Haute Route Day 11 – above Gruben to above St. Niklaus – Snickers Power Camp to (Cookie)Engagement Camp
Kilometers hiked: 15-ish
Total Kilometers: 289.5
Haute Kilometers: 148
Passes remaining: 0
Differing opinions: 4
Ladders climbed: 1
Peeing bears: 1
Last night was maybe only the second or third time of the entire trip that it actually rained real rain at night, bigly. We got some pretty big time rain. The tarp was pitched optimistically, with a tall entrance, not giving much thought to the wind direction, so when it did start blowing sideways, we got a bit wet. By the time I woke up around 1am, Spice was damp and getting damper. Fortunately, her quilt is synthetic, so the moisture wouldn’t threaten her warmth, but it still seemed like a lame way to spend the night. I was doing alright with my umbrella blocking my half of the ‘door’. I hung my rain jacket across Spice’s half, a trick I’d seen on the internet, but never used. As long as it didn’t get too windy, it would hold. Crisis averted. Sleep. Rain. Morning.
Morning began with the terrifying realization that the Matterhorn is not a real mountain. Each view of the peak so far had yielded only cloud and we were closer to its supposed location on day 4, walking away ever since. We figured that it’s a marketing scheme invented by the Swiss government to promote tourism and sell Toblerones. The real truth is that everyone has a Matterhorn within. A personal objective, attained only after a long, demanding journey, but nothing that can be seen or felt. Frantically, I flipped to the end of the guidebook, expecting to find an admission of this truth, while wishing I had read it cover to cover before this moment. Nothing. If Kev Reynolds and the good people at Cicerone were in on it, they were playing it close to the chest.
And the morning horror didn’t end there. We finished the bag cake! Breakfast without this essential component would be unbearable. Now we absolutely needed to make it to town today. But for real, the morning was actually beautiful. In fact, my notes say “so beautiful.” That’s how beautiful it was. There were still clouds floating about, but they were thinly spread and flat. No heaping scoops of mashed potatoes yet. Our immediate vicinity was shaded, but Meidpass and the bowl below was illuminated in a golden light way across the valley. Damn, we hiked a long way yesterday. We tried drying stuff out, but our efforts were mostly futile. My shoes had been drenched by the pour-off from the tarp and literally had puddles in them. Eh. We got squelching back to the trail at the usual 10am.
While filling up at the local creek, we got bum rushed by a small, friendly group of cows, but otherwise the remaining climb to the next pass was unremarkable in its simple perfectness. This was just like the approach to Meidpass the day before. Vibrant green, open views. Even the granite was covered in especially green lichen. The trail was busy with the hotel wavers who got an early start from Gruben so we found ourselves spread amongst strangers.
Alamo was waiting for me as I completed the final switchback, both hiking quickly and trying to cover my gasps so as to look super cool to the group of strangers grouped at the pass. I think I nailed it. Spice and Gryllz close behind. Augstbordpass(2894m). The last pass/col/thing of the entire route. I had mixed feelings about this. Even knowing that there was still plenty of good hiking to go, I felt in no rush for this trip to end. The last pass, even if it was a few days from the end, was the first of many lasts. This one didn’t matter so much, but each and every one to come would hurt a little bit more. The end was coming. You push it out of mind, but reminders stack up, becoming harder to ignore, until…
The crowds got moving, a pass-baguette disappeared, Gryllz entertained all with her one-bite approach to Oreos. We snapped a group pic, then got moving away from the cold, windy col. Maybe we were all feeling a little melancholy because we stuck unusually close to one another as the trail descended through more of the same terrain. Alamo started laying down some excellent limericks*, one describing each of us, that kept us laughing as the trail rounded a rocky spur and rain started to fall. The trail became slick, but we were surefooted goats by this point so there was no drama. At least not until the real goats showed up. A small herd coming our way down the trail decided the salt on our knees was the best thing in the world, tenderly licking at first before getting a bit toothier. I was initially amused, but quickly became concerned as the swarm ignored our gentle prodding with poles and umbrella. I stared deep into the abyss of those strange eyes and shuddered. There was no soul there. Nothing behind that gaze. Not a shred of recognizable emotion. We broke free and fled down the trail, tongues flicking behind us. Spice’s bell seemed to attract them and we gave her up for dead. But she made it.
We discussed what we would do with a drunken sailor as we dropped. I led us the wrong way for 20 minutes of bonus climbing. We finally made it to Jungen, another idyllic hamlet perched high on the side of another awesome valley, just in time for lunch. The sun was hot as we ate and considered the big peaks at the head of the Mattertal, our final valley. Of course, the Matterhorn remained elusive. We were not yet pure enough at heart to gaze upon our quarry. Shockingly, I had underestimated the effort and time required to reach the next sure camp spot. Drastically underestimated. It was after 4pm and by the guidebook estimations we had roughly 6 hours of hiking left in order to get down through town, then back up the other side to open terrain. Whoops. We couldn’t do that. I was very conscious of how lame, grinding the last two evenings of hiking had been and wanted to prevent a repeat. We were ahead of schedule. Calling it a day at 5pm sounded like a good idea to me. But I wasn’t solo. This wasn’t my decision to make alone. We would keep hiking. Maybe get lucky with a campsite in an unexpected place. In the back of my mind I heard, “The trail provides. Don’t worry.”
This contentious topic had divided the group, and now there was a palpable sense of awkwardness between us. My friends, bless their hearts, are too nice to have a real argument, opting to bend rather than break, so we were left bent out of shape. Hiking would fix this. Forced jokes and smiles showed eagerness to make up and move on, but hiking would fix this. We hiked. Apart. Together. Into St. Niklaus.
We struck out trying to find camping on the approach to town so now we were left with the unenviable task of rushing a resupply, our last, and hiking steeply out of town once more. Spice found wifi to check for an Airbnb or cheap hotel, but there was nothing in range for our kind of trash. While she did this, Gryllz, Alamo, and I filled baskets without much discretion at the Denner with 15 minutes before closing at 6:30pm. Three more days? Shit, is this enough? Awe hell, more snickers, more bread. That should do it. The important thing is that they had beets. And mystery marshmallow things. We filled our bottles at yet another fancy fountain, then got hiking out of town in the spitting rain. Haha, oh boy. Here we go again.
My mood mirrored the gray skies above as we climbed steeply through and out of town. The route was a bit fiddly, which didn’t help. Hiking would fix this. But it wasn’t. I think it’s fair to say that I’m generally a happy person. I consider happiness to be a choice. This has been an empowering realization in my life. I was choosing happiness here, but it wasn’t working for some reason. Stress accumulating during the last difficult evenings, stress of trying to keep everyone cheerful. Fear for the end of the trail, fear of goodbye. I couldn’t shake it. I thought to myself, this is why I normally hike solo. You skip this crap completely. Take a breath. C’mon, you’re in the Alps with great friends. Get over it! One cruddy afternoon is well worth it for the laughter and excellent memories. Man, I was so right. This was awesome, but I love how I can always be humbled by the realization that people are people, and human interaction will never be entirely comfortable or simple. Strangers, friends, lovers. Doesn’t matter. I was still in a dark mood, but had turned the page. Hiking would fix this.
When the trail disappeared into some major roadwork, all of a sudden that sign we had seen 20 minutes ago made sense. Too late now. Alamo and I did some running reconnaissance to discover that it would only take one ladder and 100 yards of roadwalking to get us back on route. This is what we did. This is true thru-hiking. What an adventure. We are unstoppable. It turned out that this was our final obstacle to conquer for the day. Just above the construction we found an overlook at the end of an empty dirt lane. We were dead tired. We needed to camp. This would do perfectly. The weight of my pack lifted from my shoulders and the weight of responsibility lifted from my soul. Time to recharge. Couscous, Gryllz’s shared fruit, and knock-off nutella for dinner while introducing Spice to Chromeo. Engaging cookies. Lighting flashing up-valley can’t discourage us from risking the cowboy tonight. There are stars overhead and the air is warm.
Spice: “It’s been a weird day.”
* I can only remember the limerick I wrote for Alamo. Here it is:
There once was a duder named ‘Mo,
He hiked really fast, never slow,
The cheese he would eat,
Smelled just like his feet,
And where he had passed we would know.