Surenen Pass

Posted on: 18 Sep 2015

Still trying to get caught up..............

Tuesday 25th August: a visit to the pool to iron out the last of the post-Rothenburg stiffness. 1km aqua jogging in 59:40, plus another 4 lengths cool-down - just fitted it in before my lane was invaded by a horde of schoolchildren.

Saturday 29th August: this was the official 'Oggie Run' day, with heroic deeds being perfomed in various locations - notably between London and Cambridge! For me it was a working day, so I wore red for my walk there and back. In the evening I had a short canter round the woods (6 kms, 54 minutes); I did contemplate wearing my one and only red shirt, but it has long sleeves and would have been too hot (another 30+° day), so I wore a sleeveless top instead. (It was white, commanding 'Enjoy your run' in emphatic purple........... and I did, quite.) A very weak contender in the heroism stakes.......... but more was planned for the following 2 days.

The Surenen Pass, between the Kantons of Uri and Obwalden, had been on our wish list for a long time. It's possible to do it in one day, but as we had two at our disposal, I thought it would be nice to stop overnight at a mountain hut. A bit of research on the internet came up with a couple of possibilities, and with accommodation reserved and rucksacks packed, we set off for Engelberg. The route is generally described from west to east, from Attinghausen to Engelberg - we later discovered why - but with our 'B&B' situated nearer the latter, it seemed to make sense to start from that end, and have the whole of the next day free for the longer part of the route, including the pass itself.

Train to Engelberg. There was supposed to be a bus to Fürenalp, the beginning of the walk proper, but we couldn't find it, and after some fruitless wandering about and studying the thickets of yellow signposts (not one of which mentioned Fürenalp), we gave up and struck out across the town centre in the general direction the map indicated. It was another scorcher of a day (33°), and I felt a bit disgruntled that the plan had come unstuck so soon! But before long, we left the hot streets for a footpath along the tree-shaded river, and good mood was restored. Another short stretch of road was briskly dealt with, and before long we reached the lower station of the Fürenalp cablecar. Here we had a choice: to carry on walking up the valley to Stäfeli (our accommodation); or to get the cablecar up, and approach it from above. A purist would probably have done the former, but in view of the temperature, we (well, I) opted for the latter. A spectacular ride, high over the valley floor, and across some formidable crags. Arriving at the upper station, with its attached restaurant and terrace, we heard the sound of accordians, and emerged to find they were having a 'Jodlerfest' that day - a traditional music festival, plus special menu. This seemed rather jolly! - so we found a free table, ordered pumpkin soup and something to drink, and enjoyed the entertainment for a while. While we were there, there were two women in 'Trachten' - traditional costume - yodelling and accompanying themselves on accordions, and they were really good. (It's a myth that only men yodel - plenty of women do too.) This is not some tourist hokum, it's genuine Swiss culture, done for themselves, and it seemed lucky that we had arrived on just the right day to share in it. From here we had about another 40 minutes to walk, along a hillside, then zigzagging down to the top station of the cablecar down to Stäfeli.

'Mountain hut' does it a disservice; but 'hotel' would be erring too far in the other direction. It's basically a simple restaurant (one small room) with a few tables and chairs outside, and an adjoining building with mostly communal sleeping rooms, a couple of toilets, and basic washing facilities. The one double room was not free, but we had been assigned a 3-bed room. We hoped no-one else would need the other bed. (No-one did.) It's only open in summer - from May till October - the family living and cheese-making in the farm next door. I love places like this, so simple and peaceful. This one served the most wonderful Rösti too! We ate outside, watching the evening sunlight retreat across the hillside opposite (a lovely Segantini-ish light), putting on extra clothes as it turned chilly towards dusk. J. decided to go for a short walk after our meal, while I took the torch we'd been given and adjourned to our little wood-panelled room (there was no electricity - just that provided by solar panels for the kitchen and restaurant), read for a while by torchlight, then snuggled down into my bed. It was only half past eight! - but somehow I relished the simplicity of the situation. No television, no computer......... nothing to do but sleep. J. came back soon after - he'd been as far as the waterfall we would pass the next day. I slept well, just waking up once, to find moonlight streaming in through the little window. A bit hot, I got up and stood by it for a couple of minutes, looking out at the dark shoulder of mountain hunched against the paler sky, the moon hanging serene and distant above it, and feeling utterly at peace with the world.

So comfortable was the bed, the planned 7 o'clock get-up was nearer 8 by the time we finally emerged and went over to the restaurant for breakfast. (We were not the last, however.) Muesli, bread and jam, their own cheese and yoghurt, and excellent coffee - simple but good. Packing, red shirt on, a couple of photos (Stäfeli had very pretty flowers), and I was ready for the day's adventure.


First stop: the Stäuber waterfall. A couple of photos, then onwards. As our path joined the higher-level one from Fürenalp, we encountered a nun; and soon after, a runner heading the opposite way. The views became ever more spectacular as the shadows cleared from the valley. The morning coolness was evaporating fast, so about 3 kms into the walk, it was time to say goodbye to the red shirt.

Off with the shirt, on with the sun cream!

At Blackenalp, a little white chapel came into view. I was sure it must be another 'St Jost', since he seems to be the patron saint of little white chapels in the middle of nowhere (as I once remarked audibly by another one, to the great amusement of an American who overheard) - but no, apparently it is dedicated to St Antonius and St Wendelin.

Another brief stop to zip off the trouser legs and refill the water bottle at a trough, then onwards once more. We caught up with and passed a school party, then a group of mountain bikers, one of whom was carrying his bike on his shoulders. By now the path was climbing in earnest, the midday sun was hot, and I was feeling the altitude - it was hard work! But finally the most amazing vista opened out ahead of us - we had reached the pass: 2,291 m (or 7,516 ft, in old money - though admittedly we hadn't exactly started at sea level, so not quite as impressive as it sounds!)

A cold beer would have been very welcome, but we had to make do with water.


Looking back.........


......and ahead.

We sat on the pass for maybe half an hour, sharing it with the mountain bikers, a few other walkers, and a colony of choughs wheeling about, scavenging for picnic offerings. We threw them a bit of pear and banana, but they didn't seem greatly impressed.) 

With the arrival of the exuberant school party, it felt like a good time to leave, so we set off down the other side. Having watched in disbelief as some of the mountain bikers raced off down the path, which was twisty and rubbly and very steep, we began to inch our way down in their wake. Now it was clear why the guides all recommended doing the walk in the opposite direction. It was really tricky, and extremely slow. We met a very laden Frenchman coming up (a truly enormous rucksack), who asked wearily how much further it was to the top; about 20 minutes, we were able to tell him, 'and the other side is easier.' Almost down the steepest part, and feeling quite self-congratulatory on having negotiated it okay, I suddenly lost my footing on some slithery loose stones (actually on a relatively easy bit of path, to my annoyance) and fell, landing - wouldn't you know it! - on a thistle. No grazes, no cuts, just the tiniest of scratches on my arm, but a hand full of spines, which burned and stung furiously. Luckily we reached a little stream soon after, where I was able to scrape and wash most of them out, continuing with a pleasantly numbed hand (though I was still finding ones I'd missed for another couple of days.) We skirted round the edge of a snowfield at the appropriately-named Langschnee ('Long snow') - lucky that the summer had been so hot, or there would have been much more - and crossed an area of natural rock garden. There was no soil, just rocky rubble, yet it was home to an amazing array of plants. There was one kind I found particularly enchanting - very small flowers in a sort of micro-snapdragon/toadflax form, in an astonishing harlequin combination of orange and purple. A tiny plant with a big ego! I've seen them before, but haven't been able to find out what they're called.

Having spent so much time going down, the path then proceeded to go up again! And down.......... and up a bit.......... and down again, continuing to tease us. Over to the left and far below, the lake came into view.

Looking back to the pass

We made our way along a high spine of land between two valleys, finally descending what seemed to be the definitive downhill towards the finish. With time to spare, we stopped off for another snack before we got there (a day-old cheese sandwich, a rather squashed tomato........), sitting on a bank at the side of the path. There was one last sting in the tail, as the path climbed up and over a steep crag, comfortingly edged with cable handrails, before descending for good. Civilization came into view, in the form of the restaurant at Brüsti, and the cablecar station beyond it. The dreamed-of cold beer soon became a reality; then the final bit of the walk, down the hill to the cablecar, where some of the mountain bikers were also waiting. The school party also began to arrive, and one of the teachers helpfully looked up bus times for us. I'm glad we took the cablecar down - it would have been a long walk, all downhill, and my knees would not have thanked me for more! The bus was waiting at the bottom in Attinghausen; it took us to the next village, Schattdorf, where we had to get off and sprint across the road to catch a connection to Altdorf; then a third and final bus all the way back to Luzern. This was the 'Tell Bus' service - a double decker, so we sat upstairs at the front, which I always enjoy. Descending the stairs at the end was 'interesting' though, having stiffened up with sitting.

So.......... another classic ticked off the list, and lovely it was. Not all that long (about 7 kms the first day, 13 the second), but still an achievement. The impressions will be with me for a long time.

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