Walking across the Berner Oberland on the Via Alpina

Every so often, I check in to see how my life is going in different areas (work, love, health, play, that kind of thing). Some of those look very different now than back in spring. Some of the changes have been good, others have been more challenging. Some have made me pour whisky. But more often than not, I’ve turned to the mountains for thinking time.

I live right on the Via Alpina green trail: a 380km route across Switzerland that crosses from Sargans in the East to Montreux in the West. I started walking it last summer, ticking off the stages between Meiringen to Grindelwald and Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen. This year, I wanted to keep going.

Over weekends, I covered 11 stages of the Via Alpina route: from Altdorf to Engelberg, Engstlenalp, Meiringen, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Griesalp, Kandersteg, Adelboden, Lenk, Gstaad, and L’Etivaz.

I crossed mountain passes, left and re-entered cantons, and finally crossed the language border from German to French-speaking Switzerland in my last hike of the year, from Gstaad to L’Etivaz. I’ve drawn a line across half of my map of Switzerland. I ended one day hike at my front door, and started another one at it. I’ve learnt so much about where I live and the other beautiful places around it.

Quantifiable metrics: 207km, 15,340m elevation gain, 5 cantons (Uri, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Bern, Vaud)

Harder to quantify (but probably a lot): time spent thinking, occurrence of overthinking, chocolate consumed, # of times lunch was consumed before lunchtime.

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Some days were harder than others, especially the long ones. I struggled with the 32km and 2200m climb from Engelberg to Engstlenalp and Meiringen in July. But on that day, the satisfaction of the hike ending right on my doorstep made up for it.

I sometimes got a bit too focused on getting to the highest point of the day. From there, I’d feel the pressure lifted and enjoy the downhill. It’s one of my biggest strengths and weaknesses, being so goal-oriented. But the real joy has absolutely been in the long hours spent dragging myself up mountains.

I wanted to try and complete the entire route across Switzerland, but it wasn’t to be. I’m hoping there will be other opportunities to walk the remaining 173km, even if I’m not still living here next year. And regardless, I wanted to keep this fun – as a way to think, to enjoy the process of putting one foot in front of another, and just enjoy being nature. I did that.

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I didn’t hike the eleven stages from Altdorf to L’Etivaz in order. My Saturday or Sunday morning decisions were more influenced by how close the starting point was, how much energy I had, and where there probably wouldn’t be rain. It worked out well.

Stage 7: Altdorf to Engelberg

29km, over the Surenenpass (2292m). Photos from my hike in October.

Stages 8 and 9: Engelberg – Engstlenalp – Meiringen

32km, over the Jochpass (2207m). Photos from my hike in July.

Stage 10: Meiringen to Grindelwald

23km, over Grosse Scheidegg (1962m). Photos from my hike in July.

Stage 11: Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen

20km, over Kleine Scheidegg (2061m). Photos from my hike in September.

Stage 12: Lauterbrunnen to Griesalp

20km, over the Sefinenfurggepass (2612m). Photos from my hike in early September, watch out for unpredictable snow up high, this got tough to find the way!

Stage 13: Griesalp to Kandersteg

16km, over the Hohtürli pass (2778m). Photos from my hike in July.

Stage 14: Kandersteg to Adelboden

16km, over the Bunderchrindepass (2385m). Photos from my hike in July.

Stage 15: Adelboden to Lenk

14km, over the Hahenmoospass (1950m). Photos from my hike in September.

Stage 16: Lenk to Gstaad

21km, over the Trüttlisbergpass (2038m). Photos from my hike in September.

Stage 17: Gstaad to L’Etivaz

16km, past the language border at Col de Jable (1884m). Photos from my hike in October, with autumnal colours on the trees.

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To plan your own Via Alpina hikes, I’d recommend looking at both the Activity Workshop and Schweiz Mobil websites. They each give good overviews of the different stages and what to expect in terms of elevation and physical difficulty.