By Sonja Holverson
When I lived in downtown San Francisco, my trekking was usually done in high heels. I moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, however, I joined the Swiss Alpine Club for hiking lessons, for I was at least clever enough to realize that one does not climb into the Alps alone. Without experienced hikers and a serious group, an Alpine climb can turn from adventure to disaster.
I joined the Swiss Alpine Club in order to hike with trained member guides who also act as volunteers for the Swiss national alpine rescue operations. This group provides the perfect environment for the novice mountaineer. Safety is of paramount importance to the Swiss, and there is great respect for the unpredictability of Mother Nature. The concern with safety is shared by the Swiss Alpine Club and the Swiss adventure travel operators.
Although I had hiked in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest in the US, I was not prepared for my first Alpine experience. I was overwhelmed by the confrontation with craggy snow-covered peaks that appeared to jut violently upwards from peaceful little cow-grazing valleys below. I was also unprepared for the intoxicating exhilaration that follows each successful hiking adventure and the unrivaled camaraderie that is developed from sharing exciting challenges and triumphs on the trail.
My first hike was a late spring “warm-up” with the Alpine Club where 15 of us went on a 6-hour low to mid-altitude walk at Col de La Forclaz near the French border in the canton of Valais (the location of the Matterhorn). The hikes with the Club get progressively more difficult as summer approaches enabling well-trained bodies to achieve increasingly higher elevations as the snow melts.
It was an idyllic day with a cloudless blue sky. We wandered leisurely up through the trees to the higher green velvety meadows exploding with wildflowers, and rhododendrons (alpenroses) bordering tiny streams of melting snow. Stopping at a small chalet, we were served hot apple tarts with fresh cream and steaming coffee. As we went higher, boulders appeared in the pastures, providing strategic hideouts for the energetic little marmots that were running about screeching at each other. Suddenly we arrived on a rocky plateau and the lovely green pastures with sweet wildflowers gave way to an enormous field of snow which fronted a formidable rising tower of jagged, mostly snow-covered granite slabs. This inhospitable mountain seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and literally took my breath away. While my jaw dropped and my blood filled with adrenaline, my trail mates were calmly getting out their gaiters from their backpacks, putting then on over their boots and lower legs in order to keep dry while crossing the pristine snow field.
From the rumbling sounds around us, I understood that the spring thaw was shrinking the snow’s grip on a few large mountain boulders and the melt-down was affecting the snowfield. Frozen in awe, I stared up at the mountain trying to imagine how we could possibly climb such threatening terrain without ropes. I was definitely not trained for this climb! I turned to the nearest trekking club member asking, “Are we really going up there?” My panic was met with a blank stare from my 70 something Swiss companion. Finally he pointed to the miniscule mountain trail that we would follow.
Silently and humbly I put on my gaiters, and trudged across the snow field, zigging and zagging up the rocky trail into a world of Alpine ecstasy that I did not know existed. Despite my initial shock and overwhelming intimidation, I found out that I could do it…I could be an Alpine climber! My self-esteem soared, for I had survived what had seemed to be an impossible challenge, and now I was ready for the next step – a 2-day weekend hike.
To prepare for this challenge I purchased a new pair of expensive boots, a better fitting backpack and a hiking stick. I learned quickly that being properly equipped is everything in the Alps. There is no room for vanity or frugalness in selecting the gear that you take; the wrong clothes and inappropriate equipment can slow down your progress, and put you in danger. Spend the extra money for the right boots and proper loose-fitting hiking pants and leave the designer jeans at home.
My second walk with the Swiss Alpine Club was a 2 day hike in the Binntal, also located in the canton of Valais. Taking the train to our destination, we passed Brig, and then switched to the Postal Car (bus operated by the post office) for the ride up from Grengiols to the tiny village of Binn (1400 m). We ascended through soft meadows and shady forests up to the Albrunpass (2409 m) which then slopes down into Italy. While hiking down the rocky pass we stopped to admire the occasional ibex watching us descend into the lush forests of Italy below. We continued past the large isolated Lago di Dévero (1856 m), finally arriving for the night at our rustic accommodations.
As we approached the huts, we saw wild pigs running around and were quite sure of the menu for the evening. The meal started with huge plates of pasta and salad, followed by sublime pork chops and desert, all served in with friendliest hospitality imaginable. Even at Alpine altitudes where supplying a lodge is very difficult, it seems you always eat well in Italy.
The return to Switzerland took us up to Grampielpass (2553 m.) where heavy foliage rapidly gave way to stark rock landscapes. We passed piles of stones (resembling ancient religious alters) that kept us on the trail in rocky fields. These are easier to follow than painted markings which can be quickly covered with snow at any time at this altitude. Stopping at a large deep turquoise glacial lake, we picnicked next to giant boulders, situated at the base of sheer-sided pinnacles. Working our way down we walked past streams, waterfalls, and through forests to the pastures below with scattered bucolic shepherds’ huts, finally returning to Binn village. A late afternoon drink and lots of companionship were savored on a sunny terrace before the Postal Car took us back down to the main train route in Valais for the trip back to Lausanne.
I was hooked on Swiss Alpine trails and in better physical and mental condition than ever. The satisfaction of “conquering” the Alps is beyond description and the sharing of this euphoria with old and new friends as well as strangers on the trail is unequaled and the natural diversity of the Swiss Alps offers unparalleled hiking adventures. Despite the fact that Switzerland is a tiny compact country of only 7 million inhabitants, the hiking experiences could go on for a lifetime without repetition. The more than 65000 kilometers of marked trails (indicating distances, degree of difficulty, and time to destination) are well maintained even in the higher elevations. Switzerland is truly a paradise for walkers and hikers of all levels and interests.
Walks range from low altitude (but somewhat steep) vineyards dotted with medieval villages (with tasting rooms), to the rolling hills, hidden valleys, and meadows of the pre-Alps, all the way up to the more serious treks through higher altitudes with lunar-like landscapes dotted with milky blue-green glacial pools and ice fields. When you discover the Swiss Alps, you discover yourself. Here I discovered my potential, my limits, and my soul.
A First Online: Personalized Swiss Hiking Itineraries
Customize your hikes by accessing the innovative search engine created by Switzerland Tourism. More than 200 different itineraries are listed, with detailed maps, lodging options, tourist offices, certified guides and local reservation contacts. The search engine enables you to select a region, degree of hiking difficulty and trip duration. http://usa.myswitzerland.com/en/welcome.cfm
Transportation to the Trails
Trains, Postal Cars, funiculars, cable cars and chairlifts take you to the starting point for your hike. Rail passes are available for 4, 8, 15, 22 or 30 days can be purchased before arriving in Switzerland from travel agents or http://www.raileurope.com/us/index.htm. The site includes discounts on private cogwheel trains, cable cars and other mountain lifts.
Where to Stay
There are many charming places to stay in hiking areas with a vast range of accommodations from bed and breakfasts and youth hostels to luxury. The higher the altitude, the simpler the lodging because of the logistics involved in supplying and servicing the facilities.
To truly experience the most authentic Swiss Alpine hiking adventure, I recommend at least one night (or lunch) at a Swiss mountain hut or refuge (cabane in French, hütte in German). The huts are generally situated at the 2000 – 2700 m. elevation but a few are over 3000 m. Mostly owned and operated by the Swiss Alpine Club, these huts (more than 320 refuges of which 153 are operated by the Club) are located in mid-mountain altitudes and are open to the public (reservations may be necessary for overnights).
These facilities are considered destinations or starting points for higher altitude trekking or mountain climbing. Rates vary, but the average is about $40 per person including dinner (not for low-carb dieters) and a hearty breakfast. Accommodations are in dormitories (not segregated by gender) with blankets and pillows provided. Bring your own silk sheets and a towel.
Some huts do not have showers, but all have a wash basin and toilets located in a separate facility, so bring a flashlight. Although the facilities may seem primitive, there is no equivalent for the memorable conviviality found in these refuges. The Swiss Alpine Club mountain huts/ refuges website is in French and German only but phone numbers are available online or may be obtained through the tourist offices of the nearest village http://www.sac-cas.ch/
Be in moderately good shape even for easier hikes and look forward to walking a minimum of 4 hours each day. However, you should be in good enough condition to walk much longer – up to 8 hours – in case of unexpected conditions. Some tour companies offer 2 levels of walking each day providing a choice for slower participants or those who just need a break from time to time. In higher altitudes walking is more tiring and for members of a group who find they prefer less strenuous options, there are cable cars, cogwheels trains and buses in some areas to facilitate the hiking experience.
In advance of the trip, plan workouts to strengthen endurance, the upper body (which supports your back), and the lower body (strong leg muscles and flexibility are a necessity). To maximize the enjoyment of the trip, train rigorously with a full backpack, walking in steep areas (especially if you live in a flat country where muscles are not used daily). Try going up and down several flights of stairs fully loaded. Walking up irregular terrain is even better training for balance and ankle strengthening. Before heading for the Alps, practice your agility and stamina on short local hikes. It is important to note that some people have a tendency to experience altitude sickness or headaches. The problem is manageable if you are prepared for it.
Do not start your hike immediately upon arrival at your Swiss destination if you’ve never done it before, especially at the higher altitudes. Give yourself a couple days to become acclimated. Age is not a factor. If you’re in shape you can be 7 or 70+ and still enjoy most Alpine trails. The key to a successful hiking day is being fit and well-equipped while walking slowly in higher altitudes. In Switzerland the focus is not on age, but on attitude.
What you take with you depends upon the itinerary, elevations and season. Be prepared, but don’t overload your backpack. Day trips at lower elevations don’t require specialized gear; however, the higher you go, the more carefully you must pack. Do not take anything that you don’t really need and take small amounts of what you do need.
The list that follows is for anyone going overnight or longer and hiking above the tree line (about 2000 m). If you’re hiking for only a few hours through the vineyards or lower pre-Alps in the pastures your requirements are quite basic.
Your boots are your best friends. Spend the money, it’s worth it. Blisters from ill-fitting boots will ruin a trip within the first few hours from the trailhead. Break them in before you go. It is difficult to get something lightweight and still be waterproof, but technology is improving. Be sure to select boots with good ankle support (high tops) and sturdy construction to protect your feet. Allow enough room for your toes to move slightly forward when descending (especially long steep descents) for toenails can be easily damaged and become painful.
Select socks made from breathable fabrics and padded. A good fit avoids blisters. Take an extra pair with you, just in case your feet get wet, or they get cold in the evening.
The maximum weight of a backpack should be between 7- 8 kilos or 15-18 pounds. The best backpacks are waterproof with a waist strap, but a chest strap is even better, for it brings the weight forward and avoids back pain. Small women should consider packs made especially for them. Carrying weight correctly is essential for a successful hike. Lots of exterior pockets and straps are useful to avoid stopping and opening up the pack to get things.
In addition to a backpack, you can also bring a suitcase if you are traveling with a tour company (or staying at a hotel) that will handle your luggage. You can also forward luggage via Swiss Rail to train and postal car stations throughout Switzerland while you’re hiking.
For higher altitudes take two 1-litre bottles of water. (I prefer 3-4 smaller ones to distribute the weight better in my pack and have one on my belt for frequent sips). The amount of water is contingent on the area and the water supply available. If it’s in the pre-Alps region, there are villages with good water readily accessible from village fountains. If you go higher in the Alps the water in streams is not always safe, especially if it runs through pastures that have herds of cows or sheep. Isostar tablets are good to mix in your water in order to make an isotonic electrolyte drink for a good push going uphill. Isotar tablets can be purchased in grocery and health food stores in Switzerland. In higher altitudes and in the fall and spring a lightweight thermos for hot tea or coffee can be most welcome if you’re wet and cold.
A very personal choice, but for snacks select cereal bars, chocolate, and trail mix, along with a picnic lunch. In lower altitudes, chalet restaurants are available for dining and a picnic lunch may not be necessary; however, snacks are a necessity.
Sun screen and lip protection are required for all seasons. The Alpine sun is strong with high levels of UV exposure.
Telescoping trekking poles are best and fit into a backpack while traveling and walking in low altitudes where they are not needed. The poles are useful in supporting knees and maintaining balance – especially on steep ground. Serious hikers at higher altitudes use two poles.
Think layers. Hiking brings you into contact with all temperatures and you must be prepared for anything, and everything, even in the same day.
Comfortable trousers are important, especially when the terrain gets irregular and/or steep. Sometimes you will have to make wide and contortionist movements requiring that the pants have a very loose fit. Pants made for mountain hiking have lots of pockets, and are made of breathable fabric that quickly dries. Do not select jeans because they are restricting and uncomfortable when wet.
Many hikers wear shorts in the summer, therefore pants that unzip and turn into shorts are efficient. In the shoulder seasons and at higher altitudes, you should have clothing made from Gore-Tex or equivalent mountain pants.
1. Binoculars. Not essential but nice to see the scenery
2. Camera and film. It’s better to carry it in a fanny pack or with a neck strap if you like to take pictures. It takes too much time to stop and unpack your backpack.
3. Cell phones. The helicopter rescue number TEL: There is an extensive telephone network in Switzerland but in certain higher altitudes, a radio is better. You can rent an International cell phone in Swiss Airports upon arrival or before you leave your own country.
4. Compass. Learn how to read it in conjunction with the maps
5. First aid kits should include moleskin, needles (for blisters), bandages and aspirin. The higher up you climb, the more items you should have. If you are in a group you can have a collective first aid kit with all of the essentials.
6. Flashlight. Small, lightweight and made of plastic is preferred
7. Fleece pullover. When the chill increases, and the nights are cold, fleece makes the temperature in mountain huts bearable
8. Gaiters. Even at lower altitudes, you could encounter patches of snow. They are also useful in the rain and/or crossing streams.
9. Gloves or mittens. Necessary for climbs in higher altitudes. Lightweight fleece with Gore-Tex are a good combination. The outer shell should be waterproof.
10. Hats. Caps with wide rims or long visors block out strong sun and rain. (French Foreign Legion desert style caps offer protection from very intense sun). Select a hat with a chin tie or buy a strap that clasps on any hat to keep it from blowing away.
11. Long sleeve shirt. Useful for chilly moments
12. Long underwear. An important addition to your wardrobe, especially if the weather suddenly changes in the spring and fall. I like silk but breathable lightweight fabrics are available. These garments also do double-duty as pajamas in the refuge dormitories.
13. Money. Cash only. Include Swiss Francs and Euros if you are crossing borders
14. Passports. Necessary to produce when crossing borders. The Swiss Alps borders France, Italy, Austria and Germany.
15. Pencil, pen and paper.
16. Plastic sacks. Useful for the storage of wet clothing, and garbage collection. They are also great for sitting – when the ground is wet or damp.
17. Rain gear/capes. Should cover you and the backpack
18. Rain paints. Worn over shorts or walking pants
19. Space blankets. Good insulation for mid to high altitudes.
20. Sunglasses. Glacier glasses for mid and high-altitude protection
21. Swiss Army Knife
22. Tank top or T-shirt. Great for the summer, and can do double-duty as underwear and sleepwear.
23. Tissues or toilet paper
24. Toothbrush and toothpaste
25. Topographical map, 1:scale. These can be found at most tourist offices and bookstores. Be sure you know how to read it. Keep it secure in a waterproof envelope. If you can’t read it, go with a trained guide.
26. Waterproof windbreaker with hood. Gore-Tex is recommended
27. Whistles. Used for distress calls: 6 blasts, wait one minute, and repeat the process. You can also wave fire sticks or a flashlight using the same sequence: 6 waves then wait and repeat.
Overnights in Alpine Huts
1. Aspirin. Useful for blood thinning or headaches
2. Earplugs. There is rarely a dormitory without someone snoring
3. Flashlight. Small but intense. Necessary for getting up at night without disturbing people in the dormitories and critical when looking for toilets.
4. Silk sheets. The wool blankets provided are scratchy. You can buy lightweight sleeping bag liners at hiking stores or make your own.
5. Sleeping pills. Only if you’ve used them before. It’s harder to sleep at higher altitudes.
6. Small towel and soap. You can buy towels and soaps made especially for backpackers. They tend to dry fast, are lightweight and small
High Altitudes or Glacier trekking
This type of trip requires a separate list of gear (ice picks, special boots, helmets, crampons, ropes, etc), which is not included here for debutants and moderate hikers. A specialized list can be obtained from a mountain climbing store or online. If you are climbing that high, you probably already know what you need from experience or from your mountain guide.
Hope this information helps, and you quickly move from novice to experienced climber. I will look for you on the mountains of Switzerland.
Author Sonja Holverson is the Lecturer in Marketing, ECOLE HOTELIERE DE LAUSANNE, Switzerland