I wiggled, trying to get situated in my bivy sack, being extremely cautious not to scoot my sleeping pad even an inch farther up or down. Right above my head and right below my feet sat cow pies bigger than my head. This was not exactly how I pictured spending the night out in the Swiss Alps.
Most people on multi-day hikes or mountaineering trips in Switzerland choose to stay in one or more of the 152 different Swiss Alpine Club huts perched among the famous peaks. For around $50-$80, you get a twin bed in a communal bunkroom, family-style dinner and a light breakfast. After a long day of Alp-style elevation gain, a hot dinner and a cold beer sounds pretty nice. But if you’re on a tight budget, or a hut is full, respectful bivying—read: leave no trace—is accepted in the mountains. It just might not turn out exactly the way you think.
I’d set out with my friends from the tiny village of Isenfluh in the magically verdant Lauterbrunnen Valley. The plan was to put in a few miles over a couple of passes, including the Schilthorn (where the James Bond Museum perches), and then spread out our sleeping pads and bivy sacks for a night out relatively high up. The next morning, we’d continue over two more passes and down a valley to the small town of Kandersteg, where we’d take a train back to our friends’ house in Interlaken.
Part of the attraction of hiking in the Swiss Alps is how trams and huts make it easier to access high country. You can get a jump start up a 4,000-meter peak by taking a train to a 3,650-meter pass, and get your alpine start from a warm bed with hot coffee you didn’t even make yourself. But that way, you miss the joy of sleeping out under the stars. And unless you make the effort to get off the most popular tracks, you might not find a unique sense of solitude.
The four of us were psyched to get a different experience—to watch the sun go down out in the fresh air. To avoid the sometimes-crowded hut bedrooms. To do our own thing. And after a full day of hiking—only four miles, but gaining a whole vertical mile—we were finally ready to find a spot to bed down. We’d tramped through muddy farms, up loose scree on the side of the Schilthorn, and then across a pass to a beautiful green ledge looking across the deep valley at the intimidating Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
The dinner view was once-in-a-lifetime. Clouds descended around us as we stirred our pasta, and just as the sun sank low behind the horizon, the clouds drifted down the valley, opening a view to the famous 4,000-meter Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau reflecting bright pink sunset. Licking our dishes clean, I wondered who else in the mountain range could possibly be watching that same stunning view—and I also wondered if the cowbells would stop.
You could say that all those adorable Swiss cows that produce the milk for all that delicious Swiss cheese also “bivy” out on the green shoulders of the Alps during the summer. Their big, brown eyes mostly ignore you when you hike past them, chewing their presumably sweet, soft mountain grasses and flowers. But as we began to look for the best spot to lay down our pads and bivy sacks for the night, those sweet-looking cows began to seem a little less cute. The most flat, wind-sheltered spot we could find was covered in cow pies because the cows, of course, also like flat, sheltered spots. And once I found a human-sized clean section to lay my pad down, I realized I could hear the same ceaseless cowbell clanking I’d heard throughout the day coming from the herd across the valley. I snuggled down into my bag, and thankfully the cows seemed to eventually bed down for the night, too.
After a quick snack and coffee the next morning—it’s good manners to break camp at sun-up to keep a low profile—we were off. And this time, to actually enjoy the amenities of a couple nearby huts. Up and over a bare, windswept pass, we laid eyes on the Gspaltenhorn Hut, nestled along a rock wall underneath the massive 11,273-foot Gspaltenhorn, with its glacier spilling recklessly down beneath the view from the hut’s deck. We stopped for an early lunch of fried egg and cheese on top of toast, but didn’t linger long because we still had one more pass—a leg-torching 2,400-foot climb—to conquer before we celebrated our final descent for the trip.
As our snacks and water supplies were dwindling and morale was sinking on the way up the Hohtürli Pass, laying eyes on the Blüemlisalphütte was a sweet relief. We took shelter from a cold, whipping wind and splurged on ice cream bars in the cozy hut dining room before starting the long descent to Kandersteg. Even though we didn’t spend the night in a hut, the amenities they provided along the way let us carry lighter packs, ultimately letting us cover a bit more mileage. But in a single overnight trip, we learned that while you can certainly enjoy sleeping out in the Alps, there might be some unexpected benefits to staying in a hut.