I had many travel goals for 2020, but there were two which stood out above the rest. One was… ok, I can’t even bring myself to mention it, so here it is. The other was my annual pilgrimage to the Jungfrau Region in Switzerland. As COVID has been ravaging the world, one calendar week taunted me thru the lockdowns, the closing of borders, the tentative return to normalcy after the restrictions were eased, and particularly recently as Belgium has started showing signs of the second wave.
But when I left my home on the morning of Sunday, July 19, Belgium was green (i.e. no quarantine requirements). Switzerland was green. As I zipped down the motorway thru Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, the only green I was thinking about was the color of the Alps. Sunroof open, heavy metal blasting from my speakers, and my elbow hanging out of my window, for the first time in what seemed like ages, COVID couldn’t have been further from my mind.
This year marks my 6th season in the region. After a one year hiatus staying over in the Grindelwald area, I found myself back in the Lauterbrunnen valley and my favorite home away from home, Stechelberg, which sits cozily all the way at the end of the valley. In fact, I found myself also back at the same Airbnb as two years ago. When I arrived, the farmhouse chalet of the Eschler family was lit up with flowers. The smell of hay and pastures and the sound of the valley’s numerous waterfalls woke up my senses like I haven’t experienced in 2020.
After unpacking, I enjoyed a pizza and beer at the only place in town, Hotel Restaurant Stechelberg, which sits at the intersection of the trails heading towards Schmadrihütte and Oberhornsee and the other towards Chilchbalm and Rotstockhütte. It was already about 6pm and I could hardly contain the anticipation bubbling up inside me at the site of the weary hikers shuffling past, eyes ravenously scanning everyone’s dinner and beer. You could almost read their thoughts, the debate raging through their minds like the Trümmelbach Falls. Should we stop here Honey or catch the bus back to Lauterbrunnen? I tried not to feel out of place, dressed in street clothes and sneakers, and the pizza while serving its purpose of supplying fuel for tomorrow’s hike didn’t feel earned, but as I waddled the 300m back to the Eschler house, I knew tomorrow would be a different story.
Unlike most of our daily jobs, a farmer’s work day doesn’t end when the clock strikes five. Arriving back at the house, I watched curiously as the mother and daughter shoveled hay into a large vacuum tube and for a moment I thought about quitting the Belgian life and just coming here and living out my days as a Swiss farmer. Making sausage and cheese and having my own honesty cupboard for the hikers. Shoveling hay, planting flower boxes, listening to the cow bells, and dealing with the occasional avalanche or dead basejumper. I could accept having to drink Rugenbrau and Feldschlösschen every day for that.
Every year I come back, I have a setlist of new hikes that I want to do. I have done all the common ones. So each year, I enjoy looking at my trail map trying to compose new adventures that take me to parts of the mountains and valleys I haven’t seen. But I have found that finding new and exciting routes has started to present an obstacle. The further I venture off the well-beaten paths, the more I am confronted with a certain irony of being a devoted hiker. I can’t say that it is purely fear of heights (acrophobia) or fear of falling (basophobia), but it is definitely related to both. I would not consider either to be of the irrational level. But there are certain conditions which induce pure, unadulterated panic.
During the last couple of hiking seasons, I have encountered two such situations which I have shared on my blog. These have become part of my own Scaredy Cat List. I prefer though to call it my Scaredy Bear List now as cats tend to land on their feet, but I imagine a bear tumbling awkwardly and partly being crushed by the rocks and the other part by his own body weight.
Scaredy Bear List (as of July 19, 2020)
|Hike||Scaredy Bear Feature|
|Glecksteinhütte||Narrow, exposed trail|
I knew going into this trip to Switzerland that some of the hikes I had planned could present some issues for whatever you want to call the curse I am afflicted with. I have found that it is not always easy to find good information on the internet for avid hikers who have the same achilles heel as I. I generally know that a certain hike may have a trouble spot but I never really find what I need to know in clear enough terms. So I decided that for all the Scaredy whatevers out there like me, I am going to make sure I make it clear in my hiking posts any obstacle that might affect the do-ability of these hikes. And if it helps someone or you just get a chuckle out of my experiences, then all the better.
I found an excellent resource on the web put out by the Swiss Alpine Club who manage many of the mountain huts in Switzerland. These huts are often either a waypoint on a hike or are the ultimate goal on a hike. It is possible to make a reservation with them if you want to spend the night, but I am content just using them as a day hike target. However, there are different levels of mountain huts. Some are at a relatively lower elevation and the approaches are well worn and easy. Others are more remote and nestled high up in the mountains, usually near a glacier or at a basecamp for a summit climb. These latter type of huts almost always have some obstacle which needs to be traversed in order to partake in the privilege of getting to the hut and seeing the amazing scenery which relative few ever get to see.
The website gives a difficulty rating both for mountain huts and also for mountain peaks. You can filter the huts and peaks to show only those that don’t require special equipment. That is key. I don’t hike with rope, helmet, and crampons.
As I peruse all of the hikes which I have done, it seems my Scaredy Bear-itis finds it limits at the T3 difficulty level. Here are some examples of past hikes.
Past Hikes and SAC Difficulty Level
|Hike||SAC Difficulty Level|
Glecksteinhütte ranks as a T3 and I would say my opinion of this is incomplete as the day that I attempted to do this hike, the weather was unfavorable but the beginning of the trail is quite exposed and a bit more fear-inducing than the other T3’s on the list.
It is important to note that the SAC website doesn’t rate trails which do not have a hut or summit, e.g. the Eiger Trail. But summits and huts are always combined with a route and this can be misleading if your route differs from their route. If there are multiple routes, they will sometimes be mentioned and each given its own rating, but not all routes are included (probably as their focus is more on the difficult or Alpine routes). For example, Wildgärst is rated as a T5, but that is because it is included in a long, Alpine route which includes more treacherous sections. Hiking to the summit of Wildgärst is definitely not a T5. It would be a T2 in my opinion including the rest of the trail from First to Grosse Scheidegg, but the T5 rating is not limited to just the trail between First and Grosse Scheidegg. So you can see why some dissemination is necessary for a timidus autem arsus like me.
So where does that leave the hikes I have planned this week?
Hikes planned this week
|Hike||SAC Difficulty Level|
|Schilthorn summit via Rote Härd||T3|
|Beitenhorn summit|| T6 |
(but rated as part of a
route I am not taking)
So if you are thinking what I am thinking, it is very likely that Rottalhütte and Silberhornhütte are going to present some problems for me. Beitenhorn on the other hand will probably be much easier than advertised because I am taking a different route.
If I haven’t made it clear enough, this region is my Heaven. I have been finishing this post on a Wednesday morning thanks to a bout of rain while three of the above mysteries have already been solved. The familiar aches in my knees and my sore quads and calves all reminding me of the physical price hiking can take out on the body. The sound of birds chirping and distant thunder ride the breeze thru the chalet windows bringing with it that smell of the meadows. I am sitting on my bed where the wifi is strongest literally looking up the Lauterbrunnen valley. I can see Wengen perched up on the mountain and a cloud floating below it. The higher clouds are starting to part and the blue sky is visible for the first time today. A couple parachutes from basejumpers swirl into view like a couple of butterflies spinning randomly towards the head of an Alpine thistle. Today will be an uncharacteristicly relaxing day for me. For sure, nothing today will make the Scaredy Bear List. But that doesn’t mean anything from the last couple days hasn’t. Stay tuned. As always, I humbly thank you for reading.