Less than one hour into our three-day trek in Switzerland's Appenzell region, I realized that the German word for hike -- wandern -- already suited this trip better than its English equivalent.
We'd just finished lunch when our server hurried out to the terrace, pointing at a newspaper photograph of a dirty pile of snow and gravel. "Gestorben," the headline read. Died. A group of hikers from Zurich ventured onto a closed path and triggered a May avalanche on the very trail we were planning to take into the heart of the Alpstein mountain range. One woman was dead and the route was now officially verboten.
My husband, Walter, two ex-pat friends and I were immersed in the uniquely Swiss pastime of hiking from one berghaus, or mountain inn, to another. Several rungs up the comfort ladder from the hiking association huts popular across the Alps, berghäuser -- also known as berghotels, berggasthäuser and auberges des montagnes -- are the handsome macho cousins of American country inns. Set against almost impossibly gorgeous backdrops, berghäuser are all about sitting back and feeling great about your physical accomplishments. There's plenty of rustic charm -- scrubbed pine walls, lace curtains and pillowy duvets -- but because you arrive on foot, there's no need to look even remotely presentable for meals.
The trail closure presented us with a dilemma. We'd chosen to have lunch in Schwende -- a hill town that's so sleepy you can hear cowbells clanging and children teasing each other from several farms away -- because it was at the trailhead. There were plenty of other trails; we just weren't sure which would provide the right combination of scenic thrills and cardiovascular oomph. So we improvised. When a red train's horn tooted with the drawn out glee of a plastic slide whistle, we jumped on board.
A yodel away from Austria
The Appenzell region is at the heart of the berghaus culture, with more inns per kilometer of trails than anywhere else in Switzerland. Tucked into the northeastern corner of the country, just south of Lake Constance and a yodel away from the Austrian border, the region was traditionally a center for lace making and folk arts. Today, it's known mostly for its farms and unique form of open-air voting. On the last Sunday in April, the citizens of the canton -- called Appenzell Inner Rhoden -- gather in the brightly painted town of Appenzell to decide on local issues by a show of hands. This conservative canton clings to its old customs. Women weren't granted the right to vote until 1991.
My friends, who live in Zurich and organized the trip, were drawn to Appenzell by a guidebook photo of Berggasthaus Aescher, a dollhouse of an inn perched on the ledge of a cliff. Built in the mid-1800s for guests visiting a nearby hermit's cave, it looks beyond meadows studded with wildflowers to forested ridges.
We arrived there after two hours of hiking and the views both up and down were vertigo inducing. The place was all but deserted save for an old farmer turned out in work clothes and a traditional felt hat. He was a picture of contentment as he sipped a foot-tall glass of beer that he chased with a cup of coffee. We happily dug into a Matterhorn-size pile of ice cream, meringue and whipped cream.
The mattress camp custom
Berggasthaus Aescher is built into the cliff and its back wall is jagged rock. Poking around inside, I learned about another berghaus custom known as the matratzenlager, or mattress camp. Essentially a dormitory of mattresses pushed together to form one enormous bed, a matratzenlager is the most economic way to experience a berghaus. Our friends stay in them often, but a recent experience where one of their fellow sleepers groaned through the night before loudly relieving himself in the shared bathroom gave us pause. For our first overnight stop -- a 90-minute walk down the mountain to the delightful Berggasthaus Seealpsee -- we opted for private rooms with shared bathrooms.
Breakfast the next day was a simple but delicious assortment of breads, jams, yogurts, muesli and a slab of Appenzeller cheese. As we looked out at the Seealpsee lake, which perfectly reflected the snowy horn of the Säntis peak off its teal water, we felt like we had been transported to the land that time forgot. Waterfalls spouted from limestone cliffs and one hyperactive goat turned a steep patch of snow into his own personal half pipe. For more than 20 minutes he leapt and slid, climbed back up and leapt some more.
Standing in the lush valley, it was almost impossible to imagine how much our journey would change. Early into our walk we met a Swiss family coming from the opposite direction. "You won't make it without the ropes," the father warned, referring to a steep climb slicked with ice.
What ropes, I wondered. The only gear we had was a bag of gorp and a water bottle. Then we rounded a tight pass and I saw lines strung like a cat's cradle across the slope.
When we panted into the dining room of the Berggasthaus Meglisalp -- a large berghaus set in a cluster of small farms -- I felt entitled to an Appenzeller wheat beer and an enormous portion of Alpine Rösti, a combination of hashbrowns, gruyere cheese, ham and fried eggs.
A family of three from Nuremberg sat at the next table. The mother was half Swiss and hiked in Appenzell once a year. This was the first year her husband and teenage son had joined her. That her husband wasn't an experienced hiker was apparent by his white button-down shirt -- not a lot of wicking technology there -- and black slacks. They were headed over the same high pass and we figured we'd lap them in no time.
From giggles to urgent cries
One hour later I was on all fours trying not to break through the crunchy top layer of snow for the 20th time. The sun was gone and the sky had the luster of a flannel blanket. Any sign of a "trail" was impossible to find because the entire ridge was covered in snow. The German family was well above us; we followed their footprints with the hope that at least the mother knew where she was going.
When we reached the peak, they were taking in the scenery. A long slope of snow swooped down toward a valley where an alpine lake sparkled like an aquamarine. The husband stood up, adjusted his windbreaker and bodysurfed down. I took a more cautious approach and trailblazed miniature switchbacks through the crust. Then gravity exerted its pull and I was running, my feet leaping off the ground like it was a bouncy castle. I couldn't stop giggling.
At the bottom, the mother's voice bounced off jagged rock faces that were so thin they looked like a giant's paper crown. I figured she and her son were experimenting with echoes. When the cries turned urgent, it was clear something was wrong. By the time we got to her she was close to tears. Her husband was missing.
"A friend of mine died here a few years ago," she said, explaining that sometimes stray boulders fall from the cliffs.
We started yelling, too. Ten agonizing minutes later, the son trudged up the hill and found his father. He had so enjoyed bodysurfing that he slid past the point where the trail forked toward Berggasthaus Bollenwees, their destination and ours.
We were all in the Bollenwees dining room that evening when the alpenglow washed the mountains pink and the water of the Fälensee snaked through the narrow valley. Our tired muscles told us that we had certainly hiked. But we'd also experienced the serendipity, fear and delight of wandering.
As we toasted another wonderful day, a group of off-duty officers from the Swiss army started singing an a cappella improvisation that sounded like a cross between Bobby McFerrin and a Gregorian chant. It was magical to hear them. But given that they were occupying the matratzenlager, I was relieved we had secured the last two private rooms.
Elizabeth Larsen is a Minneapolis-based writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones and Travel + Leisure.