Swiss Alps Trek

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Swiss Alps Trek

Postby Aubrey » Thu Sep 28, 2006 2:44 pm

For those interested, here's a write-up about my recent multi-day hike through the Swiss Alps ... [Note: elevations and mileages may not be 100% accurate, as we found some mildly conflicting reports, and we had to convert everything from metric ... but it's generally correct. Oh, as an FYI, we loosely followed the "Alpine Pass Route" from Meiringen to Lenk.]

Aubrey & Jen’s Swiss Alps Adventure

Sept. 8 through 18, 2006

Jen and I try to take at least one big trip per year, and for 2006 we decided to do an 8-day trek through the Swiss Alps (with a day of travel on the front and back ends).

Most people agree that the heart of the entire Alps mountain chain resides in Switzerland. And within Switzerland, some of the most scenic mountains can be found in an area called Berner Oberland. Naturally, this is where we chose to go.

There are many U.S.- and European-based companies that offer guided group treks through the Alps, with varying levels of difficulty, but they charge $2,000 to $4,000 per person (not including airfare). Some offer self-guided packages, where they arrange everything and then tell you where to go and how to get there, but they still cost up to $2,000 per person (and there really isn't much discount for a couple ... so they do the same amount of work but you still pay for 2). Fortunately, Jen is an excellent researcher and planner, so we saved thousands of dollars by planning everything ourselves (with a little help from our German friend, Peter).

Our trip began at 8 p.m. on Sept. 8, when we took off from Denver on a direct flight to London. A connection pushed us on to Zurich, Switzerland. We originally wanted to bring our backpacks on the plane with us, but because of the increased airport security we couldn’t bring any carry-ons. Thankfully, our luggage made it. Without our packs our trip would’ve been over before it even started. After that, we had a two hour train ride to Meiringen. The scenery slowly changed from industrial buildings laden with graffiti to tranquil mountain valleys that cradled milky-blue lakes full of glacial silt.

It took about 20 hours to get from our house to our first hotel room in Meiringen. Talk about “trains, planes and automobiles!” And, boy, what a welcome relief it was to finally stumble into that hotel. Our room was really nice, and it looked like an IKEA model room. There was a sign in the room that stated some of the cleanest spring water in the world flowed from the bathroom faucet. Needless to say, we slept well that night and adapted quickly to the 8-hour time change.

Meiringen to Grindelwald (4,500 vertical feet gained / 14 miles hiked)

Switzerland has a great luggage transfer system for people who don’t want to carry their bags with them as they travel through the country. For 15 bucks you can drop your suitcase off at one train station and pick it up at another station in a different town – later on that day or days later. So after checking our extra bag, or “case,” as they called it, at the train station, we slung our 20-pound packs onto our backs and started hiking in the cool morning air. It was cold enough that I wondered if wearing shorts was such a good idea.

After hiking to the edge of the small town, we followed the yellow signs up a gently climbing trail along some grassy slopes. Strangely enough, some sections of the route passed right through people’s yards and just feet from houses and barns. I felt like I was trespassing.

As we huffed up the hill I decided I was glad I wore shorts. Coming from such a dry climate, the surprisingly high humidity was a shock to my system and it hit me like a freight train. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life. Every time I leaned forward, drips of sweat would steadily fall off the brim of my hat like a leaking faucet. It was weird, though. If you didn’t move it actually felt cold outside; but if you started any sort of physical activity the glands just opened up.

As we continued on up some steep slopes, I reveled in the heavy air. Breathing came easy, and there was much more oxygen than we were used to.

The views kept improving the higher we got. I had to remind myself to look back at the scenery behind us every once and a while, as this was a one-way trip.

I was expecting to see cows with bells on this journey, but when we first came across a whole herd of them clinging and clanging, it was quite an experience. As they munched on the dark green grass, it sounded like really loud wind chimes. Then, as we were walking through the forest, we heard a loud, thunderous crash. Having been to Alaska, I was familiar with that noise – it was the sound of a chunk of ice cleaving off a glacier and crashing below.

At 1 p.m. we finally made it to Grosse Scheidegg and took a little break at an outdoor café while admiring the views from the pass. After having a couple Rugenbrau beers and some strange sandwiches (some sort of processed chicken, we guessed), we made it down to the surprisingly large town of Grindelwald at about 4 p.m.

Grindelwald seemed rather touristy, but I could see why it became that way. It’s nestled in a lusciously green valley at the base of the mighty Eiger. This world-class peak towers about 9,000 feet over the town. As a comparison, the Flatirons rise less than 3,000 feet above Boulder.

Grindelwald to Eigergletscher (5,000 vertical feet gained / 10 miles hiked), then took the train up to Jungfraujoch, and then back down to Lauterbrunnen

Originally, we were going to hike to Kleine Scheidegg, the lower portion of the pass, but we took a wrong turn in Alpiglen and ended up on the Eiger Trail, which was much more difficult yet more scenic. This trail ascended up some steep, slabby rock and skirted the base of the Eiger. Looking up at the Eiger’s intimidating north face, I understood why it’s considered such a formidable class-5 climb.

Halfway up its face I noticed some windows in the rock. Unbeknownst to us at the time, just hours later we would be looking out of those windows and down on our route.

After a long and laborious climb we made it to the Eigergletscher, a high point on the cog railway route, which continues on into a long tunnel (through the middle of the Eiger and the Monch) on its way to Jungfraujoch – “The Top of Europe,” at 11,333 feet. We couldn’t pass up this tourist attraction, so we purchased some tickets even though they were kind of pricey. While we waited for the train I noticed a vending machine that had Heinekens in it. You’ll never see that in America.

Deep within the tunnel (which was blasted in 1912) our train made a short stop at an intermediate station, which had the windows we saw from outside, far below. As I walked toward the large windows I felt a little tingle in the stomach – kind of like the feeling you get when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. The rock face below the window pretty much went straight down for thousands of feet. Apparently, the view from these windows is so vertiginous, as Krakauer puts it, that they keep barf bags near the windowsills.

Jungfraujoch was an interesting facility, perched high on a rocky outcropping and on the saddle between the Monch and Jungfrau peaks. Stepping outside into the biting cold, I was amazed by all the glaciers in every direction. I even noticed some climbers coming down from the Jungfrau, providing us with an incredible sense of perspective. I watched them slowly work their way down, as they passed dangerously close to some serious crevasses.

Speaking of the glaciers, we were glad we had the opportunity to see them while they’re still here. While in Switzerland I watched a news story that said that by the end of this century, 90 percent of all glaciers in Switzerland will be gone.

Because we had hiked higher and longer than we originally planned to get to the pass, we decided to take the train down to Lauterbrunnen instead of walking. After all, we had 6 more days of hiking to go. We took a beautiful train ride down to the incredibly scenic town of Lauterbrunnen, picked up our extra bag at the train station, and found our hotel just up the road. Unfortunately, our room was on the fourth floor and they didn’t have an elevator (much of Europe, as I’ve learned, doesn’t have the same handicapped/disabled laws that we do in the States). Let me tell you what, carrying that 55-pound bag ¬– with a 20-pound pack on my back – up four flights of stairs was super fun, especially in my tired state.

Lauterbrunnen to Rotstockhutte (3,800 vertical feet gained, 8 miles hiked)

Lauterbrunnen, which was cradled by sheer cliffs and home to 72 waterfalls, was difficult to leave. I wanted to explore it a little more, but we had to push on to our next stop, a mountain hut in a high valley.

The first portion of the hike ascended steeply through the forest. Every hundred yards or so we seemed to pass another creek, cascade or waterfall. I couldn’t believe how much water was in that country. It was everywhere, coming out of every nook, cranny and crevice! No water shortages or droughts there. (And none of those 2-gallon, low-flow, water-conserving toilets were to be found in Switzerland, either. You’d never clog a Swiss toilet!)

Eventually we broke out of the forest and found ourselves in the neat little town of Murren. The town was perched high, above a steep cliff and along a lusciously green slope. Jen and I ate at an outdoor café and enjoyed an incredible vantage point, with the backdrop of parasailers, jagged peaks and glaciers. In some parts of town, people’s back yards just dropped away into nothingness. You’d have to keep a close eye on your kids … and if Johnny accidentally kicked the soccer ball too hard, it’d take a long time to retrieve it.

At the café we decided to try some Swiss burgers. Unfortunately, they were made from pre-made, processed patties, and they weren’t very good. I even had to pay extra for packets of ketchup (50 cents each). Oh, and yes, if you were wondering, that was coffee I was drinking in the photo. Hey, I don’t always drink beer.

After lunch we continued up some gradual slopes through some more cow pastures. Each day we must’ve opened and closed a dozen or more cow gates. Some of them were electrified.

Shortly thereafter the trail became steeper. For some reason, the Swiss aren’t so into switchbacks. Much of the trail was just straight up.

Later in the afternoon we approached the Rotstockhutte (mountain hut), which was in a high, remote valley. As we got closer I could hear the generator running. Shortly after we stepped inside it started to rain pretty hard. Our timing couldn’t have been better.

As Jen and I sipped light Swiss lagers from large, dimpled mugs, I looked around the room at the collision of cultures before us. As I listened I could hear German, Swiss (Romansch), French, broken English and one gregarious Canadian guy. Because we chose lasagna over duck for dinner, Jen and I were placed at the “lasagna” table, which happened to be filled with a bunch of Swiss, none of which spoke more than a few words of English. What an interesting dinner that was.

The sleeping arrangement upstairs was hell. The beds were only a few feet wide (with no dividers), so I really hoped my neighbor wasn’t a midnight roller. Jen was lucky, being on the end and all, but she said her foam bed smelled like the combination of urine and bad body odor.

Over the course of the night neither of us slept very well. We might’ve gotten a couple broken hours of sleep, at best. With 24 people upstairs, there was always someone rustling through a bag, coughing, snoring or stepping outside to use the outhouse.

Early the next morning, after eating a breakfast consisting of bread and jam and paying our bill (funny enough, our beer bill was more than the room and board), we were glad to be out of there and back in our comfort zone – hiking on the trail.

Rotstockhutte to Griesalp (1,900 vertical feet gained, 6 miles hiked)

The trail from the mountain hut rose steeply up to the Sefinenfugge pass, which, at almost 9,000 feet, was one of the higher points on our journey, and about the elevation of some 14er trailheads.

On the backside of the pass, the trail descended steeply down a precarious scree slope. Apparently, many people have slipped on the loose shale (especially when it’s wet), so they installed a crude stairway with a rope to hang on to. Even with the rope it took some good balance to get down the thing without slipping.

After descending past the steepest section we noticed a helicopter coming our way up the valley. It flew right to the top of the pass and hovered just feet above some people that were on the pass at the time. We thought someone had a heart attack and had to be rescued or something. But, as it turns out, they were just picking up some supplies (a guy jumped out of the helicopter and clipped a box to a cable and then hopped back into the chopper, before it lifted back up and away). It was a pretty interesting site to see, nonetheless.

As we continued on down to Griesalp we passed all sorts of farm animals – goats, pigs, cows, sheep and llamas. In one farm we saw a guy yelling commands at his herding dog in a seemingly desperate attempt to round up some cows and a stray goat. We then noticed a cow that was nudging his nose at a baby lamb that was just lying on the ground twitching. We figured the cows had just trampled the little guy. Right after we passed, sadly, the farmer picked up the lifeless body and carried it to the barn. Meanwhile, two other farmers were pulling the stray goat back up the hill. As we walked by, and even as they struggled with the stubborn goat, the guy still managed to look up at us and say, “gruezi” (“greetings”), with a smile.

Descending further into the valley, I thought the mountains in that area looked a lot like those in Colorado. The major difference being that we were about a mile or so lower in elevation.

Stinky and tired, checking into our deluxe luxury suite in Griesalp was a welcome relief, especially after our rough, sleepless night in the mountain hut. We truly went from pauper to prince in no time.

That night we dined on some pretty tasty fondue. The hotel owner, who treated us like royalty, gave us some complimentary cherry schnapps “to aid in the fondue digestion,” as he put it. This wasn’t the kind of schnapps I thought it would be, though. It tasted more like moonshine. Jen thought it tasted like death.

Griesalp to Kandersteg (4,600 vertical feet gained, 6 miles hiked)

During our stay in the mountain hut, we met a friendly group of Swiss hikers. When we told them we’d be going over Hohturli pass (on our way from Griesalp to Kandersteg) their eyes widened and their brows raised, and they began hootin’ and hollerin’ about that climb. “Oh, that’s a tough one,” one guy said. Another member of their party cautioned us to be careful because it was a really steep and rocky pass.

It’s never easy to gauge these things. What’s easy for one person might be the biggest challenge in the world for another.

After a fabulous night’s sleep, Jen and I marched our way up the valley. After climbing above tree line, which is only about the elevation of our home in Colorado, a strong and steady breeze chilled us to the bone. As we continued up along the steep ridge on a trail filled with broken shale, the wind gusts picked up and became more serious.

Some of the slopes were pretty steep, and when the wind blew hard our big backpacks acted like sails, pushing and twisting us around. A couple times we even got pelted by small pieces of sharp shale.

We slowly made our way up the mountain’s shoulder and through a break in the ridge. At times, we could hear the wind gusts building before they hit us, giving us a chance to brace ourselves. Sometimes the wind was so strong we had to drop down to our knees and hunker down until it passed, lest we would be blown off the mountain.

On the steepest section of the climb there were ropes and wood steps – er, more like ladders – to assist us. They didn’t really make the climb any easier, though, they just kept us from slipping to our deaths on the rain-slickened shale. And it was raining on us at that point, adding to the challenge.

Because it was so cold and windy on Hohturli pass, we didn’t spend much time up there. We just glanced up at the mountain hut – the highest hut in the area – and then started down the other side.

For some reason we came across more hikers on the other side of the pass. As we passed people and said the common greeting of “gruezi,” I noticed all the curious looks people had on their faces when they looked at our low-top hiking shoes. Apparently, low-tops aren’t very popular in that region. Everyone I saw on the trails wore high-top leather boots. As we passed one guy, he looked at Jen’s shoes in the same way that I was looking at his Capri pants. “A man in Capri pants!” I thought to myself. Come to think of it, we also got a lot of strange looks when we wore our flip-flops in towns. Those, I learned, aren’t very common, either.

At any rate, we made our way down the trail, passing by glaciers, rock formations, waterfalls and steep cliffs. Slowly, a super-scenic valley opened up before us. At its base was a bright-blue lake called Oeschinensee. Vertical cliffs that rose astonishingly high, at least a couple thousand feet, flanked the lake. Waterfalls were everywhere, and they looked like long ribbons of silver. And high above the cliffs, wedged between craggy peaks, were glaciers that blended seamlessly into the cloudy sky. The view was pure eye candy.

We continued on the trail, with the lake far below to our left and overhanging cliffs to our right and above us. Not far from the lake’s shoreline we found a place to eat lunch, where we dined on beer, dried meats and mountain cheeses. They didn’t speak much English at that place, but back in the kitchen, between a lot of German babbling, we heard a girl singing, “I’m a sexy mother fucker…” over and over again. Jen and I laughed, realizing that she probably didn’t know the meaning of what she was singing.

After lunch we descended into a lush valley and on to the town of Kandersteg, where we picked up our bag at the train station and then found our quaint hotel.

As I was going through my bag I heard some bells ringing outside. It sounded like Santa’s sleigh, times 50. I walked out onto our balcony – as I yelled to Jen to come out – and we got a front-row view of a herd of sheep being marched through town. As we figured, they were moving the sheep to lower pastures. It was quite a site, and I even managed to get a few seconds of it on film.

Kandersteg to Adelboden (4,600 vertical feet gained, 10 miles hiked)

In the morning, after dropping off our extra bag at the train station, we enjoyed breakfast in our picturesque hotel. The forecast didn’t look so good – cloudy and rainy. But at least it wasn’t hot.

We decided to pack food with us on this day instead of eating lunch at a restaurant. On the way out of town, we stopped by a store and bought some cheese and salami.

As we ascended away from town and up into a quiet valley, we encountered some light rain. One of the biggest challenges of the trip was heat and moisture management. Specifically, sweat and rain. I had to make decisions like: rain jacket on (keeping rain out but sweat in) or rain jacket off (keeping the body cooler and less sweaty, but then getting rained on). It seemed like we were constantly adding or taking off layers.

At the pass we were afforded with more incredible views. Up until that point we thought we’d seen it all, but the scenery just kept coming in large, amazingly beautiful doses.

This was a pretty secluded hike, as we never passed another person all day long. Hours later we were down in the next valley and walking through the charming ski town of Adelboden.

In our hotel room we took it easy and watched a little TV. Have to admit, the European version of MTV was kind of neat because they showed some boobs on there. After dinner and a few beers later, sleep came easy.

Adelboden to Lenk (2,400 vertical feet gained, 9 miles hiked)

For breakfast, it was more croissants, salami, ham and cheese. We also had some yogurt, dried fruit, granola and bread with Nutella. We took our time that morning because we had an easy hiking day ahead of us.

The first part of the hike reminded us of Oregon, with its richly green pine trees, dense ground foliage and misty air. We also walked by some raging creeks, pastoral grassy areas and quite a few ski lifts. At the pass we ate a pretty tasty lunch and I enjoyed a refreshing glass of weissbier.

The hike down to the sprawling, yet quaint, town of Lenk was peaceful and relatively easy. Once in town I went to the local co-op and bought a bunch of food (stinky cheeses, meats, crusty bread, local wine and beer), which we ate in our hotel room. It was a delicious meal and it saved us $50. Later that evening we had a few beers in a lonely bar before calling it a day.

Lenk to Gstaad (0 vertical feet gained, 0 miles hiked)

Waking up to heavy fog and non-stop rain was a downer. And unfortunately the forecast didn’t look very good for the next day or two. But instead of being all bummed out, we were very thankful that we had such great weather up until that point (aside from a few hours of light rain here and there). Instead of hiking through fog and steady rain, we decided to call off our last hike and just take a train to Gstaad. We considered taking a day trip to some other locations, but the bad weather covered most of the country.

Gstaad was a ritzy town, reminiscent of Aspen or Vail. Unfortunately for us, none of the shops were open because it was Sunday (everything in Switzerland seemed to close up early in the evenings and on Sundays). We found a small French restaurant that was open so we went there and dined on crepes, hot cocoa and 4-dollar Coca-Cola Lights.

We went to a pub for dinner. There, I finally found some halfway decent beer – Guinness.

The next morning we rode trains for a few hours back to the Zurich airport. Then, after a 1.5-hour flight to Heathrow and a 9-hour flight back to Denver, we were home.

Overall, Jen and I had a fantastic time in Switzerland. Over the seven days, in total, we gained 26,800 feet and we hiked 63 miles. But it was much more than just the numbers. The views, the food, the people, the culture … It was a trip we’ll remember forever.

[PM me if you're interested in seeing any pics. However, you may want to just request pics of specific subjects ... I took a lot of photos.]

Last edited by Aubrey on Thu Sep 28, 2006 9:31 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Postby Scott P » Thu Sep 28, 2006 2:52 pm

That's a nice TR. Sounds like you had a good time. I assume the crowds were down this late in the year?

Did you have any desire to climb the peaks at all (maybe at a later time)?

Good that your wife likes to go. I'm very glad mine does. :wink: Good luck on your next adventure. :D
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Postby doumall » Thu Sep 28, 2006 4:50 pm

Thanks for this Aubrey, its was an enjoyable read. I got a good laugh out of this...

"In our hotel room we took it easy and watched a little TV. Have to admit, the European version of MTV was kind of neat because they showed some boobs on there."

I bet that contest money came in handy over there, huh? Lucky SOB :D
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Postby rlw49 » Thu Sep 28, 2006 5:01 pm

Excellent report. The wife and I are in the early stages of planning something along the same line for next year. CMC does a trip like this, but I think I'd rather do it on our own.
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Postby Aubrey » Thu Sep 28, 2006 6:39 pm

Scott: Since this was my first time to Switzerland, I couldn't tell if the crowd level was normal or not ... but overall it never became what I'd call crowded (part of the reason we chose to go at the end of season; but also because of heat). On many days we'd go hours without seeing another soul. To/from Grindelwald was probably the most crowded, but it was mostly just day hikers going out and back from town, and it really wasn't bad at all. And still less crowded than most of the Front Range 14ers. Then, of course, as we got closer to towns we saw more people, too.

Yes, I did kind of get the itch to climb some of those peaks ... but some of them are way out of my league (i.e., the Eiger). Although, some of the snow climbs looked doable (with some more training and a good guide).

doumall: Yeah, the TV was fun. :D If we had that here just think how much MORE TV Americans would watch! :shock:

rlw49: Back when we were planning this thing we stumbled across the following site, which came in really handy. The elevation profiles were helpful and the descriptions were pretty good. Feel free to PM me if you have any questions. ... index.html
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Postby jamienellis » Thu Sep 28, 2006 8:30 pm

Very cool Aubrey & Jen! Thanks for posting.
If you have print outs of the pics, please bring them to the Warren Miller gathering...I'd love to see them! :)

Enjoy your beers this weekend! \:D/

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Postby summitrunner » Fri Sep 29, 2006 9:48 am

Kandersteg and Adelboden are amazing places. So much to do. They are my two dream places to go. I have been there many times...jealous that you were there and not me!
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Postby RenoBob » Fri Sep 29, 2006 10:21 am

Great TR. Thanks for sharing.
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Jungfrau Region

Postby Bullwinkle » Sat Jan 13, 2007 12:26 pm

What a great story! Thanks for sharing the helpful, detailed information.

If others go, there is a good 1:60,000 topo map available from Kummerly + Frey that is well-marked for trails and features. It cost me SF23 awhile back.

Also, it will be helpful in that region to speak some rudimentary German. The other official languages of Switzerland (French, Italian and Romansch) are much less frequently spoken. Romansch is a fairly pure form of Latin spoken mainly in the southeast part of the country (e.g., St. Moritz). Italian is spoken mainly in the Ticino (tee CHEE no) region. French is spoken in the Valais up to about Sierre and in the regions west and southwest of Bern. A few pleasantries in the local language (with a smile and good manners) will go a long way.

For the less adventurous, there are lots of day trip possibilities around Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen. Be sure to see Trummelbachfalle (large interior waterfall up the valley from Lauterbrunnen toward Murren. For the more adventurous, there are many technical climbs available.
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