Hike to Axalp

Getting there (and back) was really part of the fun!
Fliegerschiessen Axalp or Air Force Shooting Axalp is a two-day airshow where the main draws include Swiss Air Force fighter jets performing live fire demonstrations and the Swiss Air Force’s Patrouille Suisse demonstration team performing aerial acrobatics amidst the beautiful Swiss Alpine environment.

Of course we all have seen incredible photos from Axalp.  What you never hear about is the arduous effort required in order to make the journey.  This is that story.
Located in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, Axalp is near the southeastern shore of Brienzersee (lake); about 9 miles east of the famous touristy city of Interlaken.
There were hints of what is to come. The official map posted on the Swiss Air Force website prior to the event notes the trip up to Axalp requires a combination of bus, ski lift, and hike.  After the ski lift (“A” on the map), a one to two hour hike is required to reach the spectator areas (Spots 1, 2, and 3 on the map).  Alternatively, you may skip the ski lift entirely and hike the entire way for two to three hours, noted as route “B” on the map.  Buses start running at 5 am from the park and ride and 7 am from the train station in the town of Brienz (where we stayed).  The actual flight demonstration starts at 2 pm and runs for 90 minutes.

Obvious questions.  Why do buses start running at 5 and 7 am for a 2 pm airshow?  Why is there a need for an alternate hike for the ski lift?  The one hour hike after the ski lift should be easy, right?  After all, this is a major public airshow, attended by thousands of people.
We shall find out.
Our journey started at the Brienz train station (elevation 1850 feet) at 7:30 am, where we purchased our CHF 35 (equivalent to USD $35 – the Swiss Franc and the US Dollar are about even) bus and ski lift ticket for the day. Earplugs and a map were issued.  It was cold and the sun was not quite up yet and the entire region was overcast. 
 Waiting for the bus.
After waiting for about 15 minutes, we boarded the special Post Bus “Extrafahrt” and made the 40 to 60 minute journey to the mountain village of Axalp.  The road up had switchbacks and was mostly single lane.  Buses had to stop at pullouts to let opposite direction traffic pass. 

Post Bus dropped us off in Axalp village at elevation 4800 feet, right at the tops of the cloud cover.   It was sunny the rest of the way up.  After a short ½ mile stroll, we got to the ski lift.  There we stood a hour in line.  A lot of people didn’t want to wait and decided to hike “Route B” all the way up.  We decided to save our energy and wait in line for the ski lift.  While waiting, we noticed a lot of people had walking sticks or ski poles.  Hmmm.
  Some people decided to walk all the way up (seen from the ski lift).
 View towards the north, a cloud was covering Brienzersee.
The ski lift took us from 5050 feet to 6250 feet elevation over a straight-line distance of 0.6 miles.  Straight-line distance doesn’t sound too impressive, but it was the elevation gain that mattered.
As our ride on the ski lift was coming to an end, the sheer cliff of Tschingel (Spot 2) was right in front of us.  We could see a helicopter tail sticking over the edge at the top.  We need to hike all the way up there???  To our right, about ½ mile away, we saw a line of people dotting a really steep mountainside. OMG…what are we getting ourselves into?! 
 From the top of the ski lift.  Rest of the way to the cliff top would be by foot.
 People dotting the moutainside, making their ascent.
Another 1000 feet of elevation gain was needed to get to the top.  The hike would have been relative easy if it wasn’t for the uneven terrain, ankle busting potholes, and loose rocks everywhere.  On day two, we hadn’t even made it to the steep climb and we saw an injured hiker being airlifted out by a Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter. 
The initial ascent was most difficult and it covered a distance of ¼ mile with a 500 feet gain.  The slope started out at 30%, reaching to a maximum of 55% near the top.  Many rest breaks had to be taken while on this climb. 

On day two, while we were hiking this steep portion, we were greeted by F/A-18s and F-5s making their morning live fire practice runs.  It was not easy climbing a steep mountain while fighter jets are shooting live ammo above you and trying to shoot video and not fall down the mountain. 
Once at the top of this climb, we were at 6900 feet elevation and Spot 3 on the map, known as Brau.  The famous orange shooting targets can be seen.  We were greeted by the savory smell of food tents grilling sausages and music playing on loudspeakers.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  After going through that hike, how did they get all of this stuff up here?
At Spot 3.  People are continuing their climb to Spot 2.  Note orange targets at right.  Spot 1 is in the distance at top center.

View of Spot 3.
But, our hike was not over yet.  To borrow a term from my friend Bill, this spot is where the daisy pickers hang out.  We needed to get closer to the top!  We continued our ascent up to Spot 2, known as Tschingel, at elevation 7200 feet.  The distance was relatively short at 0.3 miles, but the elevation gain was about 300 feet with a maximum slope of 40%. 

Hike from Spot 3 to Spot 2.
  People setting up camp at Spot 2.
Spot 1, known as KP Ebenfluh, was another 0.2 mile away and another 100 feet up at 7300 feet elevation.  There is a building here containing a control tower and a heliport where the VIP transport helicopters arrived and departed.   Emergency and rescue helicopters from Swiss Air Force SAR and Rega were parked in between Spots 1 and 2.
IMG_6181-copy View of Spot 1.  Note rescue helos.
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 VIP Super Puma helo transport arriving at Spot 1.  Note control tower.

 Spot 1 food tent and view towards Spot 2.
It only took about one hour to hike from the ski lift top up to the spectator area.  Seemed a lot longer due to the high elevation and the difficult climb.  After we claimed our spot on the hillside among thousands of other people, it was lunchtime.  A lot of people brought picnics with them.  Fondue was the most popular picnic.  I guess some people rather carry their camping gas and stove up the mountain instead of a camera bag like me.  You got to have your priorities! 
Food stands and portable toilets (TOI TOI) were plentiful at each of the spectator spots.  Of course one wonders how food was stocked at these stands?  This was not your normal airshow after all.  They can’t run back to the commissary or have the beer truck drive by to restock.    Soon, this mystery was solved.  A Swiss Air Force Eurocopter EC635 showed up with a crate underneath.  It started making multiple trips from Spot 1 to Spots 2 and 3 delivering supplies to the food tents.  If you happened to be near the food tent…take cover from the rotor wash!  The leftover crates made for nice tables while eating.
Toilets and open air urinals with a view. 
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EC635 making food deliveries.
How much do you think lunch cost given the fact that it was transported up to the mountain by a helicopter?  Not as much as you think!  Bratwurst cost CHF 6 and beer cost CHF 4.  So reasonably priced - it was the cheapest I have ever paid for airshow food!
 Primary and backup cameras…check!  Lunch…check!
The crowd line also doubled as clothline to dry off sweaty clothing from the climb.
There was plenty of time for napping before show start.
IMG_6544-copyMassive hill side crowd at Spot 2. 
The airshow started promptly at 2 pm with two F/A-18s making a low flyby and dispensing flares. 
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This was followed by F/A-18s and F-5s live fire demonstrations (supposedly unique in the world). 
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Next, PC-21 trainer demo,
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Super Puma helicopter demo (with flares),
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F/A-18 solo demo (with lots of condensation),
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and parascout demos. 
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The Patrouille Suisse closed the show with even more flares.  I love these European airshows where flares are liberally used!
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The airshow ended after 90 minutes.  You can either stay and watch the VIP Super Puma helos depart or join the mass exodus down the mountain.  We chose the former on day one, the latter on day two.  On day one, as we trekked down on the steep incline from Spot 2 to Spot 3, we came across the SAR helo airlifting someone out.  Since it was steep, the helo could not land; it had to lift the victim up by cable.  We were caught in the rotor wash and I got a nice layer of dirt and dried grass in my partially opened camera bag and on my jacket. 
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After enjoying our bonus air rescue demo and thanking the Swiss Air Force for the pelting, we continued our journey down the same 55% slope we came up.  Going down was a lot harder.  Loose rock and holes were more treacherous going down.  We had to take more breaks going down.  It was not fun.  By the time we got to the ski lift, the line was extra long.  We decided to continue down the mountain to the village by foot.  Luckily that part was on paved road.  The entire walk down took two hours.
View down the mountain.  Note a long line at the ski lift. 
On day two, we decided to follow the other half of the crowd and take a different route down.  It had a more gradual 20 to 30% gradient drop but took a longer route. It was 3.3 miles all the way down.  Going the long way around also did not give us the option to use the ski lift if the line was short (since the trail does not go by the lift station).  We had to commit walking all the way back to the village.  Since we couldn’t use the lift the previous day and had walked all the way, we figured we could do it again.  The trip down on the longer route also took two hours.  It was an easier walk in term of the incline, but the trail near the top still had difficult terrain to navigate. 
Passing by the shooting target on the way down.
At Axalp village, we were back in line again.  Among the masses, we waited for an hour for the “Extrafahrt” Post Bus to take another one hour ride down the mountain through the switchbacks back to Brienz.
On day one, we were slower and took our time at the top after the airshow.  We got back to Brienz at around 8:30 pm, about 13 hours after departure.  On day 2, we were more efficient and returned at 6:30 pm, making it only an 11 hour day.
Our hotel in Brienz. We had room with a view of the Lake. Too bad we weren’t there during the day.
Set in an unique environment, Axalp is definitely a worthwhile trip for the aviation enthusiast – only if one has the physical stamina.  If I ever go back, I will be taking a ride up on the Super Puma VIP helicopter!
Axalp-google-mapGoogle Earth plot and elevation profile from our GPS track.
Copyright 2010 Ben Wang.  Photos and words may not be reproduced without permission.

Comments

  1. Hello. Very nice post. I'm from Brazil and I have a blog with photos of commercial and military aircraft taken at airports in Porto Alegre (SBPA), Guarulhos (SBGR) and Canoas Air Base (SBCO). I would like to partner with you and put your link on my blog. Thanks. http://poaspotter.blogspot.com/

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