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Charles and Marco spent a few weeks in the summer walking across the Swiss Alps

Issue 1

he Via Alpina National Route 1 is an  eighteen stage hiking route across Switzerland from Sargans to Montreux. This journey is 370 kilometres, takes in fourteen Alpine passes and in places reaches in excess of 2800 metres above sea level. It is part of a much longer route through alpine regions of Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy and France. However, as our previous hiking journeys had been one or two day trips in the UK when we were in scouts we didn't want to bite off more than we could chew.

The Via Alpina National Route 1 is a must for keen hikers and relative, but well-prepared, novices alike although it was fairly challenging in places so a head for heights is advised; it can be tackled in one trip as we chose to do or can be tackled in sections over several shorter excursions. Whichever way you decide to tackle it, you will not be short of spectacular views each time you venture out. We experienced the beautiful Engstlensee Lake at the top of the Jochpass, we hiked close to the daunting Eiger and Jaungfrau and we were almost blinded by the glaciers glistening near the Hoturli pass (the highest section of the route). It wasn't scrambles up and down mountains the whole time though - along the way we passed through several major towns where you might choose to spend a couple of days to catch up with a shower and a comfortable bed. One place we stopped off at was Adelboden, a village near the Wildstrubel mountain that hosts the FIS Ski World Cup for one weekend every year. High above Adelboden on the hike route at Tschentenalp there is a giant swing for the young at heart to have a go on. It's quite an expensive country so we were pleased to discover that the swing is free and is a bigger thrill than many theme park rides. Apparently there are people who take a detour just so that they can have a go.

One major plus of the Via Alpina is that it is suitable for a range of hiking abilities since each stage finishes where there is accommodation of some sort. This can include hostels, guesthouses or hotels. For those like us two poor  undergraduates on a budget - and a low one at that - who were crazy enough to choose the most expensive nation on earth (according to CEOWORLD magazine) to visit, fortunately most towns also had campsites which is where we ended up more often than not. Although we camped most of the way along the route, having alternative accommodation options was very useful, especially when we needed a day off or when our tent unexpectedly broke! We had borrowed a two-man tunnel tent that weighed only around two kilos but when one of the fibreglass poles snapped we spent several days trying to find a camping shop that sold replacements. Whilst there were plenty of shops no one had any pole repair or replacement kits which we felt was a bit odd, a bit like going to a newsagent's and finding that they had no newspapers. We soldiered on with our flabby tent roof until another camper gave us a spare pole that was miraculously the same length as our broken one and so we were able to effect the necessary repair. We eventually found a camping shop where we found out the problem. Whereas back in England at the height of lockdown everyone was being implored to stay inside and so took to DIY, in Switzerland it seemed that everyone was being encouraged to stay out, so once summer arrived the Swiss took instead to the hills and mountains en masse, having made a trip to the Campingladen.

There were many amazing places that we visited on the hike, but one that I would definitely recommend staying at is the Kandersteg International Scout Centre. You could take a much-needed rest day after climbing over the Hoturli pass, and whilst you’re there enjoy the array of activities they have to offer.

What makes this route particularly amazing is the friendliness and hospitality of the locals. So much so, everyone you pass will say, "Gruße" (pronounced "Gru-say") which means "greetings". We were fortunate enough to meet some very welcoming and helpful people. There was the family in Adelboden that helped fix our tent, and there was also another family in Gstaad that we chatted to and who gave us loads of their cake to eat. However, the icing on the cake, so to speak, was the guy who stuck his hand in his pocket. Ordinarily it would fall into the category of a random act of kindness - a small nonpremeditated action by one human being towards another who would normally not be known to each other. This was no small deed though, more something of such huge significance that we were talking to each other about it for the rest of our trip and beyond. The man's name was René and we came across him at a campsite in Château-d'Œx. We had spent the evening chatting to him, not least of all because he was on his own but also as he offered us food and beer. In the morning he told us that as he was so impressed with our trip he had paid our campsite fees. Naturally we were very surprised but also extremely grateful. It wasn't as if we could refuse. It wasn't as if he was offering to pay and we were replying, "No it's fine thank you." Like someone who leaves your table in a restaurant and goes up to the waiter and settles the whole bill, or better than that, someone who gets up from another table, he had, without any discussion or in an attempt to sound magnanimous but not really meaning it, simply paid our bill. What a generous man! It's acts like that that one remembers for the rest of one's life. It didn't finish there however: there was more to the matter. He explained to us that sadly his wife had died a year ago. As part of the healing process he had taken it upon himself not to do just one good deed a day but several. And so, not only did he pay for our campsite that night he also gave us fifty Swiss Francs to spend on our day out in Geneva. I wonder if he had been a scout? We should have asked him.

With enough adventures on our three week trip to fill a small book, I shall confine myself here to the first and one of the more bizarre incidents - to us at least if not the Swiss mountain residents. The first was on the first day when we were already high up on a mountain pass. We came across what looked like a small, rectangular, wooden post box. The only problem was there wasn't a house nearby. We decided to open it seeing as there was no lock and have a peep. Inside we found a bottle of gin, a bottle of a local liqueur, a quantity of disposable glasses and an honesty box. "Help yourself," was written on a piece of paper inside the box. So we did. "I can't imagine this in the UK," my friend suggested. He was right. My parents have some friends who live in Headcorn in Kent. One morning they walked to the end of the field at the back of their house that borders a small but well-used country lane. They put out a table, a chair, a basketful of freshly-laid eggs, an honesty box and a sign that read something along the lines of, "Eggs, so much each, put the money in the box." When they returned at the end of the day they were more than a little surprised to find the eggs all gone, the honesty box gone, the sign gone, the table gone and the chair
gone. We paid for our drinks and left.

One of the more bizarre incidents happened on day six whilst we were having lunch. We had grown quite used to the sight and sound of low flying aircraft with roped-up cargo dangling beneath the fuselage. Many of the farms are not conveniently situated alongside any roads and so rely heavily on helicopters to transport equipment and provisions. As we looked up at one particularly low-flying helicopter we thought what we saw was a fibreglass cow being transported in the rope sling. As the helicopter flew by, far too close for our comfort we realised that the cow was a real one, albeit dead. Then there was another helicopter with a cow, then another. As the third flew past it was just as well that I wasn't literally open-mouthed because the decomposition process of number three was much further advanced than the other two. As the helicopter swept past in the direction of the other two that were already far down the valley we were treated to a perversely imagined rendition of the “gastric” Red Arrows, with a rather noxious substance being spewed across, over and down where we were seated and onwards down the mountain. We later discovered, for we had to ask, that the airlifting of dead cows down the mountain is a very rare occurrence and that it is only undertaken when the cause of death is unknown or they die suddenly. We imagined them being whisked off to the bovine coroner's for an inquest. He would have been busy that afternoon.

All in all a great trip and one that I will have to do again sometime. Hopefully I will bump into René.

Charles Hemming-Clark

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