Via Alpina Green Trail Altdorf to Adelboden
29 September—7 October 2010
The idea of the trip appeared contradictory at first. Is it really possible to combine rough backcountry experience with Swiss bliss? The answer, as I found for myself, is an emphatic yes.
It combined exhausting hikes during the day (climbed 12,157m on 144km of trails in 7 days), comfortable accommodations (hot shower and bed every night), haut cuisine (cheese, chocolate, fresh bread, muesli, and three-course meals), cheap ($750, including free first-class airline ticket), all with non-stop spectacular scenery in the middle of the Swiss alpine mountains.
I started the hike at the end of September: late enough to enjoy solitude and early enough avoid heavy snow. Yet, on my first day, I swam through waist-deep snow up slippery rock to Surenenpass at 2,291m. It took me three hours to reach the pass from the last sign that had estimated the time to be only an hour. Shortage of oxygen did not help either at that elevation, as it was my first day on the mountains coming from sea-level. Near the top, there was a warming hut where I spent at least an hour recovering, warming up, and feasting on some delicatessen I had picked up in the morning from Altdorf.
There was also the day climbing up from Griesalp to Hohtürli pass—the highest on the route at 2,778m. Near the top, the trail became narrow on the edge of a steep cliff. I could not imagine any way to climb it. There was simply too much snow and ice. And while there were ladders and ropes, they were covered with white stuff. Step by step, with intense focus and use of gear, I made it. Moreover, the caretakers of the Blüemlis alpine hut near the top offered me hearty lunch topped with a homemade apricot pie. The Swiss Alpine Club and its sections operate 153 huts in the Swiss Alps. The Blüemlis was closed for lodging but still open for day use.
As much as I think of the pain endured during the hikes, as much as I think of the pleasure I felt admiring the vast mountains, drinking spring water from the source, diving in a frigid alpine lake, and waking up to the sight of high peaks all around. Nothing beats waking up in Grindelwald looking at the Eiger and Jungfrau mountains rising 2,000m straight up from the valley, while the sun shines on vivid blue sky, bright green pastures, and impeccable Swiss villages.
The Via Alpina web site has the ultimate guide book, generated custom for you, free of charge, along with the GPS track.
The guidebook includes detailed information about each stage of the hike, including:
- Points of interest
- Route markers
- Background and history
Follow these steps to generate your own:
- Open a web browser and navigate to http://via-alpina.org/
- Select “EN” for English in the top right corner
- From “The Trails” menu on the top, select “Create your own Guidebook”
- Select the starting stage
- Select the ending stage
- Select the stage information to include in the guidebook. I selected all
- Select “Download GPX” from the left hand column
Remember to order your free copy of the Tour Diary.
The trip went clockwise, landing in Zürich (ZRH airport), hiking from Altdorf, finishing in Adelboden, and departing from Genève (GVA airport).
Below was my daily itinerary. Time estimates, distances, and elevations are according to Via Alpina web site. The time estimates do not include much allowance for breaks. For an average, or even faster than average hiker, add 10-15% to the time estimates to allow for stopping to eat, change layers, rest, and take pictures.
Estimated Hike Time
|Wednesday 29 September 2010||Travel to ZRH. Take train from airport to Zug. Shop at Kaktus Outdoor for any missing outdoor gear. Stay at Hostel Zug (CHF35.80)||-||-||-||-|
|Thursday||Take bus to Altdorf. Hike to Engelberg. Stay in Hostel Engelberg (CHF33.00 including breakfast)||10:20||25.9||1,938||1,304|
|Friday 01 October 2010||Hike to Meiringen. Take short train ride to Brienz. Stay in Brienz Youth Hostel (CHF30.50 including breakfast)||09:40||28.4||1,686||1,959|
|Saturday||Hike to Grindelwald. Stay in Grindelwald Hostel (CHF33.20 including breakfast)||07:50||22.0||1,584||1,139|
|Sunday||Rest another day in Grindelwald, shop, mail gifts, play, and watch hockey.||-||-||-||-|
|Monday||Hike to Lauterbrunnen. Stay in Valley Hostel (CHF28.00 breakfast not included, free internet)||06:50||17.8||1,244||1,430|
|Tuesday||Hike to Griesalp. Stay at Naturfreundehaeuser (CHF70.00 including dinner feast and hearty breakfast)||09:00||19.6||2,374||1,776|
|Wednesday||Hike to Kandersteg. Stay at Scout Center (CHF15.30 including breakfast)||07:10||14.5||1,793||1,929|
|Thursday||Hike to Adelboden. Take train to Geneva. Stay at Geneva Hostel (CHF29.00 including breakfast||07:10||15.6||1,538||1,341|
I wanted to pack light, enjoy the scenery, and sustain all weather conditions. And that worked on this trip. I hiked through heavy snow, cold weather, rain, and severe wind, switching in between to sunny warm days hiking in shorts and light shirt.
My entire Arc’teryx Silo 30 backpack weighed 6.5kg as I boarded the plane, which included everything I needed for the entire trip, except more food and water.
- Boots (Keen PCT). I cannot imagine anything that can stop these workhorses. They kept my feet warm when sunk in snow for hours, sustained heavy rain, protected against endless bumps with rock, and stayed comfortable when the sun came out. I had three minor blisters through the entire trip.
- Wool socks (Keen Bellingham Crew Mid). Two pairs.
- Light pants (Outdoor Research Equinox). Mid-layer, on warm days, and just to be comfortable in the evening.
- Shorts (Sugoi RSR). Base layer as underpants that I used the only layer for at least one warm day. They were easy to exchange with the light pants when one of them was being washed.
- Thermal long pants light weight (REI Lightweight Polartec Power Dry)
- Long sleeve shirt, mid-weight, base layer (Ex-Officio Migrator). This shirt was most versatile and got most use. It worked as the base layer on cold days and the only layer on warm days. It was a bit too warm when climbing on sunny days.
- Rain pants (Arc’teryx Alpha SL). I had a little bit of a price shock when I first bought these pants. But now, I would gladly buy them again. I wanted them to keep me dry, and they succeeded magnificently.
- They fit fine over multiple layers when hiking in the snow. They felt great as the only layer when hiking in the rain on warm days.
- Rain jacket (Outdoor Research Elixir). Kept me dry during rain and warm in severe cold wind.
- Sun hat (Outdoor Research Sombriolet). Wide rim to protect from the sun and waterproof with ventilation to protect from the rain.
- Wool beanie hat (Outdoor Research Flurry). Extra warmth day and night.
- Wool gloves (Outdoor Research Flurry). Base layer on cold wet days and main layer on cool dry days.
- Outer shell mittens (Outdoor Research Snowline). Outer shell over the wool gloves in rain and snow.
Towel (MSR PackTowl).
- Long sleeve shirt, mid-weight (Sugoi Speedster 2). I liked this one particularly because it has a hood for extra warmth. It dries very quickly too.
- Gators (Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain). Low cut gators that protected mostly from the mud and kept my feet dry in the rain.
- Vest (Arc’teryx Covert). Kept the body core warm.
- Poles (MSR Denali II). They were indispensable on the trip to balance on rocky terrain, climb on rock covered with snow, and save knees on steep descents. These cannot be carried on the plane. I had to package them separately and check them in as luggage.
- Headlight (Petzl Tikka XP). Did not need to hike at night. I used it mostly for reading in the evening.
- Knife (Columbia River M16-01T Titanium)
- Sunglasses (Rudy Project Rydon).
- Water bladder and tube (Platypus). Two liters.
- Water bottle (Kleen Kanteen). Extra water reserve. Easy to carry around and use in the evenings.
- Backpack (Arc’teryx Silo 30). Plenty of pockets to organize gear, and one pocket for the water bladder and an opening for the tube. Plenty of straps. May be too many straps for this hike, which I could have easily removed (I usually use it for backcountry skiing to carry skis and snowshoes). The bag held very well in the rain and kept all my gear dry even thought I did not have a cover for it.
- Compass (Suunto Global MC-2G).
- Signal mirror.
- Toiletry bag. Tooth brush, lip balm, tooth paste, sunscreen, soap (Dr Bronner’s liquid that doubled up for showers and laundry).
- Medical kit.
- Hydration tablets (Nuun).
- Phone, charger, and cable. Search for nearby services, check email, and make Skype phone calls.
- GPS (Garmin Edge 705) and charger USB cable. The unit was loaded with the GPX track for the route from http://www-via-alpina.org. Confirm route, calculate moving average speed, estimate remaining time, and record hike history.
- Batteries (3 AAA). Extra batteries for headlight.
- USB battery (Duracell Powerhouse). Backup battery for iPhone and GPS.
The required maps are listed in the guide you generate from Via Alpina web site, depending on the sections you will hike. You can then purchase those maps from Swisstopo.
I relied on my GPS, iPhone maps, and the many maps of the trail available everywhere along the way. I would take pictures of these maps to use when needed. I was comfortable that not all three of these electronic maps will fail at once.
The Ten Essentials
Do not be tempted to ignore the ten essentials. It is true that the route is popular, dotted with services, and well marked. Yet, weather on the mountains was extreme, sections of the trail were frightening, and services ran on their own schedule.
Refer to The Mountaineers list for details.
- Food: you will find a Coop or Migros convenient stores at each town. They carry delicious variety of bread (baked on demand in some stores), cheese, chocolate, meat, canned food, and other varieties. I carried all my food. There were services along the route in mountain restaurants and huts. They were mostly closed at this time of the year.
- Griesalp was the only town that did not have a grocery store. Instead, I had some food from the day before, packed some more from Naturfreundehaeuser, and stopped at Blüemlis alpine hut on Hohtürli pass for lunch.
- Water: I carried three liters of water with Nuun hydration tablets. One liter was on reserve for emergency use. I refilled the other two when they got low. There were many mountain springs along the route. Water was abundantly available.
- Internet access: available everywhere, rarely free, about CHF4.00 for 20 minutes.
- Lodging: make hotel reservations in advance. Even during a seemingly “off-season”, there were times when I had to look around for availability when booking two months in advance.
- Breakfast at hostels included the typical Swiss fair: muesli, cheese, cold meat cuts, bread, milk, and some cereal.
- Laundry: some hostels had washing machines and driers, each costing about CHF2.00. All hostels had a washing basin.
- Weather: it really could have been anything. I hiked through cold snow, warm sun, and heavy rain.
- English is commonly spoken or at least understood enough along the route. This was the case even when I met four elderly natives from a mountain village, as they described to me the severe conditions on Surenenpass.