For a peaceful transition from 2016 to 2017, we decided to unplug for the weekend and retreat to the mountains. We had planned a relaxing New Years in a rustic wooden hut above the town of Riederalp, situated at the end of the Aletsch Glacier UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Europe’s largest and most powerful glacier, made of 27 billion metric tonnes of ice and measuring 23km long.
From Geneva we hopped on a two-hour train to Brig, followed by a local train past the delightfully named town of Bitsch to Morel, where we caught a cable car that whisked us 2000 meters up the mountainside to car-free village of Riederalp. In the summer Riederalp is a hiking mecca, sitting across the valley from Belalp (connected via suspended bridge) and connected to the adjacent towns of Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp by a ridge trail and a flat paved walkway. In the winter these connected villages turn into a series of ski towns that create a family oasis. We had been anticipating a snowy holiday, rooftops and trees draped magically in white, but were surprised to find Riederalp warm and sunny with just a few patches of snow melting in the dry grass. Following signs for Berghotel Riedfurka, we walked west from the Riederalp Mitte lift station and wandered through the quaint streets, admiring the traditional wooden Swiss chalets and occasional skiers flying down mysterious snowy pistes that appeared every now and then, cutting through the grassy mountainside into the center of town. At the end of the village we turned onto a partially paved trail up the mountain and 30 minutes later, sufficiently removed from most reaches of civilization, we arrived at our destination.
While Riedfurka is a mountain hut, a simple refuge strategically placed along the Swiss hiking routes to provide food and accommodation, it is also one of Art Furrer’s (a notable local who was the ski instructor for the Kennedys and pioneered ski acrobatics in Switzerland) exceptional “hotels”. And it was exactly what we’d hoped for, a charming wooden cottage, over 100 years old, beams creaking with every step and a mandatory house-shoe/slipper policy to avoid clunking around in wet boots. The hut was recently renovated to accommodate a modern restaurant with walls made almost completely of glass and stunning views over the mountains and slopes. This space is a perfect complement to the original, more traditional cheese restaurant, a cozy tree-trunk paneled cubbyhole serving fondue and raclette, with sheep skins covering every bench and chair and a pile of extras stacked by the door for cold nights.
We had time for a hike before sunset and headed out on a path along a ridge heading west, startled to discover the Matterhorn perfectly framed by a dip in the mountains as we rounded a corner. We turned back, stopping to examine the other structure on the mountain, Villa Cassel, a beautiful small residence built for Sir Ernest Cassel just across from Riedfurka that opens during the summer as a nature center and guesthouse. Finally, in the waning light, we headed up the other side of the mountain just as the sun dipped behind the ridge and turned the snow-capped peaks pink.
Trading boots for slippers, we padded down to the softly lit cheese room and after a game of cards, indulged in a hearty pot of bubbling fondue with bread and potatoes to dip, gerkins and pearl onions on the side, and the obligatory glass of Fendant to sip on. Then, in a fondue-induced coma, we changed into pajamas, fluffed our down comforter, and read until our eyes closed.
The next morning we woke with the sun and gazed out at the mountains as we filled up on the classic Swiss breakfast of bread, butter, yogurt, granola, cheese, and meats, all produced locally, and a big pot of strong coffee. In the early light we set out towards the Hohfluh (2227m) and Moosfluh (2333m) viewpoints along the ridge above the glacier. Birdsong and the crunch of our footsteps were the only sounds on the trail, allowing us to pretend that we had the whole Alps to ourselves. The trail wove around small undulating hills that contrasted beautifully with the massive peaks around us, the world glittering with ice and snow as the sun made its way into the sky. We found company partway down the trail in the form of a one-person hut whose occupant was bathing in the sun in a hammock hanging outside, absorbed in his reading and writing. And as we trekked further we began to realize that there was an entire network of pistes and skiers scattered across the snowy top of the mountain, invisible from down below. The beautiful scenery and joy coming from the slopes easily convinced us that our New Year’s Day would be spent skiing.
Around midday we reached Moosfluh and were greeted by a magnificent view over the glacier – a huge river of frozen ice waves surrounded by an impressive panorama view of 32 of the 4000-metre-high peaks of the Valais Alps, including the Matterhorn and Dom.This was the final viewpoint, but instead of turning back we took a lift down to town and spread a picnic out on the lawn. Then we continued on the paved walking path through the forest to the next village of Bettmeralp before turning back to rent skis and begin our New Years Eve celebration.
As we approached the hotel we noticed a row of beer and champagne bottles lined up outside along the windowsills in preparation for the evening. We hadn’t been informed of any special festivities, so we had brought our own champagne. However, just as we settled down to read we caught a whiff of wood smoke – a peek out the window revealed a big fire burning on the deck. Like moths to a flame, in minutes we were basking in the warmth of the orange glow. As the other guests slowly trickled down and a few groups hiked up the dark mountain to join, the owners emerged with armfuls of prosecco which they began to pour liberally while passing around plates of shrimp, bruschetta, sausages, cheesesticks and pizza. When the bottles began to empty the crowd moved inside for dinner before moving back out to the fire under a bright starry sky, waiting for the midnight fireworks show to light up the towns below.
Despite a late night we were up early the next morning, determined to make the most of our day on the slopes. The skiing turned out to be wonderful, especially for a new skier, with plenty of long blue and red runs stretching from the snowy peaks down to a long strip of snow plowing through the grass. At the Bettmerhorn cable car (2,870m) we walked to the edge for a unparallelled view over the Aletsch Glacier before skiing over to Fiescheralp for a late lunch of homemade brats and tiramisu on a sunny restaurant deck. Forcing our boots back on, we hustled to catch the last lift and avoid either a long walk home with our skis or a very expensive cab ride. At Blausee we scooted into the chair just in time, heading to a peak that would allow us to forge a path most of the way back to the ski shop. Our timing turned out to be a highlight of the trip as we glided down the long, empty slope, watching the sun dip below the ridge to light up the Matterhorn with a golden halo in the darkening sky.
By the time we turned in our skis we were thoroughly exhausted, but utterly content. Our feet smiled with relief as we walked around town to look at the chalets all lit up in christmas lights, but the smells of frying onion and roasting meat coming from the kitchens was enough to drive us back up to the hotel. We hiked in the dark under a brilliant milky way in one of the darkest, clearest skies I have ever seen. After a hot shower and relaxing dinner we grabbed a blanket and quietly snuck back out the door to continue gazing up at the dazzling night sky, firmly resolving to spend more nights like this.
So beautiful, and what a way to spend New Years.