Updating a Cicerone guidebook - Switzerland's Alpine Pass Route
The Alpine Pass Route (APR) – now fully waymarked as Swiss Via Alpina 1 (VA1) – is a hiking trail of over 350km across Switzerland, crossing high mountain passes through the eastern Alps, the Bernese Oberland and the Vaudoise on the northern side of the main Alpine chain to finish at Montreux on Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). Jonathan and Lesley from Cicerone took on the groundwork of updating Kev Reynolds' guide.
Jonathan and I had been planning to walk the full Alpine Pass Route for some time and finally we seemed to have found the year for it. So we were delighted when Kev Reynolds asked if we would help update the guide: naturally we would, that was always part of the plan.
In the past, the Alpine Pass Route had little or no fixed waymarking, but the advent of Swiss national walking routes allied to the European Via Alpina network has provided the opportunity to give the route a solid spine as it traverses Switzerland from east to west. Incorporating these changes meant some significant alterations to both route and book, although the overall APR concept remains.
In anticipation of our late-summer trek, Jonathan took a few days in early July to do some initial research on three sections where the route of the VA1 significantly deviates from the APR (see blog post – http://blog.cicerone.co.uk/updating-alpine-pass-route-avoiding-brexit/). This would then allow me to check that his new route descriptions for these sections were accurate, while Jonathan would walk the ‘alternative’ APR section to check for any changes there.
As it turned out, there were in fact at least four significant sections which now follow a new route. The first of these changes comes right at the start, as the Swiss VA1 route starts in Liechtenstein before dropping down to Sargans, the traditional start-point of the APR. Then there is a fantastic high-level route between Engstlenalp and Meiringen, which forms what is essentially a new stage. Towards the end of the trek, the APR route between Lenk and Col des Mosses/L’Etivaz provides an alternative, while the VA1 swings north via Gstaad rather than Gsteig, giving two completely different stages. Finally, there are substantial changes to the last stage around the Lac de l’Hongrin into Montreux. Having checked the complete route and almost all variants, we can confirm that all the options offer walking of a high standard, the only real difference being the prevalence of the ubiquitous green VA1 markers on the waymarked route.
A modern Cicerone guidebook involves many elements. In addition to a description of the route, our new mapping technology allows us to import GPX tracks directly, to show the line of the route on the maps and to produce the stage profiles. Then there are photographs, details of facilities and accommodation and other local information, which all get wrapped into the printed guidebook as well as various formats of E-book. Finally the GPX files are made available to download for anyone registering their guidebook and ideally, we have some video content for our online channels.
The timing was going to be tight. We were walking in late August through to mid-September, with publication planned for March 2017. We needed to minimise the amount of time needed on our return before getting the book into production, which meant that we probably had to have every stage written up, at least in a draft form, at the end of each day.
We realised we needed to take a computer! This was not such a silly idea as it first sounds. On the computer we had our mapping base files and the original text for the guidebook; we could download GPX files from each day’s walking and we had the ability to download, back up and caption our photographs. This meant that we could save the weight of a number of maps and printouts. The maths confirmed that it would work, and the tiny Macbook was light enough.
It had been raining on and off all day, and when we came to download our photographs, we realised we had taken just three – and uninspiring ones at that. Over the next two days however, the skies and moisture gradually cleared. High on the new Via Alpina route hugging the crest of a grassy ridge between Engstlenalp and Meiringen, views down to the valley below were mainly shrouded in cloud. But looking across, and then up, a break in the cloud and a shaft of afternoon sun revealed our first view of the mighty Wetterhorn; its great bulk and snowy peak seemed unimaginably high. It would be a further day before we crested the Grosse Scheidegg to walk under the foot of the Wetterhorn, with the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in perfect clarity against a vivid blue sky.
Our daily routine went a bit like this. We both had Suunto Ambit watches – one was ours; the other borrowed from our son. At the point of departure we would set our watches and press ‘start’. Walking the route, at each decision point we would dictate a suitable note, sometimes with a photo of a signpost, so that we had an accurate record. Stops to take photographs or briefly consult the map were made with the GPS running, however we would ‘pause’ the watches for longer breaks – necessitating a whole new terminology as we had to remember to ‘un-pause’ when setting off again.
Many of the days are quite long, and it was often around 5pm before we would get into our lodging for the night. Settling down for a couple of hours’ work after a quick shower sometimes felt very hard, but it was worthwhile. I would transcribe the dictated notes that we had made during the day while Jonathan downloaded the GPX tracks, checked over the mapping, downloaded photographs and then started editing – or, in many cases, writing new text. My transcribing job was easy, but required concentration, although occasionally I would laugh out loud as it became apparent that we had carefully recorded 20 minutes of rhythmical walking while the phone was in Jonathan’s pocket!
Our work mostly done, there would be just enough time to have something to eat before sinking tired bodies into bed at around 8.30 or 9pm, to repeat the process the next day. It was certainly a different experience from our normal trekking trips, but an immensely satisfying process; while it was work, it was also a brilliant holiday. Back at home, it took a further two weeks of careful writing, editing, cross-checking and scheduling to get the book ready for Kev to review, and for him to answer a few queries that had arisen from our work ‘on the ground’. By early October the book was safely delivered to our editing and production team.
So is the route the Alpine Pass Route or the Swiss National Route 1 Via Alpina? Well, it is in fact both. The complete VA1 is now documented and covers about one third of the route, but that route developed out of the APR concept of a journey across Switzerland. We’re delighted that the route is now confirmed and waymarked, as this should encourage many walkers onto the trail. These developments mean that the guide is now called The Swiss Alpine Pass Route – Via Alpina Route 1.
It was our penultimate day, and having split to walk the two alternatives near the Lac de l’Hongrin, I waited for Jonathan, eating my lunch in the warm sunshine while sitting on one of the white limestone boulders in a high, lightly wooded valley. Together we moved on, joining a small mountain road leading directly to our final pass, Col de Chaude, where far below our destination, Montreux and Lac Leman, lazed in the hazy afternoon light. We lingered and took photographs before climbing again, up and along a grassy ridge on the Via Alpina route to Roches de Naye. Descending in the evening sun, we stayed in a small mountain auberge and watched as the sky slowly turned through shades of orange and crimson, until there was only a mere suggestion of the shoreline of the lake 1000m below, ribboned by thousands of twinkling lights.
There is an important question as to whether the route is a two- or three-week trek. The APR is an exploration of the Swiss mountains, so if possible should be approached in an open and relaxed manner with ample time allowed. Undoubtedly the earlier guide gave some very challenging stages, especially in the first week of the walk. Where possible we have now split these into more manageable chunks. Based on our experience, if you want to walk every step of the route, it’s best to allow closer to three weeks, and the 18 stages in the new book plus prologue in Liechtenstein reflect this, amounting to just under three weeks and allowing for some rest days and for bad weather potentially disrupting plans.
In practice many people will only be able to allow for a two-week trek, and for these trekkers, the guide suggests ways in which lifts, buses and trains could be used to hold the trek to a comfortable two weeks without detracting from the experience. Postbuses, funiculars, small mountain trains and cable cars are quintessentially part of the Swiss mountain experience, so only the purest of purists would object to their use on this route. Indeed, there are some sections where the use of a postbus would have eliminated several hours of more tedious level or downhill walking along or near busy roads, or through the suburbs of Altdorf for example.
It has been a pleasure to revisit regions we knew well already and to explore new ones. What were the highlights of the trek for us? 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 of the day. The insight into the challenges of mountain farming is a daily presence; these mountain farmers and their gentle cows manage the landscapes that are so picturesque and accessible. No less interesting are the valleys, villages, resorts and occasional town along the route.
The ‘Oberland giants’ take centre stage on the sections between Grindelwald and Murren, but these in no way diminish the mountains to the east (Tödi, Titlis) and west (Blümlisalp, Wildstrubel, Les Diablerets). The mountain lakes add to the beauty of the landscape. The mountain wildlife – chamois, ibex, marmots – and flowers that adorn the meadows also enhance the experience.
On the first day of September we were woken just before 7 by the deep notes of enormous bells ringing, a great many of them, ringing at a steady tempo. Looking through the window of the mountain inn, we were treated to a Swiss ritual; the cows were descending from their high pasture to the middle levels, before their final descent to the lowlands in October. The cows held their heads high, proud to wear their special ceremonial bells; they knew it was a special day for them and they were herded with pride and dignity. Intent on pastures new, they walked past the window at a brisk pace. These were their alps and they knew it.
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