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Bad weather forces climbers to hit the 19th century tourist trail

The Alps Walk team takes the train to Chalet Montana

(swissinfo.ch)

The day marked a turning point in the expedition as the group was forced by the poor weather to abandon its high alpine adventure and take the low road through two centuries of tourism in Grindelwald.

The party arrived in the mist-enshrouded resort by train and headed off for the Chalet Montana, where the legendary climber and mountaineering historian, WAB Coolidge (see 19th century profiles), spent the last years of his life.

Les Swindin and Philip Martineau have been carrying a copy of his mountaineering guidebook during the expedition in order to get a sense of the changes to the alpine routes the group has been following.

The visit to the chalet prompted a lively discussion about Coolidge, who was equally despised and respected, as well as his aunt and his dog, Tchingel, who accompanied him in the mountains.

Befitting the man, the house is in a prominent position on a slope below the centre of the resort, offering wonderful views of the north face of the Eiger and the Wetterhorn. The next historic building, the Hotel Faulhorn, took five hours to reach along an old mule trail, which cut through alpine pastures, moors and pine trees.

"It's such a contrast from the past few days," said Alison Henry, who was struck by the constant ringing of the cowbells. "The landscape has probably changed little since the 19th century. The pastoral way of life has hardly been affected by mechanisation."

First mountain top hotel

The drizzle turned to a downpour, and the party began to focus simply on getting to the Hotel Faulhorn. The hotel was built in 1832, becoming the first mountain top hotel in Switzerland, and many of the rooms are still furnished as they were at the time.

Early tourists walked or rode mules up from Grindelwald, and "ladies", according to porter Lorenz Frutiger, "were sometimes carried up on chairs, probably by four men taking turns bearing the weight".

The tourists came up for the spectacular panoramic views of the mountains, as well as the sunrises and sunsets. Climbers came for similar reasons, said Philip Martineau.

"They didn't have the weather forecasts we have today," he said. "But they did know that it would take a couple of days for the snow to clear from the high mountains, so they might have come up for the wonderful views of the mountains or just to pass the time until they could climb again."

The rain turned to snow, obscuring the hotel's prominent position on the summit of the Faulhorn. Once they arrived at the hotel, the members put on dry clothes, ordered hot drinks and made themselves at home. "The tourists came up here for their health," said Les Swindin.

Martineau unfolded his modern map and tried to find out if routes described by Coolidge still existed. The guides told jokes in Swiss-German and snorted snuff, trying with only limited success to get their "employers" to join them.

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