The perfect trip: Switzerland
At the region’s heart is the boundlessly charming hilltop town of Gruyères and its 13th-century castle. At one end of a square that sags in the middle like an old mattress stands a chalet fronted with wooden shingles. Leave all reticence at the door, and sit down to a fondue made, fifty-fifty, with Gruyère and Vacherin, mixed with white wine and finished with a dash of Kirsch.
Aletsch Glacier: Best for ice
The biggest glacier in the Alps isn’t visible from the road that follows the headwaters of the Rhône up through the canton of Valais. Nor can it be seen from the three nearest villages – Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp – whose dark wooden chalets bask on sunny slopes high above the valley, reached only by cable car. The payoff comes after one last lift ride up to the top of the mountain ridge. On the far side is a valley engulfed with ice, which disappears from view between the crags.
It’s a sight that induces awe. Any walker who stands for a moment, silhouetted against the mountain skyline above the glacier, automatically looks heroic. Seen from the 2,333m heights of Moosfluh, over Bettmeralp, the ice snakes like the number 3. Darker lines of rocky debris – the medial moraines – track the length of the glacier, dividing the ice into lanes and giving the Aletsch the look of an unfinished motorway for ice giants.
Most visitors take in the giddy view and then turn back without ever setting foot on the glacier. For that you’re strongly advised to team up with a local guide. Martin Nellen prefers to start the walk down to the ice edge in the early morning. The path leads past a dry-stone wall, marking the boundary of a nature reservation. Two chamois, startled at this quiet time of day, bound across the trail, over the wall and into their state-protected sanctuary.
Martin demonstrates how to tie crampons under our walking boots – the metal spikes will give purchase on the ice. And to prepare for any slips, the inexperienced are joined to him by a length of rope. The edge of the glacier slopes up to the height of a two-storey house. Anybody else would be lost on its surface, which is as disordered as a sea frozen mid-storm and slightly different with each new dawn. ‘Ten days ago it was impossible to walk just here, but now it’s a highway,’ Martin points out.
Aside from the crunch of crampons on ice, the only sound is meltwater running over the glacier surface in a perfect zigzag stream. Crossing a medial moraine, we reach a pothole in the ice with a stream plunging into it. A stone thrown in gives a booming echo. At another stream, we stop to have ‘glacier milk’ – a cupful of meltwater clouded with a dash of absinthe.
‘Remember that we are moving slowly even when we’re standing still,’ says Martin. ‘The glacier travels about 30cm a day on average. Only in higher regions does snowfall turn to ice. Take a metre of powder snow, then melt and freeze, melt and freeze, and after eight to 10 years you have a centimetre of ice. When you see the ice at the end of the glacier, you are looking at snow that fell up to 800 years ago.’
Glaciers in most parts of the world are shrinking and the Aletsch is no exception. In our lifetimes, it is likely to shrink to the size it was in the Roman era. But even in its present majesty, it is only a fraction of the length it reached at the height of the last ice age, around 20,000 years ago, when the whole of the Rhône Valley as far as Lake Geneva was one long glacier. In the early 21st century, it’s a privilege to meet the greatest descendant of the icefields that made Switzerland what it is today.