The more things change… keeping up in the Alps

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The first time I went to Grindelwald, I didn’t know what to expect.  It was 1991, I had just started working in Basel for a summer, and I went to Interlaken because I’d vaguely heard about it.  I got to Interlaken and, looking at the still somewhat distant mountains, I thought “This is nice, but I want to be there!”  So I ended up in Grindelwald.  It’s glorious, with the massive Eiger North Face towering, literally towering about 10,000 ft above town, and many other mountains that are nearly as impressive.  I ended up walking to the lower Grindelwald glacier, which reached all the way down to the valley floor.  They’d cut a tunnel into it, and for a few francs, people could walk inside the glacier.  How cool is that?!

Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn and Eiger above Grindelwald

The next time I made it to Grindelwald, it was 1997, and I was moving to the Alps, looking for a job in Mürren, but also checking in the larger Grindelwald in case Mürren didn’t work out.  I re-visited the upper Grindelwald glacier and was confused.  Where’s the glacier? What was wrong with my memory? Instead of a glacier and a tunnel, there was a long, alpine-rustic wooden staircase that climbed hundreds up feet up a rock face, where there was a snack bar and a tunnel in the glacier. It seems obvious now, but at the time I really didn’t understand what was going on.  I asked at the ticket counter, and the man there showed me a picture from a few years ago.  Yes, the glacier had retreated hundreds and hundreds of feet in just 6 short years.  Whoa!  Welcome to global warming, and a changing environment.

staircase from the Upper Grindelwald glacier

Well, things change, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, and we just have to adapt.  Lately, I feel there has been a fair bit of adapting to do at Alpinehikers HQ. Like with our hotels, where we’re losing a few great hosts.  Vreni Rothen and Heinz Karlen, our hosts at the Naturfreunde in Grindelwald, are moving on, retiring, and we’re not sure who the new wardens will be. I’ve known Vreni and Heinz for 18 years (she was my most excellent boss in Murren for a time), and although they have a simple inn, I always knew that my guides and clients would feel welcome there. We’ve similarly lost an excellent host this year in Wengen, at the Schönegg, and in recent years in Mürren and Griesalp.  I still grieve for Bruno at Rotstock hut (and his amazing cream torte), even though it’s been 10 years since he moved on.  But we’ve also formed great new relationships, with Claudia und Gerhard at the Bernerhof in Kandersteg for instance, who are always friendly and helpful, and we’ve seen great room renovations at the Bären in Wengen, Edelweiss and Eiger in Mürren, the Prieure in Chamonix, and others.  As always, we’ll miss our friends from some of our favorite hotels but are excited about continuing to build relationships with others.

Jimmy-lunch-2015

Our guides, too, have seen some significant additions.  Alex Langdon, who led a couple TMB tours for us this year, is always bright, capable and fun, and consistently gets responses from our clients like, “I’d follow her anywhere”.  Jimmy Marshment-Howell, who arrived at a moment of need, when I was looking for a guide for an Haute Route tour this summer, is knowledgeable and funny, speaks both German and French, and is simply, “fabulous,” according to his group.  Hayden Buck led 4 tours for us this summer, is enthusiastic and extremely professional, and was repeatedly praised for his sense of humor, his caring nature, and his excellent lunches.  Eryka Thorley also spent 6 weeks guiding for us this summer, and she proved to be always friendly, caring, personable and tirelessly working to make sure everyone had a great time.  This isn’t to minimize the efforts of our veteran guides, Matt, Brant, Michelle, Jake, Abby and Zach, who are all continually excellent themselves, but to acknowledge the great job done by guides that are newer to Alpinehikers as well.

We’re also making a change to our rail passes, probably overdue, to include 1st class passes instead of 2nd class passes on almost all of our tours.  This is most likely a sign of me getting older as much as anything, but I’ve had a 1st class pass for myself for at least parts of the summer the past few years, and I absolutely love it.  They’re not that much more expensive (at least in the context of a full tour), but you really have a lot more space, an easier time finding empty seats, and plenty of space for your luggage.  It’s time we acknowledged that most of our clients will prefer this, that you’re worth it, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long!

Things are changing in my personal life as well.  Our story is a common one in some ways, in that when our daughter Sidney was born 10 years ago, my wife put her career on stop (not even on hold) to be with the kids.  Back then, I was spending almost 4 months in Switzerland every year, so my family came with me, naturally… since that’s way too long to be away.  And although it sounds great on the surface, it’s actually not that easy, raising kids in another country 9 time zones from your entire support network.  It takes a toll in it’s own way, even though we’ve had many rich and memorable experiences as a family in the Alps too.  So now with both kids in school, it’s time for JJ to pursue something of her own, and that wasn’t going to happen in Prescott, or with summers spent in the Alps.  After 9 years in Prescott, we’ve moved to Portland, Oregon.  She’s now studying for a Master’s degree in Naturopathic Health and Nutrition, and is busy with classes and homework.  Owen and Sidney are making new friends in a new school.  And I’m, hopefully, moving into a new, well-caffeinated, office next week in Portland’s Clinton district, working solo again, while Matt, Deb, Mike and Abby continue at our main office in Prescott. So if you are in Portland or coming through, you can visit me there (Clinton’s a great little neighborhood, and I’ll probably want to get out!).

Murren Switzerland

This has a lot of ramifications on our office workflow, and I’m actually on a plane to Arizona as I type this, for a couple days of staff meetings where we’ll talk about it.  Working from two offices takes away my ability to just talk across the room and ask, “who has the Thompson tour?”.  Abby can’t just walk over and ask about a tour proposal she’s sending.  Matt can’t immediately and easily check in on a backup hotel option. We can’t just pass a clipboard around the room.  We need to go online.  We’re a little different than most tour companies in that we do a lot of highly specialized, custom tours, but there are just 5 of us. And we don’t use local tour operators (most of the big companies book with destination management companies, or DMCs), but deal directly with hotels, taxis, luggage, trains and guides in the Alps ourselves.  Between the reservations, proposals, payments and so on, there are literally thousands of details to keep track of, and yes, occasionally things get lost – we didn’t change that taxi time, or update that hotel reservation with new info.  I want to make sure things don’t get lost, and right now I’m looking at some very comprehensive industry-specific software that will help us manage all of this.  It probably won’t be visible to you, the client, but if we can get the process all tied together online, and avoid letting any details fall through the cracks, you’re ultimately going to have a better tour, and it will free us up to spend more time taking that extra step.  It’s going to be a huge change in how we work, and we probably needed to do it anyway, but it’s been accelerated by my move to Portland and the need to figure out how to make that work.

So… changes.  But not really.  We still do what we do. I already think we’re the best tour operator in Switzerland, with our office-wide knowledge of the Alps, our ability to customize, commitment to seeking out the best experiences for our clients, and keeping prices down to something normal people can afford.  And we’re trying to get better, with our hotels, our guides, itineraries, tour info… even the boring back-office stuff.  Just let us know how we do!

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