Once upon a time, herders used to walk their sheep across the massive 23km Aletsch glacier from the Belalp to the Riederalp. Sadly, today this is no longer possible due to the effects of global warming, which have caused the largest ribbon of ice in the Alps to retreat 3km since 1870, with 90 percent of its ice volume predicted to melt in the next 80 years. These days, a 124 m long Hängebrücke (suspension bridge) stretches from one alp to the other across a roaring river, and I set out to cross it.
After a 2.5 hour direct train from Geneva to Brig, a bus was waiting at the entrance to the station to take me on the 30 minute journey up the steep, winding mountain road to Blatten, a tiny town with ancient traditional sunburnt wooden chalets and a tiny white village church in the center. From there, a 10 minute cable car completed the journey to Belalp. The glass cable car is an experience in itself that never fails to amaze me, and I watched, fascinated, as the valley floor grew distant below me, a sea of white peaks gradually appearing on the horizon as we climbed higher. Just before we reached the top, the setting sun gave us a goodnight kiss in the form of a magnificent starburst over a nearby mountain.
As I climbed out at the Belalp station, my fellow riders exited left while I turned right, setting out alone on the 30 minute path towards Hotel Belalp, just visible in the distance. My stroll along the wide path to the hotel was a welcome meditation. I felt a great calm descend upon me as I gazed out over the sparkling lights of Brig, wrapped in the soft greens, blues and pinks of the Alps at sunset, the only sound the familiar chorus of cows finding their way to bed.
The hotel was a beautiful modern fixture made of wood and glass and impressively set on the edge of a cliff at 7,000 feet, overlooking the massive Aletsch Glacier. A perfect white chapel looked on from the grassy slope above. I arrived just before the end of dinner service and after checking into my room, was given a seat by the glass wall directly facing the glacier. This impossibly beautiful view made me giddy with joy, and I’m sure my neighbors wondered as I sat alone, grinning at the window, watching the candlelight’s reflection dance over the mighty glacier stretching out before me. I was soon distracted as a plate of hot, melty cheese over bread and meat, topped with a fried egg, appeared in front me, the classic Swiss ingredients always deeply satisfying. It was enough to put me in a coma. Giving in to exhaustion, I slowly made my way upstairs to prepare for an early morning hike. To maximize the mountain air, I opened my bedroom window, revealing a box of beautiful flowers on the windowsill. Then with a deep breath, I let the sound of cowbells tinkling in the distance lull me to sleep.
In contrast to the beautiful evening the night before, the view that greeted me out the window when I awoke was pure white. We were in the middle of a cloud. With no time to waste, I decided to head out anyway, willing the skies to clear. The kind owners had set up breakfast an hour early just for me, and I eagerly piled my plate high with generous portions of homemade bread, yogurt, muesli, and jam, washed down with a strong cup of coffee. In a hurry to complete the 14km hike in record speed and make it to the jodelfestival in Brig, I set out into the mist. An early misty morning also meant no hikers, and I had this mystical land to myself, not passing a soul until I reached Riedfurka on the other side of the glacier. I did have company in the form of pastures full of adorable (but sadly, sheared) Valais blacknose sheep who were spending their summer grazing in the mountains and watched me, heads tilted curiously and ears sticking straight out, as I passed.
Clouds in every shade of gray floated in and out of the valley, making mountains, glaciers, and trees magically appear and disappear within seconds. However, the striking red and white Swiss Mountain Trail markers never let me down, painted on everything from fences, to rocky terrain, to makeshift log bridges. The rain held out until I reached the hanging bridge, but still I slowed to admire the architecture, impervious in my Mac in a Sac rain jacket. Crossing the metal cables, I stopped halfway to absorb the breathtaking view of the glacial front and the gorges of La Massa extending in front of me. Then it was time to attack the ascent to Riederfurka up through the Aletsch forest. This protected area is full of ancient trees and Alpine wildlife and has no farms or huts, offering full immersion in the heart of nature.
At Riedfurka I saw my first glimpse of human life on the trail, the overnight hikers from Berghotel Riedfurka just setting out for the day. I greeted them as they passed, and then caught the cable car down to valley floor, ready to begin my morning.