Switzerland is the land of cuckoo clocks where time has stood still. In the countryside the old traditions are still there to be seen: cosy wooden houses complete with stacks of logs for winter fuel and pristine cattle in the summer pastures wearing tinkly bells.
The Bernese Oberland is a great place to escape to walk in summer and you can take advantage of the many huts and restaurants high up in the mountains which serve the winter skiers. They are also open in the summer for the many tourists and can usually be reached by cable car or chairlifts for spectacular views. Alternatively, you can walk up part of the way as the mountain paths are excellent and well signposted.
Inspired by the book, The White Spider written by Heinrich Harrer, I travelled to Switzerland for a walking holiday under the shadow of the Eiger with its awe inspiring North Face which was only conquered in 1938. The most memorable view of the Eiger was from the hotel outside Grindelwald where we looked up at the North Face in early evening while enjoying a post walk beer and saw an eagle flying around the summit of the Eiger. I was never going to climb the Eiger but just to be under such a famous mountain was reward in itself.
The trip was enhanced as several members of the Group were keen birdwatchers and very knowledgeable about wild flowers so they were constantly on the lookout for interesting birds and flowers, which they brought to the attention of the Group. Although I never tire of looking at beautiful mountain scenery, it's good to have another dimension on the walks and makes them more memorable when recalling the birds and flowers I have encountered. For example, on walking back from the Steiregg Hut to Pfinstegg the birdwatchers spotted a wallcreeper (blackbird sized with red underside) which was a rare treat. The wild flowers were of wonderful colours from the vivid blue of the various gentians to the delicate hues of orchids in the forest.
I shall describe the walk to the Steiregg Hut on the Schreckhorn as it encompasses all the elements of walking in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland. From Grindelwald, we took the cable car to Pfinstegg,, which saved us a long slog up thousands of feet of Alpine meadows. This was an easy walking holiday where we wanted to have maximum height gain with as little effort as possible in order to see the fine views of the mountains and glaciers. From the valley below, it did not look possible to walk up towards the glacier as there were sheer cliffs on the side of the mountain, however, there was an excellent path winding up through forest and along rocks. Fixed chains where needed although there was nothing difficult or exposed on the path. After a steady pull uphill for an hour, we reached the Steiregg Hut where as usual we could buy hot food and drinks as well as apple strudel. There is nothing better than sitting on the terrace of an Alpine hut on a hot sunny day, eating and drinking surrounded by glaciers and snow topped mountains. Across the valley lay the east side of the Eiger with forest hiding much of the lower rock Below, the moraine in the valley led up to the snout of the glacier.
The following day we followed the Eiger Trail through the forest and now and again climbed up fixed metal ladders on the route to climb up the rock. All paths are well signposted and accurate walking times on trails are displayed. To the south of the valley lies the Unterglacier which at one time reached down to Grindelwald but has now retreated to high up the valley. Is this the effect of global warming?
In the Heinrich Harrer book, he describes the telescopes set up at Kleine Scheidegg to track mountaineers on the North Face of the Eiger. We walked to the top of Mannlichen here and were close to the Eiger wall but there were no viewers, probably because watching climbers in 2001 does not have the novelty appeal of 60 years ago when the North Face was regarded as one of the hardest challenges for climbers. The scenery is sublime with views to the 'big three' of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. Another day we walked the final thousand feet up to the top of the Schilthorn at 10,000 feet where we had a view of Mont Blanc in the far distance. For those wishing not to walk there is a cable car to the top!
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Coming attraction Weekends on the Island of Mull and at Loch Ossian
Thanks to Frances Rickus for photographs