Main Alpine Divide. Section 11. Valais Alps
February 9, 2022
Day 71. Simplon Pass to Gspon. 20 Km. 6 Hrs. 1070m up. 1170m down. I did not get to bed until late and the alarm went at 0630 but in between I slept like a log in the old wooden bed under a thick feather duvet and with the window wide open. When I looked out of the window it was still and foggy. So foggy one could only see 100 metres or so. Breakfast was very easy. Just one cereal on offer and that was muesli with milk. Then there was brown bread, butter, strawberry jam and cheese. However there was as much of it as I wanted. I liked the simplicity of it. I was not greedy but I had a good 1500 calories and was ready to set off at 0800 by which time the fog was moving in the breeze but it was not clearing.
I followed the GPS crossing under the main road and reached a small alm with 5-6 houses clustered together called Hopsche. There was a small lake here but there were no trees despite it being only 2000 metres. Some cows idly chewed cud sitting in a field about but I could not smell the rich manure associated with a dairy. For the next two hours I followed the GPS across the rolling hillside which was covered in turf. There was nothing dramatic even when the fog lifted a bit to reveal undulating ridges. I think this was a landscape of old moraine ridges which time had softened. In the mist I veered off my route once when I assumed I was on the right path and was not paying attention to my GPS. However it was easy to wander at will across this landscape and I cut across one side of a triangle rather than retrace my steps. I found the path again just before it reached the Inneri Nanzlicke Pass, 2579m. It was the highest point of the day.
The mist started to break up as I approached the pass and there were sunny patches glowing across the otherwise grey hillside. After the pass through I started to get some views down to the main valley far below where the River Rhone was already huge. The main valley was quite built up and all the towns between Visp and Brig seemed to merge into one. After the pass I veered north but the big mountains here were still lost in the mist. After a couple of kilometres I had a choice of paths. I could either follow route 6 which contoured far into the valley for about 5 kilometres into the heart of a rocky cirque and then came out again for 6 kilometres without losing any height for its 11 km. Or I could drop down into the valley for about 600 metres and then climb up 400 metres again over the course of 6 kilometres. I chose the latter as it would take me past dairies and into the forest. I could also see much of it was on a grassy track while the route 6 which contoured into the valley would inevitably be a rough stony footpath and quite slow.
It took less than an hour to go down the wide grassy track which was probably built to get cows up and down from the higher meadows. It led me down first to a small rustic dairy, which was quite active, at the treeline and then to a second dairy near the valley floor. The one near the valley floor was also quite active with a large milking barn. In the lower dairy in the forest two huge piles of large stones were piled up at the gable end to protect it from avalanches. Once in the depths of the Gamsatal valley it was easy to find the track which climbed 400 metres to Gibidumpass, 2201 m, where there was a small lake. Here at last I got some great views down to the built up town of Visp in the Rhone valley and the giants of the Bernese Oberland on the other side. I had walked for about 4 hours now altogether today and there was nothing remarkable about it so far.
However all that was about to change as I veered south from Gibidumpass. The path dropped slightly to the treeline and then contoured around the hillside. There was a scattering of old wooden alm houses in meadows hidden in the larch forest. The path was easy underfoot and continued to gently descend and it wove in and out of gullies on the hillside until it was amongst the fully mature larches. Some were huge with very furrowed red bark with large fissures. They must have been at least a couple of centuries old. As I continued to contour round this shoulder between Gamsatal and the Saastal valley I was walking into, some huge mountains appeared ahead of me. There was still a lot of mist about the lofty summits so it was difficult to decipher what was what but ultimately the highest mountain here was the Mischabel and it had a number of peaks the highest being Taschhorn, 4491 m, one of the highest peaks in the Alps. Glaciers bulging with ice and full of crevasses covered most of the slopes. It was the most impressive mountain I had seen on this trip.
The wide path continued to contour across the forested hillside going into the deep Bieterbach side valley before it came out to a spur a couple of kilometres later. This spur overlooked the Saastal valley far below and on the other side of it was Balfrin, 3796m, which was really the northern outlier of the Mischabel range which had left me awestruck half an hour earlier. Once on the spur the path descended for about half an hour to the village of Gspon, 1900m, which lay in a beautiful meadow.
Gspon had about 60 buildings in it and many were old haylofts which had now been converted into small beautiful chalets. There was also the Pension Alpenblick here which was a lovely looking building. Indeed Gspon was very beautiful and quite serene and it was exceptionally well appointed with great views to the north across to the Bernese Oberland and views SW to the giants of the Valais Alps. I did not have a booking at the Pension but he had a room for me. It was a superb corner room with windows on two sides. It did not have a bathroom but there was one nearby. The host seemed quite a character and very noisy as he held court in the bar. He could easily be mistaken for a heavy drinking Irish publican and one would never have guessed he was Swiss. However, his warm homely wife would have easily been able to cut him down to size if he got out of hand. I sat in the bar listening to him getting louder as the afternoon unfolded while I wrote the blog. I then went out to sit on the terrace and gaze across the valley at the glaciated slopes of Balfrin and had time for a beer before dinner. I ate the dinner on the terrace and it was excellent and one of the best vegetarian dishes of the trip.
Day 72. Gspon to St Niklaus . 22 Km. 8 Hrs. 1230m up. 1990m down. I slept long and well but woke up well before 0700 and breakfast was not until 0800. However it was worth waiting for and there was plenty of quality choice and a great view across the valley from the windows. When I finally got going it was nearly 0900 and the sun was rising quickly. The meadow which Gspon sat in was still in the shadow but across the valley the mountainside had been in the sun for 2 hours and I am sure it was already warm. The glaciated peat of Balfrin, 3798m, dominated everything to the west and it had a row of diminishing peaks heading down the ridge to the north. These peaks formed the barrier between the Saastal and Mattertal valleys. My day’s walk would drop some 800 metres into the Saastal, then climb 1200 metres over this ridge and drop 1200 metres into the Mattertal. I could see most of the 1200 metre climb on the other side of the valley and it looked very steep, with rocky cliffs everywhere and I was surprised there was a path here. I could not see the bottom of the climb as it was deep in the valley. Hence my concern for the late start. I asked at breakfast and there were 60 people who stayed here all year. I am sure many were involved in the tourist industry as the gondola from the floor of the main valley ran all year and would have been the community’s lifeline. It would have taken children up and down to school, brought materials and food up and taken alm produce down. I even noticed some of the waitresses in the hotel went down on it last night as if it were a bus service.
The descent was initially stunning. It took me through the rest of the charming Gspon, which really was a beautiful old hamlet. There were many chalets here also and a small ski tow, so I am sure it would have been great for families to spend a week here in the ski season. Many of the chalets were old and the barns beside them were now full of hay. There were also smaller food stores made from logs and sitting on straddle stones to prevent rodents climbing up the legs. I am sure these would have been where the artisanal cheese and preserved meats were stored. They looked like small versions of Norwegian “stabburs”. With the nice hotel, this cultural paradise and the great weather my spirits were high, and perhaps the highest they had been in Switzerland. I left the meadow and entered the beautiful larch forest on the track which I think was too steep even for the small red alp trucks.
After descending through the larch woods for half an hour I reached the very small hamlet of Chleebode at about 1700m. It was green as it was irrigated in places. I heard the sound of sheep bells and then saw about 20 in a field. There were the distinctive Valais black nose sheep, which almost look like giant childrens toys. They were once prolific in Valais but are becoming less so now. I have heard of stories where farmers almost had them as pets and used to tie them up outside shops, as we do with dogs now. With their distinctive curly wool they are very bulky but I don’t know if they are large underneath it all. They certainly were fascinating to watch for a while, and very cute. There was another field below them with 3 mothers and this year’s lambs. All the mothers seemed to have had a set of twins, which were still quite small and exceptionally cute. I continued down through the rest of this gorgeous hamlet past a few chalets where people were staying and haylofts brimming with this year’s cut hay. Again all the buildings were very traditional under large paving slab roofs which were slightly different to the heavy stone roofs of the last fortnight. Chleebode would have been a lovely place to linger in.
Unfortunately I had to leave it and continue down the steep track. Not long after I left the meadow a footpath branched off the track and my GPS instructed me to take it. For the next hour I zig-zagged down this small path, at times quite steeply. It was not as pleasant as the track but it was the faster route down to Eisten on the Sasstal valley floor where I wanted to be. After a short half hour I reached the scattered hamlet of Bifig which clung to the steep hillside with its 6 smaller farms. I felt these farms were not as well appointed as the ones at Gspon and Chleebod and more survived rather than thrived. Some of the farmhouses here were occupied as I went past and I got the impression they were lived in all year. After Bifig there was a tarmac road which served this community and then went down a series of some 10 hairpin bends to the Eisten on the valley floor. The path cut across this road initially but it soon became too overgrown so I just followed the road for the last half as it was deserted. Pretty soon I was crossing the river in the bottom of the deep valley and climbing the other side for 5 minutes to reach the village of Eisten.
Eisten had some nice houses and a church but it sat beneath a 1000 metre high wall of light beige rock, which loomed above it. Quite apart from the claustrophobia of it I would also have been much too worried about rockfall to live here. In addition to that the main road in the Saastal valley went through it and although it was not that busy, it was large and ugly. There was a restaurant but I did not see any accommodation and if there was there would have been better places to stay, like Gspon. The Route 6 track and the Walkers Haute Route do not come this way but go to and from the salubrious town of Saas-Fee much further up the valley. That would have meant an extra day for me so I made this short cut down to Eisten and then back up the cliff ahead to pick it up again near Hannigalp in 3-4 hours time. From Eisten I followed the smaller valley road rather than the main one to Saas-Fee for a good kilometre until it crossed the river to the east side of the valley floor. Here I left it and climbed up a field to gain the main road and followed it for a few hundred metres on a pavement to get to the path I needed.
The path I needed was signposted which was a good omen. It was hot down here in the oven of the valley floor and I feared it would be hot on the climb up in the midday sun. The path was small and steep but it seemed to have been constructed long ago and the downhill side was stacked with stone to keep it level. It looked like an old trail to get cows up and down to the alm. The trees here were larch and juniper, I don’t think firs or pine could have tolerated the arid conditions as well. Under foot it was dry and dusty with very little undergrowth. The path was quite relentless for the first 500 metres of ascent and without any let up. As I climbed away from the valley floor the heat eased a bit and I noticed that there was more undergrowth. It was still largely larch but the junipers had vanished. At last I broke out into a meadow where there was a large old 2 story house at a place called Galgera. Some of the shutters were open and there were sheep or goats droppings about so I assumed it was an active summer farm and the shepherd was away with them and would return later. There was no sign of life at the farm but there were two alpaca’s sitting in the shade nearby. They had been sheared and looked particularly stupid, like a cross-eyed poodle on return from the groomers. They remained seated while I passed a few metres away so they must be used to humans. I don’t think anybody hikes this trail so it must be the missing shepherd.
After Galgera the path continued into the mixed conifers and climbed less steeply as it traversed up into a steep side valley where the Eistbach stream came down in a series of cascades. I stopped here to quench my thirst with the clear water, which was not cold at all. On the other side of this small stream the path became much smaller and in places a little precarious. There were a mixture of cables and ropes for about 2 sections, neither of which were exposed or dangerous. Once the path traversed up out of this steep side valley it reached another meadow with a single house and hayloft at a place called Tirbja. Both looked dormant as if no one had been staying for a few years. After Tirbja the path was a bit better but it still took another hour and a half to reach the Route 6 and Walker Haute Route which had contoured round for a day from Saas-Fee. By now the forest was mixed with Larch, Fir and Pine and the floor was covered in berry bushes, alpenrose and lush grass. Once on Route 6 I could stride out on the soft, flat, even, footpath until I heard the clunk of cow bells and knew I was approaching Haningalm. When the trees cleared I saw the cows. They were remarkable in that they were black with brown horns and they all had the build of bulls. Infact they looked like the bulls of the Spanish bullring. I think they were all beef bullocks up here to fatten up in the summer before a visit to the abattoir. Just after I saw the bulls I rounded the spur and could see up the Mattertal valley to the Matterhorn, 4478m, surely the most iconic mountain in Europe. Unfortunately I could just see the top 500-700 metres and these were lost a little in the haze so my photographs did it no justice. There were lots of people about who had all taken the gondola up here. Most were day trippers but there were a few mountain bikers who took the gondola to return down the steep bike piste. I went into the cafe and had a roll and some sweet fizzy drink. It was quite busy and I sat near a huge Englishman who was trying to get his camera to work. He looked as thick as he was fat and when he asked me to help I pretended I was German and spoke no English.
The descent from Haningalm was quite long and took about 3 hours. Initially it went down a wide track in the woods. There was hardly anyone else about, except for a few mountain bikers on the adjacent bike piste who were really flying down and going over many jumps. They were covered in protective armour and I would say they were just one small mistake from needing it. After an hour the track got busier as I approached Grachen. I even passed some hikers with about 10 lamas walking round a large pond near a hotel. The lamas were unburdened so I think it was either for amusement or therapy. Just below this hotel I entered Grachen properly. It was surprisingly big with perhaps 500 houses, many shops and a sports centre. I think Grachen was built on tourism and walking tourism specifically. There were many hotels, guesthouses and rooms available and I am sure anyone could find somewhere here to stay without booking. Many of the shops were for tourists and they reeked of Toblerone and Chinese cuckoo clocks put together with a staple gun. There were some butchers and artisanal food stores too. There were no cars in the town and all the business was carried out on electric golf buggies which ferried people and goods around the town. The centre was very picturesque really with a nice church and thousands of window boxes, all in bloom.
I still had 5-6 kilometres to go after I left Grachen. Initially it was through small farms whose haylofts were full. The farms were so small though I think they must have been hobby farmers with another job also paying a wage. I continued to drop into the Mattertal valley and I could now see glaciated mountains on each side in a jumble of peaks which I could barely decipher what was what but realised that on both sides they went up to over 4000 metres. The route I was following, which was also the Route 6, went through a few more hamlets of residential houses and then along a small stretch of pavement before it dropped again through meadows and small farms to reach the edge of St Niklaus. I crossed the river on a covered footbridge and then walked through the town to the hotel La Reserve. The town was the opposite to Grachen in that it paid lip service to tourism. It was an honest town with shops selling agricultural machinery, washing machines and printing services. The streets were slightly scruffy without any geranium adornments. There was also a train station here to take people up to Zermatt at the end of the valley. I found the hotel easily and it was welcoming and it had my resupply box with maps and a new pair of boots. It was good timing as my German Lowa Renegade boots were now in pieces after 10 weeks and 1100 rocky kilometres. I showered and washed a few clothes and then went down for a pizza, which the hotel did. I met a few Americans who were just finishing the walkers Haute Route here having walked from Chamonix. They were telling me of the hardships I could expect. They had all finished with a gondola ride today down a mere 700 metres because their knees were sore. This group’s pioneer forefathers must be turning in their graves.
Day 73. St Niklaus to Gruben. 19 Km. 7.5 Hrs. 1900m up. 1150m down. I slept very well and woke naturally at 0630 for the 0700 breakfast. It was a great breakfast with loaves of freshly baked bread to cut oneself and a large selection of cheeses. I had a good fill and then surreptitiously made two sandwiches and took two apples which I intended to have on the pass. I was ready to go by 0800 and said goodbye to the owner’s brother who recieved my supply box for me. I took what I needed out of the supply box and then refilled it with what I wanted to return like the maps for the last section and the Lowa boots which were as good as kaput! I was a bit tentative about just swapping the boots over but my new boots were the Salomon X Ultra, which I wear all the time usually. The post office was en route near the church and just before I started the climb. It took me just 15 minutes to walk through the town to the main square and then to the post office just above it. The process of sending it was as usual quite fraught with customs declarations but the lady at the counter dealt with it all. It cost a whopping 47 Swiss Francs to send it. At last my perfunctory urban tasks were done and by 0830 I could start the climb.
I passed under the railway track opposite the post office, passed a small field with about 10 Valais black nose sheep grazing in it and then started the climb. Initially it went up a dry rocky slope with just larch and juniper surviving the arid conditions. There were a multitude of shrines all the way up, most in a small white stone enclosure with a small grill at the front. Inside were various statues of either Christ or the Virgin Mary. The path then went into the side valley with the Jungbach stream flowing in it where there were more shrines. It crossed to the north side of the stream and then continued the climb up through the larch forest through endless zig-zags. There was a cable car running above me occasionally and I think most people took that because I saw no one for about 2 hours until I had climbed some 700 metres to the hamlet at the top station of the cable car at a place called Jungen.
Jungen was absolutely stunning. It was the epitome of the idyllic image one imagines about Switzerland. It was an old summer hamlet of alm houses all under stone slab roofs. The chalets, barns and haylofts were all clustered together in a corner of the meadow. The path went through this hamlet and I could smell the aged wood which was bronzed by a century of sun. On every small barn and hayloft there were old farm implements hanging and the hamlet was a museum. However nice this was, what really made Jungen was its position. It lay on top of a flattish spur which jutted out into the main Mattertal valley far below, like a shoulder on a giant buttress. It overlooked a couple of other lofty hamlets which sat on pastures high above the valley. If I looked north I could see right up Mattertal which was in a deep U shaped valley below me. At the end of it was the town of Zermatt which I couldn’t quite see, as the steep buttresses of the valley blocked it. However beyond Zermatt was a huge ridge of the really big mountains of Valais starting at the Breithorn, 4159m, and getting higher as it went east to culminate in the Dufourspitze, 4634m, (Monte Rosa) the second highest mountain in the Alps and highest in Switzerland. It was covered in huge glaciers which were massively crevassed. There was still a lot of snow on the upper glaciers but the lower snouts were all bare ice. On each side of this Mattertal valley which culminated in the huge head wall were other 4000m peaks. Perhaps the biggest on the east side was the mountain of Dom, 4545m. and on the west side was Weisshorn 4506m. All of this was visible from the terraces and balconies of the small chalets of Jungen. It was really quite a remarkable place.
I took many photos and then continued to climb more up through the larch woods to the north of it. There was a good drove track to allow cows to reach the high alms in Jungtal. Eventually the track climbed above the forest and continued across the turf of the open hillside. It continued into Jungtal which I could now look into and it looked ideal for summer animal husbandry with its flat alpine meadows. I had to branch off here and traverse round a large ridge into the next high valley to the north which was called Augstbord. The traverse was easy initially but as I rounded the spur and went into this alpine valley it was strewn with stones. It was a busy path and there had been a great effort to make it as easy as possible but the boulders were large and completely covered the hillside for about 3 km. There were other hikers here and they were mostly in guided groups and they were gingerly picking their way through the boulders going very slowly, as groups do. Once I was off the boulders the valley became much more hospitable with some grazing between the stones. There was a large herd of about 400 sheep here looked after by a single shepherd and his collie dog. Many of the tour groups were sitting in these grassy areas eating lunch from throwaway plastic bowls the hotels had prepared them in. I could see the pass perhaps an hour away now and had the bit between my teeth so continued up to it on the easier path. There were a couple of springs to drink from near the top and well above the sheep. None of the big mountains I had seen from Jungen were visible anymore but I could look back east and see my route from the Chaltwasser Pass by Monte Leone and the lovely hamlet of Gspon. I reached the pass after five and a half hours of climbing, virtually non stop, and had climbed nearly 1900 metres so I deserved a rest and my sandwiches.
To my west and in the direction I was going was a deep valley which I could not see into the bottom of. It was the Turtmanntal valley. In a similar way to the Zillertal in Austria the mountains of Valais made up an enormous ridge orientationed east-west. The crest of this ridge was the watershed between the Po and now the Rhone rivers. However the crest of this ridge was about 1000 metres higher than the Zillertal and covered in glaciers and impossible for an ordinary trekker to traverse. So I opted to go to the north of it as it was truer to my project of following the Main Alpine Divide and it was more spectacular. Like the Zillertal massif this Valais massif had many valleys and ridges coming off the main spine and my route took me from one valley to the next for about a week crossing some 7-8 main ridges and 7-8 main valleys. I had already done the Saastal and the Mattertal valleys and the Turtmanntal was the next. Beyond this valley I could see tomorrow’s ridge, which was not that spectacular as it had no glaciers or even snowfields on it this far from the main Valais ridge. I could work out where I was to cross this ridge at the Meidpass, 2790m, tomorrow.
The descent down to Turtmanntal was relatively easy. Initially it was down a good path on stoney ground which got easier and softer underfoot as I descended. There were a few more springs here I drank from. After 3 km I came to a small and disused alm which was surrounded by the bright spikes of rosebay willowherb, which was in full bloom now. This old alm was pretty much at the treeline. There was a herd of some 30 cows here all sitting down across the path chewing cud. I had to make a slight detour to bypass them. They looked at me as I skirted by and I noticed just what a hell the flies made for them. Each one had about 25 flies on their faces alone and another 25 pestering their bodies. They were constantly flicking ears and nodding their heads to disturb the flies but all to no avail. After the cows I dived into the forest and dropped a further 500 metres quite quickly on a zig-zag path. It is always nice to return to the protective, nurturing comfort of a forest and this seems to be my daily pattern at the moment. After half an hour in the trees I could see the village of Gruben getting closer and closer until I burst out of the trees and into the meadow which surrounded it.
The large Schwarzhorn Hotel was the only large building out of about 60-80 chalets and haylofts. I was booked in here but they did not have any record of it. I showed them the email and they found it on their system with the confirmation. They said there had been a mistake on their side but they were fully booked and could not offer me a room. All they had was a mattress on the floor of a dormitory with 10 mattresses. I caused a bit of a fuss and told them they owed me a free drink. I took the mattress right under the window as I was first in and then had a shower and washed my clothes. I could not find anywhere to write except the outside tables so sat at one and had a coffee and litre of sparkling water which I would claim as my free drink. I wrote for two hours until supper time when a chill descended and I went into the restaurant. I was all done by 2030.
Day 74. Gruben to Zinal. 23 Km. 8.5 Hrs. 1320m up. 1430m down. Despite the fact it was a dormitory I slept very well. The 5 Swiss were all keen to have the window open wide also. I could feel a cool draught of fresh air all night gently falling on me. Breakfast was OK and I managed to make some sandwiches for my lunch break today. I paid the bill and was away by 0730 on a truly glorious morning without a breath of wind and totally clear skies. I walked up through the small village with its cluster of chalets, nearly all of which seemed to be occupied, and entered the larch forest on the west side of the valley. Gruben was at about 1800 metres altitude so it only took an hour to climb up to the treeline where the lovely larch forest petered out into dwarf trees and then just turf. On the way up there was no view as the topography of the valley and the larch trees blocked everything but now suddenly Wiesshorn showed itself and it was huge at 4506m. I could only just see the summit as other high mountains were in front of it but I was sure it would show itself fully later.
Just above the treeline was the first of two alms. The first had about 15 old log buildings but I could see no sign or smell of a dairy. I think a lot of these houses were now leisure houses but perhaps a shepherd stayed here in the summer to look after the animals. It certainly had a beautiful and peaceful atmosphere. As I passed on of the houses I thought I saw a lady laying out breakfast for guests on an outside table. This alm, called Mittelstafel or Meide, would have been a lovely place to have stayed the night. About half an hour above this alm was the alm of Oberstafel. It had about 10 houses and two large teepees. Again I did not see a working dairy here but there were some signs of active animal husbandry like electric fences and cow pats. As I walked more and more of Weisshorn started to appear and its distinctive spire of a peak became more and more prominent. I got talking here to a lovely French group who had all met doing the GR5 walk a few years ago and now do a few trips a year together. They explained to me that this was the limit of the German speaking area and the next valley French was the norm.
The route now went up to the Meidpass, 2790m, which was the highpoint of the day. It took a good hour to walk up there across stony ground which was a bit slow underfoot. About half walk up I came across the alpine tarn of Meidsee, 2660m Its deep blue waters contrasted with the grey rocks and golden brown withering grass on the turf. Here I got a great view of the Weisshorn with its very sharp and prominent peak. Where it not a close neighbour of the Matterhorn it would be more well known. There were very steep snowfields coming down its north face and these eventually flowed into the glaciers which drained the north side. I could see tracks going up to the Wiesshornjoch on the northside of it and this was across a very crevased glacier. I felt now I was in the heart of Europe’s most spectacular mountains now.
Meidpass was really a bit insignificant as it was just the low point on a long rocky ridge. When I put my head over this ridge I was a little disappointed in the view. To the north across the vast Rhone valley the Bernese Oberland was still prominent but it was starting to peter out as it approached Lake Geneva. On the south side of the Rhone valley were some distant mountains with small glaciers and I guessed these were the Mont Ruan massif to the north of Mont Blanc. There was no sign at all of the latter. In the near distance I could see a large building about four kilometres away and I knew this would be the hotel Weisshorn. Even from here I could see red marks on the hillside in front of it and occasional flashing as glass reflected the sun. The descent down to Hotel Weisshorn was quite stony initially but as I fell it became very pastoral with large alpine meadows. The cow had all gathered in the largest of these and it was still surprisingly lush with an oasis of green grass amongst an ocean of fading brown grass. I guess there were at least 200 cows and the sound of their bells was quite an uplifting din. I passed the cows and then dropped down to a large active dairy beneath them called Combavert. 2200m.
At Combavert I could see the hillside littered in red flags and also the sound of music from up the hill where I was going to Hotel Weisshorn. There were a lot of people beside the track also on blankets and mats having a picnic. Then the music at the top of the hill got very loud for a minute and died down again. I plodded up the wide path when all of a sudden an incredibly fit Kenyan with long thighs bounded past me making light of the slope. As he approached the flags the din started and there was a lot of cheering and the sounding of large cow bells. I had stumbled onto the Sierre Zinal, a 31 kilometre mountain marathon with 2200 metres of ascent in it. I learnt later there were 6100 runners taking part in the event all together. This must have been the leading athletes as there were quite a few Kenyans who overtook me in the next 10 minutes. They looked exhausted and one was walking the steepest bits, so it must have been a gruelling race so far to reduce a supremely fit Kenyan to this. I later learnt that this annual event is very well known and that it has been won by Kilian Jornet Burgada for many of the last 10 years and he must have passed here within the last half hour. It took him just two and a half hours to do the course and he was fifth. I left the path at all the flag waving, cow bells and shouts of Allez Allez and went round to the hotel. Unknown to me at the time was that all these runners were also going all the remaining 11km to Zinal.
I thought there would just be a few runners as they were about a minute apart however as I walked past Hotel Weisshorn and took the small balcony path above the Val d’Anniviers valley more and more of the runners caught me up. In fact there were so many initially I had to keep turning round to see when they were coming as the path was not really wide enough for two. There were people all the way along here cheering the runners on. Many looked like runners themselves and probably knew or had heard of a lot of the runners. Even I had heard of Kilian Jornet Burgada before. There was a very festive atmosphere amongst the spectators. It was as if the whole running community had come together for a festival. However some of the runners were really pushing themselves, sweating buckets and panting heavily. These were some of the worlds most supreme endurance athletes and I was in awe at the speed they were going at. There were lots of film crews and a few expert mountain bikers were also cycling behind the athletes for live TV.
It slowed me up a lot having to look around constantly and then stand aside when a runner approached, and the runners were becoming more and more frequent. What would have taken an hour now took at least two. I also could not enjoy the exceptionally spectacular views which were opening up as I went up the valley. The path kept high on this balcony and it was delightful to look down to the townships of chalets across the valley floor. But what really dominated the view was up ahead at the end of the valley with the main Valais ridge. It was a jumble of massive mountains all covered in high snow fields and then a mantle of glaciers. The two prominent mountains at the end of the valley were the Gabelhorn group on the east (left) side and the Dent Blanche on the west (right) side. Both of these were well over 4000 metres. However behind the glaciated ridges and slopes which connected them to form the headwall of this valley rose a very elegant lofty mountain. I did not recognize it from this angle but looking at the map confirmed it was the Matterhorn. This view up the valley was by far the most spectacular and grand of the whole trip. As I photographed it for 5 minutes at least 200 runners went past.
Above the point where the deep Val d’Anniviers split into two with the Val de Zinal and the Val de Moiry cutting into the Valais massif the path got a bit wider. There was a watering point here for the runners and I passed it and then sat on the side and had my sandwiches. I had hoped the runners would start to diminish but they still kept on coming and down the track I could see hundreds of them heading my way. My tactic now was to walk on the outside of the wider path and let them overtake me on the inside. As they approached I heard many shout “a gauche” (on the left). It worked and I did not impede their progress and I made reasonable time. Despite the runners’ exhaustion they were all polite and hundreds shouted merci as they went past. The balcony path continued nearly all the way above the valley to Zinal itself with small streams cutting across it frequently. The path was getting very dusty with thousands of feet pounding along it but there were also a few stony areas which looked very hazardous to run across. At last the path started to descend into the upper trees and then it plunged down into the valley and the town of Zinal. Still the runners came and the spectators cheered them on. Occasionally they jokingly cheered me too. When the path entered Zinal it became a paved road and the runners all went down to the finish line. Thankfully my route did not go that way and I branched off down to the north end of the main street rather than get caught up in the finish with hundreds, if not thousands of runners and spectators. I stopped at a supermarket for a drink and then went to the Hotel.
It was on the northern fringe of the busy tourist town which is very popular with walkers. I went in and was warmly greeted and shown a nice room with a balcony. It was too late to enjoy it so I just had a shower, washed my liner socks and shirt and then went down for salad and an omelette. I asked about an early breakfast and then said if I wanted one before 0800 I could help myself. They showed me where everything was and how to work the large professional coffee machine. It was very trusting of them. It was a long day tomorrow and I intended to get up at 0500. However I still had to write the blog and did not finish it until around 2300.
Day 75. Zinal to Les Hauderes. 25 Km. 9.5 Hrs. 1840m up. 2060m down. The hotel des Bouquetins allowed me to come down at 0500 and help myself to breakfast. Everything was extremely organized with all the perishable foods in chilled draws. They even showed me how to use the large professional coffee machine, which turned out to be very simple to use. As no one was about, I also made up 3 cheese rolls for today and took a couple of apples to have on the second pass. By the time I was ready to leave it was 0600 and it had been light to walk without a head torch for a good half hour. Initially my route took me down through the middle of the old village. Each side of the road was lined with old haylofts and chalets, all of which were probably well over 100 years old, and all under heavy stone slab roofs. Many of the old chalets, and even some of the haylofts had been converted to leisure accommodation and made into cute holiday houses. Soon afterwards I got to the main square which was totally deserted, which was in strong contrast to the busy throng of holiday makers and runners yesterday afternoon.
At the square I headed down west across the glacial torrent on a bridge and then immediately started the first climb. It was about 1200 metres without respite. I was prepared for it and I had started early so I would not have the full force of the sun on the climb. The path zig-zagged up through the forest, which was initially mixed. As I climbed I got a good view of Zinal and especially of the finishing area of the Sierre-Zinal race with its large tents. It did not take long to reach the larch trees which got smaller and smaller until I broke out onto the turf of the open hillside. There was a gondola here climbing all the way from Zinal to the pass I was going to, Col de Sorebois, 2836m. I am sure many people doing the Walkers Haute Route would have an extra 3 hours in bed, and then taken the 15 minute gondola. It was not running at the moment but I was sure it would start at 0800. From the treeline up I was on the grass of winter pistes. There were quite a few marmots here, and many seemed to be quite young. They would be hibernating in their grass lined burrows in 6 months time when 2-3 metres above them thousands of skiers would be carving down the slopes, both unaware of each other. At 0745 the gondola started operating and after some 20-30 empty pods people started to appear in them. I guess it was walkers and mountain bikers at this hour. The sun appeared about the same time on these slopes although it had been on the higher tops for about 2 hours now. One of the tops it appeared on first was the Matterhorn which was clearly visible above all the other summits at the end of the valley. A few people passed me all speed walking, one with a rucksack went storming past as if he was trying to set a record for Zermatt to Chamonix. As I approached the top gondola station I saw about 50 people emerge and walk up to the ridge. When they got there they all started running and I assumed they were all part of a running club who took part yesterday and were now just clearing the lactic acid out of their muscles. There were a few cyclists too who started down the long slope I had just come up on a narrow bike piste beside me. There were also a few paragliders but it was far too early in the day to find any thermals and they would just glide back down to the valley floor for half an hour’s flight if they were lucky. The top station of the gondola had a restaurant with a “Menu Alpin” but its clients were still half way through their breakfasts far below.
Again, arrival at the pass Col de Sorebois was a bit of an anticlimax as far as mountain views went. The problem always seems to be that the views to the main Valais ridge, which are incredibly spectacular, are always blocked by the immediate mountains above me on the ridge. It is only when one descends a bit down the slopes into the valley that these views unfold from behind the nearby buttresses. However, from this pass I could look down to the exceptionally turquoise Lac de Moiry, which was formed by damming a glacial torrent some 600 metres below me. The path down to it was relatively easy underfoot and there were numerous zig-zags to make the gradient quite gentle. Sometimes it was so gentle that frustrated walkers cut across the bends. Parallel to the walking track there was a bike piste which looked quite challenging, but there was no one on it. As I descended the views soon appeared up to the end of the lake and to the large Moiry Glacier where a stream from the snout flowed down into the lake. The Moiry glacier was fed by a few high glaciers and snow fields which cascaded down the mountain in very, very, very, slow motion spilling into the Moiry glacier. Unfortunately they were slowing down even more as the warming atmosphere has shrunk their volume and they are spilling less and less into the Moiry glacier that its own snout had retreated a good kilometre up the valley in the last half century. An hour after the pass I reached the dam where there was a large parking place and a restaurant run and staffed by a grumpy collection of 20-30 years olds. As I had been going for 4 hours I stopped and had a bottle of water and watched their antics and numerous smoke breaks.
I was just half way now and still had another pass to go over Col de Torrent, 2916m, which involved a further 700 metres of climbing. The route was initially very easy as I went across the top of the huge barrage which kept Lac de Moiry back. On the west side there was a gentle climb up to the Alpage de Torrent which was a very active alm with about 40 milk cows and quite a modern concrete dairy which was not that attractive but I am sure very practical. The path climbed above this dairy above some very nice stone alm houses with huge stone slabs on the roofs. Far below I could see a large herd of the black Herens cattle in a pasture with a few more old stone houses. One of the cows was getting singled out and led away. About this time a Belgian man caught up with me up. He had been in the Sierre-Zinal race yesterday and was just stretching his legs now. He was 57 and did the race in 6 hours. We started chatting as we walked and I increased my pace to keep up with him. We chatted for about an hour and it made short work of getting to the pass and suddenly we were there. The way the topography was arranged on this pass we had a great view down to the large Val d’Herens and the town of Les Hauderes where the valley split into two with each half rising up to the Valais main ridge ending in a fan of enormous glaciers. We got the map out and started to identify some of the peaks. Only one in the arc of mountains ahead was 4000m and that was Dent d’Herens but there were about 20 peaks just under it. One of them, Pigne d’Arolla, 3787m, I had been up some 25 years ago when I did the skiing Haute Route from Chamoniix to Zermatt on my own. I could even see some of the passes and glaciers I went over on that memorable last day from the lofty Cabane des Vignettes to Zermatt. The Belgian man returned the way we came up while I sat on the pass and had my cheese rolls, looking at the fantastic view, even in the dull overcast skies.
On the descent the path went to the west before veering south. On all this section I wondered what was happening at an alm marked on the map as Beplan. There were perhaps 200 black cattle there and also about 30 jeeps and 4×4’s beside a few tents and awnings. It took a while to descend the 400 metres to get to it but then I saw all the cattle were the black horned Herens breeds, which is hardly surprisinng as this was the Val d’Herens. I noticed all the cattle had numbers daubed of them and all had large decorative cow bells and collars. There was a festival spirit up here with loads of children running about. It then dawned on me that this was a selection for the fighting cows for the Reine de Herens contests, a very popular event in Valais. Just as chickens or humans have a pecking order, so do cows and they establish rank amongst themselves by tussling with each other head to head. Nowadays all the Heren cattle have their horns blunted so they can do little damage. Cows are selected from herds, such as this one and perhaps the one I had seen earlier today at local events like this. Each district or herd will then take their selected cows, or “Queens” as they are called to arena in the valley where a huge number of spectators will come and watch the annual Combat des Reines in April. Here all the selected cows will tussle and push each other, usually with horns locked, to dominate the other. The contest continues until a Reine des Reine triumphs and her value will rocket in price. While the contest looks to be encouraged by humans it occurs naturally at the alms in the herds and cows are very rarely injured. I would have liked to have lingered here but all the cows in this herd had already established a pecking order and there was no tussling going on although a few cows were roaring. I think they gathered farmers were selecting their cows for next years contest.
I left Beplan and continued my deceptively long descent. It took nearly another hour to reach the first chalets and haylofts at Mayens du Cotter, 2058m. Many of them were in need of repair and it was perhaps just too high to gather hay. After another half hour I reached the hamlet of Villaz which was once entirely summer chalets and haylofts but at about 1700metres it was low enough for residents to stay here all year. For the next hour I came down through a collection of fabulous villages and hamlets of gorgeous small farms and haylofts, most looked very old. There had been a fair bit of money spent restoring them and many looked quite comfortable now. There were also some newer houses in the old style. This style seemed to be that the uphill half of the house was stone while the downhill half was old wood. The houses were also 3-4 stories high although the floors looked quite close together and the ceiling would have been low. There were many working farms among these chalets and farms and they all had a large fan to blow the hay from where the little red alp trucks dumped the hay, to blow it up ducts into the lofts. I noticed a few ateliers and artists studios in this area so it has become quite fashionable to own or rent a chalet here. An hour walk through this living museum from Villaz took me through La Sage village and then finally to Les Hauderes town. All the time I was constantly looking around at the buildings which were immersed in a wealth of tradition and culture. There was just a small break of hazel woods before entering Les Hauderes.
It was a stunning town with the same old buildings, barns and chalets but all on a grander scale and all in better order. There was still a degree of squint shutters and lopsided window boxes which inevitably come with age, but this just added to its charm. It would certainly rank in my top three towns this trip along with Malles. There seemed to be a few bars with farmers finishing off the day. I past another hotel and then found mine on the main square. It was perhaps the largest building in Les Hauderes and was also quite ramshackle where bits had been added on down the decades but it looked very in keeping and pleasing. The owner was in the adjacent bar but had a monitor so came over and checked me in at around 1730 when I arrived. Her great great grandfather built the initial hotel in 1876 and she was the 5th generation to run it. I got a great room with a balcony and windows on 2 sides. Everything was quite old and run down which sounded quaint but there was a hint of apathy. Once in the room I discovered it had a bath so I soaked in it for a good hour while washing my clothes. There was no restaurant at the hotel but there was a simple restaurant, more of what an American would call a dinner, just opposite and it did very large portions. I was too tired to do any writing so went to bed at 2030 looking forward to my day off.
Day 76. Les Hauderes to Cabanne Dix. 18 Km. 8 Hrs. 1940m up. 450m down. It was a late breakfast at 0800. However it was a good breakfast and I managed to pocket a few hard boiled eggs and fruit for today’s lunch. By the time I left it was already 0900. However the weather was absolutely perfect and it was forecast to be good all day. My route took me over both of the glacial torrents which came down each of the two valleys which Val d’Herens split into. Both these streams had their origins in the glaciers of the main Valais ridge so were like weak milk with a hint of blue. Once I was over the second bridge I followed the road for a bit to the lovely hamlet of Pralovin where the path branched off to the south while the road did a hairpin bend and went off in entirely the opposite direction.
For the next 3 km I followed a lovely track through mixed forest with copses of fir and stands of hazelnut. The track was easy to follow, shaded, gentle and easy underfoot. There was one area about half way along where the track had been destroyed by a small landslip. The route reverted to a path for this 100 yards or so and then became a track again. It meant there would be no traffic at all, not even a farmer. After 2 km I reached a small chapel called St Barthelemy. It was solidly built from stone under a heavy slab roof. The walls were quite thick and the door was locked. However it was possible to see inside through the tapered slits in the wall. After the chapel the route reverted to a track again and went quite close to the main valley road which I left at the hairpin an hour ago. I walked along the path for about 20 minutes through larch woods when the path went up to the road and crossed it near a small lake.
From a distance the lake looked serene with a hamlet of alm houses above it and a cluster of more residential houses and a small, pretty hotel beside it. The whole village was called La Gouille. However, as I got closer I noticed there was a weed bloom in the lake and a few of the trout were in deep trouble with fungal infections. I think the lake might have eutrified with the bloom of weed. I went past the hotel which looked very nice and simple and they weaved my way through some of the 10 older chalets and haylofts surrounding it before starting to climb up to Lac Bleu which was only 40 minutes away. The climb up was very nice and just before the lake passed another cluster of haylofts and chalets. When I reached Lac Bleu it was quite busy with about 20 people around it. However they did not distract from the extraordinary clarity of the water. I guess it was 5 metres deep at the deepest but it was still exceptionally clear. The only thing that changed with the depth was the shade of blue so at the deepest it was like a clear sapphire and around the edges just had the slightest tint.
I lingered at the lake a bit and then took the upper route to Arolla. It was just 3 kilometres away and I thought I would be there in a jif. However the small path was exceptionally gnarly with frequent small rises and descents. Occasionally it was quite exposed also and for its entire distance it was strewn with stones and tree roots. What should have been perhaps an hour at the most was nearly an hour and a half. There was a larger path between the one I was on, and the road down on the valley floor and I am sure this would have been quicker. Both paths merged anyway a little before Arolla so the last half kilometre into the top end of the village was quick. I could look down on Arolla through the trees occasionally and it looked like quite a big village with 4-5 larger hotels and I am sure many smaller ones. I stopped at the highest hotel and had a bottle of water before the main ascent started. I am sure it was the most expensive hotel in Arolla.
For the next two hours the path climbed quite gently up the valley to west of Arolla. To the north was an arid rocky mountainside which rose up the modest Mont Dolin and its crags. However to the south was the main Valais ridge with its near 4000 metre mountains. Especially impressive were Mont Collon, Pigne d’Arolla and Mont Blanc de Cheilon. They rose up just to the south of me and were covered in glaciers. One of the glaciers, Glacier de Tsijiore Nouve poured down the north face of Pigne d’Arolla and as I walked past it there was a serac collapse and large chunks of ice thundered down its face in a well worn ice chute until it went off a small cliff and landed in a pile of the lower glacier. The lower glacier was now covered in rocks and probably static. It lay at the bottom of two vast walls of lateral moraine which the glacier would have bulged over 250 years ago. In 30 years it will be completely gone save for the pile where the higher glacier avalanches into it. I had once been up this mountain some 30 years ago when I skied up the glacier on its south side right to the summit before skiing down to the Cabane des Vignettes when I did the skiers Haute Route. After a very spectacular 2 hour climb with my neck craned to the south to see the dramatic mountains I reached the Pas de Chevres, 2854m.
At the pass there was a dramatic sight as a huge glacier flowed past under me and ended in a shallow lake. Beyond it was the large turquoise Lac des Dix formed by a dam. The glacier below drained the whole of the north side of Mont Blanc de Cheilon, 3870m, Across the glacier on the otherside was a large knoll, called Tete Noir, with the Cabane des Dix perched on top of it. As the crow flies it was probably a kilometre. However the route to get there was not straightforward. Firstly I had to descend 4 very strong and well made ladders on which I felt totally safe. I am sure these ladders have had to be extended as the glacier sinks away from them. Then there was a tricky traverse for 300 metres along the side wall of the lateral moraine and rock buttress. It was not really dangerous and there were cables to hold onto. Then I had a choice of routes, the discouraged shorter 2 km route across the glacier, or the longer recommended route round the north end of the glacier’s snout and the small lakes there which was perhaps 4 km. I chose the former as I wanted to go on the glacier, which was bare and safe.
The descent down to the glacier was tricky as it involved some 500 metres of boulder hopping across the moraine. The boulders had not really settled as the ice under them was still slowly melting. Once I was on the bare white ice of the glacier it was very easy going. There were no crevasses but plenty of small cracks. However the small rivulets of meltwater were not even running into these as they were shallow. To my west though there was a large stream running down across the surface of the glacier in a furrow some 2 metres deep. If it had fallen in I would have been very tricky to get out without crampons and the current was quite strong. I had already spotted somewhere to cross before I started and it was a kilometre up the glacier. I enjoyed the otherworldly walk to get there which only took 20 minutes and lots of photographs. When I got to the crossing point I was spoilt for choice and could leap across the ice furrow with ease. Once on the west side of the stream it looked like a short walk across the rest of the ice and some moraine to the bottom of the rocky knoll. However the climb up the knoll was a bloodsome slog. As the glacier shrunk more and more, so it exposed more moraine in its lateral side wall and it was this I had to climb up. Sometimes they are quite loose and dangerous but this one had a lot of silt and gravel mixed in between the boulders that it had set like cement and it was not too problematic. But there were still plenty of loose bits where it was 3 steps up to slide 2 down again and with tense muscles. After a short half hour I eventually reached the top and the hut just beyond. In retrospect I would not recommend the way I took as there are a few hazards and the other way is straight forward.
The staff at the hut were very welcoming. There were about 5 of them working here and there was a relaxed feel to the whole place. The people who worked here were all young, energetic and alternative. They were considering making the hut purely vegetarian but were worried what some of the more old fashioned carnivore clients might say. I told them about the Franz Fischer Hutte I had stayed in the Niedere Tauern some 2 months ago and what a success it was. I was sharing an 8 bed dorm with 2 other people and they had already nabbed the beds near the window. At dinner I sat with 2 Korean ladies and 2 very nice Swiss, one of whom was also a vegetarian. I managed to hammer out the blog after dinner and before the curfew hour of 2200.
Day 77. Cabane Dix to Cabane Louvie. 24 Km. 9.5 Hrs. 1200m up. 1840m down. Again it was not a bad sleep considering it was a dormitory. The Cabane Dix also did a 0700 breakfast and I was there and waiting at 0645 when the host arrived and he let me start early. So I was ready to go at 0730 and left with a host of others who were staying. We all had to go down the same path initially as Cabane Dix was in a cul de sac created by all the glaciers which surrounded it. There was a strong wind from the south and the mountain’s summits were covered in mist but the lower slopes were clear. Far to the north was blue skies but over us it was grey.
I walked with the herd of other hikers down the path for about half an hour when half of us took a new shortcut to the east which went round the snout of the glacier and then up to the ladders I came down yesterday. This was the new recommended way now the glacier route I took yesterday was abandoned and discouraged. I did not take this shortcut as I was going north to the Lac de Dix which I could see down the valley, a dull brown blue colour. As we descended the moraine ridge the herd began to split up as people stopped to pack their jackets away or in my case take photos. After 2 km the one way path up to Cabane Dix joined the main Haute Route again by some shallow glacial lakes, now full of sediment. The wider path dropped quite quickly to the lake but half way down I spotted a herd of 8 Ibex grazing on a nearby outcrop and went over to take some photos. By the time I had finished everyone else was far ahead.
When I got to the lake I noticed a large discharge of silty water coming out of a tunnel and spilling into the lake. Initially I thought it was the various glacial streams which I crossed yesterday but these entered in an adjacent gorge. I then realised that as the Val d’Herens did not have a dam this tunnel was collecting water from all the glacial streams which would have gone down the other valley and transported them under the mountains to enter this reservoir and generate electricity. It was quite a feat of engineering. The walk down the lake was on a level smooth track. I could make good time and strode out. Half way down I encountered a large herd of Heren cows across the track. They were really quite docile and I could skirt around them. I kept looking round as I passed them as if any saw me as a threat they would have flattened me with one charge. I passed quite a few Americans coming up the track and they were all doing the Haute Route. There were a few groups of them. They seemed to come in waves every week or so and it must coincide with leaving Chamonix on the Saturday. At least half way down the lake after 9 km since Cabane Dix I came to the path I needed to take over the first of 4 cols today. Just above the junction was the Cabane de Balme which looked like a busy mountain refuge.
The climb up the first col, Col de Roux, 2803m was perhaps the longest of the day’s climbs. It was not too steep but rose some 400 metres from the lake to the pass. As I climbed I could see more and more glaciers emerge from the high cirques to the south west. The streams emerging from them were exceptionally silty and almost white in colour. The landscape beneath them was a devastation of moraine spread out below the snout. Where I was however the boulders and moraine had settled and there were plenty of lichen on the stones and coloniser plants between them. Even at nearly 3000 metres I noticed some of the dwarf willows on the south facing slope. Once at the col I could look across the Prafleuri valley to the Cabane 200 metres below me and the Prafleuri Col, 2965m, across the valley of glacial rubble on the other side, which was 100 metres higher. It was to be my second pass of the day. First I had to descend the path to the Cabane where as I had been going 4 hours I stopped for a cheese roll and some water.
While I was at the Cabane I learnt that the moraine in the cirque into which I would now climb was dug up and put on a long conveyor belt for about 4 kilometres down to the valley when the dam was built. It was mixed with concrete which was brought up the valley to create the barrage. It would explain the terraces I had seen earlier high up in the moraine. The Cabane Prafleuri was the last remaining building from that operation over half a century ago. The climb up was again quite easy and seemed to go on some of the older roads used for the mining. When I reached the silt laden stream coming down I could look up at the glacier and see it was still large and active and was continuing to bring more moraine down. The last 100 metres up to the pass were quite steep but the path was good. At the pass a moonscape of glacial debris lay before me with vast fields of stones and boulders and the occasional small brown silty lake. It was not an attractive sight at all and especially on this overcast dull day, but it was spectacular in its devastation. Across on the other side of this fan of rubble some 2 kilometres away I could see the third pass of the day.
It was not really a pass in that it was a ridge to climb over as the lower side of the ridge was a cliff which the long gone glacier had carved and there was no way around it on the lower side. To get to the base of this ridge was a boulder field of very large boulders. They were stable but there were big gaps between them and you could have fallen 1-2 metres if you were not careful. I was very thankful it was dry and my boots were still quite grippy as in the wet this would have been even slower. As it was, it took nearly an hour to cross the boulder field and climb up rock formations to reach the crest of the ridge. There were quite a few people going the other way and they were all making heavy work of it with their large rucksacks which swayed about above them as they tried to hop from one boulder to the next.
Once on this edge I kept heading west across easy ground of bare glacier scoured slab until it descended a bit and I reached the moraine again. There was now another 2 km of smaller boulders and stones to negotiate and this took another hour until at last I reached the foot of the fourth pass of the day, Col de Louvie 2921m, There were two glacial torrents to cross here, swollen by the afternoon temperatures and I opted to go round the south side of a lake they flowed into rather than the north side where the torrents would have merged in the outflow. I had to leap with gusto to get across a few of the braids of silty water. There were still a lot of people doing the Haute Route coming across this last wasteland. They had all slogged up from Cabane Mont Fort and thought the ridge with a cliff below it was the top. I warned them it was a disappointing false summit and the pass they were hoping for, Col de Prafleuri, was still another 2 hours away. I met 2 ex PCT hikers here also and we had a very lively 5 minute chat before the threat of rain forced us onwards. When I looked to the south I could see the source of this moonscape wasteland and it was the dying glaciers coming down Monte Calme. They still had lots of crevassed ice higher up but the lower half were strewn in boulders and below this a thick layer of moraine coved the static ice. The climb up to the pass was only 300 metres or so and although it was covered in boulders it was quite easy to ascend. I think coming down would be much harder. At last I reached the final top and got a great view to the SW down the deep canyon like valley I had to descend to the vast mountain of Grand Combin which was covered in glaciers.
I thought the descent would be straight forward but it was not. After dropping down some 150 metres to near a small lake the path forked with a more difficult alpine path going over yet another pass Col de e Chaux and then down 500m to Cabane du Mont Fort. It was no wonder a lot of the people I saw today coming towards me were tired as most had come from here with their large rucksacks. My fork was the easier option and it contoured along the steep side of the valley. The valley was too steep to go straight down as there were cliffs and very steep boulder fields blocking the way. The contour footpath got higher and higher as the valley dropped away until in the end it was very lofty. Generally it kept above a line of buttresses which then dropped precipitously into the valley but sometimes it had to go round crags which forced the path right out on top of the cliffs. There were a few sections with chains for added security. All the time the Grand Combin grew in size as more and more of it unfolded from behind the jaws of the valley I was in.
At last the path forked agan with the upper branch going round to Cabane de Mont Fort the long way, and the lower path descending steeply to the lush floor of the valley in a long series of zig-zags. I had to take the lower path and had barely gone down it for more than 5 minutes when I came across a herd of 4 confident male Ibex. Counting the rings on their horns they were between 15-20 years old. I was quite close to them and managed to get some good pictures. Half an hour later I was finally down on the gentle valley floor walking in a groove in the turf. At last I could let my eyes wander from the hazardous path and here I spotted another two ibex. It was still a good kilometre to the lake but it was a delight to finish the long day on this note, and I had a spring in my step. Looking down along the lake and beyond the two buttresses which hemmed the valley in was the Petit Combin, looking magnificent in the late afternoon light. At the north end of the lake was a large pasture and beside it an old dairy. The dairy was unused but open so I went in. It had been restored by Bagnes Valley historical society and they had done a great job. The dairy was perhaps 40 metres long and 8 wide. There was a row of stalls up each side for 80 cows in all, tethered to a wooden beam on each side. The roof was curved like the underside of a humpback bridge and the walls were massively thick, perhaps 2 metres thick in places. I remembered the roof was not curved but a shallow apex shape and covered in large slabs on the outside. I could see that the roof was also very thick, especially at the top where the curve and apex were furthest apart. As I closed the door after inspecting this museum of a building I saw some Ibex in the pastures where the stream entered the lake. I went over and there were at least 15 here and all seemed to be 10-20 year old males. I had never seen such a big group. Ibex like fescue grass especially and perhaps this meadow was rich in it. Certainly this Louvie valley was the place to see Ibex and they were even more plentiful here than I have seen in the Dolomites. It was a lovely saunter down to the end of the lake to the Cabane de Louvie.
The cabane was run by Claudia and her helper. They were both extremely welcoming and cheerful, especially the helper. It was a beautiful old wooden cabin with plenty of windows and a quirky artistic decor and books. The bunks were not numbered but named after composers. I was allowed to choose the bed so took the one next to the window which was the Chopin bed. The cabin was quite busy with perhaps 30 people and we were assigned tables. I was put at the table with 5 North Americans from 3 different groups. It was a lively table partly because of James, a young energetic Californian who kept the conversation going when there was a lull. It was a good evening in good company. I was the only vegetarian and Claudia made me a vegetable quiche which was French home cooking at its best. I wrote after everyone had gone to bed but at 2200 the lights went out and I was forced to bed, which I was glad of as it had been a long slow day in difficult terrain.
Day 78. Cabane de Louvie to Cabane Col de Millie. 18 Km. 7 Hrs. 1380m up. 1190m down. I slept OK in the dormitory and woke naturally just after 0600. I got up a little later and went to see what state breakfast was at and was surprised to see people already there before 0630 so joined them. The breakfast was good and I was packed and ready to go at 0700 having crammed in the sufficient calories for the day. The forecast said the morning would be tolerable but that there would be heavy rain in the afternoon and I was keen to get to Cabane Col de Millie before it arrived in case there was lightning with it. However at 0700 it was glorious with just the slightest of clouds on the Grand Combin. I noticed the ground was wet though and that there was new snow above 3500 so it must have rained in the night. I left the cabane and almost immediately ran into 5 ibex. The valley and especially the pastures around Lac de Louvie lake seem to be full of them. They were almost hunted to extinction a hundred years ago but much of the alps has been repopulated from an original herd in the Gran Paradiso in Italy which was not so heavily persecuted. They are now protected and are quite confident with humans and I could frequently get within 30 metres of them before they shuffled off.
Just beyond the Ibex the descent started in earnest. The path was good but the descent was steep and relentless with hundreds of hairpin bends. The slope I was going down was convex and the bulge of it blocked any view down to the valley but I could see it was a long way down. Across the other side of the valley was the large Combin massif. It northern mountain was the Petit Combin, 3668m, and the ridge then rose up to the Combin de Corbassiere and culminated in the south with the Grand Combin, 4314m, a truly enormous alpine mountain with many high glaciers and icefalls feeding the huge glacier which drained the massifs north side. The highest slopes and glaciers of this massif were covered in a layer of new snow. After 20 minutes the path veered south under some cliffs and above other cliffs and I could see down into the valley. Far up the valley was the tall Mauvoisin barrage, behind which was the Lac de Mauvoisin. There was a hydroelectric complex below the dam but the buildings were in an alpine style and it did not look too ugly. Below this were small rural hamlets which I think were largely old summer farms. There were some exposed areas and these were protected by both chains bolted to the rock face and occasionally there were some railings and bannisters on the outside of the path which made it very safe. I passed a herd of sheep but they were just ordinary ones and not the Valais Neznoir breed. Just before the bottom of the descent there was a tremendous small wispy waterfall which poured over a spout and then freefell for at least 100m by which time it was just a fine spray gently landing on the sloping rocks below. The hamlet at the bottom where the hydro plant was located was called Fionnay, 1491m. It had some tremendous avalanche defences to protect the hamlet and hydro plant. Here I joined the valley road.
I walked down the road for a few hundred metres and got to an information board about the hydroelectric scheme. It was an enormous project built in the 1950’s involving a few dams with Lac de Dix being the biggest. It did collect water with 100 km of tunnels not only from the glacier water from Arolla and the valley of Val d’Herens but all the way from Zermatt and the Mattertal valley. From the reservoirs it went into 4 power stations with the one here at Fionnay being the smallest of the 4. Together these 4 hydro power stations produced a quarter of Switzerland’s electricity. Below the information board I left the road and followed a path through the woods past the lovely hamlet of Plampro, 1370m, where the climb started.
It was a steep climb up from the valley floor through the thick fir forest on small steep zig-zags. There was some respite when I inadvertently wandered into a glade where there was a summer farm to harvest hay and I could not find the path out of the other side of it for a few minutes. Before long I was back into the forest for more zig-zags. The path was deserted and there were no footprints on it after last night’s rain. I heard a power saw high ahead and reached it half an hour later. They were chopping trees down in a remote gully and I wondered why they would bother. When I looked down the gully I could see the hamlet of Plampro far below in its glade. The lumberjack was idle now, his work done and there were some rope access climbers working at the top of the gully. They were bolting something to the rock. Then it dawned on me there were perhaps 10 small house sized boulders up here at the top of the gully and they looked very precarious and ready to topple down onto poor Planpro below and destroy it. What the climbers were bolting onto the rocks were monitors to detect any movement in the boulders. I had heard of such technology in Norway to monitor potential cliff collapses. The monitors were powered by solar panels. The assumption was the boulders would move a little bit before the final collapse so the hamlet could be evacuated in good time.
It was still another hour up through the steep forest until I reached the treeline. By now the blue skies of the morning had gone and white misty cloud covered the sky and it was descending down the mountains. It seemed the forecast was coming to life. I just made it to Cabane Brunet before the mist enveloped everything. I had a delicious cheese roll here and was very impressed by the friendly host and his wife. The prices were good and the cakes on the counter looked tempting. There was also a Nepali working here too. Looking out of the window at the mist the thought crossed my mind to stay, but then it was not raining and there was only two and a half hours to go to Cabane Col de Millie. It would also mean less tomorrow and tomorrow’s forecast was for Biblical rain.
The walk to Col de Millie was entirely in the mist. The route dropped a bit onto a track and followed it for a fast 2 km before it left on a slower footpath through the treeline. There were plenty of the Arolla pines here and the black squirrels had been gnawing the cones off the trees and then gorging themselves on the large seeds embedded in the purple cones. I passed an alm where cows were being kept inside very well maintained electric fences. The alm houses were in good condition, but I did not see a dairy nearby. However there was someone staying in one of the wooden cabins at the Servay alm beside a small lake and there was a man at one of them. As I approached Col de Millie the mist cleared to the north to reveal a high plain with a few old shepherds’ houses on it. Beyond the plain to the north the slope dropped off into the thick mist so it looked like the plain was an island in a stormy sea. The Cabane Col de Millie was new and quite modern. It was private and did not have the superiority complex of the Swiss Mountaineering Association (CAS) hut, and it was cheaper. The hosts were friendly and gave me a dorm room with 10 beds, however there was just one other person in it and he looked like he liked the window open. There were about 12 guests staying; 2 Swiss groups, a very easy going American trio and me. I sat with the Americans for supper and they were great company. As we ate the long awaited rain finally arrived and it cleared the mist to reveal modest mountains around us. I wrote the blog after dinner in a deserted dining room as everybody went to bed at 2030.
Day 79. Cabane Col de Millie to Champex. 19 Km. 6 Hrs. 640m up. 1620m down. There was only one other person in my room and he was the eccentric older man from Zurich. Not only did he walk to the nearest stream, which was a good kilometre away, yesterday afternoon in the mist to wash his face and armpits as there was no water to wash at the cabane, but he got up at 0500 to do some yoga in the dormitory. To be fair he was very quiet and barely disturbed me, but it seemed so dogmatic I wondered if he had mental health issues or was perhaps a reformed drug addict. He was already at breakfast and had latched onto the 3 older Swiss French, so I and the Americans were spared. The host made a real effort for breakfast and it was quite simple but with 3 types of homemade jam also. It was pouring outside and that was the forecast for the entire day so once I finished I put on my gaiters and over trousers and jacket before venturing out into the wind mist and rain. I eventually set off at 0800 together with the man from Zurich whose poncho was flapping wildly. We both descended opposite sides of the col and within a few minutes the wind had virtually ceased but the rain was quite heavy. This was the weather the farmers of Europe had been dreaming about for months. The drought had been so severe in the region that the Alps were yellow and brown with parched grass.
As I descended in the mist I heard cow bells and then came across what looked like a herd of Highland cattle which had been sheared. There was just a tuft on their forehead. They must have felt quite naked in this weather. The path went down further to the south into a large west facing bowl where there was a summer farm at Erra-d’en Haut, 2264m. Someone was in the alm house as the lights were on and when I peeked in the stone barn it looked like the 20 odd Highland cattle overnighted in here on a bed of straw under the stone slab roof. The path now dropped more steeply down these pastures under the barn past a ruined summer farm and to the edge of the woods. The first trees I came across were the hardy willow but then there was a band of alder before the larch appeared. As I descended a steep valley which turned into a ravine appeared on my north side and this continued all the way down to the valley floor. Across the ravine on the south facing side was a large barn and an old stone house both in a steep meadow which was riven with the small horizontal tracks livestock create after centuries of grazing. Even from afar the house did not look cosy, but bleak and damp. As I went down adjacent to the ravine in the larches and then the firs I passed a few chalets in small glades. The garden furniture was all tilted to prevent water pooling and the awnings all folded away. I am sure the people in these chalets were preparing to light the stove and make jam for the day as there was little to do outside.
I reached Liddes after a couple of hours. It was a large village really and had a pretty square with a pastel coloured town hall covered in window boxes. There were a lot of haylofts with drying racks on their balconies amongst the more modern houses. I passed a couple of small grocers and then 3 small hotels, one of which looked boarded up and abandoned, but the other two looked 2 star and quite cheap. There was even a petrol station, as the main road from Martigny over the Grand Saint Bernard Pass and into the Aosta Valley in Italy went this way. Although Liddes had all the ingredients to be charming they did just not align to make it happen. Perhaps it was the weather which subdued it or perhaps it was the main road, which although it went round the side of the village, always made its presence felt. I had to walk north beside this main road for perhaps half a kilometre before turning off across a field to gain a track.
This track descended down to the main valley floor. Just before I got there I noticed a corner of a meadow had been fenced off and there were rows of a crop I did not recognize. Initially I thought it was young lavender but when I went to inspect it I saw there were about 20 rows, each 30 metres long, of Edelweiss. The farmer must have been selling the flowers to tourist businesses. Below the Edelweiss the track went over a bridge across the main stream in the valley. I looked over the side in curiosity and was amazed to see the river perhaps 50 metres below me in a deep, narrow, winding canyon where it was carving itself ever deeper. On the west side I should have taken a path which went up a bit and then contoured north along the west side of the valley. However it had a big notice saying “path closed until work completed”, and it had a barrier across it. The thought of finding another route was more that I could bear so I hopped over the barrier and continued on my planned route. No one had really been along here for months and I feared a landslide might have washed the path away, however after 500 metres I got to the issue. There was a dilapidated wooden bridge over a trickle of a stream. Even if the bridge had rotted completely the trickle was easy to jump over. I continued north on the lovely even path for a good kilometre more until I got to the barrier at the other end which I went round. The path was blocked with an almost American neurosis about litigation.
At this barrier the path met a track and I continued north as it slowly descended. Far down the track I saw 3 umbrellas coming towards me. Initially I thought dog walkers, but then I noticed they had rucksacks and I thought Americans. I was wrong on both counts as we met and started chatting. They were Swiss and when I asked them where they were going they said they were walking the Via Francigena and were heading to Rome! I told them of my project and they seemed as impressed with me as I was of them. They were all in their 60’s also and we had a very enthusiastic 5 minutes of conversation in the drizzle in the fir forest. After we parted I continued down the track and soon got to the Bohemian hamlet of Fornex with its beautifully restored old houses, colourful gardens and chicken coups. It was raining too heavily now even to take the phone out to take a photo. From Fornex the track continued down and around the northern end of a chain of hills to reach Somlaproz, 968m. It was essentially a rural village which had become a suburb of the adjacent town of Orsieres. It was the first time I had been under 1000 metres for ages.
With the rain continuing to fall I thought about going into the cafe at Somlaproz for a cheese roll. However it looked more like a townies rural restaurant and had a pretentious menu displayed. I thought they would baulk at me dripping in their restaurant having the gall to ask for a simple cheese roll when the other diners were having boeuf filet mignon, with a carefully selected wine to accompany it with. So I walked through the village and started the ascent to Champex.
I had to climb 600 unanswered metres. I plodded up the road for a few hundred metres and then turned off on a minor road through the lovely hamlet of Prassurny. I looked through the windows, jealous of the occupants reading papers or even washing up in the cosy houses while I slogged up the road in the rain. At the top of the hamlet the track became steep. So steep there was a sign warning cyclists. It was 30 degrees and covered in gravel chippings and a fast cyclist coming down might not stop before he went off the curve into the forest. I slogged up here for a kilometre by which time I had done most of the ascent to Champex. There was just a frustrating undulating path through the forest for nearly half an hour before I reached the first houses. I passed the Belvedere Hotel and though it wise to go in and ask. The very grumpy owner in a leather jacket said “Not a chance, completely full” I noticed a pile of rugged suitcases ferried here by minibus while their American owners walked the Tour de Mont Blanc or the Haute Route. So I headed into town and it was the same story. At last I got to Hotel Glacier where I stayed before and where there was now a mountain of waterproof holdalls with different adventure tour company logos. To my surprise they had a single room. I booked in and was in the shower washing 4 days of dust and mud of me and my clothes. I had a lot of typing to do so I went to the minimarket nearby and got enough for a late lunch and supper. Partly as I needed to work uninterrupted and partly because I could not stomach sitting in the dining room with loud Americans at every table thinking they were the modern day Lewis and Clark. I finished at midnight.
I had really enjoyed the Valais Alps. There were spectacular views round every corner but there was also a rich farming and pastoral history here. It was also very nice to see the craftsmanship in all the old farms and chalets and how this was still being preserved. It was perhaps my second most favourite section with Zillertal still at number one.
Section 11. Valais Alps. 188 km. 70 Hours. 12530m up. 12910m down.
Section 11. Valais Alps. 10 August to 19 August 2022.