By Sasha Hill
August 26th. We had a day before we were supposed to be in the South of France for WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and a burning desire to catch a glimpse of the legendary Swiss Alps before that time.
Sierra hatched a crazy plan. The weather in Switzerland so far had been fairly mild. What was stopping us from simply lugging all our stuff up onto a stunning mountainside and sleeping there under the stars? Perhaps both of us had the notion in the back of our minds that this plan was, in fact, a bit insane, but the romance of the idea overwhelmed us.
The rational part of my brain sent out a handful of Couchsurfing requests for the town of Interlaken, just in case. We could get out there early, hike, crash on the couch and then maybe do another short day hike before catching the train out the next day. No one responded, probably because I’d forgotten to change the salutation from our last request, so all of them read, “Hi Nina!!!”. It looked like we’d be sleeping on the mountain.
Interestingly enough, backpacking or camping outside of designated areas is actually illegal in regulation crazy Switzerland. But we assumed even the Swiss didn’t have policemen roaming the mountains in the night.
In another stab at creating a bit of structure, I’d googled ‘hiking trails leaving from Grindelwald’, and found a few options. However, by the time we arrived there, ate a big hearty lunch calculated to keep us going as long as possible, bought two sandwiches and three candy bars for later, and carefully divided up our belongings, leaving most of them in the train station lockers, it was around two pm. The trails I’d researched now seemed too ambitious, and most of them were only reachable by gondolas, which wouldn’t be running at the unearthly hour at which we’d have to head out to catch our train. Instead, we grabbed a trail map from the tourist office near the station and started off.
About ten minutes down the road, we met an elderly couple walking in the opposite direction. “Ask them if we’re going the right way!” whispered Sierra. I did so, and they obligingly looked over our map with me, noting that although we were going the right way, it was a long, uphill hike to Bussalp (the town from which all the trails seemed to branch off). “And where will you sleep?”, asked the woman, looking concerned. The only response I could think of was a little laugh and a shrug.
We continued trudging uphill, until a bus reading BUSSALP on the windshield rolled up behind us, and Sierra pulled us on. Doubt was beginning to set in, and the exorbitant price of the bus tickets didn’t improve my state of mind. I’d never been less sure of what I was doing. At Bussalp, a quibble about which trail we should take marred the splendor of the rolling green hills and the spectacular peaks in the background. “Why do you keep telling me what to do or asking me things I don’t know??” Sierra demanded. “I’m just trying to figure out what the heck is going on!” I countered. We stood there like combatants, about five meters apart, backpacks on, and hashed it out for ten minutes. Then it was done, and we moved on, somehow leaving the little toxic cloud of bad feeling behind us.
It turned out that the trails were almost ridiculously well-marked. There were yellow trail signs that sometimes even gave walking times to the various destinations every half mile or so, and painted stones with red and white stripes at least every fifty meters along the path. “Thank god!” we’d guffaw as we passed them. What kind of idiot would get so lost on a fifty meter stretch of well kept trail that she’d have to rely on the next painted stone to get back on track?
The hike was beautiful, but slow going, what with the frequent stops to take photos or play with cows, and the constant uphill slope. A big grassy meadow on top of one of the hills overlooking Grindelwald valley and the famous three peaks behind it, the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau (the tops of which were shrouded in mist) caught my eye. “Wouldn’t it be awesome to sleep there?”, I asked Sierra. We headed in that direction and soon came to a cluster of yellow signs. One arrow pointed toward the meadow. One indicated the way to a lake we’d noticed on the map, only an hour and a half away. One was handwritten and read “Alpkäse”, and I had a sudden strong urge to drop everything and dash down the mountain in search of the “Alp cheese”. It was only five pm, so we decided to try and tackle the lake.
We climbed and climbed and climbed. It seemed like it was taking more than an hour and a half. Maybe the Swiss were faster walkers than us. Finally, we reached the summit of our little mountain, and a hut came into view. Was it Alpkäse? No. It was a little one room affair with two large chests containing supplies for hikers: blankets, kerosene lamps, a trail map. It was pretty impressive for a trail where we’d only seen one other pair of hikers, and, as the sun descended and a chill entered the air, it began to look a lot more attractive than the the bald hill we’d left behind. But if we stayed there, it would give us a long hike the next day to catch our train at seven, and we assumed the lake couldn’t be too far down the hill, so we pushed on. Sure enough, it appeared just around the next bend, clear and sparkling as all bodies of water in Switzerland are. I thought we deserved a reward for getting there. “Maybe we could skinny dip?” I suggested. With this in mind, we raced down the hill to catch the last few rays of sun that illuminated the lake. By the time we reached its shores though, the whole area was engulfed in shadow, and the nip in the air had become decidedly more pronounced.
Then we spotted another hut and more yellow signs. It was good news. This hut had a sign on it saying it was a bad weather shelter for hikers, and in addition to the two chests, had a fire pit with a grating over it, and a healthy stock of wood. One yellow trail marker triumphantly proclaimed that Grindelwald was only two and a half hours away on a different trail than the one we’d come from. We’d still have to leave quite early in the morning, but at least we wouldn’t be braving the wind and clouds in some godforsaken meadow.
Having thus improved our temperature situation, we decided to worsen it again by taking off all our clothes and running into the lake. “Should I dunk?”, I asked Sierra. “Are you crazy?”, she screamed as she hightailed it back out again. Back in our cabin, I put on everything I had: my leggings, my wool socks, my long underwear top, my fleece, my Peruvian scarf, and my rain coat on top of it all. I was still cold. Sierra used her growing up on a farm skills to start a fire in the pit. It pains me to report that the fact that we had our lighter with us instead of back in the train station locker was 100% luck, 0% planning. We tried to use on of our trail maps for fuel, but it had some kind of waxy substance on it that ate fire, so we had to use toilet paper and blank pages from my journal instead. Unfortunately, the trunks in this hut were locked, so we had fire but no blankets.
It was cold, but the fire was comforting. We huddled up in front of it and brought our wilting sandwiches back to life by grilling them. We stuck four big rocks in it to put into our sleep sheets (Yes, sleep SHEETS. No, not sleeping bags. Yes, it was cold). Because of the smoke, we thought it was best to keep the door slightly open, although I longed to shut out the dark, cold, menacing expanse of the wilderness. Once we’d finished eating, drawing out the process of eating half a sandwich as long as possible (the other half was for tomorrow), we went to bed.
Did I mention it was cold? I lay shivering in my sleep sheet, curled up in fetal position with my hot rocks strategically placed beside my feet and belly. I shifted and squirmed and lay as still as possible, waiting for sleep to overtake me. “Sierra?” I finally called out, “can I come over there?”. She assented weakly, and I stood up, engulfed in my sheet like a caterpillar, moving laboriously as I dragged the rocks along with me. The warmth of another human being was infinitely better, yet hardly made a difference. If my front half was curled up against Sierra, my back half was exposed to the frigid room, and all the more miserable for the contrast. I succeeded in dozing off maybe a few times, trying not to let the howling of the wind and the scratching of mice in the walls get to me.
I was half asleep when Sierra recoiled violently from the wall, uttering a little gasp and almost pushing me off the trunk. One of her rocks had fallen into the gap between trunk and wall, pulling a corner of her sleep sheet sheet with it. But neither of us realized this at the time. I assume all Sierra knew was that something was rumbling around and tugging at her sheet. All I knew was that I was petrified out of my mind. I had visions of axe murders wandering around the Swiss alps by night and busting into little huts, searching for vulnerable young women. The only way to stop myself from giving in to impulse and running around screaming my face off was to curl up into an even tighter ball, squeeze my eyes shut, and not allow so much as a peep to pass through my lips. Maybe Sierra wondered why I wasn’t speaking or moving out of her way while she investigated the mysterious tugging, but in the end she seemed to succeed in rescuing the rock, and the terror of the moment faded.
We curled back up and lay there for another five minutes. “I don’t think we’re going to sleep tonight”, said Sierra.
Once we got that revelation out of the way, everything was somehow easier. It was midnight, and we decided we could reasonably start eating breakfast and getting ready to go around 3:30. I honestly have very little idea of how we passed the time until then; I only know that Sierra lit another fire and I re-warmed one of my rocks and sat there numbly with one under my feet, cradling the other in my lap like a baby.
At three thirty sharp, we cooked the other half of our sandwiches on the dying fire. They tasted heavenly. We packed everything up and were out the door by four, a two and a half hour hike ahead of us. The instant we began moving, I felt warmer and somehow safer. And there was something magical about the scenery at night. The clouds surrounding the three peaks had disappeared and the mountains loomed large and mighty among the stars. Our headlamps illuminated the red and white striped rocks. “Thank god!!”, we’d exclaim fervently as we passed them. Soon, Sierra simply began saying “BOOM”, each time she shined her light triumphantly on a marker. Like the idiots we’d imagined the day before, we were relying completely on them for guidance.
For us Californians, something slightly exotic about the Swiss Alps is that when you think you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you may suddenly come across a cluster of little cottages. I suppose they are inhabited by the people who own all the cows. At a little before five am, we noticed that our trail passed right through one such area. The light was on in one of the houses, and as we drew nearer, we noticed a figure silhouetted in the window. He or she seemed to be frozen, watching. I figured maybe it would be good to take the edge off the sight of two strangers descending toward your home from the mountains in the middle of the night. So I waved.
Sierra wanted to take the ‘we come in peace’ measures even further. “Go ask him how far to Grindelwald”, she suggested. The man’s face had definitely relaxed quite a bit once he’d seen that we were just a couple of girls, but I complied anyway. “Hallo”, I said politely, “Wissen Sie wie lange dauert es von hier um Grindelwald zu ankommen?” (Hello, do you know how long it takes to arrive in Grindelwald from here?) As I spoke, the man’s face slowly broke into an incredulous grin, and by the time I was done he was chuckling softly. “Zwei Stunde” (Two hours), he said. I could tell he’d be telling that story at dinner parties for years to come.
It was downhill from there. We kept up a brisk pace and followed the painted rocks and the yellow signs. We turned off our flashlights as the sun began to rise, and lay in the road in hopes of seeing it come over the mountains, but it got too cold again and we pushed on. Soon, the cottages became more concentrated. We’d reached the outskirts of Grindelwald. The tips of the glacial mountains glowed pink. Sierra began to run and skip down the hill, and, in bursts, I followed suit. We whooped when we came to the sign that said, “Train station – five minutes”.
Between consuming the feast of bread, cheese, muffins, croissants, and muesli we’d purchased at a grocery store between train stops and falling fast asleep, we looked at each other and smiled. We’d survived our crazy adventure.