3 Years Up the Mountain

One Family on the Annual Swiss Migration

Many farmers in the Emmental Alps follow a nomadic tradition that goes back at least 7,000 years: up the mountains in summer, when the snow retreats and herbs grow, and down to the valleys before winter sets in and the mountains are covered in snow.

(L) Bronze Age fence rings for nomadic alpine farming; (R) 19th Century. University of Bern

The higher the better. Since it has a shorter season on upper slopes, vegetation has to be more concentrated in nutrients. Pasture is graded into zones according to altitude, from 1 in the valley to the highest 4. Cows only go as far as zone 3, because above that it gets rocky. Only sheep go to 4.

I have followed one family over the past 3 years. Marianne and Fritz used to stay much higher, at the alp Imbrig just under the claw-raked cliffs of the Schrattenfluh, supposedly mauled by the devil over a girl. But they rent Ober Sidenmoos now, lower down the slopes, and come there in summer from their house just above the Emme at Im Eggli.

Here are photos over this 3-year period: you will see some of the same people over time. Others like grandfather Fankhauser have decided it’s too strenuous. The kids are growing up. Fritz’s hair is turning white. But Marina the cow, who has trouble getting up each year, still manages it. Over the years the group stops at the same place for a break, just before the final, steepest part. And stops again once the cows have been let loose in the field on top, while people catch their breath. And then there’s a feast outside the hut: beer cooled in the water trough, sausages made from the family’s goats, potato salad, rough bread. Lots of sweets, including Marianne’s speciality: gingerbread. Then coffee with schnapps, although the women prefer Bailey’s.

Obersidenmoos & Imbrig. Click to zoom


May 23


May 21

Helping Marina, who always has difficulty getting up the alp


May 20

From Protestant Bern to Catholic Luzern
Examining a gift of chocolate an onlooker passed on in the town below
Cornelia has been gifted a photo from when she was a little girl on Alp Imbrig

Material from Prehistoric Alpine Farming in the Bernese Oberland

Albert Hafner, Christoph Schwörer: Vertical mobility around the high-alpine Schnidejoch Pass. Indications of Neolithic and Bronze Age pastoralism in the Swiss Alps from paleoecological and archaeological sources, Quaternary International, 22.03.2017 (in press), doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2016.12.049

Images: Badri Redha; Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, Basel

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