Saturday, October 11, 2014

visiting Meiringen, Switzerland

There's a great rush of satisfaction in knowing you've gotten things right.

Of course, we have infinite options, so the probability of picking the "optimal" is mathematically zero. If true optimization is the goal, we're doomed to failure. Some steadfastly hold themselves to this standard anyway, and indeed they meet with the failure which is mathematically certain. I'm not talking about this sort of pathological optimization, I'm talking more about when faced with a cloud of uncertainty, options taken did a pretty good job.

I write this on a train from Bern to Basil, having started in Meiringen. In this case, the choice was fairly simple. I popped open my app, typed in "Meiringen" to "Basel SBB", and it gave me a bunch of options, all starting with a trip to Interlaken Ost, then transferring to one or two trains to Basel. All took around 2:36.

Instead of buying my ticket with the app, as I would normally do, I got it at the desk in the Meiringen station, for which there was no line. I was given a ticket with said "Meiringen - Basel SBB via Brünig - Luzern - Olten". But I never read the small print.

On the train the conductor asked for my ticket. I confidently showed this, along with my 18 CHF day-pass for my bike. She was stared at it for more than the 3 seconds I'd assigned for a reasonable assessment of its sufficiency.

"This is the wrong ticket", she said. I tensed, adopting the fight-or-flight instinct which wasn't going to succeed either way. How could it be the wrong ticket?

"This is for a different route, with a different train company".

Wow. So I'd been using the app, which gave me the optimal route, but in this case subject to the constraint I take their trains. Sure enough, looking at the train map, and finally reading that fine print, it became clear the route though Lucerne was superior to the one via Bern. I was clealy non-optimal.

"You need to pay the difference in fare.... (click, click, click).... 18 Francs"

Well, at least there was no penalty. At least I didn't need to pay a full fare from scratch. At least I wasn't thrown off the train.experience with fare errors on Caltrain back home is that they are dealt with with a far more draconian response: a fine of around $300.

Of course I should have read the ticket. Of course I should have looked at the schedule for trains to Lucerne via Brünig. But I didn't. My smug satisfaction of over optimizing my trip was crushed into a sense ot utter and total failure.

And so is ending a 3-day trip to the Berner Oberland region of Switzerland. The forecast was for a 3-day trend of warming weather, proceeding from a cool Tuesday when I arrived to a warmer Wednesday to a seasonally warm Thursday. I had 3 rides lined up to do. Going along with the warming trend I put them in a sequence of increasing peak altitude. For Tuesday, a ride to Axalp, a ski resort where the top of the climb is at little more than 1700 meters. Then for Wednesday, a ride over the famous Grosse Scheidegg, last used in the Tour de Suisse in 2011 stage 3, remarkably won by a very young Peter Sagan. Then I saved for Thursday the inspiration for the trip, Grimselpass and Furkapass, two absolutely iconic Swiss climbs, each topping out at over 2000 meters. That was to be the highlight of this little trip, if not the highlight of my entire stay in Switzerland.

Tuesday: after a hike-run to Reichenbach Fall, admiring the plaque marking the spot where Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty fought to the death in 1891 as described in Canon Doyle's "the Final Problem", I left my hotel, the Rebstock, at 16:30 for a quick assault on Axalp, a ride just over 40 km round trip. Although I was cold on the descent (but not quite shivering) and I definitely needed my lights toward the end of the ride, it was a very positive experience. The combination of a 13 km run-hike and the sustained steepness of the surprisingly difficult Axalp climb, then adding in a visit to the wonderful Sherlock Holmes museum in Meiringen, left me feeling it was a day very well spent, even if I'd taken a longer-than-necessary train from Basel that morning. But I didn't realize that at the time.

Sight of fictional battle to death between Holmes and Moriarty

Holmes and Watson study reproduction, at Sherlock Holmes museum in Meiringen

T-intersection where I ended my climb to and beyond Axalp

view from above Axalp

Wednesday was the spectacular ride from Meiringen to Grosse Scheidegg, then from the summit to Grindewald. It was a supernatural ride, the road closed to all vehicles except for the buses which demand respect (it's not the best route for Strava quests, up as well as down, since when a bus as wide as the roadway approaches from behind it really is best to pull over), and the view of the mountains something which can't be described. I felt cold and depleted when I landed in Grindewald, stopping at a wonderful bakery at the upper portion of the town for 2 rolls and 2 chocolate yogurts, which were delicious. But then, feeling somewhat fortified, I descended further into the tourist-centric part of the city. From there down to Interlaken at the western tip of the lake was less enjoyable. Narrow roads with relatively heavy car traffic and no shoulders is a combination my experience riding in the United States doesn't allow me to trust.

looking back at switchback approaching final km of Gross Scheidegg

top of Gross Scheidegg

watch for buses on Gross Scheidegg descent

cog rail in Grindewald, plus my finger

From Interlaken, though, I made a wonderful detour up a dirt-and-gravel climb which generally tracked the obviously far straighter trajectory of a funucular railway. The road didn't make it all the way to the end of the railway, but then my legs didn't make it all the way to the end of the road. They succumbed to that all-to-familar transformation of muscle to jello, causing a "death before dismount" violation where I walked a particularly steep stretch of particularly large gravel before remounting and continuing onward.


The road home to Meiringen along the north shore of the lake wasn't bad, but wasn't super special either. The truly spectacular views of the water had come from altitude.

That left Thursday. Grimselpass! Furkapass I left as an option, depending on the conditions in the pass, but I suspected since I'd done okay at 1700+ meters in the evening of the coldest day, then at 1900+ meters on the middle day, I'd be fine (bringing with me the addition of newspaper to stuff under my jersey) on the warmest of the 3 days at an altitude not much more than 2000 meters. I was on the cusp of well-optimized 3-day schedule.

I'd noticed both Tuesday and Wednesday the winds in Mieringen can be truly impressive. The shutters on my windows blew open Wednesday night, and I had to close them and latch them more securely than before. The excellent map of cycling routes I'd gotten from the tourist information booth at the bahnhof on my arrival on Tuesday warned of the "Föhn wind" for the route to Grimselpass. You will need to "pedal hard" it said. I was good with that.

Thursday morning, bright and early, I mentioned my concern for the wind to the woman doing the morning shift at the Rebstock, during the excellent breakfast service they provide. "It's good weather. When it's good weather, there's wind," she said.

I set off and went straight to the foundain outside the Sherlock Holmes museum to fill my bottles. It was a bad sign when a gust of wind blew the water stream from vertical to diagonal, missing the mouth of my bottle just below. As Tom Humphries, my sailing partner back when I was an undergraduate liked to say -- "yeah -- it's blowing."

No problem, I decided. That was just the valley here. Once the road heads upward the slope will shield me from the wind.

Well, maybe that happens in the San Francisco Bay area, where the wind is blowing off the ocean to replace the air rising from the hot East Bay, the wind getting launched over the tree-covered Santa Cruz mountain range. But here it was different. This was no ocean breeze, the nearest ocean (or reasonable facsimile) many hundreds of kilometers away. The dynamic wasn't the same. The air was blowing straight down the slope of the mountain.

At first I felt I was okay -- I could handle it. My principal concern was when getting passed by trucks on the narrow road. I have this exceptional fear of getting blown into the path of big trucks. It's not as if cars are particular less deadly, and at least the truck drivers are professionals whose (in Europe) professional futures depend on them not running people down (in the US, it's all good as long as you don't leave the scene of death). I've always had a particular problem with gusting cross-winds. They blow me across the road when heavier riders stay firm. As long as I could keep the bike in reasonable control during the gusts. I didn't care how long it took the climb to the pass: as long as I made it back by dark.

But then I came to the first tunnel. Here, perhaps due to the shape of the rock, the winds were howling. Traffic was stopped because of construction on one of the two lanes through the tunnel, requiring alternating direction traffic control, a common occurrance in Switzerland where road maintenance is given high priority. But there was a path around the tunnel, as there are around all tunnels to Grimselpass from Meiringen. The construction crew was using this path for their generators, but I thought I could get by.

I'd taken only a few steps when the wind gust turned into a meta-gust. I could barely stand, so crouched down to reduce my cross-section. I was going to ride in this? With trucks passing? No -- that was it. I was turning back.

So I walked down to the final corner before the short straight to the tunnel, a stretch where the wind had been the strongest, then got back on my bike and carefully rode back the way I'd come to Meiringen. A ride of shame.

I now had several options. I could do a different ride, where the wind was less of a problem. I could go for a run. Or I could take a bus to the pass.

I decided on the last option, quickly buying a ticket for the 161 to the pass, which left in 9 minutes. I also got that train ticket I mentioned and the day pass for my bike. I was going to take my bike to the summit (I didn't have anything else I could do with it in the time remaining until the bus left, and the next was in 2 hours). Then when there I'd decide what to do.

The bus ride was nice, although of course no comparison to riding the road myself. I felt a bit shamed as we passed first one, then another cyclist struggling up the hill.

Finally the bus arrived and I stepped off... into a blast of cold which cut straight to my bones. Long gone was the warmth of the valley. And any hope I'd sustained that the wind would be reduced up here was quickly destroyed. At least it wasn't gusting.

I put on all the clothes I had available, rode back and forth a few times, then settled on one of the two restaurants which were open where I scored big with a delicious cheese sandwich. You simply can't go wrong with simple food in Switzerland: the ingredients are fresh and delicious and so the result is fantastic.

Grimselpass, looking towards Furkapass

lunch at Grimselpass

Looking back towards Meiringen from Grimselpass

After that, I braved the cold a bit more before the bus I'd exited returned from its ultimate destination, the town at the depression between the Grimselpass and Furkapass. I bought a return ticket and back I went to Meiringen, thinking of the rider I'd seen crest the summit for the same descent done the correct way while I had been waiting.

While I did manage to salvage something from the day with a cool mixed dirt-paved climb out of Meiringen I'd picked from the cycling map, I'd failed to identify that the warmest day would be the windiest. I'd have been better off climbing Grimselpass the day before. Ah, well. At least I got to see it.

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