As you can imagine, after 10 days of isolation, (going no further than the letter box and the rubbish bin), I was itching to get out for a long walk and, I have to say, it felt great to be ‘free’ again. The forecast was for brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine, so yesterday I chose to head for the Pointe du Tsaté at 3,077m or 10,095 ft.
Jude thought I was mad, because there was still quite a lot of snow on the mountain tops. But it didn’t look that deep and the route I would be taking was on a south facing slope.
After passing the Remointse du Tsaté lake at 2,500m, or 8,200ft, there was a mixture of snow (no more than 2 inches deep) and bare ground on the path for another 3 hundred metres (1,000 feet) or so of climbing. But as I reached the ridge to the summit I was faced with a 2 to 3 foot wall of snow, where the wind from the north had built it up. (Picture 29 doesn’t really do it justice). I admit that I had second thoughts at this point, but I was so close to the summit, I decided to go for it. And I was glad that I did, as I was rewarded with magnificent panoramic views in all directions.
The beautifully stacked stones at the summit also helped me to set up my camera for the selfie in picture 35. 😊
My apologies for so many photos, but I hope you will agree that it was quite an adventure which ought to be shared! (Picture 1 btw was taken from the bus on the way to La Forclaz. (It just shows how clean the Swiss bus windows are!) However, I just missed one on the way back, so I decided to walk the 4 km/2.5 miles back home to Evolène. Luckily it was all downhill!)
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… 🤗🎆👍
For our last ‘day out’ in North Wales, Jude and I took a drive around to the Llŷn Peninsula. After parking up further down the coast, we walked around the coastal path to Porthor, or Whistling Sands as it’s often known. From there we called in at tiny Porth Colmon which, as you will see from my series of photos, is still used as place for launching or, as in this case, landing fishing boats. And then finally we drove to the small coastal resort of Aberdaron, where I somehow managed to get a shot of an apparently deserted beach, despite there being quite a few people around.
Most people who visit the Snowdonia National Park will head for the northern part and the mountain of Snowdon itself, but there are some fine walks towards the south, around what are known locally as the Rhinogs. This gallery covers the route from Cwm Bychan (pronounced ‘coom bukan’ btw) to the summit of Rhinog Fawr. At 720m, or 2,630ft, it’s not a big mountain, but it’s quite a tough ascent due to the very rocky paths.
In the event, I didn’t see it at all, as I was too low down in the valley. Though, after zooming in on some of my photos, I have just spotted the top of it, peeking out on the hump to the left of picture 18. Nevertheless, it was a new and exciting walk for me.
As you will see, it’s a big glacier and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get onto it, but another hiker came along as I was taking some photos and I followed his tracks up to the central, medial moraine of the glacier. (You can just about see him, slightly to the left of centre, in picture 17).
After our 4 day, Saas valley trek, which finished with a steep descent into Saas Grund, Pete’s knees and body were just about shot. But it’s amazing what a few beers, a fabulous meal and a good night’s sleep can do. 😊 So, for Pete’s last day, we decided to do one of the many bisse walks in the Valais.
After a quick search of the Bisse website, I discovered a circular walk quite nearby, which I’ve never done before. It actually took in three bisses and started in the village of Mâche. Two of them were dry, but the third did have quite a bit of water running along the channel. Along the route also, we discovered several wooden carvings and a number of items which must have been left by some school children. Perhaps the most surprising was a beautiful glass pendant which (as this is Switzerland) I would imagine has been there and will remain there for some time. There are quite a few good cycling routes around that area too, so I may have to get on my bike and check to see if it’s still there in a few weeks time.
Footnote (for anyone new to this site and, as the Bisse website explains): “Bisses are historic irrigation channels of the Valais. A bisse is an open ditch delivering priceless water from mountain streams – often by daring routes – to arid pastures and fields, vineyards and orchards. Many bisses are still in use today and so are carefully maintained. Numerous trails accompany these historic watercourses, inviting visitors to varied hikes on historic trails.”
Another blue sky day and another glacier to cross… though this time just a short 100 yards or so, before we commenced the long descent into Saas Grund. Our plan was to head for Plattjen, then traverse around the valley to Saas Fee but, at a fork in the path, a signpost indicated for us to go right, when we should have gone left and we had dropped around 300m (or 1,000ft) of height before we realised our mistake. Neither of us wanted to climb back up, so we continued along the very steep path down to Saas Almagell (much to the annoyance of Pete’s knees) before walking along the riverside path to Saas Grund.
Naturally we enjoyed a celebratory beer, before Jude arrived to pick us up and drive home. 🍻😊
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… 😊
We awoke to find that the hut was shrouded in mistand visibility was down to about 20 yards. But we hadn’t been going more than 10 minutes when the clouds miraculously lifted.
We had chosen to take the less steep service track down to Kreuzboden, but we hadn’t realised that the overnight rain had swelled the stream, which the track had to cross several times. Our first crossing was OK, as there were some decent stepping stones, but we had to scramble down by the side of the stream to find two other crossing points. (As in pics 1, 4 & 8).
By the time we neared Kreuzboden the cloud had come down again, so it was with some amusement that, after we had crossed for the third time (pic 8), we noticed that there was a bridge not more than 30 yards away. (See pic 9). Oh, how we laughed!!
I was also extremely excited to find out (later of course, when I looked it up) that the Incised Bellflower, (pics 13 & 14) is described as “very rare” in my Alpine flower book, which I think is a first. In Switzerland it only occurs in the south of the Valais and in NW Ticino. (I therefore thought it deserved 2 photos. 😊)
Our plan for the day was to drop off our rucksacks at the Almageller Berghotel, where we would stay for the night* and then walk up to the Almageller mountain hut and back again. The 700m or 2,300ft of ascent/descent was certainly a lot easier without our packs.
*At the Berhotel, not only did we have a room to ourselves but, apart from the staff, we were the only people staying that night, so we had the whole place to ourselves! (This also happened on our Tour de Muverans trip a few years ago, so hiking midweek in September is certainly recommended, if you want to keep away from the crowds).
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. 👍