Exploring The Home of Adventure
A Journey through Switzerland’s Alpes vaudoises & Lake Geneva Regions
Written by Anke Eberhardt // Photography: Johny Cook // Film: Summit Fever Media
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism
Sometimes you have to begin at the end. In this case: at the summit of Pointe de Cray, above Château-d’Œx, surrounded by countless peaks, bathing in the last beams of sun on a warm September day.
‘I used to climb these mountains,’ the old man at the Alpine hut had said on our way up. He had built the cabin with his own hands, and the big terrace still serves him a view of the summits that he no longer climbs. From his wooden bench, he was able to name all the mountains around him. And now, two hours of hiking later, at the Pointe de Cray, I sit down on the grass in awe of the peaks around me. We hadn’t even planned to come up here, but as the sun dips below the horizon in colours too beautiful to describe, this sunset is the all-embracing culmination of our last four days in the Alpes vaudoises, part of the Lake Geneva region.
Was it really just four days ago that we arrived in Switzerland’s south-westernmost region? The area is well known for its lake of the same name. Lake Geneva – or Lac Léman, as the French-speaking locals call it – is the biggest lake in both Switzerland and France. And it isn’t the only superlative at home in this region; Mike Horn, who some (or, well, many) consider the world’s greatest living adventurer, lives here. The South African-born man, who followed the Amazon River 7,000km from its source in the Peruvian Andes to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean and circumnavigated the world via the Arctic Circle, now lives in Château-d’Œx, a picture-perfect Alpine village right at the bottom of Pointe de Cray. Here, between wooden chalets and browsing cows, time stands still.
As the Hongrin River, situated between the Pays-d’Enhaut and the Col des Mosses, carries us along its rapid stream, time flies by. Throughout the centuries, the ice-cold waters in this gorge have polished the once-rough stones into smooth slides, and we let our bodies glide from one natural pool to another. They are so deep that you can jump from up to 7m down into the stream… if you dare. For us foreigners, it’s impossible to judge if a spot is safe to plunge into, so we have to trust our guide. Guillaume seems to be in his natural habitat; diving between fallen logs and leaping off ledges looks effortless for him. So we mute our survival instincts and jump. Hurtling through the air, my heart stands still for a second before I plunge into the stream.
The water is brisk and clear – the sun only peeks down to the canyon every once in a while – but our wetsuits build an alliance with our adrenaline to keep us warm. This might be how Mike Horn goes to the supermarket, but for us, it’s the taste of adventure that we were seeking: trying new things, testing our boundaries, and getting out of our comfort zone.
For me, that comfort zone ends at roughly 30m above the ground. I’m standing on a small metal hook, no thicker than my finger, bolted into the cliffs above Leysin. In the 1900s, the village was a popular climatic spa due to its sunny south-facing location and the clean mountain air. But right now, on the via ferrata Plan Praz, the air is a little thin for me.
‘Have you done this before?’ professional climber Fabian asks while he hops effortlessly from one metal hook to the other.
Hell no! my brain thinks while my mouth replies: ‘Not like this, no.’ I’ve climbed ladders in the mountains here and there, and used ropes to cross narrow trails along steep gradients on occasion. But this via ferrata only consists of beams, rope bridges, walkways, and ladders. There’s not a single normal step to be made, which seems even more surreal as the gondolas hover above our heads, bringing tourists up the hill to the Berneuse and its Kuklos revolving restaurant, while I’m trying not to tremble in my harness.
OK. You got this. Trust the buckle. Watch your step. Keep your balance. Stay focused. And, to my surprise, the further we make our way along the rocks the more I start to enjoy the height, the view, the growing confidence in my toes and fingertips.
‘I see fear quite often in a beginner’s face,’ Fabian recounts while leaning back against the karabiner and literally hanging out, ‘but these people are even more happy when they make it to the top.’ When my soles finally touch solid ground, I’m not happy – I’m the queen of the world! Or at least the queen of Leysin. Mike Horn might have traversed the South American continent, but I completed the Plan Praz via ferrata. Of course, a huge accomplishment for one person is a walk in the park for another. But adventure shouldn’t only be judged by objective accomplishment. Instead, its subjective nature gives it yet more dimensions.
When Ariane gently carries me through the meadows below Leysin, I’m as comfy in my zone as I can be – in contrast to the film and photo crew, who keep a sceptical distance. I have been riding horses since I was a little girl, but the men behind the cameras prefer not to come too close to the dark brown mare.
‘Can you make it turn around again?’ they ask, assuming that horses could be difficult to manoeuvre. To be fair, when Ariane and I start galloping along the trail for the first time, my pulse is pumping. I’ve never ridden this horse before, so I don’t know if she gets easily scared by noises or how she’ll react if a mountain biker suddenly appears behind the next corner. Horses are flighty animals and every horse has a different personality, just like we humans. Speeding down a gravel path on a horse you’ve never ridden before might seem more reckless to a lot of people than climbing a via ferrata, but, to me, it feels natural to adapt to the rhythm of the hoof beat, and my doubts disappear as I feel Ariane’s joy when she starts a race with her gelding friend.
The Swiss mountains have something wild and untamed to them – something that separates them from other ranges. Those who seek real challenges can find them around every corner.
The surroundings are too impressive to speed past. We slow down and let the horses snort contentedly. Right next to us, herds of sheep graze in the green fields, and majestic mountains surround the scene in every direction. There are few places where you can explore Alpine terrain on a horse like in Switzerland, and from the saddle we can already spot the location for our next adventure – as if it was only a hoof step away.
‘Watch your step,’ reminds Guido Guidetti (whose name must have predetermined his profession to be a guide) while I follow the rope that connects my harness to his. It would be more accurate to say that I watch his step, though, as I put my boots precisely in his tracks in the knee-deep snow to avoid sinking in even more. Just an hour ago, we had stepped out of the gondola to Scex Rouge at 2,971m. Now we’re past 3,000m, walking along a gigantic snow cornice towards Les Diablerets (‘The Devil’s Horns’), the peak that gave the well-known ski resort its name. Guido guides all over the world, including 25 expeditions on Kilimanjaro, but this glacier is home to him.
As I plunge my ice axe into the snow, rhythmically complementing my steps – breath, axe, step, breath, axe, step – I understand why such a well-travelled explorer as Mike Horn would choose the Lake Geneva region. The Swiss mountains have something wild and untamed to them – something that separates them from other ranges. Those who seek real challenges can find them around every corner. And alpinism aside, the cute wooden houses and delicious food are almost unreal.
As if Guido has guessed my thought, he pulls a little bag out of his pocket and hands me a piece of L’Etivaz AOP. ‘This is a very special cheese of the Alpes vaudoises,’ he explains. ‘The cows are only allowed to eat the fresh green grass and the wild herbs and flowers of the meadows above 1,000m. And the cheese has to be made in a copper cauldron over an open wood fire.’ L’Etivaz AOP has been making cheese like this for more than 100 years, and only pasturers who can fulfil the tradition’s rules are allowed to use the name. From up here on the white cornice, far away, down in the green, we can see Alpage du Col de la Croix, an Alpine farm where L’Etivaz AOP is made. Although I’ve never tried this cheese before, I can definitely declare that it never tastes better than eaten off an ice axe above 3,000m altitude.
When my cleats click into the pedals of my gravel bike, I feel at home again. Even more than a horse saddle, the bike saddle is my comfort zone. But unfortunately, compared to Alain, I’m a rookie. He used to be a professional cyclist, worked with the International Cycling Union, and climbs even faster than the mountain goats that greet us along the way. ‘I used to ride road bikes,’ he tells me without losing his breath while going uphill towards the Col de la Croix – a pass connecting Villars to Les Diablerets that has been featured in the Tour de France several times, and is well known in the cycling world. ‘But lately I started exploring the gravel roads around Villars and I love to discover new routes.’ Indeed: a winding trail to the right, a forest road to the left, a steep gravel climb over here, a fast tarmac descent over there – the options seem unlimited. Just like all the other activities we’ve sampled and witnessed, this region seems to be created for adventure.
Sometimes you have to end at the beginning. And now, as I sit at Pointe de Cray, the peak that introduced this story, speechlessly absorbing the sunset, reminiscing about the incredible experiences we’ve made in just four days, the conclusion is clear: whether you’re eager to push your limits in new terrain, improve skills you already have, or simply want to immerse yourself in nature, in Switzerland the end of one adventure is already the beginning of the next one.