An alpine meadow.

CRISTALLINA PEAK, SWITZERLAND — Our mountain guide Donatella nods approvingly at the treads on my sturdy hiking boots. It’s the wonky ankle inside the boot that gives her pause.

The night before our hike up the Cristallina Peak near the Italian side of the Swiss Alps, Donatella has ordered an inspection of our gear.

Already two women from Israel have failed Donatella’s test. Relieved, they’ve made plans instead to tour nearby vineyards in this Mediterranean-climate part of Switzerland. Of the dozen of us remaining, I’m the one Donatella scrutinizes most. I confess I busted my ankle in the spring and it still aches.

When I heard that the two other hikers failed Donatella’s tests, for a second, I wondered about hiking up a mountain when tranquil vineyards passively wait to be visited. But when Donatella began studying me intently, I was determined to pass her inspection.

“I’m very strong,” I reassure Donatella, pumping my arms and standing on one leg and then the other. “I can do it.”

She pauses and then after talking to her partner, David, she gives me a thumbs up and shepherds us onto the bus. It will take us to Lago Del Naret in the alpine valley region of Ticino where we will begin the hike.

For the last 14 years of her life, American author Patricia Highsmith lived in Ticino. The writer of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley had a solitary existence in this part of Switzerland. She wrote about Ticino in one of her stories. “It was, it is, a land of mountains that block the sun, a land of granite outcroppings, of trees that cling to the slanting hillsides but nevertheless grow straight up…”

Lugano, the canton of Ticino’s largest city, is on the southeastern part of the country bordering Italy. The resort town, with its wide promenade along the lake and the Piazza Grande square of outdoor restaurants and shops, is a two-and-a-half hour train ride from Zurich.

Plaza in Lugano, Switzerland.

From Lugano, the bus ride takes another two-and-a-half hours through towns of stone buildings and narrow streets before heading up to the Lago Del Naret dam.

Along the way, we stop at the tiny village of Mogno, famous for its controversial church of San Giovanni Battista designed by architect Mario Botta.

It’s an ultra-modern church of marble and granite rising suddenly, unapologetically and powerfully in between gently sloping valleys and centuries-old homes.

Church in village of Mogno designed by architect Mario Botta.

When it was being erected in the mid-1990s after an avalanche levelled its 350-year-old predecessor, some residents were so opposed to the cylindrical building they tried to block construction.

With its alternative layers of Peccia marble and grey granite, both native to the region, the church looks massive on the outside, but inside, the interior has intimate seating for only about a dozen. With no windows, the only light that illuminates the interior streams in through the glass roof.

Some villagers tried to block the construction of San Giovanni Battista.

When the bus takes us back up toward the valley — not a simple task on the narrow one-way roads and sharp corners — the glaciers around us are visible when we arrive at the dam.

For the first hour of the hike, I’m keeping up with the rest of the group. But the more we climb, the more I have trouble. It’s not the ankle that I worry about but how to catch my next breath.

Rod, an Aucklander, and I are falling behind and we console ourselves by telling each other that coming from sea-level cities makes it that much harder. We watch with envy and wheeze as the rest of the group moves ahead of us.

“Small steps,” advises Donatella.

It’s good advice that I never tried before. I’m used to hiking with people taller than me and try to match their strides. But with smaller steps, I’m able to keep my footing even on the steep inclines.

In my mind, I had pictured alpine meadows of grass and Eidelweiss flowers, little Heidi clones, barefoot with daisies in their hair.

Everyone's a hiker in Switzerland.

Failing that, I’d hoped to see one of the naked hikers who get fined $200 Swiss Francs (about $205) for wearing only their boots. No luck. I learn later that the naked hikers are on the German side of the Alps.

The meadows are here but it’s mostly rocky slopes and amazing vistas. The trail has been well-marked, well-worn. The Swiss hang their flags everywhere and their sense of national pride is evident. I mistake the red and white markings on rocks and the side of cliffs as the work of proud Swiss hikers carrying paint on their hikes. When I veer off in search of a gentler slope, one of the guides quickly doubles back to point out the Swiss flags marking the trail.

Swiss flags mark the trail on the Alps.

By the second hour, after I get into a rhythm of short shallow breaths and short even steps, the encompassing shadows overhead that remind me of the distance yet to climb, begin to shrink.

I hike toward the sound of clanking cow bells above where we rest for lunch and breadcake, a Ticino pastry made from soaking hardened bread into milk and cocoa. As we eat, half a dozen cows watch for a few minutes before turning back to the view over Lago del Naret.

Our hike to the Cristallina mountain at about 2,300 metres is considered a short trip for most avid hikers, taking around three hours and nearly seven kilometres.

The way down is easier, taking about the same time but allowing for a transfer to a 15-minute cable car ride from Robiei to the picturesque San Carlo.

The Cristallina peak is well worth the climb. Its alpine hut is a dormitory-style building on a panoramic ridge.

The 1.5-kilometre-long Basodino glacier, which has shrunk from half its size over the past four decades, stretches underneath the terrace of the hut.

All around us are surrounding snow-topped peaks, a reminder of the mountains still to climb.


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