Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Alpine Mountain High

When we arrived in Grindelwald, we called home and were greeted with my Dad’s familiar refrain: “Where in the world are you these days?” We let him know we were high in the mountains of Switzerland for just over a week and thought, “Are we crazy to have come to this country for a full eight days – where bleeding money is the principal pastime of tourists?” Even thinking about sticking to a budget in Switzerland was a fool’s errand, but we were anxious to hike and so there we were. The Swiss franc (no, Switzerland is not and never has been on the euro), currently valued at just over a dollar, is stronger than ever. Prices were jaw-droppingly high (a good 30% more than in the rest of Europe) but at a certain point, we decided to just eat and drink less and go with the exchange-rate flow rather than obsess about our expenditures and ruin our stay. Because access to many of the most beautiful, hiking trails required an initial ascent in a cable car or gondola, we purchased six-day unlimited transportation passes for the price of a hotel room for two weeks in Greece. Determined to get our money’s worth, we were out and about every day taking every chairlift, train and ascension contrivance covered by our pass to explore the Grindelwald valley fully.

More than comfortable with traversing mountain landscapes on gondolas and chair lifts for skiing, doing so across the green countryside of summer was a completely new experience. As in winter, we departed each morning with our trusty trail map in hand, charted our course and then rather than skiing down the slopes, hiked from the top of one lift across and over the terrain to the base of the next. We explored both sides of the valley including a trip up the Grindelwald First cable car to a lateral path along a ridge that brought us up to the Bachalpsee, a lovely alpine lake well above the tree line. Trekking across the high meadows crisscrossed every hundred yards or so by gushing streams of melted snow so reminded me of walking the fells in the Lake District in England. The rugged, rocky landscape combined sharp crags with rolling slopes of thick, tufted grass pitted with hollows such that twisting an ankle in a sudden soft spot was always a fear. Our scenic lift rides took us to the mountain villages of Wengen, Mürren and Lauterbrunnen where endless trails were within constant sight of waterfalls and earshot of the thunder of summer avalanches. We took a particularly dramatic hike along the narrow edge of a mountain ravine that overlooked the glacier below. After an hour’s ascent, the weather changed in the blink of an eye and with thunder rumbling in the distance, we immediately turned on our heels and did an about-face. The rain was torrential and not having donned any foul weather gear, within minutes we were soaked by a drenching squall. Water ran down our legs and into our hiking boots, turning our socks into sodden sponges. We squished and squeaked our way back to the trailhead and just as we made it to the gondola hut, the lightening flashed above us. It was petrifying to have our trek over the glacier thwarted by a thunderstorm but it taught us an enduring lesson – when dealing with the outdoors, Mother Nature always wins.

We reveled daily in the summer side of the Grindelwald playground. The gondolas and cable cars are the same as those that operate in winter and as always, we searched for opportune trails, but our hiking boots were a lot less painful than our ski boots and our essential trekking sticks replaced our winter ski poles. The outdoor entrepreneurs have turned what was previously a four-month ski season into a year-round outdoor wonderland and we couldn’t have been happier that they had. On one evening trip deep into the valley for an authentic Swiss cheese fondue at a restaurant recommended by our hotel proprietor, we found ourselves looking over the spot where the Wetterhorn lift, the world’s first aerial cable car, started operating in 1908. A replica of the original wooden cabin now stands next to the Hotel Wetterhorn where the original lower station of the lift once stood and shuttled skiers and climbers towards the summit. Sadly, the Wetterhorn lift functioning ceased when World War I broke out and its operation has never resumed.

The flagship excursion of a trip to Grindelwald is the 11,400-foot ascent to the Jungfraujoch, the permanently snowed in saddle between the Mönch and Jungfrau peaks. We decided to forego yet a few more meals to pay the supplement for this amazing train ride. The cog railway climbs rapidly from the Kleine Scheidegg pass before plunging into the mountain face of solid rock and continuing for seven long miles inside the Eiger and Mönch before eventually emerging at the highest train station in Europe. What makes the claustrophobic journey all the more incredible is that work on this breathtaking engineering marvel was initiated so long ago -- in the late 1800s – and lasted for 16 years. As dark as it was in the train tunnel, when we emerged the light was dazzling. The brilliant summer sun reflecting off every snow-covered surface around us was blinding. Once we donned our sunglasses and our eyesight was restored, we realized that we were not alone; it appeared that the entire populations of India, Pakistan and Japan were there with us at 12,000 feet above sea level. As we’d learned from our hotel owner, Switzerland is the foreign country pictured most often as a backdrop in Bollywood blockbusters such that as a vacation destination it has become the stuff of dreams for Indians and Pakistanis. Specially packaged excursions shuttle entire families to the Bernese Oberland region for the complete movie experience, including lunch at the “Bollywood” restaurant at the top of the Jungfraujoch. In a similar manner, the area is a popular destination for packaged tours from Japan. The Grindelwald area of the Swiss Alps is a huge draw for Japanese tourists, many of whom make the pilgrimage to mountains they know from the children's classic, Heidi, and the beloved musical, The Sound of Music. One Japanese woman I spoke to shared with me, “They’re always marketing the romantic image of Switzerland wherever you go. Television ads talk about the clean Swiss air and travel agent windows are filled with pictures of snow-covered peaks and edelweiss.” The advertising must work and someone is making an awful lot of money judging by the hundreds of Japanese with whom we shared the trains. Often the only non-Asian in the rail cars, we were astounded when information about upcoming stops was announced in German, English and then in Japanese.
In an effort to flee the stifling crowds at the Jungfraujoch station to view the magnificent vistas with a touch of solitude, we hiked close to an hour up and across the vast glacial snowfields to the Mönchjoch mountain hut. We’d left temperatures in the high 70s in Grindelwald but despite the brilliant sun, once we set off across the plateau, the icy winds whipping through the pass brought the numbers down into the 40s. The views across the Aletsch Glacier, at 15 miles the longest river of ice in the Alps, were incredible and we just couldn’t believe the views we were experiencing. What magnificence, what grandeur, what oh-my-goodness splendor. Much-appreciated, belly-warming soup and tea helped thaw our chilly selves such that we were able to head back across the snow to Bollywood central and up the elevator that took us to the Sphinx weather observation tower and panoramic terrace. We were indeed on top of the world.

Every evening after strenuous daily hikes, we were happy to return to the Hotel Lauberhorn and our cozy duvets in our room with a view. Our hosts and their staff were always so generous with recommendations for our outdoor excursions for the following day; we were living with native resident experts on the entire valley. One evening, we opted into a very reasonably priced BBQ they cooked and served on the outdoor patio and every morning, we were greeted with a superb morning meal. The hotel served some of the freshest, most scrumptious breakfasts we had on our journey: homemade muesli thick with fresh fruits, crusty whole wheat breads and croissants served with sweet butter and homemade jams, rich coffee and an endless variety of loose leaf teas and a nice selection of Swiss cheeses presented on a thick plank of cedar.

After eight days in Switzerland, we really did hate to leave, but since our wallets had thinned considerably and my beloved France, still in the Alps, was our next destination, we once again hit the rails and waved goodbye to Grindelwald.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

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