Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Trains, planes and....sorry, no automobiles allowed!

Zermatt is the end of the line. Literally. The train line stops here and vehicles must be left at the station before Zermatt. I originally thought this to mean there were zero vehicles in Zermatt, until we almost got run over by one of the crazy little taxi vans upon our arrival. There are one or two regular sized buses but mostly there are these little rectangular vans and trucks which act as anything from delivery vehicles to taxis, hotel shuttles to police vans. Seriously, their police van that we saw yesterday looks like a Matchbox toy. We had a good laugh at that. I discovered on Wikipedia the other day that these vehicles are electric because combustion engines are not allowed. Their reasoning is to reduce the impact on the environment; specifically they don’t want pollution to obscure their view of the Matterhorn. The streets are quite narrow here and seem to lack any kind of indicator as to which side of the road belongs to which direction of traffic. If there are pedestrians in your way then you drive around them, missing them by millimetres. I’ve yet to see any semblance of traffic lights, stop signs or painted road lines. Rush hour is when there is a taxi parked halfway on the sidewalk unloading people (think clowns at the circus getting out of the mini car), a taxi coming up behind it and one van coming from the opposite direction. Add to that people wandering down the middle of the road oblivious to traffic and things get pretty entertaining. Haven’t seen any accidents yet which is rather surprising but we have been wondering how these drivers would fare in any major city. Sean told me that these little dinky car vans have horns but they don’t seem to use them. They’ll drive right up behind you and sit there until they can whiz around you or you look to see why your legs are suddenly so bright and move over.

Today is Tuesday Jan 29 and we’ve been here almost a week now. On Sunday we took a break from snowboarding and rented toboggans for a day. However, this was no ordinary tobogganing expedition! First we took a cog railway train up to Rotenboden station at 2815m. For perspective, Blue Mountain is less than 1000m high. We’d decided to double up on the sleds so Sean and I took on Tony and Darlene in the first descent. I should point something out here: these sleds we had rented had no brakes or any pretence of steering mechanism. They’re just wooden sleds that you sit on and go. The toboggan course runs between the ski run and the railway tracks, twisting and turning down 1.5 km to Riffelberg station at 2585m. I soon discovered that my inability to stay on the sled would impede my success at winning any sled races. Round one to Tony and Darlene but, not being ones who give up easily, we took the train back up and lined ourselves up for a rematch. This time the girls were in front steering while the guys helped brake from behind. Brakes came in the form of dragging your feet on the ground and digging in to try and corner at a rather high rate of speed. What I didn’t anticipate was the amount of snow this would blow right back into our faces, not only blinding us to the course ahead but also finding its way into every crevice of our winter wear. With me being in the driver’s seat, Sean and I managed to pull ahead and things looked good. A near miss with an embankment and the subsequent violent braking caused our speed to slow too much on a flat spot. Sean got off to push but before I realized what was going on, I had dug my feet in and Sean ended up pushing me on my face while tipping the sled forward and flying over my head. When we finally reached the bottom of the course, it was decided that I can’t steer or stay on the sled. I didn’t argue. After a few more descents, it was time for Darlene and I to race each other. To make a long story short, I can’t steer, stay on the sled or brake effectively. I lost count of the number of walls I hit or the number of times I cornered sideways only to get violently pitched off the sled into the snow. At one point I was running after my sled for about 100 ft. Near the bottom of the run was a steep section with a sharp left-hander at the end. On the outside of this corner was a snow fence to keep you off the railway. Another sled had crashed into the fence and I entered this section with zero control. To avoid the other couple I slammed on the brakes but crashed into the fence, only to get crashed into by Darlene. 3 sled pile up, zero injuries. Off went the other couple while we untangled ourselves. I managed to get free first and set off to complete the last section of course. Another steep hill, another sharp left-hander and I was done for. It’s very difficult to corner a sled sideways at seemingly 50mph so of course I fell off. What I hadn’t known was that Darlene was headed right towards me until BLAM!! Crash number 2 in as many corners only this time I am sporting a vicious bruise on my left knee and the guys caught it on camera.

Yesterday was our first semi-rest day. Sean is battling a nagging leg problem while my boots make the balls of my feet feel as though they are on fire after a few hours. Tony is holding up pretty well although he’s had some pretty spectacular crashes and Darlene is favouring her neck of late. We slept in and took the morning off. After lunch the guys headed up to Trockener Steg at 2939m while Darlene and I made our attempt to cross over to the Italian side. My one goal in coming here was to ride in two countries and yesterday I accomplished that goal! We didn’t have a whole lot of time but managed to get over the international boundary and down to Plan Maison at 2555m. It’s funny. On the trail map the border is shown as a line of little x figures but there’s nothing in the snow like that. Our first stop in our quest was at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise station, located at 3883m and the distance of 3 gondolas from Zermatt. What a view!! It was a warm, sunny, absolutely brilliant day yesterday with mountains and snow and sun for miles and miles. Turn left, you’re looking into Italy. To the right, you’re looking back down at Switzerland and the teeny village of Zermatt in the distance. It’s like being on top of the world and it’s incredibly gorgeous! D and I made our way down to Plateau Rosa Testa Grigia at 3480m for a pit stop then it was off to ride into Italy just like that. Whoosh! And suddenly I can use more of my mangled Italian language skills. The Italian area that we were in is a kind of bowl with far more bare rock showing between runs, probably because of a combination of sun and wind conditions, but we really liked the runs on that side. With one eye on the time and the other eye on the gorgeous scenery, we had a blast! Darlene had an unfortunate crash involving some dumb snowboarder we named Italian Ken (Barbie crashed out on her own ahead of me but I avoided her) while I slid partway down a run on my butt but it was all worth her sore neck and the snow down my pants. A few gondolas later we were back up to Plateau Rosa to take photos of ourselves literally straddling the border between Switzerland and Italy. There’s a sign on the wall with a yellow line painted across the ground which defines cool in my little world. I’m a little disappointed that they didn’t stamp my passport since I had it with me but whatever.

Today is a full rest day for Tony, Sean and I while Darlene just left the room to head over to Italy again. My feet need a day out of my boots while Sean wants to rest his leg. I’m hopeful to get down to Breuil-Cervinia (2050m) in Italy tomorrow, weather permitting. My trail map shows some pretty good looking runs on the way down there. We were talking last night of attending a fondue dinner up on the mountain tonight which sounds like a lot of fun. Today I’ll go into Zermatt and do some exploring, take some photos, maybe buy some kitchy souvenirs. There’s no shortage of chocolate here but don’t hate me for it. We head to Geneva on Sunday for a few days of sightseeing there before we head home.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

E is for excitement, exhaustion and a most excellent trip

If my beyond tired brain is accurate, today is Saturday Jan somethingorother. We've been in Zermatt, Switzerland since Thurs and are having a great time! It was a long journey here but totally worth it.

Some trouble getting online has delayed this post until now so forgive my tardiness. Last night I was sitting outside in the -5 C evening, borrowing WiFi from a bar across the street downtown which was spilling over with loud drunk singing Europeans. Very interesting human behaviour observation but the connection sucked and kept kicking me out.

Today was our second day riding and as yet there have been no serious injuries incurred by our group. We've since decided to seek sponsorship from Advil next time as not only does it make a nice light snack but also relieves the pain from our sore overused muscles. I say this because these runs are SO not like any in Canada! For example, yesterday we rode gondolas up to 2939m to start our first run of the day. These are REAL mountains!!! And they're so awesome to ride that words don't quite describe. The runs aren't overcrowded like back home and they freakin' go on forever! You're riding in the shadow of the Matterhorn, surrounded by 20something peaks over 4000m high. Today it took me almost an hour to complete one run although I stopped a few times to take pictures.
As we were riding the chairlift up yesterday, we heard a helicopter and noticed a rescue helicopter with two people dangling from the long line. They got put down at the bottom of the crappy terrain park and then the helicopter landed to load the person we assumed had been rescued. How cool is that?? This place is so much more geared to pizza/french fries that it doesn't surprise me too much that the terrain park at Blue is much better than here. We're definitely in the minority as snowboarders. The skiier lady who yelled at me on our first run of the day definitely did not have a soft spot in her heart for snowboarders.
I rode with Sean and Tony yesterday after Darlene went the other way right at the top of the first run and wasn't seen again until almost dinner. As the three of us were on the chairlift back to the top, we noticed a snowboard track traversing the soft powder about 1/2 of the way between two runs then footprints leading back to the first run. We had a very good laugh at the silliness of this goofy person, only to find out later that it was Darlene (by her own admittance) who had done that track. Poor girl. She did meet some very cool people on her own, both from the GTA by coincidence. She also missed my high speed face first wipeout, complete with 1/3 pike, a double barrel roll followed by a full forward summersault.
Wow, fatigue is so prevalent here. Our hostel is seemingly halfway up the mountain as we have to scale a large hill then 3 million stairs after walking 10 minutes through the village. I blame my breathlessness on the altitude rather than my lack of fitness. That's my story and I'm sticking to it! I love the grocery stores here. They have the coolest stuff! We've found some other cool stores too. Very beautiful valley, lots of that alpine architecture that I like. Primarily German speaking here, followed by French and Italian. English trails somewhere in 4th place. Luckily over the years I've been exposed to all four of those languages so I can usually fumble together enough mangled words to translate or make myself understood. I can figure out most labels or at least make a serious sounding wild guess that fools the rest of the group.
The hostel is very nice as hostels go. We have our own room which smells kind of funky now for some unknown reason and they feed us twice a day. We've been buying a bag lunch from there too which is working well, at least until Sean and I rode separately today and he had the lunch. That ended all right for me, eating wise, although Sean and Tony ran into a technical problem as well as a collision. Word has it that the skiier who was at fault got the worst of his run-in with Sean. Complete yard sale was the description used. Right now the two guys and I are at a bar in town because they have free WiFi and we don't have to sit out in the cold trying to hack a crappy connection. However, if I don't come home with lung problems I will be surprised. I always forget how prevalent smoking still is here. Hackhack!

Too bad I can't take home European empties to fund my NZ trip. There's a LOT of alcohol here. Did you know the Swiss make wine? Off to bed if I can scale the monster hill again....... hope to write again soon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

One more sleep!

Sleep? People do that? Oh yes, the ever elusive act of sleeping long enough and well enough comes into my life yet again.

Last week it was suggested to me that, since Ch is 6 hours ahead, I should try setting my alarm a little earlier each day and going to bed earlier each day. In theory this would lead to a quicker transition once we are in the land of chocolate watches. Why not make my life a little easier while on vacation? I decided to go for it and give it a try. The next few days will tell if the application of this theory was worth it.

Some people already think I'm a little nuts to start work at 7am. I wasn't always like this. Let me point out here that I am not a morning person. Nor am I a night owl. I'm mostly a 3-hours-in-the-afternoon kind of person and the rest of my day is a crapshoot. How I ever managed to train myself to function for a living at that hour is a mystery. But most days I am successful at it with only minimal caffeinated intervention.

The first two days of getting up earlier were ok. A little more dark, a little less sun. Getting to know the night-shift staff better now. The third morning I fell off the wagon. In my own defence it was a Saturday and I didn't have to be anywhere until the afternoon! I did set the alarm for the prescribed 0500. And reset it each time it rang. Eventually I gave up and chucked it somewhere under the bed. I even answered the phone at 0630. And promptly went back to sleep. I finally dragged myself out into my cold bedroom at 7-something. This for me is considered "sleeping in" these days which I admit up front is rather sad.

The earlier I get to work, the more good parking spaces are available. The night shift girls in Health Records are very nice now that they know me on a first name basis. The night shift staff in Emerg greet me heartily although I stare at them blankly before I mumble a reply. Did you know the kitchen staff don't work at 5am? Even the 3 Tim Hortons in the hospital aren't open at that hour. Some days I get home before the mail carrier comes by. There's very little traffic at 0430. Nor was the snow falling at that hour this morning, unlike most other commuters who got dumped on while they crawled their vehicles to work at a more reasonable time.

Did I mention my part-time gig as an insomniac? It seems that some nights while my body is begging for rest, my brain just revs itself up and takes off like a rocket. To do lists, movies I watched, the meaning of life, how I got that groove in the bottom of my snowboard, did I take the laundry out of the dryer? Random thoughts run rampant as the night wears on. I get lots of advice for this problem: "Take drugs (never thought I'd ever hear THAT from my mother!), drink warm milk/chamomile tea/alcohol, get out of bed and go do stuff (makes me cranky to be washing dishes at 3am), count sheep/moguls/cracks in the ceiling, etc..." There is no regular cure. On special nights, I fall asleep fairly quickly but wake up often with random thoughts, weird dreams, wondering if the dog is in or out.....oh wait, I don't have a dog. I fully support the afternoon siesta campaign. Red Bull and I are best friends lately. I've found good use for my caffeinated mints and gum. Tea? Ha! I'm on the hard stuff now. I'm so glad Lori Lori Morning Glory introduced me to the Grande Tazo Chai Soy Latte from Starbucks which happens to be located across the street from work....

I ramble about this because tonight is the last sleep before we leave for Ch! This morning's alarm was at 0400 which, after I vehemently launched the clock somewhere and complained about how hideous those numbers were, was explained to me to be 1000 in Ch. "Yeah", I snarled in reply, "but it's still 4am here!" We're supposed to be at the airport around noon tomorrow to meet Tony's plane from Edmonton before collecting Darlene and boarding our flight to Geneva. Does this mean I'll bring myself one more time to rise like the living dead at 0330? Will I sleep at all or will my head be too excited to rest?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

One last run before we fly

Left cheek: 3, Mountain: 0 That was the final score in Me vs the Mountain last night and I'm not referring to my face.

In the interest of continual board testing and final adjustment making, my friend Sean! and I decided to head to Blue Mountain for one last outing before the trip to Ch on Wednesday. While I knew we weren't headed to the 230 cm base that Fernie currently has (!!!!) I still enjoy a trip to my favourite practice hill whenever I can. Luckily (?) for us, the punishing wind, biting cold, semi-questionable road conditions, and icy slopes meant that the hills weren't too clogged with annoying people. In fact when we got there it looked as though a blizzard had descended on the mountain, kind of like the way Eeyore has a rain cloud which follows him around. I quickly realized that nearly every snow making gun was belting out clouds of the white stuff which brought hope to my heart that any missed landings of mine might not make me whimper with pain.

I've been riding for a few years now and like to think that I've improved over time. Consider the day after I took my first lessons. I was in so much pain from the previous day of repeated falls that it hurt to blink. Speaking was an effort and getting out of bed nearly killed me but somehow I got dressed and lasted another 1/2 day on the slopes before retiring to the hot tub for the next 48 hours or so. And that was in Invermere BC, at Panorama which qualifies as a real mountain in my world, meaning it has decent vertical and sufficient fluffy white stuff (and big horn sheep wandering through town but that's another story). Let me take a second to suggest something: If you are considering to take up snowboarding, no matter your skill level in other sports, TAKE LESSONS and preferably not just from a well-intentioned friend. For a fairly unco-ordinated individual like me who comes from a non-athletic family, the learning curve for snowboarding was steep and painful but the key is to persevere and you will improve. You'll eat a lot of mountain, you'll get great coloured bruises, you might even unintentionally face plant off a jump on a beginner run and crack your goggles from the impact, but keep going and it will get better. I am your example. Oh, and wear a helmet from day one. Riding with a concussion is not much fun.

Last night was also my opportunity to try riding with my hydration pack as I plan to do in Ch. There were some obstacles to getting an insulation piece for it but it arrived this week and I was anxious to try the pack out. I've ridden with a backpack before but found it cumbersome. It also changed my centre of gravity which made getting up and staying up more challenging. I was hoping for better things from the hydration pack and I wasn't let down.

For some reason I've never quite understood, I often encounter gaggles of snowboarders sitting at the top of a run and blocking the way for everyone behind them. Let me clarify: most snowboarders do sit briefly at the top of a run to strap in their loose foot. We need one foot out of our bindings to ride the lifts and I am not one of those who can put their foot back in the binding and do it up tightly while standing. The last time I tried to do so my board kept moving forward and I nearly ended up in a tree. Therefore, I sit. But I don't sit for 10 minutes or so. My butt gets cold and I'm here to ride! I don't get it.

The beginner runs weren't too bad but the snow cover was minimal and patchy. Rather expected I must add, given that last week I could see dirt showing through on their webcams. Soon I retrieved my pack and we headed to the bigger runs. The hardest part about riding somewhat infrequently or in less-than-ideal conditions is the first missed or unexpected landing. Will it hurt? Will this be the time I break something? You can't really prepare for it, you just have to experience it and move on. Sure enough, eventually I caught an edge and went down hard on my posterior. "Ok, slopes are rather icy and hard", thought my body. After the second same landing, this time for an undetermined reason, my lower back started to hurt too. Up and down Sean! and I went, chatting away when we saw each other on the lifts, lost in our own worlds amid the blowing snow and numbing winds while riding down. The cramp I always get almost immediately in my left calf (I ride left foot forward in case it matters) was keeping me company as I rode hard but carefully. To injure oneself now would be asinine, I thought to myself. CRASH! Yep, it's still hard packed icy crap underneath me and that one hurt! 3 times lucky in the same spot is not very comfortable unless you're landing in 3 feet of powder. With neck, back and butt all sore now, I decided to call it a night and went to find my chauffeur with his carving board.

Friday, January 18, 2008

There's no place like home

It's true that there's no place like home but then why leave home to travel? Why venture from your comfortable and familiar surroundings to explore the great big sometimes scary world out there? For me it's a drive. Something inside of me craves to see things I've never seen, do things I've never done, go places I've never been. My list is ever getting longer and, while I often wonder how/if I'll ever manage to cross all those places off it, it excites me every time I do cross off a destination and add another. I hope I never reach the end of my list. It amuses me to think that grade 9 Geography was one of my worst marks in high school yet my passports over time are acquiring more and more stamps. Darn those countries I've visited who didn't stamp my little blue book! Guess I learn geography better by doing than listening to my alcoholic homeroom teacher drone on and on.

Today is January 18 2008 and I leave for Switzerland (the land of chocolate watches says Sean!) on the 23rd. Finally things are starting to get assembled for packing, lists are getting items crossed off and although my to-do list never seems to end I do believe the end is in sight for departure! I'm excited to be going to back to my favourite country (so far), this time for a more extended stay. We're going snowboarding and Luna (my snowboard) is as excited as I am for she has never ridden outside Canada. She doesn't have her own passport but hopefully I can collect some stamps for her. I'm also excited to be exploring parts of Switzerland (Ch I call it) that I haven't yet been to. We'll be staying in Zermatt (get out your atlas, folks! no cheating with Google maps) for about 10 days, mostly snowboarding on the Matterhorn (think toblerone chocolate) then we're off to Geneva to explore the fabulous city for a few days. Oh, and Switzerland has a no extradition treaty (last I checked) so you can't make me come back if I don't want to!


Stay tuned,
p.s. Mum & Dad, please forgive my spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes in these blogs.