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Published: August 7th 2018
Looking up towards the Blüemlisalphütte from the Hohtürli
After turning my back on the Thunersee (Friday 6th
July) for what I assumed would be the last time, I took a train south to Kandersteg and immediately checked into the Hotel des Alpes near the centre of town. My reasons for choosing the Hotel des Alpes over the International Scout Centre (where I had stayed when I passed through Kandersteg twoyears ago) were three-fold: 1) I wouldn't have to walk for twenty minutes out of town to reach my accommodation, 2) I wouldn't have to share the breakfast buffet with a couple of hundred obnoxious teenagers each morning, and 3) I would have a guaranteed venue in which to watch all four World Cup quarter-finals, without even having to go outside... which, with the rain still bucketing down upon my arrival in Kandersteg, would have probably been reason enough alone!
So, while the weather forecast confidently predicted sunny skies for the weekend, I was content to spend the rest of my Friday propping up the hotel bar, first watching France eliminate Uruguay, and then cheering on Belgium as they recorded an outstanding (and well-deserved) victory over the perennial favourites, Brazil, at the World Cup in Russia... though I did also
View of the Blüemlisalp's three highest summits from Reichenbach
manage to squeeze in a quick dash to the local supermarket in between games, to stock up on snacks for the following day.
By 5:45am Saturday morning I was already up and on my way to the train station in Kandersteg; and though the sun hadn't yet risen above the mountains, it was clear to see that the weather forecasters had been right – it was an absolutely glorious day, with even the highest summits completely clear of clouds! And as I made my way through the silent streets, gazing up at the mountains to the east of town as I did so, there was no mistaking the tiny, box-like outline of a building silhouetted against the pale early morning light way up on the highest ridge of all: this was the Blüemlisalphütte, at 2840m, and if everything went to plan and I made it to the Hohtürli just sixty metres below it, I would be having my lunch in that hut in about six hours time!
But first I had to make it back to the Via Alpina where I had left it five days earlier in Griesalp, and having taken a train back down the Kandertal
Following the Via Alpina through forest, shortly after leaving Griesalp
to the small town of Reichenbach, I had just settled in for the 45-minute wait for the postbus to Griesalp to arrive, when a man whom I had met on the train (at which point we established that we were both headed to the same place – and I presumed to do the same hike) approached me to inform me that he had just received a notification from the postbus company stating that the 7:27am bus to Griesalp had been cancelled! It seemed a common theme to my holiday was starting to develop... maybe I wouldn't be having lunch in the Blüemlisalphütte after all!
On closer inspection the notification seemed to suggest that the bus would be running as far as the town of Kiental (in the valley of the same name) but would not be continuing up to Griesalp at the head of the valley (this being the steepest part of the steepest bus route in Europe – negotiating a 250-metre climb by way of the tightest series of switchbacks I have ever seen on a road, paved or otherwise!). I couldn't help but think that my trip was somehow cursed; however, with no way of confirming this
A Long Way To Go...
First view of the Blüemlisalp's highest summits from the trail
information until the bus turned up (or didn't turn up, as the case may be) there wasn't much we could do but wait.
Eventually though the bus did turn up, and after a quick exchange in Swiss-German between my fellow hiker and the bus driver – followed by a quizzical look from yours truly – I received the good news: “He has no idea what I'm talking about – he says he's going to Griesalp”! Surely nothing could stop me now!?! By 8:15am we were at our destination, and not a minute later I was on my way, climbing slowly but surely up the thickly-forested lower slopes of the valley, before breaking out into the open once and for all about twenty minutes in. As the sun finally emerged from behind the mountains to the east, so the first glimpse could be seen of the Blüemlisalp's high summits up ahead to the south-west; while back behind me to the north-west the various scattered buildings of Griesalp and it's surrounds grew ever smaller.
After reaching the farm outpost of Obere Bundalp (on a high shelf at 1840m – already more than 400 metres above Griesalp) in exactly one hour,
The trail ahead obscured by clouds
the trail steepened even more, following a grassed-over spur of scree straight up the mountainside, beside a snow chute clinging on valiantly into the summer months. Stopping for frequent rest breaks due to the punishing nature of the climb (which by now rose at an average gradient of 1:3) it wasn't long before the first low clouds started to appear, and before long the upper slopes of the mountain were obscured behind a thin grey veil. Within fifteen minutes, the entire valley – not to mention the route ahead up the mountain – had disappeared completely, with visibility reduced to as little as fifty metres! And despite all of this, I was only about halfway to the pass!
Onwards and upwards I trudged, occasionally catching a glimpse of the route ahead through a break in the clouds, but mostly just focusing on the hundred metres or so directly in front of me. Perhaps it did me a favour, not being able to see how far I had to go, but in any case after crossing a couple of snow chutes in the footsteps of those who had gone before me, I eventually reached the base of a vertical cliff,
The Climb Continues...
Hikers silhouetted against a cloudy backdrop
which the trail then followed for some time at a slightly easier gradient. My heart sank as I watched a pair of hikers immediately in front of me strike out across a snow field at a 45-degree angle, though thankfully as I hesitated at the edge of the snow I noticed an alternative route (which I suspect was probably the main trail, though it was difficult to tell by this point) climbing in switchbacks up the rocky slope above the snow – I didn't need to think twice before tackling the high route! Shortly afterwards the first in a series of wooden steps was reached, and it was around this time that I was caught up to by an Italian guy and, low and behold, his canine companion Twiggy!
While the sight of this 11-year-old dog (that's 77 in dog years!) with legs only about a quarter the length of mine was slightly demoralizing – he and his owner were overtaking me after all – it was also rather inspiring; and so after stopping to give the little guy a good pat (we were both grateful for the rest as much as the company) I then resumed my climb
Head in the Clouds
Standing proud atop the Hohtürli, at 2778m
with renewed vigour, and soon noticed what seemed like an opening in the wall of rock up ahead. Could this finally be the pass, at long last?!? I didn't need to wait long for an answer: another twenty timber steps later, and there I was – atop the Hohtürli at 2778m! As I stood on that narrow, rocky ridge with cloud swirling all around me, staring almost disbelievingly at the trail sign, I was hit by a sudden wave of emotion – as the combination of overwhelming relief and sheer jubilation produced an unexpected flood of tears.
For two years I had dreamed of this moment – not only reaching and crossing both the Sefinenfurgge and Hohtürli, but ultimately completing my 130km trek from Engelberg to Leukerbad along the Via Alpina – without ever really knowing whether I would be able to make it this far or not; and now here I was, standing atop the final barrier to achieving my goal. As much as I have always said that the primary objective of any hike that I do is to witness the beauty of the natural world – as opposed to overcoming any sort of physical or emotional
One Final Climb
View of the Blüemlisalphütte from the Hohtürli when I first arrived at the pass
challenge along the way – I couldn't deny that the feeling of accomplishment I was experiencing at that precise moment was something that I don't think I will ever forget... which was just as well really, considering I hadn't been able to see a bloody thing other than the trail in front of me for the past couple of hours!
After snapping a couple of pictures to try to capture the moment, I set off on the short walk straight up the ridge towards the Blüemlisalphütte – which despite being just a couple of hundred metres away was barely visible through the clouds! Disappearing inside, the feeling of warmth and comfort was immediate, and when combined with a steaming bowl of soup, a hot cup of coffee and a slice of cake, well, it almost felt too good to be true! Was I really slogging my way up the side of a mountain just twenty minutes ago?!? I enjoyed the comfort of the hut – which in addition to providing a restaurant service also offers overnight dormitory accommodation – for a full hour, before venturing outside to the panoramic terrace, where a number of the other hikers I had
The Blüemlisalphütte, just above the Hohtürli at 2840m
encountered on the climb up (including the man from the train and Twiggy's owners) were relaxing on sun loungers. The last time I saw Twiggy, he was passed out underneath a sun lounger... oh well, the little guy had certainly earned a rest!
Having waited in vain for the clouds to clear properly, I eventually made my way back down to the pass, before finally dropping off the ridge to tackle the 10km, 1600-vertical-metre descent to Kandersteg. While the trail was considerably less steep leading down the western side of the pass than it had been on the way up the eastern side, it was nevertheless an exposed route across a steep slope of loose scree which demanded caution, and involved a short crossing of a small snow patch (only about five metres across) at an angle that was great enough to have me questioning whether or not I would be able to negotiate it without losing my footing. My solution? To slide down on my arse, of course! I might have gotten a wet bum (and had to swallow my pride) in the process, but this was a small price to pay as far as I was concerned!
What goes up, must come down...
View from the trail just below the Hohtürli on the western side
From the bottom of the scree slope the trail contoured along the side of a rocky ridge, with a small lake tucked into the basin below, fed by the impressive icy bulk of the Blüemlisalpgletscher which hung menacingly – as if suspended in mid-air – directly opposite. Eventually I passed the farm outpost of Obere Bargli, and shortly afterwards was greeted by the startling sight of the Oschinensee lake's stunningly turquoise waters cupped in a deep bowl beneath the cliffs of the Dundenhorn to the north, the Blüemlisalp to the east and the Doldenhorn to the south; with the only gap in this glacially-gouged basin's walls being the valley of the Oschibach leading straight downhill towards Kandersteg to the west.
After pausing briefly by the lake's edge to contemplate the significance of the fact that I had now officially joined the dots on my map and completed my through-hike from Engelberg to Leukerbad, I then picked up the pace as I scampered downhill, in an effort to try to make it back to my hotel in Kandersteg in time for the third World Cup quarter-final between England and Sweden. Incredibly, after being virtually incapacitated after my crossing of
First view of the Oschinensee from the trail
the Sefinenfurgge just five days earlier, I felt no such aches and pains this time around – in fact I didn't even feel particularly exhausted; and certainly had no trouble staying awake for either England's 2-0 win over Sweden or Croatia's penalty shoot-out victory (after a pulsating 2-2 draw) over the hosts Russia two hours later... though I had to admit the convenience of being able to watch both games of football – whilst stuffing myself full of delicious Swiss food and equally-delicious German beer – just twenty metres or so from my room was a master-stroke of planning on my part!
Having now completed my mission from two years ago on the Via Alpina, I decided to devote my three remaining days in Switzerland to completing another multi-day hike that I had started two years ago: the 50km Lötschberg Panoramaweg. My initial introduction to this route had come completely by accident: when I was forced to abandon my attempt on the Hohtürli in 2016, the cheerful manager at the Naturfreundhaus in Griesalp had suggested I hike to Kandersteg along a different (and much longer) route – one that wound it's way around
the mountains separating the Kiental from
Beauty All Around
Cute little lake behind my hotel in Kandersteg, with the Gallihorn rising up beyond
the Kandertal, rather than over the top of them. Though the low clouds on that day turned what would have otherwise been a delightfully scenic walk into a rather exhausting slog, it also meant that by the time I reached Kandersteg I had already completed the first twenty kilometres of the Lötschberg Panoramaweg, without even meaning to!
Of course this would have meant nothing to me if I hadn't then caught sight of the beathtakingly beautiful Gasterntal (a valley to the south-east of Kandersteg) from above on my way to the Gemmipass a couple of days later, and then discovered upon my return to Australia that the one-and-only trail through this enchanted valley was in fact a continuation of the trail I had just completed (by accident) from Griesalp to Kandersteg. Further investigation revealed that this trail, after following the floor of the Gasterntal as far as the tiny settlement of Selden, then climbed steeply up the side of the valley to cross the Lötschenpass (at 2690m) before contouring high up along the northern slope of the neighbouring Lötschental – which from all reports was just as scenic (if not quite as secluded) as the Gasterntal! And so my
Sunday Morning Stroll
Downtown Kandersteg under a beautiful blue sky
new objective of completing the Lötschberg Panoramaweg was born!
Knowing that I only had ten relatively flat kilometres (with just a single steep climb through a gorge that separates the Gasterntal from the Kandertal) to walk to reach Selden, I took my time leaving Kandersteg on the Sunday morning – which was easy enough to do, given that the weather was absolutely glorious and the scenery around Kandersteg equally so... in fact I only had to walk out the back door of the hotel to be confronted by a beautiful little lake in it's own tiny nature reserve, complete with sun-baking ducks! I can only assume that the older gentleman who turned up with a remote-controlled boat (and a clearly embarrassed wife) and proceeded to take his favourite toy for a test run on the lake was unaware of the lake's status as a nature reserve... needless to say, the sun-baking ducks were none too impressed with the intrusion!
Eventually though, I was able to tear myself away from this little oasis of calm, and after following the Kander River upstream past the International Scout Centre to the base of the Gallihorn (the prominent rocky peak to the
Powerful waterfall on the Kander River, as it forces it's way down through the Chluse
south of town), I then turned left and followed the main body of the river as it thundered it's way through a narrow cleft in the rock – with sheer cliffs rising up a hundred metres or more on either side, separated by a gap of no more than fifty metres – with an unbridled display of force that was as loud as it was visually impressive. So narrow is the entrance to the Gasterntal that the one-lane road leading into it is forced through a tunnel burrowed into the rock, while the hiking trail is squeezed in between the base of the cliffs and the raging river – an assault on the senses if ever there was one!
After negotiating the climb up through the gorge, the trail then suddenly levelled off at a broad bend in the river, where the valley simultaneously opened up and flattened out – this was the Gasterntal that I had glimpsed from above two years ago, and it was every bit as spectacular from below! If the previous day's hike over the Hohtürli had resulted in a disproportionate ratio of physical effort to scenic reward, then the next few hours were skewed
Basking in the beauty of the lower Gasterntal
the opposite way – it would have to rate as one of the most enjoyable afternoon's hiking I have ever done! Wandering through this classic U-shaped glacial valley, with an almost bowling green-flat floor enclosed by steep cliffs on all four sides, with not a car in sight (the trail generally avoided the road, though even when it didn't there was barely any traffic anyway) and under an almost-cloudless blue sky, was undeniably good for the soul – and no doubt the feeling of satisfaction that I still had from my previous day's exertions only added to my feeling of supreme contentment.
With the small outpost of Selden (on the valley floor at 1537m above sea level) wedged in between the imposing peaks of the Doldenhorn to the north (3638m) and the Balmhorn to the south (3698m), there could scarcely have been a more scenic place to rest my head for the night – though apart from the lone farm/pension at Heimritz (a further kilometre up the valley) there were no alternative accommodations to be found in the valley anyway! But with plenty of hours still left in the day and so much to see – and not having
Valley Flat, Mountain High
Admiring some of Mother Nature's finest handiwork in the Gasterntal
had a particularly strenuous day – I had no sooner checked into the dormitory at the Hotel Gasterntal ('Hotel' perhaps being a bit of a misnomer – the place didn't even have a shower for guest use!) than I was off again to follow a 5km loop trail that continued on towards the glacial cirque at the head of the valley, before crossing the now-considerably narrower upper stretches of the Kander River and then looping back past Heimritz on the other side. The irony of the fact that this was my 'rest' day (in between strenuous full-day crossings of the Hohtürli and Lötschenpass) wasn't entirely lost on me – if only every rest day could be this rewarding! (Then again, the fact that I'd not had enough energy left to walk down to the central square in Griesalp after my crossing of the Sefinenfurgge just six days earlier wasn't lost on me either!)
Waking to yet another beautiful blue sky on Monday morning, I followed the now-familiar routine of stuffing myself to bursting point at the breakfast buffet, before packing my belongings and hitting the trail again for the 1150-vertical-metre climb to the Lötschenpass – which, like the Blüemlisalphütte
View of the Doldenhorn from the farm buildings at Gfelalp
atop the Hohtürli, has a full-service hut, despite the absence of any motorized transport on either side. Crossing the braided channels of the Kander River on a large new suspension footbridge, the trail then climbed steeply up a series of switchbacks through the forest on the other side, emerging from the trees at one point at the base of an impressive series of waterfalls on the glacially-fed Leitibach stream. Having climbed over 300 metres in just 30 minutes, the trail then passed the farm buildings at Gfelalp (1847m), from where the first spectacular views of the upper reaches of the Gasterntal could be had, with the pointy peak of the Doldenhorn a full 1800 metres above now visible for the first time as well.
Another steep climb was then followed by a short stretch of blessedly-flat trail crossing the hanging valley of the Leitibach, before a prolonged and painful climb led eventually to a rocky ledge at the border between two vastly different worlds: back to the north a final view could be had of the upper Gasterntal, with the snout of the Kanderfirn glacier now visible above the valley's headwall, and the full height of the Doldenhorn from
The Valley Below
View of the upper Gasterntal from the climb to the Lötschenpass
base to peak now exposed; while ahead to the south a blinding white blanket of snow covering the Lötschengletscher filled the hanging valley through which the trail continued onwards, mercifully now at a much gentler gradient.
For the best part of an hour the route crossed this massive snowfield, occasionally on slopes of scree where lateral moraines had been deposited by previous glacial advances, but mostly sticking to the snow. Not having ever crossed a glacier before I was a little unnerved at times (particularly when, taking a rest break on a large boulder, I could hear small stones around me dropping through the snow as it melted away in the sun's heat), but all in all I found the walk to be quite enjoyable – particularly as it was so different to what I had become used to, both in Switzerland and elsewhere.
After snaking along the top of another scree-filled moraine, the trail then steepened dramatically – with fixed ropes placed at a couple of the steepest sections – as it left the glacier behind and climbed the final headwall leading to the pass. And then, after one final look back to the Doldenhorn, I reached
Entering a Different World
Preparing to cross the vast snowfield atop the Lötschengletscher
a rocky cairn on the ridge-top and caught sight of the Lötschenpasshütte for the first time. A short crossing through yet another snow field, and I was there: atop the Lötschenpass at 2690m – my third high pass for the week!
Unlike both the Sefinenfurgge and Hohtürli, which sit atop narrow rocky ridges less than ten metres wide, the Lötschenpass is far more accommodating – with the hut itself resting on large slabs of granite surrounded by gently-sloping fields of rocks and scree, with large snow fields on either side. It would even be possible to stage a game of football on this broad alpine plateau, if ever there was anyone with the energy and inclination to do so! Stopping for a rest and the obligatory meal/snack from the hut's restaurant (the look on the cashier's face when I ordered a slice of chocolate cake with two banana milkshakes was priceless - god knows where they get the bananas from up here?!) I had to sit inside to give myself a break from the unrelenting sun – which was not exactly a problem I'd been faced with too often in Fremantle in the weeks before our holiday!
Restaurant with a View
Outside the Lötschenpasshütte, at 2690m
the hut across another wide snowfield, the trail soon reached the first of several tiny alpine lakes fed by glacial melt-water scattered across the undulating plateau; though this particular lake (more of a small pond really) had a unique beauty to it, being bound on three sides by rock but on the other side by a large patch of snow which ran right down into the water – the contrast between the blinding white of the snow and the translucent blue of the water was striking; and with the angular peak of the Bietschhorn (3934m) and it's impressive hanging glacier rising up directly beyond on the opposite side of the Lötschental, the overall effect was quite breathtaking. While the uneven and rocky nature of the trail coming down from the pass was unforgiving, the scenery more than made up for any discomfort; and before long the snowy peaks of the Valaisian Alps – the highest of all in Switzerland – came into view: these were the same mountains (the 4545m Dom, 4506m Weisshorn and 4478m Matterhorn amongst them) that I had seen from the Gemmipass two years earlier, before spending the final weekend of that trip hiking amongst them.
Snowmelt-fed lake just below the Lötschenpass
Two hours after leaving the pass (around 4pm in the afternoon) I arrived at the small village of Lauchernalp, perched high up on the side of the Lötschental at around 2200m, where I had originally planned to spend the night. But with virtually no sign of human life to be found whatsoever – no cars, no people, no noise of any kind – and with plenty of hours still left in the day, I decided to turn my back on this little ghost town (which I could only assume is some sort of winter resort where the residents go into hibernation during summer!?!) and continue on my merry way, even if this meant having to hike all the way to Fafleralp at the end of the valley, which was still a further three hours walk away according to the trail signs.
So continue on I did, following the trail as it contoured high above the valley floor, with impressive views extending both up the valley (in the direction that I was heading) towards the glacier at the head of the Lötschental, and back down the valley towards where the train line disappears into the 14km Lötschberg rail tunnel –
A Wall of Mountains
Posing in front of the Bietschhorn, with the Lötschental spread out at it's base
before eventually emerging on the other side of the mountains near Kandersteg. After passing a couple of smaller villages and a scenically-located campground by the shores of the Schwarzsee (Black Lake), the trail eventually began a gradual descent towards the floor of the valley, which simultaneously rose to meet the trail. And then finally, more than nine hours after I had set out from Selden, I reached the end of the 50km Lötschberg Panoramaweg in the little end-of-the-road village of Fafleralp – where thankfully I found a hotel in which to stay... and what's more, this one had showers!!!
Having by now completed the missing 30km of the Via Alpina from two years ago, as well as the remaining 30km from the Lötschberg Panoramaweg and 49km (out of 63km in total) of the Thunersee Panorama Rundweg, I had assumed upon my arrival in Fafleralp that my hiking adventures in Switzerland were over (for this trip at least). However it then occurred to me that since I still had one full day left in the country before I was due to fly out from Zürich Airport to meet Linda back in London on the Wednesday morning – and
Looking down the Lötschental from near the end of the trail in Fafleralp
since I would have to take the train back past the Thunersee to reach Zürich anyway – there was really no reason why I couldn't complete my circuit of Lake Thun in the process!
So after taking a postbus down the valley from Fafleralp to Goppenstein on Tuesday morning, and then switching to a train for the ride through the mountains and down the full length of the Kandertal on the other side, I disembarked in Spiez for the final time and hit the trail once more, to knock off the remaining 14km of the Thunersee Panorama Rundweg. After enjoying a refreshing swim in the lake and a celebratory kebab in Thun – whilst watching the exploits of the resident river surfers again – I finished up in Zürich that evening toasting my success with some delicious craft beers while watching a riveting first semi-final in the World Cup, which ended in a 1-0 victory for France over Belgium. Now if only Croatia could knock off England in the second semi-final (during which Linda and I would be on board our flight back to Australia, due to a terrible oversight on my part when booking our flights!) I could
A Moment To Savour
Standing atop the Hohtürli - my final obstacle on the Via Alpina
finally rest easy...!
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