Take a hike

Tomorrow is August 1st, Switzerland’s Fourth of July. In every village of the country, celebrations commemorate the pact that was signed in 1291 by the the three founding cantons of Uri, Schwytz and Nidwald. Bonfires are built to evoke the smoke-signal communications technology that was used in the middle ages. Several days beforehand, huge piles of wood are stacked together in preparation. When they’re lit, the villages’ volunteer firefighters stand, hoses trained steadily on the fire, as it burns higher and higher into the night, sparks shooting up into the air. This must be what my 40 franc annual firefighter tax is for.

I like the bonfire much better than the fireworks that come just afterward. It’s just so primal. Did I mention that I’m a pyromaniac?  I just love poking burning logs and making the flame catch. I never saw a bonfire this big until I came here. They could never do this in New Mexico or the entire state would catch fire. Make that the entire Southwest.
August is also prime hiking season in the Alps. And (much to Luc’s chagrin) we’ve made that a tradition, too. Every summer we don our packs and set off on a multi-day, hut-to-hut ambulatory adventure.

A few years ago we spent 11 days walking through 3 countries around Europe’s highest mountain, Mt Blanc. Every day we went up (and back down) about 1000m (over 3000 feet). The first couple of nights our legs were screaming, but then they gave up when it was apparent we weren’t going to give in.

Last summer we did a 6-day tour around another massif, the Grand Combin. It snowed on us one night, and had it not been for the guided group that we graciously allowed to head out an hour before us the next morning, we would never have found the trail, which went over a high pass and was hidden under a foot of fresh snow. The following day we found fields of Eidelweiss just over the Italian border and marveled as a mountain biker appeared on a ridge above us, riding down through the slush.

There’s something appealing about the simplicity of just walking from one place to another. It’s an incredible respite from the hectic reality we inhabit the rest of the time. No computer, no telephone, no e-mail. It’s slow. You don’t cover much mileage walking, particularly when it involves so much up and down. When we arrive at the hut, we just hang out, read or play cards. I feel like I’m Frodo, except I’m not heading for Mordor.

This is definitely not backpacking. I like to think it has all the good bits – getting out on the trail, away from everything – and none of the bad bits – the heavy packs, the bear bags, the dehydrated food, the lack of beer, the pitching of tents in the rain. This is like backpacking “light,” with room service on arrival.

The huts always have plenty of wine, often scrumptious pies. Everybody eats dinner together. Hard-core mountaineers laden with serious gear rise before dawn (hopefully quietly) to tackle the peaks, but the rest of us “trekkers” eat a leisurely breakfast and then shoulder our packs, wave goodbye, and head for the next hut.

We learned the hard way to take along earplugs, because logs-in-a-row style dormitory sleeping guarantees at least one serious snorer in the room. Hiking seven hours over a mountain pass on zero sleep is not fun.

We also learned to take hats, mittens, warm clothes and rain gear — did I mention the rogue snowstorm last year? We were equipped! No problem! A few years before we had headed out with Max, the 15-year old son of friends from Baltimore.  We encountered some horizontal sleet on a high schist pass. The trail was invisible. We were in the cloud. We could barely see each other, much less where we were going. Max had forgotten the bottom part of his zip-off pants and the ice was driving into his calves.

Fortunately some people were coming in the other direction and showed us where the trail was. We hiked at mach speed to the hut on the other side and huddled in front of the fire, sipping hot soup and congratulating ourselves for not dying of hypothermia. I don’t know what he told his parents but it must have been impressive, along the lines of “I’ve never been so cold/scared/freaked out/what were you THINKING sending me off hiking with these lunatics?” with much better things to do than traipse around a block of granite for days on end, listening to middle-aged hikers snoring all night and climbing one wearying pass after another all day, just to end up at the same place they started. But we’re still the parents, and this is what we do, so they’ve (grudgingly) signed up for one more year.

This summer I found a peewee tour, just four days, three nights — two of the nights we won’t even have to share a dormitory! — around a mountain that straddles the French-Swiss Border, Mt Ruan.

There’s one little section that does involve chains and metal bits anchored to the rock, but the (teenage) boys like that kind of stuff. We’ll revisit the scary pass we did with Max, and hopefully see what it looks like when visibility is greater than zero. If we have the energy, we can scramble up the Haut Cime, the pièce de résistance of the Dents du Midi.

SO – and this is where I’ve been heading with this all along – I won’t be posting on the blog next week. If I don’t post for a couple of weeks, it might be a good idea to have someone send out a search party. But the good news is that Dave has agreed to do a guest post from the Black Hat / Defcon conference in Las Vegas! Yes! Dave says that Black Hat is a computer security conference with serious speakers and everything, and Defcon is like hacker heaven. “They set up a secure server and award prizes for whoever breaks into it first.” 

He has assured me that this is where any geek worth anything goes to show off his hacking skills and share his geek wisdom and hacking secrets with others of his kind. You’ll see what I mean if you go to the websites and look at the titles of the talks. I really wanted to go with him and look at it from an anthropological viewpoint, but it didn’t work out this year. I’ll have ask him if any of them wore ties.

So Dave is going to report live – with pictures – from the conference next week. You will have an insider’s view of Hacker Heaven. How great is that?? And when I get back, I’ll post some pictures from Hiker Heaven. If I don’t forget my camera, like I did last year.

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