Where many have gone before

Trip Start Sep 19, 2012
Trip End Sep 30, 2012

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Flag of Switzerland  , Swiss Alps,
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Part of our American mythology is that we are all, at heart, frontiersmen.

We idolize the independent, isolated pioneers who entered the wilderness alone. They faced the untamed landscape with nothing more than their courage and ingenuity. And our national narrative, told through text, art, and film (and perhaps the Republican national platform), describes how they emerged victorious, or perished trying.

Whenever we take a walk in the mountains, Americans rejoin those pioneers in reconquering our own personal wilderness. We seem able to convince ourselves that we are the first (or at least a member of an elite group) to reach a local peak, to paddle across a particular pond, or to witness a wooded scene. Parked somewhere, deep in the recesses of each American's brain, you may find a horse-drawn Conestoga wagon.

Contrast this with the trekking in the Alps.

The Swiss have inhabited this country for millennia, and they long ago turned their scenery into a sustainable source of food … as well as of recreation. Thus, each vista-endowed valley that entices foreign tourists has provided a home for generations of Swiss farmers.

There is no doubt that the Swiss work hard individually. (We have seen many of them maintaining the meticulously manicured trails and the greenest of grassy farms.) But they unashamedly stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, who likewise relied on even earlier generations. It is a pattern that can stretch as far back as history can trace. Whereas Americans may long to claim a unique solitary connection to a place, the Swiss en masse identify with and tend to the beauty, utility and shared heritage of their landscape.

And this difference is reflected in their approach to trekking in the Alps.

On Tuesday, we took to the trails to climb from Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg. This represents an elevation gain of over 2000 feet, and in already thinner air, it was a bit of a challenge. Our path carried us through some uninhabited areas, but also past a number of pastures, alongside stretches of railway, and even through some neighborhoods. (We had to vacate the trail briefly so that farmers, in preparation for colder weather, could parade the cows from the higher pastures to the lower ones.) Our way along the trail was posted with clear directional signs, and if somehow we pooped out and could not make the full trek, it was even possible to catch the train the rest of the way to the top.

In other words, we were allowed to do what we could. But because there was an available safety net, we could push ourselves a bit further. Things that we might not have attempted became even more possible because others had done them before and left us a few guide points along the way. This was clearly a trek shared with the entire culture of Switzerland. (And this is decidedly not the experience of someone hiking the Appalachian Trail.)

And as it turns out, we each made it to Kleine Scheidegg on foot.

From that small village, we took the only reasonable route up another 4400 feet to Jungfraujoch:  the 100-year-old railway that winds through the interior of the mountain up to facilities that are set precariously in the col that separates the Jungfrau and Monch mountain peaks. There we were cast into windy, wintery conditions where snow and ice rule, even in summer months.

But this experience was made possible by folks who consider it reasonable not to force everyone to wield an ice axe and crampons in order to reach one of Switzerland's recreational assets. We could sit and eat a tasty lunch indoors between ventures into the icy outdoors.

The view from atop Jungfraujoch was at times spectacular, but mostly socked in by the clouds that swept by. Such is the experience of an alpine adventure.

Zipping on to the following day, Toby and Shawn decided to hike to the top of the Männlichen peak. But Bob, Richard, and I took a more "leisurely" course and rode the gondola up to the same peak. After we joined up, we hiked again eyeing incredible vistas, this time from the ridge that stretches between Männlichen and Kleine Scheidegg.

But on this day, we found Kleine Scheidegg to be almost a ghost town. The winds atop Jungfraujoch were so great that the public was not allowed there. And Kleine Scheidegg functions primarily as the depot for the Jungfraujochbahn (railway to Jungfraujoch), so there were few folks around during our second visit. We were lucky that our timing allowed us the trip up the day before.

On Thursday we departed Wengen, and picked up a car. And that allowed us a different kind of access to alpine scenery. Watch for some of those vistas soon.
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