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026: travel : Europe : Switzerland : hiking above Grindelwald, Switzerland


a view from above Grindelwald, Switzerland, by A.E. Graves, October 2013



(For additional images of Grindelwald, visit my Google+ album, "Hiking in Grindelwald, Switzerland").

I've always heard about the Swiss Alps, but never imagined that I would be able to hike in them one day.

During a business trip to Switzerland in October of 2013, Switzerland had some great, sunny weather. My local colleagues announced that this was the last chance of the year to get out of doors before the weather turned cold. Having been penned up in meetings for days, I was ready for some fresh air, and asked for day hiking recommendations on Friday: a colleague suggested Grindelwald (grindelwald.ch). There was a forecast of possible snow on Sunday, so I had to take my chances on Saturday morning. I was up early to catch a train to the Jungfrau region of Switzerland.

The Jungfrau Region

This area is famous for the lovely alps, enormous glaciers, and Jungfrau, "Top of Europe," (jungfrau.ch) which is accessible through increasingly improbable trains and tunnels which reach a James-Bond-like visitor center.

In summer, the lower altitudes boast hiking on wide, well-graded, clearly marked trails, plus sightseeing (waterfalls, ice caves, charming car-free towns atop cliffs), and outdoor dining on sunny patios; in winter, there are skiing facilities and a large number of lodges to support winter visitors.

Geographically, the area has deep, lush valleys, abundant cows eating their way through their summer pastures while going deaf from the ringing of the enormous bells around their necks, rolling hills dotted with wide farmhouses, and spectacular views of very sharp, new-looking mountains with icy-blue glaciers visible near their tops. The scenery is dramatic - the mountains rise sharply, and the areas that aren't lush are often rocky cliffs.

My day hike

After a series of transportation mishaps, including getting on the wrong car of the correct train (the train divides unexpectedly at some intermediate town, with a few cars going to Grindelwald, and the rest going toward Lauterbrunnen; I wound up in Lauterbrunnen, and had to wait for the next train back to the split to try again) and arriving on the day the bus schedule changed to an infrequent, off-season schedule no one was aware of (meaning that purchased a ticket from a briefly-staffed booth for a bus that wasn't going to come, waited patiently to no avail, made inquiries that suggested I should wait longer, had a lovely, unhurried lunch, and finally had my suspicions confirmed by the smallest possible print in the schedule that no bus was imminent), I devised a new plan on the spot.

I walked to the Grindelwald cable car station, purchased a one way (einfach) ticket up to First (a station high on the nearest ridge), and took a hike to Bachalpsee and down a steep, "expert"-grade path through snow (!), pastures, above and often parallel to Milibach (Creek), down a road, through forest (a trailhead is visible near Waldspitz), farmlands, beneath the closing-for-the-evening cable car line, past cows returning to their barns for the night, and back to the train station, making it back just before dark.

It was gorgeous. It was a perfect day for hiking, and a perfect place to be impressed by late summery scenery.

It was worth every worry about my late start, every fear about turning an ankle and being unable to descend the mountain, every ache from the dramatic, multi-hour descent. I was thrilled with every breathtaking view each time I rounded a corner or peered over the edge of a cliff.

What a day!

Awkward moment

At one point, while people were herding their cows back to their barns for the night, I was walking on a rural road, and was amused that a few cows seemed to be following me from the other side of their fence. My amusement turned to alarm when the sound of their bells became deafening, and I realized the entire herd was paralleling my path. What had I done? Was my red backpack mimicking something? I sped up. The cows sped up. I sped up a bit more, and suddenly, there was no fence between us.

I saw a person standing near a barn a short way downhill, and tried to formulate a cry for help that would be something along the lines of, "Sir! These cows are following me! They are not my cows! How do I stop this?"

What was REALLY happening is that the person ahead of me had opened the gate I'd just passed, and was opening another for the cows, who would turn off there to return to their barn. They were being herded out of their pasture by someone uphill and behind me, who I couldn't see. It wasn't about me at all, just an awkward time to try to walk past their pen.

Plan your visit

In addition to being careful to avoid the travel mishaps I mentioned above (check the signage on EACH TRAIN CAR when you board at Interlaken Ost; check the bus schedule carefully, regardless of what the nice people at the bus transfer booth tell you), use some of the excellent travel websites set up for the region to work out the details for your trip. The region is well set up for tourists, and if you plan well, you will have a relaxing visit. I was able to obtain hiking maps of the area from a tourist office back in Basel, and so could plan my day in advance of reaching the region.

The usual advice for successful hiking applies

Wear good, ankle-supporting hiking shoes. (I didn't, but would have with better preparation.) Most of the trails are well maintained, but my descent in snow had some wet, icy, narrow, rocky parts, and real boots would have better ensured the happiness of my feet and ankles.

Keep an eye out for hiking signage. Swiss trails for hiking are marked with spray paint on rocks: a white background with a red stripe. Trails for climbing use blue instead of red, and require equipment, so plan accordingly.

Bring layers of clothing, so you are ready for all weather. (It was t-shirt weather by day, but snow was expected overnight, and could have arrived early!) Fresh socks are always a nice idea, and don't take up much room; so are large wet wipes for tidying yourself up when you return to town. (The water in the bathroom at the train station is cold, so you won't want to splash any on your face on a chilly evening.)

Tell someone where you are planning to go. (I should have provided more specific details.)

Bring snacks and water appropriate to the length of your trip: don't rely on refreshment stands being open when you arrive, unless you have reliable information that they are open.

If you're taking a day trip, know the cable-car and/or train schedule, so you don't need to hurry or worry near the end of the day about how you are leaving the area.

Wear sunscreen more vigilantly than you would at home: the altitudes in Switzerland generally, but especially those involved in alpine hiking, mean that you need to be more careful protecting your eyes and skin.

Check the weather forecasts, especially if you go at a nearly-risky time of year, so you can avoid being caught in weather you aren't willing to be outside in. Work out a backup plan if your chosen route is obscured by snow or other obstacles.

Note that there seems to be good cell phone signal in the Grindelwald area - I don't think I was ever without a signal! It's very strange to be in the alps and know that I could make THAT "guess where I'm calling from" call while staring at Eiger!!

Be sure to build in lots of spare time just to sit on a rock, drink from your water bottle, and enjoy the spectacular scenery. This is a gorgeous area, and I'm glad that I was able to enjoy the landscape, and feel like I really WAS in Switzerland. I want to return to see more!


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images and original text Copyright © 2014 A. E. Graves

(posted December 6, 2014)

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