Alpine hike in Switzerland

I was in Zurich for meetings and managed to set aside a day for hiking in the high country to the east. Fresh snow and low clouds made for an eerily quite day in the mountains.

I was in Zurich for a day of meetings and decided it would be a great opportunity to go hiking in the beautiful mountains of Switzerland.  So, despite earlier stops in Dallas (for ACM CCS) and Delft (for ACM SenSys) I brought along my backpack, boots, and full winter hiking gear.  On Wednesday morning, after lots of helpful advice from my ETH colleagues, I boarded an eastbound train from Zurich.  Read on for the full story, and check out the photos.

2017-11-08-41286As the train wound through the verdant Swiss countryside, I caught a glimpse of a fox digging for rodents in one farm field, and a hawk perched on a fence while eyeing opportunities in another field.  In Gossau I switched from the inter-city train to the local Appenzeller train, and found myself passing through ever-smaller villages as the track wound its way up an alpine valley toward Wasserauen.  The sun had peeked out once or twice, but the weather stayed true to the forecast as I arrived at the end of the line, the only passenger to disembark in the cloudy drizzle.

2017-11-08-41280Indeed, it seemed I was perhaps the only person in this outpost, a tiny village that seemed to be oriented exclusively to summer tourists.  The inn and two small restaurants were closed.  All five (?) homes seemed deserted. Even the aerial tram car to Ebenalp, a viewpoint I had hoped would be the climax of my hike, had closed for the season a few days earlier.

On the other hand, the valley meadows were a verdant green and the shreds of low clouds occasionally parted to expose a forest freshly painted with an overnight snowfall.  As the little train pulled away from the station, I hoisted my backpack and, alone in the valley, headed up the road toward what I hoped would be the trail to Seealpsee.

The trail climbs steeply beside a brook, with many beautiful waterfalls.The web page that lured me into this route presented glorious photos of alpine peaks reflecting in clear mountain lakes, and promised sunny cliffside restaurants where one could enjoy the view with authentic Swiss cuisine.  Today, however, I knew none of those joyful scenes awaited me. The inns and restaurants had closed for the season and the clouds clung desperately to the hillsides above 1000m.  Determined, I puzzled my way through the unfamiliar German terminology in the few signs within the town, trying to correlate them with the German key of the online map I’d found.  Finally confident in the faint weiss-rot-weiss blazes I could find on a few roadside rocks, I made my way up a farmer’s driveway and through his field to the top of the sloping meadow, where a clear trail entered the forest.  Steep, but well-maintained, this winding trail climbed steeply along a brook to ascend the side of the valley.  A thick coating of autumn leaves hinted at some incredible photographic opportunities from weeks past, as I ascended past several beautiful waterfalls.  Soon, though, the trail left the forest and emerged into a snowy alpine meadow.   I had passed the snow-line at 982m, and was now thoroughly ensconced in thick grey clouds.  The day’s warmth – not that I could feel it – was already sublimating the snow and a light drizzle began to fall.  Or maybe it was just the clouds falling.

2017-11-08-41263The trail soon tops out at 1211m and passes the top of a tiny lift, one seemingly aimed at carrying one or two summer tourists at a time.  I walked through a ghostly landscape of shuttered buildings, all no doubt quite lively on a warm summer day, and followed the wandering trail as it reconnected with a crude jeep track and descended past several summer homes.  From the fences, turnstyles, and water troughs I got the sense these were perhaps the summer residence of farmers and their herds, now all shuttered tight for winter.

The trail descended below the cloud ceiling, barely, giving me a peek ahead at Seealpsee.  See Alps Sea – get it?  This pretty mountain lake is, I think, a glacial tarn formed by the terminal moraine of some ancient glacier.  I followed the footsteps of some earlier hikers – ah! so I am not alone! – clockwise around the lakeshore, still hopeful that the cloud deck might rise.  Above me, according to the map, were two ragged 2400m peaks, stereotypically beautiful in the way only Alpine peaks can be. Might I get a glimpse? Instead, the clouds began to sleet on me.

Seealpsee, a pretty glacial tarn in this alpine valley.I rounded the lake toward an enticing building – in summer, an inn and restaurant with a deck that serves guests who soak up the sunshine and the reflective views of alpine peaks. Today, instead, a pair of workmen clatter about while they conduct some off-season maintenance.

The road down from Seealpsee to Wasserauen is carved out of a steep hillside.I pull my hood on more tightly against the sleet and mist and look up-slope to the left, where the Ebenalp peak should be.  From the description, this fascinating peak provides stunning views, historic archeological sites, and an incredible cliffside hotel.  And a nice tram ride down to the valley.  Today, though, it would be a slog through misty clouds and perhaps icy trails down the other side.  I forgo the Ebenalp, vowing to return someday, and tromp down the valley road toward Wasserauen.  Not a simple rural pathway, this road is (in places) carved into the cliffside of the valley gorge.

The brook exiting Seealpsee is verdant at lower elevations.The snow thins, the grass is green, and the Seealpsee brook bubbles below me.  Soon I am close to my starting point, and I pass a micro-hydro facility, its internal hum demonstrating just how powerful this little brook can be.

Wasserauen train station and the departing train.The village of Wasserauen is still empty as I pass its shuttered inn.  Ahead, I see the Alpenzeller train at the station, taking its rest before returning to the valley.  In my wet and cold state, and in this deserted town, the train is a cheery sight.  I pick up my pace, hoping to close the 100m distance before the train departs.  Apparently uninterested with the sight of the sole occupant of Wasserauen approaching at a quick clip, the train departs, on time, as all Swiss trains do… but a mere three minutes too early for me!  On reaching the deserted station, a convenient display reminds me that the next train will depart an hour later.  Argh!  I snuggle into the tiny, unheated ticket booth and try to keep warm for the next hour.

Finally the train returns – empty, of course, because who would visit in this weather? – and I gratefully climb aboard.  The train and I wend slowly through the villages back down the valley, back to civilization, back to the hustle and bustle of the inter-city line and its commuters.  Just as darkness settles, I pull back into Zurich’s hautbahnhof.  Despite the disappointing weather, I feel great!  There’s nothing like getting outdoors in the forest, in the snow, in the mountains.

I snapped a few other photos, and a map of the hike area is shown below.


Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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