In the company of mountain gods
Justine Tyerman practises her “one foot after the other” mantra on day two of the Bear Trek in the Swiss Alps.
Kleine Scheidegg Pass looked formidable in the early morning light, shaded by the massive granite North Face of the Eiger. I was tempted to bury my head under my cosy down duvet, feign a pulled ligament or something and allow Guide Birgit and Team Super-Fit to hike on without me.
I had made the mistake of studying the profile of Day Two of the Bear Trek the night before and discovered that before we even started the climb, the track plunged all the way to the valley floor, appropriately called Grund, adding hours and vertical metres to an already challenging ascent.
The warning bells I had earlier ignored before I left New Zealand were clanging away again inside my head, but so too were my Kiwi tramping friend’s words that had kept me going the previous day: “One foot after the other and you’ll get there... eventually.”
Besides, I was the only Kiwi in the group and I couldn’t let the Aussies get the better of me. I floundered my way out of duvets and pillows so deep, they must have placed the entire Swiss goose population in serious jeopardy, showered, pulled on my hiking gear and presented myself in the dining room with a brave smile on my face.
Over a hearty breakfast at our lovely Hotel Kirchbühl high above the village of Grindelwald, Birgit studied the itinerary for Day Two.
The detailed route map proposed by Eurotrek, the company that organised our hike, went from Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen via Kleine Scheidegg Pass, covering 19.5km, ascending 1230m and descending 1465m, a hiking time of seven hours, 25 minutes.
Birgit frowned... and then beamed.
“I think we’ll take the train to Alpiglen,” she said. “No point in walking all the way down just to climb back up again. And we’re staying in Wengen for the night which is much closer than Lauterbrunnen.”
Tall, lean Ms Super-Duper Fit was crestfallen but I was so relieved I hugged Birgit.
What a wonderful, wise woman, I thought.
How I love the Swiss Transport System. There’s always a train, bus, cablecar, gondola or funicular right where you need it. Catching the train to Alpiglen and staying at Wengen would lop off about three hours and hundreds of vertical metres. This would enable us to have a more relaxed, enjoyable experience with ample time to revel in the landscape, take photos and stop for a leisurely lunch on this most pristine of sunny autumn days.
The first rays of sun kissed the tip of the snow-capped peaks as we set off, well-fuelled, after a substantial hikers’ breakfast. The train deposited us at Alpiglen where we began the climb to Kleine Scheidegg Pass, 2061m. The ascent was steep and steady but the unfolding of the landscape as the mighty Bernese triumvirate - the Eiger, Mönsch and Jungfrau - came into view, made every step rewarding. Bright sunshine, clear skies and mild temperatures added to the magic of the day.
We crossed gurgling, gin-clear, ice-cold streams trickling down lush, green mountain pastures, and stopped to pat friendly cows with tinkling bells. They were so tame, they licked us with their long purple-black, sandpaper tongues.
Encounters with other hikers and bikers of different nationalities were more frequent than on the previous day but we had the well-formed trail largely to ourselves.
I was last to “summit” the pass but the heady exhilaration of having made it to the top obliterated the pain in my calf muscles and thumping of my heart. The Aussies were good sports. They didn’t seem to mind waiting for me. With breath-taking alpine panoramas, there was no down-time for them – cameras and iPhones were working overtime.
Above Kleine Scheidegg, in the shadow of the 3970m Eiger, there’s a tiny museum that documents the triumphs and tragedies of past climbing expeditions on the treacherous Nordwand (North Face). The stories are chilling especially the horrific tale of the climber in 1936 who, despite valiant rescue attempts, froze to death on the end of his rope after his three companions perished. He was just metres from safety.
The Sphinx Terrace and observatory at the “Top of Europe” was visible high above us - building such a structure on a narrow ridge 3571m above sea level is a marvel of engineering. So too the cogwheel Jungfrau Railway train from Kleine Scheidegg to Europe’s highest railway station (3454m). Opened in 1912, the top 7km of the 9.4km of railway climbs through a tunnel hewn in the rock of the Eiger and Mönch, an audacious project that took 16 years to complete.
As we sat in the sun gazing at the mountain gods, I felt a deep sense of reverence to be in their company.
It was a quintessentially Swiss day – a sprinkling of fresh snow dusted the peaks, the edelweiss was in flower, and the alpine chalets were competing for the brightest window boxes and neatest firewood pile.
The Swiss stack their firewood under the eaves against the chalet walls or in purpose-built sheds. The pieces are always perfectly cut to exactly the same size and arranged with the utmost symmetry – like an artwork.
“It’s a Swiss thing,” Birgit said, “a point of national pride. A messy wood pile would be shameful in Switzerland.”
Descending from Kleine Scheidegg Pass, the rumble of an avalanche echoed around the mountains as a slab of ice broke free from a blue-white glacier and thundered down the valley, an awesome sight and sound from a safe distance.
Late in the season, a few of the mountain restaurants were already closed but the Bergrestaurant Allmend was open and served an excellent lunch platter. With only a short downward hike to Wengen ahead of us, a little schnapps was in order, “a Swiss tradition,” Birgit said.
An easy downhill hike from the Allmend took us straight to the Silberhorn, our hotel in the centre of the delightful, car-free resort of Wengen.
The exquisite picture-postcard village, with its traditional wooden chalets and belle époque hotels, is perched on a sunny terrace 400 metres above the Lauterbrunnen Valley with stunning vistas of the Jungfrau and Schilthorn.
Famous for its World Cup Lauberhorn ski piste, Wengen also has excellent year-round, family-friendly activities for everyone including skiing, toboggan runs and winter and summer hiking trails. Mountain trains and cableways provide access to spectacular vantage points throughout the Jungfrau region.
After a relaxing soak in the Silberhorn’s outside Jacuzzi, I managed to do justice to a delectable five-course feast at the hotel’s excellent restaurant - melon and prosciutto, lentil soup, salads, beef ragout and apricot tart... among many other choices.
High altitude can sometimes disrupt sleep patterns but the exertion of the day and the larger- than-usual-dinner... and a glass or two of wine... acted as a powerful sedative for me.
I fell asleep looking at the map of the next day’s hike with the words “22km, 2000m ascent, 1400m descent, 9 hours” swirling around in my mind – but by now, I was confident I would manage whatever trimmed-down version Birgit had in store up for us.
I knew I’d reach my destination, eventually, simply by placing “one foot after the other...”
Read more about Day One of the trek.
* The Bear Trek is part of the Via Alpina, a classic among long-distance hikes in Switzerland. The Via Alpina is a challenging mountain hike through the picture-perfect landscapes of Switzerland’s northern alps. A series of 20 daily stages takes hikers over 14 alpine passes and through a great variety of alpine terrain, villages, flora and fauna - a hiking enthusiast’s dream. Mountain restaurants and hotels provide meals and accommodation along the way. Eurotrek organised our accommodation and luggage transfers so we just carried a light day pack.
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