During our trip of Switzerland, we stayed for one night at this remote location – an isolated surreal place where there is no other human presence, other than in the solitary wooden Aescher mountain guesthouse. At 5,000 feet, this mountain guesthouse is built precariously on a narrow ledge, into the rock face, at the base of a sheer precipice. It is just below the Ebanalp summit in Appenzellerland (or Appenzell).
The only way to get there is by hiking the last section of the route; it does take some effort to find this place, but it is every bit worth it.
But before I describe the mountain hostel (Berggasthaus in German), a brief description of this region would be in order.
Appelzell (or Appenzellerland) is a region and a canton in the north of Switzerland, not far from the town of St. Gallen. The Alpstein Massif is a sub group of mountains belonging to the larger horseshoe shaped Appenzell Alps. The Alpine landscape here is dominated by mighty, rugged, craggy alpine vistas, where enormous rock formations tower up to over 8,000 feet. The region is dissected by deep and steep edged valleys, surrounded by sheers and cliffs and watched over by the imposing 8,200-foot Mount Säntis.
Ebenalp, the place where our adventure unfolded, is the northernmost summit of the Appenzell Alps.
We started off early in the morning from Zurich and arrived in the small town of Gossau in about an hour’s time, by an inter-city train. From Gossau we got into a small red train of the Appenzeller-Bahn service and were in Appenzell in less than 50 minutes.
In the Appenzell station, we had an experience, the first of many such during our 25 day trip of Switzerland, that was to change our previously held image of Swizz people as being cold, distant and unfriendly.
Since we were going for an overnight trip up on the mountain and had to hike a part of our route to our destination, we needed to keep our extra luggage at the lockers in the station. But the lockers being small would not fit our bigger luggage. Seeing our predicament, the lady at the ticket counter came over and offered to keep our luggage safely at a corner of the ticketing office, for us to collect the next day. And when I went to pay for the equivalent locker storage charge, (18 CHF / USD 19), the lady said that since we were not using the lockers, the payment was not necessary. She charmingly added that it was a gift from Appenzellerland.
We were extremely grateful for the favor and deeply touch by the kindness.
From Appenzell, a connecting train took us to the sleepy little hamlet of Wasserauen in less than 10 minutes.
The train journey between Gossau and Wasserauen was by itself, one of its kinds. The Appenzell region is characterized by rolling hills, rugged snow capped mountains and vast expanses of green meadows, rendering the region a beauty that is at once magnificent and tender. We passed through numerous little train stations (where the train stops only on request), traversing a landscape dotted with little hamlets, villages and beautiful chalets and rolling meadows with cows grazing lazily.
From Wasserauen station, it was a couple of minutes walk to the cable car station (for Ebanalp) located by a wide gushing stream. We found a small group of boisterous young hikers, probably college students, playing some kind of volleyball, standing in a circular formatinon. We were the only people in that vast remote landscape. It felt pretty surreal.
The gentleman at the cable car ticket counter informed us that it had snowed heavily that morning up at Ebanalp. I knew at once that our hike in the mountain that day was going to be exciting, as much as it was going to be challenging.
In less than 10 minutes, our cable car made a steep and sweeping ascend amidst rugged rocks and spectacular scenery, high up in the mountain to Ebanalp. As we approached Ebanalp, we found the summit covered under a thick blanket of snow.
At the top, we got magnificent 360 degree views of the Alps.
We got off the cable car station at the summit and the real adventure began. As we hit the trail, we found that most of it was under snow and slush and parts of the trail that were cleared of snow, had turned very slippery and dangerous.
We followed the well marked hiking signs to the Aescher Mountain Guesthouse, braving strong winds and a slippery trail along the steep mountain sides. We had to struggle to maintain our balance. Nina lost hers twice and fell. I fell once. Fortunately, neither of us was hurt. To be safe, Minnie, our 11 year old daughter simply lowered herself on the snow and slid herself downhill, along the track.
We were the only people in that vast, remote and desolate expanse of snow and not another soul was to be sighted anywhere. Even a minor mishap would have put us into deep trouble. Although no one was hurt, we were scared as hell. I kept checking up on Minnie who was following behind and braving it out. In fact, she seemed to have a lot of fun sliding on the snow and slush and getting her back completely wet.
What would have normally taken us about 20-25 minutes, took us about an hour because we were treading very slowly and carefully. We had our back-packs and I had an extra hand luggage plus my bulky camera. That made my movement along the precarious track, even slower. Moreover, we also stopped from time to time to take in the views.
We took the sweeping, curved, downward trail over the steep snow clad mountain side, taking one step at a time. It had stopped snowing, but the winds were strong and biting cold. We then came to a small turnstile and then a sharp and narrow downward turn at the edge of the mountain. We couldn’t figure out why that odd turnstile was there in first place. Going past the turnstile, we steadily descended along the slope to suddenly find ourselves at the entrance of a dark cave.
The Wildkirchli is the name of a group of three caves in the Alpstein Massif in which remnants of a Paleolithic (Neanderthals) habitation were discovered in 1940 by Emil Bächler (1868–1950). These have been dated to circa 50,000 to 30,000 years BCE. Remnants of pre-historic Cave Bears dating to circa 90,000 years BCE have also been found.
Fast forward to the modern era, from 1658 to 1853, these caves were inhabited by Hermit Monks – men of spiritual persuasions, who had chosen to cut themselves away from human settlement and contemplate in seclusion.
The last Hermit resident is said to have fallen to his sad death on the mountain in the mid-1800s, and since then the Hermit Hut next to the cave remained vacant until it was renovated to a tiny 3-room museum in 1972, displaying few life size models of prehistoric Cave Bears, bones and some tools dating from the Paleolithic age.
You have by now got the idea. One has to pass through the Wildkirchli caves to reach the Aescher mountain hostel. That is the only way. Now how cool is that.
We entered the dark, damp and cold cave, not knowing fully, where we were headed to. Inside we found a paved undulating trail (which has railings at places) with a dim light bulb illuminating the way. It was slippery at places. The track led us to the other end of the cave. As we emerged out of the other end, we found the Hermit’s Hut to our left.
We then found ourselves at the edge of a sheer cliff, overlooking the valley. The view was absolutely spectacular. Turning right and along a slight uphill section, we then arrived at a tiny and incredibly charming red Chapel on the cliff-side, with the space for congregation hewn deep into the rock face. This 400-year old Chapel was built by our Hermit Monks, who lived in the caves and worshipped at the Chapel from 1658 to 1853.
Clearly this had to be the most picturesque location in the whole world for a Chapel and with your spirits soaring, you were already nearer to God I thought. There was a beautiful, small image of Christ on the Cross. I said my silent words of thanks for keeping us safe.
We carried on along the mountain edge and negotiated our way through the narrow cliff-side trail. We then came to a small covered wooden scaffold – around an area where the cliff to the right was sheer and the drop below the scaffold precipitous.
Emerging out of this covered scaffold, we took a sharp turn around the corner of the cliff and the Aescher Mountain Guesthouse was in front of us at a distance.
Tucked away at what seemed the end of the world, this was truly a travelers’ treasure. At a height of 2,500 meters and surrounded by spectacular scenery, this 170 year old mountain guesthouse clung on to a sheer rock cliff, on a narrow ledge.
We felt a sense of exhilaration on arriving at the guest house. And we were hungry as well. We checked into the small dormitory – we were the only people to occupy the room for the night and our room had a beautiful little window from where we got amazing views of the place. We quickly changed into dry cloths.
The guest house had a small restaurant and a bar – heated and hence very comfortable. Rest of the property did not have any heating. Minnie and I ordered for the local delicacy – Rosti (the Swiss version of Hash Brownies) with cheese and fried eggs. Nina ordered for some white sausage and cheese macaroni. Our food came in large portions. Appenzeller cheese turned out to be way too strong and smelly for our liking though. I suppose it is an acquired taste. Too bad for us.
The guesthouse is literally built into the cliff, so its back wall is just rock. There are three dormitories rooms with beds and bunks placed side by side. So basically you bed down with others. There is however a 3-bed room, called “Eagle’s Nest” for small families, but it is also the coldest room because a huge chunk of rock sticks out into the room. We had initially booked this room, but decided to move to the larger dormitory because that was less cold.
There are large mattresses with down blankets. You have to get your own towels, toiletries and slippers. There is no TV or Internet, but who needs these here? We wouldn’t have objected to some room heating though.
The dormitories and the two toilets were very clean, as is the case everywhere in Switzerland. There was no shower or bath. Water came off the mountain, in a trickle in a faucet in the small bathroom sink.
Amenities at the guesthouse are therefore pretty ‘basic’ and you have to be prepared to rough it out. I must say that the lack of comfort or absence of any hint of luxury adds to the special charm and appeal of the place.
The Aescher Mountain Guesthouse remains open for six months, from May to October. Rest of the year it remains closed because access becomes almost impossible because of snow. When the place is open, it is run by its owners, Claudia, Beny Knechtle-Wyss and their adult children, supported by hired helps in the peak season.
After lunch, we explored the vicinity of the guest house. We couldn’t go for any of the numerous long hikes up along the valley as originally planned because the hiking trails were under snow and I just did not want to take any more risks.
And then, sitting on the terrace in front of the guesthouse in the shadows of the towering cliff above us, we saw jaw-dropping sweeping vistas of the Appenzell region – rugged mountains with deep ridges, deep cut valleys, and snow capped peaks of Säntis and the Hoherkasten as well as a part of Lake Constance at a distance.
It had been a long day and after a light dinner, we decided to hit the bed. With no heating, our room felt like a giant chiller and our bed cold as ice. The three of us huddled together and it soon got warm. We chatted for some time and then the mountain air lulled us into a deep blissful sleep.
The next morning, we woke up as early morning light filtered in through our tiny window. Our daughter Minnie and I enjoyed a stunning sunrise from the Terrace, while Nina slept. After having a leisurely breakfast and spending some more time at the terrace, we checked out and retraced our steps back up to Ebanalp to catch the cable car down.
On our way back we found many para-gliders taking off from the slopes of Ebanalp. This place is ideal for hand-gliding and para-gliding because of ideal wind conditions.
At the end of our trip, I was left wondering why someone had build a guesthouse like this, just out of nowhere, high up into the side of a mountain cliff, in such a remote place. I was later to learn that originally, at this place, there used to be a small mountain hut for sheltering goats and cows. Thereafter, the place evolved and expanded into a guesthouse for pilgrims who came to the Hermit Monks living in the caves (from 1658 to 1853), for spiritual guidance.
The Monks have now long gone, but their spirits live on in the old Chapel built into the cliff.
The Aescher guest house today welcomes pilgrims of a different kind – travelers who seek to temporarily leave behind their own worlds, explore new worlds, seek repose and reach out for communion with nature, in tranquility.
I cannot say that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For, I certainly hope to be back some day.
Foods to try:
Rosti – an Appenzeller Speciality
Siedwurst – a kind of white sausage with cheese macaroni.
Salad with Apple sauce.
If you are a beer person, you might want to try Appenzeller beers. Being a teetotaler, I wouldn’t know, but it is said to be very good.
Local people swear that Appenzeller is the best cheese ever (it is supposed to have a “strong nutty” flavor) and I am sure many would agree. However just in case, like me, you don’t like your cheese to be strong and smelly (and I mean really smelly), you might want to try out some in small quantity first to test the waters out.
This is an amazing area for hikers. You can hike all the way up to the Aescher Guest House and then up to Ebanalp, from Wasserauen. There are amazing hiking trails starting from the Ebanalp summit (from the cable car the station) and the trails lead to a network of mountain huts. These hiking routes lead to popular sites such as Säntis and Seealpsee
Even if you are taking the easier option out, like we did, going up to Ebanalp by the cable car, you will still have to hike down to Aescher. Therefore, travel only with a back pack (with a night change and some extra warm clothing) and use walking sticks, something we forgot to do.
If you have extra luggage stop in the Appenzell train station and store your luggage in the lockers before continuing on to Wasserauen. But keep in mind, the lockers are small. They don’t fit in large suitcases.
The hike is risky when it snows – the track does become pretty slippery. So, unlike us, if you can, avoid going there when it snows.
Even in the summer, it can be pretty cold up there. So carry warm cloths if you want to spend time on the terrace early morning or till late in the evening.
As mentioned earlier, there is no shower or bath. There is just a sink, which a faucet in the bathroom. So for most, this may not be a good place to stay for more than one night. I would recommend this highly for one night.
This guest house can host up to 40 people and there is one room (Eagle’s Nest) which has three beds. So this is ideal for a small family. I will advise that you book the room in advance.When we went, the price was CHF 45 per head with breakfast, which included coffee/tea, bread, cheese and jams. Every bit of the CHF 45 was worth spent at this magical placeThe address of this place is Wildkirchli, Ebenalp, Weissbad 9057, Switzerland. However feeding this into your GPS does not help. It is truly out of nowhere
The only way to communicate for a booking is through phone. We couldn’t book this place on the net. The owners/managers prefer reservations by phone (0041 71 799 11 42). Please note, understandably, English is not a particular strength of the owners / managers, unless they have improved their skills since our visit. So unless you know German, it might be a good idea to request someone who knows German to make the booking for you. If you are speaking to them in English, you need to be slow and patient while speaking on the phone.
Check out train connections, timings of the cable car and weather in advance.