A few years ago I ran into a college friend who was visiting Zurich. When we met up, he and his girlfriend had just done a hike of something called “the Hardergrat”. It was an all-day ordeal that they said was amazing and terrifying and exhausting.
When we were living in a large shared house back in our early 20s, my friend hadn’t been much of a hiker or runner. He was paddling all the time, finding adventures in whitewater and not so much on land. The fact that he (1) had taken part of his Switzerland time to do this route and (2) was raving about how epic it was, made me sit up and listen.
It turns out that Hardergrat, a long ridge between Interlaken and Brienz, is low-key famous in the hiking and trail running community. And it is not a joke. The ridge is very exposed for long periods of time. The trail is just inches from thousand-foot drop-offs to one or both sides. People die there if they make a small mistake on footing. The Hardergrat is also very long, and has thousands of feet of climbing and descending.
When I heard about the ridge, it was just a few weeks after I had wrecked by ankle, and I wasn’t in any shape to be attempting a route so long and technical any time soon. Last summer also didn’t feel right: I was getting back in shape and training for a marathon, but I didn’t feel like I was actually *in* shape yet.
But the Hardergrat stayed in my mind, in the background. It was in my friend Annie’s mind too. I was determined that before I left Switzerland, I would do it.
Earlier this summer we emailed about possible dates with Joel, another adventure buddy. The Hardergrat has to be dry just to be attempted. The snow has to have melted, and many of the paths are just narrow dirt tracks through the grass. If you slip on the mud or wet grass, you will fall thousands of feet. It was a late-melting spring, so we waited impatiently, and then listed the possible summer weekends, the ones where none of us were traveling or racing anywhere, and then crossed our fingers for the right weather.
Last weekend, the weather came through. Sort of. Europe has been in a record heat wave, maybe you’ve heard. The Hardergrat would be dry, that was for sure. We didn’t know if we’d get another good opportunity, so we had to go for it.
But the heat… the ridge is completely exposed for about 17 kilometers, and the sun would be beating down on us. One thing I know about myself is that I suck in the heat. Even when I was training in Vermont, on hot summer days I would sometimes wake up at 5 or 6 and do my long workouts alone, because if I waited until 8:30 or 9 to start with the rest of the team I’d be roasted and useless before we even finished. I was worried about the heat.
Many people start the Hardergrat at 4 am for “various complicated reasons” (Annie’s quote), and so we began thinking. It didn’t seem worthwhile to get a room in Interlaken (incredibly expensive) for just a few hours. We could camp near the base of the trail, but then we’d have a tent, and since the route is point-to-point we would have to either carry it (not desirable, we wanted to be light and nimble) or leave it somewhere.
And so a plan was born: to avoid the heat of the day, we would take the last train from Zurich to Interlaken and start hiking up at 1:30 in the morning.
I also need a lot of sleep, so I definitely questioned whether this was a good idea. But for some reason, I just went along with it and didn’t really worry.
It turned out to be probably the best decision that we made.
It was surreal taking the train to Interlaken, carrying our small running backpacks and surrounded by people who were going home after a night of partying, many still drinking and/or smelling of beer.
When we got off the train, too, some people were biking home from nights out. We ran past them with our headlamps. On the steep climb up to Harder Kulm (about 5 km and 750 meters of up), we could hear the noise from Interlaken, parties still going on. In one sense, we couldn’t leave the crowded world of tourists and “culture” completely behind.
But in another one sense, we were in the forest, in the dark, focusing just on the trail in front of us. We weren’t sure which direction it was going to turn or where it was going to go. Insects flew into our faces, attracted to the light of our headlamps, which also illuminated ants and so many kinds of beetles scurrying around on the ground in front of us. Every once in a while we would hear the noise of bigger animals like deer crashing around in the forest above or below. At one point I heard what I thought was a stone rolling off the trail, and looked left to see that it was actually a large frog, escaping my disturbance to his night-time peace.
In the middle of the night with just the halos of our headlamps to follow, I entered some kind of meditative climbing. I didn’t really notice the distance or the time. When we came around a corner and the Harder Kulm restaurant/viewing platform was right in front of us, I was surprised we had come up so far, even though it had been over an hour of hiking. I’m actually very glad that we started in the dark with this unique night-time experience, because in some ways it made the climbing at the start mentally easier.
We paused at Harder Kulm and looked out over the lights of Interlaken below us. Then, we headed back into the woods and continued up and up.
By the time we reached the ridge, the horizon was getting a little lighter and tinged with orange. It was only 4 am, far from sunrise, but it felt like we had reached the next stage of our journey: a great combination of timing. The climb up and up and up (I know I’m being repetitive, but so was the climbing) through the forest was done. I felt a new level of excitement.
45 minutes later we came out of the scattered trees and took a short rest (Annie wanted to nap, but Joel and I were a little cold) in a ridgetop meadow, gazing over the ever-lightening landscape. The orange was spreading to more of the mountains and we could glimpse Brienzersee, as well as the outline of the first few mountains we would have to conquer on the ridgeline.
We also started seeing a few headlamps in the distance, and when we got closer to those first mountains, we realized that people had hiked up (directly, unlike our long route…) to watch the sunrise, too. A few had also slept out overnight. We smiled and said hi as we passed them. A community of people who had sacrificed sleep for a pretty amazing experience.
By the time we stopped and sat down for “breakfast” on the Suggiture (2084 meters), it was 6:15 in the morning. We had five hours under our belts, maybe 12 kilometers, and at least 1500 meters of elevation.
I’m not sure any sunrise view has ever been so special.
The air is full of dust from the Sahara right now, because the heat wave has blown in from Africa. In some ways this is a little unfortunate, as it made our views of the ridge and the snow-covered 4,000-meter peaks in the distance a lot less crisp. The air over the Lake of Brienz and the valley to the north was hazy.
But for the sunrise, I think it made the colors even more spectacular. We really couldn’t believe it. Looking around erased some of the effort it had taken to get up here. All I could do was be amazed that I was in this place at this moment.
As we got ready to continue, we began to have our first sense of what was ahead of us. We still had some climbing to get to the Augstmatthorn, the first “major” peak on the ridge. And now we could see the Brienzer Rothorn, which seemed very, very far away.
As we continued, at first we were still stopping every few minutes to continue gawking at the view. The sun was beginning to hit the snow-covered peaks and the dawn alpenglow was constantly changing. The morning light was incredible.
Atop the Augstmatthorn, I think I had the first real sense of what we were up against on this adventure. Going up was one thing, but for the first time I got to see one of the big downhills, the ridge stretching ahead of us, and how full of uphills and downhills it was. It’s kind of impossible to count how many bumps there are on this ridge, but there is almost no flat.
It felt like we had put in a lot to get to the Augstmatthorn, the highest peak for a few kilometers in any direction. But we were immediately going to lose 300 meters (1000 feet) – and we were going to lose them steeply, with a cost to the quads because letting yourself roll and pick up too much momentum would be a mistake in terrain like this where tripping over a rock would have scary consequences. It hurt a little bit psychologically to immediately lose such a chunk of the elevation we had worked so hard to gain.
But as we continued, it was clear that this was the whole experience of the Hardergrat. The ridge is long, but in some senses not so long. From where we had come out of the trees and taken our rest/nap break, it was 17 kilometers to the Rothorn. That’s long, but I’ve done many runs and hikes far longer. So it’s not the length that makes the Hardergrat such an undertaking.
It’s the terrain. Sometimes you’d see the bigger peaks out in front of you. I remember at one point counting: one, two, three, four. One big-ish one, then the Tannhorn, then another big-ish one, and then up to Rothorn. Four big climbs left. But as soon as you got to the top of one hill, you’d see three or five more, with steep up and then steep down again, in between it and the next one. A kilometer or more of these big and little bumps before the next “peak”. And maybe even another one you hadn’t seen that was just as big as the one you were counting as “three”.
“It literally never ends!” Annie exclaimed at one point.
I must have mentally prepared well, because this actually never got to me too badly. I had heard one estimate that it takes 10 hours to do the Hardergrat, and I kept that in the back of my head. Even though the most elevation gain I’d done in a single hike/run so far this year was 1100 meters, I was pleasantly surprised when we were on top of Suggiture that even though we’d already come up more than that, I felt mostly fine. I think from that point on, I just thought, “You’ve come this far and you’re fine, so of course you can keep going. Stick to your pace and you won’t have any problem getting this ridge done. You’ve done the training to make you strong.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever been so positive on a hard route. The work I’ve been doing this spring on self-confidence seems to be paying off.
It made it fun to look around and enjoy the trail and the scenery.
There were a few more aspects of planning and execution that I’m also really proud of, that enabled this to be an amazing and actually fun experience instead of just a difficult slog. I am doing a race in two weeks, and I really wanted to make sure that this adventure was a good training stimulus, not something that destroyed me for days.
I was determined to go an “easy” pace, not above my aerobic threshold. I knew it would probably make me slower than Annie and Joel, but I managed to not let my ego get upset. I was going to do this at my pace (trying to keep my heart rate below 150 or 155 at the very most; my max is ~195, and my anaerobic threshold in the high 170s somewhere) and if they had to wait for me, they could wait.
(And they did. Repeatedly. I’d watch them just hike away from me, and then I’d focus on the trail in front of me and remind myself to enjoy going my own pace.)
I also brought a lot of snacks, and after the first hour I ate something (just a chunk of a bar, a few gummies, or a little ball of rice with soy sauce and honey) every 20-25 minutes. This is my strategy for long runs and races, but I’ve never done if for an effort as long as this ended up being (10 hours, counting all the big and small breaks we took). It was hard to keep eating, and I honestly didn’t know how well my body would handle it. But I also knew that after the halfway point, if I gave up on my eating schedule I would bonk, or at least have to stop and eat something more substantial. So the two times it was hard to choke something down, I did anyway. It worked. I never bonked.
And finally, hydration. I was really scared of the heat. It was good that we got a lot of the distance over with before the sun really came out, but once it did it really was hot. And there was no place anywhere to refill on water. I had brought four liters of water – a full liter and a half more than Annie – and I drank almost all of it (with some Skratch Labs hydration mix). I had also drank plenty of electrolytes and sodium the day before to try to prepare. I was definitely thirsty by the time I finished, but I think I managed about as well as I could have hoped. Despite the extra weight I was carrying in the beginning, I was happy to have brought so much water. I needed it.
Those might seem like technical details, but on a route like the Hardergrat all these small aspects of planning are key to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time. Besides just not wanting to feel too wasted afterwards, I was nervous about the terrain. The consequences of a mis-step were so serious, and the more tired I was, the more likely I would be to make a mistake. I needed to be the least tired I could reasonably be.
So all the planning is indeed what enabled us to have such a great time. None of us ever took a serious stumble, even though the terrain got more and more scary as the ridge went on. The climbs were not so bad, most often a dirt path cutting through grass. If wet, this would be terrifyingly dangerous, but it was dry and so it was mostly just perfect; the only difficult aspect was the steepness.
But the downhills were something else. Often we were climbing down cliffy piles of rock and loose soil, using our hands to help ourselves. It wasn’t technical climbing, really, but it sure wasn’t just walking on a trail. The consequences of slipping were severe. Every peak or hilltop we reached as an adventure of looking down the other side and asking, “what’s in store for us on the downhill this time?”
As we crossed more and more of these downhills, I began wondering what would come after the Tannhorn. At 2200 meters, it’s the biggest peak on the ridge other than the Rothorn at the end. And I had read that the “crux” of the ridge came after the Tannhorn. So if the crux was more dangerous than what we were already doing, what exactly was it going to be!?
It turned out not to be what we expected. The part after the Tannhorn was in some ways easier: the trail was not as rocky or loose. It was actually a trail that if it was somewhere else, I would definitely run. It was some of the least technical trail we’d seen in a while.
… but… it’s the crux. That’s because this trail was a knife edge. It was probably less than a foot wide in many places, and the drop-offs on either side were even more enormous than most of the areas we had crossed so far. To the north, they led to a rock glacier. That would be even worse to slide down onto than a normal glacier.
Because the terrain was easy, I knew that all I had to do was just walk like normal. There was no reason I would make a mis-step. Just treat this like normal, I told myself.
But as I focused on the trail in front of me, the drop-offs on either side glided past in my peripheral vision. It was vertigo-inducing and made it impossible not to remember the risk of where we were walking. Good thing none of the three of us have a fear of heights.
Because we had prepared so well, though, we made it through no problem and were smiling after we got back on (comparatively) safer ground. Like, “that was it?” And by now we were so close to the Rothorn, just a few kilometers. We were tired but I felt somehow lighter, because I knew we were going to make it no problem.
We had one more fun ridge to follow, of relatively more gradual terrain; we could actually run a little bit of it. I was so full of happiness.
We hit Wannepass, the last low point before the Rothorn. The finish was in sight! The trail wound up and to the left away from us, which didn’t make that much sense because the Rothorn was to the right. But I followed Annie and Joel on up.
Soon, I was looking up a steep couloir. I didn’t quite comprehend – I kept looking to the left to see if the trail perhaps wound all the way around these cliffs and somehow behind them. But then I saw Annie and Joel up above me, in the loose scree.
I heard Annie’s voice saying something indistinct, and then Joel: “well, if they are coming down this, than of course we can go up it.”
For the first time all day, I thought… fuck my life.
It was so steep, just a ribbon of scree between a cliff and a patch of snow. Near the top, someone had actually built concrete steps. But to get there, you had to climb up loose gravel underlain by dirt that was wet with the melting snow.
I had manage my effort and my pace well until here, but there was really no way to go up something like this after 25 kilometers and 2500 meters of climbing without going pretty hard. I periodically stopped to rest and wondered what the heck I was doing here. When would it end.
When I finally reached the top of the climb and rejoined Annie and Joel, they were similarly unimpressed with the end of the hike. But from there, it was an easy path over to the Rothorn; even a bit of downhill, and we could run again. Just a few minutes later, we were pulling out chairs on the porch of the restaurant and ordering cold drinks.
We had made it to the end.
Or, I had…
My knee had been bothering me since I tweaked it 10 days before, and had been quite painful on some of the downclimbing. So I decided that rather than drop the 1700 meters down to the lake, I would take the steam train down. Joel and Annie would continue running, making it a 40 k day for them by the end, but I had the chance to not further aggravate my injury and I took it. I felt no shame, because I had completed the hard part of the ridge.
So we said a hurried goodbye, and I trotted off for the train. The steam train was loud, but I fell asleep repeatedly. I had felt fine while hiking, but the lack of sleep finally caught up with me on the way home.
For the last 48 hours I have just been marveling over this experience, which is one of the most magical hikes I’ve ever been on.
I’m also just amazed that my body can take me on adventures like this: no sleep, heat, 9,000 meters of elevation gain. It didn’t kill me. I have so much confidence now, that I am putting in my pocket and taking with me on the rest of my summer adventures.
I’m really happy that my preparation and planning allowed me to enjoy it so much, and I can barely believe that we stood on that ridge, much less traversed the whole thing. There aren’t so many places in the world like Hardergrat.
If you ever get the chance, you should check it out. 1 am start optional.