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May 3, 2004

Huskies, snow angels in July, and a train wreck in the Alps

By Cass Lloyd Perrin

On a muggy day last summer, a rather odd-looking group gathered to check in at London’s Heathrow airport. All in blue, wearing conspicuous red, white and blue neckties, we were a gaggle of 24 of the Senior Section of Girlguiding UK.

We were headed to a hostel in Switzerland.

Weighed down heavily by large rucksacks and walking poles, we might have looked as if we were wannabe hijackers, just waiting for a chance to leap into the cockpit of the plane and demand to be taken to an alternate destination.

No wonder the other passengers on our British Airways flight to Zurich, Switzerland, regarded us with an air of slight suspicion.

On arrival, all stared in awe and wonder at our living accommodation for the next 10 days. It was magnificent! A blue barn, with a chess set as the courtyard centerpiece, and ‘Mountain Hostel, Grindelwald’ emblazoned on the side.

The slightly-mad members of the party (of which there were several) considered their novel new lodgings as a home-away-from-home, while others considered it to be an eyesore which would have to be tolerated. The rooms were pleasant but a little cramped, considering they slept six to a bunk bed, albeit that this bed was a rather wide example and held six mattresses.

My visions of plump, golden-haired children in traditional costume, yodeling against a background of mountains and fluffy marmots, were soon shattered when it became apparent that we had come to rest in a town mainly dominated by Japanese tourists.

Their presence was so noticeable that they even had their own tourist information office, set in a lovely, geometrically designed garden decorated with a handful of fountains. It was the only truly beautiful building within the town limits. However, the natural beauties all around us did not disappoint us.

Considering the fact that we were staying in a valley surrounded by some of the highest mountains in Europe, and with lots of national pride imbued in everyday life, we were happy enough.

One of the most surreal moments came at a point when we realized how very odd it was to be playing crazy golf against a background of pine trees and treacherous mountain ridges stretching off into the distance behind as far as the eye could see.

The entire trip revealed several examples of how strange a group of usually proper young ladies can actually be when left to explore the mountain paths and the surrounding entertainments.

While some left to enjoy the sights and sounds of the panoramic view — rich Marmot Valley — a small group of five intrepid and slightly suicidal individuals, myself included, decided it would be fun to hire scooters and ride them four and a half kilometers back down the mountainside to the nearest town.

The roads were some of the steepest we had ever seen, and at some points, it seemed as if the scooters were flying down a vertical drop, the back wheels almost lifting off the road in deference to gravity. But finally we delivered the bikesback to safety, undamaged. (Although the same could not be said for the toes belonging to those who had ridden them…)

The holiday itself was based on the premise of a hiker’s paradise. We were given the choice of graded walks, which basically meant that one walk had a natural phenomenon at the other end, while the slightly ‘less challenging’ hike meant a stop at a world-famed café or two within a 10-kilometer stretch of mountain climb.

On one of these occasions, most of the party moved home after a stimulating morning climbing to one of the best views we would see of gaily-decorated alpine cows jangling their bells at passers-by who stopped to have their picture taken with these rather unimpressed-looking animals.

Those of us who relished a challenge (and the jelly-like feeling in our legs afterwards) decided to attempt climbing one of the smaller mountains in the region. (It was only the first full day, after all, and it was still 2,472 meters high!)

After several hours climbing on hands and knees at several points, while the mountain stretched far above us, we reached the top. Our climb rewarded us with a view to rival those from the top of any tall building in any major city in the world.

We who had never before seen the breathtaking panorama Switzerland had to offer were struck dumb as we saw what seemed to be tiny ants crawling slowly along, far below us.

The next day, we felt the effects of our strains. Stretching took up a major part of the day, and we were seen contorting ourselves around lampposts and dangling from high walls, in feeble attempts to work the knots out from our screeching muscles.

But it was not in vain, and despite the odd looks we received, no one regretted the extra effort expended. In fact, we had a great time mocking those who had been too ‘sissy’ to attempt the climb alongside us.

The highlight of our trip, however, has to be the visit to the Jungfraujoch mountains, though I doubt that if my legs had separate brains, they would agree.

A walk through the snow — at heights of more than 11,000 feet — was murder, but everyone managed the two-hour trek.

To be able to eat lunch in short-sleeved T-shirts while lobbing snowballs back and forth was an adventure in itself. The cold did not penetrate our thin clothes. Most of us felt rather warm, even to the point of falling down to make snow angels and sliding on plastic bags through the snow, squealing in delight.

The huskies proved to be yet another bonus added to our extraordinary experience at ‘The Top of Europe’. The yowling noise coming from their little houses excited us all, and the ride through the snow, with the dogs kicking back snow, making all in the carriage wet was as much fun as anyone can possibly have.

It felt like Christmas had come early, and several members of the party had fun singing carols at the tops of their voices, much to the amusement of the surrounding foreigners who saw our ‘neckers’ and agreed we were mad and part of some obscure organization which promoted this attribute.

One of the most memorable moments was also the low point of our stay.

Luckily, this came after many days of happily frolicking in the mountains, scootering, sledging and having a go on the toboggan run, while spending the hours between dinner and lights out singing traditional campfire favorites outside the backpackers’ kitchen at our hostel.

On the last day, when all the fun had been had, and everyone was already thinking about their own beds and proper showers, our good time ended quite unexpectedly.

Traveling slowly by train, down the side of one of many mountains, most of us watched out the window, while some talked, and some, including myself, contented themselves with finishing holiday homework, and reading. The train on which we were traveling was old and rickety, but pleasantly spacious, and safe-feeling, so the sudden stop felt like nothing out of the ordinary.

The next few seconds felt, to me, like a surreal, out-of-body experience. I don’t remember much except the screams of my friends, a pain in my shoulder and the sound of smashing glass in the next carriage. It didn’t seem important that I lost my page, or that a few souvenirs went missing.

Watching my friends being immobilized on stretchers and carried to waiting air ambulances while reporters gathered over the bridge on the other side of the bright red cordon was strange.

The reality didn’t hit me until a few hours later, after encounters with firemen who didn’t speak a word of English, and therefore had to make do with my bad translation of our version of events, and eccentric old ladies who allowed us to use their toilets.

Coaches were hired to transport us, Good Samaritans talked at us, our luggage was rescued.

But friends were in need of help, and a lot is blurred. One image that remains has the added sensation of a weight bearing down on my shoulders, as I help carry my ‘buddy’ to the triage tent, as she suffers from belated shock.

The flight home was awful. Of the 13 of us allowed to fly home, not a single one escaped the embarrassment of floods of tears. We were leaving friends behind whose experiences we would not learn until we all met again a few weeks later.

Strangely enough, that awful journey down the mountain was something which became a positive event for most in the end, as everyone has kept in close contact since.

The images of crumpled carriages teetering on the edge of the mountainside will probably remain with all of us forever, but at least no one had to go through the experience alone.

 

 

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