Swinging between mountains on the World’s longest suspension bridge

I had my weekend sights set on the newly opened World’s Longest Suspension Bridge, connecting Grächen to Zermatt on the breathetaking Europaweg. So on Friday evening I put my computer away, hoisted my pack over my shoulder, and jumped on a three-hour train to Visp. From there I climbed on a yellow post bus that drove me deep into the dark mountains, stepping off 40 minutes later in the tiny village of Grächen. After a short walk I arrived at Gruppenhaus Rosy, a simple budget lodge just outside the town center. The very charismatic Rosy, a spry older woman with short spiky brown hair and a good sense of humor, showed me to my room. It was a no-frills accommodation, but the rooms were clean, the beds were comfortable, and it was blissfully quiet except for the occasional cowbell. Downstairs, however, the dining room of the lodge was lively, filled with a boisterous group of strangers thrown together through the WeHike website who happened to be doing the same hike I was. They invited me to join them, and after a round of introductions we headed off to bed, preparing for back-to-back seven hour hiking days.fullsizeoutput_8a2bWe woke up ready to hit the trails! Breakfast was plentiful and the coffee was strong, sending us into the mountains on a happy note. After 10 minutes through the town, we arrived at the entrance to the trail. The path began in the woods and curved around through the larch trees, the air smelling of fresh pine needles, and the sun slowly rising in the sky.  After a series of switchbacks, the view opened up to the Bernese Alps. The sun greeted us over the mountain tops, painting the pines gold as we crossed a small stream and headed up a grassy slope to a lookout point. We briefly stopped for a snack of chocolate, cookies, and trail mix before continuing on our way.fullsizeoutput_8a2afullsizeoutput_8a29As we plodded along, the trail narrowed and climbed until we found ourselves on a narrow dirt ledge curving around the side of the mountain. On top of that, many parts of the trail were covered by rockfall, and a recent August snow had left some residual ice. There was usually a rope to hold while traversing these tricky areas, but more than once the trail had eroded so far that there was barely space to tiptoe on the ice around corners of rock.  While not the scariest hike I’ve ever been on, it was enough to make me hold my breath and let out a huge sigh of relief when it was over.

Finally finding a perch with no risk of falling rocks, we settled down in the sun and pulled out our lunches, an impressive spread of bread, meat, cheese, avocados, fruit, cookies and chocolate. From our ledge we gazed out at some of the 38 impressive 4000-meter peaks surrounding Zermatt and let our limbs relax for a while. Re-energized, we set out to finish the day’s hike, but it wasn’t long before we reached an expansive section of boulder fields. Generally, the trail is closed if there is any danger of an avalanche, but smaller rocks or single boulders fall regularly, and we often passed trail markers that were buried under new rocks. In the most heart-stopping moment of the trip, we watched a massive boulder fall right across the trail in front of us, blocking the path and forcing us to scramble up and over it.

Hearts pounding, we eventually reached a flat, rock-free part of the trail and wound our way around a few more curves in the mountain, crossing a rickety bridge that led us to the Europahütte, our stop for the night. A gigantic dog, easily mistaken for a black bear from the Eastern US, was waiting to greet us as we approached. The hut was a pretty wooden structure with a cozy dining room centered around a big wood fire stove, and a nice deck looking out towards Zermatt and valley below. Per hut custom, we traded our boots for foam crocs at the entrance before heading upstairs to claim a bed in one of the 6 group bedrooms upstairs. Then, utterly exhausted, we sank into the waiting deck chairs and ordered a frosty mug of beer.

IMG_3288IMG_3291fullsizeoutput_8a02IMG_3307IMG_3308fullsizeoutput_8a26fullsizeoutput_8a2cIMG_3340IMG_3338Before getting too comfortable we were recruited for a group yoga session by a talented hiker. Lying on the front deck, we stretched and twisted our sore, exhausted limbs while the dog ran among us dropping his stick into any open palm he could find. Feeling somewhat more limber than before we unfolded ourselves and headed in for dinner, taking our assigned seats at the communal tables in the dining room. But just as we sat down to eat, we were surprised by some extra guests – two long-horned ibexes were licking the rocks outside the window and posing for the cameras. After an exodus of guests to the deck, we were called back in by the hut staff so they could deliver us a meal of soup, Riz Casimir (the Swiss answer to chicken curry), and meringues with cream.IMG_3343IMG_3350

We strained to stay awake with some evening board games, but by 10pm everyone had climbed into bed, hoping, and mostly failing, to get some sleep before an early wake up call. At 7:30am the next morning everyone was back in the dining room, rubbing their eyes and helping themselves to thick slices of bread with butter and jam, instant coffee, and cereal. Out the window a mix of light snow and mist was steadily turning into rain, and the ibex had returned for breakfast. Despite the rain we were soon out the door, ready to kick off the day’s 7 hour hike to Zermatt with the highlight of the trip – the world’s longest suspension bridge, beginning just below the cabin. The bridge, a steel construction just 65cm wide, runs between 1,600m and 2,200m above sea level with views of the Matterhorn, Weisshorn and the Bernese Alps in the distance. It replaces a previous bridge that was damaged by rock fall in 2010, now enabling a direct route to Zermatt instead of down to Randa and along the valley floor. The walk across took nearly 10 minutes and though it didn’t sway much (by design), there was still enough motion to make it necessary to hold on to the sides.IMG_3362IMG_3330fullsizeoutput_8a13fullsizeoutput_8a17fullsizeoutput_8a15IMG_3404IMG_3406Safely across, the trail began another set of never-ending switchbacks. When it finally flattened out, we entered a series of long tunnels carved into the mountain and made out of what looked like massive metal drainpipes. Between the tunnels, a protective cement shelf ran along the trail above our heads, built into the mountain to shelter us from falling rocks. Somewhat disconcertingly, parts of it had been completely smashed, apparently from extra-large rocks. Luckily we made it past with no issues, and by lunchtime we were only 3 hours from Zermatt. Here, the trail sign had a handwritten note letting us know it was closed. Some of the group suggested we try it anyway, but as we debated, two older Swiss hikers approached and bluntly warned us that “if you want to live a long life, you should not take that path. If you take that path and another avalanche happens, we will not save you because you were warned”, citing an example of exactly that scenario the previous week when 8 hikers were killed.  Needless to say, we took the detour.

fullsizeoutput_8a19fullsizeoutput_8a1afullsizeoutput_8a1dIMG_3418IMG_3419IMG_3422fullsizeoutput_8a1efullsizeoutput_8a1ffullsizeoutput_8a21fullsizeoutput_8a22Hours later, after a long, steep descent through the larch forest into the town of Zermatt, we settled into the cushioned chairs of the nearest cafe, sipping on iced coffees and cold beer while we waited for the group to gather. Then we climbed on board a train and headed back to reality.

 

 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Athena Sutton says:

    Such a Beautiful trip. Thanks for sharing. Loved it.

    Like

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