Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Adventures of Antonio! - Escape from the Desert, Part 2 - Life by Misadventure

Three times I've tried to hike to the top of Giessbach Falls and three times I've failed. Each time the climb through the tangled, rocky forest, steeper and steeper as the Falls grew more and more overwhelming left me feeling hopeless. This time I tried a different approach - from the top down. Upon studying the map I found that there was a small road that skirted around the falls to reach some of the higher Alpine villages. From this road several trails branched off and one appeared to be the upper end of the trail I'd tried before. So, off I went.
Brienz lays on the north shore of the lake and the Falls are on the south slope. I choose to walk around the east end of the lake and catch the road as it started its climb up the south slope.
This is a view at the east end, looking eastward towards the valley that leads to Meiringen (read your Conan Doyle or this blog post), the Aareschlucht and Innertkirchen. Judging from the position of the train the time would be 10:39 and 43 seconds.
Looking back. It was a cloudy day, cool and a bit misty.
Some lucky cow lives here.
A small lumber operation has its yard here. There are a few builders in the area that still build traditional chalets using logs milled locally. Some of these logs had a funny face spray painted on the end. I wonder if it was a joke or someone's way of marking the logs he'd purchased.
Nameless streams like this scatter all over the slopes.
As the road makes its ascent up the south slope a series of views to the north open up. Across the lake is Brienz, with Mulibach Falls visible on the left.

Here's another glimpse of Mulibach Falls. Above it a valley extends yet further up into the mountains.
The village of Planalp at the top of the falls.
Too sweet for words. I'll bet that little attic room is a very cozy little bedroom, with a ceiling just high enough to stand up. Why don't we have the courage to build houses like this anymore?

Leaving the road I head off onto the trail. Everything was wet and bursting with Spring energy. Where the trail wasn't made up of slippery moss covered rocks it was muddy. Water dripped from the trees, dribbled down the slopes, beaded into little crystal spheres off tips of branches ...
The path grew continually steeper and more slippery.
One of several staircases along the trail. There was a ladder too.

Near the top of the trail, just as it was approaching the falls, there was a branch leading to the village of Schweibenalp. I decided to follow it.
Back in 1988, just as I was getting ready to move back to the USA from Europe. Ammachi was on her second world tour. I'd missed her US stage. She was now in Europe. This was what prompted my first visit to Brienz. She was receiving visitors at a commune in the village of Schweibenalp.
Having gotten this far up the trail I thought it would be fun to peek into Schweibenalp again.
Here it is, looking pretty much the same, but more tame and organized. It is now a center for teaching Alpine Permaculture.
My only memory of Amma's visit, aside from her hugs of course, was that an Italian hippy girl with straggly hair got up and started dancing in front of Amma, stark naked. Amma appeared neither impressed nor shocked. She simply gestured to one of her Brahmacharinis (women vowed to chastity and serving the poor), who got up and wrapped a shawl around the dancing hippy. In a few moments she seemed to get the idea and wandered off to some other spot.
Making my way back to the trail and the present I finally reached the top! ... Well, hardly. It was as close as the trail went, this bridge. But the falls continued as a series of cascades and rapids much farther and deeper into the mountain. Later, studying the map, I found that the road goes up there but it appears that key stretch of the river is inaccessible.
The little concrete box in the photo is the top end of an inconspicuous pipeline that siphons off a tiny bit of the flow and carries it all the way down to the lake, capturing hydropower along the way.
I'd had high hopes for this hike up Giessbach Falls at the height of the Spring flow. It was even more impressive than I imagined but a bit of an anticlimax photographically. The power of the water was so vast that it was really impossible even to begin to capture on camera.
The "Falls" were more like a huge torrent rushing down the side of the mountain, with little reference to the original channel. The volume of water was spilling over in all direction and sending great plumes and clouds of mist into the surroundings, so that when I tried to approach the falls I was enveloped in mist and my camera lens would fog up.
To get a bit of scale, that's the 6-story high Grand Hotel Giessbach down at the base of the falls.
Having hiked my way down a few of the ledges the Grand Hotel Giessbach, which lays near the base of the falls finally came into view below.
It was slow going. Everything was wet and slippery. Despite all my precautions I still managed to fall once, fortunately catching myself with only minor damage.
More than a few spots along the path had been washed out and just recently repaired.
Check out the little metal thing near the fencepost. That's a lamp. It seems some Swiss person, succumbing to an unfortunate bourgeois impulse, has decided that the vast and miraculous force of nature that is Giessbach Falls, a creation far more powerful than any of which humans can dream of creating, can be improved with artificial lighting.

None of the above photos go anywhere near capturing the impact of this experience. The roar shakes your body. The sense of peril and vulnerability is extreme.
For this blog post I decided all I could do was to pull up a few images from my previous visit in the summer of 2011 and show the same spots "before and after". The images on the right are from my earlier trip and those on the left are from this one.
At one point there is a bridge that passes behind the falls.
The view from that same bridge as it passes behind the falls. Looking down there is another bridge below and the Grand Hotel Giessbach in the distance.
These photos are taken from near the lowest section of the Falls, looking up towards the footbridge that can be seen in the photos above.
Finally, reaching the safe haven of the hotel terrace, the bulk, but by no means all of the falls come into view.
The uppermost, inaccessible portion of the falls cascade down around 150 meters (500 feet) before reaching the "top" that I showed in a photo above, where the pipeline and main stretch of the falls begins. From there the falls drop another 330 meters (1100 feet), much of which can be seen in this photo. The hotel stands on a sturdy mound of rock that forces the falls to take a bend to the west before finally falling another 100 meters (330 feet) to the lake below.

For those of you doing the "Europe on $500 Dollars a Day" tour I recommend at least a couple of nights at the Grand Hotel Giessbach. For the rest of you, it is a great place to end a hike of the falls. My choice refreshment is ...
... hot chocolate with whipped cream! The King Charles Spaniel photobombing me was an unexpected bonus.
This looks like a comfortable place to hang out with a few friends. One of these years a few of you need to join me on a hike up ... or down ... the falls.
From the hotel there is a funicular and a trail leading down to the water's edge. On this day the trail was still closed because the falls were overtopping it in a few places, include at the bridge you see in these two photos.

The 15 minute boat ride back across the lake to Brienz is a great way to decompress after the tension and excitement of Giessbach Falls.
My ship comes in.
Some people leave their hearts in San Francisco. I leave my hat at Grand Hotel Giessbach.
It gave me a good excuse to go back again and have another hot chocolate. I also got a couple more photos of the surroundings and the interior.
The weather was more clear today and the mist around the falls had reduced. Here's a view from the hotel terrace.
This is a view of a small stretch of the lower portion of the falls, as it drops from the hotel down to the lake.
 My idea of a proper sitting room, a bay window that comfortably seats 8 and a grand piano tucked into one corner. Just out of view on the right is a bar.

 Lake Brienz from the terrace of the Grand Hotel Giessbach... shades of Caillebotte.


  1. Antonio, I enjoyed your photos and narrative - such stunning scenery. What a wonderful adventure. And yes, I agree, some or several of us should join you next time!

  2. As impressive as the falls are I simply LOVE the photo of the delicious hot chocolate and the cute spaniel ;-)
    As I'm not much of a hiker I'd probably stay at that hotel - which is grand indeed - and enjoy the view from there! Thank you for sharing your adventure.