Alps pt1 - A Slow Start

Sandy hiking in Val Roseg on a cloudy day

There's an old saying that says "it's the journey, not the destination". Whoever came up with that probably didn't fly on United Airlines very much. Our journey to the Swiss Alps started at 5:20 am when a taxi picked us up at our house in the predawn darkness. To be ready we had to get up pretty darn early. Even Laney doesn't wake us up that early when she is hungry and wants her breakfast. But we had the early flight to Chicago. From there we were scheduled to go to Newark where we would catch a flight to Zurich. When we arrived in Zurich the next morning we had a four hour train trip to reach our final destination, the town of Pontresina in the Engadine region of the Alps. It was going to be a long day. Or two days? I'm not sure how to count it when you don't ever go to bed. At least we had two hour layovers at each of our stops to give us margin so we figured that we should get to Zurich without any problems.

We figured wrong. Our Boise to Chicago flight was right on time but boarding for our flight to Newark was delayed about half an hour. That shouldn't have been a problem since we had two hours to make our connecting flight. I admit that I was a little nervous since I had only been through Newark once in the past twenty years (coming home from Barcelona and the Pyrenees in 2010) and I missed my flight and had to stay overnight. But I'm not superstitious so I wasn't too worried. After we had boarded the plane we were told that there was an air traffic control delay because of bad weather in the New York area. The pilot thought that we would leave in half an hour. Our flight to Newark was supposed to be two and a half hours. After sitting on the plane at the gate for three and a half hours they finally said that our flight was cancelled. Not the most productive time I ever spent. They didn't even give us free drinks while we were waiting.

Hotel Roseg - lunch stop on our first hike

Because of the bad weather all of the flights to the New York area had been cancelled. This caused a real rush on the customer service counter. Even the one in the Red Carpet Club had about thirty people in line. Sandy got on the phone. Since she is Premier 1K she has a special number to call that mere mortals don't have access to. Still it took her two hours on the phone to get resolution. There was no way we could get out of Chicago that day. But we did get booked on a direct flight from Chicago to Zurich the next day on SwissAir. At 7 pm. That gave us about twenty four hours to kill. Still it seemed like the best choice. All of the flights to New York and Newark the next day were overbooked already. We figured that avoiding the area which had been the problem seemed like a good idea. All of the flights, connections and baggage would be messed up there. We got taxi and hotel vouchers from United and figured we would have a quiet evening.

We made one more stop before leaving the airport - United baggage claim. We wanted them to retag our bags so that they would not be sent to Newark but would go with us on the SwissAir flight. It turns out that they couldn't do much. They said that they couldn't give us our bags so that we would have them overnight (since we are experienced travelers we both had a change of clothes in our backpacks and didn't need our bags). They also couldn't retag them for our new flight. In fact they couldn't tell us exactly where our bags were but they thought that they were already in Newark. That seemed strange to us since the reason we were still in Chicago was that all the flights had been cancelled. Maybe they ran a special flight just for luggage to make sure that all the people who were stuck in Chicago were separated from their bags? We decided to just go to our hotel. We would have lots of time to try to get things sorted out the next day before our evening flight.

View from our window Sunday morning - finally some blue sky

But we weren't at the end of our misadventures for the day. When we got in a taxi I checked with the cab driver to see if he would take the United voucher. He said no. We were kicked out. I asked the guy who organized the cabs which taxis took the voucher. He said he would call. Then we stood there for fifteen minutes while at least a hundred people got their cabs and left. Finally "our" cab came up and we got in. The guy said that he would take the voucher but that most cabbies don't. United takes four to six weeks to pay off the voucher and no one likes to wait so long for their money. Then it turned out that the voucher was for a set amount - less than the fare to our hotel. So we had to pay the difference. The taxi vouchers from United were certainly a joke. But the laughs kept coming. Although they had sent us to a specific hotel, when we got there the lady at the desk claimed that she didn't think that they had any rooms. She told us to wait while she "would see what she could do". After about ten minutes of playing with her computer she said she had a room for us. Whew! It was the last one too because while we were checking in a guy came in and she turned him away.

Start of the trail from the train station in Morteratsch

Since we had a room and we had a flight out the next day we could finally relax. The hotel was right next to a shopping area that had several restaurants. We found a nice Italian place called Maggiano's that was very good. It was a bit of a walk from our hotel but we had nothing better to do. But when we were ready to leave, to add insult to injury, it was pouring rain. We waited for about twenty minutes but then Sandy said we had to go for it. We got wet but it wasn't too bad.

All in all, it wasn't the best day.

Next morning we made the poor front desk lady do all the work. We asked her to find a cab company that would take our United vouchers. It only took four tries but she got one and we managed to get back to the airport. Then Sandy got a call from the hotel. The voucher hadn't covered the whole price of our stay so she needed to give a credit card number to take care of the rest of the charges. Needless to say by this time Sandy was vowing to write a long letter of complaint to United Airlines. I told her she could just give them a link to the Dog Blog.

Looking towards Piz Palu as we climbed through the trees

We went to the luggage service counter. Once again the United folks could not tell us where our bags were. They thought that they were either in Newark or on the way there but they couldn't tell for sure. As an IT guy, it seems pretty dumb to have a tracking system that can't actually track stuff. The extra problem we encountered was that there is an FAA rule that they can't ship luggage out of the country before the passengers actually leave. So while United claimed that "the system" would automatically forward our bags from Newark to Zurich, it wouldn't do it until we had actually departed from Chicago. But the flight from Newark left before the flight from Chicago, so that meant our bags would be at least a full day behind us. The best solution United could give us was to go to Zurich and put in a claim with SwissAir for our bags. Somehow I didn't understand why United, who had our bags, was telling us that the way to get them back was to request them from SwissAir, who didn't have them. Plus we would have major problems since we weren't staying in Zurich. To be fair one of the people at the United baggage counter spent almost an hour calling all over Newark airport trying to find someone who would make a special exception for our luggage. Don't know if it helped but we appreciated the effort.

Gaining altitude but the clouds start rolling in on the high peaks

We decided the only thing that we could do was wait. Eventually the bags would show up in United's system and then maybe we could do something. Later that afternoon Sandy called and sure enough, they had found our bags. They were in Newark and were scheduled to go out on the flight that night. That was against the rules, but it was ok by us if true. We wouldn't know for sure till we actually got to Zurich. If there was a problem we would be in big trouble. If we continued on our trip we would be in a remote area in the mountains and it could take days for our bags to catch up with us. All of our hiking gear was in our bags so there wouldn't be much we could do. But if we waited in Zurich we would lose more days of our vacation. We had already lost one due to weather so we were anxious to get going. We didn't want to lose any more time.

As soon as we were through immigration we rushed to baggage claim and found the Star Alliance counter. When we tried to get the lady to look for our bags she acted like we were crazy. She kept telling us that our bags should be on our flight, not a different flight and certainly not from another city. The Swiss are very organized and usually that is a good thing. But when something is out of process it really throws them for a loop. Kind of like Singaporeans that way. We were used to dealing with them. So we were patient and just kept explaining why this time there were special circumstances. Finally we convinced her and she went with us to the SwissAir baggage storage area. She came out with our bags! It was a minor miracle but now after a one day delay we were back on track.

Our reward for making it to the Boval hut - Roesti for lunch

We caught the train at the Zurich airport. I really enjoy traveling by train in Switzerland. It took us three hours and forty five minutes and three train changes to get to Pontresina. But there were no problems - a welcome change from our air travel. Our longest segment was over two hours from Chur to Samedan. This is most of the route covered by the Bernina Express, a very famous train route from Chur to Torino in Italy. It goes through spectacular mountains, through many tunnels, across incredible alpine bridges. It's one of the two most famous train routes in the Alps (the other is the Glacier Express which we had booked for later in our trip). The trip was cool but the weather was mostly cloudy so there weren't any good photo ops. We were really tired too so it was hard to enjoy it like we should have. But we did get to Pontresina about three in the afteroon. It was only a ten minute walk from the train station to our hotel but it was up a big hill. With my pack and pulling both suitcases I had an extra hundred pounds (not even counting the extra weight that I was carrying myself). It only took about ten minutes but I was sweating pretty good by the time we made it to the hotel. We had an early dinner (I had pasta and Sandy had pizza) and were in bed by eight.

We're in the sun but it's raining at the trailhead

Because of our travel delay we only had two hiking days in Pontresina to explore the Bernina Alps. The weather forecast wasn't that good either for Saturday, our first hiking day. It predicted cloudy skies with showers in the afternoon. Because of the forecast we chose an easy valley hike, the Val Roseg. The trailhead was only five minutes walk from our hotel. It was 4.3 miles with about 600 feet of elevation gain through forest alongside a wild river to the Hotel Roseg. When the weather is good there is a spectacular view of some of the big Bernina peaks. But today there was only a hint of big mountains and glaciers hidden in clouds. For a cool, cloudy day it was a good hike though. We shared a sandwich at the Hotel Roseg before heading back. It took just under two hours each way so we had a good workout. The wildflowers were really in bloom and made quite a display and the river running through the Val Roseg was pretty. We made it back to our hotel before the afternoon showers came and enjoyed a snack and some wine on the terrace.

One of many waterfalls coming off the ridge

The forecast for the next day was partly cloudy in the morning with increasing clouds and showers in the afternoon. We decided to get as early a start at possible. We were all ready and packed to go when breakfast was served at 7:30 and were at the train station in plenty of time to catch the 8:09 train. Our hotel had provided cards that gave us free passage on buses, trains and lifts in the area around Pontresina. We took the train for the ten minute trip to Morteratsch, only about five miles further up the valley. We had a little excitement when the display in the train said that Morteratsch was the next "stop on request". Ok, how do we request? But Sandy found the button to push and the train stopped. Good thing she figured it out as we were the only people to get off.

Morteratsch is train stop, a small hotel, and .... nothing else. The trail started right across the tracks from the train station. Our plan for the day was to hike up the valley to the Boval hut. The guidebook said it was only 2.5 miles with a little over 2000 feet of elevation gain. That's a steep trail. From the trailhead we had a beautiful view of Piz Palu up the valley, finally clear of clouds. We started our hike at 8:30. It was nice and cool which was good since the trail climbed very steeply through the woods for the first half hour. Then it relented from crazy steep to just uphill. We eventually came out in a mini valley between the ridge on the north side of the valley and a huge lateral moraine of the Morteratsch glacier. I thought of it as the Valley of Waterfalls as there were several waterfall/cascades coming down from the upper ridge. Beautiful. Then thre was one more big hill to climb to reach the hut. It took us over two and a half hours. The elevation gain of two thousadnd feet plus seemed about right but the distance was definitely off. We both think it was closer to four miles each way.

The hut had an incredible view of the main Bernina peaks: Palu, Bernina, Morteratsch, and others. But the clouds had rolled in on the summits about ten oclock. Still the view was impressive but I would love to go back and do the hike on a perfect day. But with our early morning start at least we saw the peaks for the first hour of our hike. And we had the trail to ourselves - we didn't see anyone all the way to the hut. As reward for our hard work we ordered lunch at the hut. We had Roesti, a Swiss specialty that Sandy really likes. It's a shredded potato dish (think super hash browns) with various things like eggs or bacon or cheese mixed in. It was delicious, especially after our long hike up.

The train pulls into Morteratsch seven minutes late - scandalous!

Then it was time to head back down. When we came out of the hut we had a surprise. We found that the afternoon showers had already moved in - it was snowing! We bundled up and started down but the snow only lasted for five minutes. The way back took us over two hours, almost as long as on the way up. The weather varied from sunny to cloudy to showers and back to sunny. At least twice it rained hard enough for us to put on our raingear but it never lasted for more than fifteen minutes. On the way back we passed dozens of hikers and climbers heading up. I guess no one else bothered to read the weather forecast and get an early start. We reached Morteratsch with about forty five minutes till the train so we celebrated our hike with a beer at the Hotel Morteratsch. Then it was back to Pontresina and a good dinner at the Italian place that we had eaten at the first night in town.

That was the end of our time in Pontresina. We were a little disappointed. We had lost a day due to travel delays. We had ok but not really good weather that gave us only an hour or two of nice views on our last hike. Our hotel in Pontresina was very nice and we both liked the town. But we had gotten in two days of good hiking and had made the most of the weather that we had. We resolved to come back on a future trip to the Alps. Same time next year?