Lötschepass

If you want to travel from the Swiss canton of Bern to the canton of Valais, which lies to the south, you can take one of two rail tunnels. The Lötschberg tunnel connects Kandersteg to Goppenstein, and the much more recent Lötschberg Base tunnel goes from Frutigen to Raron. This second tunnel cut the travel time in half, is twice the length and 400 m lower than the older tunnel. Alternatively, you can walk over the top by hiking the Lötschepass (2690 m). At the pass, you would have no idea that trains are passing 1.5—2 km below.

Doldenhorn and Gasteretal.

Tanya and Florence and I hiked over the pass, starting from the town of Selden in Gasteretal. We climbed steeply to the Lötschegletscher, which the path crosses without fuss; it looks and feels like walking on gravel, except that every so often the blue ice of the glacier peeks out.

Gasteretal.
Lötschegletscher and the walls of Balmhorn.

There’s a cabin at the pass, perched in a stark rocky landscape between mountains. We walked past the hut and continued to a good view point at about 3030 m. From there we could see a lot of the Valaisan Alps and had an epic view of the Doldenhorn in one direction, and the Bietschhorn in the other.

At our lookout point.
Doldenhorn (3643 m) across the Gasteretal.
Bietschhorn (3934 m) across the Lötschental.

We stayed in the Lötchepasshütte that night. In the evening the setting sun lit up Bietschhorn and the bright golden mineral landscape surrounding the cabin. In the morning the view was even more spectacular — the clouds had disappeared overnight and the first rays of sun lit up the big peaks of the Valaisan Alps in a gorgeous array of colours.

Evening light on Bietschhorn.
Morning light on Switzerland’s highest mountains. Dom (4545 m) in centre, and the Monte Rosa massif (4634 m) on its right.
Ferdenrothorn (3180 m).
Dom, Monte Rosa, and on the right the light catching Weisshorn (4506 m).
Light rays appearing over Bietschhorn.

We walked along the höhenweg path into the Lötschental. This path stays high along the valley and contours along almost its entire length, gently dropping height to end up in Fafleralp. Early on I heard a distinctive growling chirp and sure enough there was a group of lagopède alpin (rock ptarmigan) hanging out next to an alpine lake. Further down we walked through brilliant larch forest and past babbling streams to end up in the valley.

Looking back at the incredible rock folds in Ferdenrothorn.
Amazing walking. On the right is Weissmeis and the (very tiny) Matterhorn.
So fluffy!
A lone mélèze amongst the red blueberry bushes.
Red bushes, blue berries.
Mélèzes over Lötschental.

From Fafleralp it was an easy Postbus ride to Goppenstein. After a wonderful weekend of hiking across the Lötchepass, we caught the train back to Bern. In the dark of the Lötchberg tunnel it was surreal to think that only hours before we were directly above that point, oblivious to passing trains, watching the sun rise over the Alps.

Finishing off the hike towards Fafleralp.
October 14, 2018
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Graubünden

For the first night of our Graubünden cycling holiday, Tanya and I booked a hotel in Wiesen that had a surprisingly good price. Wiesen’s a lovely town with everything you might need, except, as we discovered, a train station. The station named Davos Wiesen is a good 3 km away and down a steep hill. Arriving by train after having already riden from Chur to Thusis, we worked hard to get to Wiesen and thereby earned our well-priced accomodation.

Tanya on the descent from Wiesen.

Our aim for the week was to explore Graubünden, Switzerland’s wildest and largest canton and a jewel of the country’s far east. We did so mostly by bike, and with a fair bit of making it up as we went along. The great thing about staying high on a hillside is that in the morning you have plenty of potential energy to burn. On our second day we set off early to get onto the road to the Albulapass.

Schmitten, Graubünden.
Piz de la Blais, near Albulapass.
Piz Üertsch (3267 m).
Albulapass.
The world’s most noble sheep. Near La Punt.
Sunset from Pontresina.

In Pontresina we left the bikes for a day to go take the panoramic railway down to Tirano in Italy, with a side trip up to Diavolezza to see the Bernina Massif up close. I think Piz Palü is among the most beautiful mountains out there, with its three vertical rock bands and impressive glacial flanks.

Piz Palü (3900 m).
Piz Bernina (4049 m).
Bouquetin paintings at Diavolezza.
From Munt Pers (3206 m); looking down the valley to Pontresina and Samedan.
The other way, to Lago Bianco.

From Diavolezza we continued by rail to Tirano, past Lago Bianco and Poschiavo. The train track is incredibly engineered, with lots of switchbacks, tunnels, and at one point a full circle at a constant gradient.

The circular piece of track near Brusio.
Sunset over Lago Bianco.
Train-set trains in Graubünden.
Pontresina.

Our next full day of biking was from Zernez, across the Swiss National Park to Santa Maria. The national park (you can say “the” because there is only one in Switzerland) is another world: it is left entirely untouched and is fully protected. As we rode through, there were some rain showers around and some streams were running muddy, but we were lucky and avoided the weather. Just after the park we crossed the Pass del Fuorn, and from there it was downhill to Santa Maria.

The Swiss National Park.
Tanya in the Swiss National Park.

Our biggest day of riding was over the mighty Stelvio pass into Italy. We toiled up to Pass Umbrail, then up the last 3 km to the Stelvio at 2757 m. At the top there was quite a scene, with lots of cyclists, motorbikes, and people trying to sell touristy knickknacks. A giant bird was doing laps overhead — initially we thought it could be an royal eagle hoping to pick off a slower cyclist, but on closer examination it seems it was a bearded vulture. The view from the pass was incredible, with glaciated peaks and the sinew of the road heading down the other side.

A lonely postbus stop at Pass Umbrail.
Tanya arrives at the Stelvio pass.
Stelvio pass views.
Capable steed.
Tanya descending the Italian side of the Stelvio.
Ortler (3905 m) and Cime del Campo (3480 m).
Cime del Campo.
Ortler.

We stayed that evening in Laatsch, which is in Sud Tyrol — German-dialect-speaking Italy. The next day we rode back to Switzerland, and the road happened to pass through Austria, meaning that it was a three country day. We took advantage of the situation and stopped for a schnitzel lunch, and used schnitzel power to get to Scuol.

Relaxing in Scuol after a day’s ride.
Scuol.

The last day of our ride, and of our holiday, took us from Scuol back to Zernez, which closed an amazing loop, in which we rode through and around the national park, over five cols, and through three countries. Graubünden lived up to its reputation for amazing scenery, impressive local food, and more ibex imagery than it’s possible to describe.

Riding out of Scuol.
Graubünden scenery.
October 14, 2018
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Dent d’Oche

Dent d’Oche (2222 m) is a prominent mountain seen from Lausanne, and while I lived in Lausanne I would often look at it across the lake and think that one day I should walk up there. In late summer this year I finally did. We walked from Fontaine, up past Darbon and the Chalets d’Oche, then steeply up the south-west side of Dent d’Oche to go past the refuge and get to the summit.

Dent d’Oche from the French side, with the path up on the left.

From the top there were breathtaking views: to the north was the giant Lac Léman with Lausanne on its other shore and the Jura in the distance. To the south, Mont Blanc’s pale form hovered mystically on the horizon. Nearby there were rows and rows of jagged mountains, including the Dents du Midi and Cornettes de Bise. It was a magnificently clear day.

The view down to the easten end of Lac Léman, with Montreux.
Across the lake to Lausanne.
South-east to the Dents du Midi.
Grammont (L) and the Cornettes de Bise (R).
North-east to Vevey.
West towards Geneva.

Here are two panorama pictures: the first looks north-west, the second south-east.

We traversed the mountain and walked down on the east side of the summit, then over a little col to the Lac de Darbon and up to cut under the Pointe de Bénévent. The views of the Cornettes de Bise became more and more impressive.

Cornettes de Bise.
Here the Grand Combin appeared between the Cornettes and the Dents du Midi.
More Cornettes de Bise.

While walking near Mont de Chillon we were shepherded past a flock of sheep by a very large, white, shepherd dog (un patou) who ensured we kept a safe distance. Unlike the last time I met a patou on a hike, this time there was no barking and we were allowed to pass. This was extra lucky because right after we were out of range of the dog, we saw a truly enormous herd of bouquetin (ibex) just hanging out in the sunny field. There were at least 30 of them! It made for a wonderful end to a wonderful walk.

Cornettes de Bise reflected in the Lac de Fontaine.
September 23, 2018
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L’Argentine

The Argentine is a spiny backbone of rock between Les Diablerets and Grand Muveran, in the canton of Vaud. We hiked to its second highest point, the Haute Corde, on a warm summer’s day. Actually, this was a bike and hike, because we started lower in the valley, biked up to Solalex, then hiked the rest of the way to the summit. L’Argentine is a climber’s paradise and seeing all the climbers topping out of the Mirroir d’Argentine made me think fondly of the freedom of moving on rock above the void, and made my fingers itch for chalk. We took the long way up past Anzeinde and the Col des Essets, and got back to Solalex by dropping down a steep and exposed gully. After darkness fell we swooped back down the valley on our bikes, hooping down dark roads in the fresh coolness of the evening.

Happy cows near the Col des Essets.
Haute Pointe seen from Haute Corde.
Les Diablerets (with amazing rock folds).
Edelweiss!
The Argentine at dusk, from Solalex.
September 2, 2018
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Sustenhorn

On Swiss national day, the first of August, Tanya and I walked from Steingletscher to the Tierberglihütte. The path rose gently from the valley before a sudden uphill section climbed 700 m in one go, and before we knew it we arrived at the hut, right as a thunderstorm rolled over the surrounding peaks.

Sustenhorn (3502 m).
Steingletscher.

Bizarrely, we were the only clients staying in the hut. Inside the dining room as it stormed outside were four or five bees, trapped against the glass, and after letting them out it was only us and the hut wardens left. That night there was a spectacular post-storm sunset that lit up our objective for the next morning — the Sustenhorn.

Sunset colours from the Tierberglihütte.
Sunset over Giglistock (2900 m).
Crevasses lit by the setting sun.
This photo shows the entire route across the glacier and up Sustenhorn.
The view down to the Sustenpass.
A very quiet Tierberglihütte.

In the morning we rose early, ate breakfast, and set out onto the ice of the Steingletscher. Normally in the Alps there are at least a few other groups going up any mountain we choose to climb, and it was strange and surprisingly unnerving to step out onto the glacier with not another soul around.

(Tanya for scale).

Higher on the glacier, there were some impressively open crevasses for us to cross, and we moved carefully. Higher still we came to a point where there was sheet ice that wasn’t comfortable going, and while we considered whether there was another way around, clouds started forming on the summit. We made the decision to turn around and leave the mountain for another day.

Crevasses and weather.

The trip was great fun. Our wander on the glacier was exciting and we had incredible views. To get home we took the bus from Steingletscher over the Sustenpass and all the way down into Valais, from where we could take a train through a tunnel to get back to Bern. It made for an interesting round trip and a satisfying end to a couple of days in the hills.

Gwächtenhorn (3404 m).
Our route went to the right of these seracs.
Just off the glacier.
August 29, 2018
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Rome

Here are some pictures from a trip to Rome. Rome is almost unimaginably old, which is fascinating, and I was continually reminded of Ozymandias. We spent a weekend looking upon the works of Rome, but did not despair, mostly because modern Rome has great food and an incredible atmosphere.

The Roman Forum.
Colosseum from the forum.
The roof of the Pantheon.
Inside the Pantheon.
View from the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.
Not much room on the stairs inside the St Peter’s dome.
St Peter’s Basilica.
Street art in Rome.
View over Rome to St Peter’s.
The courtyard of the Capitoline Museum.
August 26, 2018
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Trifthütte

The Triftgletscher lies a couple of valleys above Meiringen in the Swiss canton of Bern. To get there, like anywhere in Switzerland, you can take public transport and then walk. You get the train to Meiringen, catch a tiny one-carriage train to Innertkirchen, jump on a post bus to Triftbahn, and then you have the option to either catch a cable car and walk, or just walk from the road. Andy, Karl, Tanya and I took the second option and weaved our way on foot through gorgeous fields, past the end of the cable car, and to the Windegghütte at 1887 m. From there a short scramble through rocks took us towards Triftbrücke and our first glimpse of the Trift glacier itself.

The Triftgletscher.
Triftgletscher over the newly formed Triftsee.

Looking at this glacier on historic maps I was shocked and greatly saddened to see how much it has melted recently. Look at the photo above, and then consider that as recently as the year 2000 no lake existed — the glacial itself covered the entire valley floor. (The first Swiss map to show the lake is from 2007). The photo is taken from a new bridge which is an impressive distance above the river below, and maps from the 1950s show ice well above the bridge level. It is upsetting to see the effects of climate change happening so clearly and so quickly.

The view down from the bridge at Triftbrücke.

We kept walking. After the bridge the track changed from a “mountain” path to an “alpine” path and as if to prove the point the track immediately presented several ladders to climb down and then a couple of small river crossings. We climbed steeply up the east side of the valley, making the lake smaller and smaller as it fell away below us.

Ladders!
It was rhododendron season and the bright flowers were everywhere.
Gorgeous hiking country.
Monster rock!
A track marker and the ever-present rhodos.

The track sidled around the slope and was quite steep at times, and there were chains strung between handy rocks that we could hold onto as an extra bit of assurance. As we got higher, the icy plains above the glacier snout opened up, and we could see more and more of the surrounding snowy peaks.

Tanya and Karl hiking above the Triftsee (the bridge is way back in the narrow section of the valley, next to the lake).
Now on level with the Triftgletscher.

After a good day’s walk, we arrived at the Trifthütte at 2520 m. We were very warmly welcomed, and the scenery was spectacular: clouds played around the tops and occasionally the sound of ice moving in the glacier would reach us at the hut.

At Trifthütte.

That evening there was one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in the mountains.

Sunset from Trifthütte.

The next day just involved walking down again! We explored the edge of the ice field, and then turned for the descent, leaving behind us the melting glacier and its rhododendrons.

Morning at Trifthütte.
Look carefully here to see Tanya in silhouette.
Triftsee from on high.
Tanya and Andy exploring the moraine.
Rhododendrons on the descent.
August 19, 2018
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Schwarenbach

Back in June, together with Tanya’s sister Andy, Andy’s boyfriend Karl, and friends Eric, Linda, and Matt, we walked from Kandersteg to the Berghotel Schwarenbach, and then on to the Gemmipass. It was early in the hiking season, the wildflowers were out in force, and the sun was shining strongly and melting the last of the snow drifts around the peaks.

This wooden man milks a wooden cow when the wind blows.
The team questing up a hill.
The wild-flowers were off the hook.
Tanya and Eric.
An abandoned building at Gemmipass (2315 m).
Matt and Karl hiking past snow drifts.
Daubenhorn (2942 m).
Daubensee.
Karl and Andy.
The lake under Schwarenbach.

We stayed the night at the Berghotel, and the next day walked back to Kandersteg via a different route over Schwarzgrätli. At the col we were lucky to see two ibex amble neatly across some steep névé in search of lichen on the rocks. A steep descent into the Inner Üschene valley brought us yet more wildflowers and a river crossing that required a little bit of detective work to avoid getting wet.

Mist and wildflowers.

Back in Kandersteg in the evening, we walked past this painting of a cat, which if I am not mistaken is a portrait of Tomba the Gipfelstürmer (Tomba the peak-stormer), about whom we had had the pleasure to learn at the Berghotel. Tomba was a cat who lived at Schwarenbach and became famous for accompanying mountaineers to the top of nearby mountains, including the Balmhorn (3699 m). His exploits are detailed, along with some fantastic pictures, here. He reportedly saved a couple of mountaineers from an avalanche by leading them behind a secure rock.

Tomba’s portrait on a street in Kandersteg.
August 18, 2018
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Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen

Tanya’s sister Andy and Andy’s boyfriend Karl came to visit us in Bern, and we did some excellent hiking in the Alps. At the end of June we went to Grindelwald, and walked over Kleine Scheidegg, up to the Eigergletscher station (yes, there’s a train even up here!), then down to Lauterbrunnen. It turned out to be a long walk of over 26 km and about 1400 m of climb, and the views were spectacular the entire way, from the start under the north face of the Eiger to the end in the incredible Lauterbrunnen valley that inspired Tolkien’s Rivendell. Here are photos from this hike.

Grindelwald and Wetterhorn (3692 m).
Swiss scene — cows under the Eiger north wall.
Tanya and the Eiger.
Rock walls under Mönch.
Lunch spot under the Eiger (3970 m).
Looking up at Mönch (4107 m).
Tanya and Karl starting the descent near Eigergletscher.
The wildflowers were in fantastic form.
Eiger and Mönch.
Valley time.
Looking up at Jungfrau (4158 m).
Mönch, Jungfraujoch, and Jungfrau.
Karl, Andy, and Tanya under the Jungfrau.
The view from on high as we walked down to Lauterbrunnen.
August 3, 2018
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Strasbourg to Basel

My brother Alex spent a couple of months riding his bike around Europe this year. He started in Rotterdam in May, and in early June Tanya and I caught the train to Strasbourg to ride with him on a small segment of his trip.

Dusk clouds in Strasbourg.

In Strasbourg we braved storm clouds to go for tartes flambées, and gee they were amazing. Fuelled by the cream and ham tartes, the next day we started riding on the Eurovelo 5 bike route, which weaves through gorgeous vineyards to Colmar.

Strasbourg in the morning.
From the top of the Strasbourg cathedral.
My excellent steed.
Alex enjoying EuroVelo 5.

Along the way we saw storks — they are giant — nesting in improbable places. Every turn of the path brought more amazing views, including back over the plains to Strasbourg where we could, even late in the day, still see the imposing Strasbourg cathedral standing out. We arrived in Colmar with time to walk around and enjoy the old town.

Stork nest over the gate of a town.
Canals in Colmar.
Colmar’s “Petite Venise”.

The next day we headed early into the vines and continued wending our way across the countryside towards Basel.

French wildflowers.

During this warm day Alex developed a particularly strong craving for a coke, and started to look for one in every little town we passed through. But all the shops were shut because it was Sunday in France. Eventually we saw a lone vending machine baking in the sun on the side of the road. Alex screeched to a halt, and the machine promptly ate several of his previous euro coins without delivering anything in return.

Somewhere around Mulhouse we stopped following the vineyard route and switched to riding along the Rhine, where the path is flat and fast. In the early evening we arrived in Basel and crossed the bridge past the triple junction where Switzerland, Germany, and France all meet. The sun set on our trip while we rode through Basel to the train station, where we rushed onto the train to Bern.

Tanya in Mulhouse.
Next to the Rhine.
Switzerland on the left, France on the right, Germany behind and left.
Basel at sunset.
August 3, 2018
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