Surviving the Swiss Alps

The Swiss Alps offer not just breathtaking beauty, but also danger of a domestic kind???

My hiking buddy and I decided on a three-day hike to the Swiss Alps, my first holiday of the pandemic. Our route was stages 4-6 of the Sardona-Welterbe-Weg, a route that highlighted the beauty and geological significance of the area. The “Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it is considered an “exceptional example of mountain building through continental collision”, among other things. 

We started Stage 4 from the village of Weisstannen, to which we took a bus. The hike up started next to a stream in a wooded path. We went along this until lunch, when we arrived at a magnificent scene with two impressive waterfalls and a suspension bridge. 

By this point, we had already left the trees behind in the altitudes below. After lunch, we crossed the bridge and continued. We crossed green meadows and saw grazing cows. Bright sunshine lit up the mountains in the afternoon. In some spots, the meadows were briefly interrupted by rocks which extruded from between the grass, and upon which mosses grew.

Marmots popped out of their holes all over the place. Some of these holes were directly on the hiking paths. We saw them running around in the distance. There were also plenty of ground birds, the occasional falcon and even eagle. We would also see fresh droppings of the alpine ibex (Steinbock), but I did not spot the animals in the flesh. At about 8 PM, more than 9 hours after we had set off, we arrived at Sardonahütte, my first Alpine mountain hut. The estimated time for the day’s hike is 7 hours, so I was clearly rather slow.

We took off our boots at a staging area at the entrance, and left our hiking poles there as well. This hut is maintained by a family during summer. They provide food and make sure that everything is in order. One of them took us to our dormitory where we dropped our bags. We then went to the common bathroom to freshen up. There were three taps and a sink for us to do any washing. Afterward we went to the dining area for a hot meal and a drink.

The next morning after breakfast, we retraced our steps for about 5 Km as the first part of Stage 5, then there was a brief climb to the highest point of the day. We then had a descent of a few hundred metres, followed by a relatively gentle ascent. The visual highlight of the day was when we walked through a little field brilliantly covered in varied flowers in bloom. 

We walked through many fields where cows were grazing in the distance. The chiming of cowbells was a frequent presence during the hike, with the bell ringing every time the cow’s head moved. The Swiss cows would be out grazing in summer. At the end of summer, they would be brought back down to the village in a celebration, with their horns decorated.  Multiple times this day, we crossed fences that were meant to keep cows on one side. Occasionally these would be electrified. There would be some means to allow the hikers easy crossing, e.g. a section of the fence that was lower and could be easily crossed; a wire gate that had a plastic grip over a metal hook, so we could open it without getting shocked; etc. These would demarcate the areas where the cows were allowed to wander. The hiking route often went right through these fences.

We had gotten past the most challenging parts of the day when we encountered plenty of grazing cows. On one occasion, a bunch of them were on the path. One of them shook its head at us and moved toward us as though warning us. A grassy decline lay to our side and we went down it. This quickly brought us out of sight of the cow and we rejoined the path shortly thereafter.

A few kilometres later, we crossed a stream and walked over one of the fences, following the path. A herd of cows grazed toward our left while the path took us right. As we walked, a cow followed us, its bell ringing aggressively. We turned around, saw it and increased our pace. The cow moved to a trot. We started running. I struggled greatly with my backpack, my thick hiking boots and the really muddy ground in that area. I did not think that I could make it to any safe spot before the cow reached me. Fortunately the cow did not appear entirely sure what to do, so it did not come directly for me. This gave me more time to run until both of us were behind a rock. 

It stood there for a few moments before trying to go around the rock. We ran in the same direction. As we now had time to gather our wits, we thought up strategies: hold our hiking poles forward, pointing them at the cow; hold them up like an X to make ourselves bigger; run over the nearest fence; etc. We did the X. We had gone over the crest of a hill during our run, but could hear bells from beyond it. We worried that the cow’s friends may join and surround us.

After perhaps a second attempt to chase us around the rock, the cow started to withdraw. Then a second cow emerged from beyond the crest. The two of us immediately ran in the opposite direction. Once the first cow spotted the second one, it trotted over to join it and went with it beyond the crest. We got to catch our breaths.

A few people are killed by cows every year in Switzerland. The number for the whole world is orders of magnitude greater than the number of people killed by sharks. Cows can be aggressive around their calves. This was probably a mother cow guarding her calves (though we did not spot young calves). Cows may not have aggressive natural weaponry, but if I had to choose to fight with an aggressive dog half my size or an angry 500-700Kg cow that could knock me over and trample me, I would pick the dog as giving me favourable odds of survival. We learned that evening that the recommendation to deal with cow attacks is to not provoke them in the first place by entering their territory. If provoked, it is best to make yourself look big and not look them directly in the eyes. If they do get too close for safety, hit their sensitive noses.

We were traumatised and still in cow territory. As our path crossed into another fenced-off field, we spent a bit of time consulting a map and looking at alternate routes. Another time, we arrived at a spot with cows scattered over a large area where we would be walking in between them. This would have presented us with no challenge the previous day, but on this day we were concerned everytime one of them even looked in our direction. At one point four of them were looking at us and we were rather nervous. We identified a rock we could run to if a lone cow chased us, but were still counting on considerable luck. We made it through without incident.

This day’s route was 21 Km, of which the last few were on gently sloping road. We ended up at a guest house in the village of Elm, where we got ourselves a nice dinner. This was supposed to take 7:30, but we required almost 10 hours. My big toes were hurting ever since the cow-chase and it had gotten worse during the final descent. Eventually we decided that the next day’s hike, 21 Km with 1,850m ascent, was too risky to attempt as we had a cut-off time for my buddy to get transportation from that area.

It was a beautiful hike, but it would have been hilarious if, after all of our adventures, we had ended up in the ground thanks to one of the most notoriously docile animals on earth. 

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