Since the 19th century, Interlaken has been a magnet for tourists coming to Switzerland. It’s the gateway to the Jungfrau Region with its unique mix of lakes, waterfalls and mountains.
Part of its attraction is the abundance of boats, trains and cable cars which get you to the grandeur without too much effort. One way to escape the crowds is to set out on foot, following in the footsteps of those celebrated Victorian alpinists.
From Interlaken, I take the early train to Meiringen, just upstream of Lake Brienz. As I walk through the centre, I pass a large statue of Sherlock Holmes, complete with his famous deerstalker pipe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited here in 1892 and was so impressed by the Reichenbach Falls, just above the town, that he had his famous detective come to a sticky end in the gorge.
Many people make the pilgrimage, using a funicular built for the purpose, but I’m sticking to my own two feet and climb upwards on the opposite side of the falls. Conan Doyle choose the location well and there are vertiginous views of the cascading torrent tumbling down the mountain. The path is steep and narrow and I eventually arrive at the spot where the final showdown between Holmes and Moriarty took place. A metal plaque marks the spot and the narrow ledge is not for the faint hearted.
From here I climb higher further through the forest, criss-crossing a twisting road, which also turns out to be a bus route. The most direct way is on the tarmac but I turn off onto a path which takes me upwards to the Engelhorn Mountain hut at 1900m. For the last few days, there’s been heavy rain and, at this altitude, there are still patches of freshly fallen snow. Today the weather is clear and sunny and I’m surrounded by white tipped mountains on either side. Even better, apart from one solitary hiker, I’m completely alone.
That all changes when I descend to the Rosenlaui Glacier Gorge, a deservedly popular spot for day trippers, all keen to get a glimpse of the white-water bubbling between steep cliffs. Just nearby is the Chalet-Hotel Schwarzwaldalp, my destination for the night. It serves excellent food and, once all the cars have all left, it’s only the cow bells which disturb the silence.
Next morning, I cut across country, gaining height all the time, and leave the trees behind at around 1900m. In front of me is a narrow valley, cut by a mountain stream, and my path leaves upwards to the ridge on the horizon, still dusted by white. I’m soon in the snow, light at first but getting deeper as I climb and soon obscuring the trail markings. It’s tough going and with no sign of the path, I blindly follow a set of recent boot prints, praying I won’t encounter the owner lying face down in the snow.
Finally, I get to the Wart Col at 2710m and ahead of me is an Arctic landscape. It’s only early September and this is a complete surprise. I briefly consider going back but the thought of the deep snow I’ve just encountered spurs me onwards. There’s a sudden icy wind and I’m now wearing all the warm clothing I’ve brought, hoping it’s not going to get any colder.
My only companions on this polar journey are a herd of Chamois and the occasional Marmot and I skirt a couple of half frozen mountain lakes. Snow has got into my boots, so my feet are soaking, and fatigue is beginning to set in. The cloud has been high all day but, when I reach the foot of the Faulhorn, it’s shrouded in mist and it starts to rain. I’m rewarded by occasional glimpses of Lake Brienz down below and but I’m happier when I see the Männdlenen Hut within striking distance.
The elderly couple, who’ve been here for 40 years, know exactly what to do with me. A tumbler of warming schnapps is thrust into my hand and they sit me down by the fire and help me get my gear off. As my sodden socks hang above me to dry, I tuck into a bowl of bubbling cheese, bread, boiled potatoes, pickled onions and gherkins. This is their famous Raclette with the mountain cheese made locally. There are no other guests and I have the dormitory to myself. There are also no showers.
Morning is sunny and clear and it’s all downhill for almost 1500m on a good path to the valley below. I’m enjoying the views but I’ve a nagging thought that once I’m down I’ve got to climb all the way up again. At Burglauenen, I’m tempted to take the train along the valley and then catch the cable car up but it’s only lunchtime. I’ve still got half the day ahead of me.
Of course, I meet nobody else tackling this tough route and it’s getting warmer as I press on. The track winds around the hillside, mainly shaded by trees, until a final steep climb. There’s no cover here and it’s just a hot relentless uphill. Now I meet people coming down who’ve gone up by cable car and they give me sympathetic looks as I plod on. Still, although progress is slow, I pass the avalanche barriers and make it to Männlichen.
The mountain inn sits on the ridge between the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen valleys and the trio of Jungfrau Mönch and Eiger mountains stare me in the face. I’m in time for the last sun of the day and gaze at that famous North face until it’s almost dark. During the day, the place is packed with trippers but now I have it all almost to myself.
Overnight the weather changes and I wake to see the peaks shrouded in mist. As I leave the hotel, the cloud comes down and it becomes tricky to find the path. There are tantalising glimpses of the Jungfrau and the other mountains as I start to descend to Wengen and civilisation. I walk past pricey gift shops and see people enjoying their wine and schnitzel and realise that over the past few days I’ve succeeded in discovering a different country. It’s no better or worse than theirs, but I’m feeling secretly superior. After all it’s my Switzerland.
Tell me more about hiking in the Jungfrau region
SWISS operates offers up to 119 weekly flights from London City, Heathrow, Gatwick (seasonal), Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh (seasonal) and Dublin to Zurich. All-inclusive fares start from £67 one way, including all airport taxes, one piece hold luggage and hand luggage, plus meal and drink. SWISS are also happy to transport your first set of ski or snowboard equipment and boots free of charge, in addition to your standard free baggage allowance.
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