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).

Let me tell you a story…

I hope you’re sitting comfortably, as this a little bit different to my usual posts… There are several ‘points’ to this story, as you will see at the end, though I’ll be as brief as I can. 😊

It’s been snowing off and on for the past week or so. The garden was completely clear of the white stuff before it came. So just when we thought Spring was on its way, we were back to square one.

But when the sun comes out, everything looks beautiful…

Though it does mean some work is necessary if you want to go anywhere and not be up to your knees in it all the time. Note: It’s around 60 to 70 metres/yards to get to the parking area (which makes for good training! 💪)

Consequently, some of the bird feeders came out again and we had a visitor on the balcony, sheltering from the snow… an Alpine Accentor. (It was a friendly little thing – even allowing me to open the window to get this uncropped shot from about 2m / 6 feet away).

But this also meant we had some other, bigger visitors…

So I decided to put up the Trail cam again and two nights ago, amongst several others, it captured this video:

And then again last night, this one (of around 10 clips) at 10:45pm. Regular readers may note that it’s the same stag (with 3 prongs and 2 prongs) as my previous posts in December and January.

Then, around 2:45am, the trail cam captured another series, including this one nearer to the camera…

Hopefully you’ve viewed the last video, to see the ‘point’ of this story… (or lack of them). If not, shame on you, go back and watch!

The stag must have shed its antlers sometime between 10:45pm last night and 2:45am today. And below is what we found this morning… How kind of him, after using those antlers to destroy our bird feeders over the past 3 months to leave them behind for us as a souvenir! They each weigh 1.4kg (just over 3 lbs) and measure 70 cm (or 2ft 3.5″) in length.

Also, who knew that the ‘bottom end’ of the antler is called the corona or burr and the area on the stag’s head where it attaches (or detaches in this case) is called the pedicle? You learn something new every day! 😊

Life in Switzerland, Part 1 – Cows

For some time I’ve thought about describing some of the ‘nuances’ of an expat living in Switzerland, but never quite got around to it. (It’s amazing what self-isolation can do to you!*) So here is the first in a series, which may run and run, depending upon what life here throws at me (and Jude) during the year. I hope you will find it interesting, or at least a little different to life wherever you may be. 😊

Regular readers may recall that we live in a small village, called Evolène, which lies at almost 1,400m or 4,600ft in the Val d’Hérens in the southern part of Switzerland. We describe it as authentic, as the traditions that have gone on for eons are still continuing today. In particular the Val d’Hérens breed of cow is almost revered around here (quite rightly of course), due to its uniqueness.

There are several small farms in and around the 6 villages at the top of the valley (the other 5 are Les Haudères, Villa, La Sage, La Forclaz and Arolla) and each farmer has only around 8 to 12 cows. (This compares with about 100 per typical farm in the UK). In the winter, since we’re under 1 to 2 feet of snow for most of the time, the cows are kept in their sheds until the Spring/early Summer.

Sometime in June, when there’s a spell of good dry weather, the farmers will come to cut the grass in the fields. The whole of the Commune is divided up into hundreds of small plots, each legally owned by different people, but it seems each farmer ‘owns’ the right to cut the grass on many different plots. Rather curiously, these plots are not always adjacent to each other, so it can lead to a sort of patchwork of cut/not cut grass. (See pic 6 below).

Every year, 2 ladies come with their grass cutter, go through our small field and cut the grass in the 4 plots below. The total size of these 4 plots is only about 20 yards by 70 yards (max). So it’s farming on a small scale by anyone’s standards. How many plots these 2 ladies cut altogether, is a mystery. When these ladies came the very first time, just after we’d moved in, we thought we must have upset the locals as they disappeared without touching our grass. We needn’t have worried as our plot is used by another famer…

Almost exactly 2 weeks later, Johan, the farmer who lives just below us, comes to cut the grass in our field and many of the other plots around and about the neighbouring chalets. The grass is then left for a day, before being turned or tossed around by a sort of spinning machine (and/or by hand) and a day later it’s ‘rowed up’ to be scooped up into the back of a truck. Every little blade of useful hay is gathered up by 2, sometimes 3, helpers raking into line any stray bits which have escaped or were not rowed correctly. Below are a few pictures of the machines and farmers in action on various plots in the valley.

At the end of June, once the snow has disappeared from what’s known as the ‘alpage’ (i.e. that area of lush meadow between the higher villages and the rocky mountain tops), the cows are all taken up to graze for the summer. This is known locally as the Inalp or transhumance, which I joined in with once and blogged about here.

At the end of September, all the cows are brought back down to their respective farms to get ready for the winter again. However, there are often several days of glorious sunshine to be had. So the farmers, Johan again in this case, places an electric wire or fence around the fields he uses and then brings the cows up for the day – usually around 10am. (The sun has reached the fields by then). Around 4pm, he, or someone from his family, then leads them back to the sheds.

All of this brings me neatly to this video of the cows arriving for the day and crossing our small field. (I would call it a garden but we enjoy the cows coming so much, we have resisted the temptation to ‘do something with it’ and have left it in the capable hands of the farmer to use. 😊

*Footnote: Our 10 day isolation period ends today (though I understand the UK has now been taken off the Swiss ‘red list’!) Glorious weather is forecast for the next few days, so ‘normal service’ will resume tomorrow… 🤗🎆👍

Saas Valley Walk, Day 3 of 4, (part 1) Almagelleralp Berghotel to the Schwarzbergchopf, Valais, Switzerland

Pete and I have been doing multi-day events together for over 25 years – ever since we ‘ran’ Wainwright’s English Coast to Coast, in a relay format, with our good friends, Colin and Liam, in 1995. But I don’t think we’ve ever had a day as spectacular as this one. So I hope you will forgive me for splitting it into two parts. Even by my standards I took a lot of photos (almost 600) and, together with Pete’s, I couldn’t possibly pare them down to just one post.

By contrast to the mists of Day 2, we awoke to perfectly blue skies. (See pic 1). So the descent to Saas Almagell was cool, but very pleasant. And, for the first time ever, we decided to use public transport to get from there to the Mattmark reservoir. This saved our aging legs around 6 km (3.5 miles) of walking and 500m (1,650ft) of ascent, on what was already going to be a big day.

The Mattmark reservoir is one of many in the Valais, generating renewable energy for the canton – hence it’s marketing strapline of “Source d’Énergie”, which equally applies to the feeling you get when you visit this wonderful part of the world.

Tomorrow, I will bring you not just photos of Pete and I crossing the Allalin and Hohlaub glaciers, but a video or 2 as well. So stay tuned… 😊

Saas Valley Walk, Day 1 of 4, Gspon to the Weissmies mountain hut, Valais, Switzerland

To set the scene… The plan for our 4 day walk was as follows:

  • Day 1: Gspon to the Weissmies hut
  • Day 2: Weissmies hut to the Berghotel at Almagelleralp, with an extension up to and back from the Almageller hut
  • Day 3: Almagelleralp to the Britannia hut
  • Day 4: Britannia hut to Saas Grund

After driving for just over an hour from our chalet to Stalden, which sits at the ‘confluence’ of the Saas and Matter valleys, (the latter being most famous for the Matterhorn), Pete and I bade farewell to my wife, Jude, and took the gondola lift up to Gspon. As an aside, we were squeezed in with about 7 other walkers and another 8 cyclists with their mountain bikes. So much for social distancing! But, thankfully, masks were compulsory (and a week later, I’m still feeling OK. 😊)

I’d read that Gspon was ‘famous’ for having the highest football pitch in Europe. It often hosts the European mountain village championships so, as keen football fans, Pete and I had to take a look. (For more info. please read here).

From Gspon the path undulated along the east side of the Saas valley, passing some tiny hamlets and a beautiful church at Finilu. Several rocks and boulder fields were safely negotiated before the final climb up to the mountain hut, where we had a room (normally sleeping up to 8 people) all to ourselves.

As you will see the weather was a little grey, but the sun did eventually come out and the small amount of rain, which was forecast for late afternoon, didn’t materialised until the evening. 👍

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… 😊

Exhibition Walk from Farquèses to Lac d’Arbey

For the fifth year running, the Tourist Office has organised an exhibition of paintings along the path which runs from Farquèses to Lac d’Arbey. This year it showcases 26 pastel paintings of Swiss artist, John-Francis Lecoultre, who was born in Locle, Neuchatel in 1905. He was obviously inspired by the mountain scenery around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), the Saas and Zermatt valleys and, of course, the Val d’Hérens. 😊👍👍

As you will see, huge copies of the paintings are hung between the trees at suitable intervals along the path. My apologies for not including all the French accents in the names of the paintings (or indeed some of my photos), but WordPress doesn’t seem to replicate them properly in the image gallery.

My apologies also for not naming the 8 butterflies, but I wanted to get this post published and I don’t have the time to look them all up. Also, I thought some of you might like a challenge! Hopefully it doesn’t detract from what is a beautiful walk (if only virtual for you). 😊

As an experiment*, I’ve set the first image as a featured image, to see if that arrives in the emails which are sent out. I’ve noticed that the emails have recently changed from including every picture (which I didn’t like as the emails were too long – sorry about that!) to having nothing in them at all, but the heading link to the post. OK, I could include a “Read more of this post” somewhere in the text, but hopefully this provides a more suitable alternative ‘teaser’. Please let me know what you think or prefer.

*Update: My experiment didn’t work, as no image appeared in the email. (Maybe I set the featured image incorrectly. I’ll have to check).

Swiss Trip to the South-East (Part 1)

For our first full day in the Engadin, we decided to walk from Maloja along the path which runs by the side of Lej da Segl or the Silsersee to the village of Sils Maria. Jude was keen to see what it looked like as Colletts Mountain Holidays have (or at least would have, had it not been for COVID-19) started running holidays there.

Quick aside here: I first met Jude while on a Colletts Mountain Holiday in the Italian Dolomites in 2004. Jude was the chalet host. The rest is history as they say… 💕😊

Anyway, even before we’d left our apartment, we’d noticed some people, running in pairs towards the lake. Only the day before, Jude had read about an event called the ötillö, which required a team of 2 people to run, swim, run, swim, run, swim, etc. for a total of 45km. (39km of this is running and 6km swimming across the 2 lakes in the Engadin). One of the rules is that the 2 competitors should never be more than 10 metres apart, so they are tied together with a piece of rope. (The madness of the human race never ceases to amaze me!) On the plus side, if there is a plus side, they are allowed to use paddles on their hands and floats between and on their legs. (In the second picture below you can see the 2 competitors had them on their shins, but not everyone had them). Of course, these had to be carried during the run sections. All I can say is, it’s not an event you’ll catch me doing!

We stopped at the rather quaint village of Isola on the way for a coffee, where there’s a huge cascading waterfall. Sils Maria itself was quite charming, with restricted motorised transport from what we could see. It’s clearly a great base to explore some of the excellent walking routes and attractions in that area. (But it’ll never beat the Val d’Hérens of course! 😉)

We returned to Maloja via a small ferry boat, which criss-crosses the lake to pick up passengers. Apparently it’s the highest operating ferry in Europe, at an altitude of 1,797m or 5,896ft. Swiss facts – Jude has them all! (It’s no wonder I married her! 😍)