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Walking In Switzerland

Sarah Tierney heads to the lesser-visited Valais region for some high-level hiking

Written by . Published on October 5th 2012.


Walking In Switzerland

HAVING a good view of the mountains from your hotel room is a great start to a holiday. Being in a hotel 2000 metres up a mountain is even better. That's how it was on my trip to the Valais area of the Swiss Alps in early September.

We were spirited up to the Riederalp resort in a cable car, zooming over villages, woods and pastures until we were at twice the height of Scafell Pike. It's hard not to be elated when you're this high up and the sun is shining – and you've got two days of Alpine walking ahead of you.

Chapel At BettmerseeChapel at Bettmersee

The Bettmerhorn – Eggishorn Ridge

On my first day, thanks to a combination of the high-level resort, an electric bus (it's car-free up there) and another cable car, I was at 2647m by 10am and ready to take on this famed ridge via a blue-white-blue Alpine route.

This is the most difficult grade of Alpine path. To attempt one, you're advised to have a head for heights, sure-footedness, and a pickaxe. I once cried on a big wheel, I had a meltdown on Sharp Edge in the Lake District, and I haven't got an axe. But I'd heard that this is one of the finest ridge walks in the Alps – the path itself has an UNESCO badge. I wasn't going to let a tendency for vertigo get in the way.

Mercifully, this particular blue-white-blue path was airy but not scary, in summer at least. The occasional precipitous drop was overcome by man-made footholds and handrail cables. Our mountain guide, Peter, steered our group over the trickiest steps, and a very thorough approach to footpath marking from the Swiss authorities made it near impossible to go wrong in clear weather.

View From The RidgeView from the Eggishorn Ridge; below the Horlihutte at Eggishorn

Horlihutte At Eggishorn

The Aletsch Glacier
The ascent to the ridge wasn't hard but the sudden altitude made me breathless. Or it could have been the views. I'd been telling myself that I'd be OK if I didn't look down, but it's not an option up here.

The vista took in the Eiger, the Matterhorn, a skyline of 4,000m-plus peaks. And an uninterrupted view of the Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the Alps.

Your first sighting of this giant river of ice carving its way through the valley is awe-inspiring. It's on a different scale entirely, even compared to the surrounding mountains. And the beautiful thing is that you can see almost the entire length of it, rather than just the tip like at the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies or the Mer de Glace in Chamonix.

Swiss CowSwiss cow – de rigeur with bells on

Aletsch GlacierAletsch Glacier

Earlier this year I'd watched a chunk of the Argentiere Glacier near Chamonix come crashing down in the spring melt. It sounded like thunder and made me want to hot-foot it back to civilisation (even though we were watching it through binoculars, from about three miles away). The Aletsch Glacier instilled a sense of calm rather than fear. The soft echo of a river flowing underneath 350m of ice, amplified by the cliffs on the valley sides, is wonderfully peaceful. Someone should put it on a stress-relief CD. It could be the new surf breaking on a beach or frogs singing in the forest. 

The other great thing about this otherworldly view is that you don't have to try very hard to get it. This is the goal-hanging approach to hiking; a 30-minute ascent from the top cable car station and you see things that should only be accessible to golden eagles and committed mountaineers.

The Art Furrer Resort

We descended from the ridge the easy way (by cable car) to Fiescheralp and walked back to Riederalp to our hotel, the four-star Royal in the Art Furrer Resort. You'd think the scenery would be enough to please anyone but Art Furrer, the charismatic owner (and one time ski-instructor to Jackie Kennedy) isn't taking any chances

There was a golf course, a swimming pool, and a spa designed to mimic the natural world outside. Lying on the hot stone beds was like stretching out on a sun-warmed rock, while the plunge pool had smooth stones in the bottom like a riverbed. Letting my muscles relax in here after the hike was a delicious end to the day

The spacious rooms also took inspiration from the great outdoors. Natural materials – wood and slate – and an understated design that wasn't trying to compete with the panoramic views from the room-length windows and terrace.  

View From BelalpView from the Belalp

The Riederalp-Belalp Suspension Bridge

The next day we walked through the Aletsch Forest where the pine trees grow on top of boulders so they can cling to them in winter gales. We were heading to our next height challenge – an Indiana Jones-style suspension bridge which hangs over a canyon formed by the receding glacier.

The bridge was opened in 2008 to make it easier to walk between the two sides of the valley. It's a 124m shortcut over an 80m sheer drop. This time, I didn't look down. It was one-foot-after-the-other and no stopping halfway for photographs. (Though I got about 20 from the other side).

From there, the trail led up to the village of Belalp. This was more strenuous hiking – a 500m climb which was hard work if, like me, you're not used to hot weather walking. Along the way we passed weather-beaten chalets and heard marmots whistling amongst the rocks.

When we reached Belalp, the chapel bell was ringing for a wedding. Not a bad place to say your vows. (I enquired and there's nothing stopping you if you like the idea of an Alpine marriage.) 

 

View From Hamilton LodgeView from Hamilton Lodge

The Hamilton Lodge

This cool, folksy hotel is popular with newly weds and couples, and it's pretty clear why. With real fires, cosy candle-lit hideaways, and lots of distressed wood and leather, it's a romantic dream of an Alpine escape. You could describe it as Heidi-esque, if Heidi's Grandfather had installed a kitsch chandelier in the hayloft and built a spa in the goat shed.

The spa included an outdoor hot tub which you'd long for after a day on the trails or slopes, plus two types of sauna, a plunge pool and a relaxation area. The food was good too – a cosmopolitan take on traditional mountain fare.

The next morning we squeezed in a final, beautiful walk across the high pastures around the hotel before taking the cable car to valley-level. In the town of Brig it was hot and busy and back down to earth in more ways than one.

End Of Hike RewardEnd of hike reward

Fact file

Goats This WayGoats this wayPlanning a trip to the Valais

 The big lakes and mountain holiday companies from the UK don't visit the Riederalp or Belalp resorts, which is a shame because this area is well set-up for holiday hikers. There's a good network of cable cars, well-signed footpaths, and exhilarating routes for the brave-hearted. It's not hard to get there on your own and it'll be well worth it. 

How to get there

Sarah flew from Manchester to Zurich with SWISS then caught the train from the airport to Brig, then the train from Brig to Morel, then the cable car up to Riederalp. The journey time from Zurich to Riederalp was three hours.

Flights

SWISS operates 36 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to either Zurich, Geneva or Basel. Fares start from £108* return, including all airport taxes. (*Please note this is a lead-in fare and is subject to change, availability and may not be available on all flights. Terms and conditions apply.) For reservations call 0845 601 0956 or visit: www.swiss.com

Trains


 The Swiss Transfer Ticket covers a round-trip between the airport/Swiss border and your destination. Prices are £90 in second class and £145 in first class. To book the transfer ticket or further rail passes, call Switzerland Travel Centre on 00800 100 200 30 or visit www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk.


Transport of luggage


- 'Fly & Rail' offer takes your luggage from check-in desk to your railway station destination in Switzerland, the cost is 22 Swiss Francs per piece of luggage.


- Transport your luggage within Switzerland: option of normal service or fast. Fast service will ensure your luggage arrives on same day at destination.


- Transport your bike: similar to the luggage service. 
More information on: http://www.sbb.ch/en/station-services/services/baggage.html 

Where to stay

Sarah stayed at The Royal in the Art Furrer Resort at Riederalp. Visit www.artfurrer.ch for details of all accommodation options and rates in the resort.
Sarah also stayed at The Hamilton Lodge, Berlap. Visit www.hamiltonlodge.ch for full details.

When to go

The summer season for the cable cars is from about 6 June to 21 October. Visit www.aletscharena.ch for details.
July and August are the most popular months for walking as the Swiss try to escape the heat at lower altitudes, but the views can be hazy. September and October have cooler weather better suited to walking, and are the best months for clear views. June is the best time for wild flowers but the weather is more likely to be unsettled.

Where to walk

Download the map of routes and cablecars in the Aletsch Arena click here  
For details of walking routes in this area and the rest of Switzerland, visit www.wanderland.ch

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