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Deep valleys

My knees are still sore from yesterday's race to catch Switzerland’s national day in the Val Bregaglia.

The 1,000 meters or so of ascent – mostly up massive boulderfields – was sweaty but not a big deal. It was the nearly 3,000 meters of descent (in two stages) that I can still feel, especially since most of it was extremely steep.

The steepest of all was the final forest where I clung to saplings to keep from tumbling as I took shortcuts to try to make it here in time.

Even after all this border hiking, I still can't get used to the depth of the main valleys that punch into the Alps. There have been four so far: the Rhine at 480 meters (which thankfully I only climbed out of), the Inn River at 1,035 meters, the Val Poschiavo (550 meters), and now the Val Bregaglia (685 meters). In between there have been plenty of ups and downs, and the peaks have commonly topped 3,000 meters and once topped 4,000 meters.

But it's the huge drops from the high country to the deep valleys that does a poor hiker's knees in, at least when the drops hit you all at once like they did last evening.

That's right, evening. I had thought I could do yesterday's hike in a mere seven or maybe eight hours, so I didn't start walking until 7 a.m. As the day wore on and I wasn't getting here quickly enough, I kept ramping up the pace until I was actually running on the rare gentle slopes. The festivities were supposed to begin at 8:30 p.m. I finally made it to the hotel in Castesegna (exactly at the border) at 8:45 p.m. – only to discover that the big regional torchlight parade and fireworks were taking place in another village 40 minutes away ... by car.

Oh well. A big beer eased the pain. And the small village of Castesegna had its own little picnic affair, which I reached as it grew dark, the bonfire was lit and a few home-style fireworks fizzled. They even had some salami and cheese left over from the dinner.

This morning I walked up to the nearby town of Soglio, where Swiss and cantonal flags were still draped across alleys in one of the cutest old mountain towns you can imagine. There are a lot of picturesque villages in Europe, but describing this one as picturesque doesn't even begin to do it justice.

As to the famous Bregaglia mountains that scrape the southern – Italian – horizon, so far they have just teased me through a thin veil of clouds. I can see their ragged edges at times, but I've yet to spot the real prize, Piz Badile. Tomorrow I'll write why it's so special to climbers and why some year soon I'll be back here to climb it.

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