Thursday, August 25, 2022

See Switzerland, before it melts

"Beautiful vistas everywhere you go."

"Switzerland is a tiny country, but if you ironed out all of its wrinkles, the land mass would cover much of Europe."

"Switzerland's 1,400 glaciers have lost more than half of their total volume since the 1930s."

If I were designing a brochure for the tourism bureau, I'd probably find a way to include all of these statements. (Never mind that the second one is highly debatable.) 

The last statement, for me at least, creates an alarming sense of urgency. Since 2016 — just six years ago — Switzerland's glaciers have lost more than 12% of their volume according to a recent study. At this rate, they'll almost certainly be gone in my lifetime, which has much broader implications than the simple absence of ice. 

Still, the absence of ice is heartbreaking enough. And yes, I get it, those of us who travel on airplanes and live privileged lifestyles are contributing to this warming world. Also true, is that individual actions are so infinitesimal that even if I were to reduce my carbon footprint to zero by throwing myself off a cliff tomorrow, nothing would change. Still, we have to be honest about our role in everything. I will admit that this kind of honesty sometimes makes me yearn for an "easy" way out of being human (cliff.) Not that I want this, of course — life is beautiful, fun, and compelling, even when it's discouraging. One of the best ways to combat the nihilism of individual powerlessness is to cultivate joy in each moment. Right here, right now, the world is a beautiful place. It will still be beautiful tomorrow, even when it's different.

Now that his mom and dad are their 80s, Beat is making an effort to spend more time with his family. Rather than visiting their home near Berlin, Beat's father Fred and his wife proposed a destination vacation to the Valais, a mountainous canton where Fred scaled 4,000-meter summits in his mountaineering youth. We planned for a week near the Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps. In Fred's memories, from the heyday of the 1970s and 80s, this glacier is a mile longer and 1,000 feet thicker than it is today. He admitted that he wasn't sure he could stomach seeing the Aletsch in its diminished state.

 On August 1, we made our way south from Beat's mom's place amid the gentle hills at the center of the country. We crossed over the headwaters of the Rhône River and caught our first glimpse of the craggy summits of Valais. We stopped a few miles before our rental apartment near Brig to enjoy a little leg stretcher — little, in the Alps, means a 9-mile hike with more than 4,000 feet of climbing. Our destination was the Risihorn. It was a bluebird day, hot and dry, and a national holiday as well. Thanks to the gondola being closed for remodeling, we had the trail nearly to ourselves.

The final scramble up the summit ridge can be a little spicy at times. But in true Swiss fashion, any time there is a remotely flat spot with a view, there will be a bench. 

August 1 is Swiss National Day, when Switzerland commemorates the signing of the Letter of Confederation of 1291. The Swiss celebrate this day much like the U.S. celebrates the Fourth of July, with parades, fireworks, festivals, and apparently, little paper flags on toothpicks for the fresh rolls from the bakery. We took these flags to the Risihorn for our own miniature celebration. In just four years I will be eligible for Swiss naturalization and I am so excited! Beat looks like he's even more excited than me. 

There are many ways in which I imagine life in Switzerland through a "grass is greener" lens. Spending more time here does tend to cut into the illusion, and I acknowledge that I would have my fair share of difficulties if we ever move here. Before this year, we tended to visit the Alpine regions in late August and September, when pollen season has abated. I assumed my allergies and sensitivity to air quality would not be an issue in Europe. But that is definitely not the case — the grass really is greener here, in the literal sense. Either from pollen to which I have not been desensitized through immunotherapy or a potential increased reaction to Beat's mom's cat, I spent much of my time in Switzerland feeling moderately sick. I woke up to terrifying asthma attacks, couldn't run without wheezing, and dealt with brain fog and increased anxiety. Since we were spending so much time with Beat's elderly parents, we took a number of Covid tests — all negative. And I didn't feel like I had an acute illness, but my health was not great. 

I was also dealing with insomnia and crushing fatigue, which yes, are symptoms that can be caused by excessive hiking. But there is also the issue of being a person who falls fairly deep on the introversion spectrum and getting almost no solo time. It got to the point where I'd drag my wheezy lungs on six-mile walks to sit in the 90-degree heat with mosquitos at a picnic area just to be alone for a few hours. On our first full day in Valais, I had to adhere to a work schedule and couldn't join Beat's family on the day's adventures. Having an entire apartment all to myself felt quite luxurious. I even had time for a two-hour walk along the Massa Gorge, a lovely ravine carved by the retreating Aletsch Glacier. I took this photo while crossing a small suspension bridge near the bottom of the canyon.

Two days later, on Aug. 4, massive chunks of rocks broke loose from the ravine and tumbled into the river. The photo on the left is my photo, and the one on the right is from a news site, at a slightly different angle but essentially the same aspect. You can see where rock sheered from the wall to the right and created a natural dam. The suspension bridge above helps depict the scale; this was a massive event. Not the kind of thing I'd have wanted to witness from a wobbly suspension bridge, so I'm grateful the timing didn't align. Rockfall and erosion are an increasing problem in the Alps, where the permafrost that glues these mountains together is melting. This low-altitude rockfall was likely triggered by increased pressure from the Massa River, whose flows have skyrocketed with meltwater from the Aletsch Glacier.

The night after the Massa rockfall was a weird one. I'd just dozed off after 1 a.m. amid a string of largely sleepless nights — working on Alaska time, indigestion from eating too much cheese (Swiss home-cooking: Delicious but heavy on the dairy), and anxiety from time with Beat's family, who are wonderful, but you get it. A once-rare-for-Switzerland midnight thunderstorm moved overhead and erupted in one of the loudest claps of thunder I've ever awoken to. My addled brain immediately assumed "LANDSLIDE" and I jumped out of bed like a frightened chicken, ready to dart out the door while screaming that the sky was falling. Luckily, I came to a realization about what was actually happening before the screaming started, but the adrenaline rush contributed to yet another brutal night of poor sleep. 

That was Thursday night, so I suppose I skipped over Wednesday, which had one of the better weather forecasts for the week. This prompted us to embark on the longest hike we had planned, leaving the family members to enjoy a more mellow day on the other side of the valley while we marched up 7,500 feet of vertical gain to the top of the Sparrhorn. This summit rises to just over 3,000 meters (just under 10,000 feet) in the Bernese Alps. 

The Sparrhorn offered striking views, including the moraine that once held the Oberaletschgletscher. It was a lovely outing, but a long descent through overgrown grassy fields triggered the worst of my asthma, leaving me wheezy and grumpy. 

Thursday — before the rockfall, but still mired in the 95-degree heat wave that powered midnight thunderstorms — the five of us took the cable car up the Riederalp to get a better look at the main arm of the Aletsch. I thought the plan was to spend quality family time together, but as soon as we stepped off the second expensive ride from Bettmeralp, Beat's father and his wife decided to veer left on a truncated route, Beat headed right toward a technical ridge, and I ended up following Beat's uncle Ernst on the direct line along the glacier. This family! It's like herding cats. 

Still, Ernst and I had an enjoyable walk to the Marjalen lake, which has long drained away beneath the retreating glacier. It was a crowded trail with large youth groups, and I was beginning to understand what Beat meant when he insisted we needed to experience everything we could squeeze into this week because "we're not coming back here." Beat does not like crowds, but there's a reason these places are crowded (and any time you put even a couple of miles between you and a gondola, they're rarely all that crowded.) 

While eating lunch at the pile of rocks / ghost lake, Beat called and said he overextended his leg on an easier part of the technical ridge and badly pulled a calf muscle. He thought the muscle might be torn. He was hurting but managed to limp down to us. Ernst found a compression wrap in his kit, and we limped out to the next cable car.

After Beat headed down, Ernst and I continued along the ridge toward Rideralp. Ernst pointed out a strange fault line forming along a rocky outcropping at the crest of the ridge. I failed to get a photo of it, but it was the strangest thing — a rock crevasse, widening where one side of the mountain was pulling away from the other as the anchor of the glacier faded away. Ernst explained that this was why all of the lower trails were closed — and aggressively closed at that, with fences strung along the entrances and stern threats posted on signs. Any year or even any day now, the entire mountainside could sheer away and crumble toward the glacier moraine, taking out a biologically unique forest (and any hikers who ignore the warnings) in an enormous landslide. This was a distressing thought. And then, of course, that night brought the Massa rockfall followed by the thunderstorm that triggered a week of unsettled dreams and general uneasiness. 

The following morning, Beat's outlook seemed more positive. His leg hurt but not as acutely as he feared. He thought a day of rest might be all he needed. I will admit to feeling excited about the prospect of a day all to myself. I planned my own 18-mile, 7,000-feet-of-climbing trudge to a famous suspension bridge that allows passage over this fearsome gorge. Once upon a time, trekkers like Beat's father crossed over glacier ice to connect area trails, but that's been impossible for years. In 2008, Swiss officials re-established the connection with a 124-meter-long, 80-meter-high suspension bridge. This marvel of Swiss engineering seemed like a neat thing to visit — especially because it's not in a traditionally accessible place. I climbed 4,000 feet to reach this overlook, which yes, can be accessed by gondola. But even still, the bridge is a full 2,000 feet lower. Anyone who wants to access the bridge must hike this descent and subsequent climb. The bridge is so far below its access points that I had to draw a red line to depict it in this photo.

As I made my way down into the gorge, the rain I'd been wishing would come for days amid 95-degree heat finally arrived. It was, at first, a gentle rain. The air was still so hot that the light mist felt more like thick humidity than rain. What it did accomplish was adding more slickness to the already slick rocky approach. I struggled with my footing as I slipped down slabs and occasionally slid onto my butt. This crushed my confidence just in time to arrive at my destination and its intriguing question: Does Jill still suffer from vertigo?

The answer was not one I wanted — not here, not now. Raindrops picked up velocity as a surprisingly frigid crosswind roared down the canyon. Meanwhile, 250 feet below my feet, the Massa River raged with the angriest, most roiling whitewater you can imagine. The hanging bridge creaked and groaned ominously. Granted, this bridge is Swiss-built — as sturdy as they come. But vertigo doesn't care about such facts. It just doesn't. It only understands yawning empty space and unwelcome motion. 

The bridge crossing was awful. Truly awful. I barely remember it. My brain was in full panic mode, my throat gulping down sour bile and the vacuum of air created by the strong wind. I think the only reason I didn't vomit was because it had been a while since I'd eaten, but my head spun and my legs wobbled as I clung to the cables. I was certain the bridge was going to spin around like a wrung towel. I had planned to take photos of the unique scenery from the bridge but of course, got none — I was a full 300 feet above the other side of the span before I collected myself enough to turn around and look back at the terrifying river. 

I continued to stumble upward through the Aletsch Forest, which became Switzerland's first World Heritage Site for its unique biology and glaciated geology. The lower flanks of the threatened mountainside are home to pine and larch trees, including 900-year-old Swiss stone pine. It's a beautifully dense forest that I also failed to capture in photos, because I was still recovering from my bridge scare, and because another fearsome thunderstorm had moved overhead. Lightning lit up the forest like camera flashes in a dark room. Deafening thunder booms followed almost simultaneously. The storm was close, and I would have been terrified if I were anywhere but a dense, dark forest. Even though I realize that you are never safe from lightning as long as you are outdoors, there is a part of the fearful brain that also does not care about these facts. I felt safe in the forest, so safe and cozy and free from harm. I loved listening to thunder boom overhead. 

Feeling placated, I reached the ridge that Ernst and I traversed the previous day and renewed the descent back toward the gorge. My plan for crossing back over the gorge was to traverse the Massa dam, which yeah, seems harmless right? And it is a massive, sturdy concrete structure. But the overflow pouring through the floodgates was downright monstrous — an endless roar of thunder tumbling toward those crumbling rock walls below. To reach the dam, I had to descend the airiest staircase I've ever encountered — metal steps suspended over hundreds of feet of nothingness — and then brace against violent wind gusts as I wobbled across the surprisingly narrow dam. As I climbed the staircase out of the gorge, ascending at least 200 wet metal steps, I was more than ready to be done with these manmade terrors. 

At least I found the wherewithal to make one photo from the dam, facing the Massa River far below. 

On Saturday, the plan was again to spend time with the family. The five of us piled into Ernst's car for a half-hour drive to Simplon Pass, near the Swiss/Italian border. The plan was to hike to the Spitzhorn. I specifically remember the word "Spitzhorn" uttered by every member of the party. Beat created a GPS track of the route. As soon as we stepped out of the cramped vehicle, Beat immediately headed toward his route without a word, I went toward the public restroom because geez, a full day above treeline with five people means grabbing any rare opportunity for privacy, Ernst went a different direction than Beat, and the parents chose yet another route that apparently was the route Fred remembered from 40 years ago. When I caught up to them and showed him my GPS, he refused to believe this untrustworthy technology and continued marching toward Italy. Even when we saw Beat standing high on a hill, because there was no direct trail, he refused to approach his son. What did I say about herding cats?

I eventually found my way to Beat and then we waited for the folks for a full 45 minutes. Even then, the folks had a shorter route in mind, and Beat and already schemed a harder route. Long story short, 90 minutes later I summited the Spitzhorn alone. 

I reconnected with Beat on the ridge and then we found the folks down on the pass, where they made lunch. Beat, Ernst and I continued tracing the higher ridge while Beat's dad and his wife made their way back on the main trail. I will say, Beat's dad is stunningly strong for an 83-year-old. He can hold a steady pace up these steep Swiss trails, but his endurance is perhaps not as extensive as it once was. He tends to tire after a few hours, but still. Impressive. 

Anyway, we returned after a nice five-hour adventure, piled back into the car, headed to town for groceries that included ice cream, and returned to our apartment. It was there Beat's dad realized the key that he was certain had been in the pocket of his trousers was no longer there, and in fact, it made the most sense that it was all the way back at the pass where we'd had lunch. After scrambling, searching and stress-eating the ice cream, we finally called the owner who informed us that there was one spare key and he had it with him — in Italy. Although he had been thinking about returning that night, he was still a good three hours away. Three hours was enough time, Beat and I concluded, to go back and look for the key.

What we didn't have to spare, at that point, was much daylight. We piled back into the car and drove to Simplon Pass, where the three settled at a restaurant as Beat and I took off up the trail. There had been a number of spots where Beat's dad sat down and may have dropped the key, so we had to split paths at every braid in the trail and keep our eyes peeled for a macrame key chain that unfortunately was the same color as the tundra. It felt fairly hopeless, but at the same time, it was fun to have a purpose. Despite my rough week of sleep, struggles with asthma, and fatigued legs, I felt strong and fast. Even with many stops to dig through grass and rock piles, we raced up the 2,110 feet in an hour and managed to locate the key exactly where Beat's dad thought he'd dropped it. We even beat sunset home with enough time to still cook the raclette we'd purchased, which yes, led to another rough night of indigestion for me. 

Sunday was our last full day in Valais and the folks were fairly exhausted by that point. I was too, but you have to take advantage of opportunities when they're in front of you. Beat plotted a route to the Foggenhorn, which was a compromise mountain based on my fear of thunderstorms in the forecast. Beat's idea was another 3,000-meter giant traversing class-three terrain, which, yeah ... I blamed thunderstorms but was inclined to shut down the proposal for any excuse available. Beat didn't race PTL this year and thus hadn't shaken the craving for extra spice out of his system. I now understand that if he doesn't participate in one of the insane mountain races that I don't love him participating in, he is going to try to drag me on adventures that far surpass my comfort zone. Perhaps I just need to accept PTL.

Anyway, Foggenhorn was a nice spot — still a bear of a 7,000-foot climb, and the storms did move in on schedule. We got wet, which is to say I finally pulled out the shell I'd schlepped all over Italy, France and the Swiss Alps, hopeful that at least once, the brutally hot summer would grant this long-useless piece of gear a renewed purpose. 

From Foggenhorn we dropped down the other side of the ridge, where we encountered a herd of the strangest goats. They looked like chocolate-dipped mountain goats, with long flowing hair that divided perfectly into brown and white halves. Apparently, these are Valais Blackneck Goats, which are thought to have arrived in the region thousands of years ago. They're locally unique and also considered to be a threatened species, so there's a protection program in place. The goats are technically domesticated, although their main job is to nibble grass and keep these Swiss mountainsides looking pristine. This herd took a particular interest in Beat. The one looking at the camera approached us, and soon the entire herd lined up single-file behind us as we continued down the narrow trail. Again, I regret that I didn't get a photo of that, but it was nerve-wracking to hear the ding-ding of their bells bobbing behind us and imagine the angry farmer to whom we were going to have to do some explaining when the herd followed us down the mountain. Luckily, the herd got distracted by another group of hikers and we got away. 

Our seven days in Valais were a solid week of activity for me — 100 miles with 35,000 feet of climbing in something like 40 hours on my feet. Even still, I mostly only felt stronger throughout the week and was disappointed to have to leave this beautiful place. We made one stopover on the way home as we returned over the Bernese Alps at Grimselpass. Here, Beat found an intriguing ridge route toward Rhone Glacier, the source of the mighty river that flows through Switzerland and France. 

Starting high means staying high, and any mountain route above 2,500 meters is going to a minefield of tricky boulder fields. But oh, the views! 

That's the Rhone Glacier. It may be shrinking, but it's still a stunner. 

Beat likes to loop his routes so every step leads you somewhere new. This often yields wonderful discoveries but sometimes WTF moments as well. This loop descended along the glacier on a narrow moraine and then shot directly up a boulder-choked grassy gully that looked like it ended in cliffs. Occasionally we'd encounter the faded paint of trail markings, indicating we weren't in the wrong, but it was clear this once-trail had undergone considerable erosion in recent years. In fact, what it looked like was a landslide wiped it out. There wasn't much left. I'd take a few knee-to-chin steps up the blocky, 40-degree slope, stop to catch my breath, and look up. "There's no way this goes," I'd think. And then I'd keep lunging upward.

Amazingly, the route did go. We had to gain 1,000 feet in well under a half mile, but it went. En route, Beat took this photo of me that I think encapsulates hiking in Switzerland: Incredible vistas, breathlessly difficult terrain — even on routes that look reasonable, short, and easy on maps — glaciers in view — in most views, even as they retreat — and trailside restaurants that are not in view but probably even closer. It's a wonderful place, even if I recognize that the grass likely is too green, deceptively green. But it's worth seeing — before it melts. 


  1. Thank you for this in depth post!!! It defines a "working vacation" for sure :)

  2. Wow, just wow! A fun but also brutally hard vacation with sublime vistas! Sounds about perfect! I have got to get there at sometime. Corrine


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