4 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 coveted 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. And better vegetation means cows produce better milk, and this makes better cheese. Location is everything: Altitude, sunlight and water all determine which fields are best. 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 too rocky. Only sheep go to 4.

I have followed one family over the past four years. Marianne and Fritz used to stay much higher, at the alp Imbrig just under the claw-raked cliffs of the Schrattenfluh, the mountain 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, in the valley below.

Here are photos over this four-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, in the shade of trees 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 festive meal 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 instant coffee with apple schnapps called Bätzi, although Marianne prefers Bailey’s.

The journey begins at the bottom of the map, just above the river Emme, at Im Eggli (920m) where the family lives and has their farm and barn, and ends at Ober Sidemoos (1178m), 9km later. Click to zoom and for full map functionality


May 23

Grandfather Fankhauser, passionate about his cigars and schnapps. He stopped making the journey after this


May 21

Helping Marina, who always has difficulty getting up the alp


May 20

Crossing cantons from Protestant Bern into Catholic Luzern
With Marina
C has been gifted a photo of herself as a child on the alp Imbrig


May 27

With Marina, who always had trouble getting up the alp

Additional 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