Archive for August, 2010

August 31 – Spinetta Marengo to Camp Miraflores (Rapallo, Italy) (122 km, 74 miles)

Posted in Italy, On the Road on August 31, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 31 Route Map

I got to the Mediterranean Sea today! It was nice to get my fist view of it from about 20 kilometers away while coming out of the hills to the north of Genova. It was a sure sign that my trip is coming to an end soon. But it was nice to see anyway. It was sunny again all day today, which is probably normal for this part of Europe. And it was hot – 32 degrees Celsius, which is something like 90 degrees Fahrenheit – way too hot for this Alaskan.

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Looking northwest to the Alps, 100 miles away, from the northern side of the mountains along the north coast of Italy. There's fresh snow in the Alps from yesterday's storm. ^

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During this entire trip I've noticed things that illustrate the differences between Europe and the U.S., particularly with regard to European's increased environmental awareness compared to the U.S. This is a prime example. If this was in the U.S. the trees would be considered a nuisance and would be cut down to make room for cars to park easily. But here in Italy, the trees seem to come first, and they adapt the parking to the trees. It would be great if every U.S. politician and policy-maker did a bicycle trip across Europe. They would then learn how they do things here, and then hopefully take that knowledge back to the U.S. and implement it there. Maybe then the U.S., with 4.5% of the world's population, wouldn't consume 21% of the world's energy. ^

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Now that's some skillful parking! ^

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Look at that - the Mediterranean Sea! This was my first view of the Mediterranean, from the mountains 10 miles north of Genova. ^

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A closer view of the Mediterranean, taken from the same spot as the above photo. ^

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I rode into Genova at 2:30 pm and straight into another world, transportation-wise. Mopeds are everywhere – thousands and thousands of them. I think they outnumber the cars. And the traffic is nuts – people park everywhere and any way. They don’t always get near the curb and often just get the nose of their car into the parking spot and leave the rest sticking out into the road and strange angles. It’s definitely not the kind of parallel parking that we’re used to in the U.S. Drivers here also double park and cut the road down to one lane with everyone trying to squeeze through the one lane. On top of that, moped drivers weave in and out of traffic, often in the oncoming lane. I saw more than a few near head-on collisions between mopeds and cars. Insane. I quickly came to the conclusion that when riding a bike, you just have to be aggressive and take your part of the road – and hope you survive. Genova’s no place to be timid on a bike!

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SMART cars are very popular in Europe. As you can see, they don't take up much more room than a bicycle, making them very easy to drive on Europe's often narrow streets, and it's a sure bet you can always find somewhere to park. ^

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Figurehead of Neptune on Il Galeone Neptune, a replica of a wooden Spanish galleon, in the harbor at Genova. ^

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The ship Il Galeone Neptune. This is a replica of a Spanish galleon, built in 1983-84. It was used in the 1986 movie Pirates, which starred Walter Matthau as Captain Red. The ship is now permanently moored in Genova and is a tourist attraction.^

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The superyacht, Radiant, in the harbor at Genova.

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My original plan was to ride to Genova, stay at a campground for the night, and then take the train to Rome the next day. But I discovered that there are no campgrounds in vicinity of Genova, so I decided to keep riding east another 30 kilometers along the coast to the nearest campground in Rapallo. I can then catch the train from Rapallo to Rome in the morning and be there by 4:30 pm.

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I noticed that Italians have great tans - and this is why. With almost endless beaches and lots of sun, it's a sunbather's paradise. ^

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Another beach in Genova. My evening destination is a campground in Rapallo, which is on the other side of the point of land in the background. I'll bike up and over the top through the saddle. ^

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View of the Mediterranean and the north coast of Italy. ^

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View of the town of Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy. ^

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August 30 – Camp Aosta to Spinetta Marengo, Italy (174 km, 108 miles)

Posted in Italy, On the Road on August 30, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 30 Route Map

Today was my longest ride to date on the trip – 174 kilometers, or 108 miles. This was possible because everything went my way today. The first part of the ride was pretty much all downhill from the campground in Aosta to the point where I got out of the mountains and hit the flats of a large agricultural valley between the Alps and the smaller mountains along the Mediterranean coast. In addition to the downhills and flats, throughout the day I had a 20 km/hour tailwind helping me along as well. So the ride was quite enjoyable. And to top it all off, it was sunny all day long and not too hot.

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The Forte di Bard (Fort of Bard) is situated on a hill overlooking the Dora Baltea River in northern Italy. This has been a strategic military location since about the 5th century. On May 14, 1800, Napolean's army of 40,000 soldiers was held at bay for two weeks by only 400 soldiers at this fort. It ruined his plan for a surprise attack on the Po Valley and Turin, but eventually he overcame the strong defenses of the fort and ordered it destroyed. It was rebuilt in its current configuration in the 1830s. ^

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View of a small farming village in northern Italy. ^

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As I was crossing the flat valley I kept looking back at the Alps and the huge cloud bank that covered them from east to west as far as you could see. Apparently the forecast was correct, and there was a significant snowfall over St. Bernard Pass. So I’m really glad I got a ride from Florence to the pass, so that I could cross over the Alps without being delayed. I’m now only about 80 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea – I’ll be there tomorrow. And I saw the first palm tree today, 90 kilometers from St. Bernard Pass.

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Looking north back to the Alps. The blanket of clouds stretched from east to west as far as you could see. It's a good thing I passed over the Alps yesterday - it doesn't look like a good day for biking up there today. In the foreground are the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant^

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There aren’t many campgrounds in this part of Italy, so when I passed by a hotel at 6:30 pm and the nearest campground was still 45 kilometers away, I opted for the hotel. I needed to recharge my camera and GPS batteries anyway, so it seemed like a logical choice. I had an interesting time checking in, which was unexpected because the clerk at the front desk spoke English quite well. I asked him where I could store my bicycle for the night and he somehow thought I meant that I wanted to go to a store. He directed me to a cluster of shops two kilometers away. I tried to explain that I didn’t want to go shopping, but that I needed to put my bike someplace at the hotel for the night. We went around and around for about minutes before he understood, at which point he took me around to the back of the hotel and used his remote to open the garage door. He said I could store my bike in the garage overnight. Great. So I went in, he went back to the front desk, and I locked up my bike. But before I was done, the garage door automatically closed, and there wasn’t a switch inside to open it. Great – I’m locked in the garage. But after a bit of searching I found a service elevator that took me up to a storage room, and then out to the hallway.

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I call this "Cracking a Smile". It's part of a billboard ad for a circus. It was on a concrete wall under a bridge that had been used for numerous other ads. This one was layered on top of at least 10-15 other ads and the layer of paper was so thick that it had started peeling, wrinkling, and cracking. ^

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Tomorrow – the Mediterranean!

August 30 – Finally back online – temporarily

Posted in On the Road on August 30, 2010 by Scott McGee

Sorry that I haven’t posted any updates for the past week. I’ve been in the southwest part of Switzerland visiting Florence Vaudan and she doesn’t have an Internet connection. I’m now (August 30) in northern Italy and will be in Rome in a few days. When I get a chance (and another connection to the Net) I’ll post more daily updates from August 22 to the present.

I have however, posted my daily route maps up to the present (August 30) on the Current Location page. Take a look there if you’d like to see where I’ve been.

August 29 – Le Chable/Lausanne/St. Bernard Pass to Camp Aosta, Italy (45 km, 28 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 29, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 29 Route Map

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View of the vineyards in the Lavaux region of Switzerland, on the north side of Lake Geneva. This has been an important wine producing area since the 10th century. ^

 

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This is Day 6 since I first arrived at Florence’s place and it’s getting to be time to head south to Italy. But before I get back on the bike, we’re all going to do some sightseeing around Lake Geneva and Lausanne today. Our first stop was the Lavaux vineyards. This is an area on the north side of the lake, with south-facing slopes, that has been one of Switzerland’s principal wine producing areas since the 10th Century. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We drove around, stopping periodically to take photos of grapes on the vines and the scenery (and to taste a few grapes – but just a few!). We eventually made our way to Lausanne and took a walk along the lake front, ending up at a place where you can rent paddle boats. We got one for an hour, with Florence and Jenny providing the propulsion, while I sat in the back and enjoyed not having to pedal. There was a sign on the boat indicating a dangerous area where the large lake ferries approach and depart, and it said in bold red letters, “Danger Zone”. But somehow our two drivers neglected to see the sign until we were in it. But the sign didn’t say to stay out of the danger zone, so we took canvas top off the boat and just relaxed in the sunshine, bobbing in the waves. A bit later it started getting crowded with other paddle boats so we headed back, as our hour’s time was up anyway.

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The Lavaux region stretches across the northern side of Lake Geneva. These grapes will be ready to harvest in a couple of weeks. ^

 

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After Lausanne, we drove back to Martigny and then up to the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, on the border between Switzerland and Italy, and at an elevation of about 8,100 feet. I originally was planning to bike up to the pass, but that would have meant that I’d do it tomorrow, and the weather forecast was calling for 6-8 inches of new snow – not conducive to safe biking. Instead, I’ve decided to just ride down into Italy from the top of the pass today. So once we got to the pass, I unloaded my bike from the car and packed my gear, said my goodbyes to Florence and Jenny, and headed on down the road into Italy.

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View of the road to Great Saint Bernard Pass, which is one of the highest road passes across the Alps. ^

 

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This view, from the Italian side of the pass, looks north to the hospice founded in 1049 by Saint Bernard of Menthon. This pass has been a strategic crossing point over the Alps for the past 2,000 years. Amazing. ^

 

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It was a fast 45 kilometer ride – all downhill – to the town of Aosta, where I found a nice campground for the night. Dinner was at the campground’s restaurant, and was a 12” authentic Italian pizza, loaded with toppings on a very thin, crispy crust. Now that’s the way pizza’s supposed to be – not like the stuff we get in the States! Very tasty.

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View of the mountains on the south (Italian) side of St. Bernard Pass. ^

 

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In 1964, a tunnel was opened that passed through the mountains 2,000 feet below St. Bernard Pass. While the road over the pass is open only during the summer months, the tunnel is open year-round and is now the primary route for the shipment of goods through this part of the Alps. This photo shows the road and tunnel entrance on the south, Italian side of the pass. ^

 

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August 28 – Le Chable, Verbier (0 km, 0 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 28, 2010 by Scott McGee

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The picturesque little village of Le Chable, Switzerland as seen from the lift up to Verbier.

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Not much going on today. The place we’re (Jenny and I) are staying at is a rental property that belongs to one of Florence’s friends. They rent it out to tourists, but it was empty this week, so Florence arranged with them to let us stay here for free – pretty good deal. But the owners have tourists coming in today which means that we have to clean up the place and vacate by Noon.

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Another view of Le Chable, from a bit higher up on the lift.

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Verbier is one of the more famous ski resort towns in Switzerland. It's situated about 685 meters (2250 feet) above Le Chable, in the valley bottom. This is the road leading up to Verbier.

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This being the weekend, Florence didn’t have to work, so the plan was to go do some sightseeing in the area around Le Chable. On the way there, Florence got a call from her Mom requesting help at her brother’s restaurant for a catered lunch party. The three of us dropped in for a bit and Florence served us some very good Swiss white wine that was produced in the local area. I can’t remember the name of it, but I’d sure like to find a way to buy a few bottles of it and have it shipped to Alaska. While Florence was helping with the lunch party, Jenny and I took the tram up to Verbier for an afternoon of sightseeing. Verbier is a ski resort town situated about 2,200 feet above Le Chable. Florence came up to join us around 4:30 pm and we all went to her family’s mountain house up above Verbier for the night. It’s a typical chalet-type house with an open floor plan and a sleeping loft upstairs, all with fantastic views of Verbier, Le Chable and the other villages down in the valley, and the mountains all around – very nice place.

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Hey buddy, wanna buy a watch? Being an upscale ski resort, Verbier has its share of upscale shopping opportunities. This was the most expensive watch I saw while window browsing. That's 9,950 Swiss Francs, which is about 10,300 U.S. Dollars. Interestingly, this watch was more expensive than several nearby diamond-studded gold Rolex watches.

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August 27 – Les Jeurs to Chamonix, France – by car (20 km, 12 miles)

Posted in France, On the Road on August 27, 2010 by Scott McGee

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Downtown Chamonix, France. That's Mont Blanc in the background, with a couple of the glaciers that spill down the side. ^

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Florence had to work all day today which meant that Jenny and I had to figure out what to do. Florence let us use her car, so since Chamonix, France is just 20 kilometers away we figured we’d go do some sightseeing and add France to our lists of countries visited. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t all that great for sightseeing. On approach to Chamonix the rain started coming down hard and the clouds were very low on Mont Blanc, preventing any views of it or its glaciers. We drove around town for a bit just to get familiar with the place and then, right when we found a parking spot, the rain started coming down even harder. We sat in the car waiting for it to let up a bit but then the thunder and lightning started, which was actually good because then at least I knew it was just a passing storm and that it would likely pass through soon, which it did about 15 minutes later. Over the next hour the clouds lifted and the rain stopped, so we were able to see the lower half of Mont Blanc and a couple of glaciers spilling down. After a few hours of walking around town, we headed back to Le Chatelard to meet Florence when she got off work.

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Another shot of Chamonix. ^

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Every year, there’s an ultra-marathon foot race around the Mont Blanc massif. Called the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, it follows a 166 kilometer route that includes 9,500 meters (31,160 feet) of total ascent. One of Florence’s friends was entered in the race this year, so we spent the rest of the evening viewing the race from several of the checkpoints. One of the checkpoints also had eating facilities, so we filled up on raclette, which is melted cheese with steamed potatoes, onions, and pickles. Raclette is the name of both the meal and the type of cheese used. The wheel of cheese is heated under a burner, and when the top layer melts it is scraped off the wheel onto the plate – very tasty.

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Eventually a few holes opened up in the clouds and it looked like there was a strong possibility for clearing. But it didn't happen - it rapidly closed in again, but at least it stopped raining. ^

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Unfortunately for the racers, the heavy rain from earlier in the day returned with a vengeance in the evening and for the first time in the history of the race, it was canceled due to the bad weather.

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Night time photo of the church in Trient, Switzerland. This was near one of the checkpoints for the Mont Blanc race, and while it's not that great of a shot, I just liked the way the church was lit up at night. It was impossible to get a proper exposure with my little point-and-shoot camera, so that's why the top of the tower, near the roof, is overexposed.

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August 26 – Mt. Rogneux/Grand Combin hike (16 km, 10 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 26, 2010 by Scott McGee

August 26 Route Map

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The mountain hut at Col de Mille. The horse in front of the hut is the primary means of supply. ^

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We got up at 7:00 this morning to a clear blue sky and had breakfast with a German tourist who was on a hut-to-hut hiking tour. We had the typical European continental breakfast – bread, cheese, jam, sliced meat, and tea – not a lot by over-sized American standards, but still enough to fill us up without being too much.

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View of the east side of the Mont Blanc massif. Chamonix, France is in the valley directly behind the mountains. This is a six-frame composite panorama. I didn't have a tripod to make sure each hand-held shot was perfectly in line with the others, hence the black areas along the edges. Click for a really large version. ^

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The German tourist was going the same direction we were, so all four of us hiked together to the rocky, snow-free summit of Mt. Rogneux at 10,144 feet. Being from Alaska as I am, it was strange to be at such an altitude and not have any snow or ice to contend with. In Alaska, climbing a 10,000 foot peak is not a simple walk-up but rather entails quite a bit of glacier travel and mountaineering work. But even though there was a trail right to the summit of Mt. Rogneux, it was still a great hike. From the summit, we could see Mont Blanc to the west in France, and to the east was the Matterhorn. All around were the glaciated summits of the Swiss Alps, including the 14,154 foot high Grand Combin. Spectacular!

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View east across the Alps. The pointy peak in the background is the Matterhorn.

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Looking north from the summit of Mt. Rogneux. Le Chable and other villages are in the valley bottom. The ski resort of Verbier is up above, and the Rhone Valley runs from east in the valley behind Verbier. ^

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We parted ways with the German at the summit. He headed south on the way to his next destination while Jenny, Florence, and I continued to the east on a winding trail along the base of the Petit Combin, a smaller satellite peak of the Grand Combin. Off in the far distance we could hear the bells of a herd of cows grazing in the mountain pastures – it was classic Switzerland. The only thing missing was a shepherd blowing an Alphorn and Julie Andrews skipping around singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” At one point we came across the remains of several stone shepherd’s huts in a meadow below the glaciers spilling down the face of the Petit Combin. Two were without roofs, but the third was still in good enough shape to live in quite comfortably. From there our route descended into the valley bottom and then up the other side to a pass overlooking the Corbassière Glacier. This is the main glacier flowing down the north side of Grand Combin. As we approached the pass from the west, there was no indication of what was on the other side of it, so it was quite an impressive sight when I popped up over the ridge and saw the glacier. I told Florence that I wasn’t expecting that and she just smiled and said, “I know”, obviously quite pleased to be showing off her little corner of the world. I’ve seen my share of amazing glacier and mountain landscapes in Alaska, but I have to admit I was very impressed with the scene all around us. Big mountains, glaciers, sunshine, and cows grazing in the meadows – what more could you ask for?

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After leaving the summit of Mt. Rogneux, we hiked across several areas that had been de-glaciated. It was a great hike - sunny all day with views of the peaks all around, including the Matterhorn some 25 kilometers to the east (it's the small, pointed peak on the skyline, partially obscured by the mountain in front of it). ^

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One of the trail markers along the way. The Swiss have a great network of clearly marked trails. ^

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There used to be a glacier here. Now it's a flowery alpine meadow. ^

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Some of the local alpine wildflowers of the Alps. I believe these are called Blue Gentians (Gentian gentiana). ^

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We wrapped up our hike with a walk across a suspension footbridge hanging several hundred feet above a river gorge. The walkway was steel mesh, so that if you looked down you’d see beyond your feet to the river far below. As is probably normal for Switzerland, there was a restaurant at the trailhead where we finished, and we were able to get a nice cold beer. Florence’s dad was there to give us a ride back to Le Chable, where Florence had left her car at her parent’s house.

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After descending the northeast side of Mt. Rogneux we wandered around the base of a mountain called Petit Combin, seen here. The Petit Combin is, as the name suggests, a smaller sister peak of the Grand Combin, which is behind the Petit and not visible here. This is a three-shot hand-held panorama, which explains the black areas. If you click the photo you'll get a much larger version and you can see the mountaineer's trail leading up the snow to the summit. ^

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This is a typical Swiss shepherd's hut. During the summer months when the cows are in the alpine meadows, the shepherd would live here. There is no cement holding the stones together - it's all just very carefully and precisely stacked. ^

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Our route took us to a pass overlooking the Corbassière Glacier, seen here. Like glaciers all around the world, this one is thinning and retreating. You can see that is has thinned quite significantly near the terminus. In the background, on the right-hand side of the photo, is the glacier-covered Grand Combin (4,314 meters, 14,154 feet). ^

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This isn't a particularly scenic photo, but I took it because it's a textbook example of a medial moraine, and it illustrates how a larger valley glacier can overpower and laterally displace a smaller tributary glacier. You can see that, at the terminus of the glacier, the moraine was farther away from the valley sidewall. As the smaller alpine glacier merged with the main valley glacier, the larger one squeezed it and pushed the medial moraine nearly to the side of the valley. I've drawn a yellow line on the crest of the moraine to make it easier to see. ^

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Later that evening, Florence had to go to her company’s picnic (she was one of the designated drivers) where they roasted a whole cow on a spit. I’ll have to ask her if she got a picture of it.

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View of Petit Combin, as we neared the end of our hike. ^

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One last view of Petit Combin. ^

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