Hiking the Swiss Alps — a land of cowbells and grass strimmers
Slowly, using the “Alpine Pace” we had so painfully learned over a number of years, we hiked our way higher. We had set off from the stunningly located Alpine village of Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland, passing through the fields on its outskirts, beyond the cable cars heading up to the Gemmi Pass, through forests, past small streams and finally arriving on an open meadow with views of glacier strewn mountains. Previously hidden valleys heading in all directions appeared as we gained height, and a gap in a scree covered rock face above us pointed the way to the pass that was our target for the day. We paused for a break, the only noise being the rushing of water coming off the mountain, the tinkling of brass bells on cows and the sound of a Swiss landowner parking his 15 year old Subaru, and emerging to run a grass strimmer along the edges of his meadow located two thousand metres above ground level.
After two weeks spent hiking on parts of the via Alpina / “Alpine Pass Route” through Switzerland, we all agreed that this was a hiking paradise — the other thing we all agreed with was that the Swiss are obsessed with cutting grass. The meadows in even the high Alps are perfect — we have golf courses back home that have less diligent groundskeepers. We came across the Swiss cutting grass on the side of cliffs, and it’s rare to find a bit of the country that isn’t “perfect”. It’s exhausting simply watching the effort.
First stop — Engleberg
We arrived into Engleberg as our first destination after a short flight to Zurich, navigating the manic rail station underneath the airport and a bit of running to make sure we got on board the “2nd class” section of the train — we’re hikers for goodness sake, if we had the money for 1st class we’d be looking at the mountains from a helicopter.
Our first day of hiking was meant to be a gentle introduction, for the “meat” of the trip wasn’t due until we reached the environs of Grindelwald — today was meant to be a short but steep walk that got the muscles going, and we set off with a small tug of anxiety in our collective stomachs while contemplating the 9 days of hiking that faced us over the next two weeks.
What we didn’t expect, and what became a repeated pattern, is that everywhere we looked in Switzerland the scenery was spectacular, even in the less well-known areas. The word that we used repeatedly throughout the trip was “ridiculous”. Several times we noticed spectacular waterfalls, that in other countries would be their main tourist attraction, that went un-noticed and un-recognised. Mountains, glaciers, lakes. Everywhere. Taking photographs became jaded — what was the point, there was no effort required? Point your camera in any direction and you’d take yet another wonderful photograph. We stopped in villages that were meant to be beautiful and were, and we passed through other villages that we had never heard of that were equally beautiful. Ridiculous.
We stayed overnight in Engstlenalp where we experienced both the best and the worst aspect of Swiss hospitality. Staff who were warm and welcoming, and a proprietor who seemingly couldn’t care less. Looking out at the weather, we nervously took in the gathering clouds and wondered what this would mean for our planned ridge-line route on day two. Turning to the proprietor we asked him in our halting German what he thought the weather would do that day, to which he said with a shrug of his shoulders “have you looked out?”. Maybe hospitality isn’t the industry for him, I wonder has he ever considered grass cutting? We went for it anyway, deviating from the official route by walking from Engstlenalp via the Tannensee and along the stunning ridge to the Planplatten Alpen Tower cable car — a short enough day, but more interesting than the alternative.
Grindelwald — ridiculous. There’s that word again. For a hiker, and any aspiring mountaineer, this town is beyond words. The Eiger towers above the town so close that you feel you can reach out and touch it if you slightly extend your arm. The town itself is over-run with tourists on day-trips, but if you manage to avoid the hordes and pause for a moment you find yourself gazing slack jawed at the mountain scenery around you.
Our chosen route into Grindelwald involved a bus part of the way from Meiringen to Alpiglen to help shorten the climb, a pleasant walk in the eaves of the Wetterhorn, and a spectacular balcony panorama from Grosse Schiedegg towards the top of First mountain. When we arrived at the pass, cloud had enveloped everything — as we strolled towards First however, the clouds began to part in places to reveal a vista that defied words. It was almost something that would make you go weak at the knees — was that the Eiger we had just glimpsed? Was it something else? Oh my god there is the shape again, that is definitely the Eiger — the most iconic of all mountains. And we’re looking at it. Clouds parted just long enough for the mountains to appear, and as we paused to look the clouds gradually closed over again.
We had intended to get the cable car down to Grindelwald from First, but with a view like we had in front us we decided we’d take on the descent. That’s not something we volunteer to do too often, ageing knees means that most descents are to be avoided where possible — but with the views that we could see on the descent route, none of that mattered. This was a day, and a descent, to savour — to drag out as a long as possible.
The wily people of Switzerland have other ideas however to make the most of the tourist numbers that travel up to First on the popular cable car. There are ways off the mountain that don’t involve either cable cars or long hiking descents — in particular, they offer the “mountain kart”, a type of gokart-like tricycle with no propulsion except the force of gravity, and brakes that take a bit of getting used to. Racing down a mountain, with the Eiger as a backdrop? We thought we’d be missing a trick if we passed this up, we had to give it a go.
Onwards to Lauterbrunnen
Leaving Grindelwald we again deviated from the “official” route, taking the mountain railway to Alpiglen and tackling the ‘Eiger trail’ route. This takes you directly under the North Face of the Eiger, and for anyone who has spent time reading about the Eiger or knows about the history of this famous mountain it is a wonderful place to be. Very soon on the route we glimpsed the windows built into the mountain for the railway that runs through it. Clouds swirled around us, and while we couldn’t see much of the face through the cloud we experienced the cold, inclement weather that is a feature of that most notorious of mountains. The path travels upwards and gains a surprising amount of height, before emerging at (this being Switzerland after all) a train station. A train station located in the most amazing setting, with the Eiger on one side, and the glaciers of the Jungrau and Monch reaching down almost to touch the train station. We elected to follow a steep moraine descent down a few hundred metres, with the glaciers and sheer cliff walls of the mountains to our left, and in the distance more cliffs marking out valleys that were on our route to come. As a hiker, it was magic.
We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit the famous Kleine Scheidegg pass, famous as being the starting point of most ascents on the North Face of the Eiger. As the guidebooks had warned, it is a noisy train station, full of excited day trippers — we found a lovely restaurant located behind the station which was a much calmer environment and offered great views of the iconic mountain.
Heading down from Kleine Schiedigg we followed the official route which wound its way to the interesting little village of Wengen. The descent here features the Jungrau to the left almost the whole way, and again by itself the views make it one of the greatest hiking experiences any of us have ever had. Our knees complained loudly however by the time we reached Wengen — in hindsight we should have hopped on a passing training at the Wegneralp station and avoided a long stretch of forest track walking.
Lauterbrunnen and beyond
Lauterbrunnen is (you guessed it, there’s that word again), ridiculous. It is picture postcard Switzerland, you couldn’t have designed it better. A long narrow valley with cliffs on both sides, perfect little village, the snow and glacier covered top of the Jungfrau peeking out above the valley walls and dominating everything in view. As if that wasn’t enough, the most perfect waterfall thunders out from the edge of the village, cascading down from a sheer cliff — it was beautiful during the day, but even more beautiful at night with lights being used to highlight the waterfall, and as the glowing sunlight of late evening fell on the Jungfrau.
Leaving Lauterbrunnen the next day, we took the train to Murren (a wise choice, the route up is steep and mostly in a forest). Murren is a village in the most amazing setting — snow capped mountains ring the town, and it is yet another place that I had previously never knew much about but which was immediately noted as a “must return” spot.
The route to the Sefinafurgga pass is long with occasional steep interludes, with beautiful views back towards the larger mountains. A short stop at a hut provided a moment for us to contemplate the final climb, which was made while continually stopping to take that final “final” photo of the Eiger and Jungfrau. Eventually a hundred photos later we gained the pass, and looked down towards Griesalp, our home for the night. A steep wooden staircase leads downhill, and from the top appears to be quite exposed — in reality, the exposure is minimal as the path very quickly leads away from any particular danger.
The descent that day was probably the hardest of the entire trip. Knees ached by the time we had reached our overnight accommodation, and we had reached a part of Switzerland that didn’t provide convenient cable cars or other options to shorten difficult, tiring descents. As ever, Griesalp looked out over a spectacular waterfall that we didn’t spend much time admiring — we had reached sensory overload.
From Griesalp we tackled a long, demanding climb, culminating in what seemed like a million wooden steps leading up to the Hohturli pass. Slow and steady won the day, and by the time we reached the top we pondered whether we should stop at the Blumisalphutte located right at the top. Scanning the gathering storm clouds, and with memories of the descent from the previous day we decided to press on after a brief stop —we were going to try and get some of the descent over with before having a long rest.
Eventually we reached a small hut around Oberburgli, located just at the point where the famous Oeschinsee comes into view. And what a view that was.
Oeschinsee is the most perfectly located Alpine lake, with green meadows on one side and steep walls leading up to the hanging glaciers of the Doldenhorn and Frudenhorn on the other. The lake itself is a blue-green jewel.
Even here, on the sides of what we would regard back home as “inaccessible land”, we found Swiss people out cutting grass, and then collecting that grass and removing it using some sort of sled type contraption — no Rudolf to be found to assist as it was human powered, and god help you if you were coming up the path as they were shoving their load down the hill.
Kandersteg and beyond — the final 3 days
The final three days took us from Kandersteg to our finish in Lauenen, via Adelboden & Lenk. It’s a shame to gloss over these days slightly, but in many ways we had entered the high point of a “normal” hiking holiday — tired legs but happy to be out, relaxed and looking forward to the picnic on the side of the hill, hopefully in a nice location. It’s the point where you begin to really “switch off”, and your world is reduced to staying warm or cool as the day may require, keeping fed and having enough to drink. It’s a very simple state of being.
Even so I don’t want to pretend that the scenery was any way boring. We had left behind the hordes of day trippers, and often found ourselves alone in these most beautiful of mountains. We still passed through high passes, we could still see spectacular waterfalls, we still negotiated long and exciting scree slopes.
We considerably shortened our route from Adelboden by taking a cable car up to the pass which in hindsight proved to be a good plan. Unfortunately the weather was against us on that day and we chose to directly descend, but if it had been a fine day there were good options for ridge walks to the left (particularly) and to the right.
Our final day saw us descending into Lauenen, and provided some of the best views of the entire trip. The tall mountains are further away, and didn’t have the same “punch” as the in-your-face mountains around Grindelwald, but having this incredible background makes a hike such a pleasure. The descent into Lauenen was long but shallow, and came as a great relief to sore knees after 9 days of hiking.
Postscript — the sounds of the mountains
If you’ve never walked in the Alps, you might imagine that they are a quiet place — it may come as a surprise to find they are not. Particularly in Switzerland, there’s rarely a feeling of true wilderness — it is too developed, too exploited for that (you’ll remember we heard the sounds of grass strimmers at 2000 metres). You will also hear sounds from the mountains themselves, creaking of glaciers, the flow of water running off of them, and in all parts of the Alps you will hear the sound of cowbells.
There’s an advantage to those sounds however — if ever I want to dream and throw myself back into imagining I was walking in the Alps, all I have to do is close my eyes and listen for the sound of cowbells.