We underestimated the Alps. We had seen some great photos over the years and knew they were a popular destination. But their scale and variety of amazing views stunned us on arrival.
This week, we drove up from Italy, picked up our friend Mac in Geneva, and used the small town of Grindelwald as a home base for some epic hikes and fondue explorations. Over a sunny week, we saw a small sampling of what Switzerland's mountains have to offer, with constant reminders that we're still novices in the hiking world.
Our first of three hikes introduced us to the wonders of our new valley home and the fact that you can hitch a ride on a gondola up four thousand feet instead of climbing by foot.
This popular route took us to mountain lakes, a couple of benches to enjoy our local super market haul and some cross valley views of the most famous mountains in the area. Mac, a huge fan of going “off-piste” convinced us to deviate from the trail and select our own grassy knoll—otherwise home to alpine cows—to enjoy our lunch from.
After some protestations we followed him down and were rewarded with one of those views that just feels too good to be real.
Top of Europe train
One of the top attractions of this area is the “Top of Europe” experience at Jungfraujoch. This adventure involves an exorbitantly expensive $180 “cog wheel” train ticket that takes you straight up through the mountain at a forty-degree angle, eventually coming to a stop inside a glacier at its peak.
After much soul searching, looking at the mountaintop webcam, and applying our new 50% off Swiss train pass, we made the plunge and got up at the crack of dawn to purchase discounted tickets.
It's a wonder they managed to construct the final station 80 years ago, perched at the very top of the mountain. The view is stunning: surrounded by clouds, mountain peaks and snow even at the end of summer.
We trudged unusually slowly (it's the altitude!) to another nearby hut to revel in the clear views and icy beer.
Our final hiking day was the result of Mac's insistence that one of the more impressive mountains in our valley did have a hiking trail if you just squinted at it long enough. After asking the internet, we discovered a trail leading 4k meters up the side of Wetterhorn to a hut used as a base for mountain climbers.
So, on our third morning, we arose to tackle this final and most demanding path. After the first short, steep section from the parking lot, we were feeling pretty great about our fitness level. That is, until we ran into a surprise friend.
He had already hiked up to our goal this morning, in what appeared to be his full winter wardrobe, to celebrate his 85th birthday. In between trying out each of his five languages on us in an effort to find one in common, he showed us his portfolio of paintings and drew a quick portrait of Stef. I'm sure he'd been perfecting that move for years.
We updated our life goals and soldiered on, clinging to the cables along the cliff-face path and ever aiming for the hutte.
After finally getting up to the glacier, a flock of utterly unimpressed alpine sheep brought us right back to earth. Still, we got an amazing reward for climbing so high: the glacier broke apart with a thundering boom right before our eyes. We watched the shattered ice stream down to the basin below, our oohs and aahs punctuated only by our chomping on chocolate.
We eventually set off for the return trip to our little chalet back on the valley floor. While we were grateful to be headed home, the sunset descent surpassed our already sky-high expectations, making us wish we had known to book a night at the hutte.
We're so glad that Mac joined up with us this week – not only for the fun times, but also his encouragement to take the trail less traveled and his impressive radar for Swiss fondue.
On our last night together, we made sure to erase any fitness progress we'd made with a picturesque evening in Bellagio on Lake Como, taking a tiny car ferry to enjoy a fresh fish dinner, loads of gelato and wine, and lake views.
After such a glorious summer week, we can only imagine how amazing winter is here.
Now that we've gotten our feet wet with Alpine hiking, we're replacing the day packs with full trekking gear and taking on the Tour du Mont Blanc.