Monday, December 24, 2007

Tuesday, 7 August: Real Cow Bells & a Slight Lapse in Judgment

The Swiss weather forecasters were, sadly, all too accurate: it started raining overnight and it was drizzling when we got up this morning. The mountains were invisible and it looked like our plans to hike to the Früdenhütte were literally being washed away. As you may recall from our visit to the Berner Oberland last fall with my parents, the Früdenhütte is a traditional Swiss hiker’s hut perched on a ridge about 1000 feet above the shores of Oeschinensee, the gorgeous glacial lake nestled in a cupped valley high above Kandersteg. We were sorely disappointed, since we had added a day to this leg of our trip for the express purpose of attempting the hike to the Früdenhütte. We decided to look around Kandersteg in the morning and hope that the weather might clear up a bit. We stopped in at the cheese shop a block from our hotel, where they have a gigantic cow bell hanging in the window, and I decided to inquire about where I might find my very own authentic Swiss cow bell. I was tired of the silly tourist-variety bells with their faux-leather straps and cheap rainbow fringe; I wanted a real honest-to-goodness bell that was made to be worn by a real cow. Three people were working in the shop at the time (all of whom spoke some English, fortunately), and they gave me three different (and rather emphatic, might I add) opinions on where I could find myself a cow bell. The first suggestion was a shop in Reichenbach, a little ways down the valley, where they made bells; the second was an antique store near Frütingen, another town just down the road; and the third was a retired farmer in Kandersteg who happened to have a barn full of cow bells that he probably wasn’t using anymore. The directions for the latter were a bit vague and one look at John’s face told me that wandering down a country road into some old barn was not the sort of wild goose chase he was willing to go on this morning – authentic cow bell or not – so we opted to try the first two options.

We headed down to Reichenbach first and drove up and down the main street a couple of times; the only shop we found that looked like it might sell cow bells was a hardware store, but they were closed for their autumn holiday. A few bells were hanging on a rack in front of the door, cruelly taunting me. The antique store was relatively easy to find, but it too was closed. I walked up to the window and pressed my face to the glass: lo and behold, there was a beautiful antique cow bell just sitting there on the floor, a few feet inside the door! At that very moment a car pulled into the driveway. An older woman stuck her head out the window and called out that the shop was closed. Yes, I thought, I can see that. I asked if she spoke English; she said no. I asked her when the shop would be open. She didn't answer specifically but asked if I was looking for something in particular and I told her yes – Kuhglocken! She nodded and indicated that she could open up the shop. She parked her car, unlocked the door, then disappeared behind a curtain leading into a back room. A few seconds later a 5-month-old Berner puppy (whose name sounded an awful lot like “Barney”) came bounding through the doorway. In his excitement he piddled on the floor right in front of me, narrowly missing my shoe.

The shop was amazing – a cavernous space crammed with gorgeous wooden furniture, farm implements, and the usual knicknacks. Of course I was oblivious to everything except for the two long beams spanning the room that were lined with – glory hallelujah! – dozens of beautiful cow bells in every size imaginable, hanging from sturdy leather collars and fastened with heavy buckles. I was in cow bell heaven. The lovely bell I had spotted in the window was apparently a rare French model from Chamonix that cost a whopping 400 Swiss Francs, but I was hopeful that some of the others would be more affordable. After much looking and discussion we picked out three bells. The lady had to call the shop owner for the prices. She told us the big one was 180 Swiss Francs and the two small ones were 80 each, but she immediately came down to 50 on the newest of the three. The total thus came to 310 ChF and of course they didn’t take credit cards, or even EC cards. I had only withdrawn 200 ChF from the ATM in Kandersteg and so had a grand total of 274 ChF plus change in my wallet. I showed the lady my empty wallet and offered her an additional 10 Euro to help make up the difference, but she didn’t want it. She mentioned something about a bank down the road, but we made it clear that we had no intention of coming back. She finally accepted the Francs, muttering, “Es ist mein Kopf!” (It’s my head!) if her boss got mad at her. We completed the transaction with the lady placing our three cow bells into plastic bags (she didn’t give us a receipt of any sort). As we were leaving John said, “Jetz brauchen wir 3 Kühe.” (Now we need three cows.)

Very satisfied with our cow bell venture, we headed back up the valley to Kandersteg. It was about 1 pm now and still drizzling, but we decided to give the hike a shot anyway – what did we have to lose, other than getting a little wet? We stopped at the hotel to pile on what would have to pass for rain gear and walked up the road to the Sesselbahn (chairlift). We bought two round-trip tickets and were grateful for the thick wool blanket the attendant laid across our laps as we headed up into the clouds. From the top of the lift it was a 20-minute walk to the shores of Oeschinensee, which was now nearly invisible in the low-hanging fog. We snacked on organic cheeseburgers and Cokes at the lakeshore restaurant and then set off on the trail to the Früdenhütte at precisely 2:15 pm. The sign at the trailhead said it would take 2-½ hours to reach the hut. That would leave us only an hour and fifteen minutes to get back down to the chairlift, which closes at 6:00, but we decided to give it our best effort.

We headed up the narrow, rocky trail in a steady drizzle, crossing a number of dry streambeds and traversing a stunted conifer forest. The trail skirted the edge of the lake for a while, then began climbing steadily upwards. We scrambled over slippery rocks and roots, past blooming mounds of wild azaleas, then emerged into a barren rocky landscape peppered with clumps of straggly grasses. We crossed three wooden footbridges (see photo, right) over rushing streams that came cascading from hidden cliffs high above our heads and tumbled downwards to the lake, now far below us. We continued up, up, up an endless series of switchbacks. The vegetation all but disappeared and the landscape transitioned to rain-streaked shards of black shale. At one point the clouds thinned enough that we could see a huge cliff face looming above us, and we knew that somehow the trail would take us up there. We couldn’t see much in any direction and we lost all sense of scale or height. We could no longer see the ultramarine blue of the lake through the fog, and the hut perched on its rocky ridge was still hidden somewhere in the clouds far above. Several sections of the trail took us up nearly sheer cliff faces, with stone steps gouged into the rock and metal cables to guide our way (see photo, right). By this point we were quite wet, but the heavy exercise kept us warm.

Our original turnaround time of 4:00 came and went. We knew we must be getting close, and this time even John really wanted to get to the top. Finally we passed a large plastic water tank labeled Früdenhütte and we knew we must be close…very close. The trail wound up and around one last rocky outcropping and suddenly the squat stone face of the hut with its cheerful red-and-white striped shutters appeared out of the gloom (see photo, below). We turned around and glimpsed a brief vision of blue-green waters through the swirling mist far below (see photo, below). Directly across from us we could make out the vague forms of the high peaks on the other side of the lake. One can only imagine how magnificent the view must be on a clear day. All around the hut, rock-strewn slopes swept upwards into jagged peaks crowned with ice sheets. It was 4:30 and we had made the 1000-foot climb in exactly two hours and fifteen minutes – beating the trail sign estimate by fifteen minutes. A light glowed dimly through the hut’s lace curtains but there was no other sign of life as we walked slowly around the building. There wasn’t even an overhang where we could sit and rest for a few minutes. We had paused momentarily to look at the inscription over the threshold when the upper half of the split-door opened and a young man peered out. I said, “Hello there!” and he said hello back, giving us an odd look. I’m sure he was wondering what sort of crazy people had decided to make the hike up to the hut in this weather (we hadn’t encountered another soul on the trail). He had a dog with him – a scrawny, wary-eyed shepherd – but apparently he was the only person staying at the hut at the moment. We asked him to take our picture and he kindly obliged. We would have liked to linger and chat, but we had a timetable to keep. We said goodbye and turned back down the trail, leaving the boy to stare rather quizzically after us.

By this point we were soaked through and the drizzle had turned to a steady rain. We couldn’t see a thing below us, which was perhaps fortunate, since I imagine the view is rather virtiginous when the weather is clear. We kept up a hard pace on the way down, but the going was very difficult – cold, wet, slippery, and tough on the knees. I stopped to snap a few pictures (using our small camera because I didn’t want to risk water-logging the SLR, which I was nevertheless lugging around in my backpack) but John, ever safety-conscious, kept urging me on because he was worried about the streams. Once again we found ourselves on a steep mountain trail, late in the day in bad weather, with no emergency supplies, and no one knew where we were. About a thousand small streams had appeared since we had made our way up the mountain, and water was now cascading from cliffs where there had been none before. As we approached each of the three major stream crossings, we wondered if the footbridges would be underwater. Fortunately none of them was, but the water was much higher than it had been on the way up, boiling violently through the narrow channels only a few inches under our feet. We were fairly relieved when we crossed the third bridge, but we still had a ways to go. The once-dry streambeds near the end of the trail had turned into raging torrents, and by the time we arrived back at the shore of Oeschinensee, my boots had turned into sodden sponges. It was 5:45 and we knew we had virtually no chance of making it to the chairlift before 6:00, since the walk to the lake had taken us twenty minutes – downhill and before we were exhausted from a long hike.

Fate thus deemed it necessary for us to walk all the way back to Kandersteg – a descent of another 1000 feet – in the rain. I had made this trek once before, fifteen years ago, and I knew it was going to be hell on my knees. We passed a small herd of rain-bedraggled cows on the way down, their bells (which, I noted with immense satisfaction, looked just like the ones we had purchased this morning) clanging mournfully in the mist. It took us another hour to reach the valley floor, by which point my knees had turned to jelly and I could barely walk in a straight line. The route wasn’t well-marked and we ended up hiking cross-country down a ski slope part of the way. Finally we reached the raging river and followed it back into town.

By the time we stumbled through the welcoming door of the Hotel Adler it was 7:15. A hot shower never felt so good! We rewarded ourselves with a huge pot of fondue and a bottle of German Riesling in the Adler’s dining room. We even ordered extra bread, and wiped the pot clean. I can’t remember fondue ever tasting so good.

More photos of the day's hike can be seen here:

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