Hiking the Via Alpina – the path is the aim (for Switzerland Tourism)

This article was written for Switzerland Tourism’s Summer Magazine 2019.

Sitting at the Blüemlisalphütte at 2840 m above sea level, I watch the sun setting outside the hut with a hot fruit tea. It’s been a long day, and my legs are tired after climbing 1450 m to get here. But watching the vibrant blue and red layered sky, I feel that it has all been worth it, many times over.

This hike from Griesalp to Kandersteg isn’t easy – especially in hot weather like today. The climb to the halfway point, the Hohtürli, is long and hard, and more than once I pause and wonder how much more there is to go. But spending so much time in the mountains has made me a lot stronger, and not just physically. You need a lot of mental strength to hike a mountain on your own. There’s no one to cheer you on but yourself, and your success is all down to you. But if you tell yourself you’ll get there, you will.

IMAGE © STEFAN TSCHUMI for Switzerland Tourism

I started hiking the Via Alpina two summers ago, spending my weekends crossing the width of Switzerland from east to west; from Vaduz in Liechtenstein to Montreux. Most people who want to hike the 380 km Swiss part of the Via Alpina do it over a few weeks. But I’ve done it slowly, one stage at a time. Gradually, with each of the 20 stages I’ve walked, I’ve drawn a line all the way across Switzerland, both on the ground with my feet and with a pen on my map. I know now I’m much stronger than I thought I was.

On any of the long and arduous day hikes of the Via Alpina, you’ll finish the day on a high of happy exhaustion and accomplishment. Your mind will have new memories to keep for a lifetime as well: the path will have taken you through some of the most breathtaking parts of Switzerland, especially here in the Berner Oberland.

IMAGE © STEFAN TSCHUMI for Switzerland Tourism

At this time of year, everything is jumping into bloom. I’m spellbound by the sea of pink, yellow, white and purple alpine flowers. I love the Alpenrose, a hardy pink shrub that appears in clusters. But this time I stop and admire a new favourite: vibrant Kurzblatt-Enzian, a richer and darker blue than anything else I’ve seen in the mountains.

There are birds too, especially the black Alpendohle that glide on the wind and love being above high mountains. They soar above the layered rocks that tell the million-year geological story that lives on around you. Here in nature, I feel relaxed and balanced. I feel most like myself.

When I see the views from the Hohtürli, I know exactly why I exhaust myself at altitude instead of staying at home. The awe-inspiring Blüemlisalp glacier is towering over me, next to my destination for the night: the Blüemlisalphütte. The Blüemlisalphütte is a small, cosy wooden space, and after a long day hiking I sit at a simple dinner table with strangers. But everyone talks to everyone, and they make room for me at the table, serve my soup, and say en guete, enjoy your meal. I’m surrounded by people of different nationalities, but we all feel at home here. We all share a love for the Swiss mountains.

My hikes in the Swiss Alps are usually solo adventures, taking me deeper into the mountains and to a deeper understanding of myself. But there are always people you meet, even if you walk alone. With every conversation I have with other mountain people, whether in huts or back in life’s hustle and bustle, I realise I’m not the only who turns to a long hiking path for more than exercise.

IMAGE © STEFAN TSCHUMI for Switzerland Tourism

Looking north, I can see all the way to Lake Thun. To the west, I can see the zigzagging paths to Kandersteg. This will be my route tomorrow. I’ll set off from the hut down the loose rocky ground and – still in early July – over some snowfields. This is one of the highest points of the Via Alpina, and the air feels thinner, your lungs slightly less full. It’s a real adventure.

One of the most beautiful parts of the hike will come tomorrow, when I reach the ridge over Kandersteg and see the glacial blue of the Oeschinensee twinkling under the sun. At its eastern side, there are small waterfalls splashing into the lake, with a few fishermen in their boats close by. When I get to the lake, I’ll dive in, happy to have brought my swimsuit. The Oeschinensee is nature’s own bath for weary hikers, and if you’ve walked the long distance from Griesalp, you deserve it. Don’t expect warm waters, though; this is glacial meltwater, after all. The water instantly wakes you up, coursing blood through your veins.

IMAGE © STEFAN TSCHUMI for Switzerland Tourism

Mountains bring me back to myself. A long hike, a night in a mountain hut, and time spent with rocks, flowers and the birds: they show me that life is simpler than I sometimes think. On a long hike like this, I learn more about myself and see what fills my mind when I’m away from the world, my work, and device screens. I recognise when I’m stressed out and can start to rebalance myself. I open up space in my mind, and creative solutions to my problems or worries appear out of nowhere. I always step away from the mountains with a renewed sense of where I want to go next in life.

There are few things I love more than the first few steps of a hike. Everything suddenly becomes simpler. All you need to do is put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Your only goal is the path ahead. You always get something out of it, but you can never tell what until you lace up your boots and get going.

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