The Swiss have built about 22,000 miles of trails through their Alps, so the hiker has plenty of routes to choose from. But how to choose? If you come to this challenge as we did -- ignorantly--you would do well to consult William Reifsnyder's "Footloose in the Swiss Alps," a Sierra Club booklet that concisely describes the regions, the trails, the sights and the possible accommodations, and lists everything the sensible backpacker (male and female) should bring along. (But be warned: some of the bergwegs, or mountain paths, require not only sturdy hiking boots, which Reifsnyder mentions, but a fair degree of trittsciehrheit, or sure-footedness, which he takes for granted.) You will also want a detailed topographical map of the area you choose, with the trails clearly marked.
(Maps, train schedules and the invaluable "Footloose" itself are sold at the Swiss National Travel Office, 608 Fifth Ave., N.Y., 212-757-5944.) Hostelries: Switzerland's mountains are an Alpine hiker's dream. Not only do they offer spectacular views of the region, but nestled within those peaks are accommodations for campers and climbers to stop and rest comfortably for a few nights.
These hostelries are open all year to anyone; you don't need a reservation.
The Alpenhof in Stechelberg (in the shadow of the Eiger Mountain in the Burnese Alps) is an example: There are private as well as communal bedrooms that can accommodate up to eight persons. The central kitchen area has dishes for 100 people. The Alpenhof accepts only cash payments--no credit cards. During the summer months there is always a caretaker available--usually someone from the village. As there is no maid service visitors are expected to clean up after themselves before leaving Alpenhof. Climbers are expected to supply their own maps and hiking equipment.
The Swiss Friends of Nature is an international club that informs its members about area hostelries. Club members also get a 50-percent discount on rooms. Prices run between $4 to $7.50 per night (excluding the discount), depending on the hostelry. Though anyone can join the organization, Swiss tourist officials discourage Americans from joining. They point out that the nightly cost is so low the discount does not make much difference, and American members also end up paying extra surcharges on the monthly magazine mailed out as part of the membership.
The club's address is: Swiss Friends of Nature, P.O. Box 281, 8036 Zurich. Zentralsekretariat, phone 01-241-9983. Reservations can be made by calling (in Zurich) 01-241-0202 between 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. For additional information in the United States, contact the Swiss National Travel Office.
Most hostelries sport communal kitchens and bathrooms. The kitchens can accommodate up to 100 people, but the huts on the higher elevation mountains can only house 10 to 20 persons. These alpine huts, built into the rocks, are generally used for serious mountain climbers and are more primitive in design.