Grindelwald: First to Schnyige Platte

In July 2020, when I first visited Grindelwald, it was rainy for 3 of the 4 days I was there, so I did what anyone would do: scout out the local bouldering gym, which happened to be located in the sports center. There, I met a friendly guy named Sven, who lived in Grindelwald and had loads of hiking knowledge.

I messaged him a few weeks ago looking for semi-strenuous trails that included lakes, hoping I could swim.

“Bachalpsee is the only lake, and it’s too cold,” I was told. Still, he sent me a handful of hikes to try, with one of his favorite being the hike from First to Schnyige Platte.

I scoured Outdoor Active and the website for Jungfrau to learn more about the options. For starters, both sites had information, including step-by-step directions, but only if you were completing the hike from Schnyigge Platte to First. Some rated the hike “moderate”, while others “difficult”. The hike would be about 19 km, with a 900+ meter elevation gain. According to the websites, it would take 4 hours. According to Sven, it would be 6-8. (Sven was right.)

Outdoor Active described the hike like this: “A long rolling traverse of high scenic ridge, this hike is a classic. Hike through cozy valleys, visit high-alpine lakes, and enjoy stunning views of the Bernese mountains.” I was hooked.

The advice was to take the train from Grindelwald to Wilderswil, then the cog train from Wilderswil up to Schnyige Platte (pronounced Shuh-nee-gee Plat-tuh), then hike all the way back to First and take the gondola back down. The last gondola departs First in the summer at 5:30pm.

But the train ride to Schnyige Platte would be something like an hour and a half, and when you hike from there to First, the entire trail is “gradual ascent”. My hotel was a 9-minute walk from the Firstbahn gondola, whose first car ascended the mountain at 8am. That would get me to First by 8:25, so I could begin my hike nice and early.

I researched the cog train schedule and found two possible departures from Schnyige Platte depending on how long my hike was. One cog took me from Schnyige Platte at 4:21 to Wilderswil by 5:13, depositing me with enough time to catch the 5:40 train from Wilderswil that got me to Grindelwald by 6:09. I would aim for this one.

Jet lag was cruel to me, and I couldn’t fall asleep until 1:30am. I woke up at 6 to run 7km. Hotel breakfast was at 7:30, and with a 19km hike in front of me, I figured I’d eat something “that sticks to ya”, as Simon would say. I shoveled eggs, yogurt, croissant, fruit, and cheese into my mouth and set off for the gondola.

The moment I stepped out the door in my hiking shorts, I felt the chill of the morning and reasoned that it’d be even colder on the mountain, surely. Quickly, I zipped back inside and swapped shorts for hiking pants.

I’d been aiming for the 8:30 one, but ended up on an 8:15. Already ahead of schedule!

Using my half-tax – and presenting the discount card given to me at the hotel, but not sure that was even factored in – I got a one-way ticket for 16 CHF. I think this means it’s usually 32 at regular price.

The gondola was pretty empty, so I got a car to myself and quietly took in the scenery. Once at First, I began the first leg of the hike, a gentle uphill along gravel path toward Bachalpsee. A sign suggested it would take me 50 minutes to get there, but I made it in 40. That’s right. Speedy me over here.

First glimpse of Bachalpsee
Lake, flowers, mountain – the Swiss combo

Bachalpsee is gorgeous. And in all of my previous visits, I’d only caught it on slightly cloudy or overcast days. Today was a cloudless, blue-sky day, the perfect time for a hike. I snapped a few photos of the lake with the mountains reflected – obligatory, really – and dipped my hand into the water. I was surprised that it wasn’t as cold as I remembered, and wished I’d brought my swimsuit for a quick dip. (Ditching my shorts was not a good idea. I realized that almost immediately after stepping off the gondola. How was it so hot on the mountaintop??)

The next stretch of hike brought me from Bachalpsee (2265 meters) to Faulhorn (2681 meters). I read somewhere that Faulhorn was considered a “women’s peak” because it was easy enough for women to summit. Faul is also German for lazy, which is really a misnomer; it was not the most difficult summit ever, but it was not easy.

Looking bach on Bachalpsee. Haha. Get it?

I left Bachalpsee at 9:30, sweaty and parched. I’d hoped there would be drinking water there, but a fountain near the bathroom bore the sad phrase “kein trinkwasser”, meaning not drinkable water. As I stood there debating, a camper – a small group had clearly spent the night and were making breakfast in front of their tent – approached with two large canteens and filled them. I still had a little left in my canteen and debated topping up – when in Rome, right? – but in the end, I decided not to mess with that. Who needs a bad belly halfway up a mountain? Not this gal.

The hike up Faulhorn took me about an hour. A ways behind me were two men with hiking poles and bright shirts. Ahead, there were two others. A third of the way into the climb, there was a hut, which did not have water. Still, I paused briefly in the shade and said hello to the men in front of me, two folks with British accents who were older-looking. I passed them and continued up to the next hut, which was really just an empty stone structure.

Spot the tiny hikers
Little hut

As I huffed and puffed and reached the final stretch up to Faulhorn, I looked up to see two women descending from the top hut carrying babies on their backs. In full-on baby carriers. Two small children, maybe about 6, darted down in front of them. I am amazed, impressed, in awe of, the Swiss way of life. As I passed them by, with a friendly “gruetzi”, I noticed they also had water bottles and other necessities packed into the baby carriers.

I carried one water bottle, a wallet, a pointless flannel shirt, sunblock, and a book. They carried small humans, water, probably sunscreen, probably, a wallet, definitely not a book. Damn.

Still a ways to go – that’s not even Faulhorn!

I reached the hut at Faulhorn and hoped they’d have a water fountain, but they did not. A chalkboard sign advertised “Self Service”. A patio overlooked the trail I’d come up. A man sat at one of the picnic tables sipping a beer, while a family sat nearby playing a rowdy game of Uno. It was 10:30. I went inside to inquire about food or water, but the kitchen was closed. They sold candy bars, chips, and bottled water, so I opted for a bottle of water and a Snickers that totaled 7 francs. I carried 4 francs in coins. Since they preferred cash, I slid the Snickers bar back across the counter.

“I’ll just take the water,” I said.

“That’s 5 francs,” she told me. “But it’s okay, we’ll take your card. You don’t have to starve.”

I thanked her profusely, then carried my snack to a table in the shade. According to my research, this would be the steepest part of the hike, and everything else would be a gradual descent. As I watched the two older men begin the hike up below me, I wondered what the altitude was here.

Snow!

As I had struggled up myself, I thought of all the other strenuous hikes I’d completed in my life. This is my way with things: whenever something is difficult, I think of all of the other times I’ve done something similar and difficult. I am every run I’ve ever done, and every hike. So schlepping up Faulhorn, I reasoned, was nothing compared to the 8-hour slog up Half Dome or the high-altitude trudge up Colorado’s 14ers. In my head, the Swiss mountains are the highest ever. But I wasn’t getting the thin-air dizzy I’d gotten in Colorado. I whipped out my phone to convert meters to feet.

At 2681 meters, Faulhorn measures at 8,795 feet, which is the elevation of Half Dome (though we started much lower in our Half Dome hike). Denver is already 1609 meters, or 5278 feet above sea level, though we began our 14er hike much higher.

It was all very interesting.

I finished half of my Snickers and then decided to continue on. But not before pausing to take in the panoramic view that included the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau, along with a metal plaque that illustrated the horizon in front of you and labeled each peak.

Far left: Eiger, Monch, dip in the saddle, then Jungfrau!

“Auf wiedersehn!” came a voice, which belonged to one of the men who had just sat down. A normal human would have replied in kind, but my response was: “Oh? Um, thank you.”

Luckily, the men were not deterred by my awkwardness.

“Are you also doing the Schnyige Platte hike?” he asked.

“I am! Have you done it before?” I asked, slowly remembering how to be social.

“Nope. Lots of panorama virgins out today! There was a couple from California behind us who saw the hike on YouTube and came out to do it!”

“Oh wow,” I replied. They had clearly continued on and bypassed Faulhorn, which you can opt to do if you want to keep on going and not take in the outstanding views.

You can go up or follow the sign straight (hard to see in this pic)

We chatted about our water expectations and a little about the hike before parting ways.

“I’ll see you up there!” I said.

“You’ll beat us there! You’re young and fit!”

I immediately liked them more.

At 10:54, I departed Faulhorn. The way down was very rocky, with boulder-steps, actual steps, and lots of slip-sliding through scree-like pebbles.

I did not have hiking poles, but lots of other hikers passing me did. With the exception of my buddies back at Faulhorn, all the other hikers were going towards First and not away from it. Every so often, I looked back at where I’d come from and note the gradual ascent these other folks had. Was it worth a steep ascent up Faulhorn for a slow descent toward Schnyige? Absolutely.

At noon, I reached the next restaurant, Berghaus Manndlenen. Again, there was no drinkable water, so I ordered a bottle.

Next stop

“One bottle?” asked the man.

“I also have this,” I said, taking out my metal water bottle.

“Oh! It is cheaper to fill.”

I handed him my bottle and watched as he reached up and removed a plastic water bottle from the shelf and poured mine full.

“Is this a liter?” he asked. “It is. A liter.”

He punched some numbers into the calculator. I added a Coke to my purchase, and it came to 12 CHF. Jeez.

I sat and sipped for a short while, used their bathroom – a decent porta-loo, actually – and departed at 12:10.

There was a sign at the entry point to the restaurant. On my map, it seemed that this would be where I could choose between a direct route to Schnyige Platte or the scenic panoramic, but the sign only pointed in one direction and said Schnyige Platte. It is entirely possible that I missed something, but it seemed there was only one way, and that was the way I chose.

Rocky meadow

I say this because, as I followed the path through the mountains, the way was rocky. Sure, meadows sprung up on either side of the path eventually, and yes, all around me were towering mountains, but as I headed into the second straight hour of sliding downhill through scree, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was on the right trail.

Someone had seen this on YouTube and flown out from California for it? At least the rocks were painted with blazes.

Creeping up on the view

Around 1:40, I spotted the first yellow hiking sign I’d seen since Manndlenen, assuring me that Schynige Platte was 40 minutes away. But by what route? I walked another 8 minutes to yet another trail sign – absent for miles in the mountains but springing up like wildflowers down here – that offered several options for reaching Schnyige Platte. Two of them were panoramic.

I opted for the Oberberghorn route, which involved another hike uphill which was totally worth it. To my left, meadows sprinkled with purples and vibrant yellows, oxeye daisies and funky Dr. Seussian Easterflowers. Tall stalks of gentian, meadow foxtail, harebells – the meadows were alive with color, a sea of tall grass sparkling with color. Suddenly, I felt a burning pain on my right shin, inside my hiking boot.

Where there are flowers, there are bees, and one had gotten stuck inside my boot and stung me. I gently pulled the tongue of the shoe back and a little bee flew off, leaving a stinging reminder on my leg. Nature, in all its forms.

Interlaken

To my right, down below, lay Interlaken, nestled between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. From this height, so close to the absolutely roasting sun, nothing seemed better than a plunge in Brienz’s milky teal waters. If only I could paraglide down.

I took in the view, savored the relief that came with knowing I didn’t totally miss the panorama, and eventually made my way to Schnyige Platte where I celebrated my achievement with a Rugenbrau and water. It was 3:02 by the time I sat down, feet and legs aching pleasantly.

Below, the bright red cog train churned up to the station, but there was no rush.

I took the 4:21 train (16 CHF, [with half-tax] purchased at the tiny station at Schnyige Platte, which also boasts an Alpine garden), down to Wilderswil. If a romantic Swiss train ride with staggering, tourist poster-views is what you’re after, be sure to get on this train. It’s a cog, it took about an hour, and the scenery was worth every rappen.

Little train station

I arrived at the platform at 5:15 and caught the 5:40 train (Berner-Oberland-Bahn) from Wilderswil to Grindelwald and plodded through town, exhausted.

I returned to my hotel with a book, a bottle of wine, a rectangle of sunburn on my back left calf, and visions of mountain lakes in my memory.

At the end of the day, my run, hike, and train station walks combined, I’d logged a total of 32 kilometers and climbed the equivalent of 279 floors, according to my Health app. It would be a good night’s sleep for me, finally.

Along the panorama walk

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