To the Alps and Back with Pack Goats
Wandering in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by goats, is a dream that has filled my head since I was a little girl listening to the story of Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Imagine my delight when my travels took me to Switzerland, and a Google inquiry led me to Thomas and Silvia Rupp and Geissebei Trekkinggeissen, a small operation offering excursions in the Alps with goats. Not just a story or a dream — it can be done!
While goats are part of the Swiss cultural heritage, for decades they were called “the poor man’s cow.” Not as prevalent as cows, they are gaining popularity with the increasing demand for goat cheese and goat products. Goat meat is still uncommon, and served mostly at Easter. While there are many Swiss breeds unavailable in the United States, some familiar breeds have their origins in Switzerland and are named for regions of the country: Saanens, Toggenburgs, and Oberhasli.
Apartments and townhomes are the norm in most cities, but the Rupps were drawn to rural living. They purchased a small farmstead in Speicher, Switzerland with a very typical Swiss farm house — one half is the home and the other is the barn. Walking into the barn instead of the bathroom is an easy mistake for guests to make — thus the “caution” sign on the door. As you can imagine, without animals, half of the house felt empty, so the Rupps welcomed a few Pygmy goats … which then became a few more. As their herd grew — so did their love of goats.
Silvia found a story about another couple with goats offering something still very new to Switzerland — two-day pack goat trips in the Gotthard region. It was the perfect gift for Thomas’ 40th birthday, and a turning point for them. Thomas recounts, “I was impressed by the size of these animals, how they moved over rocks and entertained the camp at dinner. There was no question from that moment — we wanted to have our own goats for hiking. But our Pygmies? What would they carry, a six-pack of eggs?” Following the trip in 2007, they began researching, and in 2009 adopted two large breed goats: Luzi, a Gamsfarbig goat, and Gianni, a Pfauen goat. They took them for walks and trained them to packs. What had begun as a hobby was now becoming their passion … and they wanted more goats.
Nino and Rocky joined the herd in 2011. They are an endangered breed, Nera Verzasca, all black and unique to Switzerland. To get them would require climbing Alp Odro, a steep 2100-foot vertical ascent. For the descent, their breeder made backpacks out of old post mailbags and used raingear and cut a hole so the little goats could stick their heads out. The kids wiggled and kicked on their backs for two hours, but the Rupps did not grow weary of it. They were thrilled with their new additions!
Goat-keeping has not been without cost or heartbreak. They were required to take a course and become certified, and must keep detailed records of manure transfer from their manure pit, which was improved in their house remodeling. Vaccinations are not mandatory, and one of their first goats passed away from Clostridia. Another challenge with wethers is urinary calculi. They now have prevention management practices in place.
The style of goat gear they needed was not to be found, so Silvia designed it. She makes all of their panniers and custom-fit halters, complete with their names embroidered on the padded nosebands. The seams are sealed and closures rolled. Her craftsmanship is impeccable. One can see that her efforts are truly a labor of love for their goats!
Thomas employed his technical ingenuity for a trailer to transport their goats. There is a notched rail along each side of the trailer interior and spring-loaded poles that can be tensioned at any distance to create sections for the goats and accommodate a variety of goat sizes. The cushioned rods keep the goats from falling or shifting in the trailer. This is not only brilliant, but essential for horned goats to prevent injury. There are clips inside and out to carabiner the goats on a short tether. The goats are comfortable and secure and everything moves with precision — Swiss watch style.
Switzerland is a very small country with an area of 15,940 miles (about half the size of South Carolina). Thomas estimates that fewer than 20 people in a country of 8.5 million habitants have pack goats. This is partly because there are limited opportunities to live in rural areas where goats can be kept, and the demands on the land for living space and agriculture limit where you can hike.
If one does not wish to compete with grazing cows and sheep, hikes are usually above 6,000 feet. The Rupps try to avoid sheep because they are unattended and can spread disease to their goats. On the trail, hikers and mountaineers are receptive to them. They have even been welcomed to ride in a gondola with other passengers! Very often a short hike becomes much longer than planned, as curious passersby stop them with questions. Most are excited to encounter the goats; some are a bit fearful of the size of the goats and their horns, but warm up to them quickly noticing how calm and friendly they are.
Interest around pack goats is growing. They are well-known in their town, and surrounding communities where they frequently hike. They also participate in numerous fairs and festivals helping others see the versatility of goats beyond dairy. Last year, a German television station filmed them in a documentary in the nearby town of Gais. Gais sounds like the word for goat in the regional dialect — so as a play on the word, its mascot is an Appenzeller goat named Laura. Her birthday is a town holiday and draws celebrants far and wide. Laura’s community trails are one of the places the Rupps frequent with their goats.
While the filming was an exciting opportunity, Thomas had his reservations. “We were a bit concerned about how our boys would interact with the film crew and whether they would follow the storyline of the narrator. Fortunately, they did an excellent job, they did several takes on the same scene, when something was not perfect, like the sound of a passing airplane. Also, we had the babies with us, and didn’t know how they would do, since it was their first long hike. Learning from the experienced packers they did well. As baby goats, they had all the attention — from guests as well as the crew!”
There is a tradition among Swiss farmers to wear a gold earring — some are cup and ladle for dairy, and some are stamped cows. Thomas has a unique earring that Silvia had custom made for him: a stamped pack goat. “Some recognize it, but I think most people assume it is a typical cow. People have commented when they see it more closely ‘That is a strange cow you wear!’ I treasure it because it is Gianni, my first pack goat, the one we lost to UC. A cow or any other earring would have no meaning to me. Having Gianni in the ear and knowing the artist who made it makes me proud. It represents our life with the goats.”
Both work outside of the home, Silvia in a hospital, and Thomas in forensic investigation. They find time with their goats fulfilling and means of being grounded and connected to the earth. Thomas credits the goats with their quality of life in general. Caring for the goats, and adventuring with them, give him and Silvia a sense of peace despite the challenges of their work. Through the goats they meet many people — some along the trails — and some who travel purposefully to experience Geissebei Trekkinggeissen.
The goats are their “kids” and most of what they do centers around them. One of their favorite pastimes is to escape to the Alps for overnight camping trips as a family. “We like the quietness, seeing our goats grazing and climbing on rocks. It is the ultimate reward for our everyday barn chores. There is no better place to spend the night than in a bivy bag under the stars next to the goats, hearing them ruminate and burp.”
Karen and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Moscow, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. They raise Kikos primarily, but are experimenting with crosses for their new favorite goating experience: pack goats! You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or www.kikogoats.org.
Originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.