Channeling My Inner Kilian

Doug Mayer March 30th, 2015

A weekend running in Switzerland’s life-changing Alpstein

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Photos by Patitucciphoto

I am running smoothly through dramatically exposed alp pastures, a thousand meters above the lush Wasserauen valley. I turn a corner, grab a cable and skirt along a precipitous ledge. Next, I hit a sequence of via-ferrata-like steps, bolted into a ledge. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the rocky fins of the ridge across the valley. This place offers one alpine surprise after another.

For a brief moment, I channel 27-year-old Catalan Kilian Jornet, who has dominated distance and adventure trail running in the past couple of years. I have run from Courmayeur to Chamonix, over the summit of Mont Blanc. I hold the world record for the speediest ascent of the Matterhorn. Last spring, I shattered the fastest known time for an ascent of Alaska’s Denali.

My labored breathing and rapid pulse, however, interrupt my high-elevation reverie, and bring me back to reality. OK, so maybe I’m not Kilian. Still, Switzerland’s Alpstein will do that to you.

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Photos by Patitucciphoto

I am here with outdoor-sport photographers Dan and Janine Patitucci for a weekend of trail running. Their work has taken them to Annapurna with renowned alpinist Ueli Steck, into the surreal world of North Korea and to countless other rugged, lesser-traveled locales. Their home is Interlaken, Switzerland—the country’s epicenter for mountain sports. So where do the locals-in-the-know go when they want someplace quiet and dramatic? The Alpstein.

Here’s why: the Alpstein is easy to reach, located just an hour and 20 minutes from Zurich. Its small footprint makes it highly accessible—we parked at a trailhead known as Wasserauen, where the local rail line ends and a tram ferries visitors to Ebenalp, the 5,380-foot-high peak that marks the northern end of the range. In minutes, we were climbing uphill in the forest. Add to the easy access a collection of more than two dozen mountain huts and private Berggasthäuser (mountain guest houses), and the Alpstein is downright inviting. With a few reservations and a light sleep sack, you’re all set.

 

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Photos by Patitucciphoto

Our run starts with a 2,000-foot climb, and Dan takes off at a fast power hike. A former pro cyclist and now 46, he trains regularly with the uber-fit Steck. This year, his trail running totals will include over 325,000 feet of vertical.  He’s thin and strong, and has the aura of guy who can grab a few snacks, run mountains through the night and show up for breakfast in another country. I make sure not to push the pace. We have a full day ahead, and I don’t want Dan to look back and find he’s accidentally turned me into a quaking puddle of lactic acid.

Barely an hour in to our trip, our run brings us to the Berggasthaus Aescher-Wildkirchli (above), a lodge built—quite literally—into a cliff. I wouldn’t have flinched if a hobbit had come hopping out to us, offering two steins of the local Alpstein Bock. Inside, I walk past tables overflowing with röstis (a Swiss potato dish), sausages and alpler macaroni. I push farther into this quirky cliffside hotel, trying to comprehend what keeps the Aescher house defying the laws of physics. I don’t figure it out, but do notice something interesting: the back wall is, in fact, the cliff.

Our day’s just starting, so we don’t linger. Over the next couple of hours, we head another 1,000 feet up to Berggasthaus Schäfler, and scurry down a cabled descent. The trail twists and turns through a steep, high pasture. For a brief moment, we’re pointed downhill, and I’m running effortlessly. My Kilian dream returns. Is this what it feels like to be the world’s best trail runner? Coasting carefree through dramatic mountain terrain? The only one higher than me here, now, is the paraglider who’s floating nearby.

“Pretty cool, huh?” says Dan, as we stop for a photo break, pointing to the layers of peaks within view. The Alpstein is so dense with views it’s hard for my brain to process. Look one way, and narrow fins of ridges extend across the horizon. Look the other, and the terrain transitions from bucolic meadow to vertical cliff. Look up, and you see the Lego-like building that is the summit hotel on Säntis, at 8,200 feet.

“Who was the designer who built this movie set,” I ask, half in answer to Dan’s question, half wondering if the Alpstein is an optical illusion.

 

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Photos by Patitucciphoto

For Dan and Janine, though, I realize it is a kind of set—a wild, largely untamed backdrop for their photography, a dreamy setting into which viewers of their photos will travel in the millisecond it takes for a few synapses to fire.

Their job combines in-depth homework with the serendipity of mountain weather and ever-changing natural light. Before our trip, Janine had zoomed in on Google Earth, checking out views and possible shot locations. From beginning to end, they seem to tag-team effortlessly on their work. Janine scouts locations, and handles much of the post-shoot digital processing.  In the field, Dan does most of the shooting.

Dan and Janine complement each other personally, as well—they go back 15 years, when they met at a photography program at Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute of Photography. Janine, also 46, is very much a strong climber, backcountry skier and trail runner in her own right. Her gentle, easygoing demeanor, grounded in her Swiss upbringing, provides an understated calm that balances Dan’s joyful exuberance.

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Photos by Patitucciphoto

As the day goes on, I have more Kilian moments, zooming around sharp corners at race-car angles, pushing across through a high snowfield and speed hiking up a steep col. On the final climb up to the summit of Säntis, we hold cables to keep us from tumbling to the valley below. Always, however, my cardiovascular system tells me in no uncertain terms that, unlike Kilian, I don’t have the world’s highest measured VO2 max.

The Alpstein is challenging, no doubt about it. But, it is also very civilized. Atop Säntis, we break for Rivella (a carbonated drink made from—brace yourself—milk), Apfelschorle (fizzy apple juice) and a Kagi Fret (a chocolate wafer) that’s as close as the Swiss come to the guilty pleasures of junk food.

A few moments later, back on our run, we bump into a flock of sheep. I think to myself, these must be the happiest sheep on the planet. This view. That thick grass.

My Romantic musings are interrupted by more mundane matters. The day is fading, and we need to move along. More lush terrain through which to run, more clambering up and down the ridge. A few hundred meters from the Säntis hut, Dan and Janine stop and stare. It might be the best shot of the day, a panoramic view that takes in much of today’s route. The light softens as the sun moves below Säntis, which comes and goes from the clouds.

“Over there.” Dan points.

“Panorama,” Janine responds.

Dan directs Janine and me: “Run toward me. Space yourself. I’m changing lenses.”

“Dan, the light!” Janine’s got an eye on the sky.  We need to hurry.

Repeat, and repeat again, as the last light from the day fades below the horizon. A few days later, I’ll see the end result—Janine and I running snaking singletrack on a ridge towering over two wild valleys.

A minute later, we are at the hut at Rotsteinpass. Our timing is perfect.

Dry clothes. A washbasin. Water. A chance to recap the day’s adventures with new company. Friendly hut wardens. Rösti with eggs. Everything I want right now is right here.

 

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Photos by Patitucciphoto

The next morning, I think to myself, “How can you top a day like yesterday?” The Alpstein has an answer ready, though; five minutes into our morning, we are leap-frogging our way past a family of steinbock, a species of wild goat native to the Alps. I clutch steel cables on the way up 8,000-foot-high Altmann, while they hop along far more technical routes. They must tell jokes about us when we’re not around, I think. “Those klutzes with two legs, no hooves … what’s their problem?”

Later that morning, we find ourselves running through passing clouds. The layers of cloud that hovered on the horizon the evening before are now shrouding the peaks all around. We stop in at Zwinglepasshütte, a hut managed by the local  branch of the Swiss Alpine Club, to get out of the mist. Dry hut shoes, a toasty warm cabin and smiling caretakers are always a reliable antidote for damp conditions. Warm cups of Ovomaltine draw the chill out of our fingers.

Still, you have to work with what the mountains give you. So, reinvigorated, we push back out into the fog, moving through wet, cloud-covered meadows. We catch ethereal glimpses of cows, sheep and hikers, as we pass each other in the fog. We move up and down cols, past remote farms tucked into deep ravines and more cozy huts, the smoke from the wood stoves alerting us to their presence before we see them. Even Kilian must have days like this, I think. I remember a line of his from his book Run or Die. “The important thing,” he writes, “is to keep moving.”

In time, we reach the car, and, reluctantly, leave the Alpstein behind. The range is enchanting, in the true sense of a word that’s been badly abused: it casts a spell, it charms or bewitches. Returning to Interlaken, the Switzerland I know, I feel as if I have been given privileged access to a secret kingdom.

I know I’ll be back. How can I not? Places like this settle in one’s heart. On the train ride home from Dan and Janine’s, a few days later, I thumb through my list of favorite quotes, trying to put my finger on the one that best describes the Alpstein. It’s from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Earth,” she writes, “is crammed with heaven.”

 

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Photos by Patitucciphoto

 

TRAILHEAD: Alpstein, Switzerland

Getting there. The Alpstein is located in Appenzell Canton, in the northwest corner of Switzerland, just 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the Swiss city of St. Gallen. The most popular starting point is Schwägalp, about a two-hour trip from Zurich by train and bus
(www.sbb.ch).

Our trip began at Wasserauen, also about two hours from Zurich by train. There’s ample overnight parking there, if you’re driving, and you can take the tram to Ebenalp, if you want less vertical.

Seasons. Stick to July, August and early September. Though the range tops out at just over 8,000 feet, the terrain is steep, so lingering snow
may present a challenge in some areas.

Accommodations. The cliff-bound Aescher is a unique place to start a trip. Rooms are shared, and start at 45 Swiss francs, or about $50.  Book at aescher-ai.ch. Take the tram from Wasserauen to get there more quickly.

Meglisalp Inn (meglisalp.ch), ringed by the range, makes for a stunning base and offers private rooms. It’s about a two-hour hike from the last post bus stop. The Hotel Alpenrose (alpenrose-ai.ch), closer to Wasserauen, is a more accessible option.

Maps, weather. Order from omnimap.com, use the online mapping tool at map.wanderland.ch, or download maps at www.swisstopo.admin.ch, and don’t forget to check the weather at MeteoSwiss (meteoswiss.admin.ch) before you go! Unlike in much of Switzerland, luggage can’t be moved from inn to inn, so be ready to travel light.

More info. Tourist and trail info, webcams and much more are available at the Appenzell region tourism site (appenzell.info/en), including a comprehensive listing of all hotels and mountain huts in the region.

Insider Tip. Take the side trail around Fählensee to Fählenalp and have tea with the family, their cows and chickens. You won’t regret it.

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