“The mountains turn people crazy,” said the farmer’s wife as her husband filled up our water bottles from a cattle trough. Given we’d just attempted to hike down an overgrown valley littered with rock falls and leading to a sheer cliff, I had to agree.
It had all been going so well. My boyfriend Matt and I had started the four-hour hike from the Swiss mountain village of Taney to the town of St Gingolph, on the shore of Lake Geneva, in buoyant spirits. We were feeling smugly self-sufficient after spending two days camping by the tranquil Lac de Taney, living quietly alongside ducks and fishermen, cooking on an open fire made from shrapnel scavenged from the woods around the lake.
Packing up on our second morning, equipped with several litres of water, some three-day old cold pizza and more sweets than a small child on school trip, we’d felt equipped and ready for the hike that would finish with a boat crossing from St Gingolph to Lausanne and home. It was just past 10am; we felt confident of getting the 3.30pm boat, even with stops.
Things went awry about two hours in. Matt, walking ahead of me with his 19kg pack to my 10kg one (show off), misread a sign, confidently taking us down a path that soon petered out into fields where cows grazed to the low clank-clank of their heavy bells. We passed a farmhouse and nodded ‘bonjour’ to the weathered couple eating lunch on their terrace. It didn’t occur to us to ask if we were going the right way.
Even when we reached a natural end to the path, on a grassy ridge that tapered into a long, wild valley, Lake Geneva sitting majestic in blue at its foot, we didn’t think we’d taken a wrong turn. Or at least, Matt didn’t. This was, naturally, entirely his fault.
Scouring a map that wasn’t really big enough for our needs, he decided that the untamed jungle below was indeed the route down. It may be wild, but flattened grass showed that others had been there before us, scrabbling, as we then did, through nettles and loose rock, over tree roots and through bluebells.
We picked our way down, unable to see through the undergrowth, tentatively testing rocks to ensure they’d take our weight. My pack constantly threw me off balance, threatening to help twist my ankle or throw me into a nettle patch. Down below – a long, long way below – we could see a winding road: surely, at some point, we’d reach it?
Two hours into our slow descent it became blindingly clear that we wouldn’t. A wooded, slightly flatter area had promised so much, before it ended abruptly in a vertical drop. Matt went off to investigate an alternative route; I sat and feared the worst. We’d have to spend the night here. How much water did we have left? Not enough. Pizza? Two mangy slices. I sucked on a strawberry lace and waited.
“We’re going back up,” said Matt on his return, finally acknowledging that a cliff face surely couldn’t be part of a well-known and recommended mountain hike. I had a brief blub. If going down had been ankle-twistingly precarious, going up would be probably the toughest physical challenge this city girl had ever undertaken.
But there was something about being stuck in a hostile wilderness, with limited water and no phone signal, that gave me renewed strength. I wanted out. So out we went. As expected, it wasn’t easy – I found the only way to deal with the effort of hauling myself and my pack uphill was to make noises like an elephant in pain. But an hour or so later, having drunk the last of our water, we heaved ourselves up to the ridge where we’d sat several hours before, contemplating the valley below.
The farm was a much needed oasis. “We’d wondered where you were going,” said the farmer’s wife, smiling at our mountain madness. “The way to St Gingolph is back there – it’s clearly signed.”
We laughed like it didn’t matter, like it was a simple detour, easily rectified, didn’t take us long. Weary but relieved, we set off again, back to the point of our mistake. Leading in the opposite direction to our epic diversion was a clear path, winding its way down the neighbouring valley, with a sign pointing the way. Needless to say, we missed the boat.