Riley had a few days off from class, and since we were so close to Germany during Oktoberfest season we decided to venture into Germany, settling on Münster and Düsseldorf. I had originally opposed Münster declaring that it wasn’t really one of my favorite cheeses, only to find out later that Munster cheese as Americans know it is an entirely American product. There is also a completely different French Muenster cheese, similar-looking to brie, but regardless the Münster in Germany has nothing to do with either. [Riley: I got this completely mixed up when I was talking to my parents. I have no idea what they believe now.]
Despite the cheese misgivings, after a little research it seemed like an appealing town, so we hopped on a train in the morning and were in Münster by lunch. We rented bikes at the train station and navigated in a roundabout way to our accommodation [Riley: had a lil’ trouble with the maps] which turned out to be in a spare dorm of local practical college. Odd - but why not? We stopped by the highly recommended Balkan Hutte for lunch (turns out there are a lot of Balkan transplants in Münster) and were promptly reminded of our translation ignorance when Riley unknowingly ordered liver. [Riley: I like most foods; liver is not one of them. One bite…bleh.] Luckily my plate of sausages and grilled pork was more than enough for both of us. We enjoyed two 45-minute loops cycling around scenic Lake Aasee before finding the Schlossgarten botanical gardens. When we finally biked into the city center to see the St Paulus Dom cathedral, we discovered is was the 750th anniversary of the cathedral! The whole town was festooned with banners for the occasion and party tents were set up all over. We just missed the festivities but Münster was abuzz with excitement. While having a drink on the plaza we decided there was a large number of very posh shops for an otherwise small town. We ended the day with a cozy traditional dinner and local beers [Riley: no liver this time, so happy], topped off with tasty beers at a neighboring brewery before heading home. On to Düsseldorf!
Düsseldorf had its own buzz with a waterfront Oktoberfest festival and busy shopping streets in the city center. Plenty of breweries claimed their local altbier was the best. We tried several but rendered no judgment. We had a fantastic vegetarian lunch at a packed spot before wandering to their newly redeveloped waterfront, including a spacey new office building and a space needle copycat, the Rheinturm, at the top of which we relaxed with refreshing beverages. We walked along the waterfront and grabbed an early dinner before attending the Düsseldorf symphony performance in re-purposed planetarium. Riley MAY have had a snooze or two. [Riley: at least three snoozes and 2 twitches.] We realized we should have saved energy for late-night partying because we passed by endless clubs pumping house music on our walk home through the Old City. Drunk Germans everywhere. We took a day trip to Koln the next day to visit the Dom cathedral and enjoy some waterfront kolsch. The riverfront was as lively and vibrant as I remembered it. I suggested Riley take notes for his future planning work on my idea of an ideal waterfront. We drank more than our fair share of beer by the liter back at Düsseldorf’s Oktoberfest that night. [Riley: Prost.]
It was a sluggish trip to Maastricht the next morning but a lovely day for wandering the streets. We had a cozy lunch (mustard soup for Riley!) and climbed around the city’s old walls and gates. A tour of the old basilica, ice cream samples, a church-turned-coffeeshop-and-bookstore, and finally, a relaxing glass of wine with which to watch the world go by. Next was a concert by the Four Aces classical guitar quartet. I loved this group. They ended their regular set with what turned out to be my favorite of their pieces, Hungarian Rhapsody #2, and Riley particularly enjoyed their more contemporary stuff, especially pieces with traditional Spanish guitar bits. The venue was a teeny old chapel that fit about 30-40 people. We couldn’t understand a single word of the host’s introduction or what the group leader said between pieces. Oh well. Everyone else chuckled quite a few times. My restaurant selection for dinner missed the mark a little but we had a wonderful night and got to relish these fun opportunities we’re so lucky to have.
For starters, I made it to the top of Mont Blanc (and back) safely last Wednesday, 17 September. It was a fantastic climb, one of my all-time favorites.
To get to Chamonix, we exercised our planes, trains, and automobile skills over the course of an 11-hour travel day. The apartment I had rented devolved into a confusing debacle which I'll skip here. Needless to say, I booked a different hotel that very evening even though I had prepaid for apartment. I'm still fighting for my full refund. The service we received was poetically bad so I will not desist until I win.
Chamonix itself was lovely. Many pedestrian-only streets full of shops and restaurants -a lot like Zermatt, in fact, but much cheaper. The town has a great vibe in fall, even though everyone was busy getting ready for shoulder season. Many of the lifts closed the day we arrived, and the mountain huts would close not long after. Despite those hurdles, we had a lovely hike 1500 meters up to Le Brevent on the west side of the Chamonix valley.
I climbed with Justin, a fire captain from San Francisco, and Lionel, our guide for the Chamonix guide service. I met Justin at 6 pm the night before our climb when I wandered into the guide office in search of a new guide. My first guide had to bow out at the last minute with a knee injury, and I had to scramble to find a back-up. Fortunately, Justin had already arranged for a guide when I met him so he and I were able to split the cost, saving each of us hundreds of euros. The King of Luck wins again.
We started our march to the top the previous Tuesday morning, 16 September, with a 7 am bus ride to the Bellevue telecabine. The telecabine (or gondola if you prefer) didn't leave until 8 am so we still had time to nip over to the bar next door for an eye-opener before the lift took off, as it were. Taking the lift saved us 800 meters of vertical gain, dropping us off at 1800 meters above sea level. After disembarking from the lift our hike was uneventful. We eventually met Lionel at 11:30 am at Refuge de Tete Rousse at about 3100 meters.
From there we donned our climbing helmets and roped up with Lionel to make the scramble up to Refuge du Gouter, our stop for the day. The scrambling was straightforward, no real difficulty. Given that the climbing was so easy I seriously questioned why we needed to be short-roped together for the 700 m climb. Such a restriction is very awkward and not needed when you have experience scrambling.
Anyway, I digress. We reached the Refuge at 2 pm, just in time to enjoy coffee and a deliciously fudge-y dessert. We relaxed until dinner, chatting with other climbers from the U.S. and Germany. Dinner was a three-course feast, great preparation for our strenuous efforts in the morning. From there to bed, though sleep was hard to come by due to excitement, mountain gas, and the high temperature in the sleeping bays. Although I laid down by 8:30 pm and got up at 2:30 am, I'm positive I didn't sleep much more than two hours.
I woke up at 2:30, ready to go. Scarfed a few slices of bread with nutella and jam as well as a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. Crossed my fingers that the coffee wouldn't work its magic too quickly. We marched out the door of the refuge at 3:36 am into a warm, slightly moonlit night. We donned headlamps since the visibility was minimal. Unfortunately, my headlamp stopped working about 15 min into the climb. 'Bloody batteries,' I thought. Oddly enough, the spare batteries I put in later also blinked out after about 15 min. After both of my camera batteries flatlined I finally decided that the cold was zapping the juice from the batteries. Sure enough, upon my return to warmer temps the camera and headlamp both worked without a problem.
The climb up the glacier was mostly uneventful. Beautiful night gave way to even more beautiful sunrise as we slowly made our way to the top. The climbing wasn't difficult, though crampons were a must. We also carried our ice axes in case of a fall, but they weren't really needed, either. We reached the top, 4810 meters above sea level, about 7:20 am, about 3 hours 45 minutes after we began. We weren't the first group on the top that morning, nor we the last. Luckily, we had the summit all to ourselves for the 15 min we spent on top. Took many photos of the surrounding mountains, Chamonix far down in the valley below, and ourselves, of course.
The way back down was much faster than the way up, for we reached the Refuge du Gouter at about 9:20 am. We went so quickly, in fact, Justin's knee was causing him considerable pain. He tried to get Lionel to slow down, but to no avail. Lionel appeared to be one a mission to return to the refuge before most of the other guided climbers.
After relaxing in the refuge for about 45 minutes we continued our downclimb to the Refuge de Tete Rousse. As before, we donned climbing helmets and harnesses and stowed our crampons. Scrambling down while short-roped was even worse than climbing up, especially with Justin's bad knee. We persevered anyway since we didn't have a choice. When we crossed the couloir we had to return to safety on our first try due to rockfall. Not long before we started crossing we watched a bowling ball-sized rock whiz by, then shatter into deadly shards far below us. Very exciting.
We crossed uneventfully, though, and soon enough arrived at the refuge. We bid goodbye to Lionel and kept on to the bottom of the mountain. We finally reached the bottom of the Bellevue telecabine about 3:15 pm. After a brief beverage stop to refresh ourselves we caught the bus back to Chamonix. I walked in the door and hugged Tracy at about 4:30 pm.
We celebrated that night at a French-Asian fusion joint. It was solid. After a leisurely morning the following day we made Savoie-style fondue our send-off meal. We ate it all, the entire pot of cheese. Oof-da. If you have never had the cheese sweats - trust me, they are real, and they are weird. I felt strangely for the rest of the day, but even worse, Tracy didn't fully recover until more than 24 hours later. It made the nearly 12 hours we spent traveling back to Groningen a test of will.
It was totally worth it, cheese sweats and all. I would do it again tomorrow.
The original plan was to do the official Three Peaks Challenge: climb the highest peaks in Scotland, England, and Wales in under 24 hours. I agreed enthusiastically and even volunteered to be Riley’s driver (since the hikers need to sleep between hikes). Then I read about The Challenge for myself and found it involved 10 hours of driving, just between the peaks, not including to/from the airport. The Challenge didn’t sound as much fun to me under those circumstances. In the end we settled on what I called the “Peaks and Pubs Adventure” where we both climbed one mountain per day, took time to enjoy at least one pub each place we went, and shared the driving.
It was a long haul from The John Lennon Liverpool airport (complete with giant yellow submarine outside) to Fort William, Scotland, finishing the drive down a long windy one-way road to the bunkhouse where we were staying – rustic sleeping bunks but a wonderful cozy bar with delicious hearty food. We stopped not once, not twice, but THREE times at the local Spar convenience store to pick up hiking snacks and breakfast food before finally settling in for the night. (I should note that after seeing there was a fridge for campers to share for breakfast foods and such, Riley came back from one trip with Magnum bars, intending to put them in the freezer. When he returned he discovered there wasn’t a freezer we were forced to eat them as appetizers before dinner. This did not keep Riley from having a large brownie sundae after dinner.) We rose early the next day and hit the trail by 7 am. It was hard to tell if the sun was up yet due to the fog and light rain, but we plowed ahead anyway. There were lots of cairns to guide our way. It was for the best that we couldn’t see much since we traversed past some deep plunging ravines at the top; they turned my stomach, even in the fog. After three hours of resolute hiking we found ourselves completely alone on the fogged-in peak with safety refuges, monuments, and the ruins of old refuges. Due to our early start we passed hundreds of people trudging up as we hiked down. At the bottom we celebrated with beers, soup, and yet another large brownie sundae (3 scoops of ice cream this time!) for Riley.
Then we started driving. Our afternoon drive stretched into evening, and we struggled in the dark to find our hidden B&B near Scafell Pike in England. We finally arrived around 9 pm and immediately crashed into bed. We woke to a sunny view of the valley and English sheep the next morning. A hearty English breakfast prepared us for our hike, which was a more crowded than Scafell Pike but pleasant nonetheless. It was a bit foggy again at the top, but as we came down and escaped the clouds we had a beautiful view down the valley to a narrow lake and the Irish Sea beyond. We managed to find a local microbrewery for a celebratory half pint before hitting the road to Wales.
We hit the travel jackpot by meeting Rose at her home in Manchester along the way. It was quite lucky she was actually home for the weekend. We were able to observe what her life in Manchester is like (as I’ve only known Rose in Ireland and Scotland and miscellaneous travels. Morocco is next, and hopefully NZ in the not-too-distant future!). She graciously let us take showers (best for everyone involved) before treating us to a wonderful Indonesian meal. It was such a treat to be so far from home yet be welcomed into Rose’s home.
Riley resumed primary driving responsibilities, claiming he was enjoying the windy country roads in our manual transmission rental car. Several hours later, even Riley’s enthusiasm waned by the time we got to Snowdon. We tucked into our bunk beds at our hostel, then slipped out early the next morning to beat the rush at the mountain. Good thing we did, as it turned out. We got one of the very last parking spots at the trail head. The peak had multiple routes to choose from; we opted to hike up a scenic valley, replete with a series of lakes. We went down the opposite side of the mountain ridge. Snowdon was packed with groups, especially for charity, and was the busiest of the three mountains. Although the shortest of the three peaks, the path was a little longer than the trail up Scafell Pike, thus making it fairly approachable for all ages, and manageable for most fitness levels. It even offered a more advanced route if you were so inclined. (We thought our fitness levels were sufficient for the advanced route, but I nearly had an anxiety attack just thinking about the half-mile knife-ridge section we’d have to traverse. We stuck with a more straightforward trail.) We stopped at a local hotel/bar that a friendly fellow hiker on Scafell Pike had recommended for refreshments. Snowdon had been used as a training ground for the first team to summit Everest. Some had left climbing gear as souvenirs and signed the low wood-beamed ceiling. Coupled with good food, it made for a lovely lunch before we returned to the airport.