The Playground of Europe: Switzerland, July 2003

In general:

It was very hot (June was the country’s warmest in 150 years).

It was very expensive.

1) Not very strenuous hiking in the Bernese Oberland

We flew overnight to Geneva and immediately took a train to Interlaken, where we spent our first night. Thence into the mountains for ten days of hiking. Here’s how it works:

You pay some organization--in our case, Alpine Hikers-- to book the hotels and pensions and to send you detailed maps and trail descriptions (with easier options). You carry only day packs, because you have sent your luggage ahead by the very efficient Swiss rail system. When you arrive at the end of the day, you stop by the train station for your bags. They are invariably waiting for you. Breakfast and dinner come with the bookings. So do rooms with private bathrooms and sometimes television at the hotels. One of them was like an Alpine hut and had no electricity.

The Low Point

One of the pleasures of Switzerland is that there is always a place to have salad, pasta and a beer. One day one we stopped for lunch at the first restaurant on the right of the trail in Kaltenbrunnen. A charming girl who spoke little English took our order; she was soon replaced by a large moustached man who also spoke little English, but was not charming. He was, in fact, extremely drunk. Later we found him inside, gazing in stupefaction at the 50-franc note we were trying to pay with. He finally produced a highly inflated bill for the meal.When we attempted to recover our change, he produced a box of mysterious coins, from which we attempted to extract the right amount. He soon became infuriated and menacing, shouting at us in German. A multi-lingual couple told us it was a good thing we didn’t understand the language. Should you find yourself in Kaltenbrunnen, avoid this place.

Higher Points

Reichenbach Falls--one of many such sights. This is where Sherlock Holmes fell to his death, or didn’t.

Grindelwald--the center of things. Gorgeously situated, but infested by tourists.

Eiger Nordwand--of all the great mountain walls I have seen, this is by far the ugliest. It is a great black mass, with occasional (shrinking) snow and ice fields. There are no obvious climbing lines. The first ascent route (1938) is very devious. Stay away.

Eiger Railway--Indomitable Swiss engineers of the late 19th century forced it through miles of rock. You can detrain for five minutes at the Eigerwand station and view with horror the north wall dropping thousands of feet below.

Jungfraujoch--highest rail station in Europe (over 11,000 feet). Designed for tourists rather than normal people. It has many restaurants, including “Bollywood.” Photo ops in the snow.

Kleine Scheidegg--where you can telescopically observe climbers struggling on the Nordwand.

Wengen and Murren--lovely small towns without automobiles. Half the buildings are hotels.

Obersteinberg--the place without electricity. It’s 6000 feet and feels very alpine.

Schilthorn--high above Murren. You get there by a couple of scary cable cars. The reward is a revolving restaurant with great views. We had a healthy late lunch of ice cream and cocktails. I ordered a Bloody Mary, because that is what James Bond drank here (see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). It was mostly tomato juice, but if 007 fancied it, it was good enough for me.

Seinifinenfurke Pass--close to 9000 feet. Quite a pull from Murren. The last thousand feet are switchbacks up a steepish rocky slope. On the other side, a staircase eases the start of the rather bleak descent. You drop 4000 feet to the next hotel. Alpine Hikers describes this day as “strenuous.” Susan hated it. That’s why we skipped the next itinerary, which was called “very strenuous.”

Selden--a small collection of farms and hotels in the lovely Gastern Valley. Two young English women and a Sherpa were working at our hotel. The day hike to the Lotschen Pass (3850 feet up) was “strenuous” and included a mild glacier crossing. The view toward the Valais was marvelous. Of course there was a restaurant at the pass.

2) The Matterhorn Falls Apart and so do I

I had to visit Zermatt, where I had not been since 1960. I had then failed to climb the Matterhorn, an omission I was determined to rectify. Bad weather had defeated me then, but surely would not interfere this time. I proudly told my guide, Christoph Petrig, that we had met the posted trail times in the Oberland. His response was not what I had expected. “I think you are not very fit,” he said. Alas, this was true, as a training climb demonstrated. Not that it mattered. In what was clearly a personal message, the very morning I reached Zermatt, a big hunk of the regular route fell off. Miraculously (that’s the word) no one was killed or even injured. Seventy (70) climbers were above the fracture point at the crucial time (10:30). They all had to be plucked off by helicopter, because the area was too dangerous for descent. Those still below were spared, because the rocks fell off onto the East Face. But as Christoph said, the route had be “shot down.” He added that three climbers had been killed the previous day on another route.

A couple of days later I decided to take a look at the scene of the action. A cable car and another through-the rock train trip brought me to Schwartzee, two hours’ hike from the hut where the rock climbing begins. Okay, it took me a little more than two hours. The Matterhorn is one of the world’s most dramatic peaks, but it looks better from a distance. Up close, it’s a great mass of shattered orangey rock (virtually snowless this summer). Five hundred feet above, a team of six were drilling and fixing ropes to safeguard the route. (Every day of closure meant lost business for the Zermatt guides.) A helicopter aided the work. I bought a $5.00 bottle of orange pop. The girl who sold it said that, yes, the rock fall had made quite a bit of noise.

As a consolation prize, Christoph drove me to Saas-Fee for an easy climb, the Allenin. We passed a village poised on so steep a hill that even the chickens were said to wear crampons. Along for the ride was a Japanese woman, whose husband was that day climbing the Matterhorn from the (harder) Italian side. At least he was much younger than I. Later I met him, the scoundrel. “He 69th birthday today!” his wife humiliatingly exclaimed. He was short, gray-haired, very polite and extremely fit.

The Allenin was two hours of easy snow; crampons needed, but not an ice axe. At least 60 other climbers, in various roped combinations, were on the route. The ambience was marred by an immense loudspeaker blaring hip-hop from the ski area below.

Zermatt is not the quiet spot I remembered. Its main street has sprouted many arteries. It has nevertheless remained carless, except for electric vehicles, owned mainly by the hotels. Residents like Christoph may have cars for out-of-town uses, if they can prove a place to park them (difficult).

Other Zermatt attractions:

--Climbing museum. Features the rope that broke on the 1865 first ascent of the Matterhorn. It is little thicker than a clothesline.

--The cemetery. There is a large annex for climbers.

3) A Luxurious Conclusion

Susan left Zermatt after a couple of days. We met up in Lucern. Lake Luzerne is a lovely expanse of water. The setting is mountainous and spectacular. We went swimming and decided not to hike anywhere at all.

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