Safety First When Exploring the Alps

By Richard Davison

The body becomes older, the knees a bit weaker, and one day we realize that, even without snow, mountains are a powerful magnet. In fact, winter's white blanket hides the intense three-dimensionality that comes from rugged rock and green alms. Hiking is the way to discover this world, and autumn is best season. The days are still warm, but a bit crisp, and visibility is the best.

Switzerland is a top destination for hiking at all levels of difficulty. It's not terribly important which resort you choose; there are always good hiking opportunities.

  • Travel: Due to the enviably efficient Swiss Travel System, which totally integrates rail and bus service, a multiday SwissPass is the best way to get around. (It also includes ships on the lakes, streetcars in the cities, and even free or discounted lifts.) Using the System, it is possible, even easy, to hike over mountains into the next valley then to return home by public transport. Alternatively, your baggage can travel while you hike and be waiting for you at your destination.
  • Clothing: Columbia Sportswear Chairman Gert Boyle says, "Where the feet lead, the body will follow." She's right: there is simply no substitute for high-quality hiking boots. In addition, choose rugged hiking socks and wear them with sock liners. These have a two-fold purpose: to wick away moisture and minimize friction. Beyond the feet, my usual attire is simple: shorts or cutoffs and a T-shirt (with extras in my pack).
  • Backpack: There is not much to be carried for day hiking. My light pack ingeniously folds into itself making a small pouch for my suitcase. Into the pack goes at least one change of T-shirt, a sweatshirt or sweater, a light wind- and waterproof jacket, sun and lip protection, a couple of liters of water, some granola bars, and, of course, Swiss chocolate. A secure zip pocket stores passport, rail pass, and local money.
  • Maps: Due to extensive trail signposting, it's almost impossible to get lost. Nevertheless, a large-scale trail map is helpful for overall orientation. These can be found at newsstands, such as those in train stations, or at local tourist offices, which often publish a hiking brochure with trail descriptions.
  • Weather: In the mountains, conditions can change rapidly. Within minutes, clouds streaming over the peaks can transform a brilliant, sunny day into a cold, murky whiteout. Become accustomed to watching cloud build-ups closely and ask local people to interpret the conditions and the outlook.
  • Trails and Markings: A useful feature of all Swiss trail signs is that they show times, rather than distances, (for example: Tannalp 1½ hours). These times are reasonable for average hikers, but do not allow for rest or scenery stops. There are four types of trails:
    • Wanderweg are gentle paths that are suitable for everyone and often follow the valley floor. They are posted with plain yellow signs and may be marked along the route with yellow diamonds, blocks, or arrows.
    • Bergweg are mountain trails that require good hiking boots and weather protection. They are posted with white-red-white at the point end of all signs and are marked along the trail with bands in these same colors.
    • Alpine Routes are difficult, high-altitude trails that absolutely require mountain climbing gear and should not be attempted without experienced guides or companions. These trails are marked with white-blue-white.
    • Via Feratta: In recent years, there has been rising concern about environmental damage by mountain climbers. In response, "Kletterstiege", which are known in English as "Via Feratta", have been installed on some peaks. These facilities have permanent climbing footholds and safety cabling, which can even be used by people without advanced climbing experience. Nonetheless, you still need a harness and other gear, a qualified guide or companion, and confidence to climb without vertigo or fear.
  • Up, down, or both? Almost every Swiss resort has summer lift service making it possible to achieve the same altitudes with a lot less effort. So you can adapt the length of your hike by hopping onto cable cars or chairlifts at various points along the trail, or you can take a lift up, then hike along the upper level.
  • Local hazards: At medium altitudes (alms), it's hard to hike without sharing the space with herds of ringing brown Swiss cows. This means giving special attention to their "output" on the path! Herds are allocated grazing space separated by innocuous-appearing strips of woven plastic on slender poles. Beware! These are electrified, and can give a nasty tingle if you mistakenly grab one for balance. Special care is also essential going through gates in these electric fences.

Up for a challenge? Read about Richard Davidson's recent hike along the Four Lake High Alpine Trail, from Engelberg to Stockalp.


Richard Davidson is the president of Ski-Europe, experts in European winter vacations. Visit ski-europe.com/ for trip packages and ski travel information.