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Stechelberg: The Alps of the Alps

Stechelberg: The Alps of the Alps

Sep 12, 2013

It’s been an incredible summer. Our gang of trail runners has explored areas far and wide in the Swiss Alps. We’ve run through the Engadine. Around the UNESCO Jungfrau-Aletsch World Heritage site. Along the peaks that mark Switzerland’s alpine border with France and Italy. We’ve run in some of the most famous trail races in the world… and in small village events up to the local Swiss Alpine Club hut.

Often, though, the moment we thought we started to think we had a reasonably complete understanding of an area, we’d turned a corner  discover something totally new. And that’s exactly what happened with Stechelberg–ten times over.

Looking down on Stechelberg, towards Lauterbrunnen.
Looking down on Stechelberg, towards Lauterbrunnen.

The area immediately around Stechelberg is some of the most famous mountain terrain in all of Europe. The Jungfrau, Mönch and the legend-filled North Wall of the Eiger. The towns of Grindelwald, Murren and Interlaken. The Schilthorn, home to scenes from the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And, Lauterbrunnen valley, certainly one of the most-photographed areas in the entire country. The town’s vertical topography makes it a European version of Yosemite valley. Sheer cliff walls and cascading waterfalls enclose a narrow, flat valley floor. In the air, there are enough parapenters to give a Chicago air traffic controller a migraine. Their casual meanderings are punctuated by more daring alpine aviators, dive-bombing through the skies with nothing more than a squirrel suit. (Check it out—it’s worth this diversion. Skip to 2:05 in the video.)

We had known about Grindelwald, Mürren and Lauterbrunnen, of course. Beautiful…. But busy. Great for many folks, but we’ve been in search of something a little different. Places out of reach of tour buses disgorging their masses.

Sharing this sentiment with Dan and Janine Patitucci earlier this year, they tossed each other a knowing glance, and uttered one word: Stechelberg.

Tips have come from all sources and have pointed us in every direction of the compass. Some have dubious origins, others are from trusted authorities and should be explored, no matter what. Anything from Dan and Janine falls into the latter category. Worldwide adventurers with an easy, warm manner, I immediately felt among friends when our paths first crossed, last years.

And so, months later, we found ourselves in a town of 200 inhabitants, amid some of the greatest peaks in the world, but hidden from postcard shops, imitation cowbells and Swiss flag t-shirts. A village in which avalanche shelters replace bus stops, where arriving on the tram for school or work is just part of the daily routine, and to see the surrounding peaks you need to look up… then up some more… then a bit more again. Until your neck hurts.  Seriously.

Some towns have bus stops for their kids.  Stechelberg has avalanche shelters.
Some towns have bus stops for their kids. Stechelberg has avalanche shelters.

This place is sheer, unadulterated trail running Heaven—if you arrive with a base of vertical training. The first 45 minutes is up– either as a slow run or a fast hike. (Though a tram ride can obviate that cardiac challenge. Switzerland is all about mountain infrastructure, after all.) Then, you’re rewarded–in spades. . The high Alp village of Gimmelwald (pop: 130)Too big for you? Head up to Gimmela (pop: not even the Internet knows). Runs amid dark conifer forests, past ancient chalets, and along glacial streams that come right from the pages of Frankenstein.

The technical word for it is “rehydration.” The Run the Alps crew takes a break at Rotstockhütte.

Ready for a break? Follow the signs for the Rotstockhütte, run by the local Stechelberg ski club. Or the Berghaus Obersteinberg. Or even all the way up to Schmadrihütte, any one of which will have a warm bowl of milchkaffee and  a fresh tart in front of you within minutes.

We’ll be regular visitors here. With many of our friends, we hope. In the meantime, though, our visit to Stechelberg serves as a reminder: It’s always worth exploring around the corner. Or, in this case, up the end of a valley.

Looking at the view in most of Switzerland. And…
Looking at the view in Stechelberg!
Doug Mayer
Doug Mayer is the founder of Run the Alps and lives in Chamonix, France with his labradoodle, Izzy. He is the author of The Race that Changed Running: The Inside Story of UTMB and writes for Outside Online and Ultrasignup News. His upcoming book is a graphic novel about Italy’s 330km long Tor des Géants trail race.