Adventures and Misadventures on the Alpine hiking trails

Greg Witt of Alpenwild Tours
Greg Witt of Alpenwild Tours

By Eileen Ogintz

Where is the trail? Somehow, we took a wrong turn as we are hiking in the Swiss Alps. Our destination: the 15-room Hotel Obersteinbergthat can only be reached by a long uphill hike in the Swiss Alps in the Jungfrau region.

Alpenwild Tours, run by American best-selling hiking book author Greg Witt, had arranged a self-guided itinerary for us—like for half of his clients. But it is possible to make a wrong turn on even the best marked hiking trails, like in Switzerland, necessitating an extra 2,000 feet gain in elevation beyond the 2,800 feet we expected as we had to go back down and up again to find the right trail.

Admittedly, I was beyond exhausted by the time we made it. But our detour enabled us to have a picnic in a spectacular spot surrounded by waterfalls (this valley has some 72 waterfalls). And we hiked amid a herd of bleating goats, their bells around their necks ringing musically.

Goat encounter in the high alpine
Goat encounter in the high alpine

“Bleh, Bleh, Bleh” one nudged me from behind, just like my daughters who were encouraging me to hike at a faster pace and not take so many breaks.

I feel as if Heidi is going to step out of one of the rustic alpine houses any minute. Farmers bring their cows and goats to the high Alpine meadows to graze all summer, making cheese. It’s a lot of grazing—cows here will consumer 220 pounds of grass and 20 gallons of water to make just 25 liters of milk, most of which goes into cheese and butter.

We enjoyed some of that local cheese—goat’s milk and cow’s milk along with local sausage, air dried beef, apricots and of course chocolate at our picnic. And when we got to Obersteinberg, we had some of the butter, cheese and milk made right there high in the mountains.

Let’s hear it for vacation missteps. But I admit as I slogged up the last 1,000 feet of the climb, up steep log steps, I’d wished I’d done more uphill hikes—even up the stairs in our apartment building to prepare.

How about for kids? “This is hard with so many hills,” said Kathryn Wegner, from Minnesota, hiking with her husband and two kids aged seven and five along part of the same trail.

The Swiss family Arbon at Obersteinberg
The Swiss family Arbon at Obersteinberg

The Arbons, Swiss parents carrying heavy packs and three boys aged 5, 9, and 10 are ahead of us on the trail to Obersteinberg. Fynn, 9, is most impressed seeing snow in summer. “He loves snow,” his mother Lea explains.  Yann, 10, loves the mountain hut without electricity or showers, “because it is so different than home.”

“There are no cars and no tourist shops,” says the mother, Lea Arbon. Obviously, only fit hikers can make it here.

Exhausted but happy on arrival at Obersteinberg
Exhausted but happy on arrival at Obersteinberg

We’re served a delicious dinner of vegetable soup, salad, sausage and small noodles; breakfast is home baked bread, butter and cheese from the farm.

Witt tells us that hiking for Swiss families is a way of life, which is why the young kids we see on the trails are managing as well as the baby goats. The Swiss, he says, walk nearly twice as many steps a day as the Average American—9500. “And then on the weekends they go out and hike.”

Cow encounter on the Alpine Trail
Cow encounter on the high Alpine Trail

He often books trips for families and finds the kids, once they are eight or older, do fine on the trails. But it is key to make sure the hikes are appropriate for your group, he says. “That’s the greatest value we can add—before the trip.”

After dinner at Obersteinberg, we sit outside nursing a schnapps with our two daughters looking at the spectacular views—the waterfalls, the snow capped mountains, the alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers. That it took so much effort to get there makes it all the more gratifying, I think.

Lea and Peter Arbon agree. They are hiking to another mountain hut hotel for a second night.  The boys couldn’t be happier—another night with candles and no showers!

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