first stop: (not dying in) switzerland

Switzerland was my friend's destination of choice to elope, and in a fit of travel lust I not-so-jokingly threatened to come with her, as did members of both her and his families, and that's how their elopement turned into a (modern) fairytale wedding and my trip to Europe was born.

I expected to enjoy the place because, well, if you haven't seen a photograph of at least one of its corners and felt your brain spasm with WANT! then you probably won't understand any reasoning I could put into words on that front. But for all that, it would be — I thought — a bit over-developed, possibly twee in places, and tourist-thronged beyond my personal taste.

So my falling in obsessive love with the country came as a bit of a surprise.

Yes, there are lots of tourists — but the infrastructure and local services of this place are so thoughtfully and thoroughly developed that I barely noticed them. Really. And the Swiss are so unassumingly friendly, welcoming, helpful and humour-filled that I want to adopt them all. Not to mention their rail network, which reaches everywhere and features trains which leave on time to the second. (Are you listening, Metro Trains?)

The rumours, it turns out, are entirely true. The Swiss totally have their shit together.

The one thing they could improve on, however, is sign-posting their treks.

The start of the Aletsch glacier, viewed from Jungfraujoch

I had one request when it came to visiting Switzerland, and that was to hike alongside the Aletsch glacier. Because glacier! The pterosaur's mother, when she found out, begged us to "at least take a satellite phone!" but we weren't worried. This was Switzerland, not Mongolia — we probably wouldn't be able to see the no-doubt-tame hiking path for the swarm of tourists already on it, &c.

We bought a cable-car ticket up to Eggishorn, but back down from Fiescheralp, planning to walk from Eggishorn to Fiescheralp. This isn't unusual, and the hostel owner had assured us it was about a two-hour walk, and if we wanted to detour by these lovely lakes and get up-close to the glacier and walk along it a ways, then it would extend the walk out to about 4 hours. So off we went, in giddy spirits because the cable-car ride took us through clouds thick enough to shroud everything outside the windows, which rather kindly drew away to haunt another mountain and reward us with a view of the entirety of Switzerland when we actually got to Eggishorn proper.

The summit of Eggishorn. Allegedly 15 minutes walk.

See those not-quite-rocks shapes at the summit? Those are people. This shot was taken without the zoom, and in retrospect it looks quite bleedingly obvious that the scramble up all those rocks would take more than the 15 minutes the sign promised. But we were young, and fearless, and hadn't figured out not to trust Swiss hiking signs, so off we trotted.

45 minutes later, we reached the top. In our defence, we'd dawdled a little, so still, not worried.

Rookie mistake.

Our (German) timetable told us the last cable-car down from Fiescheralp was at 6pm, although there seemed to be some caveat for Fridays and Saturdays in the summer months. Our German wasn't up to figuring out said caveat beyond that it had something to do with 10pm. The cars ran until 10pm instead of 6pm? There was a lone car at 10pm? The village came out and laughed at people expecting cable-car service at 10pm? Whatever, it didn't matter, we had 5 hours up our sleeves and we just wouldn't dawdle. Yeah, right.

The signpost for the lakes pointed us down the back side of Eggishorn, in a direction no one else was headed. Clue the first. The 'path' was nothing more than a very faded red-and-white flag painted on a random rock every kilometre or whenever you needed to turn, veer, be guided over a tenuous bit, keep an eye out, or just be bamboozled. We scrambled merrily along, laughing about how wonderful it was to have lucked into such a quiet, unpeopled day. Clue the second.

Halfway down, our way was blocked by a tripod-legged excavator, the driver of which frantically waved his arms at us. His meaning, however, was less clear. Stop? Come forward? Did you bring lunch, I wanted the tuna sandwich?

Then there was an almighty BANG! and we realised they were blasting and CLUE THE THIRD.

But with that the driver has decided all is fine, and he's definitely waving us forward now. Only to get past him — because his mountain-crawling excavator is far wider than the goat track he's obscuring — we have to cling with our fingertips to the rubber treads of his wheels and perch on our toes on the bottom curve of the wheel base, and inch our way past those wheels which are hanging over a rocky drop. I won't lie: we'd started to figure out the clues by now.

At this point, we were starting (very quietly) to get worried

But there was still glacier to see! And the time when we finally reached the lake, at around, oh, half-past three, meant we'd miss that 6pm cable-car even if we did retrace our tracks. So may as well press on, right? Because maybe the bit we'd just done was the hard part, and it would get easier and swifter from here on out. There was a signpost telling us the next signpost was 30 minutes walk, and a little stoop-backed grandmother heading our way. Promising!

Let me tell you, I don't know where that grandmother lived or grew up, or what she ate for breakfast, but the answer to these questions would be nowhere and nothing normal.

The glacier up close. (We did not get quite this close; the shot is partially care of zoom
This was the good section of the path. Namely, there was actually a path.

We walked. For hours. And by walked, I mean we hauled arse, no dawdling, no pausing, just head-down into the blasting afternoon sun, squinting to keep an eye out for the flags marking our way, scrambling over and between rocks and along a path so narrow our left feet were perpetually an inch higher in altitude than our right. There was no water left in our drink bottles by this stage, and hadn't been for some time, and when we came across the beginnings of a creek, we stared at that narrow, swift spill of water and decided WHAT THE HECK. (We chose well, actually. Best-tasting water of the entire trip, bar none.) After 45 minutes, we found the 30-minute-distant signpost … which told us the signpost we'd just left was 20 minutes in our wake.

This was when we realised the signposts were not only not trustworthy, they were positively malicious, downright evil, and out to get us. Oh, and we'd be sleeping up here tonight.

We did have a stunning view to keep us company, though

Time gets blurry around about here, but after two or three more signposts directing us around the curve of the mountain, and about MY ENTIRE LIFE of climbing, climbing, climbing up, we made it to the ridgeline. We were officially, at least in altitude, back where we started. All we had to do now was head down to Fiescheralp. Easy.

Oh, and it was 18:20.

By this point we're just happy that we're not dead. And we've started to hope that state will continue beyond the night.

This is when we discovered a flaw of the flag system: multiple paths, criss-crossing, but each using the same flag. Good one, Switzerland.

Er, which direction?

Do you notice, in that sign, that Fiescheralp is a mere 2.5 hours walk? That’s pointing back the way we came. It took us over 5 hours to do a portion of that supposedly 2.5 hour walk.

By the time we did reach Fiescheralp (at 19:45), after two signs, each 45 minutes walk from the other and each promising our destination was 45 minutes walk away (er, what?), we were footsore and staring with horror at the prospect no cable-car and so having to walk from Fiescheralp back down to our hostel in Fiesch proper. Adding to the sense of impossible eerie, the little hamlet was deserted, and I mean utterly: it was composed entirely of hotels which catered to the winter crowd, and they were as closed as a movie set after hours.

We found the cable-car depot, which promised a car at 8:00 and oh, how we cheered! A 15 minute wait and then home and hot showers!

Then we found the exactly one resident of the place, who cheerfully informed us we could choose between a two-hour wait or a two-hour walk (in the dark, with no road or path and no lights) — because the bad news is that 8 o'clock car is tomorrow, not tonight. We were so openly demented with disappointment that he shepherded us into his restaurant and fed us bread and cheese and shots of some hot lemon and cream liqueur cocktail for free.

Then we sat and listened to Michael Jackson and various other hits of the 80's as the sun set and our muscles seized into cramped balls of pain.

Watching the moon rise after not dying? Worth it.

8 thoughts on “first stop: (not dying in) switzerland

  1. Oh, yeah — I remember those kind of signposts in Austria. After the first (dire) trek, I doubled the times and the kilometres on all subsequent walks. Worked like a charm. I decided they chose Austrian trek-sign-makers from their Olympic cross country ski team. Or maybe past marathon winners.

  2. Eeeee! Photos! Holy hammerheads how utterly gorgeous is that? And the beautiful sun!

    (I must admit, even retelling this story still makes me giggle a little bit. I feel your pain.)


  3. @Glenda: So it wasn't just us then?! When we did get into Fiescheralp the resident there flatly refused to believe that the signs would ever state such ludicrous times. We were so used to the Australian approach to signs, which is that if the sign tells you it's a 30 minute walk you'll be done in 10. I reckon those sign-makers had mutant powers of some kind!

    @Tess: I still have the remnants of sunburn from that beast of a laid-open sky. More photos coming – can you believe this post took me severalteen weeks to write?

  4. I really can. You need time to process the Growing Dread.

    Also forgot to say – your comment about the water? I so hear you. All the water in Iceland is glacier water. It is amazing. I am guzzling all the taps like you have no idea.

  5. 😯

    What – are you nuts? Walking in the Alps in WINTER? Do you know how easy it is to DIE OF EXPOSURE?

    Of course I've got my own story of stupidity, walking in Norway from Kongberg through the mountains towards alleged mountain hut in a snowstorm at -20 degrees wind chill in May. Gave up after a freezing cold lunch less than a third of the way there at the base of what looked like a telecom tower. Had to be told to go back by locals though, wouldn't listen to my travelling companion. Very reluctant. In retrospect it shouldn't have been debatable. (Of course these days, I do a five point safety check before walking up the stairs with a cup of coffee, so just possibly I've become a little conservative in my old age.)

    But that's irrelevant.

    Have you got any idea how many foreign tourists get lost walking in the Blue Mountains?


    The views were no doubt spectacular and it was very adventurous.

    Next time take a map. Emergency clothes and Rations. And flares.


    Not your Mum.

  6. Ah, the old "Posting a blog in Winter about an event in Summer" trick. A trap for newbies. 😉 I'm less horrified now. Still, mountain weather can be fickle. And Bear Grills always says…

    My Swiss temporary colleague, upon asking, admits that Swiss signposts are based on an assumption of brisk walking with no rest breaks. And that by comparison Australian signposts are accurate for dawdlers with broken legs, without crutches.

    Congratulations on avoiding death.

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