The big climbs on Switzerland's Alpine Pass Route
The Alpine Pass Route (APR) – Swiss Via Alpina 1 (VA1) crosses 16 high mountain passes as it makes its way over 350km across Switzerland, making it one of the great Alpine trekking routes. Here, Lesley Williams shares some inside knowledge on what is in store on each of the big climbs on the route.
The Swiss Alpine Pass Route – now fully waymarked as Swiss Via Alpina 1 (VA1) – crosses Switzerland, passing through the eastern Alps, the Bernese Oberland and the Vaudoise on the northern side of the main Alpine chain, visiting valleys and lakes rarely visited by anyone but the alpine trekker, to finish at Montreux on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). It’s one of the great Alpine trekking routes.
It takes three weeks to walk the entire route, although it can be easily condensed into a two-week trek by the occasional use of various mountain transport options, using the post buses, mountain railways and cable cars that can help minimise the less picturesque sections, or save sore knees from some steep descents.
There is no denying that Switzerland is an expensive destination, but there are ways in which costs can be kept to moderate levels. If you are planning on taking several busses, trains or boats, then a Swiss Travel Pass may well be a sensible investment, particularly as it also covers a 50% reduction on mountain trains and cable cars. In the valleys, villages provide simple accommodation in family run hotels. You can often find dormitory accommodation, or rooms to sleep up to four people, which will help considerably with costs. Higher in the mountains, nestled in sheltered spots within meadows of flowers are farms and alpine huts offering refreshments and accommodation amid the sound of cowbells. While these options are still relatively expensive, they provide a welcome change amid beautiful scenery. Finally, there is an option to camp, although this is a fairly tough route, so only consider this if you are confident of your ability to carry the heavier load.
The High Passes of the Via Alpina 1
Any long mountain journey, particularly a traverse, has its own routine. Like many such journeys in the Alps, the APR has a pass or col almost every day, so the daily routine of early start, climb and descent sets the rhythm for the day. Each pass is very different, and the names of them will quickly become part of your conversations with other trekkers, as you compare them for their views and difficulty, or for the particular features that made them so special. While many articles have been written about trekking the Alpine Pass Route, this account will focus on the nature of each of the passes, to provide a flavour of the changing nature of the mountains.
The Swiss VA1 route (bizarrely) starts in Liechtenstein, in a car park at 1480m, before dropping a thousand metres to Sargans on the Swiss border, the traditional start-point of the APR. From Sargans the first day has no pass to cross, but the route climbs steadily into an isolated valley to the village of Weisstannen, after which come the first two passes of the route.
The passes in the early stages of the trek present little difficulty. From Weisstannen, the riverside route takes you to the head of the main valley, after which the 1200m climb begins in earnest, steeply following the clear path next to a mountain torrent to a farmstead at Fooalp, after which the Foopass (2223m) is clear to see ahead (although the path is less distinct on the ground), with a final slightly steeper fifty metres to the top. The initial descent on the western side of the pass is steep, but this eventually eases for a pleasant walk down to Elm, mainly on good tracks.
From Elm, the Richetlipass (2261m) is crossed, with the day finishing in Linthal. This is in fact a day when two passes are crossed, the Erbser saddle (2161m) coming about an hour before the Richetlipass. This is another demanding stage, particularly for early in the trek, with a total ascent of 1490m over a distance of 24.5km to Linthal. From Elm a steep mule track leads in endless hairpins to Ampächli, after which the route undulates before a climb to Ski Hütte Obererbs at 1700m. Another steep climb follows to the saddle at 2161m, with the Wichlenmatt Basin below, a lovely flower-splashed grassland with an isolated farm – on our visit we were treated to cold drinks by the family that lives there. The final climb involves more steep zigzags to gain the Richetlipass (2261m). The descent is very steep on a narrow twisting path, but then the gradient eases as you follow a ridge, before finally descending through a valley and woods to Linthal.
Between Elm and Altdorf the mountains take on interesting shapes and structure, with convoluted folding, deeply defined joints and uplifted blocks, and great towers of limestone resembling those of the Dolomites – geology on steroids – and it’s for this reason that the whole area is designated as the Geopark Sardona.
Our ascent of the Klausenpass (1948m) was from an overnight stop in the village of Urnerboden, which had made for a welcome shorter section after the rigours of the previous days. The Klausenpass is in fact a road pass, with a steady path climbing, and for the first part of the descent, generally out of earshot of the road. We were in heavy rain, so the day was marred by poor visibility, particularly as we navigated a convoluted route, finally descending to Spiringen, to be faced by a long walk next to the main road all the way to Altdorf. This stage is certainly one of the less picturesque, and can easily be shortened by using a postbus to Altdorf.
The ascent of the Surenenpass (2291m) and descent to Engelberg is another huge day, certainly in terms of distance, although the path and views are interesting, involving ridges, steps and delightful alpine flower meadows. The final ascent is on a short stretch of zigzag path to a broad grassy col, with the picturesque Seewen tarns lying below, just off the main route of the path.
Engelberg is a relatively large mountain resort, but a pleasant one, with excellent walking possibilities in the surrounding mountains. The next pass, the Jochpass (2207m) lies 1207m above, the ascent characterised by three distinct uphill sections, first a short ascent to the Gerschnialp, then the longer and ever steeper climb to emerge to the side of the gondola lift station and the Trübsee (1796m). This is a crowded spot, a beautiful area largely turned into a building site with all the trappings of a downhill skiing area. Escape quickly, and the Jochpass is reached easily in about an hour. From here the path gently descends towards the Engstlensee, vivid blue in the sunshine, or you can take the chairlift directly to the lake.
Staying in the historic hotel at Engstlenalp is one of the most delightful stops on the entire route, and launches you into one of the highlight days so far, as the VA1 route climbs to, and then follows the grassy Erzegg/Planplatten ridge, with views on a clear day towards the giants of the Bernese Oberland. Although airy, there is very little exposure, although in poor weather it should be avoided. The high point, although not strictly a pass in the true sense, is the high point on the ridge called the Balmeregghorn (2255m). The descent from Planplatten to Meiringen is 1600m of grass, path and track downhill, which can be eased in whole or in part by taking the cablecar.
Looking at the map, we imagined the ascent of the next pass, the Grosse Scheidegg (1962m) would be disappointing, as the route is either on the road, or only a short distance from it. However this road is closed to all traffic except the ubiquitous post bus, and to bicycles, resulting in a surprisingly steady and undisturbed climb to the top. It’s a long stage, covering 23km to Grindelwald, although there’s a good spot half way down, at the recently restored and modernised Hotel Wetterhorn.
Next comes the (higher) Kleine Scheidegg (2061m). A steep path climbs from Grund station to a welcome stop at Alpiglen. Fortified by coffee and a rest admiring the view of Grindelwald now 600m below, the route continues to climb steadily all the way until you emerge onto the railway platform and the crowds of tourists at Kleine Scheidegg. From here a good path and tracks descend all the way to Lauterbrunnen, although stopping in Wengen for the night can be recommended.
The Toughest Passes
Of the sixteen passes crossed on the APR, there are three high passes which come in succession as you leave the central Bernese Oberland. These passes, the Sefinenfurke (2612m), the Hohturli (2778m) and the Bunderschrinde (2385m) are the most challenging on the route, with loose shale, scree and almost knife edge highpoints – no gentle grassy saddles here! However each one is well maintained, the more challenging sections protected with cables and lengthy staircases, ensuring both safe ascents and descents.
We had waited out a stormy day staying in Mürren, catching up on logging our photographs, and update notes. Rain had fallen for a solid 36 hours in the Lauterbrunnen valley but had cleared overnight, and the cold clear air of early morning revealed the Bernese giants in their full glory, now crowned with dazzling fresh snow.
The east side of the Sefinenfurke (2612m) is only awkward for the final 200 metres as the path takes ever-steepening zigzags up the loose black shale. Emerging at the knife-edge top of the pass, an amazing staircase leads down the other side, almost as far as the eye can see. In the past the western side of the pass was considered quite dangerous, as one slip on the vast screes would have had serious consequences.
From Grisalp another huge pass lies ahead. The Hohturli (2778m) is the highest point on the entire route, its summit offering extensive views to the east and west. The ascent out of Grisalp begins easily enough, on tracks and paths through woods and pasture. After an isolated building a sudden upward climb tackles a steep spur of scree and shale to a minor ridge. Beyond that, a long flight of well-constructed wooden steps and chains facilitate the ascent of the abrupt slope which leads directly to the pass. Take the extra ten minutes to climb up to the Blüemlisalp hut where the views become even more wild and extensive. The descent to the west side is on a well-graded path throughout. This ‘stage’ in fact runs from Grisalp to Kandersteg, however consider staying in one of the two guesthouses on the shores of the beautiful Oeschinensee, leaving the final hour of descent to Kandersteg for the following day.
The crossing of the Bunderschrinde (2385m) marks the end of the highest passes, and the highest mountains. The 16km from Kandersteg to Adelboden are marked by 1300m of ascent, mainly in steep stages, with gentler linking sections through pastures. A small path scales the seemingly impassable steep cliffs to the north side of the Üschene hanging valley, after which an area of rough pasture gives way to the scree slopes leading directly to the notch of the Bunderschrinde. From here a similarly steep, but not difficult descent path crossed huge scree slopes, before finally giving way to pastures.
The gentler western passes
The gentle Hahnenmoospass (1956m) is crossed between Adelboden and Lenk, a welcome grassy crossing after the demands of the previous three days. From Lenk there are two main alternative routes, the VA1 takes a route via Gstaad and the traditional APR goes via Gsteig. Both take on the Trüttlisberg Pass (2038m), involving a steady ascent mainly through pasture. The VA1 then follows a long descent down a wide valley to Gstaad, while the APR crosses the Krinnen Pass 1659m on its route to the smaller settlement of Gsteig.
The APR route from Gsteig then crosses the Blattipass (1900m) and Col des Andérets (2034m) before reaching Col des Mosses (1450m). None of these present technical difficulty. From the broad road pass of Col des Mosses, 28km will take you through delightful – if still demanding – hills and valleys, until you crest the Col de Chaude (1621m) and begin the long descent to the shores of Lac Léman and Montreux. Alternatively, from Gstaat the Via Alpina 1 route climbs to the Col de Jable (1884m), via a series of climbs and descents through pasture, woodland, and, at one point a small limestone rocky cleft. Descending through pastures and woods to the road at L’Etivaz, the way continues up through woodland to the roadside hamlet of La Lécherette (30 minutes from Col des Mosses), then climbs high above Lac de l’Hongrin, followed by a steep descent to Vuichoude d’en Bas, and then a further steady climb en route to the Col de Chaude. The Via Alpina has one further treat in store, as you climb again up a grassy and slightly exposed ridge to the Rocher de Naye (1980m). Not exactly a pass, but a worthy high point at the end of the trek.
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