- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

LENK, Switzerland — Lights go out at 10 p.m. on the dot, and the following morning, breakfast is served from sunrise until 7 a.m. The red-and-white checkered blankets

must be folded according to Swiss military tradition — lengthwise first. The washroom is about 41 degrees, and its melted glacial water is even colder.

Nevertheless, the hardships of hiking from one Alpine hut to another are easily outweighed by the rewards — the shrill cry of woodchuck-like marmots, the sharp silhouettes of mountain goats on a narrow ledge, the deep blue of a gentian, a landscape unexpectedly turned white overnight with snow, and end-of-the-day card games played while huddled around the oven.

The Swiss Alpine Club lists 153 huts on various hiking routes. Including private huts, which sometimes are run by ski clubs and other associations, there are more than 300 mountain lodges ranging from “comfortable,” with showers and four-bed rooms, to simple, unguarded shelters.

The fun begins halfway up the valley. After leaving Lenk, an Alpine resort town in the Bernese Oberland, we walked 21/2 hours along a stream and past a massive waterfall, grazing cows and tiny villages before arriving at Iffigenalp, an Alpine meadow at 5,200 feet. Here you find a cozy Swiss inn whose roots go back to a turn-of-the century spa for those in need of fresh air.

The crisp autumn air carries appetizing whiffs of regional specialties. The inn’s enthusiastic new owners offer sorbet of Alpine roses, cheese fondue, and heusuppe — literally, “hay soup,” made from mountain herbs steeped in bouillon and hay that is removed from the broth before it’s served.

At the annual “chamois evening” in late September, guests dance to music from an oergeli — a miniature Swiss accordion — and eat dishes made with meat from chamois, the small goat antelope of the Alps. “You can even dance with the local hunters,” says innkeeper Helen Gfeller.

One of Miss Gfeller’s specialties is cheeses and butter made from unpasteurized milk at a neighboring dairy. “My guests adore this butter,” she says.

Another 21/2 hours farther up, at 7,600 feet, you reach Wildhornhuette. In the foyer is a pungent smell of dirty socks and wet hiking boots. Hundreds of fur-lined waterproof galoshes and a primitive stove tell of cold winters when the rest of the cabin is closed off and this serves as the day room. Inside, hikers slump over their cards and drink warming cups of tea.

Outside, the snowfall has turned into a full-blown storm. Willy Romang, a mountain-guide-turned-lodge-keeper from Gstaad, is a bit grumpy. “I had 80 reservations for tonight, but most have canceled due to the weather,” he says. In the end, about 20 hikers show up.

At exactly 6:30 p.m., Mr. Romang serves lukewarm, lumpy polenta accompanied by meat stew — typical hut fare. Chatter about hiking routes and the weather fills the room before the guests start drifting away to get ready for bed.

Mr. Romang’s last checkup just before lights out provokes some mumbling of “stricter than kids’ camp.” There is some quiet giggling on the bunk beds before the snoring starts. The room sleeps 20.

By morning, snow has covered most of the red-and-white trail markers, so hikers are guided by piles of stones, or cairns, up a narrow, slippery ledge into a moonlike landscape. Once the clouds lift, the panorama is stunning, and even the dangerous crevices of the Chirchli glacier shine in the sun.

Up on the pass, the view is yin and yang — white on one side and gray, rocky landscape on the other. Descending, you jump from rock to rock before the landscape opens up to a wide vista.

Several hours later — and after a last steep ascent — you reach Wildstrubelhuette at 9,200 feet. If the sunset is breathtaking, the hut’s interior is equally so. After serving homemade hazelnut-and-pear pie topped with a thick layer of whipped cream, the guardian fires the old stove in the 1927 hut.

Until its renovation and extension last year, this part of the lodge was used solely as a winter retreat. The original Alpine flower etchings still decorate the windowsills, and the old signs on the cupboards read “first-aid pharmacy,” “games” and “emergency food” — a reminder of when the hut was unguarded and hikers brought their own food and drink.

“The old hut just was not working any longer — to get to the outhouse, you had to work your way through 10-foot snowdrifts in the winter,” says lodge keeper Heinz Steiger, who “wanted nothing more than being above ground” after 15 years of working underground as a mining geologist. He began running the hut last year with his wife. In the winter, it is a key leg on a popular ski-touring and snowshoe route.

Later, he serves barley soup, green salad and wild mushroom risotto with slivers of Swiss speck (uncooked bacon). In the morning, he serves fresh birchermuesli cereal, homemade bread and quince and gooseberry jams. “So far, we have fed 3,000 hikers with our homemade jams,” he says proudly.

“We have seen a real generational change,” says Bruno Luethi, who oversees the huts at the Swiss Alpine Club. “Previously, a lot of guardians had become a bit inflexible and uncooperative after spending 20 years up on the hut. Now we are trying to educate new hut managers to be more of a host with a service-oriented attitude. The whole thing has become more professional.”

The 1911 Swiss Alpine Club “mountain album” states that “mountain lodges are primarily meant to be functional, to allow the tourist and the adventurer to discover new Alpine regions and to offer shelter to the mountaineer.”

Back then, discussions centered on whether modern mattresses should replace sleeping in the hay and whether women and men should be separated. Today, the main issues are the quality of the food, the size of the rooms and whether huts should have showers.

To many, the comfort debate proves that hut-to-hut hiking is becoming more popular. “We definitely note a renaissance of the traditional mountain holiday,” Mr. Luethi says. “Hiking has shed its dusty image. It is fashionable again.”

• • •

The Bernese Oberland and Lenk are about two hours by train from Bern, the Swiss capital, or about four hours by train from Zurich or Geneva airports. Swiss rail timetable: www.rail.ch.

A comprehensive list, describing the huts’ features, can be found in the German and French publications “Huetten der Schweizer Alpen” and “Cabanes des Alpes Suisses” (“Huts in the Swiss Alps”), published by the Swiss Alpine Club. The books can be ordered at www.sac-verlag.ch (German and French only).

Costs for overnight stays range from about $15 to $30, depending on amenities. Not all huts have guardians, so sometimes you must carry your own food. Usually half-board (supper and breakfast) costs around $25.

As a rule of thumb, huts are open in July, August and September, although some open as early as June and close as late as October. Winter opening varies widely, but many huts are open for the ski touring season in March and April, while some are open around Christmas and New Year and selected winter weekends. Call the guardian for specific questions.

Hikers attempting hut-to-hut tours should be fairly fit because you climb at least 3,300 feet per day, sometimes more. Some narrow ledges may require a good head for heights. Prepare for snow, rain and slippery ground. Beware of glaciers along your route — to cross most of them you will need a harness, crampons and an ice pick. Bring a cell phone, if it works on European networks.

The tour described here is a round trip that leaves in Lenk by Iffigenalp, Wildhornhuette, Wildstrubelhuette and descends by Col de Rawil back to Iffigenalp and Lenk.

Lenk tourist office: www.lenk.ch/en/welcome.cfm.

Bernese Oberland: www.berneroberland.ch/navi/sommer/frame_en.htm.

Swiss Alpine Club in Bern: 41/31-370-1818

Swiss tourism office in New York: 877/794-8037

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