The Swiss may have invented tourism and surely are renowned for their timepieces. And Swiss thoughtfulness can certainly be comforting on a steep, stormy mountainside as you face a confusing choice but find explicit trail signs calibrated to the minute it should take to hike to your destination. The Swiss, not known for their warmth, are aces with well-laid plans.
There's always a trade-off, though, and the price of carefully calculated reassurances is usually the chance for a singular experience. And for me, that special, unplanned moment is what travel is all about.
Switzerland had been all church steeples and snowcaps, scene after scene that could have been lifted from a chocolate box. I'd actually met several women named Heidi. It was all it was supposed to be, nothing unexpected. And so I was pleasantly surprised to experience a quite disorderly hike across the Rhone Glacier, high in the Valais Canton of the Swiss Alps.
The fun began with check-in to the Hotel Glacier du Rhone, in the comatose village of Gletsch. In spirit, if not architecture, the rambling gothic structure resembled the spooky hotel in The Shining. My room came with a door that would not lock, a crippling, swayback bed (thanks to several missing frame slats) and an ancient claw-foot bathtub. There was no shower. The tank for the commode was mounted high on the wall and operated noisily by a pull chain.
Open in summer only, the original eight-room structure dated to 1850 and was enlarged around the turn of the century to four stories. A clerk told me that Napoleon slept here. I think he left his dog barking in the next room.
It was all so un-Swiss-like that I loved it.
Compared to the efficient pod-like rooms I'd found in many medium-priced Alpine hotels, the large and musty edifice oozed character, something I considered a welcome change. My bathroom, though not modern, worked okay, and it was larger than many of my other rooms during a week-long, inn-to-inn hiking trip. My window provided an incomparable view of the Rhone Glacier. The blue ice eminence crowned the narrowing Goms Valley, hanging beneath clouds, an uncharacteristically stormy chocolate box view.
The dog eventually stopped barking.
The cavernous hotel dining room was empty at dinner. Nonetheless, every one of 30 or so tables was perfectly set and the lone waiter impeccably turned out in a starched white shirt and bow tie.
The headwaters of the Rhone River flow from the glacier above Gletsch to Marseilles. Later that night, in the chilly air, with the window cracked in my room (no screens, no air conditioning), after throwing my mattress on the floor, I fell asleep contentedly to the gurgling sounds of the river flowing by.
The next morning, mountain guide Koni Hischer came with mischievous eyes, a long coil of rope and practically no English whatsoever. The first stop after a short ride up the mountain in a Swiss bus was the Ice Palace of the Rhone Glacier. This palace was a claustrophobic tunnel carved yearly out of the shifting glacier ice. It led to a small, ghostly, blue-ice room buried deep under the mountain. This is where shivering tourists may pay to have a photograph made with a posing bear. Thankfully, the bear was late for work that day.
I was relieved to be back outside. Glancing through wisps of cloud across two miles of rough ice, those in my group tried through gestures to make Koni understand we needed special footwear to manage the trek. But he only snorted something incomprehensible as he clipped eight of us, one-by-one, to his rope.
The only way across the glacier was by taking gingerly steps after the 60-year-old guide, whom we later discovered had been a member of the Swiss Olympic cross-country ski team 30 years earlier. Still spry, he yodeled and polka-stepped across the crusty ice, and we, lashed to him, followed meekly. His one concession to our insecurity was an ice ax. Occasionally he chipped out small footholds, but it was slippery out there and the sliding, mincing steps we took humored our guide to no end.
Did I say the Swiss have no sense of humor? Ha, ha, ha.
It was clearly a long way down to the Hotel Glacier du Rhone (it would take four hours to hike back), and I saw practically nothing horizontal between here and there to break the fall if one of us lost our footing. Each step was an adventure, and our laughter, I dare say, was more nervous than anything else. While we swayed and tottered breathlessly crossing a narrow ledge spanning a 200-foot-deep crevasse, Koni literally danced a jig on the precipice.
We could only improvise, creeping, skidding and literally inching along. This, we had been coolly reassured by our Swiss hosts, was an easy hike.
In hindsight, I recognize that the Swiss consider anything less than a blindfolded, three-legged assault on the Matterhorn easy. Realistically, there are no easy hikes in Switzerland. Every step I made there felt vertical.
The steep hike down the valley to the hotel followed a faint sheep trail. It was a far cry from the typically well-marked trails that traverse the Swiss Alps. We ate a picnic lunch of sausage and cheese in the company of a flock of sheep. We picked wild blueberries alongside the trail. The hot water in the claw-foot tub back in the hotel room worked miracles on my weary knees.
A singular experience? I yodeled contentedly to myself.
Steve Cohen is a freelance writer living in Durango, Colo.
If you go
Getting there: The best-known destinations in the Valais are probably the tony resorts at Zermatt, in the shadow of the Matterhorn and Verbier, but there are many worthwhile communities throughout the mountainous region. Some have historic appeal, such as Munster, Ernen or Binn. Others are modern resort districts, including Riederalp and Bettmeralp, or charming small cities, such as Sion, Fiesch or Brig.
All these places are connected by a reliable network of trains, buses and cable cars, as well as hiking trails, on which you generally can't go too far without seeing others.
Even on the highest mountain top, you are never very far from serviceable hotels, restaurants and a generally superior tourism infrastructure _ in short, a very refined product that makes foreign travel about as easy as it can possibly be. It's not inexpensive, but it is well organized, and it felt safe to me.
A guided hike across the Rhone Glacier costs around $25 per person. Other Alpine areas of the Valais region are good for self-guided walks; the region is covered with well-marked hiking trails, which are liberally used by many, many people _ from children just walking to the elderly barely walking, and everyone in between.
For transportation within Switzerland, a Swiss Pass is highly recommended. You pay a one-time fee, then you can travel virtually anywhere on trains, buses and cable cars. If you plan to do much moving around, even at around $400 weekly, it can save money over individually priced tickets.
Staying there: In summer, hotel rates in small, family-run hotels in the Valais are relative bargains, averaging $60 to $90 per person and including a hearty breakfast of breads, cheeses, cereals and yogurt. Other meals are expensive: A modest lunch of soup and sandwich easily averages $20, and a simple dinner will cost $35 and up.
Before you consider a trip to Switzerland, contact the helpful and organized Switzerland Tourism office closest by. For information call (212) 757-5944.