An alpine journey through Valais, where glaciers whisper and summits touch the sky

The Swiss canton of Valais is justly famous for its high altitude treks, alpine towns and wild natural beauty. With the Matterhorn ever present on the skyline, explore its sensational scenery on walks from Zermatt, Saas-Fee and the Aletsch Glacier.

Published 24 May 2021, 09:48 BST
The Aletsch Glacier is the longest in the Alps; nearly 13 miles long and almost a mile ...

The Aletsch Glacier is the longest in the Alps; nearly 13 miles long and almost a mile deep at its thickest point.

Photograph by Getty Images

It's always puzzled me that the shape of Toblerone was inspired by the Matterhorn. I can understand the compulsion to climb that jaggedly triangular peak, but why make chocolates resembling it? Though after all, I think, gazing at it from the 10,170ft-high Gornergrat plateau, this is Valais, where the cheerful, slightly dissonant clang of cowbells provides a musical accompaniment to almost every hike, and the locals are as proud of their superb chocolate as they are of the spectacular scenery. So why not combine the two?

The Matterhorn rears on the Swiss-Italian border and everyone I meet in Valais is keen to assure me that it only looks so arresting from this side: the view from Italy, apparently, is pretty ordinary. Today, wispy clouds wrap around its summit and my guide, Amadé Perrig, smiles mischievously: “When that happens, we like to say the Italians are smoking again.”

Scaling the peak is an arduous but exhilarating possibility that involves starting at dawn, but it’s now mid-afternoon, so instead, we’re heading in the opposite direction, picking our way delicately downhill from the Gornergrat plateau's famous viewpoint towards Hotel Riffelhaus 1853 in Zermatt, two miles away. Author Mark Twain stayed in here 1878, and his verdict on the Matterhorn was: ‘Grand, gloomy and peculiar’. He was likening the mountain to once-mighty French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, however, so I think it was intended as a compliment. Looming on our left, jet black and streaked with snow, it offers a stark contrast to the tawny undergrowth we’re walking through.

“In early summer, there are wildflowers all over this terrain,” says Amadé. “Then a few weeks ago in August, the weather changed and overnight they were gone.” Now in his 70s, he grew up on a local mountain farm and had no less than seven brothers and sisters. He talks of early mornings feeding the animals and afternoons spent in the hills, while I wonder incredulously: “Eight children?” Amadé laughs: his father was one of 15.

The cheerful trains of the Gornergrat Bahn are models of comfort and efficiency.

Photograph by The Gornergrat Bahn

The walk down is beautiful — but the trip up was even better. The Gornergrat Bahn is an extraordinary feat of 19th-century engineering: a single-gauge railway line starting from the mountain village of Zermatt, at 5,250ft, and chugging up to Gornergrat plateau. Even before the Matterhorn comes into close up, the views are astounding, all meadows and mountains, forests and wooden chalets. I stare transfixed by the Grenz Glacier, its ice gleaming in the sunlight. It looks infinite, though in fact the ice is receding catastrophically. We may be the last lucky generation to witness glaciers, but for the moment, here they are for us to marvel at.

Having said this, the Swiss do their bit to nurture our ailing planet: all three villages I visit are car free, with little electric vehicles to carry tourists’ luggage. Roads came late to this mountainous region, which may be why the brown trains of the Gornergrat Bahn are such models of comfort and efficiency. A road only opened to Saas-Fee in 1951, and many people still head there on foot. We take the bus, and on the way pass a shepherd and his flock using the same route in the other direction.

Visitors long predate the road, and in 1881, when the Dom Hotel opened, a seven-hour walk was required to reach it. When transport became easier, this trickle became a flood, which is hardly surprising; the Saas Valley’s main village, Saas-Fee is enchanting. Its picture-book wooden cabins are encircled by mountains, with no fewer than 18 of them punching skywards for more than 13,100ft.

“We have glaciers in every direction — we’re like the pearl in the oyster!” says my guide, Enzio Bregy, as we climb on our mountain bikes and start pedalling uphill into the forest. Visitors can hike, bike, bobsled, snowboard and, of course, ski in the Saas Valley, and even in the height of summer, the sight of people with skis slung over their shoulders is a common one.

The pine woods are silent except for the whirr of our bikes, bursts of birdsong and, I’ll admit it, my increasing panting. The slippery, stony moraine makes for challenging terrain, and we pause to catch our breath by a pond named Melchboden, or milking place. While farmers and their herds have been replaced by wooden day beds, the scene is still a lovely one. Red squirrels and butterflies frolic around our feet and the air is so fresh you could drink it. Instead, we sip iced tea with rosehip and honey at Alpenblick cafe, its peaked roof mirroring the mountains behind; every terrace table is equipped with binoculars for a closer look at the incredible view.

Located next to Saas-Almagel, hiking above the Mattmark Dam, high above the bright green of the reservoir’s water, is both thrilling and varied.

Photograph by Getty Images

Later, we reclaim Enzio's car and drive along the Saas Valley floor to the Mattmark Dam. The hike from here, above the bright green of the reservoir’s shimmering water, is both thrilling and varied: we cross silvery granite streaked red by tannic water, moss-green undergrowth and a bridge over a lively waterfall. No matter how high we climb, there’s more mountain above us. And if we continued south past the end of the reservoir, we’d reach the golden Virgin Mary that marks the beginning of Italy.

The northernmost stop on my journey through Valais is Eggishorn, reached via another Gornergrat Bahn train, followed by two cable-cars. I associate these airborne bubbles with skiing but here, they’re vital: children in these mountaintop villages even travel by cable-car down to school in the valley.

I’ve come to see the UNESCO-listed Aletsch Glacier, the longest in the Alps. This trip is all about activity, but for now, as I look out over 11 billion tonnes of ice — enough to provide a litre of water a day, for 3.5 years, for every person on Earth — I can only stand and stare. Nearly 13 miles long and almost a mile deep at its thickest point, it resembles a gargantuan ice-floored racetrack carved through the mountains by a giant. The place is eerie: nothing moves, and a sound somewhere between a wind’s sigh and a rushing river haunts the air.

The glacier, once so menacing that 17th-century locals prayed for its disappearance, is shrinking at a frightening rate. It’s 1.8 miles shorter and 655ft lower than in 1860. Even my guide Jasmine Noti remembers it being bigger in her childhood, and she’s only 29. But it’s still magnificent. The hike to the lookout point and back only takes just over an hour, but it’s unforgettable. Jasmine guides me across a ridge of tumbled rocks, the deep forested green of the Fiesch Valley on one side and that extraordinary, whispering white expanse on the other.

“The Villa Cassel blends into this landscape about as well as a five-franc coin in a cowpat,” was the verdict of a local priest when banker Sir Ernest Cassel completed his 25-room folly in 1902.

Photograph by Riederalp Aletsch Arena

After an early rise to admire the sun gleaming off the Matterhorn, still visible here in Riederalp, 40 miles north of Gornergrat, I’m ready to climb into a mountain cart. This sort of toboggan on three wheels has neither pedals nor brakes, and I bump rapidly downhill, whooping when I hit smooth tarmac and pick up speed. But you don’t stay on wheels for long in Valais. Every walk here is different, just as every glacier is different, and this final scenic trek wins the prize for most bizarre destination: a four-storey, half-timbered English mansion hidden among the ancient Swiss forest.

“The Villa Cassel blends into this landscape about as well as a five-franc coin in a cowpat,” was the verdict of the local priest when banker Sir Ernest Cassel completed his 25-room folly in 1902. Everything had to be brought up on foot or by mule; the piano still standing in the salon took four men two days to hoist up the mountain. Now the property of a nature preservation organisation, it has a ground-floor cafe and an excellent mini-museum, but the grand, sweeping wooden staircase is a reminder of its glory days, when guests included a young Winston Churchill who, far from enjoying those musical cowbells, demanded Cassel have them silenced: they were disturbing his work.

As the train taking me to the airport pulls out of the station, I realise I’m compiling a mental list of activities to try next time I’m here: always the best review of any trip. I want to take that Gornergrat Bahn again before a summer dawn, to watch the Matterhorn’s Toblerone-like reflection appear in the Riffelsee lake as the sun rises. In Saas-Fee, I’m curious to attempt the daunting zip-line across the Fee Ravine, and I absolutely must don crampons and take the six-hour guided trek across the Aletsch Glacier: a fitting homage to this beautiful sea of ice.

Plan your trip

SWISS flies from Heathrow to Zurich and Geneva Airport from £82 return. Once there, trains are the best way to traverse the region. A two-day Adventure Card for the Gornergrat Bahn , gets you unlimited travel on various transport routes, plus discounts on mountain railways and other tourist activities, from CHF 109 (£92.50). Alternatively, consider a Swiss Travel Pass, costing from CHF 232 (£200) for three days (CHF 198 [£170] if under 26). Zermatt to Gornergrat on the Gornergrat Bahn costs around CHF 80 (£70) return, or why not upgrade to a gourmet ticket and make the most of the delicious food on offer. The Aletsch Explorer Pass gets you access to cable cars throughout Aletsch Arena, connecting hikers to some of the best treks in the area and costs £50 a day. Between July and August, diners at the Drehrestaurant in Saas-Fee can enjoy a sunrise breakfast.

When to go

Switzerland is beautiful year-round. In spring, the mountains are carpeted in wildflowers and temperatures are mild, while the winter ski season runs from November until April. Summer skiing is possible in Saas-Fee and Zermatt from mid-July, however.

To find out more, visit myswitzerland.com and to book your next trip to Valais, go to visitvalais.ch/shop

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