Vroni and Hans Zumbühl – Staffel, Nidwalden

“Every animal has its own characteristics – just like people”

You can see the joy and passion in the faces of Hans and Vroni Zumbühl. Literally nestled in a hollow between Arvigrat and the Winterhalten ridge lies the Winterhalten/Staffel Alpine settlement at 1,546 metres above sea level. Just as the Zumbühls feel at home here, the cattle also seem to enjoy the idyllic landscape dotted with spruce and maple trees. “The Alpine settlement has been owned by the Odermatt family since 1893. As a child, I set off for school with my siblings at 6.30 in the morning and we walked two kilometres over hill and dale to Oberalp. From there, it was a quick shot down on the Älplerseil cableway to the village of Wolfenschiessen.” In those days, communication was rudimentary: the neighbouring farmers put a white cloth in front of the window to indicate when the children were waiting there until the weather improved due to a thunderstorm.

Hans’ wife Vroni shares his passion for Alpine life, while Hans himself has also found another inspiring activity surrounded by nature. Outside his seasonal work on the Alp, he works as a train driver on the Zentralbahn railway. Even during the season, he still puts in around four days a month at the engine controls. The 70 cattle come from various farmers in Lucerne, Zug and Nidwalden. “In the morning, I see to the cattle and do the rounds.” With 30 years of experience in handling the animals, he can tell how his herd is doing just by looking at it from a distance. “The cattle need affection just like us humans; every animal is unique in its own way. It’s not unusual for me to have a little chat with the individual animals. They love my stories.” Bleika the mountain dog helps him with his work and calmly herds the cattle.

She’s not too fond of the rain since the rainy summer of 2014 – as we see during our visit to the Alpine settlement. She prefers to stay with Vroni in the rustic kitchen of the hut. From time to time, the curious cows peer through the kitchen window and seem to have spotted the pot of Älplermagronen (Alpine macaroni) over the fire. It takes practice to cook over an open fire, but you also need to be skilful when stocking up on your supplies. The pantry is well lined, any holes are well plugged and some of the food is hanging up. This is because “when the farmer’s away, the mice will play”; they do their very best to get to the food one way or another. Vroni serves up the tasty macaroni while the rodents rustle in the background. The carved drawings on the table depict events from the past and inspire the imagination.

Her four children, aged between 16 and 22, visit her from time to time and help to fence off the individual pastures or mow the weeds. They sleep in “Daschtern”, the local Nidwalden dialect word for beds that are firmly nailed to the walls of the room.

Irene Röthlin, Alpine farmer and churchwarden on Tannalp, Obwalden

“My work gives me more energy than I invest”

Tannalp – less than 600 metres from Lake Tannen – is one of the few Alpine settlements that has the atmosphere of a village centre. It even has its own chapel. From the beginning of July to the end of August, 18 Alpine farming families live here with a total of 800 cows. Irene Röthlin, who has been coming to Tannalp with her family for over 23 years, is the churchwarden of the Tannalp “Mary, Queen of Angels” chapel. She was elected to her post by the Alpine community.

“As soon as spring arrives, I long for the day when I can move up to our Alp with my family”, admits Irene Röthlin. “It’s a real pleasure for me to have been a churchwarden at Tannalp for 12 years.” The mother of four opens and closes the chapel, rings the hand-operated bell at 12 noon and 8pm and prepares the masses.

Working with children – a unique experience

The ringing of the bell at 8pm is a very special experience for Irene Röthlin. “The almost 20 children of the Alpine families gather in front of the chapel”, enthuses the Alpine churchwarden. “One of the children or one of the farmers then recites the Kerns prayer – our Alpine blessing. It’s an incredibly moving experience in a completely tranquil atmosphere.” After the prayer, the children go off to play again and soon it’s time for bed. “These are the moments that make our busy lives up here so happy and worthwhile”, emphasises Irene Röthlin.

Irene Röthlin is a churchwarden by vocation. She doesn’t see her work as a job but rather as an enrichment to her life. “The conversations with the people and the sense of tranquillity are very valuable”, she says with conviction. “For me, the chapel is a place of power that gives me more energy than I invest.”

At the Alpine settlement and on the farm

When the Alpine season begins, Irene Röthlin leads a “double life”. Early in the morning, she leaves the Alp with her husband to go haymaking and tend to the garden on their farm in Kerns. Her children usually stay on the Tannalp during this time and spend time with their friends. "We go back up to the Alp at 6pm, make dinner and do the final chores”, says the busy Alpine farmer. “Our cows love being outside day and night over these seven weeks.”

For Irene Röthlin, spending time up in the Alpine settlement is a privilege. “Nobody can take away what we experience here”, says the Alpine farmer and churchwarden. “Every time we’re here, we can step back and experience an intense period of simplicity in which nature shows us how to live our lives.”

Paul Grossmann – Alpine farmer and cheesemaker on the Tschingelfeld Alp, Bernese Oberland

“Nature sets the rhythm, not a timetable”

The beautiful headwaters of the Giessbach valley begin above Axalp. Further back, the elongated valley curves round to the left. It comprises unspeakably beautiful lush green pastures, waterfalls and steep rock faces. It feels like a little paradise. And perched on a terrace in the middle of this unique nature is the Tschingelfeld Alpine settlement. This is home to Paul Grossmann, his wife Sibylle and son Simon, who work together on two Alpine farms and produce the fantastic Tschingelfeld cheese. Everything is still done by hand. 

There are two Alpine farms on the Tschingelfeld Alp. While Paul Grossmann makes cheese in the Senntum Ringgenberg building, his wife does the same in the Senntum Brienz building. They met each other up here at Tschingelfeld and have spent every summer here ever since. Of their six children, only Simon still comes here with them. He will gradually take over the farm in Brienz as well as the Alpine farm. Paul Grossmann: “The entire handover process should be completed by the time I am 65 years old. We already have a generational community, which means that Simon owns 50% of the cows and is constantly adding more.”

“Learning to watch nature”

Paul Grossmann was already visiting the Alp as a child with his parents. “Yes, I’ve never really known anything else”, he admits. “But I wouldn’t want a different life either. I’m happy here and I have my animals, an incredible natural landscape and peace and quiet.” Everything moves slower up here. Paul Grossmann is able to be his own boss and work hard without stress. “Here, you learn to watch nature and not the clock”, he says. “Nature sets the rhythm up here, not man.” Paul Grossmann is also certain that people can be happy with this attitude to life.

Five tonnes of cheese

At the Tschingelfeld Alp, Paul and Sibylle Grossmann still produce their Berner Hobelkäse AOP cheese in the traditional way. It is only sold once it has been aged for 18 months. Both heat their “cauldron” with wood and heat the 450 litres of milk each day to 50 degrees. Their 60 cows, belonging to 20 farmers, can produce up to 1,100 litres of milk. It takes 11 litres of milk to make one kilo of cheese. The two farmers each produce six wheels of the best handmade cheese every day. At the end of September, when the cows leave the Alpine pastures, five tonnes of cheese or around 600 wheels have been produced. These are then brought down to the valley in five helicopter flights. Paul Grossmann: “For us, the Alpine cattle descent and the subsequent ‘Chästeilet’ (dividing up of the cheese between the different farmers) is always the culmination of a job that we simply wouldn’t want to miss.”

Paper edition of the magazine “hin und weg” – also available as a subscription.

This is an article from the magazine “hin und weg”. You can find the printed version at the train stations in Engelberg, Sarnen, Stans and Meiringen, in all Travel Centres, as well as on trains. We will also be happy to send the magazine to your home address. Send an e-mail to hello@zentralbahn.ch with the subject “Subscribe to hin und weg magazine” and include your postal address in the body text of the message.