There is nothing like the mountains to lift the spirits; being among them takes you closer to heaven. I have spent a lot of time tramping up and down hills – in the southern French Alps, the Pyrenees and other lumpy regions of the world. Each of Europe's mountain ranges is different and all are wonderful in their own way. But I am glad I left Switzerland till last.
Because, had I visited this remarkable country any earlier, it might have diminished the pleasure I have had elsewhere. For sheer drama, there is nothing that can compare to the majesty of the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau, in the Bernese Oberland. These three are monsters among mountains.
As the train pulled up the hill from Interlaken to the village of Grindelwald, at 1,000 metres, their immense bulk loomed darkly. The River Lütschine, swollen with glacial till and the colour of molten lead, boiled and thundered by the track. The lush vegetation – conifers 80 feet high, rocks dark, damp and moss-covered – was as forbidding as a Gustave Doré drawing, a place of ogres, witches and demons.
Beneath the mountains lay the neat villages of timber houses amid vacuumed fields, each festooned with hanging baskets of geraniums. Switzerland is a large park pretending to be a small country. Here the wild landscape with its soaring peaks and plunging valleys has been tamed.
At least, parts of it have. The most popular routes – such as that from First to Schynige Platte – are pedestrian motorways, with walkers spilling out of the cable car to stroll a few metres to the mountain restaurant, before catching the car down again. You do not have to go far to begin to get a real feel of the mountains.
The hike from First across the plateau was a magnificent opener for our group's holiday – billed as the classic alpine walk. It was a brilliant day, the air crisp and clear, and the swift elevation by cable car to 2,000 metres was welcome (some of us were still finding our mountain legs). We walked the 18km route (about 11 miles) through every variety of alpine landscape – lakes and cliffs and valleys, all the while staring at the backdrop of the huge mountains, with their snowcapped peaks – as if another planet with an alien climate, vegetation and topography, had nosed in beside ours and would shortly take off again into outer space. It was one of the most spectacular walks any of us had done: high drama in the background, a pastoral idyll in the foreground ... golden cows, fat sheep, hanging valleys, glittering lakes.
Next morning, I took the Eiger Trail, a long climb up and across the foot of the fabled north face, while the rest of my party took a lower route to the next hotel. Our luggage was transported separately. The sky was again a cloudless, steely blue and the light was mountain-sharp. A couple of hours into the walk, I came across a bunch of people pointing at two tiny dots high up on the rock wall, stretching like contortionists as they inched their way up. I sat and watched their progress through my binoculars for an hour, wondering if they would make the top by nightfall – 1,900 metres of sheer ascent – and how they would sleep if they did not. There was a Swiss flag planted in the snow at the bottom and the direct route they were on is estimated to take 20 to 30 hours.
The Eiger Trail ends at a huge glacier – glistening in the sun, water pouring off it – which lies at the head of a steep valley. It is hard to tell where the greyish ice ends and the rock begins. Soft piles of sculpted gravel lie against its flank. Disturbingly, it feels as if it might be alive. After pausing a while, I yomped down the steep moraine, turned off on to a rocky path and headed down, fast. I found the others, and we marched down to Wengen and the lovely warm, tranquil Hotel Alpenrose. My day had involved an ascent of 1,700 metres, almost the same as the Eiger climbers – without the need for "dangerous activities" insurance.
We could have done with it two days later as we set out from the Hotel Bellevue, in Murren on the edge of the gorge, just as the weather broke. After a couple of hour's hard walking our progress was blocked by a steep wall of scree, not unlike a slag heap. We inched our way up, zig-zagging back and forth. At the top, an icy wind whipped over the narrow ledge as we paused to take in the view.
We began our descent in single file, and with careful steps. Soon the clouds enveloped us, the temperature dropped and the wind picked up. Within seconds we were caught in a fierce storm. Horizontal hail, whipped by a 50mph gale, stung our faces and legs, lightning flashed, thunder crashed and we were drenched to the skin. It all happened so fast we had no time to don our weather-proofs, and our boots were instantly filled with water.
For 20 minutes we felt our way down the stony track, which had become a fast-flowing stream, clambering over boulders and slithering down rocks, bowing our heads against the gale. Suddenly, the storm passed and the sky cleared. Now we were cold. We stopped to empty our boots and set off again, walking as briskly as we dared, squelch, squelch at every step, eager to get off the mountain before another storm blew in.
Majestic to menacing in minutes, it was a lesson in how unpredictable the mountains can be.
How to get there
Inntravel (01653 617001; inntravel.co.uk) offers The High Route, a week's independent walking in the High Alps of the Bernese Oberland. From £775 per person, based on two sharing, the trip includes seven nights' half-board in five hotels; one picnic, walking maps and notes; and luggage transfers. The price rises to £1,048 with travel by rail on Eurostar/TGV/regional services.