Deep in the nameless depths under the Ringghuppi, far away from tourists, the mountains leak so much water in so many places no one knows which one is the source of the Emme, or if they all are.
And here, far away from everyone, without a road, a cellphone signal or even a hiking path, you will find a hut. And outside this hut sits a man. A man with a big beard and a earring, listening to the sounds of the world through a little radio with a bent antenna tuned to Eviva. A man with a pair of binoculars who will most probably be looking straight at you.
Wernu is 60, but has been a shepherd for only two years, after losing his job at the recycling plant at Hasle where he had been working since 1977. He won’t get another. “I’ll become a shepherd again next year if I’m still alive,” he says. “My father broke his hips twice when he was my age…”
Wernu takes care of someone else’s animals: 45 cows and seven calves. He stays at this hut called Chumi under the Augstmatthorn for four weeks around June, and heads towards the top of the ridge to a hut called Schneenenbiel, or Schönbuhl, where he will stay till September, before coming down to Chumi for another month and then abandoning the mountain in winter.
Chumi, which is also the word for cumin, sits right on top of a stream that Wernu calls the Emmesprung, or one of the sources of the Emme. He drinks water from another source closer to the hut. The water mixes with soil when it gets stormy.
The original hut was on the other side of the stream, where you can still see its stone foundation, but it was destroyed in a rockfall.
But there are no rocks falling down on him today, so we sit on his patio drinking his favorite drink: coffee with apple schnapps called Bätzi, served in a cup with water from the Emme, sweetened with a couple of spoons of sugar. Because Bätzi and Käfeli without sugar is no good, as Wernu points out, even if you usually drink your coffee plain. And he’s right.
And here we are, months later, on top of the ridge that forms the backbone of the Emmental, at the hut called Schönbuhl where Wernu spends the summer. On the other side are all things people know: the stunning turquoise lakes on either side of Interlaken, and the alps beyond. But here, on the north side of the ridge and under it are the deepest recesses of the Emmental Alps.
Wernu is in his Sunday best, in a loose, rough shirt with American surfer and palm tree graphics stitched on, held to him with suspenders peppered with an Edelweiss monogram. He is, as usual, drinking Chrüter (schnapps with herbs; ‘Kräuter’ in the photo is in non-Swiss ‘high’ German) in his coffee while keeping an eye on everything below us with his binoculars, looking like some sort of benevolent Emmental god on holiday.
Over on the other side of the valley is the Schrattenfluh, with its face of karst raked so distinctively it has inspired legends about a jealous spirit that clawed it over a woman. Wernu says he saw the devil on it once. “There was a special light…”
We sit on his bench outside the hut, with its Swiss flag that stays up when Wernu is here so everyone down in the valley knows. Wernu is thumping his fist on the table, flattening horseflies called Bräme and upsetting the coffee mugs. They look rustic but they’re from a multibillion-euro German empire called Bertelsmann.
Wernu is snacking on biscuits his daughter baked and brought him the last weekend. He doesn’t like sweets. He misses bread, especially Ruchbrot, or rough bread. He misses meat, but there’s no fridge or electricity. He cooks pasta and Rösti from packets. He speaks of an aunt who emigrated to the UK and now has children who only speak English, family he has lost to language and distance.
Last year, one of the cows broke its foot on these slopes and had to be shot. Wernu lost ten kilos that summer as he ran after the cows over the mountain: it was so foggy he couldn’t see them.