Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hiking in the Swiss Alps

Hiking doesn't get much better than this. Big mountains, breathtaking views and world-class trails -- steep, challenging and a little bit scary -- stretching out for hundreds of kilometres in all directions.

Hiking in the Swiss Alps isn't exactly a wilderness experience. The valleys are dotted with resort towns and railway lines. The mountainsides are home to cows and goats rather than bears and cougars. It's wilderness lite. But this is part of the charm of hiking in Switzerland. Civilization never really disappears but it doesn't encroach on the landscape either. It strikes the right balance between nature and culture. You can hike for hours with nothing but mountain peaks and frozen glaciers for company and then, like a mirage in a desert, you turn a corner and there's a mountain hut serving up cold beer on the edge of a cliff. It's luxurious and I love it.

I've gone soft and I'm okay with that. Ten years ago I would have scoffed at the idea of hiking in a developed area. It's easy to be a backcountry snob in Canada with its open spaces and wild places. Hiking back home means walking into the wilderness with your tent on your back and walking out a week later dirty, smelly and covered in mosquito bites. No hotels, no restaurants, no hot showers, no cold beer. Nothing but uninterrupted wilderness.

The only downside is that it's impossible to get to the edge of civilization in Canada without a car. Not just a car but the kind of car that can withstand bone-rattling logging roads that deliver you to the trailhead. All of the backcountry hiking I did in British Columbia wouldn't have been possible without Paul Johnson and his truck. (Wow. Just writing that brought tears of homesickness to my eyes.)

The beauty of living in Europe is that you can get deep into the mountains by public transit (I suppose this is also the downside of living in Europe. If you can get deep into the mountains by public transit, it means everyone else can too). If getting into the mountains in Canada is difficult, getting into the mountains in Switzerland is easy. We rolled out of bed in Bonn, hopped on the subway, changed trains a couple of times, transferred to a bus, rode up a cable car and, just like that, we were in the middle of the Swiss Alps. We were sitting on a train in the morning and hiking in the Alps in the afternoon. Public transit delivered us effortlessly, seamlessly into the heart of the Alps right from our front door. You just can't do that back home.

Sergey and I spent four days in Gimmelwald (pop. 120), a tiny, car-free village perched on the edge of a cliff 1363 metres above the Lauterbrunnen valley. There are only two ways to get to Gimmelwald from the valley floor: by foot or by cable car. There's not much going on in Gimmelwald. There are two places to eat, a couple of cheeseshops, a handful of log cabins and more cows than people. In other words, it's an excellent base camp for day hikes.

The best thing about Gimmelwald is that it isn't developed like other Swiss towns. A few decades ago, developers wanted to turn Gimmelwald into a huge ski resort. But the villagers thwarted those plans by getting the entire town reclassified as an "avalanche zone." The avalanche classification means it's too dangerous for development projects. So Gimmelwald remains a small community of farmers who milk their cows, cut their hay and survive with Swiss government subsidies.

The cows, the fairytale homes and the fresh cheese all add to the joy of hiking in the Alps.

If you go . . .

Getting there: By train, Bonn to Gimmelwald takes about seven hours door-to-door. From Bonn/Siegburg take the high-speed train to Basel. At Basel, transfer to the regional train to Interlaken Ost. From Interlaken Ost, take the local train to Lauterbrunnen (make sure you sit in the front car as the train splits halfway there, with the front half going to Lauterbrunnen and the second half going to Grindelwald). At Lauterbrunnen, walk across the street and take the bus heading for the Stechelberg gondola station, and get off there. Ride the gondola up one station to Gimmelwald. Alternatively, you can hike 1.5 hours up to Gimmelwald from Stechelberg. If you book three months in advance, the train ticket from Bonn to Lauterbrunnen costs around 60 euros. The later you book, the more expensive it gets. Check DB Bahn for fares. The combined bus and cable car fare from Lauterbrunnen to Gimmelwald costs 10 francs.

Staying there: The cheapest option is to bring your own tent and stay in the Stechelberg campground. If you prefer a bit more comfort, Gimmelwald has a hostel, a pension, a couple of B&Bs and an old hotel up the hill -- all run by locals whose families have been living in this town for generations. We stayed at Esther's Guest House, in a tiny attic room with a skylight above the bed for stargazing at night. Our room cost 65 francs per person per night (with a discount of 10 francs per night for paying in cash).

Eating there: The cheapest option is to make your own meals. There is no grocery store in Gimmelwald so stock up at the Coop in Lauterbrunnen (right across the street from the train station). If you don't feel like cooking, there are decent pizzas at the Mountain Hostel and good meals (with vegetarian options) at the Pension & Restaurant Gimmelwald. For more variety, walk 30 minutes uphill to the town of Murren

Getting out: Check out the hiking map on this site. The hike up and down the Schilthorn (2970m) from Gimmelwald is a must-do. It takes about seven hours round-trip (more than 3500m total elevation gain and loss) but give yourself at least nine hours because you will want to stop, sit and soak in the 360 degree views along the way. Use the map to custom-design other hikes based on how far you want to go each day. The possibilities are endless.

More photos on my flickr page.


Nature Nerd said...

Wow. What an amazing looking place. Now I want to go there.

Sarah M. said...

If you can go, go! I want to go back...

Katherine Correia said...

Hey Sarah,

I just moved to Switzerland earlier this year and I concur, it's "hardly" backcountry. That being said, I find Switzerland much less crowded than hiking in Germany was. (and with a lot less hikers with poles. poles without a big pack?!?!?) People laugh at me when I tell them that hiking in Canada meant telling people where you were going, losing cell phone service and putting a bear bell on the dog. Hope you enjoyed Swiss land, so much to discover here!

Sarah M. said...

Hi Katherine. Congrats on the move to Switzerland. Lucky you!! I was once a pole snob but two ladies in our guesthouse lent us their poles for a day hike and I have to say, they made quite a difference in terms of stability (I'm now a pole convert). I know what you mean about people laughing about how seriously we take going into the wilderness. In Canada, taking the right precautions can mean the difference between life and death. Some friends from other countries (especially from European countries) don't face the same risks so they tend to think we're overly cautious. Hope you're enjoying Switzerland!