Every year on the last Sunday in July, the cantons of Berne and Valais meet on the famed Gemmi Pass to celebrate their brotherhood by bringing their sheep together for a friendly shepherd’s festival. The Gemmi Pass, linking the Bernese Oberland with canton Valais, is steeped in history. One of the most frequented north-south mountain routes during the Middle Ages, the pass was used as a regular route for trade and transport. As time progressed, it became an important path for writers, artists and scientists exploring the Alps, many of whom can be tracked through a set of leather-bound guestbooks at the Schwarenbach Inn, located halfway across the pass, where the signatures of figures such as Jules Verne, dated 1873, or Picasso and friends in 1933, are still visible. Mark Twain’s entry is missing, but the impression left by the pass and its inn are forever captured in his book A Tramp Abroad about his European travels: The lodge sat “on a lonely spot among the peaks”, he wrote, “where it’s swept by the trailing fringes of the cloud rack and is rained on and snowed on and pelted and persecuted by the storms nearly every day of its life”. The pass is also mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes story The Final Problem.
We got an early start, taking one of the first chairlifts up from Kandersteg to Sunnbüel station to begin a leisurely three-hour hike across the Gemmi Pass toward Leukerbad. The trail was relatively empty as we set out across the Spittelmatte Plateau, with the exception of an ocassional goat ambling along the trail. A beautiful grassy meadow spread out before us, surrounded on all sides by soaring mountains. The terrain gradually became more rocky, eventually leading to a scree-covered area containing Daubensee lake. This was to be the site of the festival, and we could see a small crowd beginning to gather on the lakeshore. Before joining the celebration, we decided to take the long route around the opposite side of the lake, heading right around a narrow trail balancing on the edge of the water.
Forty-five minutes later we reached the other side, where a chairlift from Leukerbad was bringing the Valasians up to the festivities, already well under way. Paper plates of raclette and sausages were being dished out alongside plenty of wine and bread, to the tune of blaring alphorns, accordions and bagpipes, mixed with the occasional yodel. We carried our plates over to the sidelines, just as a line of white fluff appeared on the horizon. Within minutes, 1,000 sheep were racing down the slopes towards the lake, filing obediently into a roped off area to enjoy their “Glack” – a mixture of bran and salt – a special sheep delicacy that had been scattered around the holding area. A crowd slowly gathered around the herd, us among them, to admire the grazing wooly circle.
Suddenly, one of the ropes next to us came loose, creating a hole in the border of the pen. A strong-minded sheep cautiously stepped through, then realizing its freedom, began to run towards the lake and open fields. Like sheep, the rest of the flock began to follow. Chris, thinking fast, channeled his inner shepherd and ran in front of the leader, waving his arms and spreading his legs in a wide intimidating stance. The rest of the crowd watched in curious silence, waiting to see how the sheep would respond. Startled by this sudden blockade, the sheep obediently turned around and ran back towards the pen as other men jumped in to help herd them along, until all were once again safely enclosed.
With storms brewing on the horizon, it was time to begin our hike back towards Sunnebul. We were just passing the Schwarenbach Inn as the skies opened up. Ducking inside to wait out the storm, we took a seat amidst the boisterous crowd and bided our time over steaming cups of coffee and a large slice of fresh blueberry pie. As blue skies returned, we completed the rest of the hike to the cable car but decided to instead take a scenic trail down the mountain. The wooded path wound along the cliff side through the forest, a hole in the trees appearing every now and then to reveal breathtaking views steep drops down to the Gasterntal valley below. With an hour left to go, a sudden storm cloud swept in and began to pelt us with hail, forcing us to hunker down under the canopy as sections of the trail turned into muddy rivers. As soon as the hail turned to rain, we made a run for it, stepping carefully over the waterfalls in an effort to reach the bottom as quickly as possible. The rain let up as we emerged from the forest into the end of the Gasterntal valley, by the romantic Hotel Waldhaus. From Hotel Waldhaus, we followed a beautiful blue glacial river back towards Kandersteg, crossing over ancient stone bridges and through spectacular rock tunnels hewn into the mountainside. Eight hours and eighteen miles after departing from Sunnebul that morning, we finally returned to the bottom of the chairlift. The hourly bus running to Kandersteg had recently departed so, despite our aching legs, we hiked the 30 minutes back to town and rewarded ourselves with a cold beer in the classy centuries-old bar of Hotel Belle Epoque Victoria, toasting to Switzerland, who once again surprised us by turning what what supposed to be a quick morning hike into an epic all-day adventure full of culture and beautiful scenery. This country never ceases to amaze.