Stubborn Hikers, Steady Snow – And a Moment of Truth on the Via Alpina

By George Anders

Visit YouTube – and you can find beautiful footage of summer hikers approaching the Sefinenfurgge Pass in the Swiss Alps. It’s a robust but very manageable 14-mile hike through lush green meadows, with well-maintained trails and gorgeous mountain panoramas..

In the videos, everything sparkles. Look down, and dazzling orange alpine lilies will catch your eye. Look ahead, and you’ll see the comforting sight of white-red-white blazes, painted onto rocks every 100 yards or so, letting you know exactly where the trail goes. A mild breeze keeps you comfortable in a T-shirt as you savor snowy peaks in the distance. 

That sort of alpine joy is exactly what a hiking buddy and I wanted in August 2023, when we set our sights on a week-long segment of Europe’s Via Alpina trail. What we didn’t realize is that the higher you climb in the Alps, the more erratic – and terrifying – the weather can become. On Day 5, we ended up in a snowfield just below the pass, hours from our destination, struggling to make the right choice. 

The first stirrings of this journey toward the Sefinenfurgge Pass (elevation 8,570 feet), started eight months earlier, over coffee in our northern California hometown. Back then, we knew that both of our wives were planning an August swim trek along the Adriatic Sea. They were excited about their adventure; we had no interest in being tagalongs.

As we chatted at Il Piccolo, my buddy and I decided that a split-ticket European vacation could brighten everyone’s summer. The idea would be to pair the women’s swim trek with a different outdoor adventure for us, followed by a happy reunion for everyone at the end.

Croatia? Corsica? Our Euro-hiking  possibilities were endless. I lobbied hard for Switzerland, figuring that the abundance of mountain villages would let us spend a week on the trails without needing to carry sleeping bags or camp stoves. We could roam the foothills of the Alps all day and still get a nice restaurant meal each evening. 

What’s more, instead of stressing about the best route, we could simply hike a week’s worth of the Via Alpina, Europe’s version of the Appalachian Trail. Others could do the full 3,100 miles, starting in Slovenia and finishing in France. We’d be fine with a 70-mile segment through the heart of Switzerland.

The whole of the Via Alpina

Over the next few months, we tested our new partnership with a series of day hikes in northern California. My hiking partner is a modest guy who avoids online publicity, so for purposes of this story, I’ll just call him Bud. He was a little faster than me on the ascents; I’d catch up on the descents. Overall, we were in the same league: two reasonably fit guys in our 60s

What’s more, we found we had a lot to talk about. Both of us had traveled the world, with lots of stories to share. We’d also started careers in fields we loved, only to run into decades of weird industry zigzags. Finding someone else who understood the grittiness – and dark comedy – of it all was very welcome.  

When we got to Switzerland, everything hummed the first few days. The trails were so well marked that we barely needed our AllTrails app to stay on track. We bought local cheese from highland farmers’ sheds and improvised lunch on the fly. We hopped a gondola one day to take some unwanted elevation out of the mix; we savored the sweet, multi-tonal chaos of so many cowbells ringing in the meadows.

But Day 5 – our intended push toward the Sefinenfurgge Pass – did not start well. We dawdled over breakfast in the valley village of Lauterbrunnen, which translated into a late start. Conditions were so raw and drizzly that I needed to stop and buy gloves. We lost more time by misplacing our hiking poles early on, forcing us to double back and retrieve them.

Most tellingly, we relied on the simple packs that had been mainstays of our week-long hiking adventure. We had rain jackets, lots of water, endless snacks and sunscreen. Snow pants? A tent? Flares? We didn’t even consider such things. This was summer hiking, in a country where the modern conveniences of the next evening’s village were always just a few miles away. 

Snow picking up, with the summit nearly two hours away

As we gained elevation, we saw dustings of snow in the meadows. That didn’t bother us. The trail was still clear, even if the snow on both sides kept getting thicker. By 1 p.m., we had reached the 7,000-foot elevation mark – and the magnificently placed Rotstockhutte: a stone mountain hut where Swiss college students ladled out giant bowls of hot barley soup. We fortified ourselves. Then we set out for the last two miles of ascending trail, before we’d reach the summit pass and begin our descent to that evening’s valley lodging.

And that’s where things got ugly in a hurry.

The trail ahead began rising more steeply than anything we’d seen to date. Snow drifts up to a foot deep from the night before meant trouble – and so did the deep, wet bootholes of previous hikers. No matter how we tried to sidestep the half-melted snow puddles, our shins and ankles were getting soaked. 

It was nearly 3 p.m. The sun would be up for a few more hours, but it was sinking on the horizon. Although we met a few eastbound hikers coming the other way, it looked as if we were the last people heading west. One hiker we passed said she’d been talking with a Swiss guide, and he had told her that if he were starting his day, he might not hike in this weather. There was avalanche risk.

I called a halt.

My partner and I huddled over the AllTrails app on my phone. We could see how much progress we’d made. We’d hiked more than 80% of the ascent. But the top of the Sefinenfurgge Pass was still about 1 ½ miles away, and we had another 700 vertical feet to climb. Bud – the stronger hiker of the two of us – wanted to go on. I lobbied to turn around.

We were at an impasse. He pointed at the next stretch of trail. The ascent looked gentler, and the snow looked cleaner. “Can we at least test it out?” he asked.

I pointed to the heavy gray clouds on our right. “It’s not going to get better,” I maintained. “What if there’s more snow? What if we have to spend the night up here? We’re really not prepared.”

We both stared into separate parts of the middle distance, saying nothing. It didn’t help that for the past few evenings, I’d been reading Heinrich Haarer’s mountaineering classic “The White Spider,” which chronicled a dozen (mostly doomed) attempts to climb the Eiger North Face in the 1930s. Fearless young hikers kept perishing, mostly after pushing ahead in the face of horrible weather. The avalanches and frostbite won every time.

Perhaps – in fact, almost certainly – I was overreacting. This wasn’t the frontiers of mountaineering. We weren’t stretching ropes across a crumbling vertical mountain face at 12,500 feet above sea level. We were just trying to finish up a meadow walk in the midst of some unexpectedly bad weather.

Later on, I learned there had been no more snow that evening. There were no avalanches. Even if there had been, on the walkable terrain that we were hiking, any “avalanche” would amount to no more than a fast rustling of snow around our knees. It wouldn’t be deadly. It wouldn’t even have been all that harmful.

At that moment, however, I didn’t have any clear idea of what our actual risk profile might be. What I did know was that if something went wrong – even a twisted ankle from a carelessly placed step at dusk – this summer adventure would go sour in a hurry. We already had done a lot of exciting hiking. We didn’t have that much more to gain. We did have a lot to lose.

A year earlier, I’d gritted my way through the Colorado Rockies, on a 12-mile hike from Crested Butte to Aspen, with a 12,400-foot summit in the middle. It was the most grueling hike I’ve ever done, and in my 30s, I trekked at much higher elevations in the Himalayas. In Colorado, I was trying to bounce back from Covid the week before, and, to be honest, I’m not 100% sure I was Covid-free when I hit the trail. The entire hike was a day-long battle between exhaustion and willpower. I came out of that hike with some dim pride at succeeding – and a deeper vow not to be so damn stubborn the next time. 

Now, standing in the Swiss snow, the next time had arrived. 

We turned around.

My partner was not happy with the decision, and I can understand why. For the next 30 minutes, he hiked a good 50 yards ahead of me, setting a silent tempo that conveyed his exasperation more than any words could. But eventually, he slowed down a little. I caught up with him. At dusk, we stumbled upon an old Swiss farmhouse with decent lodging and a wickedly good microbrewery attached. We paid a very manageable 150 Swiss francs apiece – and made a nice evening of it after all.

Again and again, I keep revisiting that decision to turn around. It’s very  hard to stifle that urge to be more adventurous – to press on – to see what fate has in store for us.

Even so, one last piece of the adventure keeps bringing me back to full acceptance of how it all worked out. Just as we were stepping through the soggiest part of the snowed-out trail, we had come across a handful of cows sent out to pasture. Sadly, they had ended up in the snow themselves. They looked unbelievably forlorn. They had nowhere to go. No grass to graze on. They were stuck for the night, hoping that their farmer would return eventually and bring them back down to lower ground. Snow Cow and its kin were trapped.

But we hikers had a choice. We could step out of the snow and get a decent night’s rest. We could mentally tag the hike, too, as a future project if we wanted. There was no reason we couldn’t come back some other year – and enjoy a much cheerier version when the orange lilies would be in bloom.

The author, on a sunnier day

 George Anders, after many years of writing business stories for The Wall Street Journal, etc.. is learning to type with the lower parts of the keyboard. Fewer stories with $, % and numbers; more pieces with words like “hope,” “trust” and “persimmons.”