“Stay close to the rock wall,” I hear my husband, Paul, call out above the drumbeat of water falling between us. While this cascade won’t thrust me over the cliff, it does require plotting a safe course to avoid the slippery, wet wood. I plant my stick, duck down and hoist myself through the falling shower, taking giant steps to the clearing where Paul stands.
The cold spray on my back feels good. We have been hiking for more than two hours on one of the finest trails in the Bernese Oberland, a chain of valleys and mountains at the southern end of Switzerland’s Bern canton. On this day, we’re climbing a section of the Wildhorn mountain, and our well-worn path has taken us through a dense forest and into pastures exploding with blue and yellow wildflowers and cows wearing bells.
Already I am looking forward to lunch at Geltenhütte, our hut destination. At 6,568 feet, it is still a long way up. We meet a descending hiker and exchange the familiar Swiss greeting, “grüezi.”
As we press upward to the right side of the mighty Gelten Falls, in the shadow of the snowy peak, our party of five spreads out. I hang at the back, happily listening to a podcast and taking photos of the deep pink flowers called Alpenrose, blooming on each switchback. Our group reunites to cross the crusty, white Gelten glacier.
The sun is blazing as we follow each other’s deep tracks, and I wonder how much longer this snow patch will linger.
An hour later, Ueli and Marianne Stalder, Geltenhütte’s wardens for 13 years, bellow “grüezi” as I enter their kitchen. Perhaps they recall my visit last year? Ueli is flipping his Swiss hash browns, called rösti, and slicing thick slabs of mountain cheese, called alpkäse. They tell me about plans to expand the dining room so that on weekends, usually fully booked, guests will eat in one sitting. They hope hikers will contribute, especially to honor the 150th birthday of the Swiss Alpine Association, which sponsors 152 huts — amounting to 9,200 sleeping spaces — across the Alps.
Twelve-year-old Maurus delivers our steaming lunch plates and tall glasses of the ginger-ale-like Rivella, my favorite Swiss drink. The blue cheese and pear rösti is tasty, and Marianne’s chocolate brownie, or schokolade torte, is even better.
Before leaving, I check out the eight sleeping rooms where precisely 87 plaid pillows and cornflower blue quilts, neatly touching, line wall-to-wall bunks. A welcome sign cites the rules: shoes off inside, lights out at 10 p.m., no dogs upstairs.
Outside, dark clouds are moving in, as often happens in the Alps. As we start down, two kids under 10 and their dad, with one smaller girl on his back, climb up the pass. “Grüezi mitenand,” I say, thinking back 12 years. Were my girls, at ages 7 and 10, climbing this high back then?
We became connected with Bernese Oberland in 2001 through a couple from Richfield, Richard and Susan Davis, fellow Midwest expats living abroad.
Paul and I quickly fell in love with — and purchased an apartment in — Wengen, a village cradled by the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger mountains. We soon invited locals over for dinner, including the vicar who told us about the “121” etched into the side of Jungfrau, a hint of Psalm 121. Over the years, we have spotted the heavenly reminder and then lost track of it.
We also have welcomed many Minnesotans, including Tom Larson, whom I first met near the Wengen grocery carrying a Lunds bag. He and his wife, Carol, have been visiting the village for 17 summers. “It’s like ‘Cheers,’ a place where everybody knows your name,” Tom says, reeling off the names of local dogs as he finishes dessert at our table one night.
Tom and Carol’s favorite hike lies in the distance outside our window: a three-hour ascent from Stechelberg to Obersteinberg at the foot of the Breithorn mountain.
To reach the trailhead from Wengen involves taking the 15-minute cog train down to Lauterbrunnen and catching a post bus to the end of the valley. You pass through a glacial trough surrounded by rock cliffs — Wengen on one side, Mürren on the other — now a mecca for wing-suited base-jumpers.
Watching them dive takes my breath away; first you hear the piercing sound, like a launching missile, and then you see what looks like batmen flying horizontally overhead, pulling their parachutes in midair.
We have hiked this trail many times, and stayed overnight at the Berghotel Obersteinberg in 2004 when heavy floods cut power to the valley. The hotel, which operates without electricity, was a perfect refuge. Our girls loved the gas lamps, the family-style dinner with other hikers and the starched sheets on feather beds, a luxury option.
A different perspective
This year, our 19-year-old daughter, Claire, and her friend Amaya join us in a hike to Obersteinberg. We stick together over the roaring rapids and past the first barns of goats and cows, filling our bottles with mountain water; any fountain with running water is safe for drinking. We wave to farmers raking meadow grass with hand-held scythes, a reminder that the Bernese Oberland still follows many traditions from the late 1800s, when the first tourists began to arrive.
The yellow sign for Obersteinberg is flagged with red and white stripes, which means the ascent is steep. By the time we reach the first of three inns on the route, Claire has pulled far ahead. We press on, finding our breathing rhythm with the walking sticks and an absorbing conversation with Amaya about relationships, the kind you tend to have on long hikes through forests, moors and flowering meadows.
I look for wild mountain goats, called steinbock, meeting instead two bewildered hikers staring at a map. Their accents sound Midwestern, and to my delight they are from Brooklyn Center. “This piece of the hike has been brutal,” Ami Nelson says, pointing to her knees and backpack heavy with items that include a portable ashtray and toilet paper. “We were just talking about how many Minnesota friends could do this.”
I press on, grateful to carry only essentials: light jacket around the waist, iPhone and money in the pocket, water bottle dangling on a belt loop. On the last bend, I see the fluttering Swiss flag and then the quaint old inn with white trim and green shutters. The terrace is in full sun, and the breeze feels good.
We watch Dora Von Allmen fold white sheets in the wind with her nephew. Her family has owned the hotel for three generations. More people stay only one night, unlike the old days when guests stayed two weeks. While most are Swiss, she loves Americans: “They are happy even if the weather is bad.” The compliment lifts my heart.
This summer, I marvel at even more chance meetings with Minnesota natives. Sitting next to me at Wengen’s National Day parade of alphorns, yodelers and bell ringers are Nancy and Bill Decker, grade-school sweethearts from Kenwood School, visiting for the 19th time.
From my bedroom window I see the “Minnesota peak,” resembling the Northwest Angle, that protruding piece atop every Minnesota map. Its actual name is Lobhorn, and today we decide to climb to Lobhornhütte, another Swiss Alpine Association hut. The hike — mainly steep, natural steps made of roots and stones — takes about an hour.
Lisa Emmenegger-Biner, the new hut warden, says business is brisk. On weekends they usually have a full house of 24 hikers who pay $62 a night, which includes dinner and breakfast. We tuck into an array of cheeses and wursts on boards cut in the shape of Lobhorn.
Our picnic table overlooks the Lobhorn, though from here its jutting peaks no longer resemble the Northwest Angle. Across the valley, the Breithorn looks different, too, as if uprooted and transplanted. We spot our chalet beneath the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. I open my brochure and spot the Jungfrau’s “121” circled in red.
As I “lift my eyes to the mountains,” I see it, like an old friend after years apart. I am delighted. It’s like that in the Bernese Oberland.
Jane A. Peterson is a journalist and communications consultant living in Singapore. She grew up in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in journalism.