Via Alpina, Day 5: Altdorf – Engelberg

We make extensive use of the hotel’s breakfast buffet. I eat a croissant, two small sandwiches with ham, some oatmeal and dried fruit. We’re not focussing on the calories, because today we need all the energy we can possibly take in! In total we have to climb 1900 meters and descend another 1200. According to our topoguide, the altimeters account for 10.5 hours of hiking in one go, without breaks.

Around 8 a.m. we check out and we walk out of Altdorf through an adjacent village. For the time being the track is still flat. Perfect to slowly warm up our muscles. The real work starts at the bottom of a cable car. We see two hikers with large backpacks get into a cabin of the cable car. That’s one way of getting on top of the mountain, of course … But we go for the real drops of sweat. And those drops of sweat are soon to follow. Under a radiant sky we climb over a centuries-old path that has been created by hand. Wilhelm Tell might even have gallopped on his horse on this exact trail. Wilhelm Tell isn’t born far from here, so that idea isn’t even that absurd at all… The path has been digged somewhat deeper into the landscape and there are walls built on both sides. It looks a bit like we’re climbing up a big trench. Without the dark context of war, because everything here is peace and quiet.

After having climbed for about two hours, it’s clear that it wasn’t a good idea of me to carry only one liter of water. In the past few days we have run into a river every five kilometers to refill our drinking bottles. I thought it was a super smart idea of myself to save some weight on this enduring hiking day to only take one liter with me. But I must be cursed, since today of course we don’t encounter any rivers at all… I try to ration as well as possible and aim on the village of Brüsti to find some water. The thing is however, we only get to that village after 1000 meters of climbing.


Fortunately, my patience is not put to the test that long. The moment my tongue is completely stuck to my palate, we suddenly – against all odds – stumble upon a source along the road! I kiss the source – honestly – with joy. We drink as much as we can from the wonderfully fresh water and fill our bottles up to the top. It gives me a huge energy boost, so we arrive in no time in Brüsti. We walk a bit further up the mountain and arrive at a “super de luxe” picnic area, where even a incredibly clean toilet can be found in a wooden hut! It’s around noon, so we don’t hesitate for a second to picnic here. Today, bread with canned fish and Swiss cheese is on the menu.

In the distance we have a view of the Serenenpass, which is still buried under a thick layer of snow. Without admitting it to each other, our hearts shrink for a moment. Have we done well to leave our crampons at home …? After all, it looks pretty tricky. That the sun occasionally pierces holes through the cloud cover, does play in our favor. With a bit of luck these sunbeams make the snow soft enough to pass the slopes without any problems.

The worries quickly disappear when we travel on narrow paths at high altitudes. This is Switzerland at its best! I almost trip over my own feet, while I want to take in the whole landscape on my left, right, front, back, above and below me. I am lost for words. A feeling of great gratitude overtakes me. Gratitude because we are allowed to live on such a beautiful planet.  I wish more people would handle our planet earth with the respect it truly deserves …

The snowy saddle of the Serenenpas comes closer and closer. From a slightly lower pass, which we reach via an almost perpendicular path, we get a view of the route that we have to follow to the top. From this perspective it looks pretty treacherous. A mysterious fog hangs an ominous veil over the mountain tops to our right.

While we imagine ourselves in the setting of a “Lord of the Rings” movie, we cautiously make our way up. I meticulously aim my feet on wobbling boulders that seem to have just rolled down. The rubble changes into snow. Wim is leading the way up on the steep mountainside. The snow is soft and we are able to walk faster than expected. We can make tiny stairs with our feet and everything feels reasonably stable.

When we almost reach the top, we suddenly have to find an alternative route again, because the snow passage has melted too fiercely and is no longer safe. Wim quickly finds another possibility. We clamber our way down the dangerous part and manage to get back on the route again. When the last snow passage comes into view, I realize that we have overcome our next mountain pass!

In full euphoria we climb to the highest point of the mountain, which is barely three square meters large. I sit on the top and let my legs dangle over the rock wall. Black birds circle around the top and fly past us.

Time stops. I immediately feel that this is one of those moments on our journey that I will remember for the rest of my life. How magical it is to stand on this rugged mountain … How great is our world … And how tiny am I … Suddenly I see everything into perspective. And however small I am, however insignificant I am compared to this mountain … I feel fan-tas-tic!

When we start the descent I am still in a daze. I can barely feel the raindrops falling down on my skin. Wim also doesn’t care all too much. So neither of us takes the effort to put on our raincoat.

We set a strong pace, but are occasionally called a halt, when the stunning nature obliges us to take enough time to absorb all its splendor.


Narrow rocky paths lead us to an undulating green plateau. A winding river makes the whole a true fairytale landscape. The rain clouds leave just enough space to allow one light beam to pass through, which illuminates our path some meters ahead of us. A few centuries ago this phenomenon would have been called the descent of God. What I think has actually happened too, because on one of the green hills on the plateau a chapel has been built in the middle of nowhere.

On the way we pass two huts, but we don’t let ourselves be tempted to put up camp. We have set our sights to Engelberg, and we are determined to arrive there tonight.

A good hour before we actually arrive in Engelberg, our route is interrupted. The path is washed away by an avalanche. Snapped trees on the slope are still silent witnesses of what must have happened here a few months ago. Strangely enough, the fallen trees are facing with their crowns upwards on the slope. Later on we will be told that this is because the avalanche actually originated on the opposite mountainside. But it was so intense that the avalanche was blown up over the valley against the other mountain slope on which we are now walking. And that is why the trees lie, as it were, the other way around … I can’t imagine the power that avalanche must have had. I just hope that nobody stood on this spot when it happened …

When we return to the civilized world, we end up on a movie set again. Not the “Lord of the Rings” one this time, but that of a western. And literally then, because the horses, coaches and actors are all around. Painted wooden panels must represent real saloons. And although it looks very fake to us in 3D, I can imagine that it will not miss its effect on screen. Past a golf course there’s still two kilometers left to the campsite, where we have booked a spot in the grass field. Once we arrive there, we are amazed by the luxury that the campsite radiates. There is a swimming pool and even a wellness center. Unfortunately, we are too late to make use of it. But we are already happy with the camping shop and the bar, where we unabashedly enjoy a fresh beer with our shoes off.

With the ingredients that I have gathered in the shop, I put some pasta bolognaise with fresh peppers and sausage on our little picnic table. It may not sound very special, but if you know that we usually eat canned food or freeze-dried meals on a trek, our taste buds make it very convincing that this pasta is of an exceptional culinary level. Several people from a motor club wish us a pleasant meal. Apparently tomorrow there will be a “Gold Wing” meeting and therefore the campsite will be fully booked by this motorcycle club. How lucky we are we didn’t arrive a day later.

While Wim is slowly but surely finding his way to dreamland, I wonder if we realize enough how unique it is that we can  do this all as a couple. How valuable is it to be able to share this passion with each other? On a trek like this, you as a person both physically and mentally go to extremes. No secrets, no masks. You are who you are. What you see is what you get. In all your highs, but especially also your lows. There is no one who knows me better than Wim. He has seen the Leen with her hands up in the air, on top of countless mountain peaks, euphoric and full of energy. But he also saw the Leen without make-up, not showered for days, with tears in her eyes, puffing and panting while giving up hope. And whether it was high or low, euphoric or sad … Never have I stood alone. This … we do together. This … is our passion. This … is us!

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