Misadventures in the Bernese Oberland
July 4. We wander through Engelberg, picking up supplies for the trip. Engelberg is a pretty, rather modern town entirely dominated by Titlas Mountain. We buy a local altkäse – an Alpine cheese – for lunch, then hike on to the lifts. Lifts are new to us. Usually when we hike, we take the good with the bad. If we want to get to the top, we climb. If we want to get to the bottom, we tromp on down. Now we have a choice. If, as our guidebook says, “the views aren’t that good, since you’re climbing the best view,” perhaps we should take its suggestion, skip the trail, and just take the chairlift.
We want an easy day, so that’s just what we do. But first, I have to mutilate the guidebooks. We have three books, one a guide to Swiss mountain hostels, one a hiking guide with very limited hotel information, and the third is the Lonely Planet’s Walking in Switzerland volume from six years ago. The first two are elegant books on heavy paper. The three together are heavier than a full water bottle. So, after making sure I know where we’re going, I rip the relevant pages out of the first two books and throw the rest of the books away.
Ripping up books is not easy, though it has a certain forbidden titillation. For years, I thought of books as having almost totemic value. It was crucial not to harm them, get them wet, crease their pages, break their spines, or mistreat them in any way. Perhaps it’s just getting older, or perhaps it’s the new, more casual relationship that the Internet allows us to have with information, but I increasingly see books less as totems and more as tools. If the tool is too heavy, cut it down. Still, I looked around a bit guiltily before I pulled pages from my elegant, thick-papered guides.
Two chairlift rides and a short hike take us to the top of the Jochpass. It turns out that we have overdone the lift business. All we have to do to reach our hotel is walk downhill from here to Engstlenalp, a sweet, blue-green lake at the foot of a massive stone slope.
It takes us only 90 minutes to reach the Berghaus Engstlenalp. There’s been a hotel here for tourists since at least 1866, when John Tyndall, a pioneer Victorian alpinist and physicist called the hotel on the spot “one of the most charming spots in the Alps.” The hotel he praised is still standing – indeed still in use – but a more modern one was built here in the 1890’s, relegating the old hotel to secondary status.
The Immer family has run the place for generations. I ask Fritz Immer, the proprietor, about tomorrow’s trail, which one guide warns us is “highly exposed and dangerous in snow and bad weather.” “Is there any snow on the route now?” I ask.
“No, of course not,” he says, “it snows here in the winter.” He makes clear that I must be a rather stupid fellow, although in fact I can see numerous patches of snow on the hills from where I’m standing now.
“So what is that?” I want to ask. “Milk?”
This inclination to demonstrate the stupidity of strangers is probably not the best quality for an innkeeper, but it seems to run deep in Alpine culture. This afternoon, I was walking outside the hotel when a group of young men began loudly whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” from Bridge On the River Kwai. The laughter that went with the whistling made clear that they were jeering at someone, and I was the only person around. Even so, it took me several minutes to realize that their whistling was meant to be a comment on my khaki pants, which have outboard pockets and zip-off legs that let you turn them into shorts when the weather is fine.
I suddenly realize that no one has jeered at my hiking clothes since the last time I was in the Alps. Just across the border in Austria, nearly 15 years ago, we hiked up a path in the Totgebergen (and were unable to finish the hike because of the dangerous snow field that lay across the trail – the source of my sensitivity to snow). While we were eating lunch that day, a party of teen hikers shared our hut and spent their lunch hour mocking our North American style hiking clothes.
So, now, I’m ready to generalize. The Swiss for all their internationalism are fundamentally hostile to foreigners. Maybe they’re what the Germans would be like if they hadn’t gone 0 for the century in major wars.
We eat our lunch on the terrace with a fine view and a local dark beer. Then we take a nap. This is a very new kind of hiking for us, but it wouldn’t be hard to get used to. Tomorrow will be a bit more challenging.
At dinner, we struggle with the menu. I suggest that Gordon try what looks like “schweisswurst,” but when I pronounce our order, the waitress does a double-take. We point to the menu instead of trying to pronounce it, and she says “no, that’s schweinswurst – sausage made from pigs.” Apparently, we were trying to order sausage made from the Swiss. No wonder they don’t trust foreigners.
July 5. Our first real day of hiking. We will climb out of this hanging valley and walk to the top of the ridge into a second hanging valley, complete with lake. We’ll then hike a knife-edge ridge between the two valleys before slabbing along the rising ridge to reach a new valley and descend into it. The guide describes the last bit of slabbing as “very exposed” – a mountaineering term that means “if you step off the trail, you’ll fall to your death.” The book tells us to avoid the trail in bad weather. The Lonely Planet guide goes even further. It pretends that there’s no trail there at all. Not surprisingly, this is why I asked Fritz Immer about snow on the trail.
By and large, the Swiss are remarkably comfortable with exposure. I’ve seen them eat lunch with their legs dangling in the void. Not me. Exposure makes the bottom of my feet crawl, not from wanting to leap off the edge, as some report they are tempted to do, but from a fundamental reluctance to end my days with the words “oh, gawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwd!”
But given the Swiss comfort with exposure (people have died in Switzerland from slipping on the grass in one of their Alpine meadows and sliding on the dew to the edge of a cliff and beyond) we won’t get far without experiencing exposure, so when the day dawns gorgeous – blue skies, temperatures in the 70s – we skip the Lonely Planet’s wussy alternative trail and head for the high country.
This is a grand hike. Cows with bells remind you that this is pasture, however slanted it may be. The green grass is dotted with the usual bright yellow and red flowers, but also with numerous deep, movingly blue ones – the deepest, purest blue I’ve seen in nature. The sun is hot but the air is dry and the breeze never rests. We hike easily in shorts and T-shirts, barely sweating, using our fleece jackets only at the breaks. The views back to the hotel and forward to the massive Bernese Oberland – a wall of granite and snow – are superb.
Now we are on the knife-edge, although in fact the trail feels fairly safe on our side of the ridge. We are approaching the “dangerous and highly exposed” section of the trail when an enormous group of hikers comes toward us from that direction. We pull off the trail and sit as a long line snakes past us followed by several more lines separated by 30 or 40 foot gaps. Some of the travelers are well over 60 and not in the best condition. I turn to Gordon and say, “Well, if they can all get across that exposed section, surely we can.”
“What do you think caused the gaps?” Gordon replies.
This is a real hiking day, although not a difficult one – perhaps 10 kilometers if we take all the lifts to the bottom. At last we arrive at the area of exposure. We discover to our surprise that there is snow on the trail and we curse Fritz Immer for his condescension, but that’s before we walk across it. In fact, the snow is no big deal. We have good boots and hiking poles and, most importantly, we can see that a slip would not send us sliding to our deaths but only to an ignominious mud heap at the food of the field.
In fact, like the snow field, the whole exposed section strikes us as a bit over-hyped. The trail is as much as a yard wide in many places, and half that at its narrowest. Much of the time there is nothing like a sheer drop on the exposed side. It is true that if you walked off it in bad weather, the most likely result would be a slide into space, but on a fine day like today, the inevitability of death is not obvious enough to make my feet crawl.
At the end of the exposed track looms a high cable car station. We climb to it, hoping for a restaurant where we can sit inside, drink beer, and admire the view. We discover that we can do all of this. So we do. What a country! The only thing that worries me is how much my beer consumption has increased now that I can have a beer on the trail without actually schlepping the bottles along for the trip.
We could end our trip here and take a series of cable cars down to the bottom. There are cable cars everywhere in the Swiss mountains. Unlike American environmentalists, who curse them as an alien intrusion to the wilderness, the Swiss treat cable cars as an integral part of faming life. In fact, it looks to me as though the earliest cable cars were little more than baskets attached to ropes and used to pull up lunch from the valley, rather like a giant version of a housewife’s clothesline. As they got more sophisticated and reliable, they began carrying heavier loads and finally people. But that rural tradition makes the wires and the cars seem much more natural to the Swiss than it does to America.
Cable cars also allow a much more discriminating approach to mountain hiking. You can skip the hard, sweaty slog up the hill – and even the knee-wrecking downhill trudge. You can skim the best views and the finest walks, separated from the dross of ascent and descent. Of course, once you’ve done that, it’s hard to recapture the North American attitude that fine views are a reward for all of the grinding effort of getting up the hill. Americans have created wilderness based in part on the Calvinist notion that the deepest wilderness should only be seen by “the chosen” that have invested the effort needed to get there. The Swiss are a little more democratic. They think everyone should see the best views, and so they’re comfortable with the restaurants and the cable cars and the roads, in a way that more moralistic and elitist environmental groups simply could not tolerate. Once it can be reached on paved roads, these groups tend to think, the countryside is ruined forever – an attitude the Swiss would have trouble understanding.
So the decision to use the cable car isn’t really a moral one. It’s more an esthetic question. Do we choose to experience the descent up close, step by jarring step, or from a distance, through plexiglass?
The green bowl into which we would descend has such a sweep and charm that we choose the footpath. And what a good choice it seems. The elegantly maintained gravel path slips evenly down the side of the bowl as we slowly near a cluster of farm buildings near the bottom. Eventually, we leave the main trail and drop straight down, through pastures filled with wildflowers and the bulky cows eying us with mild interest as they chew.
Overconfident, we miss a turn as the trail drops to a new valley and we must bushwhack across the pasture and a stream to recover the trail, which by now is marked only by bent grass. This feels more like riding a bike than like hiking. Our feet land lightly in the grass and dirt as we seem to glide down hill. We are still gliding as we pass the second chairlift. The meadows beyond seem untouched except by cows. This is the place and time for a nap in the fields. Too late, however, we realize that we missed the opportunity. We have reached a paved road. It will be our trail from here to the bottom. It’s small and friendly and in other circumstances it would make a fine hike, but after nearly flying through pastures, the harsh impact of pavement leaves us feeling all too earthbound. We find the nearest cable car station and return the rest of the way by chairlift and gondola.
July 6. We awake to rain and the noise of traffic through our hotel window. We had planned to spend all day hiking uphill to the next high-country inn. Rainy weather today is no big deal. We’ll be grinding up through forest and pasture, not walking slippery cliff edges in high wind. So up we go, a straight climb with few redeeming features. I wonder if we should have taken one of the buses that pass periodically on the narrow road we are paralleling. They are too big for the twisting track and must sound three-toned Alpine horns at sharp turns, essentially shouting “I’m taking 105% of this road, buddy, so govern yourself accordingly.”
About half way up, there’s a side trail to Reichenbach Falls, where the Reichenbach River leaps off the cliff rim and drops to the valley floor below. We drop our packs for a ramble down the side trail and are delighted with the Falls, which roar sideways off the cliff, slap into the opposing wall, and only then drop 50 feet into a brutal, rock-filled pool. Even better, in this deserted, rainy spot, we find a plaque mounted on the rock face, confirming that on this spot Sherlock Holmes “vanquished” his arch foe, Moriarty. Not the words I would have chosen, since both fell to their deaths from this spot, as I remember. But in a pattern well known now to fans of comic books (not to mention soap operas), Holmes came back from the dead when Sir Conan Doyle couldn’t persuade fans of the detective to accept the series’ end.
As we trudge on, the rain grows ever harder. And colder. We are soaked. But this is a civilized mountain country. Around the corner and out of the mist emerges a little mountain restaurant. We stomp in, dripping on everything, and order the soup of the day, which comes with all the bread you can eat. Once we’re dry, warm, and less hungry, we head out for another hour of hiking which takes us to an ancient Swiss mountain hotel, the Rosenlaui, dating back to [details from guide].
After a second bowl of soup, we visit another nearby falls. This is even more remarkable than the last. A tiny crack in the valley wall – perhaps varying from five to 20 feet in width and a couple of hundred feet in depth – houses this hidden waterfall. Hidden from view, that is, but not from the ear. The water thunders into and through it, carving new paths from time to time. Enterprising Swiss farmers have carved tunnels along one side, so that you can walk along, above, and occasionally beneath the falling waters. Really, I think, Sherlock Holmes should have pulled Moriarty to his doom here. It looks just as fatal but far more mysterious. And it’s at least theoretically survivable.
Finally, a short hop takes us to our destination for the night – the restaurant at Schwartzwaldalp. Here we were unable to secure a room, so we’ll be staying in the matratzlager – essentially a dormitory carpeted in mattresses. There’s room here for six family groups, separated by bundling boards.
I’m a little worried about this. Not for myself. I’ve slept in plenty of dorms. But for the others. I snore. And not just ordinary snoring. My family insists that my snores shake the windows and rattle the rafters. Now ordinarily I’d be inclined to take this with a grain of salt. Everybody complains about some family member who snores. But I have some external evidence. Fifteen years ago, while hiking New Zealand’s Milford track, I also slept in a dormitory full of mattresses. I remember being awakened several times by other campers, asking me to turn over in the hope that the noise could be cured in that fashion.
But what I really remember is waking up the next morning. I opened by eyes and saw an empty floor where last night there had been mattresses. I rolled over and was greeted with the same sight. In fact, as I sat up, I realized that my mattress was now a lonely island surrounded on all sides by empty floor. Everyone else in the room had pulled their mattresses down the stairs to the kitchen to sleep, apparently driven to this step by my relentless snoring. So those sharing my dorm room have no idea what’s in store for them. I do not relish facing them the next morning over breakfast. Worse, we have another dorm room tomorrow further down the trail. What if my reputation precedes me, and hikers abandon the room as soon as I show up?
In preparation, I visited the apothecary, whose provided a homeopathic remedy to spray on my nose. We’ll see. Luckily (or not), Gordon will tell me with great relish tomorrow morning just exactly how bad the noise is.
The mountain inn, Berghof Schwartzwaldalp, is a homey, welcoming place. You get dinner, breakfast, and a dorm room for about $40. We are welcome to sit in the dining room for hours over a beer, reading the paper and waiting for dinner.
We do, which brings me to something that the Swiss Tourism Board doesn’t exactly advertise. Swiss flies. They’re everywhere. I have two on me as I write this sentence. I even managed to catch a fly in my fingers before dinner, by mistake. If they had chopsticks here I could replay the fly-catching theme from Karate Kid. Anywhere you clicked the chopsticks together, you’d have a good chance of finding a fly.
If you asked people to name ten adjectives that apply to the Swiss, you’d probably notice three things right away. First, nobody could get past five before they started using made up adjectives like “chocolatey.” Second, “clean” would be one of the five. Third, “fly-infested” wouldn’t make anyone’s list. At least it wouldn’t make the list of anyone who hadn’t been hiking in Switzerland. Then, my guess is that fly-infested would come in well ahead of anything on the list.
I complain about the flies to Gordon. “D’uh,” he says with the infinite patience of a teenager. “Look out the winder. What do you see?” He means cows. They’re everywhere too, of course, as common as the flies but luckily less mobile.
So where there are cows, it’s no surprise there are flies. But we’ve had flies everywhere, cows or not. And, I point out to Gordon, we’ve got a few horses at home, but not nearly as many flies.
How come? Well, we use such high-tech tools as, uh, screens. Amazing how many flies you can keep out of a house if you don’t let them in.
But the Swiss, they’ve just surrendered. No screen windows. No screen doors. No flypaper. I don’t get it. These guys stared down Hitler across a surprisingly flat German border – not much hillier than the Dutch or Belgian borders, and we know what happened to them. But after that refusal to knuckle under, the Swiss simply surrendered to a common insect. They scrub their floors and organize the glove compartments of their cars and tell us to take off our shoes to sleep in their barns, but if a dumb insect wants to fly directly from a cow patty to their dinner plate, well, that’s just how things are. This I’ll never understand.
July 7. I am pleased to report that I successfully survived a night in the dorm – and more to the point so did the others using the room. Perhaps thanks to the homeopathic spray, perhaps thanks just to good luck, Gordon reports no high decibel snorts and grunts from my sleeping bag. Nor have we been ostracized by the late arrivals. Indeed, since Gordon and I were among the early risers, we were able to tiptoe out, accompanied by a rhythmic chorus of other people snoring.
Now maybe I’m just looking for an excuse here, but I must say that I found the snoring of others to be more comforting than annoying. Somehow it seems a bit trusting on their part – even intimate. And it comforts the herd member in us all, saying “all is well. The herd is at rest.” So really, my snoring, properly understood, should convey a message of comfort and ease to all who are willing to understand it. And to hell with those who aren’t.
After a good breakfast, with the sun shining brightly after yesterday’s rain, we are full of energy. On the recommendation of locals, we leave the Alpine Trail and instead follow a spur – the Romantic Way – that will rejoin the main trail in a couple of hours. This lightly traveled route takes us up through pastures of fine views across the valley to the Wetterhorn and its glacier.
When we finally return to the main trail, traffic picks up, and for good reason. Vast snow covered peaks unfold in slow majesty across the valley – the Eiger, the Mönch, and the Jungfrau each ease into view, jaw-dropping in their bulk and austerity. This kind of walk is a Swiss specialty. Americans tend to walk into and over the highest peaks they can find. But when you’re standing on the highest mountain you can’t really see it. The Swiss would rather walk on paths that have the best view of the high peaks. So the most popular trails run parallel to the highest peaks, often just across the valley. (The one American park to take the Swiss approach is Grand Teton National Park, which consists, more or less, of the eastern and most dramatic side of the Teton Range, plus a flat place from which to look at it. The Park ends pretty much at the top of each peak.)
This is truly mountain touring – sunny, shorts and T-shirt weather, a good breeze, bright green meadows to walk through and the looming glacier-clad monoliths marching with us on the other side of the valley.
We stop for lunch at First, a major gondola station. Paragliders are launching themselves from the pasture just below us. It is a pasture of a uniquely Swiss variety, sliding gradually from sloping hillside to vertical cliff. Where else in the world to mountaineers keep track of a category of deaths caused by “slipping on wet grass?” But it’s a category that makes sense to us today, watching paragliders launching themselves into the air from a pasture that slips gradually from charming to deadly.
Tonight, we’re staying in an historic Alpine inn, the Berghaus Faulhorn – so historic that it doesn’t have any private rooms. It sits along the Faulhorn – a sharp bump in the ridge line that looks enough a mountain from some directions to have earned it a separate name.
The Berghaus was built around 1830 – one of the first tourist hotels to take advantage of the new enthusiasm for wild Alpine vistas. Mendelssohn spent a night here when it was first built, and he used the occasion to criticize Goethe for passing this way without writing more that “a few weak poems and still weaker letters” about the scenery. At least, Goethe might have replied, he didn’t spend the trip criticizing Mendelssohn.
What drew these notables, as well as a slew of Victorian British gentlemen, to the Faulhorn was its astonishing view of the vast Alpine massif that includes the Eiger and Jungfrau. With a sheer drop on one side, the hotel can only be reached from one direction by a series of switchbacks rising from a remote mountain pass, and once on top virtually every buildable square inch is covered by the hotel itself. The Berghaus is, quite simply, a platform for viewing for viewing the great massif in panorama – a ringside seat at the birth of a mountain range. Victorians in particular considered it de rigueur to experience alpenglow from this spot. Alpenglow is the light reflected from high snowy peaks after sunset has cast all the nearby valleys in darkness.
Not to be outdone by the Victorians, we sat shivering atop the peak in order to share this experience. It was remarkable, if chilly, but I must say that the height of the platform seemed to defeat the point. In my view, alpenglow is most moving and mysterious when seen from a long, dark valley, not from another peak that can itself still see the sun.
The Faulhorn has other peculiarities passed down from generation to generation. For one, there’s no drinking water and no hot bath water. Apparently all the water available at the inn is pumped up at great expense from a nearby glacier (certainly that’s what it felt like when I washed my face). Since it comes straight from the glacier, it isn’t treated. The upshot is that you arrive in the afternoon after a long, sweaty climb and must stay sweaty while curing your thirst with $3 bottles of water flown in by helicopter each week. About the only consolation is that replenishing your fluids with beer is no more expensive than doing it with water.
But the chief among the Faulhorn’s peculiarities is the dormitories where most guests sleep. These hold 40 people per room and were also built around 1830. Travelers have been complaining about them ever since, to no effect whatsoever. In 1838, the definitive British guide, Murrays Handbook, says that the hotel provides “but sorry sleeping accommodations, the désagréments of which are hardly compensated to ladies by the uncertain beauty of the early view of the glaciers; for gentlemen the quarters are good enough.” One hundred and sixty years of whining don’t seem to have made much of an impression on the proprietors, though. We were assigned two mattresses narrower than most graves and just as dank. If the dorm had been full, I doubt that anyone could have rolled over without negotiating a prior agreement with everyone else in the row (“On the count of three, then, everyone off their left side and on to their right”).
We each had a small pillow and two rough wool blankets. No sheets to ease the itch or allow the illusion that the bedclothes get frequent washings. Cold as it was, we could not bury ourselves in the blankets without wondering how many guests had sneezed the night away in this same spot with these same blankets since the last laundry was done here. (Remember, this is hotel that says it can’t afford to heat enough water for a shower or a bath. And somehow I doubt that management sees a need to airlift blankets in from the nearest laundromat on a regular basis.)
Despite these qualms, burying yourselves into the blankets soon proves absolutely necessary. Even though the air this high was surprisingly warm, a damp cold seemed to seep through the walls and up through the ground the mattresses rested on. As Gordon observed the next morning, “Well, you didn’t snore. Probably because you never fell asleep.” He was right.
July 8. From the Faulhorn, we face to what amounts to a 10 kilometer downhill stroll along a high ridge line, with giant peaks marching with us at our left shoulders.
The American west has plenty of peaks that match or exceed the Alps in height. But the differences are remarkable. First, the Alps generally rise from lower valleys. Second, they are far milder and grassier than our west. The Alps have great expanses of grass, sometimes in hanging plateaus scraped flat like shelves by glaciers high above the valley, sometimes in steeply slanted hillsides rising to a grassy ridge with an equally grassy, equally steep hillside falling away on the other side. One suspects that only the cows and the attentions of their owners keep the forests from creeping over these meadows, but for now they make a remarkably gentle high mountain environment. We take an afternoon break in one enormous meadow. It’s slanted ideally toward the high peaks across the valley, angled just right so that our bodies can catch the sun while we gaze at the view. The grass is clipped and even. I suppose it’s a sign of age that I immediately think of this as a perfect spot for a nap. Or maybe it’s just a testament to the Faulhorn’s “désagréments.”
Refreshed, we press on to Schydigeplatte – the end of the great ridgeline we have been descending all day and the terminus of a cog railway, which will take us down to Interlaken, where we will catch a train, a funicular, and yet another train (which operates only on a hanging plateau) to Murran.
Once in Murran, we walk through the town, which is famous for having banned cars. We amuse ourselves by counting large numbers of motorized vehicles and imagining how Murran’s lawyers must have prospered making arguments like, “This isn’t a car, it’s a truck,” “It’s an amphibious vehicle,” “It’s a Jeep,” and “It’s a tractor.” We see all of these non-cars in the space of a 15 minute walk. In fact, we are nearly run down a few times during the 45-minute uphill hike to our hotel, but not once by anything that Murran’s lawyers would have acknowledged to be an automobile.
Our hotel, Berghaus Sonnenberg, is clean, has plenty of private rooms, and offers hot showers with only a 15-minute timer on the hot water. (Our first hotel had a two-minute timer – one that allowed no extensions!)
July 9. Now we are deep in the highest reaches of the Bernese Oberland. The next two passes are the highest and the most demanding we will encounter. We have walked ourselves into decent shape and our condition will be tested by the next two sections. Today’s hike is a straightforward 10-miler – five miles up (about 3,000 rise) and five miles back down (a descent of about 4,000 feet). Up early, we are on the trail by 8:30. We climb steadily around a couple of ridges, mainly on slanting pastures. Occasionally the combination of cows and water turns the trail to bog, and Gordon nearly loses a shoe in one. But it’s a generally uneventful and pleasant walk through sunny grasslands, apart from the fact that we share the trail today with five French mountain bikers. They climb at about our pace, since they have to carry their bikes, and they descend at a great rate when the trail is smooth. Nonetheless, they never quite shake us, perhaps because of their propensity for long leisurely breaks. A propensity we share, at least once. After more than two hours of steady uphill progress, we reach Rotstock Hut, our last opportunity to eat a meal we haven’t carried with us. Since it’s nearly 11:00, we decide to have lunch, and we spend nearly an hour over an enormous portion of rösti – Swiss for hash browns.
Now the trail mounts remorselessly for 2,000 feet, crossing a pass we can’t yet see and then dropping toward Griesalp, a tiny hamlet at the end of the next valley’s paved road.
Our guidebook describes this as a “very strenuous” slog, ending in a steep and largely unmarked scramble upa scree-slope to the top. The trail is exactly as advertised. The drop-off to our left goes to inspiring to exhilarating, to worrisome, and finally to deeply troubling.
The scree underfoot is simply a landslide that has barely stopped sliding. Adding our weight to the gravel underfoot gives it a pretty good reason to reconsider its original decision to stop rolling. A slip could send us sliding, along with the rest of the scree, for quite a ways. We probably wouldn’t die – there’s no cliff below – but we could leave large patches of skin spread across a quarter mile of gravel. As the slope gets ever steeper, we walk ever more gently, making up our own trail to ease around snow patches that block the main trail. Our hearts are beating faster than the exercise would justify. Every step is fraught with the risk of a fall. We occasionally look up to the pass, where a large number of people seem to have gathered. I realize that none of them want to descend on our side of the mountain with us still climbing the trail. There just isn’t room to pass on this slippery slope.
At last, we haul ourselves over the last few steps and up to the pass. It’s like arriving at a crowded New York cocktail party – if New York cocktail parties were held on the ledges outside the windows of high-rise Wall Street brokerage offices. It turns out that the slope we’ve just ascended is the easy side of the pass. The drop-off on the other side is even steeper. And between the two steep drops is perhaps fifteen feet of fairly flat pass. When we arrive, this flat spot already holds a woman hiker from Australia, the five French bicyclists and their bicycles, plus a party of 10 American college kids on a guided tour that has apparently been sold to the American girls on the strength of the opportunity to flirt with French guys in bicycle shorts. Certainly, they’re making the most of the opportunity. And did I mention the wind? Gordon and I are having trouble finding somewhere to stand in this stiff breeze. I doubt we’ll be eating lunch here. On the other hand, we lack enthusiasm for plunging off the far edge, where even the insouciant Swiss have installed cables and steps to keep tourists from plunging embarrassingly to their deaths in the scree.
Luckily, the tour group can now go down the path we’ve vacated. And, with no one to flirt with, the French cyclists hoist their machines, grasp the cables, and move out themselves. Now it’s just us and Christine, the Australian woman. She’s been here longer than we, mainly because the descent is “way beyond my comfort zone.” But at last she too plucks up her courage and begins sliding down the slope, one hand on the cable and her butt planted firmly in the scree.
We sit alone for a time, drinking water and watching the tour group descend. Finally it’s time. We drop over the edge, having to bend nearly double to reach the cable on our right side. Gordon, a lefty, complains that all our mountain descents seem designed for right-handed mountaineers. After the first few very steep and slippery passages, it becomes clear that this scree is in fact unlikely to slide far. I rely less and less on the cable and more on my poles, descending rapidly now and eventually catching Christine, who is still doing much of her traveling in a 3-point stance.
We spend an hour on the scree, so long that we greet that the first grass with delight and wonder. Not much later, we reach a rude farmer’s hut serving cold drinks. There Christine tells us her story. She’s an accountant and information technology specialist who works as an independent contractor, moving from city to city and spending the times between engagements on long-distance hikes. She’s walked the length of Switzerland, following the same trail that we are on from its beginning in Liechtenstein to the shores of Lake Geneva. She’s also taken overland trucks from Asia to Europe and from India to China, climbed Mount Kenya and toured the back country of Morocco and New Zealand, all apparently in skin-tight biker shorts and a T-shirt. The shorts, judging from her descent technique, are made of some kind of elasticized Kevlar. Pretty much the life every Australian aspires to, as far as I can tell.
July 10. The next day dawns with a threat of rain. We’re in Griesalp, facing the most grueling and exposed section of the trail, substantially worse than yesterday’s. Everyone warns us not to take this trail in bad weather, so we award ourselves a day off and travel by bus and train to the next valley. We walk up the other side of the mountain toward Griesalp, with the idea of climbing to the pass from this side instead of from the other. When it becomes clear that the weather won’t lift but that tomorrow should be fine, we stop at a delightful hotel on a large lake, the Oeschinsee. There we spend the afternoon cleaning up and drying out, eventually blowing the fuse that protects the hotel dryer in an effort to dry our soggy gear.
July 11. Today dawns clear. Awakening I need only open my eyes. Our mountaintop goal for the day is already sunlit and framed in my hotel window. The setting is remarkable. The hotel sits on the edge of a good-sized mountain lake – one you wouldn’t want to have to row across. What’s remarkable about the lake is that it’s surrounded on three sides by enormous rock walls, rising hundreds of feet almost vertically from the shore. Our job today is to follow the thin line picking its way across these walls and out of the box canyon. Once on the ledges above, we’ll continue up to the pass that we had hoped to reach yesterday from the other side. The pass, the Hohturli, is the highest we’ll go on this trip, just under 3,000 meters, roughly 10,000 feet. The good news is that we’ll be leaving our big packs here and only carrying daypacks to the pass and to the Swiss Alpine Club hut that provides mountaintop accommodations for its members – and others – seeking to launch themselves toward the still higher glaciers and mountaintops to the south.
Setting off, in a matter of minutes we have snaked our way up to a thin line of green that traverses the cliffs. Already we must stay on the path or die. A step or two toward the lake and we’d slide hundreds of feet to the rocky shores.
The trail grinds upward past an Alpine restaurant and then to a series of cliffs that can’t be circumnavigated. They must be attacked directly, climbing carved steps beside a steep drop. We are grateful to have cables to cling to. But it’s a mixed sentiment. We know that the Swiss, no wimps about height, do not pound cables into the rock just anywhere. This is not a guardrail kind of country. If the cables are there, it’s because ordinary able-bodied walkers with a good sense of balance would still have a pretty good chance of, well, dying if they didn’t have the cables to hold on to. In an odd way, it would be more comforting if the Swiss didn’t think cables were necessary here.
The cables take us up to a new slope, which rises steeply until it turns into a endless expanse of scree. This rock has slid into a very steep angle, and we must climb it sidelong to reach the pass. Even without full packs, we have fallen into a slow Alpine plod. One breath per step, knees barely bent, swinging each leg from the hip to move a few inches in front of the foot that we have just planted. Breathe. Repeat. Don’t look up. Don’t look around. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Step. Our Achilles tendons strained as our feet land flat on the steep slope. At one point, the scree becomes a ridge. Fall one way and it would be painful as well as embarrassing. Fall the other and you wouldn’t have time for embarrassment and probably not even pain. This part of the trail demands great balance and confidence in your balance. It is, Gordon confesses later, the most difficult passage of the trip for him.
Past that, and we are on the last and steepest of the scree climbs. The pass is sometimes indistinct or rises at an angle that our boots seem unlikely to hold. Climbing in these circumstances is harder than descending the same slope. Not more dangerous, just more troubling. I think the reason is that every step on a descent represents a successful effort to halt the force of gravity using the dubious footing of the path. Enough successful steps and you begin to develop a confidence (not always justified) that this path can be negotiated safely. On the way up, in contrast, you must tiptoe your way to the top, with no idea how close you are to slipping backwards and no idea what would happen if the stones began to move, slowly at first then quickly under your feet. One begins to think that perhaps perfection – no slips at all – is what the path requires. This isn’t usually true but who wants to experiment? So the pressure to be perfect adds to the tension of the ascent.
At last we reach the top. Peering over the side that we couldn’t climb yesterday, we are unimpressed by the difficulties there, though they’re supposed to be even more rigorous than the ones we just surmounted. But beyond the first 50 yards of the descent, clouds block our view. We climb further to the hut which is spotless, thanks to a strict rule against wearing boots inside. The hut’s patio has garden furniture and a remarkably warm, sunny corner. In general, the Alps are far warmer than the mountains I’m used to back home. Less wind, warmer air. Quite nice. We eat rösti and watch as a group of wisecracking Brits changes into full glacier climbing gear. The snow begins just 50 yards away and extends for miles to several glaciers and mountaintops. We’re happy to dabble in the eddies of their flooding testosterone. The return is largely uneventful, apart from the usual heart-in-mouth moments, tightrope walking down the scree ridge or navigating the cable from steps. Except once. We were slogging dully down a moderate grassy slope beside a river that had been glacier ice this morning. We noticed two people standing off the trail, staring intently into the stream. We followed their gaze and discovered an entire herd of ibex. Known to the Swiss-Germans as steinbock, these long-horned Alpine goats resemble an American mountain goat whose horns have been partially straightened. If humans had horns, these are the ones I’d choose, having watched several ibex tilt their heads just so to scratch a part of the back that is forever beyond the reach of human hands, opposable thumb or not. The ibex were largely hidden from the trail, and we had them to ourselves for awhile. They were lying at the point where two streams joined, protected a bit by water on both sides. They took our presence comfortably lying and blinking in the sun, and occasionally scratching their backs or hopping up to push some other ibex around (there was a lot of that in this small herd). The horns are remarkable, gracefully curved and about half as long as the ibex’s body. They looked like a load to carry though.
Tromping on, we reached the lake and could finally stop worrying about falling off a cliff. We picked up our packs at the hotel and rolled another hour down to Kandersteg on the valley floor. We grabbed a hotel room and dinner and were in bed by nine, even though the sun wouldn’t entirely set until ten.
July 12. With the big day behind us, we expect today to be a walk in the park. It proves to be anything but.
We begin with a steep climb up the valley wall. All hikes in the Bernese Oberland seem to begin with a steep hike up the valley wall. And, like this one, all hikes in the Bernese Oberland come out of that hike in an intermediate valley that tilts gently toward the steep fall to the lower valley.
This new, hanging valley is a welcome relief from the grinding climb, but it doesn’t last long. The trail marches across gorgeous green meadows filled with wild flowers straight toward another range of cliffs. They come closer and closer, but we still can’t see how the trail will find a path up that cliff face to the next band of meadows that we can see from the valley floor. At last it becomes clear that we’ll be climbing a broken strip of green between two cliffs. The trail switchbacks and grows disconcerting. It isn’t wise to look down. Soon we are on the cliffs themselves, threading through and over them, steep drops on one hand. At least we are up on the meadow. But unlike the last valley, this strip of green slants steeply down toward the cliffs. Even on the grass we are wary of the drop a few feet away. As we reach the top of the climb, we find ourselves walking a trail that has eroded so deeply into the soil of the slanting meadow that we are thigh-deep, even waist-deep, below the level of the meadow. The depth of the soil this high in the mountains is another feature that distinguishes Switzerland from many other Alpine environments. Only New Zealand seems to have this combination of steep, high mountains and deep topsoil.
Suddenly, above us looms, well, a cow. She’s taking a lively interest in our progress, even though she can only see us from the waist up. Emerging from the trench, we find ourselves in a herd of cows near a small group of wooden buildings, from which comes the sound of an accordion. On the steps of a small cabin sits a large, blond woman cheerfully playing accordion tunes for two or three men sitting at a picnic table. She’s a very large woman indeed, as is made only too clear as we draw near, since she seems to be wearing only a white bra and some mid-thigh white panties. She is a bit surprised to see strangers and seems embarrassed. She rushes inside. But we have misread the source of their embarrassment. She quickly returns, still wearing the bra and panties, but having ditched the accordion. The family offers us a local hand-made apple cider, clears the dirty dishes to one end of the picnic table, and invites us to sit.
The family is at its ease. Cows stand hock-deep in the mud to lick salt from a nearby boulder until a young dog decides that the cows are getting above themselves. Barking, he launches himself at the nearest cow, and fastens his teeth into her back leg. She makes an undignified retreat around the low barn, pulling the dog much of the way. The cider is good, but not cheap – about $3 a glass. That’s about what we pay in a restaurant two valleys below. The family is cheerful and in no rush, sitting in the sun in T-shirts (or less in the case of our hostess). We thank them and move on. As we go, I wonder about the difference in national myths between the United States and Switzerland. In Switzerland, the family we’ve just visited is the backbone of the nation, the embodiment of all its sturdy virtues. In the United States, we’d see it somewhat differently – a family that sits around a mucky farm in various stages of undress and lives in a cabin with outdoor plumbing while depending for its livelihood on the product of 50 cows would make us think of the Ozarks, or the Mississippi delta, or the West Virginia hills. And every kid in every family like that would be dying for a chance to get to the big city. Switzerland’s commitment to the small farm as a way of life is admirable, but I can’t help wondering how long it can last. The cost to Swiss society of maintaining such an agrarian culture is high. The most notoriously overpriced and subsidized agriculture in the world is the European Union’s (its about 50% more subsidized even than our bloated system). But a main reason Switzerland can’t join the European Union is that it would have to lower its support for Swiss farmers. (At several points in our trip, we saw men in the fields cutting hay by hand with scythes. What do you have to pay for hay to make cutting grass by hand a viable economic proposition?)
So far, Swiss farmers have been supported by the profits from pharmaceuticals and banking. Swiss banking is highly profitable; it offers below-market interest rates but a haven from the tax authorities of other nations. So I suppose that honest taxpayers in other countries are ultimately the ones supporting these Swiss farmers. Maybe I should have asked for a price break on the cider. With all that support, it’s still objectively a hard life. On the whole, how many young Swiss women will welcome a marriage proposal that comes with a lifetime of outdoor plumbing? In 20 years, there may be far fewer farmers in these dwellings.
We move on, slanting up through meadows to a ridge-top; when we reach it, yet another set of switchbacks lies ahead, this time rising through scree to what seems to be the pass – at last.
The scree is loose underfoot. After a long and anxious half-hour, we arrive at the top, a notch of a pass between two high towers of finally layered sedimentary rock. We stop for lunch, the fog and cloud is blowing through the gap between the towers. On one of the towers is a plaque commemorating a couple that did something here in July of 1944. I’d like to think they got married, but the steep slippery stack teetering dark above me suggests another possibility. As we eat and gaze at the towers, a head pokes over the edge of one. A head with long curved horns. We have attracted the mild curiosity of a lonely ibex. He blinks, stares, and slips back from the edge. We keep turning as we pack our food and descend, hoping for another glimpse, but we do not see him again.
Now the trail is equally steep, but, as usual, we are less troubled by it. We drop rapidly through scree to a meadow and then to a rough road. Suddenly the valley seems filled with a low, rumbling music. “Taps” reverberates around us. The sound seems to be part of the air. It could be coming from the hillside five miles across the river, or from the farmhouse we just passed. It is everywhere and nowhere. As we turn a corner, half a mile a way, we see the source – a genuine Alpenhorn, probably 10 or 12 feet in length, being played by a man in T-shirt and shorts. Getting caught playing music outdoors seems to leave the Swiss as embarrassed as Americans would be if caught having sex in a meadow. At any rate, as soon as we appear, the family quickly puts the Alpenhorn away. But they are happy to serve us iced tea at the usual $3 a glass. The horn’s eerie ubiquity remains with us, however. There’s no doubt that farmers separated by miles of meadow could play duets on these instruments. What a triumph of spirit for isolated cowherds to have devoted themselves to such an enterprise. On the other hand, imagine the difficulty of learning to play one – with your every miscue the subject of attention for miles around. It’s kind of hard to take a twelve-foot horn out to the garage to practice. We can see Adelboden, our goal for the day for hours we arrive. But all that time we have failed to notice that unlike every other town we’ve stayed in, this town is actually built on a hillside. So, after a long day, and an especially long downhill slog, we find ourselves staring at a hillside that must be climbed must be climbed on wobbly legs if we want to sleep in a bed tonight. Painfully, slowly, we make the climb – and end up in a town quite unlike those we’ve seen so far. The hotels are fine, the restaurants finer, and the shop windows are filled not with breads and cheeses but with gold watches. This is a ski town in the off-season. We manage to find a cheap room, but a cheap dinner is not available.
July 13. The day dawns drizzling. We wonder whether we want to hike. But breakfast gives us something like enthusiasm, and we launch ourselves into the mist.
We leave the heights of the Bernese Oberland now, and for once the trail does not rise steeply from one plateau to the next. Instead, we climb at a stroll through green fields and forest, not once feeling a tremor of anxiety at the height or the steepness of the path. The pass is simply a grassy low spot in the ridge. Not a bit of scree to be seen. At the top is a small hut where we expect to find the usual crude restaurant. Instead, we stumble into a single large room filled with six-foot long model planes in various stages of construction. The hut is evidently a hobbyists’ retreat. In this low pass, model airplane enthusiasts build, launch, land, and repair their machines.
We descend to Link and take the afternoon off as the rains gather and then descend in force.
July 14. Bastille Day in France, and the end of the trail for us. Gordon has been urging that we make today our “macho march” day doing not only a serious climb but also breaking the 20 kilometer limit we’ve observed so far. He’s even mapped out a route – over the next pass (almost 1,000 meters – or 3,300 feet – of climb) to Lauenen and then down the valley Gstaad. Well, what is a vacation for if not ill-considered ventures in testosterone poisoning. We decide to go for it.
We begin our climb along side the Waldbrucht – a strong waterfall that drops from one round carved pool full of boiling water to the next. The water has barely time to swirl once around the edges of each pool before it drops to the next.
The rain has eased, giving way to a deep fog that grows more disorienting as we climb higher. Eventually, we cannot see more than a few yards in front of us. We stop trying to verify the trail, instead following rough tracks and cow paths as long as they are going up. This works well. Occasionally, a white-red-white painted rock will loom out of the fog to tell us we’re on the track.
But then the trail begins to level off. To our left we discover a sharp drop and limestone cliffs. We seem to be near the top of the pass, but who can tell. We march on. The trail begins to descend in earnest, and the fog grows thinner. At last we descend below the cloud ceiling to find Lauenen spread out below us along with the bottom two-thirds of the peaks that surround Lauenen.
We descend endlessly to the town where we find what seems to be the only restaurant. It is dominated, unusually, by a TV showing some Swiss tennis tournament, which has all the customers surprisingly engaged. We order a soup to warm up and ignore the tennis. We’ve already done a pretty good day’s hike – 15 kilometers and nearly 1,000 meters of climb and descent. But this is the Macho March and we’ve got another five to seven kilometers to travel. At least this section is flat. We’re walking down the valley to Gstaad. Time to turn off our minds and let the rhythm of our poles and legs take over. We stride out along the bank of a river the color of watery skim milk. But slowly the miles begin to take their toll. We are swinging our legs from the hips, barely bending at the knees, but the tendons across the front of our hips seem to be slowly fraying, complaining every time we pull a leg forward.
At last, we reach the town. You may have heard of Gstaad, a famously upscale ski resort. We figured that in the off season it would have to grit its teeth and cater to hikers, just like Adelboden did. But we reckoned without the ingenuity of the Gstaad Chamber of Commerce, which had the wit to organize a tennis tournament for the summer. Indeed, the very one that has mesmerized our lunchtime companions – the very one that managed to fill all but the most expensive hotel rooms in town. There was no mountain hostel here for us. We grabbed a train down the valley and officially ended our trip in Zweisimmen.