We were hiking in fog and drizzle up the barren slopes of Mount Schilthorn, a 9,748-foot-high peak overlooking the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland. As I inched along a narrow trail, the mist cleared to reveal a long drop on either side into a boulder-strewn abyss. My legs wobbled; my feet slithered over the soggy ground. I reached out to grasp what seemed like a taut rope line, only to feel it sag beneath my trembling fist. Then the trail widened, I steadied myself, and continued my arduous climb toward the summit.
During the winter season, the Lauterbrunnen Valley ranks among the most popular ski destinations in the Bernese Overland, a region in the German-speaking part of Switzerland that encompasses four high-altitude valleys and three of the highest peaks in the Alps: the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, all rising to more than 13,000 feet. But I had come here with a Geneva-based friend at the height of the summer to experience the region in a different guise.
From May through October, the Bernese Overland becomes one of Western Europe's most challenging and beautiful hiking circuits. Snowy pistes morph into meadows speckled with wildflowers. Ski lodges turn into trekkers' retreats, and the swoosh of skis and snowboards gives way to the rush of water from dozens of cascades and the tinkle of cowbells. In 1779 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hiked through the Lauterbrunnen, describing its splendors in his poem, "Spirit Song Over the Waters": "Down from the lofty rocky wall/ Streams the bright flood,/Then spreadeth gently in cloudy billows/ O'er the smooth rock." One can spend days, or even weeks, following in Goethe's footsteps through the Lauterbrunnen and adjacent valleys, hiking 120 miles of well-marked trails and crossing mountain passes that remain encrusted in snow year round. Along the way, rustic huts provide meals and hostel-like accommodation, and the opportunity to mingle with hikers from around the world.
My friend, Andrew Purvis, and I began our weekend trek in late July, traveling by train three hours east from Geneva to the town of Lauterbrunnen, then by narrow-gauge railway and aerial tram straight up from the valley floor to Mürren. Situated on a plateau at 5,400 feet above sea level, this former farming settlement today is a hiking and skiing center, with 450 year-round residents and dozens of hotels and B&Bs. During the summer, day-trippers by the thousands also come for staggering views of the Mönch, Jungfrau and Eiger -- the latter immortalized in the 1975 Clint Eastwood thriller "The Eiger Sanction," which climaxes with a fatal climb on the avalanche-prone north face.
When we pulled into town, however, Mürren was deserted. An icy fog and heavy rain had socked in the town for two days. And the previous morning the Mürren-Schilthorn cable car had broken down near the summit of Schilthorn, forcing dozens of tourists to make a treacherous descent on foot back to the village. The weather, combined with that incident, had almost emptied the town.
After spending the night at the Hotel Jungfrau, a pleasant if nondescript lodge, we awoke to another morning of souplike weather. A funicular took us a few hundred feet higher to the start of the North Face Trail, a popular route since the earliest days of Alpine trekking. The early 19th century saw the first influx of foreign mountaineers to the Swiss Alps -- most of them British soldiers -- who scaled several high Alpine peaks, including the Jungfrau, with the help of local guides. The British invasion gave rise to hotels and mountain huts, and an Alpine tourism industry that today brings Switzerland billions of tourist dollars annually. The high-altitude walks during those early years could be perilous, as a plaque along the snow-dappled trail reminded us. "In Memory of Alice Charlotte, Wife of Capt. M. Arbuthnot, XIV Hussars," it read. "Killed by Lightning on the Schilthorn Alp 21 June 1865, Age 23."
Beyond the plaque, the trail diverged, one route descending around an aquamarine glacial lake, the other climbing steeply to the Schilthorn summit. We opted for the latter. The deserted trail wound above the tree line, crossing tundra, scree slopes and bare black and gray rock. The path became more precipitous, requiring us to pull ourselves up by hand in several places. After two arduous hours, we could see Schilthorn's summit peeking through the mist, marked by the cable-car terminus and a revolving restaurant, Piz Gloria.
The makers of the 1969 James Bond movie "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" used this restaurant, then under construction, as the mountaintop lair of the arch villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played by Telly Savalas. (It was the film crew that came up with the name for the establishment, using a word for "peak" in a Swiss dialect that, in fact, is not spoken in the region.) The slopes below the summit were the scene of one of the most spectacular chases in cinematic history, with Agent 007, played by George Lazenby, Australian used car salesman turned actor, making his escape on skis from Blofeld's gunmen, into the valley below. Piz Gloria is still exploiting its bygone cinematic glory. Through the windows of the gift shop we spied commemorative plates, coffee mugs, ski vests, T-shirts and other Bond-related kitsch.
In the first annual Inferno ski race, held in 1928, the winner took an hour and a half to make the downhill run from Schilthorn through a narrow canyon to the town of Lauterbrunnen; today expert skiers can do it in 30 minutes. During the summer, the descent is far more laborious. We followed trails that switchbacked down a moonscape of loose slate and scree, and at one point lowered ourselves along a fixed, rickety metal ladder that abutted a sheer granite cliff face.
By midafternoon, the fog had lifted, revealing the entire Lauterbrunnen Valley. Below the Alpine massif lay rounded hills carpeted in pale-green pasture, intersected by rivulets of glacial water that sparkled silver in the sun. On a crag below us a steinbok stood in statuesque repose. Farther down, as we hopscotched across a field of boulders, furry hyraxes popped out from beneath the rocks.
We crossed an icy stream, traversed a meadow, then, knees throbbing from the three-hour descent, arrived at Rotstockhütte, a two-story stone hut. At 6,500 feet, Rotstockhütte is one of 10 hostels that dot the Lauterbrunnen and its three adjacent valleys. At 6:30 in the evening, the rustic inn was filled to capacity with 50 hikers from South Africa, France, Germany, Japan, the United States, Scandinavia and Switzerland. We took seats at a picnic table alongside four teenage Finnish girl scouts. A Babel of languages filled the cramped space as we dined on chicken soup, pasta and Bolognese sauce, with crème brûlée for dessert.
Stepping outside after the meal, I could see my breath in the subfreezing air. The first stars had appeared, raising hopes for a fine morning hike back to Mürren. Upstairs, in the communal sleeping quarters, mattresses and blankets were laid out side by side; a thin walkway running down the center of the dormitory was now clogged with backpacks and other gear. I fell quickly to sleep, waking on occasion to a symphony of snores from my fellow hikers.
The next morning, I gazed north across the valley at a spectacular sight: the knifelike peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, framed by a cloudless sky. Glaciers clung to their gray flanks, and puffs of snow were blowing off their summits. I fell into conversation with a couple from the Allston neighborhood of Boston, avid hikers who trekked almost every summer in the Rockies and the Grand Tetons. This summer they had opted for a 10-day hike through the Overland, exploring all four valleys and sleeping in a different hütte every night. They were begging off on the ascent of Schilthorn, however. "We're trying to keep it relaxed," said Calvin, a retired teacher.
The trail wound west, following high-mountain pastures. Dairy cattle grazed on the slopes, their bells tinkling madly. To our right rose a mountain wall, covered with conifer forest, and above, bare rock shrouded in snow. Hikers passed us with the standard Swiss-German greeting "Grüezi." Then, after yet another knee-taxing descent, we could see the plateau stretched out before us. With a sense of relief -- tinged with regret -- we reached flat ground, and began the final push back to Mürren.
IF YOU GO
Mid-May through early August is the high season for hiking in the Swiss Alps. The climb to the top of Schilthorn and back down into the Lauterbrunnen Valley is long and strenuous, and while you don't need professional climbing skills, you should be in good shape. (There are plenty of less strenuous hikes in the Lauterbrunnen Valley as well.)
We traveled by train from Geneva to Lauterbrunnen, with changes at Bern and Interlaken; from there a narrow-gauge railway heads steeply uphill to Mürren. The round-trip second-class fare is 161.20 Swiss francs, about $176 at $1.05 to the franc.
There are dozens of bed-and-breakfasts to choose from in Mürren; the one we picked, the Hotel Jungfrau (41-22-856-6464; hoteljungfrau.ch), was clean, serviceable and reasonably cheap, at 85 francs for a single room.
Roststockhütte (41-33 855-2464; rotstockhuette.ch), the hiker's hut where we spent the night after the long day's hike, costs 70 francs, including a hearty breakfast and dinner; reservations should be made for the summer.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.