Astride our mountain bikes, the five of us zoom down the switchbacks below 6,500-foot Grimsel Pass on an adrenalin-rush 4,000 foot descent over just 10 miles. I stay tucked in behind Ruedi, our leader and a Swiss bicycle guide, as we flash through tunnels, weave through s-curves, and brake hard to negotiate hairpin turns. When I risk a peek down at the speedometer on my handlebars while going flat out on one of the short straightaways, I was impressed to see it registering 56 kilometers per hour. The grade is steep, and we are smoking.
It is early morning, just after sunrise, so there is little traffic on the twisting mountain highway. Fortunately, Swiss drivers are chill when it comes to bicyclists. The motorists who are on the road that early hang back a polite distance until they get a clear chance to pass, then they punch it big time to blow by you in a few seconds.
The high speed bicycle descent covered the entire distance in only 25 minutes. As Ruedi and I finally pulled up in the valley bottom near the legendary Aare Gorge, a famous landmark in the region, we were followed in succession by Hao, from Bejing, Gregor, the Pole, and Ilan, the Israeli, and Jose, the Brazilian. We were an international group of adventure journalists who had come to follow the waters of the river Aare from its source high in the Swiss Alps all the way down into Bern, the capitol city of Switzerland. Our little band would climb, hike, bike and raft our way from the mountains of Switzerland to two of its most interesting cities--Thun and Bern--with a little help from the Swiss rail system.
Trying to make the most of each minute in the mountains, we dismounted our bikes and began the two kilometer hike through the Aare Gorge, located in the valley of Hasli. The normally turquoise waters of the Aare are roiled into white-water torrents here, where the canyon narrows so much in places one can touch both sides at once, and the rim is more than 500 feet above. For a century, hikers have been able to walk through the length of the gorge thanks to a series of engineered walkways built just above the level of the river for the entire distance. Here, the Aare shows a violent side to its personality.
The depth and confines of the gorge came as a surprise, but we had been seeing similar surprises since our trip began two days ago in Zurich. We immediately traveled to the Alps via train and postal bus to our base in the Grimsel area. We started our journey along the river at the Oberaargletscher, at 7,500 feet, the glacier that forms the very headwaters of the Aare. Like others around the planet, many of the glaciers in the Alps are in retreat, due to climate change. But here in the area of Grimsel Pass, the altitude and depth of the ice mean that the glaciers are relatively healthy. In fact, so much water from snowmelt and glaciers descends into the Aare in this valley, that an elaborate network of tunnels, reservoirs and damns has been built to generate electricity through hydro power.
Unlike some countries, the practical Swiss don't fence off these facilities, but use the infrastructure to increase recreational access and provide adventure. The Swiss company that runs the generating plants, KWO, even operates a network of inns and mountain hotels. Our group started at Berghaus Oberaar, not far from the Oberaargletscher glacier itself, an informal mountain inn with a restaurant that serves traditional Swiss cuisine. From there, we descended a thousand feet to Grimselsee, a large reservoir, and its landmark Grimsel Hospiz.
Since 1142--the Swiss culture is an old one--there has been a guest house at this location, and the current imposing stone edifice has been renovated into a modern, comfortable mountain lodge. The hotel is heated by waste heat from the hydroelectric plants nearby, a fact that comes in handy in winter when you're up this high. You can even use a self serve cable car system, built to allow employees at the plants access in winter, to travel between the Berghaus Oberaar and the Grimsel Hospiz. Just summon the car with the push of a button, and use your electronic ticket to begin the ride.
The historic Hospiz, perched high near the top of the pass above the scenic Grimselsee, came as another surprise. No rustic mountain inn, the Hospiz features large and comfortable rooms, fine dining, in the Swiss tradition, and an impressive cellar of wines. But it's the location that makes the Hospiz so appealing as a base for adventuring, with unparalleled alpine hiking and climbing and biking in every direction. The expansive patio with its dramatic views makes a pleasant place to have a beer and enjoy the scenery after a day in the nearby Grimselwelt Mountains, in the very heart of Switzerland, between the Grimsel and Susten passes. Here is an uncrowded yet spectacular range of mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that offers backcountry challenge in abundance, but with a civilized flair.
From Grimsel Hospiz, we were well positioned for the steep hike up to Gelmersee, a lake tucked beneath the local mountains, including the 8,000 foot Gelmerhorn and the even higher peak, Schoibhoren. The water here has the familiar turquoise color, from glacial silt, that characterizes the river as it descends from the peaks. The half day hike up to the lake, and then a complete circumnavigation of it, ends with another unexpected surprise: the descent is made not on the trail, but via the steepest funicular in Europe. The odd contraption--a small carriage on a cable that follows a set of rails--descends down the mountainsides at a terrifying 106 per cent grade. It’s another example of how the Swiss use the machinery that serves the KWO hydroelectric plants to serve adventurers as well. The funicular puts you out in the dramatic Handeck Gorge, which is spanned by a swaying suspension bridge more than 200 feet above the river below. This is not true wilderness, but the Grimselwelt makes for invigorating, appealing outdoor adventure in many flavors. (See Brazilian journalist Jose Antonio Ramalho's 90 second video illustrating some of the highlights of the region.)
The Swiss are famous for their efficient rail system, and our international band of journalists found it a great way to connect the dots on our adventure down the Aare. At the end of our hike through the Aare Gorge, for instance, we boarded one of the frequent trains for the short ride to the town of Interlaken and the beginning of yet another famous Swiss hiking route: the St. James pilgrimage trail. The “Way of St. James” extends from all corners of Europe on its way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and throughout the continent, localities have tried to restore these ancient routes. In Switzerland the success is near complete. Here, the Way of St. James is known as Jakobsweg or Via Jacobi, and it dates from the early Middle Ages.
Today the original path has been restored throughout the country, part of which follows the shore of Lake Thun for five miles. The expansive turquoise lake, with the mountains of the Bernese Oberland providing a quintessential Swiss backdrop, is full of pleasure boats and water taxis, some still using paddlewheels for progress. After a half day of hiking, our group boarded one of the comfortable water taxis for the final two hour run into the town of Thun, where the city center boasts castles and narrow streets that date back to the 12th century. Typical of many Swiss cities, it was easy to get around on foot, and our hotel was a five minute walk from the boat dock.
As we strolled the medieval streets, it was clear that now we were well and truly out of the Alps and into more urban Switzerland. But the adventure wasn't over. Just a short walk from the hotel near where the river Aare flows from Lake Thun, we arrived at the put-in place for rafting the river. The half day float from the city of Thun to the city of Bern on the vibrantly colored waters of the Aare is one of the most popular raft trips in all of Switzerland. Rare 30 degree Celsius weather had the Swiss people out in droves to enjoy the summer weather, and we followed suit.
The rafting was mellow, but with enough white water to keep the paddling interesting. The major rapid, we had been warned, was under the second bridge. "Stay right, way right," we had been warned by the river guide, "and whatever you do, do not go left of the big rock!" The biggest standing wave washed over us in a cooling torrent, and on we went atop the turquoise waters into calmer stretches. We drifted lazily down a quiet section of river, often chatting with Swiss people out enjoying the weather in other rafts. Rafting the Aare on a hot day is a great way to make Swiss friends.
The take out in Bern came at the edge of a city park, where our guide was waiting to pick up the raft. Once again, an easy tram ride into the middle of the city put us just minutes from our hotel. This is Switzerland's capitol, and it is civilized as only the Swiss can be. Covered arcades line most of the major streets, creating six kilometers of what the locals call "lauben," forming the longest weather-protected promenades in Europe. The old town of Bern is a World Heritage Cultural Site, and Bern includes everything from the Houses of Parliament buildings to the house where Albert Einsten developed the Theory of Relativity. There is much to explore in Bern.
But even here, in the midst of this important Swiss city, the Aare still rules. The river, still turquoise from its birthplace in the Alps, makes a huge oxbow bend that embraces the city of Bern on three sides. From the Rose Garden--Rosengarten to the Bernese--perched high on the hills above the old city, the turquoise "Aare Loop" can be seen flowing through town. The river defines the city, providing not just drinking water, but respite from the summer heat, and long promenades along its shore lined with casual restaurants. It is the backdrop to everything. To follow the Aare from its source to the capitol city provides an insight into Switzerland and the Swiss culture that can be gained no other way.