A Mountainous Journey in Switzerland

Dec 15, 2015

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by Danika Thiele '17
Edited for content and length

This trip to Switzerland in June/July 2015 was filled with moments I thought I couldn’t physically endure,  and it took all of me to keep going.

That being said, it was the most rewarding, thrilling, and breathtaking exploration I’ve ever had. From the beautiful views to the amazing food and experiences, I had the time of my life. The people of the trip also made it great, as we looked out for one another and constantly had each others’ backs.

June 28 & 29th

7:30 a.m.
After an exhausting eight-hour flight, we all stumbled off the plane and on to various trains to get from Geneva to Vevey. Vevey, a small coastal town off Lake Geneva, was our first insight into the wonders of Switzerland. We dropped our checked luggage with our chaperone's friend Sergio and took a long network of trains to Champex.

Once in Champex, we checked into our hotel and explored the town. A small lake in the center of town had amazing, crystal blue water direct from the melting glaciers. Cows grazed on the mountainside, their huge bells chiming with every step.

June 30th
Champex-Le Châble

Height loss: 749 m
Height gain: 104 m

Our group hit the trail with the best intentions. Dr. David Mathias, our guide and chaperone to Switzerland, made the decision to take an alternative route, climbing uphill at an intense incline. The group immediately separated into three groups: Grace spearheading the expedition with Megan and Roo (Marissa Maries) coming in a close second. I took my place somewhere near the middle, with Vincent Ragusa, Gigi Gabig and Sarah Dibble in the rear.

Because of our difference in pacing, often the group would split so much each person was very far from the rest of the group. At first it was somewhat scary and disheartening, but then I began to accept it as what it was.

An amazing view from on top of a mountain.

Today, I am so sore. My calves and knees are really feeling the first hike. The amazing vistas of mountain ranges, cows and country sides made it all worth it. Dr. Mathias described this first hike as “easy”?! It whooped me into shape.

The group made it into town, showered, and ate a simple dinner of chicken and potatoes. Roo and I were so ravenous from the day that we wandered into town to find more food. We ended up splitting a delicious, spicy pizza. It cost $18, but that’s “cheap” for Switzerland.

What have I gotten myself into? Tomorrow is the hardest hike of the trip.

July 1st
Le Châble-Cabane du Mont Fort
Elevation gain (according to guidebook): 1636 m

Today was one of the hardest days of my life. I cannot think of anything more mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually draining than hiking these mountains. Our increased elevation was unlike anything I could ever conceive, and not all of us made it.

At the very outset of the hike, Gigi broke down. She physically and mentally could not climb. It was too much. We were all pushing ourselves to the limit, urging our feet to make one more step, and she just lost it. She cried on the trail before making her way back to Châble.

With one less member to our group, we trudged on over rolling foothills and forests, walking by stone chalets and a chapel overlooking blue mountains. It was a mile marker for me each day after we rose above tree level, to the land without shade, comprised of crumbling rocks and dry heat.

Once at the cabane, we were all in high spirits. Hikers from various backgrounds were there. We were all in this place together, eating the same food and exchanging stories. Everyone was served a dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce, a Godsend.

The great sense of kinmanship added to the fantastic views of the valley below and mountains all around. Grace, Dibble and I stayed up that night talking to the Swiss. A group of them stayed out to watch the moon rise above the mountaintops.

July 2nd
Cabane du Mont Fort-Val dHérens

Due to an unexpected landslide, our group had to backtrack into town to ride the train and bus to the Grande Dixence dam. The hotel was positioned at the foot of the dam, with the strong walls of the structure rising high above the hotel’s roof.

Restless, we decided to go on a day-hike up to the dam. Grace, being a crazy hiking robot, hiked way past Dibble and me, separating us into two groups: Grace and Megan in one and Dibble and me in the other. When we stumbled across an old cave, Dibble and I had to explore it. Cold air rushed out, but the cave itself was pitch dark. Icicles hung from the cave’s ceiling, dripping in the summer heat.

July 3rd
La Dixence Dam-Arolla

We started the day hiking past the dam, seeing the familiar powdery blue water in the valley below mountains topped with gross snow and rocks. If I had known we’d hike this way again today, I wouldn’t have done it yesterday!

Walking through rocky, dripping caves, the group was glad to have light on the cavern walls. We continued around the lake to see a beautiful rainbow at the end of a rushing waterfall. With the mountains surrounding it, it was unreal.

Our group continued up, way above tree line, to a land of rocks and snow and scree. We scrambled along a narrow trail, focusing on each step.

Now came the scary part. The mountain went straight up, and so did the trail. And it was entirely ROCK. Everyone put away their poles, using their hands to scale the mountainside to get to the col (the lowest point on a ridge between two peaks). Toward the top, a chain linked to the rocks was all you had to pull yourself up. Just beyond this rope was the top — WE MADE IT!

Then I fell.

As I was trying to video our descent from the col, I lost my footing and tumbled down the left side of the mountain. Roo told me I rolled twice before catching myself. It was the scariest experience of my life.

Alpenhorn players on the street in Switzerland.

After joining Grace at the lead, we both almost ran down the mountain to our hotel, the Grand Hotel and Kurhaus in Arolla.

It was so fancy. The hotel itself was highly decorated in the authentic Swiss way, complete with alpenhorn players. The meal was … interesting. The appetizer consisted of completely dried meat. The main course was melted cheese, called Roclette, served with small potatoes, onions and pickles. Surprisingly, it was amazing!

Dibble is going back to America too.

July 4th
Arolla-La Sage

Height loss: 554 m
Height gain: 215 m

We hiked to Lac Bleu (the blue lake). It was amazingly pretty, with a waterfall feeding into it on the left side. It had crystal clear blue water with green shades, cold as any ice. Dr. Mathias said he’d give five francs to whoever jumped in. Of course I had to go for it! I felt my entire body go numb, but I drip dried in the sun.

When we got to our hotel in La Sage, Dr. Mathias and Dibble immediately left for the Geneva airport. The rest of the group took showers, washed clothes and had a delicious meal of rice and chicken. Tomorrow is another tough day, and we won’t have Dr. Mathias.

July 5th
La Sage-Cabane de Moiry
Height loss: 495 m
Height gain: 1617 m

Today was my favorite day. Not because it was easy, but because it was so challenging. Sergio took lead of the group, leading us up above tree line, past the Col du Tsaté, down to a blue lake and up towards the cabane.

Grace was way past us and the rest of the group shuffled our way up the mountain. All of a sudden, I felt this immense energy. I kept on at a faster pace, distancing myself from the group to the point I couldn’t see either Sergio or Grace.

The trail narrowed, with steep cliffs on either side. One stumble and you’re tumbling down a mountainside into a glacier-fed lake. The trail transformed into snow, and you had to step directly into one set of footprints.

The trail narrowed again, and you had to hug the side of the mountain to stay up. A rope led through the side of the snowy mountain, and I had to strain myself to get past the snowy shoal. Rocky terrain covered the mountain until I finally saw the Swiss flag poking up from above my line of vision. I scrambled up the rocks and hoisted myself up to the cabane.

July 6th
Cabane de Moiry-Zinol
Height loss: 1612 m
Height gain: 462 m

The group left the cabane, backtracked to the lake, and onward past a dam. We made it to the top of another col and immediately saw a small herd of sheep in the distance. Walking past cows and countless stone huts, we made it into the town of Zinol. At the hotel we ate ham risotto before hitting the showers and bed.

The view of a valley from the top of a mountain

July 7th
Zinal-Hotel Schwarzhorn, Grüben
Height loss: 1052 m
Height gain: 1199 m

Today was a pretty tough day. With a 1200 m climb and 1000 m descent, it was demanding up and down. We started in a small village, passing cow fields and grass pastures. We ascended through rolling hills, above tree line, kept going up.

We passed up and over another col. This one, the Col de Sorebois, was unlike any other. Waiting at the top was a group of nearly 40 children accompanied by a few leaders. A summer camp from Belgium, they sang to us a few national songs. We sang back American songs-it was a neat, cross-cultural experience. They were great singers.

With the wind at our backs we descended the grassy, rocky trail down to the village and our hotel. We’ve hit German-speaking Switzerland! There were definitely less French influences.

July 8th


I have mixed feelings. Vinny didn’t make the hike today. He instead opted to take the train and bus, meeting us in Zermatt.

A hard hike up 1,000 m in cold blasts of wind met us while we ascended the col. It was the coldest I’d been all trip, and my fingers were ice. We couldn’t find a place safe from the wind to eat our snacks, so we soldiered on without any. It was very intense, and I had to convince myself numerous times to keep going. At times I thought “I can’t move. I can’t go up, I can’t go down. I’m stuck here forever. Call the helicopter” — but I kept on.

After meeting Vinny at the hotel in Zermatt, we immediately dropped our packs and found a pizza place. It was the best food I’ve ever tasted.  One, because we were so deprived and two, because it was honestly great pizza. We enjoyed gelato before hitting the showers and going to sleep.

July 9th

Today was an easy, relaxing day of window shopping through Zermatt. The town is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the ascent of the Matterhorn, and tourists from all over the world are flooding in. Here, we’re looking up at the magnificent mountains instead of being eye level with them.

The group stands in front of a train.

Every night around 9 p.m., the town lights up the original path up the Matterhorn. At night, we went to a DISCO! Which is codeword for club. Roo, Megan, Grace and I were the only people there, and we danced the night away.

July 10th

After taking the train back to Vevey, where we were the first day, we were all shaken by how far we’d come. We’d conquered mountains we couldn’t have conceived at the dawn of our trip. We’d grown stronger physically and mentally, and now we were back where the trip had started.

It was surreal. Each of us dipped our toes into Lake Geneva. Our trip had come to an end, and we were the survivors.