Women Hike the Heidi Trail
San Antonio Express- August, 2007
Marise Melson
Special to the Express-News

KANDERSTEG, Switzerland- I find myself tightly gripping the cables attached to a steep Swiss mountainside as I inch upward along a narrow trail. Bunderspitz, the peak we are heading toward, is not even visible in the clouds that surround us. But neither is the steep drop-off to the valley below, which is probably a good thing.

I am on my most challenging hike of a women’s hiking trip in Switzerland and beginning to wonder what I have gotten myself into! I am in the center of a line of 14 determined women, however, and we all just keep going.

Phebe Novic, our very experienced guide, is calm and reassuring. And soon we are past the cables, across a saddle area, and heading up toward the peak. It isn’t snow-covered, but the sprays of grass are frozen in the icy wind.

At the top is a rock column with a book inside for proud hikers to sign. So here is now a record of our “victory”. The persistent clouds deny us one of the big rewards of reaching a summit- a view of the panorama of the next valley, the high peaks surrounding us, and the trail we came up. But they can’t take away the satisfaction of making it to the top, especially for a few in our group who have never hiked in the mountains before.

Who would do this?

In the group are women of all levels of experience- from veterans to beginners. This kind of trip is fun for women who love the outdoors and have some reasonable fitness level. They don’t have to be super athletes. We had grandmothers along, young mothers and single women. Some were retired while others took a vacation from their jobs for the trip. I am in the retiree group with two grown children who work in New York City. My husband, Bill, prefers road trips rather than long international flights, so he was happy to send me off for this adventure to indulge my love of travel and hiking. And I brought back plenty of Swiss chocolate as his reward.

Bill and I first met Phebe and her husband, David, at their outdoor store, The Warming House, in Estes Park, Colo., where we have spent summer vacations for many years. Phebe made sure the members of our group had all our equipment with us, such as rain gear and hiking poles. We even took ice cleats. Hiking is so much better if you are prepared for the weather to change, as we found out.

The Novics, who own a travel company, are expert hiking guides and have taken groups to Nepal several times as well as to Europe. They have done mixed groups, but Phebe added women’s hiking trips to the schedule. “Women travel for different reasons than mixed groups,” she says. “They celebrate a big birthday, retirement, finishing chemotherapy. They talk about what’s important to them: family, future, menopause, breast cancer.”

This trip was no exception. Most of us didn’t know each other before we went. But after celebrating the birth of a new grandchild, laughing at the day’s exploits over a glass of wine on the balcony, and doing yoga stretches in front of the hotel before the hikes, we dropped our reserve and became real friends.

The herder and the herd

In Switzerland, Phebe and her guide team, consisting of Suzanne Miller and Bonnie Rose, shepherd us through the hikes, which get a little harder every day. Our base is the small town of Kandersteg, south of Interlaken in a valley with several lifts to choose from leading to many different hiking trails.

The first hiking day takes us to a beautiful turquoise lake, Oeschinensee. We are whisked up in the lift as the fog fades into sunshine. Ledges appear, then mountainsides, and finally snow-capped peaks. Above the lake, we have lunch at a hiking hut with a fine view. The waitress translates the German inscription carved on the hut. “In the high Alps, a loving God cares for both the herder and the herd.”

We hikers feel cared for also, a little like a herd. Some of us break into “The Sound of Music” and feel like girls again in this idyllic setting.

The next day we hike a little farther, but fell the fickleness of mountain weather in the first week of October. After a nice day of walking we are caught in a sudden downpour complete with cold wind. We are hurrying to get back to the lift before its 5 p.m. closing time for a ride down and I don’t take time to stop and put on my rain pants. It’s just a little farther, I’m thinking, or wishing. My jacket and hood keep the top half of me perfectly dry. But as new bends keep appearing in the trail ahead, my cold drenched legs are telling me I have made a big mistake. But I keep think of the warm pool and hot showers waiting for us at the hotel and I survive!

Dinner tastes especially good this night. We are eating quite well all the time, actually. Our small hotel, Chalet Adler, features gourmet food, plus the pool, a sauna and an elevator. After breakfast, we go across the street to a small grocery for fruit, bread, cheese, chocolate and my personal favorite- hazelnut-filled pastries- to put in the packs for our trail lunch. How good can life be? We don’t have much time to relax, though. One day after coming back from a hike, some us have our boots off and are peacefully sipping our Swiss wine on the porch when we hear bells coming toward us. We grab our shoes and our cameras and rush out to the street, because the cows are coming home from summer pastures.

A “big girl” hiker

After a few more hikes in Kandersteg, plus excursions on those great Swiss trains to Murren and Zermatt, I have to go home, too. I think everyone has been stretched to achieve more than she thought she could. Phebe is proud of us all.

I would call myself a moderate hiker, but that is a big achievement for me, a former D student in gym who was terrible at all games of skill. In softball class, I used to stay in the back of the batting line and let everyone go in front of me. Now at 63, I feel as if I am finally steping up to the plate, but in parka and hiking boots. As I go to aerobic dancing classes and workouts and walks around the block, I have a new reason to keep in shape- these hiking trips are addictive. And about those boots: Phebe says I am now doing “big-girl hikes” so I need to upgrade to “big-girl” boots.” I will certainly do that at The Warming House in Estes Park this summer, because I have signed up for the Inn-to-Inn Swiss hiking trip she is leading in September.

Look up the Novics’ travel Web site, www.footpaths.wpengine.com and come along. As Phebe says, “You’re not getting any younger. what are you waiting for?”