Thursday, April 7, 2022 | Written by Claire
Every semester, most GTL students flock to Switzerland to enjoy the hiking, paragliding, and skiing, during the colder months. I could not miss seeing this beautiful country so my travel group and I decided to conquer the hike from Interlaken, a beautiful, quaint, Switzerland town, to Augstmatthorn, a grueling 10 hour hike that ends in Hardergrat where a shuttle bus would take us back to where we started. The elevation gain was around 1500m over a 24.8km journey. Our plan was simple: start at 4 am and then reach the mountain top to see the sunrise, continue our journey and finish around 2-3 pm.
At first, our journey was smooth, we were able to catch a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise as it shimmered across the lake and reflected off the snow-covered mountains across from us. Preparation wise: we really loaded up on food. With 3L of water for each of us, a dozen or so ham sandwiches, 12 granola bars, a pack of Biscoff, 2 fruit squeezies, and a pack of Dutch Nutella cookies, we were set. However, in terms of gear, only one of us had hiking sticks and the rest of us managed to get around using regular school backpacks, tennis shoes, and our overall balance. That was where we made a grave mistake.
The hike to Augstmatthorn itself isn’t necessarily a challenging one, for us at least. Physically, the overall terrain wasn’t too rugged, it was just very steep and death defying in many places. However, hiking in March, the trail didn’t reveal itself to be dangerous until we completed 7 hours of hiking. As we reached further into the ridge-line, snow began to coat the ground. Some of it was packed and slippery, a menace for those with tennis shoes that had poor grip. Some of it was on the verge of melting, which was extremely dangerous as one wrong step could send the entire snow pile rolling down the ledge only a few inches away from our feet. On the other hand, the snow was cold and wet, numbing our feet perpetually and making it even more slippery.
The trails became narrower and the ridge even steeper, with two sharp drops on both sides. We were ill-prepared to take on the trail any longer. When we were almost about the clear the trees, several experienced hikers had turned back, warning us that the ridgeline would be too snowy to continue, but we were determined to check out the scene for ourselves. Long story short- we turned back. The sharp drop was covered in packed, melting snow, the most dangerous combination. With our lack of equipment and expertise, we had to give up the hike. It was just too early in the year to reach Augstmatthorn.
On the way back, we sighed a breath of slight heartbreak as we mentally prepared ourselves for the 7-hour journey back. We would reach Interlaken much after the sun goes down, but luckily three of us had flashlights that would hopefully last us a few hours. As we squeezed through a maze of logs, we spotted a sign: Ringgenberg, a 1.5-hour hike down to the nearby town where we could take the next train back to Interlaken. That turned out to be the worst decision of our lives. This trail took us on a steep, strenuous route that had an elevation loss of 1060m in a climb that was a fourth of the original trail length from Interlaken. The route was steep, winding, and extremely muddy. My shoes, once black, had turned brown, and dirt accumulated under my fingernails as we had to get on our hands and knees to stay balanced. Halfway down the mountain, the trail disappeared. The red and white markers vanished into a maze of fallen pines that completely blocked the path further down. There was no way past the tangle of spiny branches. Even the ground, once made of hardened dirt, had become a slush of mud and accumulated snow. We were stuck. As we sat there, covered in mud and becoming increasingly cold, we felt a wave of panic as the sun began to dip over the ridge and we were no where near the town that was thousands of feet below us… until we thought of another way to reach there: slide. The trail had opened to a grassy slope of long weeds and small tree saplings. The slope was long, but not extremely steep, and near the bottom, we could see the opening to the road leading to the town. Fighting against the time and desperate to get back home, we decided to go for it and slide down the slope.
Slowly inching our way down, we were able to scoot slowly over the grass, with one of two terrifying moments when we would lose control over patches of slippery grass, grabbing desperately onto the weeds for some stability. In the end, after 40 miserable minutes of sliding, slipping, and sprawling on the ground to slow our descent, we made it to a flatter ledge on the side. Just getting to the ledge was difficult enough, spreading into a sea star and grabbing the small tree saplings to pull us over to safety. Finally, we had made it. Miraculously, just several meters away was flat ground that looked relatively clear of snow and mud. The trail. Somehow, we had made it to the same trail just further down the mountain, saving us a hundred meters or so of downhill hiking. From there, we hustled down the mountain, almost running as we heard strange animal sounds and breaking branches coming from deep within the forest. After another hour, we collapsed onto the pavement, relieved, exhausted, and elated to be one step closer to home… sike.
The pavement we landed on had no direct route down to the town of Ringgenberg. Instead, it weaved back and forth on the mountain as it descended from the slopes. The walk would take at least 45 more minutes and the sun was almost completely gone. We were losing hope. There was not a single light in sight and just more and more rolling hills. We were thinking of cutting across but our muddied shoes would not have made it up those hills to begin with. Then we walked, further and further down the pavement road towards the town, losing hope and spirit. Until yet another miracle, a duo of Swiss guys were coming up the road. Parked to the right was a caravan, big enough to hold at least 10 people. They were our saving grace. They had offered us a ride down to the town, and we willingly said yes, crowding into their van looking tired and hungry. After a short 10-minute ride, we were outside the Ringgenberg train station. We made it to safety.
On the same night, after we reached our hotel in Geneva on the French border, someone set our hotel on fire, and we escaped out of the burning building just as black smoke began to fill the room. More on this in another blog.
As a lesson, this trip was by far one of the most adrenaline-inducing, death-defying, and life-changing experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Hiking in Switzerland is no easy task, and you need to be prepared with the right gear to conquer the terrain. Our journey is just an example of what you SHOULDN’T do when hiking dangerous trails anywhere in the world. And I hope that whoever goes hiking on that same trail won’t have the same experience as us.
To find out more details about what happened on the hike: check out my vlog on my YouTube channel.