Once upon a time, once upon an Alp

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 June 2016

“Once upon a time, high upon a Swiss Alp…

It is a placid existence, this Alpine life.

There are no neuroses, no anxiety, just flowers and sunshine.

Most people know that there are a lot of mountains in Switzerland.

In point of fact, there is at least one peak for each inhabitant of the country, with as many shapes and sizes as can be imagined.

This means that everyone can have his private mountain, just as people in other countries have their private islands.

Mountains are, of course, larger than people, so that they are able to accommodate more than one person at a time.

Consequently, one can choose almost any mountain – anywhere in the country – and proceed to sit on it, look at it, climb it or get inspired by it.

Since it is difficult to move mountains in the literal sense, they also offer a high degree of security to the harried city-dweller caught up in the complexities of modern living.

Because each mountain has its own distinct appearance – its own Alpine personality – it has been given its own special name – a name frequently inspired by the shape of the peak or by the emotions it produces….

I have never met anyone in all my years in Switzerland who wasn´t an expert on the country…

Everybody is an expert here…

That´s one of the risks of living in Switzerland.

Everybody expects us to know everything about the country – its history, its weather, its culture and philosophical thought, its train schedules, plane schedules, its voltage, boats and ski lifts.

We must know its museums and cinemas and restaurants….

We are constantly boning up on facts and figures about Switzerland in anticipation of an avalanche of tourists who will drop in on us both regularly and unexpectedly.” (Eugene Epstein, Once Upon An Alp)

“Switzerland is simply a large, humpy, solid rock with a thin skin of grass stretched over it…

…I was groping, without knowing it, toward an understanding of what the spell is which people find in the Alps…

…In no other mountains can that strange, deep, nameless influence, which once felt cannot be forgotten, once felt leaves behind it a restless longing to feel it again, a longing which is like homesickness – a grieving, haunting yearning that pleads, implores and persecutes till it has had its will.

…People, imaginative and unimaginative, cultivated and uncultivated, come from faraway countries and roam through the Swiss Alps year after year and can not explain why they do so.” (Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad)

Ebenalp, Appenzellerland, Swizerland, 2 April 2016

We lowlanders, we the civilized and urbane, never seem to learn.

Nature has its own calendar, especially in regards to altitude.

We thought we knew what we were doing.

Spring had sprung.

Birds filled the sky by the Lake of Constance.

Green grass grew and flowers blossomed.

Surely what is down in the valley must be up in the mountains.

We are prepared, all geared up.

We drive our car along the Lake of Constance to the outskirts of the village of Buch where one must leave lakeside highway 13 to connect to the Autobahn leading towards Zürich and Chur.

The wife now remembers her hiking boots are still sitting in the living room of our apartment.

We drive all the way back.

An hour has been lost, but NOW we are prepared, but NOW we are all geared up.

We arrive early afternoon, park in the car in a gravel parking lot, change from casual urban to casual wanderers.

The Ebenalp, at 1,640 metres / 5, 390 feet, is the northernmost summit of the Appenzell Alps.

It is a popular hiking destination and has been accessible by cable car from the town of Wasseraun since 1955.

Ebenalp attracts up to 200,000 visitors each year.

From the high plateau (Eben) of the cable car station visitors have a panoramic view of the rolling hills of Appenzell.

Impressive trails start at the station and lead to a network of mountain huts, the holy mountain of Säntis, the mountain hut Aescher, the little wilderness chapel of Wildkirchli and the quiet remarkable Seealpsee Lake.

We disembark from the Wasseraun-Ebenalp cable car to find ourselves at the Berggasthaus where we enjoy a hot Appenzell lunch and buy some souvenirs.

NOW we are ready, NOW we are fully geared up.

Nothing´s going to stop us now, for how hard can it be?

Prehistoric man managed, for the Wildkirchli caves contain traces of Neanderthal habitation, at an altitude of 4, 770 feet, just below Ebenalp.

In the distance, Säntis tantalises us with the optical illusion of being simultaneously close yet far, beckoning us with its Swisscom radio and television tower.

We can almost touch it, yet would need crampons and a two hour upward trek to do so.

We walk nearly half an hour and remark how it is colder than we thought it would be.

And snow…

Where did all this snow come from?

It´s spring in the valley.

Why is there snow up here?

We reach an impasse.

Walking further means being up to our waists in snow and neither of us has gear appropriate for walking in snow.

We return to the Berggasthaus, feeling frustrated and grumpy.

But the wife will not be discouraged for she remembers seeing ski poles and snowshoes leaning against the lodge.

We attach the snowshoes to our hiking boots and grasp ski poles in our hands.

Signs suggest a short panoramic winter walk around the lodge.

A SHORT panoramic walk…

Now snowshoeing is an ancient sport that has been practiced by Canadian, Alaskan, Scandanavian and Russian Inuit peoples for centuries, so I, a prime example of modern man well-connected to information on how to do anything, should have no difficulty with this.

You strap odd looking things to your boots and simply walk, right?

And walking is one of those activities I have been doing for nearly half a century.

I have walked thousands of kilometres in my home and native land of Canada and as well in parts of Asia and Europe in all sorts of weather and all sorts of terrain.

So how hard can snowshoeing possible be?

I am at an age where I have done it all, seen it all, knew it all, but just can´t remember it all.

I had forgotten the only other time I had tried snowshoeing…

About 20 years ago, in the early years of my courtship with my wife (She Who Must Be Obeyed), I took her for a weekend getaway to Gatineau Park, in the lower Laurentian mountains, across the border from Canada´s capital of Ottawa (where I lived the lonesome life of a single man), on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, to a youth hostel where they offered snowshoes for their guests to try out during their stay.

Now I had done everything right that weekend…

Candlelit evenings at home, eating out in fancy restaurants, serenading her to sleep on the bus ride north…

But I had never made her laugh so hard that she wanted to pee herself…

Now I stand impressively graceful at a height of 194 cm / 6 foot 5.

So at first glance one might expect my movements to be strong manly strides as giants would demonstrate, akin to Gulliver in Lilliput, Goliath of Gath, Paul Bunyan of Minnesota, the CBC´s Friendly Giant, or even the Jolly Green Giant.

A stride of pride and purpose, of might and muscle, of competence and confidence…

But when it comes to sports, where my cousin (the Olympian) is fit, I am fat.

I wheeze like an overweight bear, walk ungainly like a constipated moose, and on snow and ice I am as uncoordinated as an elephant.

(How Carthaginian General Hannibal managed to cross the Alps with elephants still remains a miracle of history in my mind.)

Before Ebenalp I had blocked out the memory of my first experiment with snowshoeing in Gatineau Park – the falling down, the struggle up and down the tiniest of hills, wet feet and dampened spirits, and She laughing her ass off at my valiant hopeless attempts to impress her.

With snowshoes attached She and I begin to follow the signposts of the Ebenalp panoramic Rundweg (circle trail).

Mountain goats would have been impressed and Arctic seals would have clapped to see She striding impatiently, unhesitatingly onwards.

But as I begin to walk, all nature holds its breath.

Squirrels stop their foraging and birds halt midflight, for they know on the side of this Alp stands (and falls)… a Lowlander.

I glance upwards to the mountain restaurant balcony and see the local yokels watching us struggle below them, the glint of the sun upon their binoculars unsteadily shaking with laughter.


This is better entertainment than cable TV, more amusing than Bambi on ice.

This is Survivor, the Alpine version, aka Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

I try to ascend and my shoes want to slide down the mountain like skis on a suicide mission.

I try to descend and stumble face forward into the snow, creating an impression in the snow similar to a plummeted parachutist whose chute failed to open from thousands of feet above.

I try to walk upon flatland, glorious non-threatening flatland similiar to Saskatchewan prairie, and I sink up to my waist in snow.

I thought the whole idea of snowshoes was to keep me atop of the snow, but my snowshoes are perversely against me.

Walk west?

My snowshoes respond.

Westwards, no.

Walk up and suddenly I am Po the Kung Fu panda, and I don´t do “Up”.

Walk down and fall down to avoid freefalling off the mountain.

And the prairie plateau promenade then finds me buried to my waist with head below and outstretched legs above craning out of the snow.

My wife captures all the glory and spectacle of my pilgrim´s progress through this snowy Slough of Despond with her mobile phone´s camera.

It takes many an argument to dissuade her from making me a viral video phenomenon on Twitter or Facebook.

I am soaked in sweat and snow has managed to find its way everywhere – down my shoes, into my socks, down the back of my shirt, down into my trousers into regions where snow was never meant to go.

I curse the Inuit and their foul invention of evil, the snowshoe, as soaken and shamed, seemingly centuries later, I ride the cable car with She back down the mountain.

My only consolation is the idea that today a legend was born here in Switzerland amongst tales of William Tell, Heidi and Roger Federer – the tale of the clumsy Canadian that began…

Once upon a time, once upon an Alp.

Rotsteinpass, Foto Roland Gerth






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