A side-trip on the Bear Trek
Our Swiss guides casually sauntered down the steep, narrow track as if it was a sidewalk in downtown Zurich. I, on the other hand, exercised extreme caution, placing each foot carefully on the slippery mountainside strewn with loose rocks, making sure I came to a complete halt in a safe place before gazing around at the jaw-dropping views.
It was Day 3 of our Swiss ‘Bear Trek’ expedition, and radically different from the previous two which involved strenuous, all-day hikes up and over mountain passes. Instead we deviated from the usual itinerary, taking a side-trip to the top of the Schilthorn. This involved catching a series of impressive cable-cars which whisked us from the Lauterbrunnen Valley far above the clouds to a mountain peak almost 3000 metres above sea level. Grey and drizzly in the valley, it was another world up there, bathed in bright sunshine, hobnobbing with mountain peaks.
The 360-degree panorama from the Schilthorn summit gave us an entirely different perspective on the Bernese trio – the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau – and more than 200 members of mountain royalty including Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc, 4,808m, in neighbouring France. Communing eye-to-peak with such alpine giants was breath-taking. Below us, the clouds were neatly tucked into the folds of the valley like a fluffy white duvet.
But there’s more to the Schilthorn than spectacular alpine scenery. The mountain featured in the sixth Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and the revolving restaurant, Piz Gloria, served as the headquarters of the evil genius and super-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. At the top of the mountain, there’s a highly-entertaining, interactive Bond World, replays of 007 movies, a Walk of Fame featuring the actors, stuntmen, cameramen and directors, and even Bond-themed toilets that won an international tourism award for ‘best bathrooms’. The restaurant serves 007 burgers. I just had to have one for lunch while I watched the parade of peaks drift by the revolving restaurant.
The Schilthorn has another claim to fame. It’s the starting gate of the 15km ‘Inferno’ ski race to Lauterbrunnen, the largest amateur ski race in the world. The race dates back to 1928 on one of the longest pistes in Switzerland. There’s a summer version of the event too, the Inferno Triathlon from Thun to the Schilthorn, which began in 1992. One of the toughest endurance races in the world with an ascent of 5500 metres, it must also be one of the most scenic.
Having explored the Schilthorn’s many attractions and magnificent views, our local guides Jana and Nick led us down the top section of the triathlon route, the only hiking we ended up doing that day. It was a short stint compared to previous days but one that required intense concentration and focus. A carelessly-placed foot could have led to a rather rapid descent. I was astounded to think triathletes could run up such a track... and even more astonished to see a sign at the top which read: ‘High-heeled shoes prohibited!’
Jana said: “Believe me, it does happen!”
Late afternoon, we took a cablecar down to Mürren where we checked into the lovely Hotel Alpenruh.
Nick conducted a walking tour of his delightful, car-free village which sits on a ledge high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley. You wouldn’t want to be a somnambulant in Mürren – at the edge of the ledge, there’s a sheer drop of 800m to the valley floor.
Mürren, the highest, continually-inhabited village settlement in the canton of Bern, has a fascinating history with records dating back to 1257 when the ‘Village on the Wall’ was first mentioned. Millions of years before that, 200 million to be precise, Mürren was submerged under the ocean, and 25,000 years ago, it was 1.2km under glacial ice which only began to recede 8000 years ago.
Prior to the 1850s, the inhabitants of the high terrace survived by subsistence farming but as the region warmed and the snow and ice melted, Mürren became more accessible, and along came international tourism.
It’s a place of many firsts, Nick explained as we walked around the pretty little village.
With the opening of Mürren’s first hotel, the ‘Silberhorn’ in 1857, and the ‘Grand Hotel Des Alpes’ and the ‘Kurhaus’ in 1870, the village became the summer retreat of aristocrats, politicians, painters and scholars from all over Europe, especially Britain. In 1891, the Lauterbrunnen to Mürren railway was inaugurated and in 1910, Mürren enjoyed its first winter tourism season. We came across the original passenger car of a horse-drawn tramway opened in 1894 to transport guests and goods from the train stations to the Grand Hotel Kurhaus.
Nick pointed out the Allmendhubel Funicular opened in 1912, and a memorial to British skier and mountaineer Sir Arnold Lunn who set the world’s first slalom course in Mürren in 1922, and organised the first world championship in downhill and slalom racing in 1931.
In 1923, the British Ladies Ski Club was founded in Mürren and in1924, Lunn started the Kandahar Ski Club, the oldest, most distinguished British ski club whose 1400 members include royals and celebrities.
The first Inferno Race (from Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen) took place in 1928 organised by a bunch of British ski enthusiasts; in 1930, Switzerland’s first ski school was founded; and in 1937, Mürren celebrated the opening of the first ski lift in the Bernese Oberland.
The mid-1960s saw the construction of cableways from Stechelberg to the Schilthorn and in 1969, the revolving restaurant ‘Piz Gloria’ opened, thanks to the makers of the Bond movie ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ who helped fund the completion of the project.
I loved the tranquillity of the vehicle-free village, the deer grazing in the nearby meadows and sun-blackened walls of the traditional old chalets and barns with their window boxes and steep-pitched rooves. The oldest house in the village dates back to 1547.
Nick joined us for dinner at the Hotel Alpenruh where we consumed a large cauldron of rich, creamy fondue made from local cheese. It was a fun evening, our last night together as a group - three Aussies, one Kiwi and our Swiss tour leader. I would miss the camaraderie of the Aussies and the immensely-capable Birgit, but I was excited to be heading to Montreux and then on to Zermatt.
My travel itinerary for the next day looked terrifying with four tight changes in four hours involving cable cars, buses and trains.
But I knew it would go smoothly, just like clockwork, with the various stations, timetables and modes of transport all perfectly synchronised and aligned. That’s Switzerland. Stress-free travel...
The Bear Trek is part of the Via Alpina, a classic among long-distance hikes in Switzerland. The Via Alpina is a challenging mountain hike through the picture-perfect landscapes of Switzerland’s Northern Alps. A series of 20 daily stages takes hikers over 14 alpine passes and through a great variety of alpine terrain, villages, flora and fauna - a hiking enthusiast’s dream. Mountain restaurants and hotels provide meals and accommodation along the way. Eurotrek organised our accommodation and luggage transfers so we just carried a light day pack. They also provided excellent detailed maps of the route.
This article originally appeared on Over60.