Sierre-Zinal initial climb, Valais, Switzerland

Since my aborted attempt to run the Swiss alpine K23 race back in July last year, I thought my ‘running’ career might be over and I didn’t go for run at all for the remainder of last year. But there is something about getting out there and putting one leg in front of the other as fast as you can which appeals, to me anyway . It’s partly the fresh air, partly the desire to keep fit, but it’s mostly the sheer joy and satisfaction of completing a run.

So it was that about 12 weeks ago I embarked upon my latest comeback. After a couple of 5k’s (3 miles) I’ve managed to get the distance up to nearly 13k (8 miles). Part way through this period, I received my usual email from Datasport (i.e. the people who manage the entries and timing for most Swiss races). The email contained the usual “Races not to be missed” and that included the Sierre-Zinal mountain race (which is 31km/19 miles long and has an ascent of 2,200m or 7,218 ft).

Now, I hate running uphill. Throughout the past few months I’ve driven down to Sion to run, well jog, along the cycle path by the side of the river Rhone – to avoid even the slightest climb between our home here in Evolène and Les Haudères. But this is an iconic race, (part of the Golden Trail World Series) which I’ve always wanted to do and I figured (possibly quite rightly as it turns out) that a lot of it would be walking up steep paths.

Entry to the race was on a strictly first-come-first-served basis and, although there were a few technical problems due to the number of people applying, I did eventually manage to get registered for the race. There are two categories, “Runners” and “Tourists”. I presumed the latter was/is for people, like me, who just want to do the race and so that’s the category that I’m in, though they do start at 5am in the morning! (This could be a good thing as the race is on 7th August and the sun could be blazing down by mid-day. The Runners start at 10am).

As you might expect, I have no idea how long it’s going to take me to complete the race (assuming of course that I do!) Apparently Runners average 4 and a half hours. On the official website, they provide a useful calculation spreadsheet to help you work out the timings at different stages. This is OK if you know your expected time and I had an idea that I might be able to do it in maybe 6 hours. (I’d certainly be happy with that time sitting here now!) The website also provides a course profile which indicates the percentage effort to reach the various feed stations. (See gallery).

Of course, Sierre is ‘just down the road’ for me, so yesterday, with the sun shining brightly, I decided to check out the first section of the race – which is pretty much uphill all the way to Plonchette. It’s ‘only’ about 6.5 km / 4 miles but rises over 1200m / 4,000 ft and represents about a third of the effort or time required to complete the course.

I’ll not divulge how long it took me to get there, but suffice it to say that, even though my legs felt like jelly, I did feel good enough to continue a little further along the course – that is until I reached the point where ‘running’ was impossible due to the snow. (See pic 22).

Note that all of the pictures below were taken with my mobile phone – and on my return/descent from that furthest point. Accordingly, they have been rearranged into ‘ascending’ order… 😉

Bramois and Tour de Romandie, Stage 4, Valais, Switzerland

I’m aware that not everyone likes cycling, or even maybe sport, but this post is not just about cycling – honest! Please read on…

As I mentioned in my post on Thursday, a stage of the Tour de Romandie professional cycle race came up our valley yesterday, so I just had to post a few pictures. Although the route had no loops as such, like Stage 1, as before I managed to find 4 different places to take pictures; two near Bramois, one in the village of Vex and the fourth on the final climb, around 6km (4 miles) from the finish.

Also as before, I got into position early so I had plenty of time to wander around the village of Bramois, taking a few photos to show you what a typical Swiss or Valaisan village looks like. As you will see, it’s a mix of the very old, the traditional and the new (with a most unusual house) and with excellent sports facilities. (Even the smallest villages in Switzerland seem to have fabulous football pitches and tennis courts – no wonder they punch above their weight on the world stage). I also discovered where all those hubcaps go to that you sometimes see lying by the side of the road…

As for the race, you have to feel for these Pro cyclists. The stage included 3 category 1 climbs and the weather was awful, with rain falling throughout the second half of the race and 2 of those climbs – the last being to over 2,000m (6,500ft) with winter snow still by the side of the road. Spare a thought then also for Geraint Thomas, who took the lead with only a few kilometres to go and was tracked by Michael Woods. In the sprint finish, Thomas, with freezing fingers and only a few yards to go to the line, lost his grip of the handlebars and crashed to the floor. He got up, climbed back on his bike and finished the race and remains in second place overall, having now been overtaken by Michael Woods, but the fall cost him vital seconds and the lead.

Tour de Romandie, Switzerland, Stage 1

Long time sufferers, I mean followers, may recall that I ‘covered’ a stage of the Tour de France waaaay back in 2016 and some images of the Prologue of the Tour de Romandie in 2017. Well, with things being as they are, I wasn’t sure whether the Tour de Romandie would go ahead this year. So imagine my surprise (and delight) to see that it was indeed on and that 2 stages of the race would be ‘just down the road’…

Stage 1, yesterday, ran from Aigle to Martigny, and included 4 loops between Fully and Saillon (which just happens to be where I was walking last week). Not only that but Stage 4, on Saturday, starts in Sion and takes in some of the route I cycled a few weeks ago, then comes up the Val d’Hérens, to St Martin, before dropping to the village of Praz Jean, which is less than 4 miles away from our chalet. Result!

In an attempt to get some decent pictures of the event, I decided to position myself part way up the 3rd category climb to the small village of Produit. It’s normally a very peaceful village and residents must have been a little surprised to be selected for this ‘circus’ to come to town. I say ‘circus’, but it’s quite a low key event compared to the Tour de France, though many of the best riders are present since it’s one of the UCI World Tour events.

For the first two loops I managed to pitch myself next to a group of people who were obviously big cycling fans and two of them were dressed in very impressive ‘King of the Mountains’ outfits, with white and red spots. With their clanging cow bells they were well received by everyone passing by, including the motorbike outriders and team entourages, who were tooting their appreciation. Word must have got back to the organisers as a TV reporter was soon on the scene to take a video and record an interview. (See pics 4, 14 and 18).

I also took a video so that you could get a feel for the atmosphere. I aim to please. 😊 For the third and fourth loops I moved further down the road to get a different aspect or backdrop to the photos.

When I got home, I wondered whether I’d appeared on the TV coverage. I admit that I’d donned a fluorescent orange tee shirt ‘just in case’ and in TV pics 29 and 30 you have a game of Where’s the wally? to play. (Videos and games – is there no end to the fun?) By the time the leaders came around for the fourth loop, the wind had got up and I had to put on my top, so the last TV image shows me a few seconds after taking pic 27.

For the record, the peloton eventually overhauled the breakaway group of six riders and the stage was won by Peter Sagan, (seen in pic 24), in a sprint finish. Rohan Dennis remains in overall lead, with his Ineos team mates, Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte in 2nd and 3rd. (See pics 15 & 23).

Bisse de Sion and Bisse d’Ayent Walk, Valais, Switzerland

As I was about to set off to do this walk yesterday, Jude said to me “Be careful!” I replied saying that there was nothing to worry about as I wasn’t going anywhere precipitous or dangerous. Er… WRONG!!

My plan was to pick off another of the many bisses or watercourses in the Valais. This time it would be the Bisse de Sion but, to make it into a loop, I would return via the Bisse d’Ayent (previously posted here). As you can tell, I wasn’t expecting any difficulties (or any snow) as bisses are generally flat and the Bisse de Sion runs at a height of around 1,750m (5,740ft) on the south facing/sunny side of the Rhone valley. Put into context, my walk on Friday was at a height of 2,000m (6,560ft) and there was only a few inches of snow.

Everything was going as expected until I was about half to Lac de Tseuzier. OK, there had been a bit of snow in the very shaded areas, but nothing to indicate what was to come. Picture 11 shows where I first encountered some significant snow but this was quickly overcome. However, there were two much bigger challenges waiting around the corner (shown in pictures 17 to 21). Thankfully the snow was well packed and the air temperature sufficiently high to make it easy to stamp solid footholds in the top of the snow. Also my new cross-country trainers have a series of studs which added to my confidence in getting around and/or over these obstacles.

If you look closely at the centre of picture 21, you will see my ‘steps’ down in the snow. It looks dangerous, but I can assure you there were some very good hand-holds on that rock to the right, otherwise I would never have attempted it.

From then on, although there was some more snow, it was very easy going and at no point throughout the walk did my feet ever sink in above the level of my shoes, let alone my ankles. When I reached the ski parking area at Les Rousses, the signs indicated that the road and my route through the tunnel was closed. (See pic 24). So, having had enough challenges for one day, I turned about and walked over 2km (1.5 miles) down the road until I found a path which led me to the much lower and snow-free Bisse d’Ayent. This did at least allow me to get a sort of bird’s eye view of the Bisse d’Ayent. (See to the right of pic 27).

I should also have mentioned in my previous post on this subject that the Bisse d’Ayant is such an iconic example that the Swiss have decided to put a picture of it on their 100 Swiss franc note. That’s about 110 US dollars or 85 UK pounds. (I’d include a picture but I’m afraid I haven’t got one!)

Arolla to Lac Bleu (Walk 10) in the (deep) snow

I promised in my post on Monday that I would return to do this walk with my GPS. I knew that things would be ‘interesting’ when the GPS showed I was about 10 metres to the right of the road I was walking on to get to the start. A walk, of around 4km or 2.5 miles, which would take me no more than 1h 30 mins in the summer, turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Read on…

It wasn’t long before I reached the point where I turned around last time and I discovered that the path did a quick left-right zig-zag up the hill. So far, so good, but the way ahead still wasn’t crystal clear. I spent the next hour or so picking my way through the trees, often knee deep in snow, either just to the left or just to the right of the line shown on the GPS. If I was to the left, the route below and to the right often looked easier. Then I’d look up and the route above looked better. Never mind one zig-zag, I must have zig-zagged all the way along that first section.

I came across the open area where I was worried before about an avalanche. I decided to drop down to where the trees were only 10 to 15 metres apart. Big mistake. I took one step down and my leg disappeared into a huge hole. It was like stepping off a 3 foot wall (or rock probably). I was instantly thrown forward, down the slope and started to slide. The good news was that I was going head first and so I could see that I was heading for a small bush. I grabbed a branch and this arrested my slide. The bush, or at least what’s sticking out of the snow, can be seen just below the centre of picture 8, with the hole up to the right (below the middle one of the three trees top right).

Safely on the other side, the going got much easier as the snow had been cleared by the sun – but only for about 300 to 400 metres. My next challenge was a short section which was/is ‘protected’ by a metal chain. (They normally fix these where the ground goes away steeply, or straight down, to the side). The problem was that half of the chain was still under snow and I couldn’t get it out to hold onto. So I had to kick foot holds, VERY carefully over the top. (See pics 13 and 14).

And then it got worse…

I was back in the woods, zig-zagging up and down the slopes again and the snow got deeper and deeper. I reached a gully where I could see a bridge, slightly above, which I needed to cross, but the way around to it, looked too risky. So I climbed up through the trees, thinking it would be safer to make my way across and down to it. (You may have gathered by now that turning back was not really an option as I was much nearer to Lac Bleu than Arolla).

Then I heard voices, which turned out to be a some ski-tourers coming down the gully. A guide, 30 metres (or 100ft) below, was calling to his clients. I figured that if he could get there on skis, I could get across to the bridge – and so I dropped back down to where I’d started. But getting around to the bridge proved to be the hardest challenge of all.

I kid you not, the ‘slope’ of the snow must have been at least 60 or 70 degrees. So I was trying to climb up by kicking my feet into the snow, but as soon as I put my weight on my foot, it went back down to, more or less, where it started. It must have taken me about 20 minutes to cover just 25 metres. The snow was that deep it was over the top of the sides of the bridge. So I did, literally, go ‘over’ the bridge.

After more zig-zagging through the trees, I came to another gully. And the view back down to Satarma (pic 16) looked infinitely more appealing than another 20 minutes or more working my way around to what might have been a good path to Lac Bleu and then a descent to La Gouille and Satarma. So that’s what I did, I ‘walked’ (more like, stumbled) down the snowy slope, sometimes ankle deep, sometimes knee deep and more than once up to my thighs. Twice I got myself stuck, where I couldn’t move either leg, but luckily there was a branch nearby to help haul myself upright and out.

Five hours and 45 minutes after setting off, I arrived in Satarma. My feet were wet and soggy after all the snow that had melted into my boots. I took them off, wrung out the water from my socks and put them back on before trudging, disconsolately, back up the road to Arolla. I’ve never been so pleased and relieved to finish a walk.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I avoid snowy walks for the next few weeks…

Note that the last 3 photos below were taken on the way back to Evolène.

Châteaux de Sion et Environs, (Route 140), Valais, Switzerland

Most of the routes that I use are derived from the SwitzerlandMobility website, which is a fantastic resource (should you ever wish to explore this fine country). Not only does it show every single walking path or track, but it also includes cycling, mountain biking, roller blading and, would you believe, canoeing routes. It’s very easy to use – just zoom in to the region you’re interested in then select the appropriate type of exercise on the left and specify whether you’d like to view the National, Regional and/or Local routes. You can also draw and download your own routes, (as I do frequently), but this requires an annual subscription of around 35 Swiss francs (35 US dollars/£30). Well worth every cent, I’d say!

So, while searching for another new route to walk, I had a quick look at the cycling options and discovered this circular, regional route (no. 140) around the villages above Sion. At 42 km (or 26 miles), it didn’t seem to be too far, for a part-time cyclist like me, though it did have 950m of ascent. The altitude profile suggested that it would be done in 2 separate climbs, with a level-ish section in between, so I thought it might not be too difficult. It was only during the drive down to Sion with my bike in the back of the car that I realised it was the equivalent of cycling back up to Evolène from Sion. (My family and friends, who have visited us, will appreciate how big a climb that is!)

Anyway, all went well as you will see from the images below. Though, try as I might, I couldn’t get the Speed Checker by the side of the road to register anything, such was the incline (see pic 18). The first climb had an average incline of 8.5% over 4.5 km and, purely in the interests of producing this post of course, I did stop frequently to take a few photos. 😊

Lastly, I should also praise the Garmin Edge, which you can see in Pic 9. I’d only used it in the past to track where I’d been and this was the first time I’d downloaded a route to follow. For something so tiny it did an amazing job, giving an alarm around 150 metres before and then at any significant change in direction and also an alarm when I went slightly off the route, plus confirming when I was back on track. 👍👍

Croix de la Chia Walk, Rhone valley, Switzerland

After being thwarted by the snow on my last walk, I discovered a route, again on the south facing side of the Rhone valley, which only went to 2,350m or 7,700ft. (This was about where the snow started last time). The objective was the Croix de la Chia, which sits at a col between two small peaks called Mont Gond and La Flava.

The map only showed a path to the col (with a route going down the other side), but I had secret hopes of trying to head towards, maybe even up to the top of, either Mont Gond or La Flava. Two dimensional maps can be deceiving of course and, if you look at pictures 26 and 27, you will see why I didn’t attempt either. There were two guys at the col when I arrived and they headed up towards La Flava, but I’m not sure if they even managed to climb over that first set of rocks.

I’ve also include a photo of the previously posted Bisse de Savièse, as seen from across the valley. (See pic 37). It highlights how much some of those bisses ‘cling’ to the rockface.

It’s not often I get the opportunity to take a photo of where I’m going to walk, but photo 1 shows where I was heading yesterday from ‘our’ side of the valley. The last photo was taken on the way back.

Finally, I was a very happy chappy throughout the walk, as the first thing that I saw as soon as I set off was the Clouded Yellow butterfly in pic 2, which was kind enough to land and have its photo taken. (Note that it could be a Pale or Berger’s Clouded Yellow, I didn’t get a good look at the upper side of the wings). Whatever, it was a joy to see so late in the year. 😊

Self-isolation in Evolène, Val d’Hérens…

Jude and I are now back home and, thankfully, over half way through our self-isolation period of 10 days. There are, of course, worse places to be holed up, but I’m feeling a bit like a caged tiger, wanting to get out and about, especially while the sun is shining and there’s not so much snow on the ground. (I’d estimate the snow line to be at around the 2,500m or 8,000ft mark).

I’ve kept myself busy by posting some of our good friend Arthur’s paintings of his time in the Comores. Click here for two examples, with 4 more to come over the next 4 days.

But, with nowhere to go and wanting to post something on this site, I decided to take a few pictures from both within and around the chalet.

Walk from La Forclaz (VS) to the Col de Bréona and Col du Tsaté, Val d’Hérens, Switzerland (Part 2 of 2)

As I arrived at the Col de Brèona, the clouds were still swirling around. In the mist, I noticed two climbers descending from the Couronne de Bréona. They stopped to remove their harnesses and rope, while I was checking out the cloud cover. About 5 minutes later, the clouds started to clear and I followed the two climbers along the path up to the small, unnamed peak by the side of the col. If you look closely at the first picture, you can see them on the left and on the far end of the ridge in picture 3. They are also visible in photo 5, while two hikers are coming up the path which I would soon take. The climbers turned right into the Val du Moiry.

I’d seen nobody during my ascent to the Col de Bréona, but suddenly the ‘top’ was quite busy with another 2 climbers and around 10 people hiking up to the Col du Tsaté as I descended. Apart from 3 more people at the small lake at Remointse de Tsaté, (one is just about visible in red in pic 13), I saw no-one until I arrived back in La Forclaz. Maintaining a good social distance is rarely an issue while walking in the mountains!

If you missed Part 1 and would like to catch up, please click here.

Evolène, Val d’Hérens, Valais, Switzerland

The 15th August is normally the date when the Mid-summer Festival takes place in our village. But this year, for obvious reasons, it was cancelled. So we were not treated to the helicopter rescue of the dummy which had fallen (or was he pushed?) off the rockface, nor the stream of vintage cars. And the usual procession, of the villagers demonstrating the traditional arts and crafts, will have to wait until next year.

So, I decided to have a wander through the village and take some photos to show you what our village looks like during the summer. Normally the main street would be packed from one end to the other but, this year, there were just the usual weekend and holiday visitors. It was also nice to see the locals dressed in their traditional costumes, simply relaxing and enjoying some time with their families.

If you would like to see an example of what we all missed, here’s a post of the Mid-summer Festival from 2016.

Note that the last two images, courtesy of Wiki, position Evolène on the map of Switzerland and the canton of Valais and give some facts and figures about the Commune – just in case you wondered… 😊