Switzerland: a hiker's paradise

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.

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.

The centuries-old parade seemed utterly incongruous on the sleek new road, and at the same time absolutely serious, a festival just for itself. It is clearly just as genuine as the engineering that executed the St. Gotthard tunnel. And it points up the extreme diversity within Switzerland, a diversity far more complex than just the cultural divisions among German-, French-, Italian-, and Romansch-speaking areas.

The alpenhorn is probably the premier symbol of the lonely farmer tending his cattle on the high alpine meadow. About 12 feet long, it rests on the ground in front of the player. It is carved from wood and wrapped in thin strips of birch bark. Its deep melancholy resonance, the simplicity of its tone, seems one with the mountains.

Every autumn at the time of the alp descent, Engelberg hosts a national alpenhorn competition. Camaraderie and joy, rather than competition, suffuse the event. The people in the audience are primarily Swiss, themselves in traditional dress; and there is an informality - the edges of the audience are ragged as people drift away to greet friends. The day is a wonderful homespun occasion. Shy and bashful, these men of the mountains in their striking embroidered black-velvet and wool Sennechutteli (Alpine jackets), 17th to 19th century in design, stand together under the trees awaiting their turn.

After the competition, 21 players lined their horns up for a concert. Among the last was a young girl, unusual because the horn is related to an economic system that rests on the division of domestic labor. She is one of the most vivid signs of change that I saw here.

Engelberg is compact within its green hills, and the valley itself is an interesting place to wander. But its glory is the mountains.

I recommend the mountains in any weather your guide deems safe. Gusti and I started up to the Rugghubel in thick fog - with snow predicted. Once we were out on the trail, we were walking as if enfolded in a small finite world. The wealth of inconspicuous Alpine flowers took on a different dimension and jumped out at me in their brilliance and variety. A tiny Bergfinke (mountain finch) sat immobile before us until the last moment and then was a low dark movement in the saturated yellow grass.

The haunting tolling of cow bells far below was a barely audible background for the shrill ''craack'' of the high-altitude Dohlem, a black Alpine bird with red feet and yellow beak. As we passed the rubble of old Alp huts with thick gray stone walls and huge round beams, the fog thinned slightly and nearby evergreens became faint silhouettes. Soon after we reached the Rugghubelhutte, the afternoon cleared into brilliant patches of sun over the high peaks and the glacier.

We stayed at the Rugghubelhutte, a shelter maintained by the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), part of a whole system of huts throughout the Alps. Blankets, mattress, food, and especially good cheer are available. Hans Waser, Gusti, and I talked into the night over fresh homemade Linzertortem with the couple who manage the hut. For all the good company and Gemutlichkeitm, it is a tight ship: a battery-powered telephone links the hut not only with the valley but with any place in the world, and there are thorough and sophisticated provisions for hiker safety.

The Rugghubel hike is a long uphill trek, not exacting for someone in good condition and used to walking in the mountains, but definitely not to be undertaken by anyone new to hiking. For the experienced, a variety of exhilarating (and difficult) climbs can be made from the hut: a foray on the glacier, or an assault of the Wissigstock. Vacationers not accustomed to hiking should begin with very easy walks, and preferably hike the mountains only in the company of a guide.

A less strenuous, popular hike is that to the Brunnihutte, another SAC hut. You can begin the day early with a unique visit to a working farm for a lavish but authentic farmer's breakfast, high above Engelberg at Fluhmatt. The farm is reached by a special stop of the Brunni cable car. A buffet table is spread with sliced meat and bacon, eggs, Rostim (very thin, pan-fried potatoes), homemade breads and jams, birnbrotm (a sweet cakelike bread interlaced in thin layers with a paste of dried pears), and a special gingerbread Luzerner lebkuchenm. Mrs. Hacki, the farmer's wife, could have come straight from a story by Johanna Spyri , her round face pleasant but practical, eyes ever alert to the business at hand , a large serviceable white apron on a stout body used to hard work, rough capable hands, a busy woman with time to smile but with no time to have someone extraneous in her spotless kitchen. Her daughter, too, could be out of ''Heidi.'' She has fine blond hair, a shy manner, and beaming happy face.

A network of trails spreads out from the top of the cable car at Ristis - traversing alternately quiet majestic forest; ridges overlooking green highland meadows; and wide, bare rock-strewn slopes.

The most spectacular view is, of course, to be had from the top of the Titlis across the valley, at 10,000 feet the highest peak in central Switzerland. There , jagged white is all around, and in the distance some of Switzerland's most famous peaks are lined up on the horizon - the Jungfrau, the Eiger, the Matterhorn. The 45-minute trip up includes one segment of funicular built in 1927 - the oldest in the country, and testament to Engelberg's longtime popularity. A new cable car is planned, however, and the travel time will be shortened.

Engelberg has a wide range of winter sports facilities: sledding; skating; curling; cross-country skiing; and, for relaxing, indoor swimming pools. There is a wide variety of hotels, from the rambling old early 20th-century establishments to contemporary family-run inns, such as the Hotel Engelberg.

Engelberg is only 50 minutes by train from Lucerne. And the train, the bright red, beautifully maintained LSE (Lucerne-Stans-Engelberg) Railway, is a joy in itself, even in this land of railways.

The LSE is an example of the ingenuity and determination that have given a small isolated country without significant natural resources or arable land a prominent position in the contemporary industrialized world. To connect the line directly with Lucerne in 1966 so that passengers did not have to change from train to ferry to separate train, a mile-long tunnel was cut through the solid rock of a ridge of Mt. Pilatus and a bridge was built over a section of Lake Lucerne.

That Lucerne is the city from which one embarks to Engelberg is a fortuitous bonus. Its old wall is silhouetted on a hill over the city, the nine towers all different, archetypes for our image of the chivalrous ''fairytale'' medieval.

One is surrounded by age in Lucerne: winding streets of severe burgher facades; a long block of guild houses fronting the Reuss that used to have the water lap at their foundations like the palazzi of Venice, the Kapellebrucke, the covered wooden bridge with its stone tower that was part of the city wall. Through the old city winds the Weggisgasse, shopping street extraordinairem - hung with bright-red, blue and yellow banners of medieval design - along which are shops with the superb handmade chocolates for which Switzerland is so justly famous.

A trip around the lake by steamer offers a series of diverse vignettes. Just out from the dock, the Swiss flag whips bright red and white against the old church spires and guild halls. White Bonaparte gulls follow the boat from the start, dazzling white in a shifting cluster around the stern, sweeping by the rails on currents and hanging stationary as a foreground to the blue-green shore. We pass close under the face of the Burgenstock, its sheer, forested profile rising almost vertically from the water.

Farther along the lake is Gersau, the other tiny autonomous state that lost its status along with Engelberg as a result of the Congress of Vienna. It is a small town, still sheltering some wonderful old houses, deep dark-brown with age , set with windows edged in white and fronted by bright, immaculate flower gardens.

Time in Lucerne and in the mountains of Engelberg can be spent as in a travelogue - seeing only the travel poster. But it would be unfortunate to miss its subtleties by looking without reflection at the surface only. Of all places, Switzerland is no monolith. The pretty veneer is simply that: real, but only a layer of the truth. Accepting Switzerland in any mood, any weather, makes for a rich experience that engages the mind as well as enlarging the field for the senses. Practical details:

The Engelberg Tourist Office offers a range of week-long hiking and ski tours , from Rambler's Weeks that include the services of a guide for 4 days ($370 a person double occupancy) to Senior Citizens Holidays ($255) and Family Holidays ($260 with one child free). All tours include hotel, breakfast and dinner, lifts , and transportation and baggage handling from the Zurich airport. Optional costs include guide services at $90 a day for one person or more and the SAC huts at $5 a night, $5 for dinner, and $2.50 for breakfast.

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