Why Switzerland and why hiking?
The idea of a hike started with a group of old colleagues, not age old but previous. The intention was to organise some downhill trail riding, not hiking at all, in Switzerland on the well-groomed mountain bike trails! Why Switzerland, well one of said colleagues, David, lives there so seems like as good a reason as any and an EasyJet flight is reasonable and as cheap as driving anywhere in the UK.
Hold on but you said hiking not biking....
Indeed, as things evolved and plans and dates started to firm up one of the colleagues couldn't make it so it left me and David to figure out what to do. After mulling what to do and me mentioning signing up for an Expedition Course in Scotland, him being a regular mountain marathon runner we struck a happy medium of a hike. A little research latter and David had found some amazing hiking routes and the possibility of staying in Swiss Alpine Club huts. Well off the beaten track, challenging terrain and something neither of had done before. We both agreed this would be a viable alternative.
I'll be honest, I didn't do much of the planning! David researched popular hiking routes that would be not more than a two-hour drive away from Zurich. Other criteria included a circular route and something achievable over two and half days and two nights in huts.
This led us to Göschenen, a small village in Canton of Uri in the foothills of the Alps about an hour and a half drive away. Plenty of huts to choose from and a good selection of alpine and mountain paths; the former including sections of Via Ferrata or Klettersteig; iron road or climbing path. For those sections, a safety harness and helmet are essential.
Our route in red from Göschenen to VoralpHutte to DammaHutte back to Goschenen
Via Ferrata are basically very narrow paths or jagged rock face with a bit of cable, or a ladder, stapled to a mountain! On hearing this, and seeing some pictures David had kindly sent over, my nerves started jangling. At this point I should say I am not very comfortable with high, open, unsecure spaces. For example, I can stand at the top of the Shard without any problem and lean against the glass but if it were a waist height barrier I wouldn’t go anywhere near.
After arriving late Thursday evening, EasyJet delays, I stayed at David house in a pretty village on Lake Zurich for the night. We had a quick discussion on the Via Ferrata harness (I think I audibly gulped!) and we both retired after agreeing to be on the road by 7am.
We got away pretty much on time and after a quick Lake Zurich ferry crossing we soon hit the motorways and ninety minutes later, and a sharp right turn before the Gotthard Tunnel, we were in Göschenen.
We parked at the railway station, sat on the bed of the car boot to change into our hiking boots, lifted our rucksacks onto our backs and we were off. A short five minutes and we were on the first of our mountain paths heading up to the lunch stop at Salbithütte, residing at an altitude of 2105 meters. This first 6.5k hike through the wooded foothills was good going, on rooted but good paths, with an ascent of just under 1000 meters.
The weather, sadly, could only best be described as dank, wet and misty with a slight chill. This we hoped would lift but there appeared to be little sign of sun even when we emerged from the treeline into more of an alpine vista; more shingle and rocky.
At the lunch stop we checked progress, pace, time and ascent and mused on the next piece to come; the first section of Klettersteig, including a suspension bridge! Our pace was good and were positive we would get to the overnight stop in daylight, some 9 kilometres away. Easy right...
Lunch done, I had a turkey sandwich, David a Wurst and the biggest rosti possible; I held the upper hand on healthy choices! Knowing what lay ahead I was already nervous. The weather had not lifted so there was no view to be awestruck by to divert my attention.
Approach to the bridge...
Well above the treeline there was another 300 meters climb over increasingly rocky terrain until we reached the bridge. We rounded a corner and there it was. Well there was the big orange marker and galvanised steel plinth. The other side not visible due to the mist still clinging, mercilessly, to the mountain. That, for me, was not a terrible thing!
We started putting on the harnesses and helmets, I’ll admit I wasn't rushing and this wasn't hiking now. A higher power perhaps realised that I was nervous and, mistakenly, thought it must be because visibility is low; let's clear this up. By the time I was harnessed up the mist had gone... how lovely! To my surprise it was a steep up and down and had quiet the bounce but over we went.
Easy, relief, on one side quick crossing and off the other, back to hiki... what?
Ladders you say. Ok, how hard...
A big one you say. Ok, but it's straig...
Curved you say. Ok, how hard can...
About 10 meters you say...
In the general scheme of things that wouldn't be a massive challenge. I'd almost forgotten about my new Alpkit backpack that was so comfortable... until I hit the curve and it was suddenly a load downwards.
Now I am effectively bear crawling, hoping my boots would grip to the wet metal, holding on with one hand whilst unclipping and reclipping two carabiners every couple of meters as the cable passed through the eyelets holding it to the mountain.
All my gear pushing me down, core control was paramount! Sadly, no photos of that. It was both hands on ladder or just one when changing clips, safety first people!
Challenge one done! Our rocky path lay ahead, wisps of mist and patches of blue came and went.
We were now scrambling, spotting the blue and white markers depicting the path ahead and toward challenge two. The mist rolling in and out, David went first. He mostly went first; did I mention he climbs when he's not running... some people!
This section was mostly unsighted, the mist stop rolling and just hung. The mist provided a couple of meters visibility ahead, behind and, thankful, down. It would be an overstatement to call this a path. It was, in my humble opinion, a ledge at best. IMG_1476
Little known to me at the time, probably for the best, we were working our way around the inner part of another gorge. I expect a bridge here was deemed pointless. Cables, bits of rope and a higgledy piggledy ladder at the end. Oh yes, not one ladder all the way up but a series. Stepping from one to the other, finding a hand hold, unclipping and reclipping to progress up and up. The reward, we were above the mist and what a reward. The awe began, the nervousness left and a sense of achievement started to dawn.
Still a way to go with the most challenging parts were over...
We ploughed on, hiking resumed, reaching a high point of just over 2400 meters, working along the ridge line. That area where the mountain's plateau meets the rock face of piercing shards reaching higher and higher.
Our overnight hut, Voralphutte came into view. Right there in the valley, plain to see and within touching distance. Only 100 meters down... no distance and a couple cold beers with our names on for a good day’s work.
100 meters down, it turns out is quite a long way. Zig zag, it is getting close I'm sure. 15 minutes gone. Does someone keep moving it. Zig zag, it is definitely getting bigger. 30 minutes gone. ARE WE THERE YET! For the record about an hour and we had arrived. Boots off, Crocs on, room shown, kit dumped, beer bought.
Early start, turns out no hot water or showers in the huts; power is conserved for essentials lighting and cooking. Keeping clean is an icy water, body wash affair. Refreshing yet startling wakeup call!
The morning had blessed us with a chill but clear skies and a promising outlook. Off we set, a meander through the valley before our first ascent. Grass and mud relinquished to stony paths and then a large boulder field. Warmth now in our bodies soothing the aches of the previous day's hiking the sanctity of the hut now a few hundred metres below us. Scrambling over boulders to a point in the distance of sharp outcrops of rock with no visible onward path where we could only see one last blue and white marker.
Behind us the rocky gateway enabled a full 180-degree view of the previous days march now clearly visible. Ahead of us the valley opened our next 48 hours walking, toward our lunch stop, the reservoir and day two stop over. A steep descent from the gateway and last Via Ferrata, at least for me, I didn’t feel safe or confident enough to just hold onto the cable. A local in a flat cap waltzed by like the 50-foot drop was meh!
The boulder fields on this side heading toward lunch were significant. Each one a mini climb and scramble. Every now and then they would align more conveniently where a small hop or 1-2-3 step sequence would see me glide effortlessly, they were few but welcome. The terrain continued like this until our lunch stop; bread and cheese, water refill and onward. Now that I was focusing on my foot alignment my knee pain started to subside.
At this stage, the path became more groomed. Winding down toward the reservoir these paths were heavily trafficked as they welcome day hikers starting out from Goscheneralp. Down and along the right of the rich blue glacial water, through farmland.
Cows and sheep playing the music of the mountains with their differently toned bells accompanied by the urgent rush of the water from source to rest. A gracious butterfly taking rest on my hand. This was good hiking, good pace a chance to keep moving with a natural gait, almost restful with the heat of the day building.
A chance to wander to the edge of the lake and dip weary blistered feet into the cold, the initially painful cold icy, water. It was welcome, however, and allowed some stillness to reflect and absorb the surroundings.
Feet air dried and patched up, dry socks on and boots tied back on we were off. Toward the overnight stop, a big climb anticipated, path type unknown but a beer in mind.
The path continued, mainly good with rocky interruptions, tight and winding. Hairpin turns raising us ten metres each leg, height being gained quickly.
A glimpse of a flag, was that Dammahutte? Can’t see it now, maybe not. Keep climbing. This was relentless, hairpin, climb, hairpin, climb. Was that the flag? Can you see it, we must be close? You’ve got to hand it to the SAC, positioning the huts to create the illusion, and temptation, you are near and then removing it from sight.
We had worked out that we only had 100 metres to go, as the crow flies and directly above us. Accounting for the zig-zag hiking to ‘flatten’ the climb it was really a kilometre or so.
A friendly herd of goats, playing their own music, were interested to find out how we tasted. If an Alpkit pack tastes better than a Berghaus pack; its important and a review unlikely to be found in Trail Magazine. They accompanied us until there were others with different kit to ‘review’.
A couple descending from the hut informed us that it was only 5 minutes away now, despite still being invisible, and the beer was good. This provided the final burst of energy required and on the final turn it revealed itself. Perched, almost precariously, on a small plateau, our food and lodgings for Saturday evening.
Boots off, Crocs on, dormitory shown, kit dumped, beer bought.
A storm, a double rainbow, watching the sun dance across the receding glacier provided visual stimulation. Communal eating and sharing stories, cultural differences, BREXIT, provided mental stimulation. Strangers are no longer strangers.
Wow so tired! I’ve never slept in a dormitory. Mixed, thirty people, mostly dirty/sweaty from hiking, kit hanging and ‘airing’. The stench was palpable! Waking, and the descent to the ground floor and outside bathroom was truly welcome. Breakfast more so.
Our final day, destination the car and promise of a hot shower and BBQ. This was an active recovery hike. It was, in an altitude sense, all downhill from here.
A retrace of the zig-zag a different almost relaxing hiking experience downward. A detour to see if getting to the mouth of the cave and source of glacial water was feasible, sadly it wasn’t. Back to the path, along the other side of the reservoir in the distance the dam looking small. Re-meeting our dinner friends at various points.
Pace good, weather clear and crisp and warming.
The dam growing, people becoming identifiable started to present the real scale. It is a large natural dam, rocks rather than concrete, though one would expect a significant amount of engineering was required.
On the dry side, grass adorned and lush the valley opens in stark contrast to the rocky outcrops.
The view disappears
This was a straight walk to the finish and the biggest distance we will have covered in the three days. The walk flowed well, the scenery changing from open grassland, to forest trails.
The mountains getting smaller, disappearing and reappearing, the perspective ever changing.
Surprisingly fewer walkers on this stretch as many drive up to the dam from the main village. A road that is impassable in winter.
Progress was good, my aches and knee pain ebbing, my mind casting forward to my Scottish trip but too early to start wondering how it would compare.
Goschenen came up surprisingly quickly, flags announcing its presence through the trees. One for the town, one the canton and one the country; every town the same, a sense of pride in where you live locally, regionally and in the world.
The station and then the car.
Boots off, packs off, a few moments looking back at the view. Reflecting on three days of time in great company, hard terrain, challenging myself surrounded by pure natural beauty.
So, do you think we’d get another hike in before the snow comes…!