Are the Swiss Alps the perfect place for an adventure holiday? FS wanted to find out, so we put our best woman on the case
My idea of a holiday consists of cooking slowly on a beach for two weeks, so the thought of this Alpine adventure in Switzerland being the ‘trip of a lifetime’… Well, maybe, but not my lifetime. If good travel is about taking people out of their comfort zone to try new experiences, there’s no-one better to throw out on the glaciers than me. Who needs ice picks? I’ve got six-inch heels!
We flew to Zurich airport and boarded the Glacier Express, which took us through stunning Swiss valleys deep into the Engadin region of the Alps passing by stunning tunnels and jaw-dropping mountain scenery dotted with idyllic villages full of little wooden houses.
Our destination was the Grand Hotel Kronenhof in the beautiful town of Pontresina, 6000ft above sea level.
The rooms were just as amazing as the view. Mine had a lounge and a king size bed. Mind you, turns out the bed was actually two singles put together. I later learned that this is a traditional Swiss ‘visiting hole’ – common in Switzerland for couples who like to sleep in their own beds primarily, but want to keep the option of a conjugal visit open.
As you’d expect from the world’s biggest tax haven, they don’t mess around when it comes to dinner. We ate caviar, lobster with sorrel, and fillet steak, washed down with delicious wine. They could have taken me out to the glaciers there and then and shot me. I’d have died happy. What a country.
In fact what did happen was that I woke the next morning and was taken out to glaciers by Lukas from the Bergsteigerschule Pontresina mountaineering school. He was wearing flip-flops, which seemed a little strange, but there were proper boots in his Jeep.
We hiked down to the shop to get harnesses and pickaxes; only then did it dawn on me that we’d be climbing the glacier – going vertically up – and not simply walking across it. The air was crisp, cold and fresh. In the distance the glacier we would be tackling loomed large. Staring up at its icy mass I could feel the adrenaline pumping round my body. No turning back now: this was it.
It’s very unfortunate that Sepp Blatter is one of Switzerland’s most famous men and it’s an unfair stain on the national character, because every Swiss man I met was super fit. We trekked along with a plethora of hikers and cyclists, Lukas leading the way. Our group probably looked a little strange in this context, consisting of travel writers, music bloggers, a sound engineer, a photographer and Stevie Ward, the 22-year-old Leeds Rhino second row. I’m dressed head to toe in outdoor gear, and starting to feel a bit like a full kit wanker. I’m an art editor: I’ve got all the gear and literally no idea.
As we walked up the path the scenery gradually changed from sandy and green to rocky and gritty. The landscape looked like something from Mars, but with a winding walk path that snaked around to the top of the mountain. Lukas informed us that the Mars-like terrain is in fact glacier but covered in soil. You could also see huge chunks of exposed snow, relics of previous mini-landslides.
Up high, we saw cascades at the very top of the mountains that slowly trickled down to ground level. It took me ages to adjust to the vast scale of the Alps. You’re in a supremely vast space but the sheer height of the mountains towering above you kissing the clouds, can make you almost feel claustrophobic.
We started our slow ascent up the rocky landscape, grabbing rock faces and balancing on others as we went. Every so often the boulders would wobble and throw me off balance. After a bit I started to enjoy the uncertainties of not knowing whether or not it was a stable platform. It was like the stepping stones level on Takeshi’s Castle.
Every now and again I would turn round and admire the view, the path that seemed so wide below was now disappearing around the mountain beneath us. The air turned colder as we approached our target and we walked over small streams. It was at this point I could see the true colour of the glacier. When we stopped for lunch I dipped my feet in a nearby stream: it was freezing! Eventually it looked like we were walking on an ice rink scattered with rocks, and the ice glistened like diamond.
The landscape changed again and became smooth and grey. At this point it was crushed ice, so out came the pickaxe and spikes as Lukas pointed out the glacier wall we were going to climb! It was literally a vertical wall. After a quick health and safety briefing we each took it in turns to climb. In my big white helmet and harness I set off. Well, in truth I lost my head a bit, and decided to start the ‘climbing’ before we actually reached the wall. As the video footage shot by the rest of the group proves, I bent over and started hacking at the floor with my pickaxe on what was essentially a mild camber. Embarro.
When I actually got to the wall it was considerably tougher! Lukas’ advice about not pulling out the axe too hard to avoid getting an axe to the face rang in my ears, and I made OK progress. It was a fantastic feeling to be on top of the world, on a glittering throne.
Peak shun by Olympians
Back at the ranch, I swerved the nudist steam room and got some rest. We then transferred to the Kulm Hotel over in the beautiful town of St Moritz, a popular destination for international jetsetters. Here, they play all the posh sports like curling, polo, horse racing, skating and even cricket. We had dinner at the Chesa al Parc restaurant and the Brownlee brothers were sat on the next table. They were tapering in time for their upcoming Olympic triathlon in Rio. We were having an early start the next day to catch sunrise on a mountain, and tried quite hard to get Alistair and Jonny to join us, insisting it would do them good. They didn’t, and two weeks later won gold and silver by the Copacabana. Fair enough.
We woke at 3am to start our trip to watch the sunrise over Piz Nair, a 10,000ft high mountain, more than twice the height of Ben Nevis. Fortunately, there’s a lift up there.
The journey up was dark and scary as we rocked from side to side above the massive drop. The service only runs from July to September and tickets are 95 CHF (£75) per person, which includes a day pass for the mountain railways and a breakfast buffet. It’s worth it: the view and the brekkie are magical.
Lake St Moritz
The next part of the trip took place at the beautiful Lake St Moritz. We went paddle boarding, so the first part of my experience was on my ass, later upgraded to my knees.
I did try standing on several occasions but apparently I looked like a drunk giraffe. We were out on the lake for 90 minutes and it was fantastic, paddling over thick kelp forests, swaying below on the bed of the lake. We finished off by having a relaxing Kronenhof AktiVital massage with hot volcanic stones, the perfect end to the day before we began our scenic journey back home.
How can you do it?
For more information on the packages available at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof visit kronenhof.com or call +41 81 830 30 30. Or you can email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the mountaineering programmes available visit www.bergsteiger-pontresina.ch
Don’t forget to pack
The things to sort out before you go...
Karrimor Hot Rock Jacket
Ideal for different climates, and light. £79.99 sportsdirect.com
Karrimor Mountain Mid Top
Perfect for all weather conditions. £31 sportsdirect.com