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Different Paths Through the Swiss Alps

A solo traveler and hiking veteran plans an economy trip, but finds that, in the mountains, things change

June 30, 1996|BILL STALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Stall writes about politics for The Times

PONTRESINA, Switzerland — I had come to the Engadine Valley at the suggestion of Peter Walker of Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures in Colorado. Peter has hiked, skied and climbed every corner of the Alps for two decades and spends his summers leading hikers up valleys, over passes and into delightful hidden corners of the mountains of Switzerland.

But of all the stunning mountain territory he has traversed, Peter says he considers the Engadine the finest region in Switzerland for hiking, wandering and savoring grand mountain scenery and villages that seem frozen in time.

In contrast to the deeply cleft valleys typical of the Alps, the Upper Engadine is a broad, U-shaped trench abutting the eastern border of the country. The valley is open and airy and laced by a succession of sparkling lakes. The mountain walls on either side are carved by glaciers into lateral valleys that offer hundreds of challenging hiking routes.

This would be my fourth trip to Switzerland since 1990, including a weeklong trek led by Walker and his wife, Karen. This time I was traveling solo and looking for new territory, a different experience that still featured the awesome drama of the mountains and the serenity of high Alpine meadows.

Peter's passion for the Engadine persuaded me to come here.

The Upper Engadine begins at Maloja Pass near the Italian border and runs northeast along the En River for about 50 miles. At a natural geographical break where the Val Bernina slices in from the jagged Bernina Alps to the east, the towns of St. Moritz, Pontresina and Samedan form a triangle of about five miles per side, creating an especially sublime setting of open meadows, forested slopes and snowcapped peaks.

Everyone knows about St. Moritz, the winter and summer playground of the rich and royal. In its way, St. Moritz' posh reputation may discourage visits to the Engadine by people who shrink at the idea of a $300- or $400-a-night hotel room.

But St. Moritz is the exception in a vast, isolated region that can only be reached by one of five mountain passes. Away from St. Moritz, prices are more typical of the rest of this part of Switzerland.

In fact, I was determined to make this an "economy" vacation in a country where the high cost of travel had been exacerbated by the declining value of the dollar versus the Swiss franc in recent years.

I had it all worked out. I would make my base at Pontresina, the hiking center of the Engadine, smaller and more relaxed than St. Moritz. I would make two- or three-day excursions into the mountains, hiking up alongside roaring waterfalls into the high peaks, backlighted by a dazzling sun set in an azure Alpine sky.

At day's end, I would reach a rustic hut or mountain hotel perched on a lofty ledge, eye to eye with the high peaks, have a hearty supper with fellow hikers, share the day's experience over a glass of wine and sleep soundly beneath the rough wool blankets of the dormitory-style room.

After breakfast of sliced meat, cheese and bread, I would set out again, perhaps cross a glacier, see a steinbock with its long tapered horns, rest on a grassy, wild-flowered slope and greet other walkers with the traditional, Gruss Gott! (roughly, "Go With God")

Mountain-hut lodging may be rustic at times, as basic as a thin mattress on bare boards, a wool blanket and a pillow. Bathing and sleeping accommodations can be a little too communal for some travelers.

But a night's stay in a hut operated by the Swiss Alpine Club, which anyone can join, can run as little as $25. Most huts serve breakfast and supper at reasonable rates. The private "berghotels" can be more pricey, but still are only a fraction of the valley resort hotels.

Of nearly 40 mountain huts and hotels in the Pontresina area, a dozen are SAC huts. The rest are privately run hotels and restaurants. Many of the hotels have both private rooms, some with bath, and dormitory-style lodging similar to hostels.

That was the plan. Here was reality:

On the next-to-last day of my visit last fall, I sat at a table by the panoramic window of the Diavolezza mountain restaurant and gazed out toward what I knew to be one of the grandest scenes in all the Alps. And all I could see was an opaque wall of cloud on the other side of the window pane.

Pure white-out cloaked the Bernina Alps, from the summit of 13,285-foot Piz Bernina down to the bottom of its glacial skirts outside the window. The mist swirled just enough to offer an occasional teasing glimpse of the lower ridges of the Bernina and its 12,812-foot neighbor, Piz Palu. Then the snowy curtain would slip shut again.

The waiter brought my lunch--a pork chop, French fries and zucchini--as I looked around at the empty pine tables. In a restaurant that could easily seat several hundred, I was the only customer.

Just a few nights back, this restaurant anchored to a ridge at 9,754 feet above sea level was jumping, the scene of the graduation ceremony for 40 new Swiss mountain guides, families and friends.

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