Saturday, October 22, 2011

Adventures at Les Rochers-de-Naye

On Sunday, Michèle and Richard took us to an incredible alpine area, Les Rochers-de-Naye, near Montreaux.  In fact, Richard had a lot to do with the revitalization of this area.  As an engineer for one of the most well-regarded railways in Switzerland, Richard had both the creative vision and the critical follow-through skills to bring new activities that draw people to this area.  He also did engineering on top of that with one highlight being the development of a method for trains to switch from narrow-gauge to regular size tracks!

We began by taking a GoldenPass cog railway partway up to this alpine area.  Richard had Darrell all decked out for a climb on the relatively new Via Ferrata route in this area. Via Ferrata (Klettersteig in German) are fixed climbing routes.  They vary in difficulty, but most require regular climbing equipment (harness, helmet, etc.) plus a special “Y” attachment device so the climber is always hooked to something.  The climber moves only one of the branches of the “Y” at a time, so is always attached.  Here is an image of their route from the via ferrata website.

Darrell and Richard's route - dotted lines for the top section
Via Ferrata have been around since the mid-1800's, but were more well-developed during WWI primarily by the Italian military.  There are now hundreds of routes in Europe (where they are free) and some in the United States (where of course crass commercialism is in force).

If you are interested in the history of this sport, you can read it at the Via Ferrata site.

While the two climbers started their adventure, Michèle guided me on an easier route.  We went through some snow, but it wasn’t climbing a rock face!  Phew!

Michèle on our route
Meanwhile, Richard was guiding Darrell on the Via Ferrata - using a lot of patience and skill to help Darrell conquer sewing-machine legs and visions of long drops!

Don't look down!  (Picture courtesy of Richard)
When we got to the top, we walked past the Marmot pens (more on that later!) to the top of the route.  I tried to look over the edge to see Darrell and Richard climbing, but I couldn’t handle it.  My stomach churns just thinking about it now.  So Michèle used my camera and got some pictures of the guys getting to the top!

Darrell survives! (Photo courtesy of Michèle) 
After Darrell got his ground legs back, we had a lovely lunch, and then continued our alpine adventures!

From the station we went through a long tunnel to the restaurant on the other side of the mountain. There are more tunnels in Switzerland than holes in Swiss cheese.  Many were developed for military use – it takes work to maintain neutrality – and some of these are still hidden. This one, however, goes to a nice restaurant with an amazing view in the summer and then gets converted to an enchanted tunnel to see Santa in the weeks before Christmas. This brilliant idea took one of the slowest seasons for the railway and made it one of the most popular! The Swiss Santa keeps a seriously large log book of whether children have been naughty or nice; and probably determines whether they get coal or oranges for Christmas. No Christmas stockings here though.  They keep their socks on their feet.

Tunnel goes from station on left to back side of hills.  Note marmot pens to right.
You can also see the square enclosures (on the right of this picture) for the six species of marmots that are part of Marmot Paradise, another family-friendly draw to this area.  Besides the pens, there is a free exhibition that helps you discover many things about the 14 species of marmots around the world.  You can even see the inside of a burrow.  They had in-burrow cameras for some time, but the marmots seemed to enjoy munching on the wires, so those aren’t in place anymore!  To read more about this (and to see some of the species of marmots) you can go to Marmot Paradise here.  Richard and Michèle had some interesting stories about maintaining ecologic integrity while developing this attraction, and we found it very nicely done.

For over 100 years there has also been an alpine garden at Les Rochers-de-Naye.  Michèle is presently the president of the group overseeing this garden, so we got an insider’s tour.  We had to wade through some snow, and only a few plants were still blooming, but it was still incredibly beautiful.

Michèle in front of the little hut that serves the alpine garden.
The alpine garden has numerous microclimates and there are over 1,000 species of plants from alpine areas all over the world!  They are part of the international seed bank program so follow very strict rules for how they collect and grow their seeds.

Well-labeled plants in their vertically structured microclimates!
One of the first plants you see in the garden is the Swiss Edelweiss.  They also have edelweiss from other parts of the world!  I could do an entire blog on this garden – and I really want to come back when it is in full bloom!

My first edelweiss!
To celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the garden, a local Buddhist group built a stupa here in 1996.  Of course, this caused some disturbance to other people, so then a cross was also erected across the way.  At least it was a peaceful way of resolving differences!

Buddhist stupa in honor of the now 115-year old alpine garden!
After the alpine garden tour, we went to see another attraction, the yurts!  Seven Mongolian yurts have been set-up to accommodate overnight guests.  They were made in Mongolia, and the furniture is Mongolian as well.  They have been reinforced to support extra insulation for the winter snowpack here though.  Since Mongolia is a high desert, the normal yurt doesn’t need to support as much snow as a hut in Switzerland does!

Inside of Mongolian Yurt

Outside of a different yurt (the colors inside match the doors).
Before we caught the last train back to Montreaux, we climbed to the top where there are displays showing the names of the mountains in view.  While we had been in glorious sunshine all day at 2,042 meters (6,700 ft), the area near the lake was still covered in some fog.  There is only fog in October; Darrell surmises it is from the still-warm lake water meeting the cooling air above.  You can see the mountains ringing the lake and helping to hold in the dense moist air.

Above the fog at Les Rochers-de-Naye
We could also look back down at the station and "mini-Mongolia".  The alpine garden is between the two rock outcrops above the train tunnel that is in the middle of the photo.  Quite a diverse place!

Alpine garden, tracks and tunnels, station, and mini-Mongolia!
Our wonderful hosts and guides!
Thank you again, Richard and Michèle, for another amazing day!

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