‘Do you know I won’t be here next year’ Sylvia asked, eager to make conversation as she sat down beside me on the bench outside her solitary isolated barn at Busenalp, high in the Alps of Switzerland’s magnificent Bernese Oberland.
Together with my friends Steve and Eileen we had walked seven hours from the Gspaltenhorn Hut, over the Sefinenfurke Pass at 2400 metres/8000 feet, descending 1100 metres or almost 4000 feet into the Sefinental Valley before a final unrelenting climb to the rarely visited but spectacularly located alp at Busenalp where Sylvia stays alone for around 10 weeks every summer looking after about 50 cattle.
I had only recently returned to the nearby village of Murren and had not caught up with any local gossip so I did not know (and nor did my main source of information in the village either!) but if it turns out to be true it will sadly bring to an end an annual event that I look forward to each year, my hike to Busenalp for coffee with Sylvia.
But before portraying a remarkable way of life high on this isolated Alp let me put the story in context.
I have been visited the Bernese Oberland every year since 1991 and several times a year most years since we bought an apartment in Murren in 1997. Our family is fortunate to have homes in the UK, Canada, the USA and Thailand but without a doubt the car free village of Murren with just 200 inhabitants and only accessible by cable car is my favourite home and where I feel truly at one with the tranquillity and spectacular mountain scenery.
I have visited all seven continents on multiple occasions but this is my favourite part of the world and in 20 years I have hiked all the trails around Murren and above the Lauterbrunnen Valley on multiple occasions. Indeed I have hiked to all the well known local viewpoints – the summit of the Schilthorn, Birg, the Wasenegg Ridge, the Scilthorn and Rotstock Huts, Almendhubel and always I noticed this solitary isolated structure high above the Sefinental Valley and below the rocky flanks of the Gspaltenhorn which descend to the small plateau named Tanzbodoli, for me the most spectacular viewpoint accessible to hikers anywhere in the Bernese Oberland.
Indeed the cowshed/dwelling can even be seen from our balcony in Murren and on consulting my maps I learnt it was called Busenalp. I also discovered that indeed there was a trail that led to Busenalp from the trail that climbs from the Sefinental Valley to just below Tanzbodoli before descending to the famous mountain Inn at Obersteinburg, only accessible by foot and in a spectacular location near the head of the Lautterbrunnen Valley.
To hike from our apartment to Obersteinburg is a strenuous three and a half hour hike descending 400 metres/1300 feet rising 800 metres/2650 feet and then descending 300 metres/1000 feet and I first made this hike in the late Spring of 1995 and I have repeated the journey a dozen times since. It can be shortened by 30 minutes by descending the 200 metres from Murren to Gimmelwald by cable car and lengthened by around an hour by making the 20 minute scramble to admire the view from Tanzbodoli and retracing one’s steps back to the trail. And if one is not staying overnight at Obersteinburg (one of life’s great privileges) it is another two or four hours to the nearest road head depending on your route.
This is perhaps my favourite day hike in the world and despite completing many of the world’s great long distance hikes in the Himalaya, Alps, Andes and East Africa I will swear to the day I die that the 550 metre ascent from the Sefinental Valley to the Busenalp Junction (Unter Busenalp) is the most unrelentingly steep trail I have ever climbed. Many times when feeling the strain in the Himalaya I have reminded myself ‘You may be tired Michael but this is not so steep as the trail to Unter Busenalp!’ I have now ascended the trail 12 times in 19 years and I use it to gauge my fitness and my times have ranged range from I hour 11 minutes (4 years ago) to 1 hour 29 minutes!
Once I realised I could readily visit Busenalp from the trail to Obersteinburg I always planned to do so except as all who know me will understand I am invariably late so inevitably when hiking to Obersteinburg I usually left Murren so late I had no time to make the diversion to Busenalp. I was invariably under pressure to get to Obersteinburg by 7pm as this was the time for the set communal dinner for all guests!
And so it was another 10 years before I finally got to Busenalp one sunny September day in 2005 by hiking just to Busenalp and back from Murren. The views were indeed spectacular looking across the Sefinental Valley to Gimmelwald and Murren and also included the Rotstock and Schilthorn Huts, the Cable Car from Birg to the summit of the Schilthorn, down the Lautterbrunnen Valley to Wengen. To the east was the towering Lautterbrunnen Wall with the Ebnefluh and Jungfrau dominating the skyline and to the west the ridge behind Busenalp continued to the summit of the Gspaltenhorn. There were cows around the large cowshed but no one around but I could readily see that there was unlikely to be another property in the Bernese Oberland that commanded a more expansive view.
It was 2009 before I was to return to Busenalp with a friend on another day hike from Murren and we met Sylvia who first began to tell me about her life on the Alp.
But first an explanation – an Alp is not a mountain despite this common misnomer as a result of the great mountain range stretching from the Mediterranean to the Balkans being known as the Alps as in the French Alps, Swiss Alps etc. An Alp is actually a high altitude pasture that is available for grazing in the summer months and I learnt that in fact Sylvia was an example of the traditional Swiss practice of transhumance that I was taught about at school in the UK in the early 1960s!
The cattle are brought out of the Barns in the valley in the Spring and as the snows melt the cattle are taken to progressively higher pastures until they reach the higher pastures in July and then the process is reversed and the cattle descend in stages through the autumn. At least that was as it was taught to me for GCE Geography by Mr Johnson!
In practice the weather in the Lautterbrunnen Valley is normally mild enough for the cattle to remain out in winter and they are driven up the steep trail to Busenalp at any time from early to late July depending on the weather and snow cover and return to the valley in late September. The Swiss have a great love of tradition and festivals so the movement of the cattle at the beginning and end of the summer is always accompanied by some festivities and celebrations.
The Alp at Busenalp was owned collectively by a Co-operative based in Gimmelwald which also owned the dairy across the valley at Schiltalp. Sylvia was in fact the wife of the only farmer left in Murren but enjoyed spending up to three months alone at Busenalp each year. She was employed by the Co-operative to look after the cows but almost half of them were from her farm in Murren and her family, other farms and individuals paid the Co-operative to look after their cattle. There was even someone in Thun almost 30 miles away that sent 4 cows for the summer!
The Cowshed itself could house 60 cattle if necessary and had a kitchen/dining room and guest bedroom at one end as well as a room for Sylvia to sleep and a toilet at the other end. And to supplement her income Sylvia offered drinks and snacks to any passing hikers and overnight accommodation with dinner and breakfast in the guest bedroom. There is no running water so water is obtained from the fresh stream water that feeds the wooden trough outside the barn and is carried in by bucket.
Since introducing myself to Sylvia in 2009 I had returned every year since bar one with a variety of friends from Australia, Thailand, the UK and my nephew Daniel from Canada with whom I climbed Kilamanjaro in 2006. All of them were surprised to learn that in the 21st century a woman of 60 would choose to live alone in isolation with 50 cattle over 6000 feet up the side of a Swiss mountain but all agreed it was a setting of great solitude and beauty with majestic vistas.
I had long wanted to stay overnight at Busenalp and last year I had called Sylvia to ask if I could visit and stay overnight that same day and surprisingly there was no reply and when she called back the following day she explained that she had come down for the day to attend a family anniversary. Unfortunately I had no other suitable dates to visit but this year when planning a 5 day high altitude hike staying in mountain hits with Steve and Eileen I arranged for us all to stay overnight at Busenalp after the long hike from the Gspaltenhorn hut but with a fairly short hike to the Inn at Obersteinburg planned for the following day.
Which all goes to explain how Steve, Elaine and I were sitting at the bench table outside the cowshed admiring the view and sipping beer and coffee respectively after our long walk through the late season snow from the Gspaltenhorn Hut, over the Sefinenfurke, down to the Rotstock Hut where we had stopped for some lunch. The previous day we had witnessed a spectacular and potentially lethal mudslide down the slopes of the Schilthorn which was fortunately channelled away from the hut by following the course of a river gulley. We had continued down into the Sefinental Valley before beginning ‘my’ unrelenting climb up 550 metres to the junction for Busenalp (I hr 21 minutes this time but I am waiting for a procedure to correct arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat, that was quite acceptable after 5 hours of walking!) and no sooner had we arrived looking forward to my first overnight visit than Sylvia asked ‘Do you know I won’t be here next year’.
And as she had not mentioned it when we had met in the Murren Co-Op a few weeks earlier I replied ‘No I did not know.’
Sylvia went on to explain that her husband had obtained the rights to graze their cattle on the slopes of Almendhubel above Murren so there was no longer any need to graze their cows at Busenalp so she had told the Co-operative that after 12 years of spending the summers on her own at Busenalp they would need to find a replacement.
‘And if they don’t?’ I asked
‘Then that is their problem’ Sylvia replied although privately I suspected she would perhaps be up for one more summer.
‘Let your daughter in law run the place’ She will pack the crowds in’ I quipped as a friend had sent me some images he had taken as part of a project to photograph the local community and indeed the girlfriend of one of Sylvia’s sons was most attractive.
‘Huh – we won’t have any cows left after one year if she was up here’ was the quick riposte and clearly I had said the wrong thing at the wrong place!
It turned out her son’s girlfriend was a very cultured city girl from Berlin and their younger son’s life was set to be on the farm and both sets of parents apparently had reservations about the long term potential of the relationship but at least Sylvia felt the young couple had to work it out for themselves and had resisted the overture from the parents in Berlin to discuss the ‘situation’.
Sylvia went on to explain that, just as I had often heard from neighbouring farmer’s wives in England, when you marry a farmer you are buying into a very different life and in her case she had travelled a lot as a child when living near Zurich as her parents both worked for Swissair but in the 30 years since she had married a farmer from Murren she had only left the local area four times – three trips of a day and a half and recently a 4 day break in Austria although that included a day’s travelling in both directions!
‘But that is OK’ Sylvia explained ‘I saw many places and travelled a lot when I was young.’
Despite only being two and a half and three and a half hours away by train respectively she had not visited either Zurich or Geneva for 30 years whereas I would pass through each at least once a year and usually more frequently.
It was the same when I lived in our hamlet in England and Liz Kingman would often comment that Sharron and/or I would be off to the USA, Canada or Australia at summers at Busenalp Sylvia has made many frie a moment’s notice and more frequently than she would leave Stowell to visit a market town 15 miles away. Liz had hardly had a holiday in 20 years as her husband Roy had to be present to milk the cows and it was difficult to bring in a replacement milking hand.
So some of Sylvia’s comments were very familiar to me but as I gazed across to Murren and over the Sefinental and Lautterbrunnen Valleys far below to the majestic Jungfrau’s summit just a few kilometres away I could not help but think, nomad that I am, there are far worse places to be stuck for 30 years and many of us would give our eye teeth to spend an extended period each year enjoying the splendid tranquillity and majestic views that Busenalp affords.
But Sylvia’s comments had a serious undertone – it is quite a commitment and change to buy into if you are seriously considering becoming a Swiss Farmer’s wife.
And just like in the UK Swiss farmers face the challenge of when is the right time to ‘pass the baton’ from the fathers who enjoy their work and want to keep on working to the sons who are always keen to take over. Indeed if the sons are kept in waiting and frustrated for too long then there is the danger they will move on and seek alternative employment and it is usually the Farmer’s wives who are caught in the middle and see the position from both sides.
I asked Sylvia about whether her farm was viable as it is commonly believed that Swiss Farming is largely subsidised by the government – partly to maintain a traditional way of life in this most conservative of countries and also to keep the landscape so orderly, pristine and attractive to visitors in this small nation where tourism makes such a huge contribution to one of Europe’s strongest economies.
‘Yes that is true’ Sylvia replied ‘we are just the gardeners in the mountains but it is not that simple. It is true we could not survive without grants and subsidies but we have to spend a lot of time on the complicated paperwork and meet targets to receive support’.
As Sylvia’s commitment to her family farm for over 30 years clearly testifies, it is far from an easy life and one of her sons has chosen to leave the farm and work as a driver and her other has already made one visit to distant Berlin!
There is a degree of truth in most generalisations and after visiting and living in Switzerland for 25 years I have found that the Swiss are indeed efficient and well organised but although appearing restrained when you get to know them most Swiss enjoy chatting. So even at Busenalp I was able to catch up on local news and learnt that although Sylvia had only been ‘up’ at Busenalp for three weeks she had already been down on one occasion to attend the funeral of Willi Feuz. I was sad to hear of Willi’s passing as he was one of the village elders of Murren and indeed for 5 years 1991-5 we rented an apartment in Willi’s chalet and I had many fond memories of our visits to Murren with our young family.
Sylvia also told us of the eccentric guy of Russian origin who for many years had been the resident of the Dairy at Schiltgrat, part of the same co-operative and like Busenalp high on the slopes above the Sefinental Valley but on the eastern side. Each year I will usually make at least one stop at Schiltgrat for coffee and ice cream when I am out hiking from Murren and it is the highest dairy in the Bernese Oberland where they milk the cows and make cheese. Apparently the ‘crazy Russian’ as he was known was famous for his temper and ability to father children!
The cowshed at Busenalp had burnt down 15 years ago under the stewardship of the previous caretaker and Sylvia told us they could see the fire from Murren and so the large wooden building where we stayed was fairly new thought built in the traditional style. The room that the three of us shared was very comfortable and we accessed the wc at the other end of the building by walking through the cowshed, thankfully devoid of cows!
Sylvia prepared a beautiful dinner for us with some Rosti – the traditional Swiss dish similar to Hash Browns. It turned out we were the third overnight visitor so far this year and Sylvia told us some days she will get several visitors and on other days no one will pass by. The longest anyone has stayed with her was one of her regular visitors who stayed for 9 days. She usually leaves a note at the trail junction when she goes down to save people a wasted journey if they are wanting a snack and she is not around..
She is normally supplied by helicopter once a year early in the season although on one occasion when we were hiking near Birg we saw the helicopter land twice at Busenalp on the same day. Sylvia thought we were mistaken when, a few years ago, I told her she must be popular with the pilot to warrant two visits in a day but when she checked her journal she remembered she had a sick cow and had to call the Helicopter to come and winch the cow up and carry it suspended in a net down to the Vets. Seeing helicopters buzzing around in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland is a fairly common site as they transport supplies and collect trash from remote mountain huts and alps. Building materials are often transported in nets hanging below helicopters but cows are not such a common sight!
There is no TV at Busenalp but the radio keeps Sylvia updated with local, regional, national and international news and she could access the internet via her cell phone and was able tell me what films were showing the following week and the forthcoming Winteregg Film Festival. Steve and Elaine thought it was amazing that someone could live in such isolation in the modern world but indeed the internet means we are all part of a global village and never truly isolated wherever we are.
Indeed although practicing transhumance, a traditional way of life, Sylvia told us there was (of course!) a website where co-operatives could list vacant positions and willing applicants could register their interest. Similarly owners could use the web to find Alps where they can graze their cattle for the summer. Think of it as a bespoke online dating service for cows!
As I went to bed I looked out of the window at the lights from Gimmelwald and Murren across the Valley and thought Yes we are isolated but help is not that far away and we could walk home in two hours – or maybe not in the dark! And similarly I can keep an eye on Busenalp from Murren with the powerful Telescope I got Christmas before last which was always intended for our balcony in Murren. I often amuse myself by looking for hikers scrambling up to Tanzbodoli and then making their way to Busenalp for a coffee. I will often know they are coming before Sylvia does!
In fact when testing it last year and using the most powerful lens and a two times convertor I was able to make out three individual people eating breakfast at Busenalp from several miles away, identify which one was serving and thus Sylvia and when I saw her lift up a cup to drink I called her and watched through the telescope as she put her drink down and answered her cell phone.
‘I am sorry to interrupt your morning coffee’ I quipped and smart as a whip Sylvia answered ‘Ah you are like my husband and you too have a telescope!’
The following day the three of us had no distance to travel as we were only planning to take the direct trail to rejoin the main path just below Tanzbodoli, scramble up to the viewpoint and then continue on to Obersteinburg which all told was less than 90 minutes hiking and however long we wanted to relax admiring the view at Tanzbodoli.
So after a leisurely outdoors breakfast taking in the views and chatting with Sylvia we wandered off to explore the area west of Busenalp where there were no trails and the cows were left to roam at their leisure. I knew there were a series of hunting trails which continue west of Busenalp and they are partially marked on some maps but I also know that navigation is difficult through an area with high potential for landslides and rock fall but in theory one can make their way along and eventually descend into Kilchbalm the magnificent amphitheatre at the head of the Sefinental Valley below the towering peaks of the Gspaltenhorn and Butlasse above.
The amphitheatre, adorned by some impressive waterfalls (one emerging from the rocks) is a great destination for a half day hike from Murren, Gimmelwald, Stechelberg and the Rotstock Hut as long as you take care to avoid the late season snow patches (you could fall through to the rushing stream below) but the route from Busenalp is not the way to go.
Indeed I was surprised when the route (with patchy instructions at best) appeared in Daniel Anker’s guidebook to hiking trails in the Eastern Bernese Oberland and apparently when the author visited Busenalp when researching the route Sylvia advised him not to include the route as it was known to be tricky and dangerous. I have been tempted to try it myself and eventually found the starting point at Kilchbalm but one would need to allow plenty of time and go with a minimum of three people in case of an accident and I am inclined to agree with Sylvia. There are no winners when one encourages people to hike in areas with the potential to go wrong and the problem with listing a route in a guidebook is that it ‘legitimises’ the route and may attract the unprepared.
A strong self reliant hiker with good navigational skills and the awareness to avoid areas of potential danger might be fine. A first season walker poorly equipped and unprepared could get easily lost in a remote and rarely travelled area and there are thousands of easy and well posted trails to spectacular locations in Switzerland without encouraging the unwary to try and traverse the area between Busenalp and Kilchbalm. So as advised above and with respect to Mr Anker there are more straightforward and safer alternatives for hikers who want to visit Kilchbalm.
We returned to Busenalp for a leisurely lunch and as a keen Botanist Elaine could not curb her excitement about all the herbs and wildflowers she had discovered in the surrounding meadows (‘Herb rich Alpine Meadows’ is apparently the correct definition!) and we also looked at our next destination Tanzbodoli through the binoculars. Tanzbodoli is a small level plateau with a gentle incline just below the Spitzhorn at the end of a long ridge descending from the Gspaltenhorn and affords the most magnificent view of the Lautterbrunnen Wall from the Jungfrau to the Breithorn and the entire Upper Lautterbrunnen Valley with the Schmadri Falls opposite and the Obersteinburg Inn below. On a fine day this is a place to relax and immerse yourself in the views which afford a 360 degree panorama and you will likely only share it with the occasional hiker or the chamois.
Tanzbodoli means ‘Dancing place’ and I have read accounts that in bygone ages it was a meeting place and also a place where men would take their wives who had failed to conceive – perhaps hoping they would be inspired to conceive by a spot of extracurricular activity amidst the truly spectacular vistas.
This is my most favourite viewpoint in the Alps and I have visited it many times – but never tried the dancing!
We could also see the unmanned Schmadri Hut above the Schmadri waterfall which we would be visiting the following day as we planned to take the longer but more scenic route from Obersteinburg down to Stechelberg via Oberhornsee and the Schmadri Hut. This is an area I thoroughly recommend visiting as wilderness area of the upper Lauterbrunnen Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and being three hours on foot from the trailhead receives only a handful of visitors in comparison with the numbers of visitors hiking close to the popular centres of Grindelwald, Wengen and Kandesteg.
We amused ourselves at lunch watching the chamois (wild deer) cautiously approach the hut area as they liked to get down to the rocks near the water trough and lick the salt off the surface of the rocks. It was a glorious day and there were obviously a number of day hikers making their way between Obersteinburg and the Sefinental Valley and some were diverting to Busenalp for a coffee or beer. On two occasions the chamois had slowly and cautiously approached the trail that they had to cross to get to the rocks only to coincide with a hiker approaching and the chamois rapidly scattered with great agility across the hillside to try again 20 minutes later.
Despite the years she was up here this clearly gave Sylvia great pleasure which is why she left the salt on the rocks and it was clear she had great affection for all animals. As well as the 59 cows in her charge, all of which she knew by name, she kept a horse and a goat who was very protective of the fencing post that he like to rub up against and let the cows in no doubt about what was ‘his’ territory. In previous years Sylvia had taken great delight in showing me a weasel who had made his home under the building!
We were sorry to be moving on from Busenalp after our almost 24 hour stay which had given us a great insight into how one family had managed to continue to practice a traditional activity and life style in a world where technology and the digital world frequently combine to modify and often eradicate the traditional ways we work.
If you ever find yourself in Switzerland or the Bernese Oberland in particular you can do a lot worse than put a day aside and make the hike up to Busenalp and Tanzbodoli on a fine day. Sylvia may no longer be there but the scenery and vistas will still be magnificent and it will be well worth the effort providing you with memories that will last a lifetime.
Note: Please do not hesitate to contact the author if you would like help or assistance in planning a multi-day hike in this area of spectacular but accessible mountain scenery.
© Michael Bromfield 2014