Ridge Walks

Over the last few years my hikes in the Valais have mainly had peaks and mountain huts as the destinations. Ridges are not so accessible – just getting to them generally involves a significant climb in itself. Consequently ridge walks are not so popular except where ski lifts can get you part of the way there.  Until this year the only ridge I had hiked was the Crête de Thyon from Thyon 2000 to Greppon Blanc taking in Mont Rouge. This summer I set out to find a few more ridges in and around the Val d’Hérens and nearby valleys. Here are three.

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Glaciers: Going Going…

 

I went hiking this summer above Ferpècle in the Val d’Hérens to look at the Ferpècle and Mont Miné Glaciers. These are situated in grandiose scenery, with the mighty Dent Blanche towering above, yet are also quite easy to get to.

Mont Miné in the centre. The Mont Miné glacier is to the right, the Ferpècle glacier to the left. In 1960 they were joined together in the foreground

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Hiking around the Val d’Hérens

Hiking around the Val d’Hérens

 

The Val d’Hérens is a valley full of living traditions, high alpine pastures and even higher mountains. A five day hike around it is a perfect way to experience what the valley has to offer, whilst providing constantly changing scenery. There is plenty of wildlife to see too, deer, chamois and marmots are not too difficult to see, as are birds of prey and many forest birds. There are a multitude of flowers and butterflies even at the highest elevations. Sounds abound too – principally that of running water from fast flowing streams, as well as cow bells and the shrieks of marmots.

There are various ways to organize the trip – carry everything yourself for the true hiking experience, or let the Val d’Hérens Tourism Office arrange everything for you – booking hotels and transferring your bag every day so you just carry a day sack. There is an official route, but there are plenty of options to take different paths according to interests, the weather and different fitness levels. Here are details and experiences from a five day trip made in July 2016.

Day 1: Veysonnaz to the Grande Dixence Dam
6hours 45minutes, 18km

We set off from Sion station, taking the 09.10 postbus up to Veysonnaz where we then took the télépherique up to Thyon2000. The path starts right in front of the cable car station and soon leads you away from the ski area and into open mountains. Across the valley we could see Nax, our destination in five days time. One option upon leaving Thyon2000 is to follow the ridge as far as Mont Rouge which affords good views in all directions, though we elected to stay lower down and reserve our legs for the hike up to the Grande Dixence dam. We still had great views of the Becs de Bosson, La Maja, the Weisshorn and down into the valley below.

Val d’Hérens cows with the Grande Dixence in the background

The path passes by raised bogs, herds of Val d’Hérens cows and the Cabane d’Essertse (which could be an option to stay over at if you start the walk in the afternoon). The dam wall soon comes into view, but quickly lulls you into a false sense of security – the Grande Dixence is the largest gravity dam in the world and its a long traverse around the slope to reach it. The dam doesn’t seem to get any nearer! The path takes you to the top of the dam, whilst the hotel is at the base of the dam wall. It’s possible to take the cable car down. The map indicates a path that would take you to the hotel without having to climb up to the top of the dam but we missed seeing it. One other option for those that are fit is to climb up to the Cabane de Prafleuri to stay the night. We opted for the hotel where there was a warm welcome, an excellent three course meal (as part of a demi-pension option) and great views back down the valley. Once the day tourists have departed the hotel is quiet, but we were glad of an early night.

Day 2: Grande Dixence Dam to Arolla
7hours 30mins, 19km

We had a leisurely start, taking the first cable car ride of the day at 9.35am to the top of the dam wall. This was followed by an easy walk to the end of the dam with fantastic views of Mont Blanc de Cheilon, La Sâle and the Aiguilles Rouges d’Arolla. There were plenty of marmots scampering around and the almost obligatory herd of Val d’Hérens cows, with their bells audible from afar.

The Grande Dixence looking towards the Mont Blanc de Cheilon

At the end of the lake the path heads up to the Cabane de Dix. The map shows the path crossing over the river quite soon after the end of the dam, but this is now not marked on the ground. Follow the well marked trail and as the path starts to climb the glacial moraine the route to the Col de Riedmatten and Pas de Chèvres branches off and is well signposted. It crosses the stream at a new bridge. This is the only disparity we found on the trip between the map and the signposting on the ground. If in doubt follow the good signs on the ground!

Glacial stream. Mont Blanc de Cheilon in the background

By now the route is into some wild country traveling through glaciated terrain, with spectacular views all around, and occasional flowers clinging on in surprising places. The geography is still evolving as the glacier retreats and rivers carry silt downstream. There was the constant sound of rock and icefalls reverberating around us, though we never managed to see them. Close to the Col de Riedmatten the route gets a little more difficult as a landslide has carried away the previously route, and the new one is not yet well established.

There are two options now, the Col de Riedmatten itself, or the Pas de Chévres. The route up to the Col de Riedmatten is quite steep and there are chains near the top which makes progress easier. The Pas de Chévres has an easier entry, though ends with a series of ladders up a rock face. These are new ladders erected in 2014 in four sections (15-20 steps each) with platforms in between to gather your breath. They have replaced the previous rather scary ones, and should be scalable by most with a reasonable head for heights (if in doubt, don’t look down, don’t look up, and you’ll soon find yourself at the top!). We took the ladder route.

 

From there its a gradual descent past ski slopes, more cows and then pine and larch trees to Arolla. Just outside Arolla there is a buvette which is a good place for a drink, an apricot tart, and a moment to contemplate the view. The smell of the forests makes a contrast from the rocky vistas of just 90 minutes previously.

There are various accommodation options in Arolla. We chose the Kurhaus, one of the historic hotels of Switzerland – all wood, geraniums and memorabilia from its early days – it opened in 1896 and the walls have framed guest lists and accounts that make fascinating reading. The rooms are very comfortable, there are deer in the surrounding forest and warnings not to leave food on the balcony as the squirrels can take off with it. We had an excellent four course dinner (half board option) and that evening there was a concert with works by Kreisler, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Debussy. All very civilized.

120 years of the Kurhaus. The first guest list from 1896: “Success to the new hotel”

Day 3: Arolla to Les Haudéres
7hours 30mins, 17km

The destination for day three can vary – either being Les Haudéres, Evolène or La Sage, though most people seem to favour Les Haudéres. There are two main options down to Les Haudéres, following the river, or along the contour to the Lac Bleu (though quite a taxing up and down route). After a splendid breakfast looking over the lawn and onto Mont Collon, we took a third route – electing to hike up to the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges at 2810m before descending to the Lac Bleu. This afforded us spectacular views all around to Mont Collon, the Pigne d’Arolla, Les Aiguilles Rouges d’Arolla (from the other side from yesterday), the Dent de Perroc and the Aiguille de la Tsa. Looking down there were views to a spectacular waterfall and the Lac Bleu nestled in forests in the valley.

The hut is easily reached in three hours (including some stops to admire the views) and we had a cup of tea and homemade cake. This could be a good place for an early lunch, though we made the steep descent to the Lac Bleu. This is a great place to take off your boots and revitalize your feet in the ice cold water. A few hardy folks were swimming.

Lac Bleu

Then it was down through the trees to La Gouille. After the hike up to and down from the Cabane, the bus to Les Haudéres is an option, but the walk to Les Haudéres is a pleasant one which goes through larch and spruce forests and then alder and birch before reaching the first village and our first taste of “civilization” since leaving Veysonnaz (the Kurhaus is above Arolla and we did not venture into the village there).

We stayed at the Hôtel Les Mélèzes, a very nice hotel with the most spectacular collection of flowers on the balconies. Again we had a very tasty four course meal (it should have been five courses but we were already full…).

Day 4: Les Haudéres to Cabane des Becs de Bosson
7 hours, 12km

An extensive breakfast with a great expresso set us up for the day. We took the bus to Evolène to save a few kilometres as the day was a big one – 1600m uphill. A couple staying at the same hotel and also doing the Val d’Hérens Tour got the hotel taxi to take them upto Fourcla which gave them a head start of 400m of climbing.

Photo above – Evolène, Les Haudères and the Dent Blanche

We wandered through the village of Evolène and up through the pastures and forests with the view opening out behind us, to show the Dent Blanche (the Val d’Hérens’ iconic mountain) and the Ferpecle glacier. Farmers were in the fields gathering hay in, by hand. We then had an hour or so climbing gently through larch and spruce forests before emerging into pastures and eventually a buvette at L’A Vieille. This was a very popular place with a “plat du jour” and a long list of deserts which we sampled, to the accompaniment of cow bells.

We had to navigate the herd of cows and then it was onwards to the Pas de Lona. This is part of Verbier to Grimentz cycle race and we were overtaken by several cyclists in training for the main event – they breezed past us, carrying their bikes. A family came running past us, presumably in training for a fell race. Finally we were at the Cabane des Becs de Bosson and had a well earned rest. That evening there was a family atmosphere with parents and young children having also made the trip. There was a thunder storm and we were treated to a fantastic double rainbow.

Day 5: Cabane des Becs de Bosson to Nax
8 hours, 27km

Sunrise from the Becs de Bosson Hut

Up early to watch the sunrise come up and light up the 4000m peaks that are visible from the hut – the Bishorn, Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn, Ober Gaberlhorn, Dent Blanche, the Dent d’Hérens and Mont Blanc. Spectacular! We then climbed the Becs de Bosson (getting close to the top before the going got a bit scary) and back in time for breakfast. Then it was time to set off down to Nax, through the Val de Rechy, a nature reserve with unique (for Switzerland) habitats. There was still a lot of snow on the first part of the way down so the walking poles came in handy.

Photo above – La Maya, and the route down to the Vallon de Réchy

Reaching the Col du Cou in good time we went “off piste”, climbing Mont Noble where we had lunch with a great view of the Rhone Valley, the Weisshorn in one direction and Mont Blanc in the other. Then it was a long way down past more alpages (with Val d’Hérens cows) and through forests until we reached Nax. Across the valley we could see Thyon2000 and Veysonnaz where we had begun the trip. It was time for a beer.

Photo above – from Nax, looking over to the start at Veysonnaz, and down to Sion

 

Some helpful details:
The official Val dHérens tourism brochure about the tour is here:

The recommended map is Val d’Anniviers & Val d’Hérens Map 23 by Kümmerly+Frey. With this you can add variants to the tour by taking slightly different routes according to the weather, fitness levels and interests.

Strong hiking boots are best though hiking shoes are also possible.
Hotels and the Cabanes can provide packed lunches. There are supermarkets in Les Haudéres and Evolène. Take plenty of water and sun cream.

2009: A Mini Ski Challenge

During my 2008 ski challenge I did wonder at one point how many vertical metres would be “a lot” to ski. So one day in February 2009 Daughter No 1 and I were at Argentiere/Grandes Montets at Chamonix and decided to do a dummy run at setting a target – which was to ski the vertical equivalent at Everest. We acheived 7000m and realised that the only way to do it was starting early as the lifts opened and on a day when there are no queues – you actually spend most time on the lifts. So thats what I did.

I went one Friday, early and skied just over 14000m. My legs were still ok and I half considered skiing a bit more but it was getting quite late. The legs were even ok the next day, though my back was sore. I had tried to do as many turns as possible – so I slalomed all day rather than giant slalomed which would have been easier. I reckon I did 3500 turns. Given that I was slaloming this does not sound right (4m vertical per turn) but I did check this over 2 long runs (300+ turns) and it was on steep slopes.  The final thing is that I did it all non-stop – no rests apart from a lunch break and a quick stop for fluid in the mid-afternoon. I varied the runs (which at Chamonix are a little restricted) and so most were 600 or 800 m vertical but I did quite a few top to bottom – 1500m vertical – all non stop.

Slightly mad, but at least I know I’m reasonably fit.

Skiing Throughout the Year: A Reflection

Three months on here are a few thoughts on skiing throughout 2008.

It was definitely a talking point. Especially the summer months when colleagues and friends imagined that I had been off on a trip to the southern hemisphere, or were totally perplexed (even skiing friends had little idea about the possibilities of skiing in the Alps in the summer). I was even motivated to start this blog by friends who encouraged me to blog about it (so as a bonus I got to learn how to set up a blog site..).

I skied the most I have in one year (21 days – no big deal for J who did 40+ last year, but it beat a 25 year record for me, set when I was at University). I got to ski in some new places – 5 to be precise, and I improved my skiing technique (thanks Norbert).

I discovered that the ski season does not have to stop in April/May, and so I will definitely ski in the summer again though I will choose the days carefully to ski in the summer on new snow (and preferably at Zermatt).

As mentioned in the November post, I did calculate the CO2 emissions from skiing every month. This amounted to 792kg for 10 car journeys and 3kg for the 2 train journeys (Gala Yuzawa and St Anton). I have not been able to find the CO2 emissions associated with the lift system, but lets be generous and double that figure to 1.6T of CO2 (I doubt it as much will be powered by hydro electricity, but whatever). To offset this would cost about CHF32 (compared to the US$232 if you want to buy a T for industrial purposes… something wrong there…). However I subscribe to the view that offsetting is a rather screwy concept (for a laugh look at Cheat Neutral ) plus the option of paying for the establishment of wind farms in emerging market countries does not seem like the highest priority for funding when the developing world has other problems. So my money is going to a cause that is more immediate and needy – Plan-International.

A few friends suggested that for an encore this year I should try and ski every week. Thats much too much like hard work – the day job (with travel and deadlines) would make this difficult, plus summer skiing is not that “to die for”. Once or twice a month was fun – every week would be an obsession. So 2009 will see a different set of challenges and opportunities to post rambling musings into the blogosphere. I’ll post on this shortly.

Skiing Throughout the Year: December

24th December

St Anton is a great place for a week’s ski holiday. The village is pure Austrian and has good apres-ski and nightlife (alledgedly). The skiing is extensive and there are plenty of new facilities, including the architecturally stylishly Galzig Gondola. The views from the top of Valluga are some of the best in the Alpes. The journey upto Valluga is spectacular, necessitating three gondala’s, the last of which only fits 2-4 people and is taken without an operator. Its not possible to ski from the top, so most skiers don’t make the trip up there which is a mistake. From the top of the second gondola there are several marked off-piste routes which provides a feeling of connection to wilderness.

With a whole 7 days skiing in St Anton to be able to report upon its hard to choose just one day, but the 24th is perhaps the most appropriate. After 3 days skiing in snow, cloud and flat light, the 24th dawned with a blue sky. Daughter No 1 and I decided to take a ski lesson: her first in 7 years; my first in 30 years. After a few warm up runs we met up with Norbert from the Arlberg Ski School. After a quick diagnosis of our styles, he had us focussing upon improving our rhythm and carving throughout the turn. It was refreshing to follow someone for several hours, allowing them to decide where to turn and what speed to ski at. Our only focus was on following his advice and concentrating upon bending the knees more to get a better controlled carve.

Norbert was good company – 19 years as an instructor of which 8 had been in St Anton. He also led ski-touring parties. He described new plans that would connect St Anton to Ischgl to make a massive new skiable domain. However, this would reduce the amount of wilderness area, and therefore for the sake of nature and for those who enjoy ski-touring this seems to be an unnecessary plan. Especially so as the Ski Arlberg area has 280km of runs. We got nowhere near exhausting these runs in one week, leaving all of Lech and Zurs for “next time”.

The only downside incident happened when Daughter and I conspired to crash into each other (OK, OK, as overtaking skier it was my fault). Though the collision was a slow motion affair, we were on a steep icy slope and so it got nasty as we tangled up and slid down the slope. Daughter is completely convinced that her helmet saved her from serious injury, though her back was sore the next day. She is now on a mission to get me to wear a helmet.

After 3 hours of non-stop lesson we were both pretty tired – so it was back to the hotel for a sauna and a beer. The next days were very enjoyable: skiing with new found technique; minus 14 degrees c; clear blue skies; and great snow.

A final mention also for the Schwarzer Adler Hotel. The 24th ended with a gala dinner, with everyone dressed up and a plentiful supply of prosecco courtesy of the excellent owners and hosts, the Tschol family.

Skiing Throughout the Year: November

2nd November

I blame M. At 12.30 am (ie 30 minutes after midnight) we hatched a plan to go skiing. Later that day. There was only red wine involved, but quite a lot, though it was good.

Actually that’s not fair on M. I had work trips that would take me away for 3 weekends, so any skiing had to be done in the first two weekends. The weather looked like there was to be a break between two weather fronts that would allow some good skiing on the Sunday. It had snowed earlier in the week. So Saturday was always going to be decision day.

A few hours later we were off to Les Diablerets. A blue sky with high clouds in the plain gave way to a greyish sky in the Alps, and before buying a ticket we were warned that high winds on the glacier meant that the lifts could close at any moment. We had come too far, our hangovers had cleared and we were up for it.

Sort of.

This was like skiing in Scotland. A fierce wind that hardly allowed you to get out of first gear, all the new snow was blown off the slopes, and there were only 2 lifts working so the queues were huge.

When I started this endeavour I decided that I had to use ski lifts to get up a slope. The question was how many times. Once was not enough: neither was two. I wanted a days skiing. Four runs seemed about right. This is largely based upon my experience of skiing in Argentina which was on an horrendously windy day when I managed four runs. The experience left me feeling that I have skied properly in Argentina.

M and I did four runs. Only one was even half decent.

However, the restaurant was warm and cosy. I had forgotten the sensation when warmth returns to the face. In that sense alone it was worth it. It was good to catch up on the latest news on the climate change negotiations and M’s preparations for Poznan. (Note to self: I must look into offsetting this years emissions incurred through skiing every month).

I hear M was regalling dinner party audiences with this experience for some time afterwards. For me (a day out with M notwithstanding) it was the low point of the skiing year, but hey I’d had a pretty good track record to date.

Skiing Throughout The Year: October

26th October

After my raving about last month’s escapade, Daughter No1 decided she wanted to get in on the act and so we went off to Saas Fee. We had just invested in a new helmet for her so she was the height of cool wearing a white plastic thing with a trendy tartan trim.

It was nice to ski with someone else, and we had a great time talking through her work (a dissertation on “climate change and migration”), my work (I was about to embark upon a serious bout of travel) and the recent annual family holiday, especially the bit telling Homs’e men jokes in the Bagdad 66 Cafe, which was one of the highlights (thanks to Brian McMorrow for the photos).

Saas Fee was in-between snow boarding competitions and there were lots of spanish and japanese skiers & snowboarders practising for the next event in a few days time. There were also lots of ordinary swiss skiers, starting their season, so the lift queues had the feel of “winter” about them.

As we stopped for lunch (rosti – what else) Daughter No 1 announced that she felt sick and dizzy. She had succumbed to altitude sickness whilst skiing in the Rockies several years ago and she was now more susceptible to the effects of altitude. I was not willing to take any chances, so it was time to go down to the valley. By the time we got there she was fine. We played south american music all the way home – guaranteed to induce a good mood and end another good day on the slopes…

Skiing Throughout the Year: September

27th September

The Matterhorn is an iconic mountain. As you walk through Zermatt, it appears suddenly in full view between the wooden houses. Yet when seen from the ski slopes on the Kleiner Matterhorn it is just one of 6 similar shaped 4000+ metre mountains, and quite frankly not the most impressive of the bunch. Yet the panorama is all the more impressive because of it.

For some reason I had been putting off going to Zermatt. The logistics of a long drive, a train journey and then a long walk followed by 3 cable cars was daunting. Yet on the 27th September it was a dream of a journey. There was a clear blue sky, no traffic to speak of and the underground carparking next to the station at Tasch was typical Swiss efficiency. Even the train waited for me as I struggled through the barriers with skis, poles etc. The walk through the village put me in a great mood and warmed up the muscles.

The slope are at 3800m (and a little bit more). It was T-shirt weather in the village, but seriously cold up top. In fact it was just like skiing in January, with snow to match – squeeky new powder. In short it was fantastic. This is the summer skiing I never dreamed of.

The runs are long, and of the cruising type. Yet after about an hour and a half the altitude started taking its toll, and I developed a slight headache and a feeling of sickness and lack of energy. It took me a quarter of an hour to figure out what was happening, but the snow was so good that I couldn’t give up. The ski teams had packed up early and the slopes were empty so I kept going….

I will be repeating this day for years to come.

Skiing Throughout the Year: August 22nd August

22nd August

I’m finding myself becoming determined to complete this challenge. I have booked various Friday’s off work, and I check the weather early in the week to confirm whether to go or not. After two outings to Tignes, this month it was time for pastures new, so off I went to Saas Fee.

In fact this was my first time to Saas Fee – a car free village near Zermatt. The road leads right into the carpark, from where it is a short walk to the village and lifts. The village is picture postcard. The skiing also looked promising, with the car park populated with the minibuses of the Slovak, Czech, Russian, German and Swiss ski or snowboard teams.

In addition to the ski teams practicing slalom there was a group of 30 canadian teenagers who were based at Saas Fee for two months. I presume that they have the winter games at Sochi in their sights. At the time of writing they have 1992 days to go… I also met a Brit who was on a ski course for the week – he told me that it was the start of his season. I wondered where in the cycle I was.

The summer skiing area is at 3500m, where there are 3 T-bar tows. The skiing was varied, and whilst the race teams took up quite a bit of the slopes, they started packing up at 11 o’clock and so it was then possible to ski on the areas they had been occupying which were virtually in pristine condition.

On the slopes were the Swiss Paraplegic Association and a group of skiers some with one or more limbs missing, and others who were partially sighted (being individually guided down). It was very refreshing and inspiring to see them blasting down the slopes at high speed.

Also adding to the atmosphere were parties of climbers snaking up to the top of the 4000m+ peaks towering above. I find the presence of climbers in the vicinity of ski slopes provides a reminder of the accessibility of wilderness and yet how far away from it I am compared to the climbers just a kilometre or two away. I keep telling myself “one day”.

The snow was in pretty good condition, but by 12.30 the clouds started bubbling up and wisps of cloud enveloped the slopes, so I called it a day. I did about a dozen runs.

This blog is definitely missing some photos. Daughter No1 had gone off on holiday surfing and taken my camera, but as C later pointed out, if I had had the camera I would have probably taken some boring long range shots of snow, mountains and skiers in the mid distance. You can imagine that kind of stuff yourselves… C is the photographer of the family so I should get her along again.