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Friday, June 22, 2012

Hiking the Swiss Alps

Switzerland had been in my bucket list as long as I can remember. Probably from the 90s Bollywood movies, or all time classics like Sound of Music portraying the Alps which I always associated with this beautiful country. It was in late 2011 that I came across the World’s best hikes post on Nat Geo Adventure site and Grindelwald caught my attention. The First - Bachalpsee (Bachsee) trail was the anchor to our roughly 9 day vacation in this little Playground of Europe.

I got Fodor’s Switzerland travel guide, which gives some general guidance on various regions/cantons and highlights for each. But we didn’t find it much helpful for the kind of vacation we were planning. After digging through a few Swiss tourism websites, another hiking trails book called “The Bernese Alps - a walker’s guide” by Kev Reynolds and a few youtube videos, we decided on an itinerary perfectly customized to our liking. To avoid the summer crowd, we picked late June for our travel, hoping the mountains would warm up enough to open the trails to hikers.

I also got the Talk Now app for learning Swiss German and picked up a few words like Tanke, s’Wasser, d’ Dame/ d’ Herre toalette, Wo isch d’Bank. Keep in mind you could potentially buy sparkling or even flavored water if you don’t know enough adjectives for s'Wasser. A note on water: do not bother to buy bottled water. Its very pricey. But why pay for it when people generally drink tap water and it tastes so good and mountain fresh!

Another word that came handy is d’Bank. We needed to find an ATM and no one could understand ATM or the "English bank" until Bobby pronounced it as "bahnk". People in general knew to speak English. But the trails, gas station, stores all tested our German skills. When grasping the meaning of a foreign phrase becomes inevitable, you would be amazed at the human brain, how quickly it learns, remembers & re-learns especially the mistakes! 

Most of our activities were centered around the canton of Bernese Oberland which includes Grindelwald, the home of the famous(and sometimes infamous) mountain trio - Eiger, Jungfrau & Mönch, Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken. 

We landed in Zürich after a 2 plus 7 hr flight, and spent the rest of the day walking through old town Zürich, visiting some Romanesque cathedrals and renting a boat on the lake. Later in the night, we drove to Grindelwald where we were to spend the next couple of days.

The steeple of St Peter's church, the largest church clock face in Europe

Old town Zürich from Lindenhof hill

Trails we hiked:

1) First - Bachalpsee - Faulhorn hut - Bussalp - Grindelwald

We took a gondola from Grindelwald up to First (pronounced as Fierst). Then hiked up to Faulhorn hut, passing Lake Bachalpsee - a serene alpine lake reflecting the mountain peaks Schreckhorn & Wetterhorn, except when caressed by the gentle mountain breeze. And the final hike from Faulhorn down to Bussalp through bouldery path crossing snowy patches and listening to marmots whistling. We were to catch a bus from Bussalp to Grindelwald.

The hotel where we stayed had given us free passes to ride the local bus. Unfortunately, the last bus that would take us back to town was scheduled a bit too early(5pm). When the sun is out as late as 10 in the night, who would want to be back from such breathtaking trails so early?! Also, almost all of the trails are marked with hours (Std or Stunden) instead of distance (Km). One would wonder whose hours it could be possibly be! This led to some additional miscalculations, because they obviously weren't ours!

To make the long story short, we missed the bus - watched it leaving while we were still up on the mountains. It didn’t feel as bad at that time. So we kept walking past Bussalp, through farm lands, listening to cow bells, sometimes trying to make our way through herds of cows, some as tall as me. It was interesting, at times scary since they appeared to pick up speed for no apparent reason and I couldn’t tell their intentions. We were very tired and hungry by the time we got closer to Grindelwald. Dry energy bars didn’t appeal anymore. Sun went down by 10pm and we stopped and rested on a bench for a few minutes. All of a sudden someone jumped out of the woods behind us, so close to the bench, got startled and galloped away. It was a deer! Until then I didn’t know if this place had anything wild other than rodents and birds. We reached the town past 11pm, only to find one restaurant with a bar still open. Had some dessert for dinner, the only food they served at that time, and returned to our hotel.
Great first hike in Bernese Alps in spite of the extra unanticipated work out and not so rewarding supper, especially since we could knock one of the world's best hikes off our bucket list.

Schreckhorn & Eiger

Lake Bachalpsee, with Wetterhorn and Schreckhorn in the backdrop


Faulhorn hut

Trail from Faulhorn to Bussalp

Eiger, Mönch and Bobby

2) Engstligenalp 

The next two days were forecasted rainy. Bobby had already found some rainy day activities, so we wouldn’t be stuck in the hotel doing nothing. We visited the Trummelbäch fälle, a glacier fed waterfalls hidden in the rocks and hiked near Engstligen fälle. This hike was again a gondola ride up and hike down through farm lands, passing the beautiful Engstligen Fälle, and through forests.

10 glacier-waterfalls inside the mountain, made accessible by tunnel-lift and illuminated (we climbed the paved trail). The Trummelbach alone drains the mighty glacier defiles of Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau, and carries 20,000 liters of water per second. The only glacier-waterfalls in Europe inside the mountain and still accessible!  
Trummelbach Fälle

Engstligen Fälle

Engstligen Fälle

3) Schynige Platte

We took a cog-railway train to Schynige Platte (meaning 'shiny plate') from Wilderswil (a town near Grindelwald). Train ride itself was very scenic even on a foggy, rainy day though a bit pricey, which shouldn’t be a surprise in a country like Switzerland. Once we got to the top, we tried to hike the Panoramaweg part of the ridge that would eventually lead up to Faulhorn hut from our First hike. But the dense fog and slippery trail made us cut it short. There is also an alpine garden up there which some may find interesting. We also made sure to return back to train station(bahnhof) early enough to not miss the last train. Unless you have a reservation at the only hotel up there, you wouldn't want to risk missing the bahn! Walking back would take several hours, though it has the advantage that you could possibly come across mountain huts(shelters) to spend the night.

View of Lake Briez and Interlaken from the train

Rainbow below me

Another view from the cog train

The next day we took a touristy train ride to Jungfraujoch, also called the top of Europe for it being the highest railway station in Europe and build right on the shoulder of mountain peak Jungfrau. I could see how Swiss tourism was making a real good fortune out of this train ride, with the high cost and the amount of tourists from all corners of the world flocking there. It was way too crowded even in late spring, like a shrine in everyone's must see list. To make things interesting for tourists, Jungfraujoch also has a manmade ice cave, some exhibits and facility to do summer skiing, tubing and sledding. 

One of the things I liked about this tour was I could get down inside Eiger, touch the walls and feel its cold rock heart (yes, I too sound like a pilgrim visiting a shrine ;). I have heard of climbers from around the world longing to climb the cruel north face of Eiger, a challenging feat due to its unpredictable extreme weather and tough route. And how many early climbers have lost their lives, in spite of it being so close to habitation but unable to be rescued. This railway route is also an engineering marvel considering it was built a century ago and is still the highest railway station in Europe.

Aletsch glacier from Junfraujoch

Fondue time

4) Lautterbrunnen - Mürren - Grütschalp

For the rest of our days in Bernese Oberland we stayed in Lautterbrunnen, a magnificent valley showcasing about 70 small waterfalls during spring time. Its such a breathtaking place I have no words to describe! There are a few car-free mountain towns near this valley, such as Wengen and Mürren, and we were to explore one of those during this trip. We walked to Stechelberg, took a gondola up to Mürren, then walked to Grütschalp, and another gondola back down. Combining gondola rides with walking allowed us to cover more country side during the short time we could spend there. 

That evening we had something very exciting awaiting us - our first ever Bungee jump, at Stockhorn. It had this amazingly perfect and serene alpine setting of jumping from a gondola into a mountain lake. This made us pick the Stockhorn spot over the popular Golden Eye (or 007) jump location off the Verzasca Dam.

Lauterbrunnen Valley from our hotel


Our bungee jump location

5) Schynige Platte - Oberberghorn (Panoramaweg trail)

Our last day in Bernese Oberland, and we spent the morning paragliding near Grindelwald. It was a very sunny day, so we decided to go back to Schynige Platte. We hiked the ridge (Panaromaweg trail) up to Oberberghorn and then looped back to train station through the Alpine garden. It was amazing to see what was hiding behind the fog - the turquoise Brienzersee and Interlaken town, with rows of mountain peaks I don't know the names of.

I so look forward to doing the Faulhorn - Schynige Platte trail someday when we return to Bernese Alps.

Panoramaweg trail

Interlaken from Panoramaweg

Eiger from Panoramaweg

We then drove to Luzern to spend our last Swiss day before flying back from Zürich. 

Swans of Luzern