This 36-hour journey began when we arrived at Wildhaus Dorf, a small village at the foothills of the Swiss Appenzell Alps. It was a quiet, beautiful morning as we repacked our bags with a few more snacks from the local grocer. Before the hike, we got fresh spring water, which comes readily from the abundant fountains, located every few hundred meters in most Swiss towns. There’s something about getting drinking water straight from the mountain.
When we started to walk on the village roads, we could already feel the austerity of the steep grade. As we passed along hillside houses with cows and goats alike, we began to encounter the true trail, one that lead up a gully within the low mountain forest. Up and up the switchbacks we went. Until all of a sudden, we emerged into an opening with a vast rock wall straight ahead. It was magnificent and I could scarcely comprehend how massive the wall was, and of course how good the climb could be. But alas, I was here on a backpacking trip, not an alpine climb.
We encountered our last watering well in this valley before we trod upwards again. These switchbacks were much more pleasant than the first set, with further views of the valley within the canyon walls. Surrounded by giants, I was awestruck by its grandeur. Continually throughout these two days, I felt so blessed to be able to travel here and able-bodied to hike.
We gained about 3000 ft in elevation over the course of 4 miles by the time we arrived at the Zwinglipass hut (6558 ft). We took our time to get there, but without good sleep the night before, we were so tired, we ended up napping nonetheless. The hut was renovated in 2017 and was in pristine conditions – would definitely recommend a visit, especially when it is not crowded. We were given a 10-person room for just the 5 of us. Also, the toilet views were incredible. You could just sit and enjoy the alpine views through the window in privacy.
Post nap, we made a quick jaunt out towards one of the nearby ridges. Although we did not have enough sunlight or rain gear to make it out to Saxer Lücke, we got to one of the other plateaus with a 360 view of the area. One of them, the Churfirsten range, reminded me fondly of the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado.
In the morning we woke up to thick fog, that gently lifted up as we got ready to leave. In front of us was the giant wall of Altmann. The path took us directly up to a saddle point, another 1000 feet above the hut. This was the start of the rocky traverse. The closer we approached the next trail signage, the clearer I could see the knife-edge ridge. I could not tell how the path continued, but it had better not be the one with 1000-foot drop offs. At Altmannsattel, we were completely mesmerized by what laid around us, the hut below, the ridge line in front of us, and the next peak Säntis, another valley away.
We probably spent too much time soaking it in, but little did we know we would have 11 more miles to hike this day, plus a long downhill and uphill before Säntis. As we descended down the other side of the ridge, we quickly realized that the route can be via ferrata. Via ferrata means going by iron, where typically one would be harnessed and hooked up to the steel cable secured on rocks. However, we were reassured by other hikers who were climbing up without technical gear. The steel cables were sturdy and reassuring when we down-climbed another 700 feet, while enjoying views of the Fälensee valley. We also saw quite a few people going both ways, but props to the lady who was hiking this while pregnant!
At the next mountain saddle, Rotsteinpass, we took a short snack break. We could already see the treacherous trail up to Säntis. Begrudgingly having lost so much elevation during the via ferrata section, we climbed up once again another 1300 feet. Truly, this was a ridge line hike, where you could see far on both sides of the ridge. The beautiful bright green grass made for a pleasant hike and a refreshing color from the stark grey and brown rock. The views were spectacular, but we quickly got more uncomfortable. The further up we went, the windier it got. Definitely helped to bring layers, but one of our hikers had only brought a sweatshirt and shorts – brrrr.
For the less adventurous, one could take a gondola up to Säntis (8209 ft) where a large meteorological and tourism building sits. We ate our packed lunch there, but buying food is another option. One person in our group bought bread, croissants, and fries for about 16CHF, which is probably not worth it unless you absolutely had no food.
Time was ticking for us to leave Säntis and continue our descent to the Schwende villages. For a while, I could not see where the trail continued, since it did not go around the building. Even on my map, the trail went straight through the building, which seemed odd. So we went downstairs and found trail signs that pointed towards nowhere, except a door. And through the door was a stairwell, going down to who knew where.
But we had no other option but to follow the path to a tunnel beneath the building where we found another sign for the trail, giving us more confidence of where we were headed. At the end of the tunnel was the start to another big down climb with double steel cables running down the sides. Mind you, it was 35F on the thermometer we found, plus heavy wind. It was simply cold to the bone.
As we continued down, a nice gentleman warned us not to continue further, thinking we weren’t prepared. Perhaps he was right, but we had already gone up and down some fairly sketchy routes and had been doing fine. Granted, we did look like a mishmash group, with tennis shoes and book bags rather than the typical hiking gear. I am, however, grateful for my fellow companion’s lightheartedness and eagerness to continue hiking even though they didn’t know the technical difficulty of the hike. Having a good mentality, in addition to fitness, is key for endurance on a trail.
From here, we began a very long traverse under some warmth of the sun. Up and down we would go, switching from side to side of the ridge. As the sun started to set behind the mountains, we came upon an awesome landform: a large slab of rock jutting out from the earth. This was Altenalptürm. Frolicking in these fields filled me up with so much joy that I wouldn’t even think about the pain in my legs and feet. Well, not until I realized that the path had one finally uphill to another hut at Schäfler (6316 ft).
By this time, our energy and spirits were low, but we were surprised by the fairly pleasant walk down to Ebenalp, neither too steep nor too far, just a bit dim. As a slight detour from Ebenalp, we visited Wildkirchli. We had to visit since I had convinced my fellow hikers to come on this trip with the goal of visiting this cliff-side building. We past through the first turnstile on the trail and neared a dark cave. According to the GPS, the trail continued, but instinctually, this did not feel like a trail. Suddenly, the cave lit up with floor lights. Clearly a motion sensor. Feeling the adventurous spirit again, we followed the path down and it led us to an opening and then, Wildkirchli and the Berggasthaus Äscher were right before us. We made it finally, even in the dark.
Another hour and a half later, we found ourselves in the town of Weissbad enjoying fresh Swiss pizza at the local restaurant. I might say this was a pretty great way to end a long day. We’d gained 2800 feet in elevation, proceeded with a 6700-ft decline over 11 miles. As a bonus, in the morning, we were greeted by surprise the beautiful Swiss alpine village views. Since we got into town late at night, we had no idea what the countryside looked liked.
No trip comes short with adventures and memories. And I’m thankful that despite not knowing the exact trail conditions, these were filled with beautiful scenery and exciting climbs.