A Non-Skier’s Guide to the Mountains (Part One)
I’ll let you into a secret. You can experience the majesty, excitement and general brilliance of the mountains without specialist knowledge and without spending a fortune on expensive equipment.
I’m not a skier, so on a recent trip to the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, I went in search of alternative excursions. I should probably point out now that I’m in no way an expert on Winter activities, particularly those done in difficult conditions. Seek out professional advice if you’re unsure.
This activity combines two of my favourite things; walking and snow. There’s nothing quite like hearing the scrunch of freshly fallen snow under-foot whilst being surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery. On my recent trip to Switzerland, I embarked on two hikes, one pretty easy, the other more difficult and somewhat challenging (for me anyway).
Grutschalp to Murren
The easy route was a mostly flat 5km walk from Grütschalp station (1486m) to Mürren (1650m) via Winteregg station (1578m). A train line runs along the entire route, so the chances of getting lost or cut off from the outside world is almost impossible. This means, this route is a great way to introduce yourself to walking in the snow. The route hardly ever closes and is routinely cleared each morning, but it is comforting to those unsure about walking around on the side of a mountain that the authorities will close the path if they think it is unsafe. With a good pair of boots and with consideration for time spent staring open-mouthed at the stunning scenery, you should be in Mürren well within two hours. If you need further convincing, take a look at these photos. You only get to properly appreciate such scenes on foot.
Mannlichen to Wengen
The hike between Männlichen and Kleine Scheidegg is advertised on various websites with a variety of completion times, distances and difficulty ratings, which seems to suggest the route changes with the seasons. The route I tackled was just over 6km in length, took 2hrs 40mns and was one this hiking novice would describe as taxing. If experiencing true mountain wilderness and challenging yourself to reach difficult goals is your thing, you should try this walk.
The route meanders across several ski runs (watch your back) and climbs and descends throughout. You start the walk at 2230m and actually end at a slightly lower altitude of 2061m, but don’t let this fool you. The first 4/5ths of the hike is reasonably flat and descends slowly several hundred metres. The last 5th is spent re-ascending those descended metres via a steep gradient. You’re literally walking in the middle of several pistes. While skiers in their expensive gear descend at speed, you’re walking up in the opposite direction. I had to stop every minute or so to get my breath back and found it hard going. But, the rewarding feeling when I reached Kleine Scheidegg made it all worthwhile.
As opposed to the first hiking route, this route is quite often closed in the winter season. The depth of snow often prevents the pisteurs from clearing the snow safely. Luckily, the route was open when I had planned on tackling it. At least, that’s what I was told. Upon setting off, visibility was very poor, making it feel much more of an adventure. About one hour into the hike, I was all alone. I couldn’t see or hear anything. I was in true mountain wilderness. Then though, came a worrying sight. A came across a section of the route that hadn’t been cleared. Continuing could potentially be dangerous. I was at a section with a steep drop to my left-hand side. One wrong foot and… well, who knows? I had already come quite a long way and was reluctant to walk back, so I waded into the snow. It was waist-deep! It stayed waist-deep for around 20 minutes. At one point, I had to haul myself up a slope using a tree branch. My water-proof boots soon showed they had their limit. It was both hairy and exciting in a might-die-here sort of way. What lesson can a teach about this? Perhaps, don’t do anything you’re not happy about doing. At least I can say I was happy with my decision to continue. I probably shouldn’t have, but I was feeling pretty daring that day and just went for it.
There isn’t much more you need to know about hiking. You can buy specialist hiking equipment if you’re serious about it. I coped just fine though with hiking boots and snowboarding trousers (insulated and waterproof). Equipment aside, you just pay the very reasonable cost of getting to the start of the route (see the My Jungfrau website for fares and timetables, plus tonnes of other information on the area). I would say water, food, piste maps and a mobile phone are essential. Make sure you save your hotel phone number and local SOS phone numbers into your phone before you set off, just in case. If you’re keen to hike but you don’t feel very confident about doing it alone, there are planned group hikes and snow-shoe hikes throughout the season. Check local information for details. Oh, and probably the most important tip; follow the markers. They’re every 20-30 metres, so getting lost is very unlikely. If you’ve got any more tips or if you’ve got questions, please drop a comment into the box.
In part two of the Non-Skiers Guide to the Mountains, I prove that sledging is a great, inexpensive way for thrill-seeking non-skiing adults (and kids) to tear up the slopes.