IN SWITZERLAND, dairy farmers do business at the base of vast glaciers. Spectacular mountain peaks are honeycombed with railroad tunnels. And thousands of feet above the nearest road or village, a hiker can check his tired carcass into an inn that boasts electricity, , first salt food and the most exalted of Swiss amenities, modern plumbing.
Civilization and wilderness, in short, live in uniquely close quarters. So an Alpine vacation can satisfy two of the basic bodily urges--the urge to be stretched and the urge to be soothed--at the same time. And an Alpine side trip can be an exhilarating interlude in the usual brand of grand European tour, the one chock full of museums and old buildings. (Art and architecture are not Switzerland's strong suits--perhaps because where nature has done such awe-inspiring work, man's visual flourishes seem redundant.)
It was the British rather than the Swiss themselves who discovered the country's tourist potential and who began the extraordinary process of railroad-building that has resulted, a hundred years later, in a land whose most celebrated natural wonders can be observed without getting off your hindquarters. Which is how many tourists do observe Switzerland's wonders. But by using your legs, you can see and feel (and smell) much more of what the Alps have to offer. And because civilization and technology never are far off, you can explore the Alps without the training, equipment or stores demanded by any of the world's other great mountain ranges.
We decided to do our hiking in the Bernese Oberland, a much-traveled zone of peaks, glaciers, passes and high meadows facing the Rhine Valley in the northwest of Switzerland. Checking our superfluous luggage in Bern, we took an eye-filling train ride around the Thuner See, a mountain-enclosed lake, and changed trains in Interlaken for the even more scenic, narrow-gauge journey to the town of Lauterbrunnen. (Swiss trains always are on time and run so frequently on most routes that there is hardly any need to check schedules beforehand; just go to the station and you won't have to wait long. Another convenience for the hiker is the ability to send luggage from one station to another, so you needn't end your hike where you begin it.)
On the train to Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Alps of central Switzerland, we had our first glimpse of the formidable threesome, the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, rough-hewn and snowcapped--even in early July--against a brilliant blue sky, with gray-white glaciers, rocky slopes and steep forests and meadows angling down toward the foaming river at the valley's base.
But these mountains are deceptive: you see them through a train window and think you have seen all there is to see. Then, as you venture nearer on foot, winding your way up through the forests and around the rocks and ridges that periodically obscure your view, you find that every new vantage point is dramatically different, and your peripheral vision--up and down as well as sideways--creates vistas that totally transcend the rectangular picture of the Alps immortalized by postcards and movies.
The hiking trail from Lauterbrunnen to Stechelberg juts up against several small farms where we saw parents and children busy cutting and stacking hay, quite oblivious to the procession of hikers marching by at close range. This was the first lesson of the journey--that the rural Swiss have grown thoroughly accustomed to living under the scrutiny of strangers. Then came the second lesson--that a waterfall is not a big event in the Alps. It is just the routine way a stream gets from there to here. Almost whenever we looked up, we saw powerful spouts of water pouring over the rim of the valley wall and plunging downward, hundreds of feet at a plunge, then disappearing into the rock for a stretch and shooting out into the air anew--one, two, three of them and, before long, too many to count. We spent our first night at the Naturfreundehaus, one of the simple but comfortable Alpine hostelries run by hiking, skiing and climbing clubs--many of which, like the Naturfreundehaus, offer private rooms as well as dormitory-style matrazenlagers. The next morning, Tuesday, the serious hiking began. Heading up a steep, tree-shrouded trail, full of switchbacks, we climbed more than 2,500 feet in four sweaty hours. The urge to rest struck often, but as the forest gave way to high grass, we could blame our stops on the need to inspect an extraordinary profusion of wildflowers and butterflies--an ever-shifting bouquet that, like so much about the Alps, seemed to defy all efforts to capture it in a camera viewfinder, even as it dazzled the naked eye.
Climbing further, we heard a concert of cowbells and soon met the animals responsible, grazing in a high pasture with a magnificent view of the Jungfrau (which seemed to interest the cows less than the lush grass they were busy eating). After pausing for lunch--bread, cheese and fruit purchased in Lauterbrunnen--we made an abortive attempt to reach a hut on the edge of the Schmadri glacier, but turned back because of thundershowers overhead and shale, snow and general perilousness underfoot (although on the way we met a middle-aged British couple who offered us biscuits).
At nightfall, having retraced some difficult steps, we pulled into the Berghotel Tschingelhorn, a small mountain inn built of seemingly fresh-cut and unstained pine, with a row of outdoor tables perched above a sheer drop of 2,000 feet or so, gazing across the valley at a magnificent 180-degree panorama of Alpine peaks.
Despite the lateness of our arrival, and despite the Berghotel Tschingelhorn's idyllically remote location, far from villages, roads, autos and such, we were given a superior supper of omelette, salad and wine, and sent to a very comfortable night's sleep. And when we woke, we opened the windows and shutters to an astonishingly clear morning and an awesome view of the Tschingelhorn, Breithorn, Grosshorn, Mittaghorn, Ebnefluh, Gletscherhorn and Jungfrau respectively, as we learned from our friendly proprietress.
We had our morning meal on the terrace, and were still at it when a helicopter fluttered past our breakfast table dangling a bulky, blanket-enclosed package below--an ailing cow from the neighboring farm.
Getting a late and reluctant start from the Berghotel Tschingelhorn, we descended partway back to Stechelberg, then started up a beautiful, rising path along the fringes of the next valley to the east. The path looked as if it would dead-end before a row of unassailable peaks, but after a hard day's haul it snuck around a rocky rim and zigzagged up a hill into an unexpected bowl of green--a crater of grass and wildlowers rimmed by craggy gray-brown rock on three sides and stunning white peaks on the fourth. In the middle of this crater, we spied a square brick house with a chugging chimney and a throng of loitering schoolchildren outside. This proved to be the Rotstockhutte, a dormitory-style establishment run by the Stechelberg Ski Club, where we bedded down for the night.
For the schoolchildren as for ourselves, the Rotstockhutte was a goal--the most remote point of a basically conservative itinerary. For two weary-looking brothers from Bern, however, it was a rest stop after a hard journey down from the Mutthornhutte, one of the remoter Swiss Alpine Club huts located in the center of a huge expanse of glacier. The older of the two looked to be about 30, coarse-bearded, quiet and meticulous as he laid his backpack, ropes, crampons and boots to rest on the dormitory floor. The younger was in his mid-teens and, as his brother explained, had just had his first taste of mountain-climbing. They had been on the move for 15 straight hours, rising before dawn to cross the glacier. But after the communal dinner of sausage, soup and bread, the brothers, tired as they were, walked silently out into the meadow to watch the sunset, and stayed there for a half-hour.
"The crowd at Rotstockhutte is festive," it says in the useful Sierra Club booklet, "Footloose in the Swiss Alps." "Song and revelry are the order of the evening in the crowded common room." Of course, we expected a rude, beer-guzzling display, and were ill-prepared for the slothful crew of card-players and tea-drinkers who remained once the young rowdies had been sent to bed. So when the manager had finished with the dishes and sat down for tea, we showed her our copy of "Footloose" and the passage in question, thinking she would give us a song or two at the very least. Instead, she smiled and politely explained that the author had happened upon the Rotstockhutte on an unusually lively night.
She thoughtfully had put the kids upstairs and the adults down, so we slept well--but woke to the clatter of preadolescent feet at 6 a.m. sharp. Breakfast was a hectic affair featuring stale bread and butter in the curious shape of a banana. Then we all went our ways, ours taking us out along a ridge we might have written off as impassable if not for all the signs that insisted we were following an officially endorsed trail.
In midmorning, the Jungfrau came back into view and a small jet plane whistled down the valley smack toward the side of the mountain, scooting up and over the top just in time. Clearly the pilot was having fun.
Plodding our ground-bound way around a bend, we saw the high-perched, autoless village of Murren. Murren was our goal, but first we had to get there--by way of a trail so steep and gravelly it might have been blazed by a plummeting boulder in an avalanche. We stopped to give our doubts time to fester, and as we did, a gray-haired, plump Swiss lady in picturesque garb came trotting up the path, accompanied by a small black dog. This was reassuring. We snapped their pictures and decided if they could do it, we could do it. And on that logic we made our descent.
At Murren, the hiking part of our trip came to an end and we boarded the crazy little railroad down to the valley below, then rode another train up to the high-pass settlement of Kleine Sheidegg, where we would spend our last Alpine night. Kleine Sheidegg has three things going for it--the Jungfrau, the Monch and the Eiger--and at dusk we walked up to the base of the Eiger glacier for a last closeup view of the Alps.
It was eerily quiet, the day-trippers having returned to their trains and their hotels. But as we stood on the rocky dune staring at the mountains, the waterfalls and the intermittent avalanches of glacial ice, something moved behind a nearby boulder. It was an antler, belonging to a chamois or Alpine antelope that otherwise was well-concealed along the side of the ridge. We moved closer, trying our best to be quiet and unthreatening, hoping for a better look but expecting it to be a fleeting one. Instead, the chamois walked slowly out into the open and stood there, 15 feet away, for several long and tranquil minutes. Then he ambled up toward his part of the world, and we ambled down toward ours.