The morning of our second full day in Grindelwald was bright and sunny. We looked for a good hike to take advantage of the weather and decided on the Bachalpsee and Faulhorn. This is one of the most famous hikes in the area. Not wanting to waste such perfect weather we ate a quick breakfast and got ready to go quickly. Like our hike in Chamonix, this would be along a ridge across the valley from the big peaks. We expected to have excellent views all the way.
We started with a ten minute walk to the First gondola. The lift took us from Grindelwald at 3392 feet to First at 7610 feet, climbing over 3200 feet in three stages. Typical of a hike in the alps, we got a ride up to the high country and to beautiful views right away. Our plan was to hike to the Bachalpsee, a mountain lake with a backdrop of some of the famous peaks of the Bernese Oberland. Then we would climb to the Faulhorn, the highest point in the middle section of the long ridge. One of the oldest mountain hotels in Switzerland is a few feet below the top. It is accessible only by foot and would be a good lunch spot. From there we would hike down to Bussalp and catch a bus to take us the rest of the way down to the valley and back to Grindelwald.
The First lift had small four person cable cars. It was interesting because when you reached the intermediate stations at Bort (1570m) and Schreckfeld (1955m), you did not have to get out and transfer to a higher lift. Instead the cars moved slowly through the terminal (so people could get in or out) and then attached to the upper cable for the ride up to the next station. Quite an amazing design. I'm not really sure how the cable cars are attached and detached from the cable. Then again, maybe I don't want to know.
From First we could see the Schwarzhorn to the east. This is the highest point on the ridge. It has a trail to the summit which is an excellent viewpoint. We had considered that as a possiblility for today's hike but had chosen the long ridgecrest hike over a straightforward summit climb. There is also a via ferrata route on the Schwarzhorn that intrigued me. Via ferrata (literally iron trails) are also known as climber's paths. They usually follow hard fourth or easy fifth class routes with exposure. They are most common in the alps, especially Italy. In their natural state they would be roped technical climbs. Instead the routes are made easier by the installation of metal rungs, ladders or other technical aids attached to the rock. Metal cables are often added for protection of exposed sections. The routes are usually quite airy and would be extremely dangerous without the protection afforded by the cables. Via ferrata climbers often wear a climbing harnass and clip into the cables to protect themselves in case of a slip. I have done a few routes of this type in North America, like the cable route on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and Angels Landing in Zion National Park. But because of liability laws in the US they are rare here. They are also very controversial among climbers everywhere - some question whether they deface the mountain and constitute cheating. I'm not in favor of putting lots of them up but I would love to try some of the existing via ferrata routes on a future trip to the Alps.
From First it was an hour of easy hiking to the Bachalpsee, gaining only a hundred meters over two miles. The view from the lake was gorgeous and was dominated by the Schreckhorn, which in German means the "Peak of Terror". It did indeed look fearsome and is a fairly difficult climb. The shoulder of the Schreckhorn is visible from Grindelwald, in fact we had enjoyed the view of it from our favorite eating spot in town, the patio of the Hotel Spinne. But to see the main peak you have to climb high above the valley. The view from the Bachalpsee is famous and is seen on many post cards and calendar pictures. Because of the easy access from the First lift lots of people visit the lake, so many that they even have a bathroom with flush toilets. Another example of the luxury of hiking in the Alps. It's definitely not a wilderness experience.
Most people do the Faulhorn hike by starting at Schynige Platte and hiking to First. We were going in the opposite direction. We had very good reasons for the way that we did it. For one thing, to start at Schynige Platte would have required leaving very early so that we could do the almost two hour train ride to get to the start early in the day. An early start was necessary because it was a long hike and the First lift shut down at 4:30 pm. It would not be good to reach the end of a very long day of hiking and find out that instead of a quick ride down to the valley there was still three hours of tough hiking to do! Sandy wasn't excited about that approach either because it would mean missing the good breakfast at our hotel which wasn't served till 8:30 am.
For the alternative we only had a ten minute walk to the First lift to get started. We opted for the sleep-in-an-extra-hour-and-have-a-good-breakfast direction for the hike. An added bonus was that although the trail went up and down the ridgeline, our starting point was quite a bit higher than the end point. Unfortunately there was one drawback to what we did. At Bachalpsee in the morning you are looking right into the sun and the light is totally wrong for pictures. The view is still impressive but photos just don't work. We figured that it was still the best tradeoff. So I don't have any pictures from the lake in this post. I knew that if I was desperate I could always just buy a post card when I got back to town. Or point to a picture on the web that someone else had taken in better light. Mostly you will just have to take my word for it that the view was awesome.
From the lake we started serious climbing. It was was uphill all the way to the Faulhorn. As we climbed we watched a guy who had left the trail to scramble up one of the rocky high points on the ridge. It was fun to look at the route above him and see if we could figure out which way he would go to get through the rock bands. Then it was just a slog up the final slope to the Faulhorn Hotel and Restaurant. Fortunately we got there just before the rush and got a great table on the patio. It was time for lunch. A well deserved lunch.
Sandy decided to experiment. At many Swiss restaurnats we had seen a dish called rosti (should have an umlaut over the o but I'm not going to figure out what I need to do to the character set to do it). It is a traditional Swiss dish which is described as being like a potato pancake. Sandy decided that she should try it out. She did and she loved it. It was very similar to hash brown potatoes, but could be ordered with all sorts of extras, like cheese or tomato sauce or whatever on it. Hash browns are a favorite of Sandy's so this was a natural for her. From this point on she ordered rosti as often as she could, wishing that she had discovered it earlier in the trip. Better late than never. Meanwhile I had a good salad along with a Diet Coke. I was just happy to sit and enjoy the view while I ate my lunch. Our meal was a little pricey but it wasn't too surprising. Since there is no back way up the mountain that you can drive up with a pickup truck, all of the supplies for the hotel and restaurant were flown in by helicopter. That is not cheap. But on an amazing hiking day like this we were happy to enjoy our lunch and drinks and the view. Whatever it cost, it was a bargain.
After a leisurely lunch our strength was renewed and we were ready to hike again. Our original plan had been to hike down from the Faulhorn to Bussalp to catch a bus back to Grindelwald. It's straight downhill and only a few miles, about an hour and a half walk according to the trail signs. But we felt invigorated after our break and the trail along the ridge crest looked very inviting. So we opted for the longer hike. The control time from the Faulhorn is three hours and we had four hours before the last train left Schynige Platte. We figured that it should be no problem for two studly hikers like us.
For the next hour the hike along the ridgecrest was fantastic. We were literally walking in the sky. On one side we had views of the major peaks of the Bernese Oberland. On the other side we could see down to the Brienzersee, one of the two large lakes surrounding Interlaken. Beyond we could see the Swiss plain. Beautiful.
Eventually we dropped off the crest. Then we just had some long hiking. Our only consolation is that we were going downhill more than uphill and the people going the other way looked a lot more tired than we did. It was still a long haul. Sevearal hours later as we got close to Schynige Platte we came back onto the ridgecrest and had some amazing views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
Near the end we overtook a Muslim couple. They are becoming a common sight in Europe but usually not on the trails. The guy was hiking along and his wife was following dutifully behind (by about three paces) in a full burka. At the risk of being called a cultural chauvinist, I am going to say that is one of the Dumbest things that I have ever seen. Seriously.
We were getting close to the end point right on the three hour mark from the Faulhorn. There was a train due to leave right at that time. So for the last quarter mile (all steep uphill, of course) Sandy and I went into Power Walk mode and went as fast as we could. Otherwise it would be an hour wait. We made it just in time and were able to catch the train down the mountain. It was my one unpleasant train experience on this trip. Since lots of people were going down the mountain at the end of the day we were crammed into the train. Being a cog railway it was very slow. I was tired and stiff and sweaty and didn't enjoy being packed in with a bunch of other people. But it was easier and faster than the alternative, which was hiking down. So I sucked it up for forty five minutes till we reached the bottom of the hill.
At Wilderswil (how's that for an unappetizing name for a town) we had fifteen minutes till the train to Grindelwald came through the station. Right across the street was a Coop market so we had time to get drinks and snacks. While we waited for the train I enjoyed not one but two Diet Cokes and a big bag of potato chips. Right up to the point where I knocked the bag over and spilled chips all over the platform. I did pick up most of them and the birds took care of the rest.
Then it was a quick ride back to Grindelwald on the BOB train. It had been another amazing day in the mountains.