Spring is here. But in the Swiss Alps, winter weather doesn’t stop on a dime at the moment of the beloved Vernal Equinox. I discovered this over Easter weekend this year during a trip to the Jungfrau Region in Switzerland.
Visitors to this blog will realize my love for the Jungfrau Region and my home away from home of choice is the village of Lauterbrunnen situated in the heart of a dramatic glacial valley. I visit almost every summer and several of my summer hikes are prominently featured in this blog. But a business trip to Switzerland just prior to the Easter holiday weekend gave me the opportunity to experience the Jungfrau Region at the very tail end of the skiing season.
I am one of the unfortunate souls who has never learned how to ski or snowboard. Hey, no need to bring out the pity party. I am perfectly at peace with it. Yes, if I wanted to confront my deathly fear of heights, I am perfectly capable of learning new skills. But I prefer the secure grip of a hiking boot over a piece of fiberglass on my feet. However, this particular quirk has always made me feel a bit left out when it comes to enjoying my favorite place to visit on Earth.
Every winter, while thousands of people from all over the world descend upon the slopes of the Swiss Alps, Switzerland always feels ‘closed’ to me. All of the trails I have hiked and dream to hike lie tauntingly buried under meters of snow, waiting for the spring sunshine. Is there any place in the Swiss Alps for a simple hiker or am I relegated to sitting in a hotel bar drinking beer and eating fondue (which I wouldn’t be doing anyway because I hate the smell)? Keeping also in mind that I don’t just want to be a camera-toting tourist taking the trains and cable cars to the highest locations for a quick photo opportunity. I want adventure and demanding physical activity to really make the trip worthwhile.
Although my hopes were a bit ambitious over the Easter weekend, I discovered that there is actually hope for the ‘hiking only’ group and that the amazing people of Switzerland do make an effort to include hikers in their winter activities. What follows are my tips and experiences with winter hiking in the Jungfrau Region.
Tip 1. Don’t let the weather forecast deter you
Prior to my arrival in Lauterbrunnen, I was already doubting my sanity about spending my holiday weekend there. The forecast called for rain all weekend. I could picture myself cold, wet, and standing in some trail freezing my ass off with visions of smarter people pointing their fingers at me and laughing. While it is true, the forecast of a lower elevation village can appear gloomy, the actual hikes are higher up where an uncomfortable drizzle becomes a beautiful and comfortable snow. Sometimes you are even above the weather and find yourself with a bit of sunshine. I could never have been more wrong about my weather outlook than I was this weekend.
Tip 2. Get the two Winter Guides
Lauterbrunnen lies along a valley and both sides of the valley provide their own amazing hiking experiences. They also have their own maps which show the available trails for winter hiking. They are invaluable. There is no need to question this or that. Right there they are in print. Of course, it doesn’t mean those trails are always open. But they are the trails that will most likely be maintained and even plowed to allow access. It is very interesting to see a large snow blowing vehicle clearing a path on the side of a mountain. But this is normal winter life in the Swiss Alps. You can get these maps for free almost anywhere, hotels, shops, train stations, etc…
Tip 3. Look at the Signs
Look for the signs which are always located at the train and cable-car stations. These signs clearly indicate which hiking trails are open. Look for Wanderwege. The trails on the sign correspond to the trails in the winter maps. Green light is Open and red light Closed. No guesswork.
Tip 4. The most important gear you will need is for your feet
Hiking in the winter means hiking on snow. You need a pair of hiking boots with a good grip. Otherwise there is help in the form of the Nordic Grip. I discovered my hiking boots are better suited to summer hikes but not for winter hikes. I could debate whether buying a new pair of boots was more economical but I bought a set of the Nordic Grips which slip over your shoes. They did an amazing job. Nordic Grips have small metal stubs on the bottom so they are best suited when there is ice or snow and can be easily removed via velcro straps when walking on a paved surface. As for the rest of the outfit, it is a matter of preference and your own personal temperature threshold. I prefer quick dry undergarments, fleece sweatshirt, a snow/rain-proof outer shell, hat and gloves. On the day when the outside temperature was 2 deg. C, I was creating enough body heat that I could go without my jacket, hat and gloves even in the snow. Sunblock is an absolute must even when it is snowing. Finally, I prefer hiking sticks any time of year, but scaling up and down snowy slopes would be particularly difficult without them.
Tip 5. Hiking is not the only activity available for non-Skiers
Hiking trails in the winter are multi-purpose trails and are shared mostly with sled-riders. In some sections skiers are also allowed but they generally keep to the skiing-only routes. Sledding is a way to enjoy some downhill fun without any particular skill involved. Sleds can be rented almost anywhere and they can be taken on trains and cable cars to other locations and simply brought back when you are done. This isn’t like sledding at home where you take a short ride and have to carry the thing back up the hill. Although there are some spots where you can do this, the normal way is to start at the top of the mountain trail and go all the way down to the next cable car station and take it back up. This can be a few kilometers down the mountain.
While the range of trails in winter is definitely reduced compared to summer, all is not lost. It is still possible to have an amazing hiking holiday in the Jungfrau Region over a 3-4 day period in the winter without repeating or running out of things to do. One thing about the Swiss is that they understand the sometimes harsh environment that they live in and they are aware of the need to provide clear information to visitors. They also realize that not everyone who is visiting knows how to ski or snowboard and they do a great job of accommodating other activities as much as possible. Don’t let Switzerland feel “closed” in the Winter if you are not a skier.