Of all the ways to take on the Swiss Alps in summer -- scrambling up the Matterhorn with crampons and grit, playing lawn games at the Suvretta House in St. Moritz -- my choice was to hit the hiking trails with a slightly eccentric New York mountain man.
From the first bloom of the alpenrose to the yellowing of the larches, Fred Jacobson leads groups of 20 to 25 people on strenuous but stylish tours to some of the high points in Switzerland. You eat well, stay in comfortable inns and hotels, learn the lore of the Alps at Jacobson's heels, curse him all the way to the top of 11,000-foot peaks -- and maybe come back the next year for more.
My fortnight with Fred was in the Engadine, a broad valley of snow-capped mountains and pine-edged lakes tucked up to the Italian and Austrian borders. Most people know the Engadine, if they know it at all, for the chic resort St. Moritz. Jacobson's Engadine tours rather pointedly avoid St. Moritz -- too effete, too commercial -- and are based in Pontresina and Sils Maria.
Staying in lower-voltage towns and following the sign-posted trails about the valley, you meet the Engadiners themselves, who speak an ancient dialect called Romansch and live in stone houses bearing carved historic legends known as sgraffito. And tagging along with Jacobson, head of Alpine Trails of Chappaqua, N.Y., you discover the tastiest bakeries, the most scenic mountain cafes, the friendliest mixed saunas in the valley.
Jacobson, 51, a former Wall Street investment banker, has spent more than 30 summers hiking and climbing in the Swiss Alps and has led group tours for 16. A Fred-led tour means having a guide, food critic and social historian (he confesses to only marginal expertise in geology) all in one. His tours are spread across the high balconies of Switzerland, but the Engadine may be his favorite venue, and perforce the one he knows best.
Pontresina, our first base of operations, was only beginning to greet the summer in late June. Snow still covered the lower peaks that rear just above the narrow, tidy resort town. Wildflowers brightened the surrounding valley floors. An early trickle of tourists pawed at the boots and packs, ice picks and leather shorts set out in sport shops on the main street.
Between the brisk mountain air and a fluffy bed at Hotel La Collina, my jet lag vanished overnight, and the first morning on the trail I fairly whistled up to a lofty mountain hut. After 3 1/2 hours of steady uphill work, I plopped down, tired but pumped up, on the sunlit terrace of the Boval mountain hut, only to notice a young Italian couple with their 2-year-old son enjoying the same triumph. Well, they had carried the bambino part of the way, but there he was, playing with the hutkeeper's dog as if on an outing in the park.
How I came to love those Swiss Alpine Club huts. There are about 150 in this privately run association, most of them rustic cabins with cafe service, picnic terraces, dormitory beds. Each is a rural Windows on the World, a wildly scenic way station strategically set at the outer edge of one's patience and stamina.
With the metronomic Jacobson in charge -- he had no watch but always knew the time -- we invariably reached the huts at coffee break or mealtime. On this shining day we sat at picnic tables looking out on some of the boldest mountains in the Eastern Alps -- Piz Palu, Piz Bernina and others -- and dined on vegetable soup, sausages and plates of rosti (Swiss home fries).
I walked back into Pontresina that afternoon with perhaps a trace of a swagger. Where was the rough going Jacobson had promised in his brochure? Nor did the next day's trek to the top of Piz Languard begin with any hardship. We took off at 7:45 a.m. as if commuting to work, catching a bus and then the Punt Muragl cog railway on its groaning 2,500-foot climb.
Then, suddenly, the cakewalk was over. All morning we pushed upward toward the Languard summit, doing a fair imitation of the ibex, the furry local mountain goat. There were narrow ledges, thigh-high snowfields and rocky screes in our path, and when we reached the sunlit wooden deck of our hut and threw off our backpacks, Jacobson said: "Let's not stop now. The summit's another 200 meters. The trail is a little steep and snowy but you won't regret it. Great views. We can eat lunch when we get back here."
He was right. In fact we were further buoyed when he said, as we picnicked on the deck, "Without actually being on a rope, that was the closest you'll come to a high-mountain climb."
We came down after lunch in a fraction of the time it took to go up, but it was no snap. Steep descents never are. It is easy to lose your balance on the snowy flanks of a mountain, the constant downward views can set your heart aflutter, and the whole act is hell on your knees and quadriceps (the front thigh muscles). There were slips and falls and curses up and down the line from everyone but Fred. He yodeled, trilled snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan, and when we came to a snow-covered slope he let out a joyous yelp and slid down 100 meters using only his pick-ax for support -- a mountaineering trick called glissading.
At 4 p.m. we collapsed on the valley floor beside a stream. Far above us, the whitened Languard we'd conquered and the mountain hut just below it looked part of some dreamy, cut-off world. It was coffee break, as sure as in any downtown office building. Fred led us to another of those heavenly huts, the Paradis, that will forever color my view of outdoor cafes. On the sunny terrace we ate carrot cake (reublitorte) and watched five furry little ibex play on cliff's edge far above the huddled buildings of Pontresina.
For a week in Pontresina and a second in Sils Maria, Jacobson introduced us to his friends, identified flora and fauna and had us saying "Viva," the local toast, over wine, beer and the cooling skiwasser (a mixture of red nectar and lemonade). He recommended the piano player, Alex Robert, at the Walther hotel in Pontresina; sent a few of us to the coed sauna at the Pontresina recreation hall; and turned us on to the Engadinertorte, a sort of Swiss pecan pie. And most important, he taught us how to hike: short strides, flat soles, soft landings. Said Fred: "A Swiss guide once told me, 'Don't hurt the rocks,' and I never forgot it."
We were a freewheeling and varied bunch, perhaps more so than most of Jacobson's groups. Included was a fiftysomething Boston ophthalmologist, the only serious climber among us, with his wife, an illustrator; a Connecticut insurance executive and his wife, a sometime gardening columnist; three free-spirited women friends from Southern California; and two gray-haired, lively women from Maine.
Jacobson leads both one- and two-week tours. On the two-week version, you get a day off to wash clothes or rest your muscles. I drove to Soglio, an Engadine village near the Italian border, descending through the clouds into a valley of log farmhouses where men carried outsize pitchforks and scythes, waving them at my passing car like tennis rackets. At Soglio, a fairy tale village, I sat among the faded lilacs and fresh roses in the courtyard of the Palazzo Hotel Soglio and ate northern Italian style, risotto with mushrooms.
Such were the ups and downs of a tour that averaged no more than 4 mph but was over far too soon. One day I was hiking the high trails around Sils Maria, an overgrown farm village wedged between the luminous Silvaplana and Segl lakes, and the next day I was on the plane home, fingering a map of Switzerland and wondering where I would follow the Manhattan mountain man next.
David Butwin is a writer in Leonia, N.J. WAYS & MEANS
Fred Jacobson emphasizes that his trips are for the experienced hiker. However, according to his brochure, "if you are in excellent condition and active in other sports, previous hiking experience is not an absolute requirement."
Reasonably fit people, or those who want a day off from the A squad, may choose to follow a second guide on a less taxing route. This may include a shortcut by train (Swiss Rail passes are included in the package).
Hiking bases for Jacobson's tours, in addition to Pontresina and Sils Maria, are Appenzell, Grindelwald, Kandersteg, Murren, Zermatt and Zuoz.
Two-week tours cost $2,125 per person, based on double occupancy, including two meals a day and a one-month Swiss Pass (second class) but excluding air fare; one-week tours are $1,175 per person, double occupancy, including two meals a day and a 15-day Swiss Pass but excluding air fare. GETTING THERE: Easy connections can be made from the airport in either Zurich or Geneva to any of the hiking bases via Switzerland's well-run rail system. WHAT TO TAKE: Hikers should take waffle-bottomed hiking shoes, a day pack, shorts, light rain gear, sunscreen and sun visor. Evening dress is informal. INFORMATION: For more information about the tours, contact Alpine Trails, Chappaqua Travel, 1 S. Greeley Ave., Chappaqua, N.Y. 10514, 1-800- 666-5161. For more information on the Engadine, contact the Swiss National Tourist Office, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, (212) 757-5944. -- David Butwin