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Switzerland: a hiker's paradise

By Gail BryanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1983

Engelberg, Switzerland

HIS figure is hunched against the fine driving snow on the steep mountainside: a shapeless form, with his baggy olive-drab pants and a worn poncho thrown over an old chamois-colored rucksack. But his almost shuffling walk is absolutely sure. It is said of Hans Waser, a Wildhuterm (park ranger) for 26 years, that he ''finds his way, not with a compass but by the marmot holes.'' His blue eyes pierce the great space we walk through ''like an Indian,'' says Gusti Imfeld, my guide.

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Five inches of new snow fell last night; the jagged, towering rock faces on each side of the slope we traverse are visible behind a pale wash of white. We are enveloped in a white silence, broken only by a faint ''chirrr,'' the song of a Schneehahnm.

Hans has invited us, a rare honor, to come with him as he surveys the elusive chamois (a small goatlike antelope) in the area below the Rugghubel and the Alpine peak, the Engelberger Rotstock, a vast 6,000-foot slanting depression surrounded on three sides by ridges of Alpine peaks. Suddenly Hans stops. Twenty yards in front of us, on a rock, stands a chamois. Then two more, a mother and her young. And then far above us on the precipitous slope, we see a whole herd, strung out on the rocks, more than 20 of the elegant animals.

By the time we wind along the curving trail that short distance, the chamois are far below us, just specks in the wide white valley, the only evidence of their having been above us: long strings of footprints crossing the path in the snow. We watch them meander in the grand expanse with no hint of their feat of a moment before. ''Oh, the chamois!'' I heard from several Swiss, ''They dance!''

Engelberg has been a preeminent mountain resort since the very beginning of Swiss tourism, when the British fell in love with the ''romance'' of the mountains. The small town in its totally enclosed valley was a stop de rigueurm on the grand tour, and has a long history of eminent visitors - Queen Victoria among them.

But long before tourism, Engelberg was renowned. It was owned by the Benedictine abbey that still dominates the town with its massive complex of imposing old buildings. The monastery was founded in 1120, and governed the valley as an autonomous state until 1798, when a wise abbot saw the direction of the times and offered to divide the monastery land with the people. It was a policy formally reiterated by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when the principle of equality among the Swiss cantons was laid down as a basis for officially recognized Swiss neutrality. Every morning the bells of the abbey ring out, and the pealing fills the village. Its organ is famous, and Mendelssohn is reputed to have produced some of his finest improvisations playing on it.

Engelberg itself is simply home to most of the Swiss who live there - not a picturesque playground. As I was wandering across the rolling green meadows late one afternoon, watching the light striping the rock peaks and taking in the brown Swiss cows above me, I came toward a dark-brown ''picturesque'' barn. Just outside it, I passed the farmer himself, a dairy farmer, young and strong, but whose every movement spoke of the fatigue of a long day's work. As he smiled ''Gruezi,''m the importance of the cows came to me. Switzerland has little arable land, and that very high. The most efficient solution for land use is dairy cattle - and the end product, cheese. What the tourist often sees as colorful is shrewd practicality - and hard work.

Unmistakably colorful is the alp descent, a ritual descent of the cattle from the high pasture of summer, the alp. Again and again during the two weeks I was in central Switzerland, I heard the full, sonorous clanging of the Treichlem, the huge cow bells signaling movement. The same pageant is repeated in reverse in the spring. But it is not staged for tourists, not announced. Instead it marks and celebrates an important event in the economic life of the individual farmer.

I was very fortunate to come upon an alp descent not far from Engelberg on a paved highway outside of Lucerne. Around a sharp bend, the road was suddenly full of large lumbering cows. They were led by a man in a red embroidered jacket. Great headdresses of fresh flowers and small Swiss flags decorated the lead cows, and all wore huge brass bells almost a foot high - some richly embossed - on wide black leather straps.