Looking for the Sublime? It’s in This Swiss Valley.
In a treatise published in 1757, Edmund Burke, an Irish essayist and statesman, outlined the differences between the beautiful and the sublime.
Beautiful objects, he posited, are smooth, polished and comparatively small. Sublime objects, on the other hand, are vast, rugged, powerful, magnificent.
“They are indeed ideas of a very different nature,” he wrote, beauty being founded on pleasure, and sublimity being founded on pain.
Nine hours into a hike in Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley, having ascended to an elevation of 7,400 feet and standing, breathless, outside a tiny remote hut perched at the edge of a precipice, with dull echoes of avalanching ice (at first, registering as thunder) filling the Alpine air, I felt as though I finally appreciated the distinction — which is to say I felt a curious amalgam of fear, serenity, exhaustion and awe. (Not to mention pain.)
Switzerland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley is breathtaking in its majesty: a narrow glacial ravine crowded with waterfalls and enclosed by sheer cliff faces that rise more than 1,500 feet on either side, with hamlets and farming villages — both at the base of the valley and roosted high in the mountains above — lining its miles-long corridor. Few places on earth have the power to evoke sublimity in such a profound and inspiring way.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hiked here in 1779, receiving poetic inspiration from its many splendors — as did William Wordsworth, some 11 years later. Lord Byron describes in a journal entry from 1816 having “entered upon a range of scenes beyond all description, or previous conception.” And Alfred Tennyson, in a letter to a friend in 1856, called Lauterbrunnen one of the “stateliest bits of landskip” he ever saw. “Let it suffice,” he added, “that I was so satisfied with the size of crags that … I laughed by myself.”
Imagine that: somber Alfred Tennyson overcome by a sublime and solitary “LOL.”
The best way to experience this part of the Bernese Oberland is on foot, following the well-marked hiking trails that meander from one bucolic scene to the next — brushing against raging rivers to the base of (and sometimes over) glaciers, up steep rock faces, along the tops of ridges, through dense forests, and in and out of lush Alpine meadows.
Not that you have many other options. Gimmelwald, the mountain village that served as my base camp — and one of Rick Steves’ “great discoveries,” according to The Times — is wholly inaccessible by car. You either hike up from the valley floor, laboring back and forth on switchbacks, or you zip your way up on a cable car that connects Stechelberg (down in the valley) with Gimmelwald and Mürren (a larger village that sits some 900 feet above Gimmelwald).
Nowadays, Lauterbrunnen and its surrounds are sprinkled with Airbnb rentals.
But the region’s time-tested form of accommodation — and the option that’s far more likely to bring you into contact with locals and fellow wayfarers — is its array of Berghotels and Alpine Club huts, which offer a wide range of amenities.
Berggasthaus (Mountain Guesthouse) Obersteinberg, for example, which dates to around 1880, offers warm meals and cold running water — but no hot water or electricity. At night, guests are given candles to navigate the pitch dark rooms and corridors. Laundry is heated and washed over a wood-burning stove.
Some of the Alpine huts, like the remote Schmadrihütte, are unstaffed and don’t accept reservations; you simply show up and claim a bunk — and, in the case of the Schmadrihütte, hope that one of the 12 slots is free.
On the trails, wildlife greets you at every turn. At various points I was halted by animals standing (and sometimes reclining) directly in my path: alpine ibex, Highland cattle, horses, sheep, goats — along with the occasional farm cat.
Cattle here are adorned with traditional Swiss cowbells that jingle with the animals’ every movement. When large herds graze in unison, the effect is that of a many-tubed wind chime swaying in a breeze.
The Lauterbrunnen Valley was carved by glaciers, many of which can be accessed by popular hiking routes. Their meltwater feeds the rivers that flow north toward Lake Brienz and Lake Thun.
The glaciers are also responsible for many of the waterfalls that seem to spout, as if miraculously, from the middle of otherwise dry rock walls.
Nighttime affords some of the region’s most dramatic views: starry skies, untainted by light pollution, silhouetted against Alpine summits.
But starscapes, of course, are dependent on good weather — hardly a constant. Storm clouds can approach and withdraw with astonishing speed, and, even in the summer months, temperatures fluctuate dramatically.
As is universally true, the flexible traveler — open to moments of serendipity and to abandoning an established itinerary — is more likely to experience a full range of the region’s enchantments.
Once, just before sunset, my brother (with whom I was hiking) and I approached a remote Alpine Club hut, half expecting to spend the night — only to find that a large family had already settled in.
Our fellow hikers were warm and welcoming, and curious to know how two New Yorkers had ended up at such an isolated Swiss outpost. “We still have two free beds,” one of the sons offered, speaking to us in German. But, not wanting to intrude on a family getaway, we thanked them for their kindness and threw our packs back on, steeling ourselves for a nighttime descent. “We have lights,” we said, pointing to our headlamps, when they looked at us with open concern.
“Yes, lights and young knees!” the father responded.
So down the mountain we went, keeping our lights off as the sun dipped below the horizon, and as the mountain faces opposite it were illuminated, if fleetingly, in the Alpenglow.
The trail grew increasingly hard to follow. And when the last of the daylight had faded, we paused over a glacial stream to gaze up in sublime silence at the stars — then clicked on our headlamps and carried on.