Jed Appelrouth

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Swiss Alps

June 29-July 9, 2013

Jungfrau meets Gelato

When I was 21, while blazing a trail through Europe with my Euro rail pass and sister at my side, in the golden age of youth hostels and couchettes, I spent a few brief moments in Interlaken, Switzerland. Interlaken was a tourist's paradise with Balmer's youth hostel at its epicenter. My sister and I hiked on a few sheep-covered hills, and I canyoned, bungeed, and paraglided my way through several adventurous days. In the blink of an eye, we were back on the train and off to the next European port of call, oblivious of the fact that 15 short minutes from Interlaken lay one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on the planet!

Until this summer, Larry Golson, my hiking and photography compadre, had never set foot in Europe. We have hiked and photographed our way through North and South America, Africa and New Zealand, but we've never hit the hills of Europe. I have longed to see the Dolomites of Italy, and pushed for a Milan-Dolomites trip. Larry did some investigating of his own, realized just how thoroughly the Swiss Alps dwarfed the Dolomites, and we agreed to reroute our trip towards the high country of Switzerland, trading in the promise of daily Gelato for that of Strudel, Schnitzel and Leiderhosen.

Larry drove in from Asheville and we flew into Milan where we picked up our clown-ready mini Fiat, downed the first of many a fine Cappuccino, and headed for the big city.

Milano

Our time in Milan was brief: we dropped our bags at the eclectic Hotel the Yard, minutes from the Duomo. We grabbed lunch with one of Larry's best friends from high school, an ex-pat who had relocated to Florence with his lovely Parisian wife and two euromunchkins. We did a quick tour of the city, visiting the monthly antiques market which straddles two intersecting canals, touring the lofty Duomo, grabbing overpriced drinks upon the Rinascente rooftop lounge, and discovering a renaissance-age piazza where we parked ourselves in front of a Roman colonnade, indulged in the miracle that is genuine Italian gelato and feasted our eyes upon the stunning promenade of northern Italians.

After only 8 hours in Italy, Larry understood the allure of Italy: the language, the ladies, the landscape, did I mention the linguini? I've spent two summers painting in Italy, but my bucket list includes a full year living in this sensual paradise.

We returned to the banks of the Naviglio Grande, the oldest canal in Milan, where we had perused antiques earlier in the day, and indulged in a sumptuous Italian meal. Sleep came quickly, and we awoke to a luxurious breakfast of meats, cheeses, breads and fruits.

Off to the Alps

After an unsuccessful effort to find some reasonably priced, and relatively fashion-forward Italian threads, we packed up the Fiat and headed to Switzerland. With every kilometer the mountains grew increasingly awe-inspiring. We saw signs for Zermatt in the city of Tasch, where we stopped at the tourist information center, seeking driving directions to our hotel. "You cannot drive into Zermatt," announced the brown-button uniformed clerk, "it's a car-free zone." "What do you mean, we cannot drive to Zermatt?" I replied. "If you do not have a resident's permit, she warned, you will receive a huge fine. You must park your car at the terminal and take the train into the city." Larry and I powwowed in the fiat and discussed our options. Does this rule really apply to us? We're Americans! Freedom to drive our cars is one of our sacred and fundamental rights. Do we roll the dice on this one? After some deliberation, we decided to play it the Swiss way, park and ride into Zermatt.

When we arrived, lo and behold, we found a true pedestrian village, a city utterly devoid of cars. Apart from the occasional electronic taxi-cart, tourists were the only traffic in town. I was struck by the density of the new development; once you eliminate the need for cars and parking spaces, you free up a great deal of space for new construction.

Looking up, just outside of the train station, we were smacked in the head by the mighty Matterhorn, enlightened despot of the Zermatt sky. I had seen silhouettes of this towering peak emblazoned upon every bar of Toblerone chocolate I had ever eaten, but I wasn't ready for this crowning summit liberated from the constraints of consumer packaging.

We hauled our roller-duffels to the Hotel Phoenix, where were able to upgrade to a Matterhorn-view for a mere 10 Francs! Deal of the century. We couldn't get enough of the pyramid peak, emerging and disappearing behind 14,000 foot clouds. We walked the length of the city to find a patio view of the majestic summit at sunset. At the terrace of the Grand Hotel Zermatt we dined with Procter and Gamble expats and their congenial black lab, Blue. We learned that Blue had his own FB page and had dozens of fans who followed his canine travels across the continent. Blue was pondering sending George Clooney, fresh off his tour at Cannes, a FB friend request, to perchance secure a visit to Clooney's villa on Lake Como. Canine ingenuity at its best!

The next morning we embarked upon a series of short hikes on the mountain. We paid exorbitant prices to ride the gondolas and funiculars to reach the high alpine destinations, starting point for our hikes. Atop the Glacier Paradise, 13,000 feet high, we watched the summer skiers carving turns on the slopes. Our beautiful blue sky turned cloudy, and soon we had lost our light and our view of the Matterhorn. Our wallets were light from $32 sunblock, $60 lunches and $200 lift-tickets; to compensate we opted for a barrel-scraping dinner at McDonald's. I'm Loving It. At Mickey D's we dined with Japanese tourists, a force to be reckoned with on the Grindelwald-Interlaken-Zermatt circuit. By the thousands they came, in groups of 20-30, with their uniform hard-case roller boards, quality cameras, and earpiece tour guides.

After dinner we took a long evening hike past the old wooden buildings of Zermatt towards the foothills of the Matterhorn. In the quiet of the evening, free from the tourist buzz, walking on a wooded trail, I was able to fully enjoy the beauty of this town.

The morning sky was thick with clouds, which broke into rain during our drive to Interlaken. We drove through misty mountains, and even took a car-train through a particularly long mountain passage. The sky cleared as we drove past the Brienzersee and pulled into our hostel in Interlaken.

Jungfrau

While Larry paraglided over the valley, I secured provisions and some light gear for our upcoming hike. We grabbed an Italian lunch and then drove the short distance to Grindelwald, the starting point for our Jungfrau adventure. Having recently watched the movie Northface on Netflix, depicting the early attempts to ascend the treacherous Eiger mountain, I was thrilled to see the trinity of mountains which towered over the valley: The Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks. Simply stunning.

We ditched our car at Hotel Wetterhorn and hopped a shuttle towards Grosse Scheidegg, where we would commence our hike to the Glecksteinhütte. We lavished in the 6, 7 and 8 syllable words that found their way into our lexicon. Bring on the bergwandervorschläge!

Glecksteinhütte

The hiking time to the Glecksteinhütte was marked 2:40 in our map. Roughly an hour up the mountainside we saw a structure perched on the mountain, which we assumed was our destination: perhaps those trail times were for less experienced hikers? As we passed the man-made structure, only a storage shack, we realized we had some ways to go. The gradient changed, and we began to climb and climb. We passed the cloud ceiling and visibility plummeted to 30-40 feet, leaving us only to imagine the surroundings and the distances around us. The mountain grew increasingly steep and we had to make use of the chains and metal ropes alongside the rock. We heard the groaning of the glaciers, and we finally saw the hut after a 3-hour ascent.

Through the clouds, we made out what we thought was a statue of an Ibex perched in front of the hut. Wait… The statue just moved! Holy cow! The hut had a living mascot! We hurried to the hut to shoot the posing mountain goat. He had come, not for photographic glory, but rather to lick the rocks and ingest the needed surface salt, so rare in this alpine region. That night, 8 female ibexes would come to the same stones for their nightly salt-line.

We opened the door to the Gleckstein hut and were delighted to find an array of free Birkenstocks and Crocs in the mud room. We dropped our day packs, slipped out of our boots and into some Birks', and made our way to the kitchen to check in with the host. For a few additional francs, we secured a "comfort room" with 4 bunk beds, rather than a full dormitory-room of 8-12. We walked to the terrace at the back of the hut to find a theatrical production in full swing.

Two Swiss actors, in full Alpine garb, were entertaining the crowd, reenacting the adventures of two historic alpinists with props, ladders and gags. Relatively unschooled in Swiss German, Larry and I relied on the actor's expressions alone to make any sense of the play. It was a treat to watch all the Swiss hikers laughing at their antics and clearly enjoying the show.

When the show concluded, we headed to the dining hall where we ordered two lagers and sat down with our English-speaking table mates, a young couple from Seattle on a 4-week European tour. Apart from our little group, there was only one other native English speaker in the hut, an endurance athlete from California, a mother of 4, in her early 40s, in the Jungfrau to train with a climbing guide. We Americans toasted to American Independence, as this was the 4th of July, and we enjoyed a hearty meal of salad, mashed potatoes, meat, and a pudding-meringue- whipped cream desert! What a treat! Flown in weekly by helicopter, the food was ample and satisfying.

After dinner we enjoyed the views of the Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn mountains that had finally emerged from the cloud cover. What a monumental wall of rock and glacier! We heard the cracks and groans of the glacier and saw the intermittent calving of blue chunks of ice.

When the eight ibexes appeared after dark, the Seattle duo warned us that these alpine animals can get desperate for salt, and the goats can become particularly aggressive. They also advised caution around bellicose bovines! They mentioned a precarious run-in with some shifty heifers on one of the Swiss mountain trails: those horns are not to be trifled with.

With goat and cow warnings in mind, we quickly made our way to sleep and alpine dreams. Friday morning, as the weathermen had predicted, we awoke to a celebration of crystal blue sky. We had waited three days and were rewarded with a sprawling cloud-free panorama. The valley of Grindelwald stretched for miles; all the major peaks - Schreckhorn, Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau - were in brilliant form.

We took our time and many photographs as we descended into the valley. We bussed and drove to the town center where we dined on schnitzel and fries and took the gondola to the top of First Mountain to see the Bachalpsee, the mirror reflecting lake. Unfortunately, the weather shifted and clouds again cloaked the summits, limiting our photographic options.

We headed back down the mountain, and realizing we were behind schedule, called the host of the Lobhornhütte and asked her to please save us dinner, as we would be arriving after the 6:30 dinner hour.

Lobhornhütte

Saying goodbye to Grindelwald, we drove to the valley behind the giant mountains, to the south faces of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. We parked the Fiat and took the Gondola from Talstation to Murren, hopped the short train to Grütschalp and found the trail to the Lobhorn hut.

All was going swimmingly until we came to the field of cows, the very cows we had been warned of, not 24 hours earlier. The sound of the grazing beasts was peculiar. Every cow was belled, and together, the movements of the dozens of animals emerged as a cowbell concerto. When Larry and I crossed into the musical pasture, we found ourselves in a cold cow stare-down with three horned heifers.

We tried to look friendly, gave the bovines a smile, but they stood their ground, shook off our smiles and came closer. With the warnings of our fellow hikers in mind, we chose to back down. We took roundabout routes back to the trail and avoided the cows. Later that evening, we were to learn that what Larry and I did, staring directly at the cows, is the worst thing you can do! Avert your eyes and simply walk on by in the most unthreatening manner possible: that's cow management tip 201.

After several hours, we finally arrived at Suls Lubhornhütte around 9:30 PM. Upon our arrival, the host was incredibly gracious and served up the finest meal we ate in Switzerland: hot barley and grain soup, salad, vegetables, chicken, desert. Amazing! Wholesome dinner, wholesome breakfast, accommodations, All this for 70 Francs (roughly $70)! Hut hiking has to be the best deal in Switzerland, a country known to be rough on the wallet, though easy on the eyes.

The host of Lobhorn was amazing, attending to us as if we were guests in a 5-star hotel. As a guest herself, some five years prior, she had been shocked to receive miserable service, unfitting for such a gorgeous place. When she learned 3-years ago that the Swiss Alpine Club was looking for a new host, she applied for the position and vowed she would give her guests only the finest service.

I was surprised by the number of vacancies in the hut, given its extreme beauty and the consummate level of service. Our host pegged the lower rates of tourism to the inflated Swiss Franc and said the exchange rates were responsible for a 30% drop in tourism. Switzerland was clearly pricey, and it seemed to be driving many European tourists to seek other destinations.

Before we hit the sack, our host asked if we wanted a sunrise wake-up if it happened to be a beautiful morning. We agreed. So at 5:45 AM, she woke us from our slumber in time to see the sun cresting over the Jungfrau, illuminating the misty valley. Dear Lord! This was a vision of absolute perfection. After thirty minutes of shooting the sunrise, our host emerged to direct us to a reflecting lake, five minutes from the hut, for additional shots.

At 7:00 AM we returned to the hut for a breakfast of cheese, muesli, bread, jam, and coffee. After breakfast and several hours of shooting around the hut, we headed back towards Murren, savoring the views of the giant mountains rising over 3km from their bases.

We learned that with the timing of our trip, we had hit the wildflower jackpot. Several weeks earlier the hills had still been blanketed with snow. With the recent melt-off the flowers were extravagant, exuberant, springing from the mountainside in a chromatic tapestry. The copious moisture also fed a water-loving biome filled with slugs, snails, salamanders and other woodland creatures.

Rotstockhütte

In Murren we stopped to grab our final Swiss lunch: a brimming stein of apfelsaft, a plate of wienerschnitzel, fries, and chicken-leek pie. We hit the mountain once more and made way for our final destination: RotStockHütte- sung to the tune of "Cat Scratch Fever" or "Juke Box Hero." During the hike we explored all the possible Hütte variations: Hütte and the Blow Fish. Jabba the Hütte. Drop it like it's Hütte. Never a dull moment on the trail. We found a nice vantage point from which we photographed the tandem paragliders launching towards the valley. We navigated wildflower fields against breathtaking mountain vistas.

The hike turned steep as the switchbacks clung desperately to the rising mountain ridge. We finally crested the hill and the trail evened out for the duration of the hike. We pulled into RotStockhütte just in time to grab a drink and eat dinner. The hut was packed with families and children; it was Saturday and school was out. We met a large group of French climbers. Of the 60 odd guests, we were the only ones speaking English, but everyone was quite friendly. We didn't have the benefit of a private room in this hut, and people were coming and going through our dormitory style 20-bunk room. The earplugs and eye masks were clutch!

At 5:45 Larry and I awoke to head back to Murren. En route we passed scampering Marmots and penned pigs as well as the traditional morning cows. We saw an old man raking the dirt, which gave Larry existential pause. Arriving in Murren, we hopped into the Gondola and descended to the valley where we reclaimed our Fiat, grabbed a quick shower in Interlaken, and headed to Italy.

Lake Como

The road was exquisitely scenic and had clearly been written up in multiple biker magazines, for the road was littered with motorcycles of every shape, color and variety: we had entered a motorcycle zoo. Larry drove like a champ, and we thankfully didn't hit any of the weaving bikers. We went over some mountains and through others, at one point passing through a 10 mile tunnel! We finally emerged at the Lake Region of Italy.

We parked the car in Menaggio and bought tickets to the ferry across lake Como. We grabbed an amazing lunch on the water in the town of Bellagio. Wine, pesto-pasta, pizza, coffee: multo bene! We were back to the land of beautiful Italians and exotic rides: Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, Lotuses. The car expo was in effect.

I particularly appreciated the small town of Verena with its layers upon layers of colorful buildings and steep cobble stone streets. We grabbed our final gelato in Menaggio and drove back towards Milan. We hit the end of the weekend traffic returning to Milan. Realizing we were getting nowhere fast, we pulled off at a restaurant in Colonno to savor our final meal in Italy as the sun set upon the lake. We toasted to another great hiking trip on this lovely rock of ours, and made our way back to the airport Sheraton for a morning flight back to Atlanta.

We'll definitely be back to the Jungfrau, which is an absolute hiker's dream. There are so many more things to see and places to which we must return. I took courage seeing the 70-year old friends and couples hiking together in the huts of Switzerland. It gives me hope that I may be able to keep this up for decades to come! Next year I have my eye on some really big hills: the Anapurna trek beckons. Thanks always for following along.

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