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.

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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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August 25 – Les Jeurs, Le Chable (0 km, 0 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 25, 2010 by Scott McGee

Florence had to work again today, but she made plans to give Jenny and I a tour of the tunnel project that the company she works for is building. So in mid-morning Jenny and I hiked down from Les Jeurs to the valley bottom and met Florence at the company cafeteria for lunch. I say cafeteria, but it was really more of a restaurant. They had nice dishes on the tables with wine glasses, and there was a worker that came to the table to take our orders. Nice setup.

After lunch, Florence got Jenny and I equipped with hard hats, orange vests, and emergency respirators and locator devices for a tour of the tunnel. It’s an addition to an existing hydroelectric project, and they’re digging a new tunnel and turbine gallery to add more megawatt capacity to what they now generate. They started digging the new tunnel in late December of 2009 and they’ve now dug 1.6 kilometers of a total of about 6 kilometers. Then they have to blast out the turbine gallery inside the mountain and install the turbines. It’s a pretty amazing project, but like I said in a previous post, the Swiss can build anything, anywhere.

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Here's the entrance to the tunnel that's being constructed in order to increase the megawatt capacity of an existing hydroelectic project. As of today, the tunnel is 1.6 kilometers long and it has a 12% uphill slope, which you can see by the line of reflectors inside. The tube hanging from the ceiling provides a supply of cold, fresh air to the tunnel boring machine. The blue framework on the right supports the conveyor belt that transports the broken rock out of the tunnel. ^

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This is a view of the tunnel boring machine (TBM), as seen from the back end of it, looking forward. The stairs on the left lead to the upper levels of the TBM. The entire machine rides on rails that are anchored to the lower portion of the tunnel walls, which you can see in this photo. ^

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This is on the upper level of the TBM, only a few meters behind the front, rotating cutting face. As the machine makes forward progress through the rock, other sections of the TBM behind the cutting face install rock bolts and wire mesh on the tunnel walls. Other parts of the machine farther back spray a concrete lining over the mesh to stabilize the tunnel. ^

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This is underneath the TBM directly behind the forward digging face. The entire rotating face can be hydraulically steered left and right, and up and down, in order to make the tunnel curved or ascend or descend. The broken rock is funneled through the central longitudinal axis and is transported out of the tunnel by a conveyor belt. ^

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The entire 9.4 meter diameter by 140 meter long TBM is controlled from a central control room housed in a relatively sound and vibration proofed metal box. Here are just a few of the video monitors and controls. ^

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I took this photo at the digging face of the tunnel boring machine while it was operating, which explains the shaky, out-of-focus image. With the low light level in the tunnel and the extreme shaking of the entire 140 meter long TBM, it was impossible to get a sharp photo, even though my camera had an internal image stabilizer. It was an awesome, overwhelming experience to be on the TMB while it was busy digging into the mountain. It's an opportunity not many people get. ^

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After getting outfitted we took a walk into the tunnel. It’s 9.4 meters (31 feet) in diameter and slopes upward at a 12% angle. Like most modern tunnel projects, this one is not blasted out with explosives, but rather is dug with a huge tunnel boring machine. The one on this project is 9.4 meters in diameter and 140 meters (459 feet) long! The thing is huge. The business end is a huge rotating disk with 30 or so large tungsten wheels that press on and roll against the rock face with such force that the rock is fractured into small hand-size bits (we went into the control room and saw that one of the digital displays showed the rotating disk was pressing on the rock face with 750 kilonewtons (168,000 pounds) of force). The broken rock is then funneled through the center rotating axis of the machine to a conveyor belt that transports it out of the tunnel. Other parts of the boring machine install a steel mesh reinforcement and a concrete shell on the walls of the tunnel. We were lucky enough to be able to actually get on the machine and go right up to the digging face of it while it was operating. What an experience that was! The sound and vibration was intense. It was impossible to talk to someone standing just inches away, even if you were yelling. The whole machine was shaking and making so much noise that it was just an overwhelming experience. At one point they had to stop the rotating digging face for some reason, so we walked down some stairs and got underneath the machine. Just amazing. I’d read about such tunnel boring machines in magazines and always thought it would be cool to see one. I never imagined I’d get the chance to stand on one at the digging face while it was actually digging. Just incredible – I’m lucky to have had the opportunity.

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Florence still had to work a few more hours after the tunnel tour, so she loaned Jenny and I her car to drive up to the Emosson Dam and reservoir. The lake is one of two that supply the water for the existing hydro project and for the new addition. It’s located very near the Swiss/French border and the road up to it provides great views of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. It was a cloudless day so we got several nice views of it.

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On the drive up to Emosson Dam, we got a nice view of Les Jeurs and the road up to it. The village is in the open pasture on the mountainside on the right-hand side of the photo. The switchbacking road is seen in the center of the photo. ^

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View of Mont Blanc from the road up to Emosson Dam. At 4,810 meters high (15,782 feet) it is the highest mountain in the Alps, and in western Europe. ^

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Another view of Mont Blanc. ^

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And here's a panorama of the Mont Blanc massif as seen from Emosson Dam. Mont Blanc is the glacier-covered mountain in the distance on the right-hand side of the photo. Click to to open a larger version.

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Florence made plans to take tomorrow off from work, so the plan is to go up to a mountain hut tonight and go on a hike tomorrow. So Jenny and I met Florence when she got off work and we all piled in her car for the drive to Le Chable where her parents live. Her older brother Bertrand drove us up to a point at about 7,000 feet and then Jenny, Florence, and I hiked the rest of the way up to the hut, situated in a saddle on a ridge at about 8,100 feet in elevation. In Switzerland the term “mountain hut” is a bit of an understatement. Their huts are more like rustic hotels, with cooks, hot meals, wine, beer, bunks with pillows and blankets, and so on. All you need is a small day pack – no need to carry everything you need as we’re accustomed to in the U.S. For dinner we had some nice wine and cheese fondue. Very tasty, and it was a great way to top off a great day. We’ll stay here tonight and then tomorrow we’ll take a hike up a 10,000 foot mountain.

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Our evening hike up to the mountain hut took us past this herd of cows high up in the mountains. All the cows had bells around their necks, and it was really neat to hear the sounds of the bells echoing across the peaks. It was classic Switzerland! ^

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Our evening destination was this hut, Cabane du Col de Mille, at an elevation of about 2,470 meters (8,100 feet). That's the Mont Blanc massif in the background. ^

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August 24 – Les Jeurs, Switzerland (0 km, 0 miles)

Posted in On the Road, Switzerland on August 24, 2010 by Scott McGee

Today was a real rest day for me. Florence had to work all day which left me to occupy the time by just relaxing and enjoying not pedaling for a while. My plan is to take about a week-long break here and visit with Florence. Sounds like a lot of time, but she just recently got home from a vacation to Mongolia and doesn’t have any available vacation time, which means she has to work each day, leaving only the evenings for visiting. So today was a day for just lounging around, which was just fine with me because it rained pretty much all day long. I got up around 10:00 am and had a continental breakfast of bread, cheese, and homemade apricot jam that her mom made. Then I got caught up on some computer work and downloaded and organized photos.

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Here's the place I'm staying at in Les Jeurs. It belongs to a friend of Florence's who rents it to tourists, but it's not rented this week, so I get to stay here for free - pretty good deal. See the big rock? It's a glacial erratic that was deposited here once upon a time by a now long-gone glacier. It's cool how they just built the house around it. ^

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After Florence got off work we had a nice dinner of Swiss fighting cow at a fancy restaurant in Martigny. According to Florence, the cows in her part of Switzerland are known for their fighting abilities (they fight each other in the Spring to determine the queen of the herd) and for their tender meat. I don’t know about the fighting part, but it sure was good eating.

At 9:30 pm we headed over to the train station to pick up Jennifer Middleton, one of the JIRP students in 2008. She graduated from college this spring and is now on a year-long, round-the-world trip before starting graduate school. By pure coincidence her visit with Florence is at the same time I’m here, so it’s sort of a little JIRP reunion event with the three of us here at the same time.