July 28, 2013
Before I met Dan he used to do some climbing, spending his time in Colorado searching out the peaks of Rocky Mountains with his friends. When he moved to California he found the climbing not quite as close, the climbing friends not as close and me luring him away on motorcycle rides. New Jersey didn’t help much in getting us out of the house for hikes, let alone actual climbing. But now we live in Switzerland! Dan renewed his interest in mountain climbing, including a popular European sport known as “via ferrata” (locally it is referred to as “Klettersteig” – Link at the bottom of the page).
Klettersteig is like mountain climbing, but with fixed rungs, chains and cables permanently placed into the side of the mountain. It could be as simple as a length of chain affixed to the stones to help you climb up, or more technical such as narrow wires stretched over a ravine to walk across. The practice of making these permanent routes is quite old, going at least as far back as 1843, and the First World War saw a huge increase in the number of routes available. Some mountain climbers (particularly in the States) look down on Klettersteiging as not “true” climbing, but it is very popular and respected here. As for me, it helped me get somewhere I normally couldn’t have gone – and had fun doing it – so it’s ok by me!
For those who are unfamiliar, the key to the klettersteig is the use of a special sling with two modified carabiners and a shock absorbing length of rope. This unit is attached to a normal climbing harness and eliminates the need for ropes, belays or ATCs. The carabiners are used in conjunction with each other, so that as you climb you always have at least one attachment point to the cable. The link I put in earlier really does a good job of explaining this better than I ever could.
Enough background information – let’s start the day! We roped Bob into joining us for our foray into the mountains and he was happy enough to join us. We met at the train station for a 7:30 ride from Basel -> Bern -> Spiez and then finally, the bus to Adelboden. After studying the regional map posted at the bus station, Dan decided the direction we should go to reach the klettersteig starting point. And we immediately re-traced the bus’ route back down to the nearest bus stop. Oh well – it was nice to see a bit of Adelboden along the way.
View from Adelboden
Ooooh! Nice waterfall at the end of the valley!
Typical Swiss local
Dan had studied the guide book and was referencing our new hiking GPS and continued to point us in the right direction. The trail we were on followed the Engstligenalp River through a lush valley. It was warm, but not as warm as Basel, for sure!
Wood stacked for upcoming winter fires
A beehive chalet
As we followed the river we realized that the waterfall was getting closer. There weren’t many signs – or other hikers – along this path, so we had a nice, quiet walk.
Tributary to the Engstlingenalp River
Our path had joined up with a road for a short bit, and more and more people were walking with us. We came across people coming back down the path and entire groups of people going up. Where were we going?
I finally figured it out: Engstligenalp and the cable car that serves it. We had reached the end of the valley and the end of the road. We had hiked 5km to get there, while most people that we saw here had either driven or taken the bus. I was hot by now and my legs less-than-pleased with the activity and I wanted nothing more than to take a break and catch my breath.
Fortunately there was a restaurant next to the cable car base and we had a bite of lunch and some cold beverages. I felt renewed! Even looking at the chart of where the klettersteig routed itself up the valley wall was exciting.
We finished our meal and took to the trail. At this point I felt like I was on a Grand Adventure into the Wilderness, so I was confused when I passed couples pushing strollers, some guy washing bratwurst off in the river and crowds of people sitting around a campfire. Where was I?
Ah! This was the local tourist spot and on a beautiful day like today, it wasn’t surprising that it was as crowded as it was. The waterfalls are the second highest in Switzerland and have been under preservation since 1948. However, our trail didn’t end there: we crossed a bridge over the river and did a final hike up a steep, rocky path to a relatively flat spot. Ahead of us was a German woman (I don’t really know if she was German, but she shall remain so for my story) who obviously knew what she was doing. She had reached the flat spot well ahead of us and immediately pulled out a harness and gear, strapped it all on and whisked her way across a short avalanche chute and up, up, up the slope she went.
Looking back from the final scramble, where we lost sight of the German woman
Dan and Bob, sort of waiting for me
At this point I was hot, sore and quite frankly, cranky. I didn’t like being the slow one, I didn’t like the sweat dripping down my face, I didn’t like the muscles in my knees and backside letting me know that they were unhappy. Overall, I was unhappy. As Dan and Bob started to assemble their gear I sat there and watched the German woman disappear up the mountain. It looked like work. I didn’t want to work. I told the guys that I might just head back down and see them at the restaurant. Dan wasn’t sure about this, as the last scramble was tricky, with lots of loose rocks and steep steps. I sat there some more, debating my options. Finally I just gave in; I knew that I’d regret it later (as I have regretted all of my decisions not to do something difficult). And besides, some of my best memories are of overcoming obstacles that I cursed the entire time. Why should this be any different?
I stood up, put on my harness and climbing gear and handed the camera to Dan. I didn’t have any pockets, so it would be up to him to capture the “Joy of Klettersteig” from here. It was an easy scramble across the avalanche chute and up to where the route began. Cables had been run between securely planted iron “pins” and it was my job to make sure that my carabiners were always fastened to this cable.
Using the cable to pull myself up
Me, with Bob behind, coming up to a grassy spot
Sometimes the climbing was more “hike” than “climb”, but other times it was very steep and demanding. I admit that the constant placement of the carabineers was a bit cumbersome, especially on flatter areas where I had to bend over to reach the cable. I think this is what cause my lower back to become so sore by the end of the day. The fact is, no matter how easy the route seems, there is always a very real chance of a rock slipping out from underfoot, or a loss of balance, that can lead to a very unhealthy fall.
Looking back down to the base of the waterfall and the bridge we had crossed
The route had swung us up and around and we were now paralleling the waterfall. The mist carried by the wind felt very good, and we were fortunate to be climbing in the shadow of the mountain. I was really enjoying this!
The river, now far below
The restaurant (middle right) and Adelboden in the distance
It got steeper
And finally, we were at the top of the bottom waterfall!
Dan took a short video of the area and the pool between the two falls. I was sorely tempted to crawl down there and dunk my head.
The views got better as we got higher
We were now well above the lower waterfall
But we weren’t done yet – we had to get to the top of the cable car
Here’s a video of the view, with an out-of-breath me saying “hi”. The variety of flowers that we saw was amazing, with just about every color represented at one point or another. And I saw my first wild Edelweiss!
Now we had reached the upper portions of the route. The pitch tapered off and the trail now led through lush grasses and around one “final” mound. On the other side of the mound put us in full view of the upper waterfall.
From the waterfall there was a well-traveled path that led us to the Engstligen plateau and the cable car. We crested a small rise and I saw two table umbrellas near a farmhouse and then – even better – a running fountain. A group of locals sat in the shade of the farmhouse and I wanted to ask if I could have some water. In light of the complete lack of oxygen to my brain at this point, I managed to sputter out a couple of German words that translated roughly to “Water. Me. Have.” A woman at the table smiled and nodded and pointed me towards the water. I recovered slightly and then managed to ask if she sold beer as well. “Yes”. Excellent. We all dropped our packs and sat down for a while. The beer was cheap and the water was cold and fresh. The woman who served us said that it was fresh alpine water and nodded her head towards the snow-covered mountains that surrounded us.
Goats guard the hydroelectric building
Our view from the top simply showed us that we weren’t at the top
This was a working farm, with cows on the hills, their bells chiming across the distance, and milk pails hanging on the walls of the building. I saw the advantage of having a few beers available here for travelers such as ourselves. They also sold cheese and other homemade items here, but we weren’t prepared to carry anything like that.
Looking back at the farmhouse
We all thanked our hostess profusely as we left, renewed energy for the final push to the top. It wasn’t much of a push, although I once again lagged behind. One nice thing about not really knowing where you’re hiking is that you can be pleasantly surprised. We had no idea that the Engstligen Plateau existed. It is a wide, flat meadow nearly surrounded by high, snow-covered mountains. Cows grazed on the rich grass, goats grazed on anything they could find and – the biggest surprise – we heard Alpenhorns. Dan took a short video to try to capture the ambience.
Cowbells on display
Goats and cows and strollers, oh my!
After taking a short tour of the meadow we retreated to the cable car, only to find that no one was there to take our money. But the cable car arrived mere minutes later and the operator of the car was also the cashier. He took our money and we boarded the small gondola. I thought of the best place to stand for prime descent viewing, but soon I didn’t have a choice: older couples boarded, then a stroller, a man with a dog, entire families; we were packed in like sardines. I made the descent standing in a corner.
At the bottom of the ride we studied the bus schedule – we were done with hiking, my legs were glad to hear. We caught the bus back to Adelboden, then made our way back to Basel via train. It was about a 2.5 hour trip back and we got back to our apartment around 8:30. Just in time to grab something to eat and fall into bed.
It is truly a unique and beautiful place
Here is a Wiki link on via ferrata.