Thursday, September 19, 2019

... I suggest you keep looking

After wrestling with indecision for far too long, we found a final Euro-adventure to enjoy together — three days in the canton of Valais, meandering in the shadows of the highest peaks of Switzerland. We couldn't settle on one valley to concentrate our limited time, so we chose three. Since I dislike planning, I was grateful for a last-minute AirBnB find, a centrally-located apartment with all amenities in a lovely and quiet location for just $60 USD a night. We bought groceries and sandwiches, and the whole thing ended up being a fairly cheap excursion, relative to most trips one might do in Switzerland. 

Beat picked our first hike, a loop to Col des Otanes in the Bagnes valley. This adventure took us back to the southwestern corner of Switzerland and a pass Beat had crossed in past PTLs. My vertigo was a little worse this week than it had been in Chamonix — for what reasons, I don't know. I speculate that it's hormonal, the way some women get "the dropsies" once a month, but who knows? Sometimes I'm dizzier than other times, and since I never quite know how my brain will react, I'm wary of exposure at all times. The trail out of Fionnay was smooth and easy but precipitous, a notch carved into the side of cliffs with frequent sheer drop-offs and occasional one-foot-wide wooden plank bridges suspended over waterfalls. Beat was fascinated with the gorge below, insisting he scrambled over that chaotic moraine during the 2013 PTL. He kept stopping to scan for evidence a small bridge he swore he used to cross the chasm. Because I was directly behind him and having enough issues with vertigo that I was reluctant to look down, I eventually became angry about his erratic pace.

We took a short side trip to cross the suspension bridge over Corbassière — 190 meters long, 70 meters high, a marvel of Swiss construction. This bridge was completed in 2014, so it didn't exist the first time Beat was here with PTL, which is why they needed to pick their way all the way around the moraine. As we crossed back over the rippling platform, I made the mistake of looking down, which caused my vertigo to launch into overdrive. My vision wavered and leg muscles seemed to liquify, causing me to shamble drunkenly from side to side as I gripped the handrails for a welcome anchor in reality.

The familiar setting, or perhaps the promise of cake, seemed to put Beat into race mode. He charged up the switchbacks above the bridge. It was an exhausting effort to try to keep him in sight with my woozy and weakened legs. Slowly, the feel of solid ground restored solidity in my muscles.

We stopped at Cabane Panossière for their famous tarte aux amandes — not overrated. The weather was so mild that we didn't even need to don jackets to enjoy our treat on the terrace while gazing at Glacier de Corbassière and Grand Combin, an Alpine 14er (4,314 meters = 14,154 feet.) As we often describe to European friends, 4,000 meters holds a significantly different climate here than Colorado. We tell them we live at 2,200 meters and they're impressed — that would be a harsh location, above treeline and subject to cold and windy weather for most of the year, if it was in the Alps. But it's only 7,200 feet in Colorado, well within the protection of forests and blistering summer heat (but not free from 60mph winter winds.)

Treeline in the Alps is usually between 5,500 and 6,500 feet, depending on the aspect. Those beautiful grassy slopes that dominate the most famous Alpine scenes exist between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. Above 8,000 feet, terrain becomes increasingly rocky and rugged, and tundra replaces grass. By 9,000 feet even tundra plants fade, and above 9,500 the moonscape reigns. Still, at the 9,400-foot pass of Col des Otanes, I did find a cluster of small, daisy-like yellow flowers poking out from under a rock. Suck a lovely presence, those hardy little flowers. I would have taken a photo, but I didn't want my awkward shambling body to risk a tumble into such delicate things.

At the pass we met a group of Dutch hikers who offered to take our photo. They were surprised by our small packs and asked a number of questions about our route. We pointed toward Fionnay, with buildings in the valley still in view even though we were 5,000 feet higher, and mentioned we'd only started around noon, since we'd driven there from virtually the other side of the country that morning. They didn't seem to process this, and kept naming different huts we might have passed. "No, just Fionnay. It's only 10 kilometers from here," I replied after looking at my watch. 6.3 miles. It felt so much farther away. The Alpine world is both expansive and extremely compressed.

The 6.3 miles on my watch also sparked some alarm, because the route I'd drawn on Strava was only 11 miles long, and the last two miles were flat, which meant apparently we had just three miles to descend 5,000 feet. After drawing up the route, I'd gotten an idea in my head that we needed to travel counter-clockwise to climb the steep side and descend more gradually, but it was the opposite. The climb had been steep enough that I didn't notice, but that meant this descent was really going to hurt. Oops. It went well enough, but for the entire descent all we could see was a sheer horizon that seemed to plummet directly into the valley. New switchbacks would be revealed and all was well, but my vertigo was still faintly buzzing, and I was very slow. I resolved to try harder with my descending, tomorrow.

The following day was entirely my plan, after Beat mentioned that he wanted to visit Zinal. Beat traversed much of Valais last year with the Swiss Peaks 360-kilometer race. During the race he crossed into and out of Val d'Anniviers on lower trails — the course out of the valley ascended directly up a ski slope, painful and ugly. Of course that's where I hiked in Zinal last year as well, having not planned anything better. This trip would be an opportunity to travel higher in the valley and take in delicious glacier views.

Our trip plan this year also provided Beat with a little insight into my own 2018 Swiss Peaks experience, since we needed to drive up a new valley every day. These valley roads are incredible, definitely from another time and culture than my own. Because the Swiss built them, they're mostly smooth pavement, but the single lanes are so narrow that it's difficult to maneuver one vehicle, yet there's two-way traffic winding along narrow notches and precipitous ravines. There are many tunnels, unlit and even more narrow. Driving standard-transmission vehicles here feels like a continuous game of chicken with either oncoming traffic or cliffs, and it's terribly stressful. Combining this driving with crewing stress, sleep deprivation, lack of healthy food and nervousness built up from my solo hiking excursions resulted in one of the worst anxiety attacks I've ever experienced. It was terrible, but it did spark more self-awareness, and I've been cognizant about recognizing and treating my trends toward anxiety since then.

Anyway, the road up Val d'Anniviers was the only time Beat asked me to drive on this trip, and for this I'm grateful. Less driving meant I had more emotional energy to spare for the adventures, and this was a good one — starting with a 5,000-foot climb to 10,500 feet at Cabane Tracuit.

The last part of the climb proved tricky, ascending 40- to 50-percent grades through a boulder field with a fixed-roped scramble up the final pitch. A fierce, cold wind blasted the ridge, and the trail was coated in thick ice. It was a tricky to maneuver with steep exposure to the left and no traction underfoot. We had microspikes in our packs, but were only 50 meters from the cabane, so it was difficult to justify stopping to put them on.

This cabane was a cool thing, though. I mean, look what the Swiss built a vertical mile from the nearest tiny road, straddling a narrow ridge next to glaciers, at 3,200 meters. It looks like a space station. This building was completed in 2013. Beat remembers visiting the old Cabane Tracuit with his dad when he was a kid. They were set to climb Bishorn, a glaciated 4,000-meter peak, but then Beat came down with altitude sickness and had to stay in the hut while his dad climbed. This was a childhood story I hadn't heard before, and was a little incredulous that 10-year-old Beat hiked up a 5,000-foot climb to do some mountaineering with his dad in the days before harnesses and modern boots.

That's Bishorn on the left. It's considered an "easy" 4,000-meter summit, but it is not trivial as you can see. You still need to cross the Turtmann glacier and ascend a snow route beside seracs and other hazards. Beat tends to give the impression that he was not outdoorsy as a child, except when his mountaineering father dragged him on the occasional death march at stupid o'clock in the morning. Turns out, these death marches were impressive expeditions. Meanwhile, I do consider my childhood outdoorsy, although I whined most of the way through an eight-mile hike through a burnt-out Yellowstone forest when I was 10.

For this day's respite at Cabane Tracuit we tried the apple tart. This was even more delicious than the almond tart at Panossière, with a delicate crust, crisp apple slices and light drizzle of dark chocolate. Everything tasted so fresh, and it was nice to enjoy our treat beside the windows spanning an entire wall inside the cabane, with all of the views and none of the wind.

After descending from Tracuit, we continued toward a trail that would take us over Col de Milon. I set this route somewhat nonchalantly, but after my vertigo episodes in Fionnay, I researched it more thoroughly. The traverse stayed above 9,000 feet for several miles and followed a blue-white path, which denotes a technical alpine route. The blue-white markings are meant to warn hikers that the route is more involved, with exposure and potential scrambling. My trip report research boosted my confidence that this route was doable for me, but the tricky red-white ascent to Tracuit sparked new nervousness.

Approaching Col de Milion. The photo doesn't depict it well, but the headwall looked damn near vertical, and north-facing, so it was still in shadow at mid-day and coated on snow. Clear ice seemed likely as well. My heart was fluttering and vertigo began to clamp down, but I still want to believe that I was in control, that I could vanquish my dumb brain's overreaction. So I stiffened that upper lip and held my head high, resolved to stay strong and steady, no drunken shambling. We stuffed our trekking poles in Beat's pack and commenced the hands-and-feet scramble up the talus, which steepened as we climbed. I frequently glanced up and tried not to speculate about which one of those vertical cliffs was the col.

The final pitch to the col — it really was almost vertical, but assisted with fixed chains, which helped in spots where there were few good handholds. This also meant I felt inclined to hold all of my weight on the chains at times, so of course Beat pointed out where a few bolts had popped out of the rock. Still, the vertigo didn't come on the way it had in much safer, better anchored locations the previous day. Historically, I have done better with exposure in places were focus is truly required and drunken shambling actually can become fatal. Maybe my brain isn't a completely unreliable spaz, but I still don't trust it.

(Update: Photo from Beat of the downward perspective)

New views from the other side of Col de Milon. So nice.

Glancing toward the west from Col de Milon, with Weisshorn just hidden from view. I scooted over the saddle as though I was climbing onto the back of a horse, and never fully stood before inching my way off that precipice.

Starting down the moraine that runs below Weisshorn glacier — out of view on the left — while looking toward Glacier de Moming and the tiny pinnacle of the Zinal Rothorn.

I had been a little nervous about this moraine section as well, as trip reports indicated it was a narrow spine of rubble that felt exposed at times. It wasn't technical, but it did sound like just the kind of airy yet unstable terrain that too easily trips my vertigo. The trip reports I'd read had all been written in German and French, so I had to use Google Translate. One translated sentence warned, "Hikers should be without giddiness on the moraine." I laughed at the image of giddily skipping along the steep rubble like a child on a playground. But once I was there, I really felt that way. These incredible views! So many endorphins! Such relief at having survived Milon! Later I learned that giddy can be a synonym for dizzy or skittish in English, but I like my interpretation of capricious joy better.

Beat and I headed toward Cabane d'Arpitettaz, still reasonably full on apple cake, so we planned to only have drinks. As we walked up to the balcony, a woman introduced herself in French as the cabane's caretaker, praised us for crossing over Col Milon — they had watched as we traversed the moraine overhead — asked if we had been to Tracuit as well, and encouraged us to stop for refreshments. Honestly, I've never encountered such friendliness from the Swiss. They're usually nice, of course, but gregariousness is less common. I was feeling woozy (also a synonym for giddy) from the long day and struggled to understand the menu, eventually settling on a Sprite. Beat ordered a large beer, and after gulping it down, announced, "huh, I'm a little drunk."

So with Beat a little bit drunk and me definitely a little bit giddy, we started down the 4,000-foot descent back to Zinal. I was determined to keep a better pace than yesterday, so I made a bold decision to keep my trekking poles packed away. Normally, I feel helpless without my hobble sticks, my klutz crutches, the closest I'll ever to come to the ideal of a well-balanced four-legged creature. But I found that when I focused only on where to put my feet rather than managing four points of contact, I actually did move faster over the rocks.

I was on cloud 9. I felt so amazing. Seriously, I can't imagine there's any drug or amount of beer that could make me feel as giddy as this adventure — crushing the climb, crushing the descent, unbelievable bluebird weather, apple cake and glaciers, all of these glaciers, so incredibly stunning! No, this could not be topped.

For our last day in Valais, though, we had something in mind to top it. The next valley over was the tiny Turtmanntal, where villages suddenly switch from French-speaking to German, there are no ski areas or resorts, every kilometer of the precipitous road is sphincter-clenching, and the only upper-valley village, Gruben, apparently has no year-round residents — only former cattle stages converted to rental chalets. At the end of this valley is a staging area for Barrhorn — "the highest hike in the Alps."

Barrhorn soars to 3,610 meters — 11,843 feet. If 9,000 feet is the moon here, by 11,000 feet one has ascended into outer space. Usually higher Alpine peaks are glaciated, or at the very least flanked by sheer walls and serrated ridges that most humans (i.e. not Kilian) need advanced climbing skills and equipment to ascend. Barrhorn is different. There's a snow-free trail to the top (at least, free of permanent snow.) It's not technical. Anyone can climb it — anyone willing to climb 6,000 feet, that is — and touch the Alpine sky.

This is the trail to Barrhorn — rubble and sand, with a few cables strung along the cliffy section near the top of the Gässi couloir. But hey, it's a trail.

By the time we reached the moonscape, my breathing had deteriorated. Most likely my shallow breaths were an effect of the altitude, or possibly a combination of fatigue and altitude, but breathing difficulty always sparks a spiraling frustration that I have to work harder to reel in. Meanwhile, Beat was marching as hard and steady as ever. He teased me about taking long pee breaks ("I only needed one! OK, two, but most of this trailing behind is just excessive slowness that you're not noticing.") I did feel some pressure to keep up. I couldn't walk and eat and breathe. It was hard enough to just breathe, let alone walk and breathe, so I gave up eating. After a few hours, I felt lightheaded and bonked.

Meanwhile the slope rose ever higher, and soon we were marching through the slushy remnants of Sunday's snow. Near the saddle we encountered two mountain bikers. Their presence was utterly boggling to me. I mean, it felt like an enormous feat of strength just to drag my unburdened body up the steep talus and polished granite. Most of the trail was cut at a 25-35-percent grade, gaining 6,000 feet in six miles. HOW did they get bikes up here? I know a few crazies in Colorado ride 14ers like Huron and that impresses me, but this is just mind-blowing. This guy seemed to be struggling mightily with the descent, swerving and throttling his squealing brakes as he threw a foot down to stop every few meters. He told us he'd ridden Barrhorn before, but it didn't have snow then, and it was much harder with snow. I believe that. But even so. WHY?!

I didn't capture photos of the final ascent because I was a ball of anxiety by that point. The seemingly vertical "trail" was little more than a chute gouged into the loose, almost liquid scree, also covered in shin-deep slush. I'd watched other hikers creeping down it on their butts, and imagined all of the scenarios that could send a person rocketing off the mountain. I insisted on donning my microspikes, mostly for traction in the scree.

And then we were on top. Almost 12,000 feet in the Alps, baby! The views were 360 degrees of wow. This is looking north toward the Bernese Alps. 

Looking south. The closest summit is the Inneres Barrhorn, and then Schollihorn. Both are considered part of the same massif, and some hikers tag all three. Due to the tricky snow conditions and the fact we were driving all the way back to Vordemwald in the evening, we decided to keep it simple and only tag the highest summit.

Gazing southwest, over the Bruenegg Glacier. The farther glacier is Turtmann, and that flat ridge above the glacier is the location of Cabane Tracuit. We could see the hut's metal siding glistening in the sunlight like a signal mirror.  I hadn't even realized our proximity the previous day. As the crow flies, we were only about five miles from the perch where we stood 24 hours earlier. But you really have to be a crow — or a serious mountaineer — to connect the two.

Looking west toward Turtmanntal valley, the high ridge dividing Val d'Anniviers and Zinal, more ridges and more tiny valleys with their tiny, terrifying roads.

We shared the summit with a man who was solo after his friend succumbed to the altitude and turned around. "I am never coming back here, so you better take my picture. Do you want the same?" he asked. You can see from my body language how super relaxed I am about the upcoming descent over liquid snow scree. At least I was able to cram down a roll with thin-sliced beef and one piece of chocolate from Beat, the first thing I'd eaten since breakfast. "I ate snacks on the way up," Beat commented, to which I replied, "I was too busy breathing."

Starting down. Oh man, those views. I was nervous but giddy, in a way that contains all of the synonyms for the word. What an unbelievable day.

(Update: Photo by Beat of the scree-snow descent. Good fun.)

Still, the descent wasn't as bad as I anticipated, but I also couldn't move as quickly or confidently as I had the day before. Trails were still precipitous at times. This photo of Beat dropping into Gässi depicts some of these vertigo-inducing sections well, I think. Near the bottom of the couloir I slipped and took another hard fall onto my butt, for my ongoing collection in a patchwork of bruises. Beat insisted I brush all of the dust off my pants so I could look presentable for Turtmannhütte.

Turtmannhütte is famous for its black forest cake, so of course we tried that. We enjoyed our sweet snack outside the hut with coffee for me, panaché for Beat, and views of Turtmann glacier. We discussed which of the three was our favorite cake, but this was a hard decision. My favorite was probably the apple tart of Tracuit, because it reminded me of mom's apple pie.

Looking back toward Barrhorn (big peak to the left) and Turtmannhütte (small building on the right) as we rounded a small reservoir. Three perfect days, each one more astonishing and leg-crushing than the last. I was sad this trip to Valais was ending and that it had been so short, but perhaps it's better that way. It's good to end on a high note. If only I'd kept this as my last hike in Switzerland ... 


  1. Incredible views and incredible hikes! Even if they are vertigo inducing. Thanks for sharing all the beautiful photos!

  2. Beer and Mountains...two of my favorite things :)

  3. Great googly-moogly! Your pictures are breathtaking, and your description brings me there with you. That shot you added from Beat looking down...uhm...yeah...I'm kind of afraid of heights in my old(er) age it seems...and it's getting worse. Not sure I'd have been able to do that...good on ya Jill! (and this is assuming as always that the camera fails to REALLY capture what you are seeing). I'm in awe of your trip (as I am every year). You should write a travel-adventure book for time-crunched hikers looking for places to go without them (me) wasting time figuring it out and learning it all the hard way like you did. How to get there, where to park, where to get food, pretty much everything you've already figured out. I'd buy it in a heartbeat and hold onto it (in the hopes that if I EVER get over to France/Switzerland I'd remember to bring it)...I know my wife wouldn't want ANYTHING to do with ANY of it...but she could shop while I hike...that would be cool). As always...WOW!


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