During my journey on foot last year, I walked from Meiringen to Griesalp, stopping in Grindelwald and Wengen on the route. I was tantalisingly close to the next section, Griesalp to Kandersteg, via the Hohturli Pass and the Blumisalp Hut, but all good things must end sometime. My Outdoors was then lucky enough to be invited back and I took the tough decision of going on a solo backpacking bucket list trip. I didn’t regret it.
The Via Alpina stretches across a total of 14 passes in six cantons and involves 23600 m of ascent and 24800 m of descent. It spans 242 miles and takes an average of 30 days to complete. Not having the luxury of a full month away from work and life means I keep chipping away at the route instead. Being a full time social care worker, single Dad and part time musician doesn’t leave much time to be an adventurer for a living, although a dream job it certainly would be. Instead, I can make the most of another opportunity to explore and cover two further sections of the Via Alpina, travelling independently and solo for seven days. I made this into a tailor made trip and my aim is to give a nice taste of taking a short adventure break in the Swiss Alps. I again used a Swiss Rail Pass and while it makes life easier and more comfortable, it’s not necessary and it’s entirely possible to do Switzerland on a tighter budget.
I arrived in Zurich from Manchester, and then had a tight deadline to get to a Postbus connection to Griesalp.
Griesalp isn’t very well served by public transport; I had a set of logistics that meant I missed the last bus at 1530, by half an hour. I had a large kit bag with spare kit for the end of my trip, which I needed to stash in a locker at Spiez station. I missed a connecting train in Bern trying to use their lockers, which were extortionately priced. I arrived a bit sweaty and stressed to discover a bag deposit scheme at the station office in Spiez. It cost me only 18 CHf for 6 days - an excellent deal. I dropped the bag and legged it to the train but then faced a 50CHf taxi fare to my first stop, the Hotel Griesalp. We live and learn.
Griesalp is a tiny place, reached by an epic and expensive 20km cab ride from Reichenbach im Kandertal. The Hotel Griesalp is tucked high on the side of a valley that extends back towards Murren. Multiple waterfalls cascade into the valley and there is a river gorge system that thunders deep in the cliffs above Reichenbach.
The hotel has a great restaurant, serving traditional Swiss seasonal food to a high standard. The hotel has a mountain retreat feel and has a spa and treatment rooms, friendly goats in the grounds and apart from the roar of the rivers, absolute serene quiet away from major roads. I ate venison with a sweet chestnut puree and braised red cabbage, washed down with local wine. An early end to the day meant I was ready for a big ascent the next morning.
Eating in nice hotels is a tough gig, but I was here to get onto the trail and head to the Hohturli Pass; at 2800m it’s a steep route. Breakfast taken care of I headed straight out with my lighter baggage. The weather was excellent and largely remained so for the rest of the trip. This section of the Via Alpina is deemed one of the most strenuous, with the Swiss guide recommending ‘sure-footedness’ in their quirky translation. I recommend lightweight mountain shoes or boots and poles, especially if you are carrying any weight. I carried about 8 kilos for this trip.
I had little opportunity to get a bit fitter before leaving the UK due to other commitments, so I quickly discovered why this is the toughest piece of ascent in the whole Via Alpina route. A benign climb to the right of the Griesalp valley through pine forest and crossing streams, then led me out onto the grassy foothills below Blumisalp. Distance wise this is actually a short day; I only needed to get to the Blumisalp Hutte - an imposing stone refuge plonked right on the saddle of the Hohturli Pass, where I had a bunk booked for that night.
On route I dropped into the Bundalp Hut, another refuge lower down the valley and had a coffee while I looked to the imposing Blumisalp, a 3661m peak. This refuge is nearly the half way point from Griesalp.. My route then rose sharply from meadows to steep shale paths that snaked back and forth. The gradient doesn’t let up much until you reach the Hohturli Pass. I was overtaken by several wiry looking Swiss guys in their sixties, much to my shame, but I sweated on in around 24 degree heat. Plenty warm enough for a Northerner.
I met a false summit and poked around the corner onto a narrow path hugging the side of the glacial ravine. The steps that cling to the right hand side of this shaley and unstable valley are extremely steep and although I felt comfortable, you can’t rush up this section. There are ample rope and wire handrails to drag you up the steps. I met an American couple from the previous evening and we had a good wheeze on a bench before tackling the last sets of steps onto the pass.
This was my first opportunity to use a mountain refuge at higher altitude. The walk down to Kandersteg is possible in one (long) day, with Griesalp to Kandersteg classing as a single leg in most guides, but this was a great chance to sample the culture of mountain huts.
The Blumisalp Hut, a sturdy stone building perpendicular to the Hohturli Pass, is solar powered and all goods are flown in by helicopter. Bottled water at 9CHf a bottle is expensive because of this and also due to a lack of potable water at that altitude. There are taps but it is stored water. It’s a great experience to eat dinner there; the food is understandably basic but the team do a great job in a minimal kitchen. The beer was however quite reasonable - which is why I like Europeans.
The human proximity element quickly kicks in when you see the bunkrooms, which I’ll describe as a close knit experience with everyone wearing Crocs. Checked in and boots put away, I retrieved my dignity and enjoyed a pint in the views across to Kandersteg and the Blumisalp glacier system.
I ate that evening with a table of lone walkers and when things looked like they may get lively, we all went to bed at 2200h prompt. Swiss and German people are often really polite and I had a nice evening chatting to my table. They took pity on my lack of multi-lingual skills and we all chatted in English. I apologised about Brexit and we all went to bed.
Swiss huts are by default a very ordered experience, which I did enjoy, but a good sleep evaded me. The early curfew to bed makes sense for tired walkers and it’s also a way of the owners conserving precious battery power. The Blumisalp Hut is very like a youth hostel, but cosier. The bed spaces are really narrow and all in a row with a bunk above, so a close encounter with a stranger is always going to happen in walking season. Lots of doors going for toilet trips and some snoring meant a broken night’s sleep. Despite this, I was up for the ‘blue hour’ at 6am, ate a quick breakfast and made an exit to get down towards my next stop, Oeshinensee.
Day three - Oeshinensee & Kandersteg
The route down to Oeschinensee and onwards to Kandersteg is straightforward enough but steep and loose, traversing more shale paths that cut through to limestone strewn pastures, flanked to my left by ever diminishing glaciers. It’s not hard to imagine the glaciers tumbling down into the valley in decades gone, but they now retreat inexorably with climate change and ever warmer seasons.
The walk continues onto the Oberargli, a high pasture dotted with farmsteads and as I threaded through these I was greeted with the jewel that is Oeschinensee. This is a contender for the most picturesque alpine lake in the Swiss Alps. The drama is increased by the high cliff walls that envelop the lake and hide it from view until the last minute. Lime rich glacial water give it a deep blue colour and the sheer cliffs seem to float on the lake.
Due to its proximity to Kandersteg, Oeschinensee is a ‘honey-pot’ destination. If it’s seclusion you’re after then think again as the lake is well served by transport, both cable car and buses up the valley. On arrival, I met many walkers circling the lake; there is boat hire, a bar and a hotel. However this trip was on the tail end of the summer season, so relatively calm compared to July and August. I resisted a swim, as the water was very chilly and headed to the Berghotel Oeshinensee for an excellent lunch. Sated and stuffed I then hobbled down to Kandersteg on legs that would prove to be a challenge for the next two days, as I’d developed some muscle soreness and old injuries in my tendons began to surface.
Kandersteg is a small town, dominated by tall limestone cliffs to the west. The Allmenalp looms above the village, a high meadow which is the favoured spot for paragliders to launch. Allmenalp is served by a small cable car and is certainly the most precipitous ride I’ve had in the Alps.
I checked into the Belle Epoque Hotel Victoria. As the name suggests, this is a Belle Epoque era hotel and is right in the centre of the village. The Hotel Victoria is a classic Swiss hotel, with an expansive dining room, a smaller restaurant, a spa and small swimming pool. The hotel was a stark contrast to the Blumisalp Hutte and the bunk rooms. Owing to aching legs, I booked the spa for my own private session which only costs around 10chf for 90 minutes. The food at the Hotel Victoria is excellent and the breakfast buffet had the full gamut of choice.
Kandersteg has a population of only 1200 people, but this number swells dramatically in high season in summer and winter, owing to its many hotels. As a base it is a great position to explore skiing, walking, via ferrata and paragliding. It is very quiet there in September however, so don’t expect much nightlife or activity. I had two nights in Kandersteg, so I took advantage of the sedate atmosphere and had a good rest. However I had a ticket for the mountain toboggan run above the village near Oeschinen and this was an exhilarating ride. The weather closed in that day for what proved to be a brief hiatus in the clear high pressure I enjoyed all week while walking.
Due to the cloud and cold northerly winds bringing moisture and low pressure into the valley, I was unable to do a planned paraglide, so I settled down to eating and looking at clag for a day and soaking up sleepy Kandersteg.
I awoke the next morning to a different day and high pressure returned. The low lying mist burned out of the valley as the sun rose over Blumisalp and I excitedly checked out of the hotel to walk to meet my paragliding pilot, Simon. Our planned tandem ride over the Kandersteg valley was set and we rode the heart-stopping cable car up onto the Allmenalp meadow and hiked further to the launch field.
This was my rookie paragliding experience. Throwing yourself off a cliff attached to a stranger on a piece of nylon isn’t something you can really prepare for. A quick chat about safety and what will happen next, then we ran like mad down the steep meadow into open space. The flying conditions didn’t yield much thermal activity due to the end of the summer heat and the previous day’s cool weather, as we glided serenely into the Kandersteg valley for about ten minutes in total. We skirted the cliffs above the people climbing to Allmenalp on the challenging via ferrata, trying in vain to catch some elusive warmer draughts,then brushed the tall pines and then turned over the village to land in the meadows next to the cable car station. I can’t recommend paragliding enough, if it’s on your bucket list then do it, because it’s quite unlike any other flying experience and the Swiss Alps are the ultimate backdrop. I thanked Simon for his care with my life and set off on the rest of my walking journey, saying goodbye to Kandersteg and onwards to Adelboden, via the imposing Bundechrinde.
Setting off late in the afternoon I always had the plan to stay out on the mountain that night. Wild camping in Switzerland sits in an ambiguous area, much like the UK. To quickly cover this issue here, it’s frowned upon in low lying areas and certainly if permission isn’t sought from a landowner. This is a much debated topic online and it’s understandable that people are unclear on what is lawful. In this context, I always stay well above tree lines and farmland, and as high as I can and I observe a leave no trace rule to pitching and staying on a mountain. Arriving late and leaving early is the best policy. Many walkers do camp along the Via Alpina however and although it’s not promoted from a tourism perspective, camping is certainly one way of making this long route a lot cheaper and closer to nature.
I walked towards the Bundechrinde, which I believe translates literally as a ‘slot’ and is easy to see why; the pass over to the Adelboden valley is indeed a small gap in the cliffs. En route I met a nice German chap called Patrick and we chatted at length as we slogged up the increasingly dubious path that clung tenuously to the side of the valley above Allmenalp. Patrick is a natural historian and ecologist, with excellent English, so we got on to climate change for a few hours before we parted. Needless to say there is a lot to discuss about our climate and alpine environments are showing us what a warming planet really means. The Alps across Europe are falling apart in places due to retreating ice and increasingly hotter seasons year on year.
Saying goodbye to Patrick, I found a perfect pitch at around 2300m overlooking the Kander river gorge, with Bundechrinde looming behind me ready for the next day’s hike. Sadly I didn’t have a DSLR camera with me, as the night sky was phenomenal and the Milky Way was so clear. I lay on my back in the grass for a few hours staring up, listening to the Kander river and the rumble of the Schwarzbackfalle, a major waterfall hidden from view along the valley below.
Next morning, I awoke to more perfect weather with not a breath of wind. I ate breakfast early and waited for the blue hour to fleetingly pass. As soon as the sun rose enough I set off and I was at the Bundechrinde in what felt like a few minutes. As I approached on yet another minimal shale path, rocks were sent my way from Chamois above me. Ravens, Choughs and Marmots all called after me, screeching warning calls and apart from the resident wildlife, I spent the early morning completely alone to soak up this last day of walking.
The walk down to Adelboden is fairly long and took me well into the afternoon on tired legs. Adelboden is a pretty but fairly unremarkable town that is best visited in ski season in my opinion. I met the main road and realised I had a huge climb to the top of the town and the shops and bus station, for a much needed refuel. I stuck out my thumb and was instantly rewarded by a lift from a lovely woman who insisted taking me to the bus station. Adelboden lacks a rail link, so you need to bus down the valley to Frutigen where I caught the train to Interlaken for my last night.
Interlaken is quite a shock to the system after a lone trip in the high Alps. Chinese and Koreans flock there and in contrast to sleepy towns that dotted my journey it is very busy, even at the tail end of the main summer season. Paragliding is a major attraction and it’s great to watch tandem flights landing on the huge grassed area in the centre of the town.
I checked into the Backpackers Hostel across town which sits in a suburban area. It is a great option for cheap accommodation and around £25 a night. The facilities are excellent and the only thing I really recommend for a stay there are earplugs. I stayed in a busy six bed mixed dorm with a variety of nationalities. I woke early again after fitful sleep and made haste into Interlaken for coffee in the quiet morning.
Treated by the luxury of the Swiss travel pass, I decided to spend the remainder of the day travelling the long way round to Zurich then home. After chatting to the friendly goat-herder, I walked to Lake Brienz and caught the gondola across the lake to Brienz village. As you arrive the Panoramic Express train slowly pulls into Brienz and in less than two minutes of boarding, heads off towards Zurich on one of the most beautiful routes in the Alps. High windows allow an unrivalled view as we skirted back to Meiringen and views over to Kandersteg to take in several of the legs I walked over the past two years.
The stages between Grindelwald and Adelboden are undoubtedly both the most scenic and toughest stages of the Swiss Via Alpina, but the effort is well rewarded. Of course the advent of autumn in the mountains brings an increased risk of snow and the section between Griesalp and Kandersteg is particularly vulnerable so it makes sense to have alternative options. Likewise if you're taking the stages on in summer water is at a premium. A week on the trail from Meiringen to Adelboden gives the perfect balance of town and mountain as it winds its way through Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Murren, Griesalp and Kandersteg; In September you get all this without the searing heat of summer or the crowds of the summer and ski season. There may be better ways to spend a week but I'm struggling to thinks of any.