Saunas, That’s Hot!

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Scandinavia is known for its saunas.  While we were there, we indulged and I developed a new addiction.   They are amazing.  I want one,  maybe we should build a home sauna in our basement bomb shelter

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Traditionally, Saunas are wood paneled rooms (sometimes in cabins like the one below) with wooden benches that are heated with wood fired stoves topped with rocks.  Today, many of the stoves are electric (for the heating unit).  Infrared saunas exist, but the steam is part of what makes it so good.

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You ladle water onto the rocks/stove to create steam.   We saw shops selling fancy buckets and ladles all over Scandinavia.  Since warm air rises, the higher the bench, the hotter the temperature.  It gets really hot and you sweat out all sorts of toxins.

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Locals claim that slapping the skin with birch branches enhances circulation.  They also believe that the chlorophyll releases opens your sinuses.   Being American, we didn’t beat each other with branches or didn’t go in the buff  (although locals do both).

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We did, however repeatedly cool off.  Many take a cold shower.  If there is snow, people will go roll around in it.

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Our favorite way of cooling off spot was on the island of Grinda in Stockholm’s archipelago.  We started by walking tentatively into the Baltic Sea and ended by taking giant leaps into it.  Even though I hate Polar Bear swims, I’d jump in from the sauna every day if I could.

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Snowmaking, Skiers Response To Mother Nature

When Mother Nature doesn’t deliver, man takes things into his own hands.  Usually, it involves some sort of big, noisy machine.  Snowmakers are no exception.  Those are snow cannons in the photo above.

Snowmaking creates snow by dispersing water and air-under-pressure into freezing ambient air. They can even choose whether to make it into light powder or a wet base snow (which lasts better at higher temperatures) by regulating the water content of man made snow.  Still, the lower the temperature, the better for snowmaking.  It usually needs to be below 25 degrees fahrenheit (-3.89 Celsius) for it to work, which is part of the reason it is done at night.  The lower the humidity, the higher the temperature can be.   Aaah… the miracles of modern science….

A Snowstorm…On Easter?!?

Two weeks ago, we woke up to a snowstorm.  We took the chairlift down so that we wouldn’t get stuck on the mountain.  We went for a drive to on the way to our next stop and saw lots of snowy farms.  Oddly, driving in a snowstorm wasn’t stressful.  It was peaceful and almost calming.

In case you were wondering, we headed from the Interlaken area to Meringen.

Tomorrow, I’ll post pictures from our hike a few hours later.  You’d never know it’d been this grey.

Check out the waterfall

I’m writing this from Lugano with the window open and palm trees in the yard.  Oh, what a difference two weeks make!  

Les Incompetents Vol. 9 – Whimps In An Alpine Snowstorm

Last weekend, we went to bed in Gimmelwald, Switzerland (accessible mainly by cable car) with this view of the Lauterbraunnen Valley in the Bernese Alps.  It could have been clearer, but it’s still a pretty sweet view.  We woke up to this.

And it kept falling.

And falling.

We’re from Michigan, so we’re pretty hardy and decided that even though we were fighting off colds, we could do a few hours of hiking… in a snowstorm… on a mountain.  Yeah.  I know.  We’re geniuses.  Neither of us wanted to be the bigger baby and complain so we kept going.

And going.

Finally, the wind convinced us to turn back.  We decided that it was getting so windy that if it got much worse they might shut down the cable cars and be stuck up there that night.

Note the pitch of the flag and the temperature of -2. Balmy. Especially when I forgot to pack a hat and gloves.

Thankfully, we were able to get down to our car.   We even gave a couple of Aussies (whose paragliding trip had inexplicably been cancelled) a ride to the train station before setting off to see more of Switzerland.

Clearly the weather was ideal at lower altitudes. We ended up having a great time though. I swear, I will tell you all about it.

 

Snowshoeing, It’s Like Hiking But More Awkward.

Last weekend, we went snowshoeing.  The snow here is melting…quickly.   We knew that we wouldn’t have too many more opportunities.  If you need confirmation that the season is over, just take a look at the snow above.

St. Cergue is in the Jura the lake, where there’s only a thin white band of snow at the top.

We strapped up our hiking boots, went to St. Cergue and rented snowshoes, having no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  Thankfully, some nice Swiss snowshoers helped us make sure they were on correctly.  They let us try their poles.  Not knowing much of anything about snowshoeing, we didn’t rent poles.  Ooops.  It was definitely easier with the poles, but we only went about four miles so we were fine without them.  The lack of snow near the parking lot was more problematic.

Luckily, this was the only area where the snow was sparse.

We encountered a few other Swiss on the trails and learned that the usually reserved Swiss are pleasantly chatty on the trails.  In Geneva, expats don’t always get the opportunity to have meaningful interactions and conversations with native Swiss.   We learned a lot about the area from them.  For example, these stone walls mark the borders of farms.  They aren’t relics.  In the Jura, they still build them!

When we weren’t chatting with other snowshoers, we enjoyed the peace and tranquility.  It was a gorgeous day.   It was a pleasure to be out in the woods and going “off piste” through the snow was a blast.

In this area summer farmhouses become winter restaurants that cater to the area’s snowshoers and cross-country skiers.  We got a recommendation from a nice Swiss lady on the trails and she did not steer us wrong.  The restaurant, Le Vermeilley, was fantastic.

It was a cozy room with wonderful traditional dishes and a nice proprietor.  After a nice lunch, we headed back.

We’d expected snowshoeing to be more difficult than it was.  I want to try it again  next year.   He wants to do some cross-country skiing more.   We have friends who snoeshoed at night under a full moon.  That sounds like a rocking’ good time so I’m pretty sure I can talk him into it.

Some trails around there are only for cross-country skiers, no snowshoers. I guess we’ll have to try that next year.

 

Cozy Yet Elegant Megève

The Rothschild’s developed Megève as an alternative to St. Mortiz in the 1920’s.  It’s high end, filled with pretty people, money and stylish places to spend it.  The center of the village is medieval, but don’t start thinking Megève is quiet, sleepy and/or antiquated. There are stylish modern boutique hotels and chalets that look like they were decorated by Axel Veervoordt.  Gourmet restaurants (many rated in the Michelin Guide), chic watering holes and hip clubs abound.  Non-skiers can shop ‘til they drop at upscale boutiques, visit the spa or hit the casino.  If you want to take a nap then rip it up apres ski, this is a good place to do it.

A pedestrian friendly atmosphere dominates Megève and the streets practically invite you to stroll through them.  You can walk from town to the lifts.  Snow melt forms a small river that meanders its way through the village.  In its center is the main square with its traditional church belfry.

While we didn’t see any of the famous horse-drawn sleighs, we were able to see signs of them.  Ski slopes, chalets and around forty active farms surround Megève, adding both character and fresh culinary delights.

 

Danger!!!!! What We’ve Learned About Avalanches

No, I’m not talking about the Chevrolet Avalanche, or any other SUV.  It will come as no surprise that the last time I saw one of those was before we moved to Switzerland.  This post is about snow, lots of it…tumbling down mountains.

3 = Marked Danger of Avalanches

The Alps have around 250,000 avalanches every year!  To have an avalanche, all you need is a mass of snow and a slope for it to slide down.  Specific topographic, snow and weather conditions increase the likelihood of avalanches.  They include:

  • Steep slopes of 30-45 degrees are more likely to avalanche.
  • Convex slopes are more prone than concave slopes.
  • Just looking at bowls and gullies, should alert you to their avalanche danger.  What happens when you pour water into a funnel?
  • Slopes that gather drifting snow, accumulate more of it and do it more quickly.  The snow is also looser, less compacted.  You can see how these factors all increase the likelihood of an avalanche.
  • Smooth, grassy slopes are much more dangerous because there is nothing to anchor the snow to the mountain.
  • Moist, dense precipitations are typically less dangerous than loose, dry snows.
  • Wind. It moves snow about the slopes and exerts pressure.  Need I say more.
  • Changes in temperature.  Change is destabilizing.  High and rapidly rising temperatures create wet snow prone to slides.  That’s likely what happened in the pictures below.
  • Thawing and refreezing.  When old snow melts, it becomes smooth (or icy after a rain).  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out new snow on top might slide off.
  • Similarly, loose, underlying snow is unstable.  It doesn’t take Copernicus to predict what is likely to happen.
  • A foot or more of soft, new snow is dangerous. It puts pressure on the existing snowpack.  New snow has to go somewhere, right?  Some of it might rest where it lands.  Some of it might come tumbling down.
  • Even the shape of the snow crystals can make a difference!

Avalanches can be deadly, but people buried in avalanches have a good prognosis if they are found and dug out quickly (within 15 minutes to have a reasonable chances of survival).

  • Much of North America is so large that the chances of a professional rescue team arriving in that time frame can be slim.  Nevertheless, Canada‘s average time to dig someone out is 18 minutes (with a survival rate of 46%)!  In Europe, where everything is closer, things vary by country.
  • In France, the average time to dig someone out is 45 minutes.  As a result, France’s death rate from avalanches averages 25-30 per year (60% of extracted victims die).  France (where we do most of our skiing) had more avalanche fatalities than any other country.  The winter of 2005-2006 was a difficult avalanche season and over 50 people died from avalanches in France alone.
  • Switzerland takes 35 minutes (with a survival rate of 47%).

Just last month, Prince Frisco of the Netherlands was caught in an avalanche in Austria.  He was buried under the snow for over 25 minutes and it took nearly 50 minutes to resuscitate him.  He remains in a coma and may never recover.

Avalanche deaths have been on a rise.  Equipment has improved over the past couple of decades, making “off-piste,” backcountry skiing without the benefit of marked trails composed of compacted snow, possible for many more.  It looks like tons of fun, but many are ill-prepared and not sufficiently knowledgeable.

This was taken at Les Contamines, near Mt. Blanc. If you look closely, you can see the aftermath of the avalanche.

Several technologies are essential for anyone backcountry skiing as they help improve the chance of survival.

  • Transceivers, otherwise known as avalanche beacons, send and receive radio signals, helping rescuers to quickly pinpoint the location of a buried victim.  Nevertheless, not even half of those with beacons survive.  It cannot save you if you are severely injured or buried deeply.
  • Avalanche airbags are recommended and gaining in popularity.  We have even seen them advertised at bus stops.  Worn like parachutes, the ripcord causes an airbag to inflate, encircling the head.  It  protects their head and their neck and provides floatation, decreasing the likelihood of burial.
  • Other crucial safety tools include: collapsible probes and shovels.
  • The best defense is a good offense.  It is best to avoid an avalanche altogether.

You can see where the snow slid (and might again).

Here are some YouTube links to videos of Avalanches:

During our Swiss travels in Switzerland, we have seen evidence of the Swiss infrastructure to prevent and deal with avalanches.

An avalanche shelter in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley

Avalanche snow fences in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland

Don’t worry mom, ski resorts try to eliminate the possibility of an avalanche on the slopes by compacting the snow or using explosives.  We aren’t good enough (or brave enough) to really go off piste.

Covering to prevent snow from covering the road into the Lotschental Valley

 

Les Contamines

Late one night, a group of us decided to ski the next day.  When you make plans late at night for the next day, sometimes (shockingly) they aren’t well thought out.  As we would be a large group of all levels, we decided to go to Les Contamines. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a good choice and a great day.

We chose it because:

  • It is close to Geneva.
  • It is not crowded.  There are rarely any lift queues.
  • As it is at the back-end of a valley, it is less traveled.  It has a reputation for having a calm, laid back atmosphere.
  • It is a small, relatively unspoiled town.  There’s no trendy après-ski or clubs.  In fact, there isn’t much nightlife.  As a result, it is calmer.
  • Fewer people means snow stays untracked longer.  Who doesn’t love unskied powder?
  • It offers a wide variety of terrain for all levels.  We had a diverse group and there were pistes to suit everyone.
  • The prices are reasonable.
  • When the weather is clear, it has a wonderful view of Mt. Blanc.  Heck, when the weather is clear, it has wonderful views.  Period.  Contamines is known for its beautiful mountain panoramas.

Oh yeah.  It wouldn’t be a skiing post if I didn’t do something stupid.  This time it yielded a cool photo.  While I was lying with my face in the snow, I got my camera out and snapped a pic to show you the view from down there.

Saas (Not SaaS) Fee, Another Cute Swiss Ski Town

Sorry, this post about Saas, is not about Software as a Service (SaaS), but about the town of Saas Fee, Switzerland.    While there are several reasons to go to Saas Fee, the real attraction is its location surrounded by some of Switzerland’s tallest mountains.  Saas Fee sits at over 1800 meters ( 5,905 feet, 1.18 miles) and is surrounded by over 13 peaks of over 4000 meters (13,123 feet, 2.485 miles)!

Like nearby Zermatt, it is an adorable car-free ski town with gorgeous views.   Because it doesn’t have a view of the Matterhorn (only other giant, stunningly beautiful mountains) and doesn’t have a rail stop, Saas Fee is smaller and slightly quieter.  As a result, it is a bit more of a family destination.  Don’t be fooled into thinking Saas Fee is quiet or sleepy.  Whether it is an apres-ski bar or clubbing at night, you will be able to do it in Saas Fee.

Until a two-lane road linking Saas Grund to the village of Saas Fee was completed in 1951, Saas Fee was inaccessible by car.  The buildings are a mix of modern hotels, shops and small traditional, weathered farm buildings.

We enjoyed strolling Saas Fee’s car-free streets.  It was great fun to look at the at shop windows.  Although shops keep typically Swiss hours (with the exception of ski shops), there are many and varied.

If skiing isn’t your thing, you can try curling, ice skating, indoor swimming, mountaineering, sleigh riding, indoor tennis/badminton, dog sledding/mushing tours, sledding, night sledding, snow tubing, snowshoe trekking, or ice climbing (which sounds both dangerous and beautiful).

Saas Fee is where Wham‘s “Last Christmas” was filmed.  Just click on the link to enjoy (and search for a new hairstyle).

Skiing Gawking At Glaciers And Avoiding Crevices In Saas Fee

Sorry for the poor image quality; the windows of the Telecabine were scratched.

Last Sunday, we skied in Saas Fee, Switzerland.  The views were stunning, when we could see them.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy.  Each time there was any visibility, I whipped out my camera.  Even then, my photos don’t do it justice.  Saas Fee has spectacular scenery, here’s someone else’s picture for proof.

Photo from benik0.deviantart.com

At the far east end of the canton of Valais in the back of the valley, it is not the easiest destination to get to.  When you arrive, they will treat you well.  Everyone working there was extremely cheerful, kind and helpful.

Courtesy of Investorsinproperty.com

The town of Saas Fee is at 1800 meters (5905.5 feet, 1.116 miles) in elevation.  With peaks of 3500 meters (11482.939 feet, 2.17 miles) in elevation, snow in Saas-Fee is guaranteed.  It is less expensive and less crowded than nearby Zermatt, making it a perfect destination for families.

Piste Map Courtesy of Skiinfo.com

One of the coolest things about skiing in Saas Fee was the ice and glaciers.  They mean that you cannot go off piste without a guide as there is a danger of falling into a crevice!   At first, it was a bit daunting to ski next to them.  They were surprisingly blue and just plain magnificent.

Do Not Leave The Runs Crevices

I have had issues with T bars in the past.  While we’re at it, I’ve had issues with chair lifts too.  Saas Fee has lots of them, long ones.  It was a bit scary taking them in the clouds, with little visibility, knowing that you were near glaciers and crevices.

There was a drop off somewhere in this photo, we just couldn’t see it.

We really did try to respect the rules not to go off-piste.  Unfortunately, this T bar stopped while we were on it.  It didn’t start back up (a rarity because everything in Switzerland seems to run like clockwork).  After about 15 minutes stalled on the T bar, we abandoned it and moved to a nearby slope. It wouldn’t be a day of skiing if I didn’t make a fool of myself at some point.  I only fell once, but when I did, I lost a ski.  It was so steep that I had difficulty putting it back on.  I ended up removing my other one and sliding down the slope on my butt while holding on to my skis and poles.  I looked such a mess that someone stopped and asked if I was injured.  I thanked him and told him the only thing injured was my pride.

Imagine my surprise when I found out my goofy move was actually an alpine maneuver called glissading. It looked like this except it was me, in ski clothes, wearing a helmet, holding skis and way less elegant. Photo: http://www.vuw.ac.nz

While we were in the chairlift, staring at the blue ice in the glacier, we wondered why it was blue.  The ice is blue because water is blue (or at least absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum).  When water is in other forms, like snow, it is not as compact.  Therefore, its blue color is not as visible.  When snow falls on glaciers, it compresses the snow and gives it the blue color.  Science is beautiful.  Literally.