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Laura Byrne Paquet

Sleep, interrupted: Fortuitous trip to outhouse exposes magic of Swiss mountain

Published in the Ottawa Citizen

           “Is this it?” we asked each other in confusion as we looked at the Oberhornsee. “Are you sure?”
            Our little band of hikers had indeed finally reached the mountain lake our guide Peter Lehner had told us about two days ago, when we’d first when we’d set off from the Swiss resort village of Lauterbrunnen. We’d hiked up a series of mountain trails until we were almost 1300 metres above Lauterbrunnen and within striking distance of a major glacier. With growing anticipation, I’d pictured the Oberhornsee as something like Lake Louise—big, scenic and breathtakingly blue.
            Oberhornsee, however, could charitably be called an overgrown pond.
As Lehner later explained, an avalanche had recently sealed off the lake’s water source. Slowly but surely, the Oberhornsee is evaporating.     
            So the lake wasn’t a major Kodak moment, but we didn’t care a bit. I’d already used up the memory in an entire digital camera chip snapping photos of the Alpine views that unfolded with every bend in the trail. After all, the Lauterbrunnen valley—part of a larger region known as the Bernese Oberland—claims to be home to 72 waterfalls, and I think we saw most of them. When you’re hiking in surroundings like these, the old saying holds true: getting there really is half the fun.
            While hiking from Lauterbrunnen to the Oberhornsee, we’d taken a lot of breaks to revel in our surroundings. We’d quaffed Swiss beers on sunny patios, eaten wild blueberries along the trail, demolished a Black Forest cake made with a quarter litre of rum, and inhaled the icy spray from 10 glacial waterfalls that had tunnelled their way through the inside of a mountain.
            Along the route we bedded down in rustic mountain inns, a type of accommodation beloved by the Swiss but somewhat undiscovered by the rest of the world. On the first night, at the Trachsellauenen guesthouse, we ate a hearty meal of stew, soup and mashed potatoes in the company of large, lively groups of local hikers, not a few of whom looked about twice my age. (Remember those old Participaction TV ads? If the trails around Lauterbrunnen are any indication, that super-fit sexagenarian should have been Swiss, not Swedish.)
            After our trip to the Oberhornsee on day two, our home for the night was the Berghotel Obersteinberg. When I’d signed up for the trip, the mention of this “candle hotel” piqued my interest. A hotel lit only by candlelight! How like a fairy tale, I thought.
            Well, it probably is, if you were one of the hikers lucky enough to snag a cozy private room. However, those sell out far in advance, and our group of nine hikers—most of whom had been strangers to each other when we met two days earlier in Lauterbrunnen—found ourselves instead in a pristine, Spartan dorm, complete with bunk beds.
            A fairy tale? This was more like Brownie camp.
            The hotel, at the top of a mountain, is served by neither roads nor electricity. That means all supplies are brought in by mule or, in rare cases, by helicopter. A wood-fired washing machine, built in 1949, handles the laundry. There’s no hot running water, no electric light, and no heat. And even though the sunshine had made sweat pop out on my back during the hike to the Oberhornsee, nights on top of a Swiss mountain in September can be downright chilly.
            Once I realized how cold it might get, I gave up on the idea of changing into pyjamas. I slept in my hiking gear, including my coat and gloves. Only my hiking boots remained by the dorm door. As Lehner advised us, I left my flashlight next to my pillow, in case I needed to make a trip to the separate building that housed the WC.
            Fat chance, I thought as I drifted off to sleep. There was no way I planned to leave the warm cocoon of my bunk
            Nature, of course, had other ideas.
            Sometime after midnight, I woke up. The dorm was alive with the sound of snoring and my body was urging me to get out of bed. I resisted for a few minutes, but it soon became clear that I wouldn’t sleep another wink if I didn’t a pilgrimage to the WC.
            Shielding the weak beam from my flashlight with my fingers so I wouldn’t wake my companions, I groped for my boots and headed out into the silent night. I stumbled down the path to the WC…and stopped dead.
            Above me, a three-quarter moon shone so brightly that I didn’t need my flashlight. A carpet of stars gleamed. In the distance, the roar of the Schmadribach waterfall sounded like faint music. From the valley below came the tinkle of cowbells.
            Aside from that, there wasn’t a single sound or movement.
            I stood stock still for about five minutes, drinking it all in. From the top of a non-electrified mountain, it is suddenly clear just how rarely our modern world truly sleeps. Even on camping trips I’ve rarely felt such isolation and peace.
            Eventually, of course, I had to move along and attend to the business that had brought me outside in the first place. But I doubt that I’ll ever again be as grateful to my body for waking me up in the middle of the night. All thoughts of the cold dorm fled from my head. I’d have gladly slept outside on rocks to have a moonlit mountaintop all to myself.
            The next morning, it was time to hike back down the mountain to Lauterbrunnen. And although you’d think the pull of gravity would make the return trip a snap, it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. For one thing, going down seems to use a whole different set of leg muscles than going up does. In addition, it’s harder to keep your balance when your whole body just wants to roll downhill; just about all of us ended up on our butts at least once.
            But there were definite compensations. Going up, my eyes had been focused on the dirt trail, the waterfalls that burbled beside it, and the daisies and ferns that lined the route, as those were the main things in my field of vision. Going down, however, I couldn’t help but enjoy the vista at my feet: the milky-coloured Weisse Lütschine river snaking through the valley, villages perched on precarious-looking terraces, clouds puffing along snowy peaks.
            Of course, the view also reminded me that I was walking along a narrow trail with no rails or fences to keep me from pitching right off the mountain and into the scenery.
            After picnicking on a sunny ridge and making our way down the rest of the mountain, we arrived back at the Hotel Stechelberg, where we’d stopped for lunch en route on day one. With a grateful sigh, I collapsed on a bench on the chestnut-shaded patio and downed a huge frosty stein of Feldschl`ssen Hopfenperle, a popular Swiss beer.
            Beer isn’t even remotely on my diet, but I figured I’d earned it.