A hard hike reveals spectacular new views

Lukas spread a map on the glossy wooden front desk of his hotel. "Today I would recommend you to take this trail," he said on our first morning in Switzerland. "It is an easy hike, and you can get view of the valley."

There were plenty of other hikes he pointed out, ranging from what he called "easy" to what I called "beyond me." One went over an 8,000-foot pass and across a glacier. Before my husband, Colyn, had a chance to voice his enthusiasm, I quickly said, "You can do that one another time - with Christa!" She's our athlete daughter.

During our 10-day stay, we took almost all of the hikes Lukas recommended. We followed narrow mountain tracks from one alp to another, crossed white streams that plunged to the valley floor, traversed high pastures to the tune of cow bells, and climbed past old chalets to breathtaking views of snow-capped peaks.

What could top this? we wondered on our last day. My husband hadn't forgotten that hike over the 8,000-foot pass, but (fortunately) it was too late. That hike required catching a 5 p.m. return bus on the other side of the mountain. We would have to leave the hotel by 8 a.m., and it was almost 10 now.

"Why don't you just go as far as Lötschen Pass?" Lukas said. "You can see the Bernese Oberland from there." And I wouldn't have to cross the glacier and do that super-steep part, I thought, relieved.

We took the 11 a.m. bus to the trailhead. The first stretch was steep, and my feet were dragging. As Colyn urged me on, his hidden goal dawned on me disconcertingly. I didn't say anything. I hoped the yellow "wanderweg" signs would prove it impossible to go all the way to the bus at Selden by 5 o'clock. But at the next crossroads, the black letters taunted: "SELDEN 4 STD [stude, "hours"] 30 MIN." It was, possibly, within reach.

"Now, don't push me!" I protested. "Let's just see what time it is when we get to the pass." I didn't want any pressure to spoil this beautiful day.

The mountain air was cool, and clouds swirled among the peaks against a blue sky. As we climbed, the land opened. Nothing grew there except alpine flowers sheltered among lichen-covered rocks.

Colyn gave me a piece of chocolate and took some pictures. I breathed deeply the rare, otherworldly atmosphere and kissed my hiking partner. "I hike faster when I'm happy," I told him. "Just keep giving me those kisses and chocolate."

Steadily, we climbed slope after rocky slope, breathing hard. It got colder. A tall cairn pointed to thickening clouds as we passed an icy pool of clear turquoise. Crossing a snowfield, I spotted the Lötschen Pass hut. I looked at my watch. At this rate, we could make it to Selden.

My stomach fluttered. A barren rock face loomed beyond the hut. Would we have to climb that? I had no idea what I was getting into. It was all hidden in the dense clouds now sweeping over the pass.

The hut was filled with delicious smells and friendly chatter. I ordered some soup and sat down to enjoy it leisurely. When Colyn came in, glowing, I dug my heels in. "I haven't agreed to this yet," I said, even as I began to catch his spirit of adventure.

Across the room, souvenir T-shirts were tacked to the wall. "Lötschenpasshutte 2690 M," they proclaimed in praise of mountaineering. We had to have some.

While Colyn went to buy them, I stared at my almost-empty bowl of soup. The whole-grain roll that came with it was rock hard, but nourishing. I dropped the last two chunks into the broth, wavering at the edge of decision. When Colyn came back, I voiced my reservations one by one.

Our conversation was hardly private. A group of college kids from England, celebrating their arrival at the hut with huge plates of hot food, overhead us talking. "You mean there's more?" one girl asked. When we told her about the glacier and the trail to Selden, she gestured toward their leader and whispered, "Don't let him hear that.

Suddenly, the wind changed. Glimpsing timidity in stark form, I decided I wanted to live boldly. I wanted the kind of experience that involves letting go of what you think is supporting you and then finding yourself still supported. Like riding a bike without training wheels the first time. I wanted to dare to trust the unseen. "All right," I agreed, smiling. Colyn beamed.

The trail over the other side of the pass was extremely steep. Even with the aid of a steel cable bolted to the rock in the most difficult places, I was out of my comfort zone. Crossing the glacier was a bit scary, but I felt excited as I planted my feet in Colyn's tracks across the slippery slope.

As we descended through ice and black rock, a dense fog slowed us down. We picked up the pace where the trail zig-zagged down a steep grassy hillside. But after going hard for an hour or so, we saw a sign that revealed we were in danger of missing the bus.

There was no time for kisses and chocolate as we ran pell-mell, jumping over rocks and slamming on the brakes for hairpin turns all the way to the valley floor. Sheer momentum carried me shakily across a narrow foot bridge suspended over gorging white water. Feeling as if I were still on swaying planks, I staggered into Selden on rubber legs and collapsed into a chair. But we had made it - 15 minutes early! Lukas would be surprised.

Exhausted as I was, I was exulting within. I had been out of my comfort zone, but strangely in my element. That territory beyond ease - be it physical or purely mental - where we discover spiritual strength in self-reliance, is perhaps not only where we feel most alive, but where we belong.

One thing was clear: Our adventure had been exhilarating. And the most exhilarating part was the first step I took out of the hut.

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