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High Times in the Swiss Alps : Hiking Inn to Inn in the Bernese Oberland

February 14, 1993|Bill Stall | Times Staff Writer; Stall is a political reporter for The Times

KANDERSTEG, Switzerland — My trekking companions looked at me as if I'd had too much Alpine sun when I gasped a confession on the fourth day of our up-and-down ramble through a bucolic slice of the Swiss Alps:

"I really don't like to hike much."

Uh oh, I thought. What a silly thing to say after we'd trekked together some 30 miles the preceding three days, up alp and down alp, gaining and losing more than 15,000 feet of elevation. I tried to rationalize:

"I love being in the mountains, but hiking up into them can be a real drag."

That seemed to help explain it some, but not much.

What I really meant was that my previous mountain hiking experience had consisted primarily of trudging, out of condition and overloaded, up hot, dusty, sagebrush-lined trails to reach the sparkling high country of California's Sierra Nevada. I love the region at timberline and above. But getting there is not even a fraction of the fun.

And in part, my anti-hiking declaration was an excuse for not taking seriously enough the admonition in the brochure from Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures that YOU NEED TO BE FIT to really enjoy this inn-to-inn trek through the pre-alps, or high foothills, of the southwestern Bernese Oberland.

Literally, the Oberland is the "upper land" of the canton of Bern, an east-west escarpment rising from the north bank of the Rhone River. To adventure travelers today, the word "trek" connected with mountains connotes Nepal or Tibet or Greenland or Antarctica, pushing into virgin territory, exploring the unknown, and often suffering at least some hardship and certainly inconvenience.

But trekking the Alps? Hannibal crossed them in 218 BC and Mt. Blanc was climbed in 1786. There are vast stretches of the California Sierra that have had less exploration than the Swiss Alps. They are forested with cable-car towers. They have hotel-like huts on virtually every major mountain flank. There are hydroelectric projects and even hideaway Swiss Army redoubts.

Even so, the Alps can provide an adventuresome wilderness experience and outright danger to the unwary. As in the Sierra, it is easy to find isolation by wandering a short distance from the most popular tourist sites. At the same time, the compactness of the country and the location of villages in high mountain valleys make it possible for the trekker to combine the daytime enjoyment of a stark wilderness with the conveniences and pleasures of first-rate hotels and restaurants.

But you do need to be fit, as the Ryder-Walker brochure cautioned. Swiss trails can be quite strenuous, often more so than those in the Sierra since they often shoot nearly straight up an Alpine slope while U.S. trails tend to ascend more gently up switchbacks.

I paid for my inattention to the fitness admonition more in bruised ego than any real physical punishment--other than normal weariness at the end of the day and moderately sore muscles. The three days up to the time of my hiking slur had consisted largely of my huffing and puffing up Himalayan-scale hillsides while the figures of my companions grew smaller and smaller in the distance ahead. Sheep munched grass and mocked me with their "baaaaaas." Swiss cow bells clanked, "slowpoke, slowpoke."

I would finally drag myself up to a rest spot, red-faced and sweat-drenched, just as the others stuffed their water bottles back in their packs and turned, happy and refreshed, upward, bounces in their steps.

I swear somebody actually was humming, "The hills are alive with the sound of music. . . ."

My nonstop Swissair flight from Los Angeles touched down in Geneva on a late Thursday afternoon in August. The train from the airport to the city center took me to within a block of my hotel. Up Friday at 6 a.m., I took a commuter-hour train along the

shore of Lake Geneva through Lausanne and Montreux and past the castle of Chillon, made famous by Lord Byron's 1816 poem, "The Prisoner of Chillon."

The alternating urban-suburban-rural lakeside evolved into pastoral valley and vineyard beyond the eastern end of the lake, with fleeting glimpses of the snowy peaks of the Mt. Blanc range off to the right. After another hour eastward, up the Rhone, I transferred at Brig for the short trip up the Lotschen Valley and through the tunnel to Kandersteg, arriving at the starting point for our trek in less than three hours from Geneva.

Officially, the trek began with a cocktail-hour meeting and get-acquainted session on the patio of the four-star Hotel Doldenhorn. The hotel is set back against a forested hillside a mile from Kandersteg, a tourist and farming village of about 1,000 residents situated on the Kander River.

Fortunately, the patio of the chalet-style hotel had a roll-down canopy because a drenching, booming thunderstorm arrived with the beer and wine.

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