View from Sefinenfurgge pass of the Wetterhorn, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau (l-r)
We celebrated our 1 year anniversary in Switzerland with our first true backpacking trip on the Via Alpina through the heart of the Bernese Oberland. We had no plans in advance for the weekend so when the extended weather forecast showed nothing but sun and warm-ish temperatures in the mountains (for late September / early October), we jumped at the chance to hike a portion of the Via Alpina we had planned for in July but were unable to once Megan injured her knee.
Our trek started in Kandersteg after a sleepy 7:30 AM train. In order to make up time, we headed up the ski lift in Kandersteg and hiked towards the Oeschinensee which sits in a glacial-blue amphitheatre under the Bluemlisalp massif. This area has earned the designation of a UNESCO world heritage site and from our point of view this is well deserved. The lake was one of the most beautiful we have laid eyes on! The water is a deep clear blue, with sheer rock walls of the Bluemlisalp massif around nearly half of the lake. Kayaks and canoes dotted the lake and were able to explore the far ends which really made me wish we had packrafts. Although this area’s beauty is well deserved, do not come to the Oeschinensee if solitude is your primary concern. There were people everywhere.
Upon leaving the Oeschinensee, we began the 1200 meter (3900 ft) ascent to the Hohturli pass which, at 2700 meters high, is the highest pass on the Via Alpina in Switzerland. The views back down the valley were incredible and we decided to eat our lunch on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Oeschinensee just beyond a hut serving food and drinks.
Megan beneath the Bluemlisalp massif and its hanging glaciers
The views of the 3664 meter high Bluemlisalphorn, its satellite peaks, and its hanging glaciers were spectacular against the blue sky as we completed the ascent up to Hohturli pass. The trail was steep and cut across scree and boulder slopes in the upper sections but the nearly endless views at the top were worth the struggle. We plopped down for a rest at the top amidst neve snow, boulders and other hikers before heading off the other side towards Griesalp.
Us atop Hohturli pass on the Via Alpina
The beginning of the 1400 meter descent to Griesalp was even steeper than ascent and consisted of a long portion of steep wooden staircases with fixed chains to hold on to for purchase. After the first several hundred meters of elevation drop, the trail became much more manageable after we reached the grassy slopes above the Bundlager pastureland (side note for anyone who may do this in the future: after the sheep/cows have been taken down from the high mountains in the early Autumn, this area would make a fantastic camping spot). Here we had fun searching for marmots and caught sight of several.
Stairs beneath Hohturli pass
Bluemlisalp and stream in the fading evening light
By the time we reached Griesalp, our knees were aching from the long descent and the sun was fading fast beneath the picturesque high alpine ridges above the Kandertal valley. We continued on past Griesalp, a small Swiss hamlet with a few restaurants, hotels and inns, and onto the other side of the valley towards where we hoped we would quickly find a suitable place for stealth camping. Along the way, we stopped at the Golderli inn and restaurant and picked up a couple of cold, local-brewed beers to enjoy with our dinners.
We camped along this mountain stream
As it turned out, we were in luck and found a great spot along a stream flowing down the valley a kilometer or two past Golderli that was hidden in a depression behind some pine trees. Once the sun fully set, we pitched our tent and fell asleep to the sound of alpenhorns down the valley. It was perfect evening and those cold beers hit the spot! Sleeping out, on the ground and away from other humans in the mountains, was something I had sorely missed since arriving in Switzerland. This night briefly satisfied that “need” and I have committed myself to doing a better job of getting out next year. Although wild camping is technically prohibited in Switzerland and much of the Alps, it seems with proper care and courtesy to the farmers if they are around, there should be no significant concerns.
First light touching the mountains
We awoke at sunrise to begin the nearly 1200 meter ascent (again!) up to the 2594 meter high Sefinenfurgge pass. The hike from Griesalp to the Obere Durreburg farm, which is an approximate midway point in the ascent, provided beautiful views of the entire Bluemlisalp massif. Above Obere Durreburg, we turned towards the Sefinenfurgge pass. It was a moon-like landscape, grey and brown and boulder-strewn, carved by glaciers that have receded many, many years ago and the trail was incredibly steep in places. But it was here that we saw our first Ibex, a species of wild goat, which we considered a big treat. It was pretty incredible how well they blended in with the grey and brown streaked rocks.
The hike up Sefinenfurgge was reminiscent of the hike up to the Ptarmigan tunnel in Glacier National Park…seemingly never ending up long switchbacks, but with beautiful alpine views to keep you motivated. When we finally made it up to the top, the view looking towards the Jungfrau, Monch, Eiger and other Bernese Oberland peaks was spectacular. Backpacker magazine recently named this the best hike in the world and one of the main reasons, in my estimation, was this view. The best part is that we had this amazing view for the rest of the day all the way until Murren, some 1000 vertical meters and 9 kilometers away.
Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau
Rotstuck hut and Jungfrau
We stopped and ate hearty spaghetti lunch at the Rotstock hut along the way as we enjoyed the amazing views and then continued down to Murren. We planned to hike down to Lauterbrunnen but when we saw there was a train in Murren that could save our knees 600 more meters of elevation loss, we took the easy route and headed home, concluding an excellent weekend backpacking trip and our most excellent first year in Switzerland.
Murren and Gimmelwald beneath the towering Jungfrau