On a grassy bald more than four hours from civilization, I had an acute realization that this thing I was doing – this is how hikers die.
I’d been working in Geneva, Switzerland for two months. When my fiance arranged to visit, I was determined to impress him. It should have been easy enough in a country as geographically diverse as this, but the most impressive spots there are not always the easiest to access. An old college friend who had visited years ago recommended the tiny town of Gimmelwald, perched high in the Swiss Alps. It would take three trains, a bus, and a cable car to get there – an adventure we were eager to attempt.
Gimmelwald itself boasts a single restaurant, two hostels, and a spattering of farms, the nearest “town” a 10-minute cable car ride or 40-minute hike back down into Lauterbrunnen Valley. The trip there went smoothly overall, though it was certainly a test of endurance. It nearly broke us when we departed our last train around dinnertime and realized that we now had to wait 40 minutes for a bus. But we made due, greeting the few folks who walked past, quizzing each other on German vocabulary. The next challenge came when I realized, upon entering the cable car that would finally take us to our destination, that I was indeed afraid of heights. I burrowed my head in my fiance’s chest, frantically praying as he oohed and ahead at the apparently gorgeous landscape we were zooming over.
Just as the last sunlight dimmed into a soft pink, we reached our hostel. Rather than stepping inside the seemingly ancient wooden house to finally rest, we dashed along the single path through the farmhouses, suddenly energized. Our little town was perched right on the edge of a mountain – it seemed like a strong gust of wind could whisk it away easily – and our only neighbors were cows, septuagenarian dairy farmers, and a handful of 20-something hostelers playing hackey-sack. We gorged ourselves on fresh milk and mountain cheese from the honesty shop (take what you wish, leave what you can), and finally went to bed to rest up for the next day. We thought we’d found a magical place.
“On a grassy bald more than four hours from civilization, I had an acute realization that this thing I was doing – this is how hikers die.”
We woke early the next morning, crammed our hiking packs with water, jam, baguettes, and granola, and set out for Schilthorn. There was a pleasant rain for most of the hike, quite welcome as we struggled against the altitude and the intensity of the summer sun. We started at 4,485 feet above sea level and planned to climb to 8,858 feet. My friends and family in Colorado might scoff at this, but my fiancé and I are both sea-level dwellers – and much of the trail propelled us up at a 20-40 degree angle. The struggle was well-rewarded by what we found around nearly every twist in the trail – an entire field of wildflowers, a rustic rope zipline that would seem to propel one right off the mountain if they weren’t careful, a group of farmers in the middle of herding dozens of sheep – but it was a struggle nonetheless.
Our goal was to go as far as we could – hoping that meant the peak of Schilthorn – then take the cable car back down. About halfway through the hike, when we stopped for a breather on that grassy bald, we realized that the cable car schedule was variant and unclear – neither of us could remember if the last cable car down the mountain was at 6:00pm or 16:00, and missing it would mean a six-hour hike back down into the night and its descending temperatures. Even more pressing, the water pump we had counted on finding at this point was no longer an option. We found it without a problem, but it was out of commission for the season.
Short of energy and patience, my fiance and I collapsed to the ground, letting the sweet-smelling grass cradle us. I wished my worries up into the wispy clouds, while my fiance gazed, seemingly in a trance, into the vastly intimidating Alps. After a few long moments of silence, we approached our problem again. Neither of us was willing to abort the hike completely, but we accepted that our hike would have to end at the second-highest peak, Birg. We gathered our packs, coaxed our tired feet back to the trail, and began again.
I wondered achingly if our hard work would be dimmed by the fact that we could not reach our original destination. By the time we reached Birg, though, with its cable car stop, cafe, restrooms and shining glass observation deck, we had no regrets. We stood staring for several long minutes, trying to catch our breath – a joke in the oxygen-thin air. The contrast of white and green hurt our eyes, the shock of cold air hurt our overworked lungs. We tracked the melting glacial ice from the mountaintops down into the swollen valley streams, trying to comprehend the great distance we had covered on foot. We gawked at the snow-covered peaks of the Jungfrau, Monch, and Eiger, and marveled out loud how anyone could possibly climb those imposing and deadly peaks.
We felt the tourists around us wrinkle up their noses at our sweaty, dirty look, and we in return scoffed at them, foreigners dressed to the nines in designer hiking boots and fleeces they hadn’t put to any sort of test as they had paid over $100 dollars for the cable car straight to the top. They would never know the amazing beauties and difficulties we had collected on the trail. We’d earned these views in a way we’d never forget.
Reluctantly we rode the cable car back down, overcoming my fear just enough to peek out and see our mountain grow taller and taller as we sank back down into the valley. Now back in the United States, the beauty of fall dissolving into the gray dullness of late November, my hiking boots are stuffed in the closet and sea-level air has coddled my body. The mountains are calling again, and I longingly wonder when I’ll be able to answer.
It was by far the most challenging experience of the summer, and one that has stuck with us across the miles and borders. We now remind ourselves that what may seem like the end of a journey might only be a resting place to recollect your wits and continue the climb. We think back fondly to the time we lay in the grass mid-way up the mountain, thinking doomed thoughts, only to find at the end of our trail the most exhilarating – and rewarding- view of our lives.
Have you found yourself changing plans mid-journey? Are you planning a journey for 2016? Tell us on social media, using the hashtag “YourJourneyAwaits.”