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  • Writer's pictureMike Page

A Weekend in the Appenzell Alps

Sitting on the terrace of the Gasthaus Aescher on Saturday morning I couldn't help but think of an article I wrote last year about how I became an Alpaholic - the story of how I fell in love with the Alps. So how did we end up at Aescher? Our first trip to the Alpstein mountain range south and west of the Swiss town of Appenzell was 16 years ago when the kids had just started primary school. I'd seen a photo of the place in a book as we'd been planning our visit and even walked past here, hoping that it would be open for food (it wasn't). In the intervening years we've been back to the region two more times (three now), stopping in to get some refreshments and had always had an eye on staying over to catch the morning light.

Gasthaus Schaefler Reflecting Sunrise || OM-System OM-1, 28 mm, f/8, 1/4 s, ISO 200

In 2020, Sharon surprised me with a voucher to spend the night at Aescher as a Valentine's present. Even though the voucher had officially expired, fortunately the manager was more than accommodating and told us that as long as she was in charge that the voucher would be honoured. Which was just as well, given the price of an overnight stay. Whereas you pay as little as CHF 45 for an overnight at Berggasthaus Schäfler 90 min up the ridge, staying in one of the limited rooms at Aescher cost us more like CHF 150 per night each (breakfast included in both).

Gasthaus Aescher and the Altmann || OM-System OM-1, 20 mm, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200

The original Gasthaus was built in 1860 firstly as a hermitage and then to serve visitors to the nearby Wildkirchli ('Wild Church') and has been extended a couple of times since over the years to add floors etc. The most recent modifications were the new washrooms in 2019/20. The building is fascinating, built underneath an overhanging cliff. The front of the house is quite obviously constructed from wood, but the back wall is the rock of the cliff face.

The Hermitage - Our Lodging
Our Hermitage - Note the Rock Wall

For those of you thinking that you'll just pop in for a coffee, Gasthaus Aescher is not just off the road. It's a good 2 h hike up from the main car park at Wasserauen or a 20 min walk down from the Ebenalp cable car through the cave above the Wildkirchli along the bottom of the cliff.

Berggasthof Schäfler || OM-System OM-1, 41 mm, f/8, 1/1600 s, ISO 200

We've got a good track record with wildlife in the Alpstein range; on our very first autumn visit we were witness to a pair of golden eagles soaring just under the ridge below Schäfler. On a later visit which included us staying at the Rotsteinpass and climbing the Säntis we were graced by an evening visit by an ibex as well as spotting some ptarmigan on the way down to Meglisalp. With that in mind, I packed my heavy 100-400 mm lens (>1 kg) just in case. The weight was worth it; hiking up to Schäfler on the second day we saw two eagles setting off on their daily hunt. Fortunately, they spiralled over the lake a few times, giving me time to swap out the lens and grab some shots.

Golden Eagle || OM-System OM-1, 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600 s, ISO 1250
Eagle without sharpening

Just like African safaris where they talk about The Big Five, there are a Big Five in the Alps; golden eagles, ibex, chamois, marmots and bearded vultures or Laemmergeier. As well as the golden eagles we were fortunate enough to see two more of the five species on the same day, starting with a family of marmots followed by what was probably the biggest herd of chamois that we've ever seen with 50-60 animals just below the Hintere Öhrligrueb.

Marmot Family || OM-System OM-1, 355 mm, f/6.3, 1/1000 s, ISO 640
Chamois Herd || OM-System OM-1, 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/800 s, ISO 200
Watchful Chamois || OM-System OM-1, 400 mm, f/6.3, 1/800 s, ISO 200
Eagle Hunting || OM-System OM-1, 218 mm, f/8, 1/1000 s, ISO 200

With the wildlife out of the way, we can concentrate on the landscapes. The one image that I wanted to take on this visit was of the iconic Altenalp Türm. This classic view from the top of the Schäfler was enhanced by the moody low cloud. Another time I think I'd like to stay at Schäfler and work on this image in different lights.

Altenalp Turm - an Appenzell Classic || OM-System OM-1, 31 mm, f/8, 1/640 s, ISO 200

On the Friday morning there was low cloud over the high mountains with it clearing out to the west, meaning that the Säntis was almost fully obscured until lunchtime whilst views out of the mountains were blue skies.

Säntis Obscured || OM-System OM-1, 35 mm, f/8, 1/800 s, ISO 200
Above the Lötzlialpsattel || OM-System OM-1, 28 mm, f/8, 1/500 s, ISO 200
Marwees and the Seealpsee || OM-System OM-1, 14 mm, f/8, 1/800 s, ISO 200

The Alpstein region has a really high density of quality panorama views as well as some great tours of varying grades and some great huts. It's a microcosm of the Swiss Alps without the ice and glaciers of the high mountains.

Schäfler Panorama including Meglisalp || OM-System OM-1, 28 mm, f/8, 1/640 s, ISO 200
Evening Panorama from the Aescher Terrace || OM-System OM-1, 24 mm, f/8, 1/500 s, ISO 200
Hoher Kasten Panorama || OM-System OM-1, 28 mm, f/8, 1/500 s, ISO 200

Although the sunrises and sunsets from Schäfler, which sits atop a ridge, meaning that there are great views both east and west, we didn't do badly from Aescher either. Sunrise and sunset shots are always tricky

Sunset over the Altmann || OM-System OM-1, 25 mm, f/5.6, 1/80 s, ISO 200
Pre-Dawn at Aescher || OM-System OM-1, 21 mm, f/8, 1/13 & 1/200 s, ISO 200 - exposure blended

Rounding off the trip, here are a few random images. Descending to Mesmer we heard occasional strains of an alpine horn. We never found where it came from, but it was a lovely backdrop to a lovely day.

The Mesmer is another of the many huts and guest houses in the region. They also serve possibly the best Rösti that I have had in my life. Even though we were pretty much awash with cheese at this point - even breakfast consisted of huge chunks of Appenzeller and warm cheese flan, I couldn't resist a plate of cheese and bacon Rösti. We also discovered the delicious but un-pronounceable Ghürotne here, a low-alcohol mix of partially fermented cider and apple juice.

Mesmer Alp below the Schäfler || OM-System OM-1, 16 mm, f/8, 1/640 s, ISO 200

Descending from Mesmer to the Seealpsee we found multiple clumps of willow gentians. Most gentians bloom early in the summer, but the willow and field gentians are late bloomers.

Electric Blue Willow Enzian || OM-System OM-1, 54 mm, f/8, 1/20 s, ISO 800

As we reached the valley bottom near the Seealp See we were overtaken by a herd of white goats trotting merrily along the farm track with a shepherdess following a few hundred metres behind. The goats left the path after passing a large rock by the track heading to a nearby farmstead where they were then ushered into a milking shed.

Frolicking Goats || OM-System OM-1, 47 mm, f/8, 1/125 s, ISO 200

This next photo of the Ebenalp above Brühlisau is an object lesson in selective seeing as well as showing the location of Gasthaus Aescher. The object lesson in selective seeing because of the barbed wire bottom left - I'm sure it wasn't there when I took the shot! If you go straight up from the Brühlisau church tower you'll see two blips on the ridge, one being the Ebenalp cable car station and slightly left the Ebenalp House. Aescher is directly below the latter at the border between the cliff and the grass.

Brühlisau, Ebenalp and Säntis || OM-System OM-1, 29 mm, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200
High Mountain Farm || OM-System OM-1, 34 mm, f/8, 1/400 s, ISO 200
Alpstein Waterfall || OM-System OM-1, 25 mm, f/8, 1/5 s, ISO 800
Clouds Forming || OM-System OM-1, 25 mm, f/8, 1/500 s, ISO 200

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