Semester Abroad Stranded in the Swiss Alps

February 4, 2020
By Joseph Iwasyk, SEAS '20

Semester Abroad
ETH Zürich

So I was stranded & unable to walk 10,000 feet up on a mountain ridge overlooking Switzerland, alone, dehydrated and without any cell service. Despite the rough situation, I sat back and appreciated a once in a lifetime experience that I would continue to look back on to this day.

Now I’m not encouraging anyone to get lost on dangerous adventures in a foreign country, but rather to be spontaneous in your everyday outlook and avoid succumbing to a mundane life routine. The main reason I studied in Switzerland my spring 2019 semester, stayed to intern at a Swiss biotech company, and finally ended up on a wild & memorable hiking adventure all stemmed from my spontaneous outlook.

Definitely don’t embark on an adventure without adequately preparing and assessing risk. While I made it out ok, my Swiss savior was the only reason I made it down.

My Spontaneous Adventure to the Alps
It was my last week in Switzerland and I came to the realization that I needed to experience as much of the country as possible. Thus, I woke up on a Saturday at 6:00 AM deciding I would head to Interlaken to embark on the Hardergrat Trail Run. This trail is a stretch of steep mountain ridge 15 miles long at an elevation of 10,000+ feet. I set off confident I could run it. 10 hours later, I would be stranded on a mountain peak.  

Prepped inadequately with two water bottles and a granola bar, I ran the first few miles of trail in absolute awe of the views around me. As elevation gained, the trail narrowed to only 2-3 feet wide, with sharp drops on both sides. The difficult hike quickly transitioned to pure insanity when the trail became a literal rock climb down vertical cliffs to continue.

It was at mile 7 that I had completely run out of water and noticed a growing cramp in my quads. As I ascended one of the steepest peaks, I felt a sharp cramp and stumbled to a halt: dehydration and altitude sickness combined to cause a series of sharp muscles spasms in both my legs. Unable to stand at all, I sat on the peak and realized there was no way I could hike the remaining 10 miles to the cable car down the mountain.

At this point I was completely alone on a peak 10 miles away from civilization with no water and no cell service. Despite the excruciating pain in my legs, rendering me completely immobile, I sat and took notice of the truly stunning landscape around me. With Interlaken’s crystal blue lake to my right and roaming cows in a farmland valley to my left, I realized I might never encounter this particular moment in such a beautiful place ever again. In a week I would be back home in the US far from the Swiss Alps, surrounded by tall buildings and concrete pavement. For the next 2 hours I laid back and appreciated where I was in the world: a moment I would continue to reflect on up to this day.

Stranded but with a beautiful view of Interlaken

Despite the beauty, I needed to get home and ideally not sleep on a mountain peak. I kept an eye on the next peak for hikers and eventually spotted the figure of an old man hiking. I waited for him to reach me, hoping he would take mercy on a clumsy American hiker. I was in luck: speaking little English, this generous Swiss man saw my condition and offered a loaf of bread, two bottles of water, and a salt pill. This man probably saved me a night of sleeping on a mountain and I am forever grateful (whoever you are, thank you). Also, how that man, who was over 65 years of age, was able to navigate the rough trail baffled me. The Swiss are truly something else when it comes to hiking.

With renewed energy, I headed off to the Augstmatthorn point on the trail and decided there was no chance I could hike the remaining 8 miles to the cable car down. Looking to the left, I headed on my own route down the mountain and toward a farmhouse hoping someone there could guide me. During this trek, I passed through beautiful rolling hills dotted with roaming cows. The countryside was peaceful and reassuring despite my state of being entirely lost. I approached the farmhouse and a group of elderly locals sitting on their front porch chuckled, directing me to the nearest bus station an hour’s walk away. I set off and thanked them, ending my day at the Kemmeriboden bus station, 11 miles from my hike’s starting point and on route back to Zürich.

Map of my hike: Stretch 1 was 11.5 km along the ridge and Stretch 2 was 5.3 km through the farmland to the bus station

This adventure taught me to embrace spontaneity within a framework that suits my values and passions. From deciding to study abroad to working a summer in Zurich, and finally embarking on a hiking adventure, I was inspired by a sense of spontaneity to explore territory completely unchartered for me. The reward and insightful experiences I gained could not have been possible without having the freedom to go abroad, made possible by my parents and Penn, who I am forever thankful.

Now back in the US, I have found that breaking my ordinary routine frequently has given me a fuller appreciation of life at school and in Philly. I encourage anyone reading this and Penn students abroad to commit to breaking your ordinary life routine and appreciate a new spontaneous experience regularly.

Hardergrat Trail Highlights
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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.

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