When Chris suggested we spend our summer holiday walking across the Swiss Alps my immediate response was ‘yes’ but on one condition, that we wouldn’t stay anywhere that involved sharing a bathroom, and more importantly, a bed, with complete strangers.
I’ve stayed in mountain refuges before, and while they are usually in sublime locations and provide excellent food (and alcohol), the sleeping and washing arrangements do tend to be quite basic. Since we were planning to spend at least 2 weeks walking I felt it was only reasonable to want somewhere private to wash out my underwear at the end of the day and to sleep with only my husband’s snoring to disturb me.
It didn’t take long to find the perfect answer – the Alpine Pass Route appeared to be just what we were looking for. The APR is not an official route, in fact it’s part of the better known Via Alpina (or Route 1) that starts in Trieste, Italy, snakes east to west across Switzerland before heading down through the French Alps to finish near Monaco. We bought the wonderfully clear and informative guide ‘The Alpine Pass Route’ by Kev Reynolds published by Cicerone. Each stage is described in just the right level of detail, with maps, height loss and gain charts, directions, options to take local transport to shorten a stage or avoid bad weather (post buses, cable cars etc), plus recommendations on where to stay, mostly small hotels providing bed and breakfast accommodation.
The APR covers 202 miles, crosses 16 passes with over 18,000m of height gain. The guide recommends tackling it in 15 days to which we added one rest day in the middle. We also bought the recommended maps, from Stanfords near Covent Garden. We hardly needed to use these but I felt happier knowing we had them just in case. And together with Booking.com we were able to make all our hotel reservations in just an hour or so online, it couldn’t have been easier. So on 17 August we set off on our adventure. We packed as little as we dared, with the focus on light but warm layers (from the excellent Berghaus Extrem range) and banked on washed items drying out overnight (they did). Chris had a plan to wear each pair of socks to death, then throw them out to lighten the load – every little thing counts when you’re carrying it all day after day. Some things we hoped we wouldn’t need – compass, support bandage, first aid kit - but didn’t want to be without, and given that we’d be stopping in a number of large villages/small towns we knew we could pick up anything we’d left out. EasyJet took us to Geneva, then it was on by the super-efficient Swiss railway system via Zurich to Sargans in the east of the country, almost on the border with Lichtenstein. Excitement mounted, we couldn’t wait to start walking the next morning.
From this point onwards our next 15 days followed a similar pattern – wake up, have breakfast, check the weather forecast (every hotel had free wi-fi), apply sunblock (regardless of weather forecast), apply Voltarol (this must have worked since I didn’t suffer many aches and pains), buy lunch (invariably bread, cheese and chocolate), find the signpost for the start of the day’s stage and get going. Every stage was amazingly well signed, finger posts giving the expected walking time to the next village or pass, plus frequent way markers nailed or painted on anything that wouldn’t move, rocks, tree stumps, gates, barns. You’d have to try hard to get lost. There the similarities ended. Each day was different. The weather ranged from cool and misty with a little rain at the start to positively hot, clear and dry during the second half of the route and everything in between. The breath-taking scenery gave us green alpine pastures in the east, the majestic snow-capped mountains and glaciers of the Wetterhorn and Jungfrau ranges in the Bernese Oberland, the jagged grey spikes and scree slopes of the Bunderchrinde, chocolate-box villages with chalet balconies full to bursting with bright red geraniums, and finally spectacular views down to Montreux on Lac Leman – looking even more appealing as this was our final destination. Everywhere we were accompanied by the sound of cow and goat bells. Often our path was blocked by grazing cows but all were docile and shuffled slowly away as we approached (although one or two did eye up my very bright red fleece).
There were many highlights. Reaching the top of the Hohturli, at 2,778m the highest pass on the route on a very hot day after a seemingly endless ‘crawl’ across scree slopes and up steps so steep a handrail pinned to the rock face was provided. Marvelling at the torrent of water pouring out of the mountainside just above Aesch and wondering how the tiny hamlet didn’t get drowned. Stopping for lunch at the Rotstock hut with our final view of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Monch behind us and discovering they did an excellent goulash soup for lunch (you can get a little tired of bread and cheese). Paddling in the cool water of the beautiful cobalt-blue Oeschinensee after a long hard trek downhill. Delicious apricot tart at the Blackenalp farm with cream from their own Blackenalp herd. The ‘best pizza ever’ on a rainy night in Grindelwald served by a bubbly Irish waitress. And maybe best of all, not a single blister thanks to our wonderfully comfortable Berghaus walking boots. The list could go on and on. As for low points, probably only one that I can remember – realising at mid afternoon on day 5 that we’d chosen by far the longest and most challenging of three possible routes to Meiringen from the Jochpass and it was still another 4+ hours of hard walking and the weather was starting to look nasty. Even this turned into a high point when we saw in the distance that the cable car was running, only an hour’s walk away, and we could take this down instead – and the sun came out as well!
Our Swiss adventure ended as we walked down to Lac Leman and found a bench on the lakeside path to sit and enjoy the last of the afternoon sun. It was a beautiful setting, the mountains in the distance, the grand old hotels of Montreux strung out along the edge of the lake, the water gently rocking a few small boats moored in front of us. All that remained now was to find our last hotel (located up a little side street but with great views out across the lake) and look forward to our final evening meal – and a glass or two of prosecco to celebrate.
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.