Hiking in the first snow

I wrote a little while ago about the challenge I sometimes have in deciding where to go at the weekend. The problem is such a wide range of lovely places to visit and see, so I can hardly complain about it. But the stress of not wanting to waste a day is real for me, and I don’t like to leave problems unresolved.

I’ve been doing my best to stop hanging around the house trying to decide, and just get out of the front door. By pointing the car in the general direction I want to go – turning right at the end of the road to head for the nearby Jungfrau Region, or turn left and go further afield – I can at least give myself a push in the right direction.

Such was the scenario just recently. I was driven to enjoy a last (or penultimate) autumn hike because the first snow of the season had arrived on the higher peaks. With the first dusting of snow, the slush, mud and cold temperatures also arrive, which makes many of my favourite routes un-walkable.

Heading for Interlaken, my intention had been to head for the familiar route between Grütschalp and Mürren. But even as I was leaving home, I had already begun deciding against it. That path is open and walkable pretty much all-year round, and I wanted to get a walk in which I wouldn’t be able to do during the coming winter season. Passing Därligen, I could see that Gemmenalp had received plenty of snow, which took the relatively steep path to that summit out of contention.

However, the Habkern valley is adjacent to Gemmenalp. Not having been there much, I decided to drive up the tolled road to Lombachalp and walk along the traffic-free road in the alpine valley. The road to the alp was clear and quiet, and as I drove higher, I reached the snow line and tip-toed the car carefully over some icy patches of the road through the forest.

Arriving at the closed mountain restaurant, I parked up and, confronted with the view up across the snowy pastures below the Augstmatthorn and Suggiture peaks, I wondered whether I should just give a snowy hike a go. Walking on prepared winter hiking paths is one thing, but going out onto unprepared paths covered in snow, following nothing but other people’s footprints, is another. I was reassured by having hiked the path a few years ago, when I slogged up the steep path to the Augstmatthorn.

Microspikes on the way to Suggiture
Microspikes on and ready to go

I had the foresight to buy some Kahtoola microspikes a few years ago, but had never worn them. (I’m a sucker for hiking gear shops like Tiso and Go Outdoors when we’re in Britain, and have bought a few things down the years which seemed like a good idea at the time.) I’d also had the presence of mind to stick them in my hiking bag this time, so I fitted them over my boots and headed out.

The walk up to where the path splits and heads for either Augstmatthorn or Suggiture is a bit steep so I took my time and allowed some annoyingly chirpy Romands and a middle-aged man with two bouncy chihuahuas to pass by. The spikes were already blowing my mind slightly, as I’ve always been nervous about slipping on icy surfaces and they were doing a fantastic job of gripping their way up even the steepest parts of the path.

Low sun across the snow at Lombachalp
Low sun across the snow at Lombachalp

I knew that my lack of big hikes this year meant that my legs wouldn’t get me up the very steep, direct path to the Augstmatthorn, so I bore west and headed for the lower part of the Hardergrat ridge instead. That was to be my intended goal, as the walk to the ridge line is very picturesque. That section of the path provides panoramic views to Interlaken, to the Niesen, and down to Lake Brienz. I didn’t take very many photos along the way, preferring to enjoy the sunshine and the peaceful, almost silent landscape.

Heading for the Hardergrat ridge
Heading for the Hardergrat ridge
Patchy snow above Lombachalp
Patchy snow above Lombachalp

After a stop for some energy-giving chocolate, I arrived at my goal for the day, where I could enjoy the precipitous view down to the lake far below. Once there, the summit of Suggiture – a real, pointy mountain peak – beckoned to me from the top of the ridiculously-steep path, and I decided to see whether I could make it there. The northern side of the ridge – which I’d traversed across the shallow snow – was white and wintery, but the southern side, which gets sun all day – was still autumnal. The narrow path along the ridge-line was partially-covered in a combination of snow and mud, but didn’t present any tricky sections and so I felt safe to carry on.

Hardergrat ridge with snow on the path
Hardergrat ridge with snow on the path. The peak ahead is Suggiture.

I’d left home a little late in the day and so, by this time, I was getting close to the limit of summiting and getting back to the car in daylight. The route in the picture above takes between 20-30 minutes in dry summer conditions, but the melting, slushy snow and ice slowed me down a lot. Taking a breather abotu half-way to the peak, I worked out that I didn’t have time to struggle all the way to the top and get back down before it got dark, so I decided to abandon the rest of the ascent and enjoy a more leisurely walk back to the car. I spotted a solitary wild ibex on the walk back down, who was content to step across the vertiginous cliff-face adjacent to the path and idly peruse a small group of hikers which had stopped to take his photo. Not having a longer lens with me, I had to make do with a low-quality, zoomed-in shot with my iPhone.

One of the many ibex on the Hardergrat ridge

As it was now getting later in the afternoon, the low sun was beginning to throw long shadows and turn a golden colour as it passed into a bank of thin diffusing cloud low in the sky. I took advantage of the wonderful light and made some landscape shots looking towards Hohgant, which I like very much due to the light and the undulating, snow-covered landscape. Back at the car just in time for the last light of the day, I got a couple of shots of the snowy peak glowing in the evening light before I headed for home.

Hohgant, photographed from the Hardergrat ridge
Hohgant, photographed from the Hardergrat ridge
Evening light and snow on the Augstmatthorn
Augstmatthorn and Suggiture in evening light, photographed from Lombachalp. You can just make out a small group of hikers making their way down the path in the middle of the photo.

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