the streets of Oslo?!?). Despite our claims to the contrary he remained convinced we were skiing in the World Championship.

We couldn't miss experience this part of Norwegian culture, so we headed up to Holmenkollen one Saturday to catch the men's 30k pursuit. I can tell you now that Norway's Petter Northug won the race. It nearly goes without saying. In fact, Norwegians expressed surprising acceptance when another country periodically won admitting that, "It wouldn't be fun for other countries if Norway always won."  Nevertheless there is extreme jubilation when Norway does win.

Karl displaying Norwegian colors at the World Championship at Holmenkollen.

The large Holmenkollen ski jump, which was in preparation for the evening "ski hoppe."
The events bled over into festivities in City Center. Music, award ceremonies, elg pølse (moose hotdogs), and practice ski jumping for children...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Iceland ~ Island

Snow, wind, rock, water
A stark and stunning landscape
Broke open our hearts

Iceland is a place of magic and inspiration. The scale of the landscape is breathtaking. The angle of light plays upon the land, bringing it to life. It is place steeped in lore, and one's imagination needn't work hard to glimpse evidence of the hidden people. Are those elven footprints in the snow?

We began our exploration on the Keflavik (pronounced Keblavik) Peninsula, home of the international airport and the famous Blue Lagoon. Kari and Doug had arrived early that morning, picked up the rental car, and checked into the Blue Lagoon Hotel for a little nap before picking us up at the airport in the afternoon. The visual landscape was transformed during their slumber from a patina of brilliant green lichen to a contrast of white snow over black lava rock. Our first evening in Iceland began our daily practice of soaking in hot water. The Blue Lagoon with it's lovely outdoor pools surrounded by lava rock was a wonderful beginning.

We spent the next few days exploring the Snæfellsness Peninsula. You can see our route in the map below (thanks to Doug for putting this together). We awoke on our first morning in Grundarfjorder to hostel encased in snow, so the first task of the morning was to shovel the snow off the windows. We wondered if we'd see more than the hostel that day, but decided to try our luck driving further down the peninsula.

Grundarfjorder Hostel on a stormy day

The storm broke, briefly, as we came out to the tip of the peninsula to reveal a black sand beach with waves breaking against the cliffs.

A little further down the road we had a mini-exploration of a lava tube. The storm kicked up again, so it was a nice reprieve from the sideways snow and wind. 

We came upon ruins of a homestead and a sculpture commemorating the first European woman (an Icelander) to give birth in the Americas in the 12th century.

The late afternoon brought an amazing angle of light that alit the landscape as we hadn't seen that day. This image is the closest to capturing the vastness of the place and the way people have eeked out a niche to live.
Church and Farm at Sunset, south coast Snæfellsness Peninsula. 
In order to keep with our daily soak plan we sought out a local hot pot. We had to sleuth around a bit, but Kari managed to follow some barefoot prints in the snow to the hot pot. Just as Karl got in the water a woman showed up to say it was closed, but then looked at Karl and waved us on asking us to close the gate when we were done.

We headed to Stykkisholmur for the night. This is where the ferry leaves for the western fjords. We had tentatively planned to go there, but the mounting storms gave us pause. We discussed over a great dinner and Brennevin at the only restaurant in town open in the winter (and then only Thurs-Sat), and decided to explore a bit more on the Snæfellsness Pen and then head south for better weather. We stayed at a wonderful guesthouse in Stykkisholmur run by Greta. She treated us to a bottle of wine for shoveling her walkway, and made us an incredible breakfast for Kari's birthday. Perhaps most importantly, she gave us instructions to a prime (and mostly secret) hot pot. More on that in a moment.
Stykkishulmur's Funky New Church

Aiding the aid to navigation: clearing snow from the glass in Stykkishulmur.

Morning light in Stykkishulmur
While in Stykkisholmur we visited the Library of Water, which houses 24 floor-to-ceiling cylinders of water collected from the 24 glaciers in Iceland. It is an austere art instillation with a solemn message: One day this may be the archives of glaciers in Iceland.
Half view through cylinder of glacier water, Library of Water, Stykkisholur.

Library of Water

We then visited Helgafell Holy Mountain just south of Stykkishulmur. It is said that three wishes will be granted when the following rules are followed:
1. Start at the grave of Gudrun Osvisfursdottir (heroine of the Laxdaela Saga, died 1008).
2. Do not speak and do not look back when ascending the holy mountain.
3. Face east while making 3 wishes.
4. The wishes should be made with a pure heart and good intentions, and tell no one what you have wished.

So, we started by looking for Gudrun's grave...
Helgafell Church
Does it say Gudrun d.1008?
We never found the grave marking, but figured our thorough search with good intent would suffice. Then we walked up the holy mountain in silence and faced forward until we reached the top, faced east, and made our wishes. I can say no more. A viewing dial and ruins from a monastery mark the top of Helgafell.
Helgafell Viewing Dial

Doug and Kari atop Helgafell
A visit to a holy mountain is naturally followed by a soak in a hot pot. Next we were on the hunt for Greta's secret hot pot. She said that she only tells tourists about it since they will visit Iceland only once or twice in the lives. We came to spot we found another car parked and wondered how secret it really was. A couple (also tourists) was also searching for this gem of a hot pot. They had read about it in their travel guide. But they only found a large pipe gushing hot water into a shallow and muddy pool. They turned their noses at the hot pot and said it was all ours! Well, this tepid murky pool didn't match Greta's description. Could it be a decoy? We continued to search and as good fortune would have it (or maybe this was one of the wishes atop Helgafell?!?) we found the real hot pot. A round opening in the rock just the size for 4 people. We soaked in bliss, with some sips of Lakka (cloudberry liqueur), and two rare white tailed eagles flying over head.

This marked the highlight of the day. We drove onto the town of Borgarnes to find no restaurants or grocery stores open so we ate dinner at a gas station and stayed in a grungy hotel. We tried to console ourselves by drinking elderberry and gin while playing dominoes...

On our way south from Snæfellsness Peninsula we decided to swing into Reykjavik for a Saturday night out. (Don't worry, on our way to Reykjavik we stopped into a local community hot pot for our daily soak.) We went on a tour of the local brewery and not only enjoyed great beer but also learned about the very interesting history of alcohol in Iceland. For example, did you know that since prohibition in the 1920s beer was only legalized in 1989? Icelanders say their now trying to make up for lost time. We met two Icelanders and a Swede on the beer tour, and went out with them post-tour. Very fun people! Unfortunately, we're like two old married couples and quickly went to bed after dinner. So much for checking out the raging Reykjavik nightlife (which doesn't get rolling until 2am!!!).
Brewery Tour at Olgerdin

Doug, Gundre (from Iceland), and Karl at the brewery tour.

An assortment of alcoholic beverage labels
We did enjoy seeing a little bit of Reykjavik. They have very informative advertisements. For example, if you're on your way to work and forgot how to tie your tie...
Helpful instructional signage in Reykjavik.
We found by accident a famous bakery in Reykjavik the next morning and enjoyed scrumptuous pastries and coffee. No pictures. Really, you don't want to see what we looked like the next morning.

Anyway, we then headed to the south coast of Iceland and the town of Vik. Along the way we stopped a waterfall.

This is a big waterfall, but you can't tell the scale here. Hmmm...

That's better! For scale, you can see Karl walking behind the waterfall.
Somehow a snowball fight broke out!

In the town of Skogar we came upon a treasure house of a folk museum housing old fishing boats and gear, books (from the 1500s), furniture, and various devices used by Icelanders.  Here are a couple snapshots.
Fishing boat in Skogar Folk Museum

Cow bladder (yellow sac) used to forecast weather: When it shrinks pressure is rising (clear weather) and when it is full pressure is dropping (stormy weather)
Skogar also is home to Skogarfoss (waterfall), so we decided to check it out. What's so amazing about these waterfalls is their immensity. Again, some photos to give a sense of the scale.

Karl and Kari at Skogarfoss
We also hiked up to the top of the waterfall where there are a series of small waterfalls coming down from the glacier. It seemed like a good place for our Patagonia photo shoot.

Patagonia-ites at upper Skogarfoss

We then headed onto Vik, where we were looking forward to our daily soak in the community hot pot. The trolls played a good one on us! The hot pot was closed on Sundays. So was the town's restaurant. We went, heads low, to the gas station for dinner again.

After a great night sleep at the Vik Hostel we caught the early bird soak at the local hot pot. We were in the water by 7:30am! Many of the community hot pots are adjacent to the school, so when we came out from our sunrise soak we found evidence of the kids' commute.

We later witnessed their recess on the hill above the hostel.
Vik kids prepare for their sledding recess

Let the sledding begin!

But what Vik is most known for are the black sand beaches and sea stacks.

On the beach in Vik, Iceland.

Our route through Iceland
Thanks to Doug and Kari for sharing in the adventure in Island. See more photos on the right.