Snow Surprise in Lauterbrunnen
Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
9Trip End Sep 30, 2010
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Linda and I breakfasted on the usual assortment of delicious breads, jams, cheeses and hams and, prepared with our wet weather gear, made our way to the first gondola station, just a 2-minute walk from the hotel.
A few others were braving the elements, determined it seemed, to make the most of their vacation. A couple young guys were speaking in English, one an American and one a Canadian, comparing notes on their respective European backpacking odysseys. As we neared the top of the gondola run at the Grütschalp station, the rainfall changed. The rule of thumb is that for every 1000 feet of elevation gain, temperature normally drops about 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit. Our rise from the valley floor of just over 2000 feet had taken us to slightly cooler temps, and rain had turned to snow.
We disembarked the gondola into a world of premature September snowfall. A train here waited to chug across the ridge of the valley to Mürren. Our plan, however, was to walk the trail through the forest across this same ridge – about a 5 km hike. Others from the gondola boarded the train, but Jason, the backpacker from Canada, asked if he could join us on our trek. His new friend from the USA waffled. He was dressed in shorts and tennis shoes, with a flimsy plastic parka for rain gear. As the train closed its doors, he concluded his gear was inadequate and hopped aboard.
Linda, Jason, and I agreed we’d rather walk in snow than rain, and set off across a mostly level trail that ducked in and out of the forest. In clear weather, views of the rock walls on the opposite side of the valley and the mountains that towered above would have been stunning. As it was, we contented ourselves with the magic of a white winter wonderland – in September!
Not far into our walk, we heard the unmistakable melodic music of Alpine cowbells and were soon walking amongst a small herd of young dairy cows. Having been raised on a dairy farm, Linda noted that most were still young – heifers – and had not yet had their first calf. Curious by nature, they acknowledged our presence in various ways, one nuzzling me with her massive, moist nose – what a delightful diversion on this snowy path to Mürren.
As we walked, Jason revealed that he was from a small town of only 300 souls north of Ontario, that he’d just finished his training in heavy equipment maintenance and that when he returned from his month of exploring Europe via Eurail Pass he was starting a new job in the remote oil fields of Alberta. He was an easy-going young man and his company was welcome.
We continued through forests of larch and pine, past rushing streams, and soon found ourselves in Mürren. At the rail station there, we parted ways with Jason, he looking for a café serving something hot to drink, we heading on through Mürren to Gimmelwald, where we planned to catch the gondola back down to the valley floor.
Mürren was nearly deserted. Bad weather scared away most visitors, and the locals seemed to have better things to do than work outside in the snow. Still, we enjoyed the charm of the Swiss alpine chalets, window boxes full of flowers still unaware that winter had come early.
Thirty minutes away in Gimmelwald, we found a small inn serving food and cozied up to a table warmed by a wood stove. Over tea and hot chocolate, we chatted with a couple from Estes Pass, Colorado, who were staying 6 nights in the area. Warmed and refreshed, we paid our pound of flesh ($7 for 2 hot drinks), and waited at Gimmelwald station for the gondola.
Our new friends from Colorado told us of a cheese fair going on in Stechelberg, the destination of the gondola, and after the most breathtaking downward plunge we’ve yet experienced, along sheer vertical rock walls, we arrived in the miniscule community of Stechelberg, at the south end of the Lauterbrunnen Valley.
With the drop in elevation, snow returned to rain, and my camera tried valiantly to focus on the local flavor of the cheese festival through the droplets of water I couldn’t keep off the lens. Pavilions displayed local wares like cheeses, hams, bee products. And in one corner, a larger tent housed a small beer garden serving food and serenaded by a couple locals playing accordion and guitar, and yodeling folk tunes.
Yet we had miles to go before our day ended in Zermatt, so we picked up the valley trail along the river, and wandered through a kaleidoscope of Lauterbrunnen rural panoramas: picturesque farm houses, waterfalls, cows, sheep, and a curious fox who watched us from a safe distance.
The rain let up, and we reached our car in the village refreshed by our morning sojourn. Leaving Lauterbunnen, my intent was to drive through Meiringen, a town we’ve often used as a base in this part of Switzerland. From there, we’d thread our way through the Grimsel mountain pass, which would take us south to follow the Glacier Express train route to Zermatt. I wanted to show Linda Meiringen, where meringue was first developed 400 years ago, and where Arthur Conan Doyle decided to end the storied career of Sherlock Holms – in a death grip with arch foe Moriarity as he plunged over nearby Reichenbach Falls.
Approaching Meiringen, however, road signs indicated that passes leading out of Meiringen were closed. First order of business in Meiringen, therefore, was a stop at tourist information to learn our options for getting through the mountains to Zermatt.
A pert and perky young lady in the TI office confirmed that passes close at the first snowfall, especially if unseasonably early like this one, because people are still driving on summer tires, and accidents are inevitable. So even though snowfall was light, we needed to reverse our route and use the car train through the tunnel at Kandersteg.
Before leaving Meiringen, however, we stopped next store at the bakery for macaroon cookies (and a few other treats). These sustained us as we drove back along expansive Brienz Lake, past Interlaken (“between the lakes”), by Thun Lake, sister to Brienz, and south to Kandersteg. We’d been concerned that all traffic south would be funneled through Kandersteg, creating long waits. We purchased our ticket for 25 francs, however, and drove right onto the train.
This odd arrangement involves driving onto the train car, turning off your engine, and sitting in your car as you ride through the tunnel for 15 minutes to the south side of the mountains. It worked well, but I didn’t understand why the train was necessary. Since we were in tunnel most of the way, the tunnel would provide protection from bad weather, if that was the objective of the train, without the need for the train.
Nevertheless, if there are two things the Swiss understand, tunnels and trains are at the top of the list. So thankful to be past this barrier, we continued south into the long dead-end valley of St Nicholas, guarded at its terminus by the Matterhorn, boasting perhaps the most distinctive mountain top on the planet.
We arrived in Täsch about 7 pm, still 5 kilometers north of Zermatt. Since Zermatt allows no cars, we parked ours and packed our luggage on the shuttle train that zips efficiently back and forth between Täsch and Zermatt. On the other end, we pulled our bags through the mostly weather- quieted streets of Zermatt, checked into our hotel, and went looking for a late dinner.
Menus posted outside restaurants confirmed that we were in one of the most expensive corners of Europe’s most expensive country. So we finished a fun and full day with a meal at the American embassy (AKA McDonald’s), and retired for another challenging day of walk planning tomorrow at the Matterhorn.