The ridge walker
«Have you got other stuff with you?» asked Ruedi after a quick glance at our equipment. We were at Südbar (in German) in the center of St. Gallen and the whole situation was absurd. It was kind of blind date in outdoor clothing, because we'd never met Ruedi before. Although we had spoken on the phone a few times to kick off the idea together. In the mountains, on the water, paragliding.
This is an everything occurrence for Ruedi, but a high-flying plan for us. Now we were standing face to face at the bar. 36-year-old Ruedi is a tall guy with the defined shoulders of a keen paddler, a cap, a beard and a wide-awake look. He's exactly the kind of guy we had expected. The kind of guy who takes on an expedition to the Himalayas. The kind of guy who climbs mountains, glides through whitewater and paraglides across Europe.
Two new arrivals at the bar
We felt out of place. My boots were a little too new, Tom's old pair were worn out in Southeast Asia and we were anything but mountain-ready. I hadn't advertised us as mountaineers. On the contrary, Ruedi was expecting little more than two guys who had stuffed everything outdoors-looking into a rucksack. Any irritation evaporated when he flashed a smile and ordered coffee.
Then we started changing plans that never really existed.
«I think we just have to go with the flow,» I said to Tom when he asked for more details in advance. And so does Ruedi. We were going to Appenzell and we'd work out the rest when the time came. The time had come. Why did our outdoor trip start in a bar? Because Ruedi's the owner.
The man lives between bar and mountains, whiskey and whitewater. He has an action-packed life. And a VW bus, which he bundled us into. We set our out of office replies and headed out into the grey. The weather in June was as foggy as our concept of what was to come.
The Appenzell action ambassador
First up is a Milk Slice snack, which Ruedi handed over after a pit stop. He also served up stories from around the world while his snowboarding goggles dangled, ever ready, from the rear-view mirror next to the spring-scented air freshener.
Seasons are incidental, as he seeks out expeditions, breaks and adventure on every continent. 72 three-thousander summits here, a paddle record there. Ruedi collects views and extreme experiences like others collect mugs. Plunging his kayak into waterfalls in Urnäsch, snowboarding on steep slopes or taking off.
Flying is his latest passion. His face was the perfect advert for the flying school we passed. He's a kind of action ambassador for Appenzell. And yet we could tell that he had no problem with a little trip like ours. Because he's interested in people and loves to get out into nature.
We got on the Ebenalp cable car in Wasserauen, received a printed ticket and were dropped off at the mountain station. It doesn't get much less adventurous than this. The visibility couldn't have been much worse. Maybe it wouldn't have been such a crazy idea to have just stayed in the bar.
«My personal meadow»
Up at 1,640 metres above sea level on that June day, it wasn't just grey, it was also pretty chilly. It was a better walk to Schäfler, taking around an hour and climbing close to a further 300 metres. For many people, this is a way station on the route to Säntis.
I still wasn't totally sure what our destination was. Ruedi was in charge of the route and he started with a motto: «Look, you have to photograph this», he said, pointing to the inscription on the wooden signpost with his stick.
«Those who don't set a goal will quickly tire and give up.»
A mountain experience. Seeing the sun at least once. And, I thought to myself, feeling that this trip was worth it when we get home. Modest goals. Click. Tom immortalised the quote and we marched on. Three lone walkers on the climb, where there's probably not much to see.
We soon came across a group of older hikers. Ruedi warmly greeted them, chatted and asked about the conditions. He was open, attentive and genuinely interested. He was like a host, delighted by every visitor to «his» region. We didn't meet anyone else until we reached the summit, as the brave troops turned back beforehand.
It was just us, the trail and an expanse of nature. «This is my personal meadow,» said Ruedi, as our pulses quickened and humid mountain air surged into our lungs. We were alone, diving a little further into this mystical atmosphere with every step. Stunning views are overrated.
The office in the mountains
I've been here before, diligently following the trail in great weather. There was a lot to see and it was incredibly beautiful. This time, we were walking through a wall of fog, which became a backdrop for Ruedi's stories. We left the path from time to time, clambering into rugged crevices and standing in front of the nothingness.
Ruedi told us about 45-degree slopes and «first lines» he's snowboarded down on fresh snow. About views and chasms in the Alpstein. We envisioned what it means to plunge down the invisible slope.
The mountains do something to this man. An excitement flashes across his face again and again that's impossible to fake. It's as if his inner child comes to the fore for a moment. He sees the opportunities. Thankfully, we didn't see the dangers. «Watch out, that's a 400-metre drop», says Ruedi, as he climbed over to the next ledge with a firm grip and calmly leaned back.
«This is my office! This is where I came up with the plan for the bar,» he shouted to us. He makes it look so incredibly easy. A falling rock was a clattering reminder that we couldn't afford one false step in his place. Tom and I beat an orderly retreat.
Perfect open-air theatre
While Ruedi regaled us with anecdotes and checked the weather conditions, we felt like we were in our own little world. Our worries had disappeared, the well-worn trail was forgotten and left behind. We were on a detour towards the summit when the sun started to break through the clouds more and more.
Ruedi stepped up the pace and broke into a light jog up the last remaining snowfield. Then the sky opened up before us.
We stood atop Schäfler, breathed deeply and soaked up this perfect open-air theatre. New views opened up all the time, with the summit rising into the most beautiful blue June sky before the curtain of cloud fell and a new act began. Säntis appeared out of the distance. Timing is everything in life.
They were perfect moments without the fog that had accompanied us up to that point. It was a gift for photographer Tom, who captured some of it. While Ruedi was already heading down the next slope, I just sat there, not daring to go any further, and thought nothing because everything was just right. I just soaked it all up.
«Can you hear the billy goats?» shouted Ruedi, sitting below me at the edge of the abyss. He was right, we could hear hooves across the rugged rocks as Alpine choughs circled overhead. Ruedi had brought bread with him, as they often eat out of his hand. Not today – maybe it was too windy for them.
Or maybe they were disturbed by the drones filming over the ridge, buzzing around the sea of clouds and ruining the moment. We certainly weren't alone up there.
A step further
«We jogged over there for an advert, it made for great photos,» said Ruedi looking at the ridge and moving on already, passing the sign reading «experienced climbers only beyond this point», which Tom and I failed to notice.
While Ruedi walked around the edge of the drop, enjoyed life and posed for the camera, we felt our way a few metres forward on all fours. «My wife will kill me when she sees this,» I heard from behind and looked around to see a slightly tense Tom working the lens.
This was a special job for him on unfamiliar terrain, which he wisely chose to tackle with the compact Fujifilm x-e3. In front of the lens stood a man who has seen and experienced a lot, whose blog (in German) doesn't just describe him as a kayak freak, snowboarder, bartender, rebel and globetrotter, but also details his adventures with ambitious selfies.
While Ruedi stood on the ridge and settled into the tree yoga pose on one leg, Tom clung to the summit of this trip and took his photos. We didn't venture any higher, but the best was yet to come.
Back into the grey
After some food at Berggasthaus Schäfler, we headed back into the familiar grey. Full stomachs and maxed-out memory cards. «Now you can say that you've done an alpine tour,» said Ruedi. All of our needs had been met. Now a slight afternoon low was looming. We crossed slushy snowfields and waded through puddles on muddy paths.
Nothing resembled the blue and white spectacle above anymore and every step took us a little closer to everyday life. If Ruedi hadn't have been there, happily balancing on the cable we were holding on to, I would have almost finished the tour already.
But didn't he say something about snowfields and sliding? That sounded good. First, though, we gave some bread to the donkey we came across at Berggasthaus Mesmer.
Then came a steep descent.
It was virtually impossible to say where the mountain ended and the sky began. In front of us, the now-grey winter snow merged seamlessly with the sky. There were hardly any contrasts here, nothing to see and yet still things to experience. We took a few steps, planted our legs in the snow and off we went.
We slid and ploughed our way down the hillside. Three big kids, three smiling faces, high spirits. Ruedi broke a stick. Tom came flying out of the mist, slid past us, barely managed to stop and came to rest just in front of a rock. Nothing happened, thankfully. But his hands were really hurting.
«You can't try to stand up, you have to push your rucksack into the snow,» was Ruedi's advice for next time. If there is a next time – there was a feeling of impending doom in the avalanche cone. The scenery was apocalyptic. Boulders, broken bits of trees and swirling mist swallowing up any colour made it look like life here had long been extinct. But paradise was close at hand.
Arrival in paradise
We reached a sea of yellow flowers in a lush carpet of green. There were a few huts and goats and the Seealpsee was so glassy-smooth that it doubled the view. As we left the fog above us, our eyes were overwhelmed for a moment.
After all of the black and white, this view was overwhelming: intense, rich in contrast, gentle and warm as it spread out before us. Hooting in the snow a few minutes ago, we now felt a deep satisfaction. No abyss, no constant thrill. And yet a definite highlight.
We had a rest on a rock, enjoying the view and chatting, before we set off through the grass down into the valley. Aside from a couple in a rowing boat documenting the experience on their phones while being shot by a professional photographer, there was no-one around.
We sat at the water's edge, looked back and reached the end of our quest. We were back. And in a place that means a lot to Ruedi. «I even had the coordinates tattooed on my arm,» he told us. He used to come here with his father a lot if things got tough, if things had built up in his everyday life and he just had get to some fresh air.
The place is magic. Anyone who can't find peace here on a day like today has a serious problem.
Epilogue: life isn't a picture book
We hesitated about even starting off. Three guys in the mist: who wants to see that? Who wants to read about it? No idea. But it was worth it. Life isn't a picture book; not every page is bright and colorful. The grey chapters are valid too; they make stories diverse and let the colourful moments really shine.
We'd been to stunning, virtually deserted places that had made a real impact. You can still find them if you're not Ruedi Gamper and your office isn't at the edge of an abyss.
For him, life is full of goals that can – but don't have to – take him higher, faster and further. The guy does what he loves.
See for yourself
An Alpstein hike isn't exactly an insider secret, but it's always worth a trip. We took the Ebenalpbahn up from Wasserauen, skated around the Aescher and made our way to the summit of Schäfler (in German). From there, we headed to the Berggasthaus Mesmer (in German), then to the Seealpsee (in German) and then, thankfully, back to Wasserauen. And not just on the official routes, thanks to Ruedi. If you'd like to follow him too, you can check out his Instagram profile.
Find more stories from me here.