Backpacking in the Swiss Alps: Glecksteinhütte and Grindelwald

Backpacking in the Swiss Alps: Glecksteinhütte and Grindelwald

On our second day of hiking Stage 10 of the Via Alpina during our Swiss Alps adventure, we planned turn off the trail and hike up to to Glecksteinhütte. Up until this point, the vast majority of our travels have gone to plan. Mishaps have been minor and limited, like when Norwegian destroyed my checked suitcase or that time neither of us brought our licenses on our honeymoon that included a rental car road trip portion. Any delays have been short (and related to Gare du Nord, lol) and the only time we almost missed a flight was when the fire alarm went off at Stansted and the trams stopped running (luckily, they held the plane). As they say, all good things must come to an end and our day hiking up to Glecksteinhütte was our first real plan-killer.

While things didn’t go to plan, overall, it was an incredible day in the Swiss Alps. I am going to wax poetic (and personal) in this post about this experience because it was a particularly meaningful one for me. Despite having always been a person filled with fear about basically everything, on this day, I faced one of my biggest fears. I will always remember this day!

Glecksteinhutte

You can skip my ramblings and skip to reading about Glecksteinhütte and Grindelwald.

Glecksteinhütte

When we first started talking about a Swiss Alps hiking trip nearly two years ago, there was a video on YouTube that Andrew showed me of a beautiful hütte way up high in the mountains. It was so high ibex would come and wander the grounds. In that video, it almost seemed impossible to me that I, small human with knee issues, could ever make it up there. Perched on the edge of the mountain, it also seemed impossible that I, with my phobia of heights, would ever be able to get there.

But after months of training, I knew I could climb up there, which is amazing! And the reward would be worth it – beautiful views, a legendary hütte and the sweet, sweet feeling of conquering yet another day on the trail.

This hütte is much bigger than Engelhornhütte, where we had stayed the previous night. Sleeping 150, there are showers (yay) and they were happy to accommodate my gluten allergy at dinner and breakfast the next day. All that and incredible views over Grindelwald and the valley from the Wetterhorn.

Skip to Grindelwald

Getting to Glecksteinhütte, an Exercise in Facing Fears

I have thought often of writing a blog post titled “On Fear” in which I would talk about how I have had to challenge my phobia of heights continually throughout this expat experience. Those medieval Europeans loved building towers and we modern tourists love to queue up and climb them. Each of those climbs tests me. In fact, Andrew has created a whole album titled “Heights” which features photos of me with a look of terror on my face during our various climbs throughout Europe.

Though I am terrified of heights, that hasn’t stopped me from skiing in the Alps or climbing said towers. It’s one of the things I’m learned to do through this expat experience – push through fear and discomfort. It’s not easy, but until we made it to Switzerland, I’ve been able to force myself through. Then, we started up the trail to Glecksteinhütte.

The Gleckensteinhütte website states, “it is important that you are not afraid of heights because there are exposed parts of the trail.” Andrew had found these videos from an American family and asked me to watch them to prepare for our trip. In this video, every single person says they would not recommend this trail to anyone with a fear of heights. The leader says he wished they had brought harnesses for the kids (!!). One woman said she was glad it was over and she wouldn’t do it again. In further videos, you see that at one point in the trail up to Glecksteinhütte, there is a waterfall over an exposed part of rocky cliff that you are to walk through… near the top.

Incredulous, I asked Andrew why on earth he would plan for ME to go up that trail. His response was that it wouldn’t be that bad. It was only parts of the trail. And I get that and the sentiment that the trail would be worth it to stay at such an extraordinary hut.

The video of the American family turned me off from further research about this trip, haha. Our route was planned. There was no use terrifying myself before I even got there. Since heights are a fear thing, not a physical thing, I was either going to be able to do it or not. No amount of scouring the Internet for English-language blogs or articles about the trails would change that. I tried to put their words out of my mind and focus on one step at a time or one training day at a time.

From these sources, I was very aware going into this that there was a strong possibility I would be unable to make it up to Glecksteinhütte. I had said to Andrew that I would definitely try, but based on the videos he had showed me, I may not actually be able to do it.

Maybe it was the calm way I said those words, maybe it was Andrew’s sheer determination to get up there, but the conversation never really went farther than that. Andrew didn’t disagree with me and I really did feel calm about it. A huge part of me thought and hoped that this would be a mind over matter moment. After months of training, I was ready to will my mind to get over my fear and up the mountain.

The Trail Up to Glecksteinhütte

As we approached the trail from Stage 10 of the Via Alpina, I started to get nervous. I could sometimes make out what must be the trail snaking along the edge of a mountain that was mostly rock.

Wetterhorn and the trail to Glecksteinhütte

Again, I tried to put it all out of my mind. The trail could look totally different up close. I was fine on the exposed parts of the trail up to Engelhornhütte. We were doing great on our ascents, beating time estimates on each. Andrew believed I could do this, why shouldn’t I?

We came to the trail to Glecksteinhütte and turned off the Via Alpina. It began innocently enough. A steady, but not too steep ascent that led us to a picturesque snowy patch.

Then it got real. Quickly. The trail turned to a narrow, rocky path with just feet separating us from the cliff.

The exposed bits felt relentless. Each twist and turn revealed that the sense of walking along the side of a cliff was not going to go away any time soon.

A few minutes in, I turned off my brain. I stopped feeling, stopped looking and just went. It was so scary that I couldn’t let myself take in anything but the trail directly in front of me or I’d risk becoming paralyzed by my fear. I started rushing up each bit, careful not to look over the side, going as fast as I could. My bag felt extra burdensome as I carefully balanced each step along the rocky trail-face, clutching the steel cables for dear life when they appeared, clutching whatever rock bits I could when they ended.

 

We continued like that, me in the lead scrambling up as quickly as possible, for a good fifteen minutes or so. I was hoping, hoping that the next turn would take us to a more sheltered part of the trail, that I’d somehow outrun my fear of heights. I had stopped feeling fear, mechanically rushing along, but I could hear myself gasping for breath the way one might when they’re about to hyperventilate.

Hiking down Glecksteinhütte

This strategy fell apart when I approached a turn at the same time as another group descending. At that moment, I had to let go and step out from the rock wall and closer to the edge to let them pass. That was it. I had to look around me to do this and look down. As I sat down to feel more safe and stable, the tears started. It was really, truly too much for me and I was really, truly terrified.

Immediately, Andrew suggested that we head back down and find somewhere to stay in Grindelwald for the night. While I was incredibly bummed to have failed, I was also so relieved. To have come so far and turn around was really hard, but it was definitely the right thing to do. Slowly, we climbed back down the trail.

I’m alive!

Climbing down was scary too, but it was a relief knowing it would all be over soon. Andrew estimates we made it about a fourth of the way up and almost to the turn around the edge of Wetterhorn. Had I pressed on, I probably would have found some relief from the exposure before long. However, there would have been the waterfall to contend with much higher up. Based on my face in the below photo, I am not equipped to handle something like that! Haha.

Descending Glecksteinhutte

We passed lots of people on our way up and down the trail. There are many, many people who do not find the trail terrifying like I did. Andrew was totally fine. One girl was hiking down in flip flops (we found an abandoned box of Compeed along the side of the trail not long after…). Two girls RAN by us. Many folks hiking the trail were much older than us, too. The trail is by no means impossible and it had the most traffic of any trail we took on through our entire trip. While it was somewhat challenging in steepness, it is totally doable. Many brave people of all ages make it up and down just fine. I imagine they do not have life-long phobias of heights, ha!

From someone who has been afraid of heights as long as I can remember, take it from me – they really mean it when they say you shouldn’t attempt this trail if you are afraid of heights 😂

Reworking Our Plan

Looking back, it is amazing to me I made it any length of trail up there. It really looks crazy!

How?!

We sat with this view on a rock next to a field of cows, happy to rest our legs after the steep descent we faced after rejoining the Via Alpina. We drank some electrolyte water (thanks to our trusty hydration tablets)  in the shade and got out our phones to look for places to stay in Grindelwald that night. Looking on a mix of GoogleMaps, TripAdvisor and hotels.com, we landed on the Hotel Lauberhorn.

After that rest, we got back up and hit the trail again, with a little less than an hour to go to reach our home for the night.

Grindelwald

After a full day of hiking, three descents and a harrowing heights experience, it was so so good to roll up to the adorably quaint Hotel Lauberhorn.

Hotel Lauberhorn, Grindelwald

Check-in was easy and the lobby was lovely, clean and modern. Our room was small but very clean and comfortable and it had a SHOWER!!! Sweet relief. After stretching and showering, we put on our non-hiking clothes and hopped on the bus (which was free thanks to our stay at the hotel) taking it into the center of Grindelwald.

Having done zero research on Grindelwald since we thought we’d just be passing through, we wandered aimlessly for a bit trying to figure out where to eat. We ended up at Memory for dinner. We were seated right away, outside along the pavement, perfect for people watching.

The menu listed allergens (gluten-free win!) and I ordered the chicken curry with rosti. Rosti is a traditional Swiss dish which is basically a giant hashbrown. Yum! My dinner was lovely.

Andrew was less impressed with his dinner. He ordered the “Swiss burger” (when in Switzerland, right?), which turned out to be really messy and not that tasty. At least it came with chips!

We popped across the street for a drink at Avocado Bar. It felt like a slice of home in the Swiss Alps – the vibe was very American dive bar. I ordered a glass of white wine, which was my favorite Swiss wine of the trip. We sat on the deck soaking in the beautiful views of the Eiger at sunset.

It was the perfect end to a challenging, crazy, amazing day.

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Jenn

Jenn is an American expat living in London, spending her time freelancing, traveling and writing on this here blog. Thank you for reading. Are you planning a trip here? Tell me your plans in the comments!

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