1. I have what I consider to be a fairly tuned bullshit meter. When a magazine or website promises the “Best ______ Ever,” I immediately scoff. “Yeah, till next month,” I think. Because of this, I have a hard time telling someone I have found the “best day hike ever.” I’ve done lots of what lots of people consider the best in the U.S.—Half Dome, Longs Peak, the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim, Angels Landing in Zion, and more.
My friend Dan lives in Interlaken, Switzerland, and kept sending me photos of this ridge above town, the Hardergrat, or Brienzergrat (“grat” = ridge). It looked beautiful, sure, but how could it be that amazing? Dan says lots of things are amazing. This was in his backyard. What was he, the luckiest guy on earth, that he accidentally moved into a town with the most beautiful walking ridge in Switzerland? In August, I found out.
At 3 a.m., we pedaled antique town bikes across the dark and quiet Interlaken, parking them next to the Harder Kulm station, where a 10-minute funicular train climbs straight up 2,500 feet to the restaurant and observation deck at the west end of the Hardergrat, overlooking the town of Interlaken and Thunersee and Brienzersee, the two glacier-melt turquoise lakes that bookend Interlaken.
Unfortunately, the first Harder Kulm train does not depart until 8:10 a.m. We clicked our headlamps on and began walking straight up in the dark.
2. The ridge proper is 12 miles long, with plenty of ups and downs. After the first grind up to the Harder Kulm, we gained the ridge and began the traverse, 2675 feet up and 6 miles over to the summit of the Augstmatthorn, a steep-sided grassy cone 5,000 feet above the waters of Brienzersee. Once you’re on top of the Augstmatthorn, you’ve covered half the distance and half the elevation gain for the day.
3. From the dry 7,011-foot summit of the Augstmatthorn in August and September, the view south takes in the snowy giants of the Bernese Alps, including the Schreckhorn (13,379 feet), and the Eiger (13,020 feet), Monch (13,474 feet), and Jungfrau (13,642 feet) .
4. Even past the halfway mark, the ridge looks impossibly long. The goal, the Brienz Rothorn train station at the far right end of the ridge visible in this photo, seems far away for hours of the hike. If you don’t make it to the station by the time the last train heads down the mountain at 6:30 p.m., you’ve got a knee-pounding 5,500-foot descent to look forward to at the end of your long day.
5. On the Hardergrat, you are forced to suspend your belief about what you think grass can do, and at what angles soil can actually stand. The Hardergrat is typically graded Swiss Alpine Club T5, a number usually reserved for mountaineering terrain where an ice axe is mandatory. The trail is often one foot wide on a two-foot-wide ridge top, and a slip off either side in many spots means a fall of thousands of feet. I wished several times for an ice axe and crampons, and we never once stepped on ice or snow.
6. The entire hike, from the base of the Harder Kulm train on the west end, to the Brienz Rothorn station on the east end, is 27 miles, with 10,200 feet of elevation gain—5,200 feet of that elevation gain in ups and downs after the halfway point, the summit of the Augstmatthorn. It is a punishing, but beautiful day, along a sculpted mountain spine towering over two lakes, and paralleling the snowy Alps just six miles south as the crow flies. The best part might be the solitude: the heady terrain and committing nature keep the crowds away.
—By Brendan Leonard
About the Photography:
Patitucci Photo is the unique combination of Dan and Janine Patitucci’s vision for a creative life as photographers and mountain sport athletes. As dedicated athletes and travelers, both immerse themselves in subjects they are most passionate about. Based in the Swiss Alps, their work has appeared in Rock & Ice, Climbing, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, Sierra, Backpacker, Trail Runner and other magazines.
See more spectacular images by Dan and Janine Patitucci: