Fate had different plans for me of course. When I arrived in Airolo at the end of my train leg of the trip, the weather had gone from bad (in Zurich when I left) to worse (when I arrived at the last stop). I expected the opposite because it was supposed to get nicer the further south I went, so my potentially glorious train ride through some amazing territory was ruined by incessant fretting about the weather and an obsession with looking over each hill for the bit of blue sky that never came. The trouble is that it’s not smart to just go for it, especially when you’re an inexperienced hiker like I am, so I was really concerned that I’d have to just come home.
As luck would have it, the two Italian speaking women at the information desk of the train station proved extremely helpful and made it their mission on the slow rainy day to help this soaked and distressed traveler. It actually turned into a fun 45 minutes because I got a chance to speak some Italian in a real conversational setting as opposed to a last resort in Zurich trying to get a Swiss person to understand me. In the end, I changed my route to accommodate the weather delay and chose a shorter safer pass in case the rain returned to ‘downpour’ mode. Luckily, by the time my bus left to take me to the new trail head, the rain had subsided and was replaced by a misty haze with a few pockets of blue trying desperately to make an appearance.
I was bummed about the change at the beginning because my Saturday hike turned from an epic 5 hour 1200 m climb to a modest 300 m ascent up a gentle path. I arrived at the new hut around 5 pm not tired and not ready to relax, so I decided to do a little mini roundtrip hike to a small lake that was up another 400 m from the hut. GREAT idea I must say—though not my own as my Italian friends suggested it—because that little lake made the entire weekend worthwhile and immediately rectified my planning errors/bad luck .
Lago delle Pigne is an amazing place. It sits at 2250 m hidden on a tiny plateau amidst the ridgeline and neighboring alps. With the sky as it was, the lake resembled a pool of almost black ink with only the shallow edges reflecting a less sinister greenish blue. The surrounding ridge and slightly elevated adjacent pastures protect it from the prevailing winds that course through the valley. For my hour spent there, Lago delle Pigne was frozen in time, totally still and perfectly silent. The amount of snow that falls in this region makes for epic summertime melts. There was water all over the place throughout every leg of the weekend hike, which was a new Swiss mountain phenomenon for me. My previous hike, though beautiful and breathtaking, was dry and almost arid at the upper reaches of its peaks. Not so in Val Bedretto. On the way to Lago delle Pigne I crossed the first of many alpine streams and waterfalls, which do their part to create these little lakes like Lago delle Pigne. To be near water changes everything somehow. The constant feeling of motion brought on by the water and the melting of the snow reminds you of the seasonal transition there that never has enough time to complete, as the approaching fall’s temperatures and the following winter’s snowfall begin an entire new cycle of precipitation.
Back to the mountains! Well fed and fairly tired, I hit the sack only to battle the ruthless snoring of a guy in another bunk who I immediately found myself hating more than anyone else in the world. How he did not wake himself up from the heinous symphony of decongestion I do not know. With nowhere else to turn, I listened to some Harry Potter and finally got to sleep to the comforting sounds of Jim Dale.
The first leg of my hike rolled through green pastures in the valley accented by the odd cow here and there. The trail began around 1900 m and went up and down a fair amount, ending around 2000 m at the base of the climb towards the mountain hut at Corno Greis. That climb was short and enjoyable, with lots of fun and friendly hikers along the way. I met a dog named Scott and tons of Italian speakers, which put me in a great mood. Scott actually found another dog to play with, got distracted, and completely lost his owner, so I helped lead him back down the trail until he heard the distant familiar cry of the man yelling “Scott!”.
Capanna (mountain hut) Corno Greis is new construction and I must say boasts some pretty impressive architectural characteristics considering its location and function. I was immediately inspired by its materiality and I think that when I renovate my mountain hut I will recall Capanna Corno Greis. The people there were really hospitable and offered suggestions for the next leg of the trip. Because I was moving really quickly, my original plan didn’t include enough distance, so I added an extra 3 hours to the day by continuing deeper into the valley past Corno Greis and then returning back to that point to continue my original route.
GREAT IDEA. I found so much snow, another beautiful lake, and a massive reservoir that looked like something out of a James Bond movie. The trail was absolutely spectacular. I really like long generally flat trails where you can eat up distance without struggling with too much up and down. Ascents are great, but I really liked being able to get a lot of mileage on that stretch. I even did some trail running through the pass, which added some excitement and got the heart rate up. I reached another mountain pass to the south that opened up into another adjacent valley that was entirely Italy. The mountains in the distance there reached a much higher elevation and the lake at the base was even further towards sea level in the opposite direction. The wind was howling through there. It was just epic.
The view from this part of the day was majestic. On my last hike I was just shocked at how varied the textures of the Swiss mountains are, with trees, lakes, pastures, rocks, and the odd patch of snow. Here that condition was amplified a thousand fold. The valley began 800 m below my perch at 2200 with a river that receives all of the water from the waterfalls and streams coming down from the mountains. The area around the river at that elevation is lush with foliage: green fields with dense pine forest sretching part way up the adjacent ridgelines to the north and south. At the end of the tree line, the green pastures stretch up another couple hundred meters and disperse in various paths and patterns until the terrain turns almost completely rocky, with patches of green and color interspersed seeping out from the lines cut into the ridge by the many water flows. Eventually the rocky terrain turns nearly vertical and transitions to the dominant ridges and snow covered peaks. In between the peaks, instead of the grass turning to rock, the green pastures wrap into the space between the mountains and add another amazing element to the scene: huge rolling sections of luscious green that wind through the snowy peaks. When you add the sky, which was that brilliant Italian blue sky, the resulting palette gets your attention.
The walk that offered the view of what I just described led me to one of those flat areas in between two peaks. The path from there takes you to Passo San Giaccomo, which is the pass that sits right along the Italian-Swiss border. This was of course an exciting moment, even though the view from that junction paled in comparison to some of the other places I'd been over the weekend. It was fun to have one foot in Switzerland and one in Italy. Even though the last place I was in Italy was hours away and over 2000 m lower in elevation, it still felt good to be home.
Unfortunately, my glorious return to Italy was cut short as my hike continued back through Switzerland. I then had to descend 800 m into the valley to the bus stop that would start my journey home. It was 3:25 at that point and the descent was supposed to take 1h 25min. The bus I wanted to be on was at 4:11 and the next one wouldn’t come until 6:30. I had no idea where the path led and how long it would actually take, so I decided to not watch the time and descend at a comfortable but slightly quicker pace than usual. The walk down was technical for the first half and absolutely fantastic for the second. Once I got past the disorganized rocky terrain that was kind of a "take whatever path you want" situation, the trail began to level out as it wove through the pine forest. It was so neat to be lost in the humid and hot forest after being up with snow covered mountains only an hour before.
I was absolutely exhausted at that point. I did not know it at the time, but I was heading into my 15th mile of the day by the end of it all, and I was definitely beginning to feel the burn. I had no idea what time it was and I figured that I would miss this bus and try to find out another way to get to the train station. Just as I had basically resolved to follow that plan, the road came into view from the trail. About 2 minutes after that I saw the bus fly by and with my heavy pack on and my tired legs below me I burst into a full on sprint, bouldering through the forest past other confused hikers. Finally, the riverside path met a bridge, and I crossed over and up a staircase to the road, where the bus was in sight, stopped in the town of All'Acqua. Sure that it would leave at any second, I kicked in the afterburners. Just as the right side of the bus came into view I saw the doors close. I was within range of flaling my arms and yelling something useful in Italian, so I ripped off the t shirt that was wrapped around my head to protect my neck from the sun and started waving it while running down the street with my pack flying all over the place. That combined with "ASPETTA ASPETTA ASPETTA", which means "wait wait wait", saved the day. The bus driver opened the doors and I stumbled into a cabin filled with senior citizens who appeared to have just finished a leisurely 12 minute guided tour.
When a car overheats and you pull over to the side of the road, the disguising wind is gone and you recognize that the engine is spewing smoke and emitting strange odors. I definitely experienced the human version of that as the world that was moving so fast for the previous 8 minutes halted to a dead stop inside the bus cabin, where all the sweat that didn't have time to escape during the frantic sprint just dominated my situation. I can't imagine I was a welcome addition to the bus, but man was that a clutch effort. A perfect sporting end to a physically challenging and spectacular day.
All in all, I traveled over 30 km that weekend, doing about 7 on Saturday and 25 on Sunday. I started at 1500 m, reached the highest point at 2550, and finished again back at 1500, with too many ascents and descents in there to calculate. Let's just say that I'm still exhausted and when I woke up in Zurich on Monday morning, I felt like I had been hiking for a week. That's just unbeatable baby.