travelog 115

Hiking in the World-Famous Swiss Alps

A visit to Switzerland is nothing without marveling at the sight of the world-famous Swiss Alps from nearby. The opportunity presented itself when I, Julia, booked my visit for September and by pure chance my friend Maggie had planned a hike with friends to the Faulhorn at the same time. Quickly a room with three beds was organized. Everything else was arranged on the go. The Faulhorn lies in the Bernese Alps near Grindelwald (direct link here) and can be reached only on foot. The name Faulhorn comes from the Swissgerman "ful" (bad), describing the loose rock layers of marl and slate. On the summit at 2681 m (8800 ft) sits Europe's oldest mountain hotel which was built in 1830. You have a fantastic 360° panorama view over the entire Bernese Alps, among them the four-thousand-meter mountains Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau, all the way to the Black Forest and the Vosges of Alsace. With optimum clear view you can also see seven Swiss lakes. Solar panels provide inside lighting. Rain and snow water is collected and when there's a water shortage during the summer, water can be pumped up from a small glacier below the hotel. In the past the hotel was supplied by mules and horses. Today the supply of food and other necessities as well as the garbage disposal is done by helicopter for which at least four flights per week are necessary during the high season.

On Friday morning I met Maggie at her place where we first had some coffee. We were in no hurry because she had just found out with some app on her cell phone that there were several traffic jams along our route. We finally left trusting to luck and promptly ended up in another traffic jam. Traffic jams are something very common in this small country with its many roads and even more cars, as I would notice many times during my visit to Switzerland. We had the first feeling of being in the Alps along the road up to the Bruenig where we stretched our legs and enoyed the view with a coffee on the terrace of a restaurant. Then the first snow-covered peaks of the Bernese Alps appeared on the horizon. We found accommodation in a hotel at Grindelwald's train station where we also met with Maggie's friends. Since today was planned as a very lazy day and to get us all in the mood for next day's hike, the hiking-boots-test-day so to speak, we sat down for a Roesti, a typical Swiss specialty with potatoes. Then we all took the train to the Kleine Scheidegg where we waited with hundreds of Japanese tourists for the Jungfraujoch train which was taking us just one station higher to the Eigergletscher at 2320 m (7600 ft). The good 180 Swiss Francs (US $200) expensive ticket to the top of the Jungfraujoch was too much, we all agreed. From our train station we followed a nice hiking trail in the shadow of the Eigernordwand to Alpiglen at 1616 m (5300 ft). Of course I had seen pictures of the Eigernordwand, the north-facing rock face of the Eiger, but to hike along this impressive rock face was indeed a special feeling. A glorious blue sky accompanied us from one end of the horizon to the other. The flora of the Alps still put on a show of colors while fat, happy and spotted Swiss cows rang their bells along the trail. Halfway to Alpiglen there was an information board showing the details of the climbing route up Eiger's north face but we unsuccessfully looked out for avid climbers with the binoculars. At the small restaurant Alpiglen we enjoyed a refreshing Panasch (a German Radler), a mixture of beer and lemonade, and a piece of homemade plum tarte. Then we rode the train down to Grindelwald where we had an aperitif on the terrace of our hotel. When it was getting cooler we moved inside where we were almost the only Swiss tourists. The Fondue, another Swiss specialty with melted cheese, was a winner with the Japanese. To our amusement, some of them had ordered this dish together with french fries. For the proper digestion we took a night stroll through Grindelwald where the jewelry and watch shops were still open at 10PM. Upon entering, the Japanese received a basket: happy shopping!

Early in the morning we met again in the dining room for breakfast. The others had all been awakened at 6AM by a telephone call. There was nobody on the phone but we had the suspicion that the Japanese group leader had made some mistakes dialing the room numbers. One car was parked in Grindelwald and with the other we drove to Wilderswil where we had to park on the air field because the Jungfrau Marathon was taking place on the same weekend. In Wilderswil we took the rack railroad to the Schynige Platte. The nostalgic rack train needed an endless 50 minutes for the seven kilometers (4.4 miles). It was packed with enthusiastic hikers, the views were gigantic, the price for the ride as well, and for me it would have been enough after 20 minutes. Up on the Schynige Platte we met a wedding party dressed in Cowboy-look. Again the weather could not have been better: Bright blue sky and a magnificent panorama of snow-covered peaks. From the Schynige Platte at 1970 m (6400 ft) we first hiked with many day trip tourists with sandals and not much motivation on a wide path towards the Faulhorn. Soon the first gave up and it was possible to enjoy the landscape in peace and quiet. Besides alpine flowers like gentian and carline thistles I could even take pictures of succulent plants such as Sempervivum, Sedum, and Saxigfraga. Gisela and Markus, friends from Maggie's youth in Schaffhausen, set off walking fast. The second Markus, a passionate cyclist, also set off at an energetic pace. Maggie and I were enjoying nature and we were pretty sure that we would catch up at least with the couple from Schaffhausen, who were also passionate smokers, sooner or later. Gisela was the first though her shoes were more of a problem than her smoker's lungs. We soon caught up with her husband Markus too who was sitting along the trail coughing and panting. He needed many more rests but even with all his efforts he never lost his sense of humor. Markus the cyclist disappeared for a long time until we finally met him at an ideal place for a breather.

Just around the corner we reached the small mountain refuge and restaurant Maenndlenen where we had hot soup with greasy sausage. A young German couple with huge backpacks inquired with the manager about the room situation on the Faulhorn. They didn't have a reservation and thought in all seriousness that they could spontaneously climb up to the Faulhorn on this beautiful Saturday afternoon and find a place to sleep. That even surprised the Maenndlenen manager and so he quickly called "over there" on the Faulhorn where he was informed as expected that they did not even have room for the Germans in front of the fireplace. The manager lived up to the Swiss' good reputation and after some improvisation he put a French family up in one room and the Germans got the other room for the night, although they had to do without the Faulhorn's world-famous sunset and sunrise. All this was certainly better than to hike all the way back to First with heavy backpacks in the late afternoon. From Maenndlenen one can already see the Faulhorn but there's still quite some altitude difference to be overcome. In the meantime we were all a little bit tired but the magnificent panoramic views of snow-covered mountains and blue mountain lakes were worth every effort. There were two different ways up to the Faulhorn hotel: the Direttissima, the straight way, or the longer switchbacks. If I was going to do something at all, I might as well do it properly, I thought and took the straight route, a narrow trail, under my hiking boots. Once on the summit one could comfortably rest on benches. It was just that I didn't really know in which direction I should look. The 360° panorama was simply overwhelming, especially on a picture book day such as today!

We settled into the rooms quickly because we didn't have a lot of luggage with us since you had to schlepp everything 700 m (2300 ft) up the mountain. The rooms were left almost in their original state and we slept in the squeaking, original beds from the early days, even the mattresses felt completely worn down in the middle and at least 100 years old. There were ceramic wash basins and water jars with ice cold water on a table, ready for washing yourself and cleaning your teeth. Adjacent to our private rooms was a large section with a dormitory where most of the visitors were sleeping. Bundled up warmly we enjoyed a glass of wine, and obviously the fantastic view, in the last warming rays of the sun on the terrace. Then it was time to climb up to the summit just above the hotel for the sunset which is what the hotel's famous for. Slowly the shadows were raising, the sky turned orange and red, then purple. The snow-covered peaks were bathed in an unreal light until the landscape finally sank into twilight and only the few lights of other mountain huts were visible. It was really cozy and warm and completely full in the restaurant where we had a choice between two menues. They even served a lovely red wine with the Aelplermagronen, another Swiss specialty made with potatoes, maccaroni, roasted onions and lots of cheese, which were appropriately accompanied by thick homemade apple sauce. The crew was extremely well organized and friendly and the food was excellent. After dinner we even received playing cards which made the Alp-feeling complete.

The alarm clock rang us out of a deep sleep. We quickly slipped into the cold clothes, bundled up warmly, and again climbed up to the summit as to not miss the sunrise which was less impressive than the sunset, or was it that we were by now simply too spoiled by all the fantastic views? The tables were already set for breakfast at the restaurant. They served thick slices of farmer's bread with honey and jam, hot coffee and chocolate. Soon the first groups and couples left. Since we did not have much planned for today we let everybody leave and later hiked down the mountain in peace and quiet. We now had a great view onto the Bachalp lake in whose crystal clear water Eiger, Moench and Jungfrau were reflected. We also saw marmots and even some chamois with the binoculars. There was much bustle around the Bachalp lake. Large groups of Japanese were taking pictures of themselves, the spotted cows, and the panorama. Many had only light sandals on their feet, nothing suitable for hiking in the mountains. Some women wore broad-rimmed hats, long-sleeved blouses, shawls, and even gloves so as to not loose their pale complexion. At the First train station we made a short stop before the guys zoomed down to the valley on the First Flyer and we women rode the train which was less exciting. After having bought some Alp cheese we said goodbye to the hustle and bustle of Grindelwald on a Sunday afternoon.

On the way back we had to endure some more traffic jams but after such a spectacular weekend one didn't even mind the waiting on an autobahn. At home my mother already had a Bratwurst with roasted onions and salad ready for me. We sat in the romantic garden behind her house and shared a bottle of wine. It was a great end of a perfect weekend where everything was just right.

September 2012

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen