02 October 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 26, from Vevey to Lausanne

Time: 4 hours 45 minutes
Grading: T1
Height gain: 460 metres
Height loss: 470 metres

Vevey – St. Saphorin – Rivaz – Epesses – Cully – Lutry - Lausanne

Stretching out along a sunny, south-facing hillside between Montreux and Lausanne, the Lavaux vineyards have been classified as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2007. My Alpine Panorama Trail guidebook modestly describes them as “the world’s most beautiful vineyards”. Whether or not this is strictly true is open to discussion, but they would certainly be up there in any world vineyard beauty contest. And thankfully, after several rather unsatisfactory stages, this stroll (to use the word hike would be a big exaggeration) is absolutely superb, despite the constantly hard surfaces underfoot.

After another unseasonably warm and sunny week, the passage from September to October seems to have sparked a change in the weather. On Saturday 1st, a hot and sunny morning gradually slides into a rainy late afternoon and evening, with temperatures dropping fast. Sunday dawns grey and cool, but the forecast assures me that in the Lake Geneva area at least, the weather will improve as the day progresses, and that the afternoon should be sunny if not particularly warm. I allow myself a couple of extra hours in bed compared to the previous weekend – no point in setting out too early if the good weather is only coming later – and consequently do not get to Vevey to pick up the trail until 11:30.

I don’t know if Vevey has an attractive old town hidden away somewhere, but everything I have seen of the town is unremittingly ugly. I escape from it as quickly as possible, climbing up a steep, sunken lane which soon brings me to the more attractive village of Corseaux. Here I see the first signs of what will be the day’s main theme: several of the village’s old stone houses are decorated with wine-related motifs, and I see my first vines as soon as I leave the village behind.

This is what today's walk is all about...
 One of my hiking guidebooks warns against doing this walk in October, saying that the paths through the vineyards may be closed while grape harvesting is in progress. I am pleased to see that this is not the case today: as the narrow, concrete-surfaced lane leads me up between lines of vines from which hang bunches of not yet harvested yellowish-green grapes, I pass plenty of people coming the other way: joggers, couples walking dogs or just families out for a stroll. There is as yet little sign that the day will turn sunny: although there are patches of blue here and there, the sky is predominantly cloudy and the surface of the lake down below is the colour of steel. Parallel lines of green vines lead the eye towards the water and away southwards, where the mountains bounding the Rhône valley are fighting a battle to emerge from the clouds, a battle which they will never quite manage to win. Here and there, shafts of sunlight have broken through and are casting spotlight patterns on the lake’s surface. Higher up the hillside, the noise of cars on the motorway is initially quite obtrusive, but then fades to nothing as the road disappears into a tunnel or a cutting.

Vines above St. Saphorin

St. Saphorin
Most of today’s walk follows the narrow, concrete-surfaced roads that run through the vineyards, generally keeping to a fairly constant altitude. Gradually I climb up to the modest altitude of 500 metres: it’s the day’s highest point, which must make this the least mountainous stage so far on the Alpine Panorama Trail… although I suspect that the record will be beaten before I reach Geneva. Now I drop down steeply to the ancient and very pretty village of St. Saphorin, its stone church tower set above the lake giving the place an almost Mediterranean feel. Just above the village I sit on a bench to eat my sandwiches, looking south-eastwards beyond the end of the lake towards the distant Valais. Opposite me, the mountains on the southern bank of the lake – Grammont, Dent d’Oche and Cornettes de Bise – are still hidden under a layer of very black cloud.

Shafts of sunlight over Lake Geneva
I continue westwards across the steep hillside towards Rivaz, another pretty village in whose centre every house seems to be devoted to the wine industry. It’s Sunday and the cellars are all closed, but this would be a lovely route to do on another day as a wine-tasting walk… with plenty of scope for ending the day in a pleasant fuzz of drunkenness, such is the number of places offering dégustation et vente. 

Leaving Rivaz, I leave the wine of St. Saphorin behind and enter the Dézaley vineyards, among the most renowned of this wine-growing area. The hillside is steeper than ever here; the vines plunge down in a series of steep terraces, on some of which there is only room for two or three rows of plants. Tiny cogwheel railways snake up the steep slopes, just big enough to carry a few crates of grapes and the tools necessary to tend the vines. Up above on the hillside, the name of the vineyard has been spelled out in big while letters, just like in Hollywood… except that in Hollywood the letters do not say DEZALEY.

The steep terraces of the Dézaley vineyards
As I approach the next village of Epesses, the landscape begins to change. The slope of the hillside becomes somewhat less steep and, ahead of me, the lake widens out. The sky is clearing rapidly and everything suddenly looks very green as the sun bathes the villages and towns to the west. Behind me the view has changed as well, with the Rhône valley no longer visible, hidden by a shoulder of the mountains on the far side of the lake. Epesses is larger than the other villages through which I have walked, and there are quite a lot of tourists here, looking in the windows of the mostly closed wine cellars. One place has a sign saying that it is open on Sundays: it would be a nice idea to get a couple of bottles of local wine, I say to myself. But on closer investigation, it turns out that the cellar is only open from 17:00 to 21:00, hardly practical for catching the passing Sunday afternoon trade!

Looking westwards... still a long way to Geneva!
The next hour’s walking is less interesting. The path drops down to a lower level, where it is much closer to the main road and the railway line, and to the noise that these generate. I skirt round the outskirts of Cully, through an increasingly built-up environment: this is the start of Lausanne’s suburbs. Villette is the last of the little stone-built wine villages that the route runs through: at the far end of the village, yellow footpath signposts direct me downhill and onto the main lakeside road. It looks like it is going to be another uninspiring end to the day’s walk, and I wonder why the route did not stay higher up, continuing through the vineyards as far as Lutry. But after a few hundred metres’ road walking, I discover the reason, as a well-hidden footpath branches off to the left between two houses (the turning would be very easy to miss) and heads right down to the water’s edge.

Gradually the weather clears
And so, for its last hour or so, my vineyard stroll becomes a lakeside stroll. A narrow path picks its way round the back of big houses, skirts round little private docks, sometimes sneaking underneath footbridges that link expensive-looking properties to private lakeside gardens. There is a stiff breeze blowing from the west, and some quite sizeable waves have formed on the lake: on two or three occasions, I am very close to getting a free shower as spray shoots up. In places, there are little beaches where kite-surfers are making the most of the wind. I like the fact that this path is allowed to exist at all: along so much of Lake Geneva, the shore is inaccessible, reachable only by those with enough millions in the bank to own a lakeside property.

The path eventually brings me to the village-suburb of Lutry, with its busy marina, restaurants and lakeside park. Despite the wind and despite the fact that it is October, there are people swimming in the lake here, and others indulging in summer activities such as beach volleyball and consuming large ice-creams… maybe this is the last day of the season when such things will be possible, and everyone is making the most of the opportunity. The view south-westwards down the lake from here is stunning, the sky is a wonderfully wild mixture of blue sky over the Swiss bank of the lake and still-menacing clouds on the French side.

The lake seen from Lutry
Beyond Lutry, the path continues along the shore but becomes much more crowded with people out for Sunday afternoon walks. As I stop to take a photo, a man catches me up and insists on making conversation. He tells me that I should make the most of the scenery because in a few years, the shore of the lake will be built up like Hong Kong. His rant goes on and on: I try walking very fast, then very slow, but he proves impossible to shake off. Eventually I tell him: “I’m stopping now to take some pictures, goodbye”, which fortunately works. Soon afterwards I reach Lausanne’s lakeside district of Ouchy with its tree-lined quays, its castle and its Olympic museum. Five hours of walking on hard surfaces have left me with rather sore feet, but it has been a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Between Lutry and Lausanne, looking back eastwards

Looking west from Lausanne-Ouchy

25 September 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 25, from Les Paccots to Vevey

Time: 4.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 500 metres
Height loss: 1220 metres

Les Paccots – Lally – Blonay – St. Légier - Vevey

I really had to get this one out of the way. With a painfully long journey to the starting point of the walk and what I suspect will be quite an urban environment, I have been putting this stage off for weeks now, and was in danger of staying blocked in Les Paccots until the end of time and never finishing the Alpine Panorama Trail at all. So I force myself out of bed at six, walk to the station in the dark and, three and a bit hours later, am standing at the terminus of the bus route in Les Paccots, ready to set off on this short day's walk.

The morning is warm as I set off, and the afternoon promises to be hot: it may be late September, but summer is hanging on strongly. A woodland path takes me gently uphill, never far from civilisation, with holiday chalets half visible through the trees from time to time. This is, after all, a fair-sized ski resort in winter. Leaving the forest, I make the small detour up to the Lac des Joncs, the highest point reached during today's walk at 1235 metres. The lake is a nature reserve but is disappointingly small, no more than an oversized duck pond really, and with no mountain backdrops to enhance the view.

The underwhelming Lac des Joncs
I head south, dropping downhill across pastures where the tinkling of cowbells is a constant accompaniment. The ground is surprisingly muddy underfoot, considering that it doesn't seem to have rained for months. Now the path steepens, slithering down through the forest, the cowbells gradually giving way to the noise of rushing water. I reach the valley bottom, where a footbridge takes me across the Veveyse de Fégire: this is probably the last proper mountain river that I will cross on my long east to west walk. In crossing the footbridge, I also leave the canton of Fribourg across which I have been walking for the last four or five stages. On the far bank I enter the territory of Vaud, last but one of the Swiss cantons crossed by the route.

A short but fairly steep climb takes me up and out of the valley: this is the only real bit of uphill walking on a day where the trend is very much downward. Now comes a longish stretch of hard-surfaced country lane: very much a taste of things to come, I suspect, as I leave the mountains behind. By the side of the road, fluttering pennants bearing the name of a local bank suggest that some kind of race – either running or bike - has either just passed by here, or will be passing by in the near future. Looking back towards the north-east, I get a last view of the Fribourg Pre-Alps beyond a foreground of green fields. Ahead, there are no more mountains, just a landscape of undulating grass and forest.

Receding into the distance, the last of the Fribourg mountains
Beyond the restaurant at Les Mossettes, I follow a path that branches off southwards, climbing gently uphill before emerging from the forest at Les Tenasses, at an altitude of 1221 metres. From here, the path crosses a surprisingly large expanse of marshland. A boardwalk has been laid to facilitate the crossing of what must be a very damp and boggy piece of ground, between swathes of long grass which are just beginning to take on the colours of autumn. At the southern end of the marsh, I reach the village of Lally, where I discover the reason for the flags seen earlier at the roadside. Here is the starting and finishing line of a cycle race, with its crowds of people, food and drink stalls and enthusiastic tannoy announcements.

Everything changes at Lally. In the space of five hundred metres, I leave behind the Alpine pastures and enter the Swiss Riviera, high up above a still-unseen Lake Geneva. There are families and couples out walking, posh cars, big houses… I feel like I have suddenly stumbled out of the hills and arrived at an upmarket holiday destination. To the south and south-east, new mountains appear, half-remembered from what seems like a past life. There is the broad summit of the Rochers de Naye and its pointed neighbour the Dent de Jaman; such an obvious landmark when one drives south from Lausanne to the Valais. Further away are the twin camel humps of the Dents de Morcles. Further still in the distance, away beyond the Rhône valley, must be the wonderful, emblematic Dents du Midi… but sadly they are invisible today, lost in a murk of heat-haze and clouds. 

I drop down steeply now, down a succession of woodside paths – often with numerous steps - and narrow lanes. A teenage boy comes the other way, pushing a mountain bike. He asks me if this is the way to Les Pléiades, a little hill perched up above Lally. Indeed it is the way… but thinking of all the steps I have just walked down, I suspect that the boy is going to be doing more pushing than riding during the next hour or so! As I descend, at first there is still a semblance of country landscape to the route, although the steep, south-facing slopes are dotted with more cosy chalets than old barns, and there are as many artfully wild gardens as properly wild fields.

And then suddenly, just below the hamlet of Le Signal, there it is: Lake Geneva, stretching away in all its immensity like a great sea; its far end completely lost in the haze, its French south bank backed by the towering peaks of the Chablais. This is what I have been walking towards for the last year and a half, ever since I set out from the banks of Lake Constance. It is, undoubtedly, one of the great "oooh" moments of the Alpine Panorama Trail, and the beauty of the vista is enough to distract attention from the high-voltage power lines in the foreground.

As I reach the modern village-cum-suburb of Blonay, any remaining trace of countryside disappears. I follow quiet residential streets down to the station, where a small crowd has gathered to watch an old steam engine that has just arrived, pulling three or four antique coaches behind it. The driver is hoisting small children up onto the footplate, giving them a sense of what proper trains are like.

Common sense dictates that the remaining hour and a half of the walk will be exclusively urban, and that I would do best to take the train down to Vevey. But it's still early and I stubbornly want to walk all the way, fool that I am. From Blonay to the village of St-Légier, the path runs alongside the railway. Two small, very blond children are engaged in an animated argument of the: "It's not my fault, you said it first" type, while their mother attempts unsuccessfully to mediate. All three are speaking English, with the broadest Yorkshire accents one could imagine: completely incongruous among all these posh Swiss villas and palm trees.

Beyond St-Légier, the final part of the walk must surely be the ugliest of the whole Alpine Panorama Trail, if not of any of Switzerland's long distance paths. For an hour, I come into close contact with motorway flyovers, underpasses and industrial estates, and the waymarked hiking route follows busy main roads. There is a brief moment of respite as the path drops down into a deeply cut valley below an elegant steel bridge, but before long it emerges into the middle of another business park. A year and a half ago I complained about the road walking between Appenzell and Gontenbad: this is far worse, and I would strongly recommend anyone else doing the route to use the train between St-Légier and Vevey. Just before I reach Vevey itself, I get a brief foretaste of the hopefully much more scenic way ahead, as I walk alongside the first vineyards that I have seen: the next stage, from Vevey to Lausanne, will cross the Unesco-heritage Lavaux region with its steep terraces of vines.

The first vineyards, above Vevey
I take the train from Vevey to Lausanne, where I just manage to make the connection to Lucerne. The train is unusually crowded: almost the entire upper deck of the carriage in which I am sitting is occupied by a large group who are apparently on a company outing. There must be fifty of them, and they are having fun. The organiser of the excursion has booked a couple of professional entertainers, who are keeping up the festive atmosphere with a series of magic tricks and stunts that involve a lot of audience participation, including the ringing of miniature cowbells, a tennis tournament and an archery competition based on the throwing of toilet plungers against a plastic target. Considering the confined space of this crowded train, they are making a rather good job of it too. When the group gets off the train in Bern, they leave behind a carriage whose floor is coated in confetti and balloons, like the aftermath of a carnival. It is enough to restore me to good humour after a walk that was, as expected, unmemorable.
My initial thought on reaching the big lake was that I had had enough and couldn't be bothered with the remaining four or five days' walking to Geneva but, with today's problem stage finally behind me, I suddenly feel more motivated to complete the route.

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27 August 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 24, from Gruyères to Les Paccots

Time: 5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 975 metres
Height loss: 620 metres

Gruyères – Plan Francey – Les Paccots

It is really time that I returned to my cross-country walk, having neglected it completely since the second half of June. Since then I have done some interesting hikes around Lucerne and have spent two weeks crossing the central Pyrenees from west to east, and my motivation for the Alpine Panorama Trail has plummeted. The fact that I have to get to Gruyères to pick up the trail again doesn't help: it's a real pig of a place to get to from central Switzerland. Whichever way you do it takes three hours, of which at least 45 minutes is spent waiting for connections: you can get from Basel to Paris in the time it takes to get from Lucerne to Gruyères.

I need an early start, not only because of the journey to get to the starting point of the walk, but also because the day looks like being particularly warm: in fact it will turn out to be the hottest day of the summer. I force myself out of bed at six in the morning: it isn't even light yet, a sure sign that summer is about to slip into autumn. At seven I am on the train, heading towards Fribourg. The sun is just rising and throws long shadows across the landscape, illuminating the morning mist that has steeled in the hollows. After the mandatory 35-minute wait at Fribourg another train takes me to Bulle, then another to Gruyères, where I finally arrive at five past ten. It's already very warm indeed as I start to walk: I will definitely need my two litres of water today.

Somehow I miss a signpost right at the start, and end up walking on the road through the straggling village of Pringy, at the foot of the hill where the old centre of Gruyères huddles below its castle. Soon though I come across one of the familiar signs indicating the direction of national trail No. 3, and am back on track. The path climbs steeply up above the road, taking quite a while to finally break free of residential development and continue across the pastureland above. It is incredibly hot – I don't remember ever experiencing this kind of heat in the Swiss mountains before - and I take the climb really slowly. There is no air at all, it's a bit like opening the oven door and breathing in the blast of heat that comes out of it. There is very little shade, and I seek out every clump of trees as an opportunity to cool down a bit and drink.

Climbing up above Gruyères and looking back eastwards
Gradually, the view eastwards opens out, offering a wide panorama of the Fribourg Pre-Alps. The twin peaks of the Dent de Broc and the Dent du Chamois dominate the foreground, sticking up just above Gruyères and its castle. Further away, there is the Dent de Brenleire and its Matterhorn-imitating neighbour the Dent de Folliéran. Ahead of me is the great, rocky hulk of the Moléson: my walk will take me up to the base of its cliffs. Unfortunately, for pretty much the whole of today's stage the best views are behind me.

Heading towards Le Moléson
I come to a gate, on which is a sign indicating La Chenaudaz, 1256 m (marked as La Tsenôda on the map). I am surprised by the progress that I have made: I have been going for an hour and a quarter and have already climbed 500 metres since the start. My two weeks in the Pyrenees must have done wonders for my physical fitness! I stop here for a rest and a drink, saying hello to several walkers who pass me going downhill… I do not see any other idiots going uphill.

Above 1300 metres, there is a faint breeze and the air becomes slightly more breathable. The going remains extremely hot and sweaty though, as I continue less steeply uphill, passing a number of typical Gruyère-style farmhouses where, no doubt, the production of cheese is in full swing. As I get closer to Plan Francey (1517 m, the day's highest point), the rocky north face of the Moléson becomes ever more imposing, a massive wall of grey stone that is visible for miles around. Funnily enough though, this great bastion of a mountain is the final outlier of the Swiss Alps on the north side of Lake Geneva: beyond here are only gentle wooded hills and vineyard-covered slopes.

Le Moléson is the last outpost of the Swiss Alps on this side of Lake Geneva
I reach Plan-Francey at 12:35 after two and a half hours' walking: despite the heat, I have completed the day's uphill work in a shorter time than that indicated at the start of the walk. Now I need to find a nice spot for lunch, and it absolutely has to be in the shade. I do not linger at Plan-Francey with its cable car station, busy restaurant and multitude of paths in all directions, but continue westwards, dropping steeply down below the Moléson's north face. Above me, I can hear the shouts of invisible climbers who are no doubt having fun on one of the mountain's two via ferrets. 

Lots of signposts and paths at Plan-Francey

The north face of Le Moléson, 2002 m
After about a quarter of an hour, just past the chalet of Petit Plané (1478 m), I find what I am looking for. Just to the right of the path is a gentle, grassy slope at the edge of a little thicket of trees, offering just the right amount of shade. For lunch, I have made a salad of pasta, ham and tomatoes, with cheese to accompany it. I realise that I have brought along a big hunk of Appenzeller cheese, which is very politically incorrect: whether it is strictly allowed to eat Appenzeller cheese on the slopes of the Moléson is very debatable… just nobody tell all the local Gruyère producers that I did it! I complete my lunch break with a half-hour siesta, during which I have to move several times as my patch of shade changes position. I still manage to doze off though, and would have happily stayed there longer were it not for the fact that I still have two hours' walking to do, and my bus from Les Paccots leaves in just over two hours.

I set off again, following an almost level farm track that traverses below the Moléson's cliffs. The whole of today's stage is on easy farm tracks, making it one of the technically easiest stages of the whole Alpine Panorama Trail. At the isolated chalet of Gros Plané (1476 m), a baby pokes its head out from under a parasol and offers me a big smile. I drop down into a little valley where, once again, the heat becomes intense. Ahead and to me left is the rocky summit of Teysachaux (1909 m), the Moléson's western outlier which I climbed four or five years ago, the last time I was in this area.

Beyond the chalet of Le Villard-Dessous (1429 m), the rough farm track becomes a road: the remaining hour and a half of today's walk will unfortunately all be on hard-surfaced roads. A short climb brings me to the saddle of Villard-Dessus (1459): here, as is the case on many occasions along the Alpine Panorama Trail, a whole new range of mountains suddenly appears for the first time. The difference this time though is that these mountains are French, and are on the far side of Lake Geneva. Away to the west, a small piece of the lake itself is briefly visible. These mountains and the lake are the clearest sign yet that I am approaching the end of my crossing of Switzerland, although Geneva itself is still a few days' walk away. 

The distant mountains that appear at Le Villard-Dessus are on the French side of Lake Geneva
Teysachaux seen from La Pudze
Hotter and hotter, the road drops down below the slopes of Teysachaux towards the valley. At a bend in the road, the sound of water being pumped is coming from underground. An information panel explains that the hydraulic pump is a model that was invented by one of the Montgolfier brothers in 1790: the brothers are better known as the inventor of the hot-air balloon. The pump is used to convey water from a spring located at an altitude of 1340 metres to farmhouses two hundred metres higher up the mountainside, using no energy other than that produced by the pressure of the water itself… a very ingenious system!

At La Pudze (1208 m), the lowest of the chalets served by this water distribution system, a signpost clearly indicates that I should turn left past the farmhouse. There is no sign of any path though, just a field of weeds running away to the edge of the forest. The family sitting outside the farmhouse shows no sign of offering to show me the way, so I carry on along the road. Another 45 minutes or so of hot road walking brings me to the terminus of the bus route at Les Rosalys, at the eastern end of the little ski resort of Les Paccots. The bus does not leave for another half an hour but there does not seems to be anywhere in the immediate vicinity to get a beer: there is also no bench to sit on, so I just sit on the pavement until the bus arrives, at least it's in the shade.

Despite the imposing cliffs of the Moléson seen close at hand, this has been one of the less interesting stages of the Alpine Panorama Trail. The intense heat has not helped, nor have the harsh light and the heat haze which would challenge even a good photographer, never mind an amateur like me. Having got this far, I must of course finish the walk, even if my motivation level is not particularly high. Beyond Les Paccots I will leave the mountains behind; the remaining five stages will offer a very different kind of scenery, which in itself should be a good thing. I'm going to wait for the temperature to drop a bit though.

17 July 2016

Two cable cars and a perfect mountain lake: from Chilcherberge to Unterschächen over the Seewligrat

Time: 5 hours 45 minutes
Grading: T2+
Height gain: 1300 metres
Height loss: 900 metres

Chilcherberge – Seewli – Seewligrat – Sittlisalp - Unterschächen 

Right in the heart of central Switzerland, Canton Uri is known not only for its mountain scenery, but also for the numerous little cable cars that transport hikers up from the deep, shady valley bottoms to the sunny hillsides above. This full day’s walk links two of those cable cars, passing a superb mountain lake along the way.

Last week brought a sudden and unexpected cold snap, with snow falling as low down as 2,000 metres, quite unusual for mid-July. Temperatures started to rise again on Saturday and a hot, sunny Sunday is forecast. An early start seems like a good idea to make the most of the morning freshness, and so I am at the station shortly after 7 in the morning, catching a train to Erstfeld followed by a short hop on a packed bus to Silenen. To my surprise, I am the only person to get off there, and it is through deserted village streets and past closed restaurants that I make my way slowly up to the bottom station of the Chilcherberge cable car. I ask the cable car operator if I am likely to encounter snow on the way over to Unterschächen. Probably yes, he says: on the north side of the Seewligrat ridge there will be snow, but the slopes are not dangerous and I will be able to have a bit of fun sliding down and trying to stay on my feet. It sounds promisingly adventurous…

This cable car is an adventure in itself. Capable of transporting just four people at a time, it is little more than a glorified chairlift. It has a roof, but the sides are completely open, with just a low partition to prevent the occupants from falling out. It’s a steep ride up, climbing 600 metres in a little over five minutes, high up above the trees… either a good head for heights or closed eyes are an absolute requirement!

The Silenen - Chilcherberge cable car... not for the faint-hearted...
The cable car brings me to Chilcherberge, 1155 m, just two or three isolated chalets on a steep Alpine pasture. At 8:45 in the morning, these west-facing slopes are still completely in the shade, as the sun has not yet risen above the mountains that tower above the valley. This shade will give me an agreeably cool start to the walk, no bad thing since the first two hours will be steeply uphill. To the south, the most prominent feature of the view is the Bristen, its pyramid glistening as the morning sun catches the fresh snow that has fallen on it during the last two or three days.

The Bristen, seen from above Chilcherberge
A steep, winding path takes me uphill away from the cable car station, first across mountain pastures, then zigzagging up through dense forest. The gradient is regular, and I gain altitude surprisingly quickly. Although this is a popular hiking area, the fact that the cable car only drops off four people every six minutes means that there is never any sense of there being a lot of other walkers on the path, just occasional couples and solo hikers here and there. The path leads me up to the base of a rocky tower (1789 m), where a signpost points off to the Hexensteig via ferrata… definitely not for me. By the side of the path, a jug has been placed on the ground in such a way as to catch spring water gushing out from the rocks, a nice gesture for the tired, thirsty walker. The path winds its way up to the base of a huge, overhanging cliff, which it avoids to the left before emerging into the sunlight and onto more gentle slopes of grass, where I stop to munch a cereal bar and to drink. I am pleased with the progress I have made: 800 metres of height gain in less than two hours is not bad going at all.

At an altitude of about 2,000 metres, the path levels out and heads into a side valley, leaving behind the main Reuss valley that heads up towards the St. Gotthard pass. The Bristen disappears from view and, ahead, a fascinating collection of new mountains appears; black, jagged towers of rock dusted with fresh snow. The path now and runs horizontally eastwards, with a substantial, near vertical drop to the left: not in any way difficult but slightly airy, you would definitely not want to go over the edge here. I cross a rushing stream just below a beautiful waterfall that comes splashing over a rocky shelf, sending multiple shimmering strands of water down into the pool at its base.

Waterfall just below the Seewli
A few minutes after passing the waterfall, and about two and a half hours after leaving the cable car, I reach the mountain lake of Seewli (a not very original name given that it simply means “little lake”). It is in fact a fairly substantial body of water – maybe 300 metres long and 10 wide - and is absolutely magnificent, running away north-eastwards towards the snowy point of the Schwarz Stöckli and bounded on its eastern side by the high, black walls of the Gross Windgällen. The lake itself is a turquoise green mirror in which the surrounding mountains are reflected. A few fishermen dot the shore while, here and there, small groups of walkers lie on the grassy slopes above the water, eating lunch or just enjoying the sun. The setting is absolutely perfect, and the tranquillity is total. I find a nice spot in the grass, looking eastwards towards the U-shaped pass between the Schwarz Stöckli and the Gross Windgällen, and eat my sandwiches while studying my onward route. I can see the path making its way diagonally up the grassy slopes below the Seewligrat ridge; it looks like there are still some significant patches of snow up there, and I wonder what I will encounter on the more shady, northern side of the ridge. In the meantime though, I lay back and enjoy a half-hour siesta, eyes closed, disturbed only by the buzzing of insects as they land on the numerous Alpine flowers that are growing all around.

I set off again at about a quarter to one: it was an early lunch, but I had breakfast at six in the morning and the location was too good to pass by. It’s a 200-metre climb up to the crest of the Seewligrat, and in my post-lunch state of lethargy it proves to be a bit of a slog. The path is steep and eroded, made slippery by the water running off the fast-melting snow. Higher up there is some snow on the path itself, especially in the gullies created by erosion, where it has accumulated and is melting more slowly. I pass a couple coming down from the ridge, and ask them what conditions are like on the other side. No problem at all, the man replies to me in heavily English-accented German, there is no more snow than on this side. We exchange a few words about where we are going and how long it will take to get there.

The Seewli seen from the path up to the Seewligrat ridge
It takes me about 40 minutes from the lakeside to the crest of the Seewligrat ridge, the highest point of the day (and the highest I have reached so far this year) at 2244 metres. Behind me, the Seewli has retreated to a turquoise heart-shaped blot in the distance, below the huge black walls of the Windgällen. In front of me is the Griesstal valley into which I must now descend, backed by the long, flat-topped Hoch Fulen. It’s a wild landscape with a real “mountain” feel to it despite the modest altitude, a wildness no doubt reinforced by the presence of snow.

A wild landscape at the Seewligrat, highest point of the walk
The slopes on the northern side of the pass are less steep than those up which I have just come. There is quite a lot of snow on the ground in places, but the path is completely clear: in fact, it is operating temporarily as a stream, draining the melting snow off towards the valley. The sun is directly behind me and is casting a very dark shadow against the snowy surroundings, preventing me from really seeing on what kind of potentially treacherous ground I might be stepping. I descend slowly and carefully, not wanting to risk a twisted ankle. I reach the valley bottom at the isolated Alpine farm of Vorder Griesstal, 1906 m. Just before the farm buildings, I have to pass through a large herd of cows which includes a surprising number of small calves. Not wanting to come between any over-protective mothers and their young, I give the herd a wide berth.

The Griesstal is a truly wild valley, running upwards from east to west towards the bleak, rocky Stich pass. Eastwards, beyond the farm's outbuildings, a huge wall of black, snow-dusted rock thrusts itself up towards the blue sky: this is the 3137-metre Gross Ruchen, a really imposing block of stone. I briefly follow a dusty farm access track, before a grassy path strikes off to the left, contouring ever higher above the valley as it drops away to the east. 

Vorder Griesstal
Now I reach the end of the Griesstal, and the path turns north into the Brunnital valley, which runs down towards the village of Unterschächen, the destination of my day's walk. Maintaining a fairly constant altitude of around 1650 metres, the path clings to the steep mountainside, crossing a series of gullies where erosion and small landslides have eaten into the available width for walking. A minimum of care is needed here. Behind me, southwards, the Brunnital is abruptly closed by one of the most impressive amphitheatres of rock I can remember seeing, plunging more than 1500 vertical metres down from the summits high above to the valley bottom below, across cliffs, rocky terraces, bands of snow and slopes of scree. I had no idea that there was anything like this just an hour's drive from home. Somewhere high above, the ominous sound of falling stones makes me glad of the deep valley in between the wall of rock and my viewpoint. I pass through another large herd of cows; these ones do not seem particularly pleased by my presence on their grass, and there is a fair bit of mooing and posturing as I walk past them.

The imposing headwall of the Brunnital
The path brings me to the first chalets of Sittlisalp, a series of Alpine hamlets strung out along a flat terrace high above the valley bottom. A junction of paths at 1650 metres gives me a choice of routes for the remainder of my walk: either I can walk down to Brunni then follow the valley bottom north to Unterschächen, or I can stay at my present altitude for another half an hour and descend to the valley by means of another one of those little cable cars. A sign advertising a mountain restaurant at the top station of the cable car helps to sway me: I go for the second option, although it's hard to say if the choice is motivated by a quest for altitude or for beer. The path becomes a broad farm track which links the hamlets, passing a mixture of farm and holiday chalets along the way. I see more people now, and find myself following a group composed of children and five brown goats who seem to have decided to escort them to the cable car station.

I reach the cable car at half past three and enjoy a large glass of beer in the shade, while the owner of the café, a friend and two young children play Scrabble or something similar at the next table. The cable car comes and goes, the goats come and go, all of this against the phenomenal backdrop of the Brunnital's headwall. I finish my beer and take the cable car down into the valley: a vertiginous 500-metre drop, almost vertical and with no intermediate pylons. The cable car is more refined than this morning's, with a proper cabin, but it still only transports four people at a time. Inside the top station, photos show that until the turn of the century, it was operated by the same kind of open cars as the Chilcherberge cableway… now that must have been a real experience!

Looking down from the top of the Sittlisalp cable car... now that is steep!
My transport arrives...
From the bottom station, it's a 20-minute walk down the valley road to Unterschächen. The river that runs down the valley is a magnificent, foaming torrent that jumps around and over rocks, while people sunbathe on the grassy banks and paddle in the shallows. Last time I was in Unterschächen, almost exactly six years ago, it was a miserable grey, foggy and wet day, and I got chased by a cow. Today the valley is green, the sky is a perfect blue and the village feels friendly and appealing, an altogether different place. 

It has been one of the best days in the mountains for a while, and a hike that really had everything one could wish for. For anybody looking for a strenuous day's walking in central Switzerland with proper mountain scenery but no serious technical difficulties, this route would be hard to beat.

03 July 2016

A day on the Stanserhorn

Time: 6.5 hours
Grading: T2
Height gain: 860 metres
Height loss: 1500 metres

Wirzweli – Ächerli – Stanserhorn - Stans

Once again the weekend has refused me the two successive days of good weather I need to continue my Alpine Panorama Trail walk, with yet another wet washout of a Saturday. Sunday looks like it will be ideal for hiking though, with early cloud clearing to a sunny afternoon. I decide on a local hike and a late start to make the most of the good weather. Although the Stanserhorn is one of the Lucerne area's classics, I had not yet walked up it during the four and a half years since I moved to the area. This first weekend in July provides me with a good opportunity to fill the gap.

It doesn't take long to get to the starting point of the walk in the little mountain resort of Wirzweli, no more than a cluster of holiday chalets and restaurants on a sunny plateau at an altitude of 1200 metres, reached by cable car from Dallenwil. I start walking just before eleven; the sun has already burned off most of the cloud, although the summit of the Stanserhorn itself is still just about hidden under a blanket of cumulus. Also invisible in the cloud is the Arvigrat, my destination last time I was in these parts back in November.

The Stanserhorn seen from Wirzweli, not yet totally free of cloud
For the first half an hour of the walk, I follow the same route as on that beautiful autumn day, before branching off northwards to follow a succession of farm lanes until I reach the broad saddle of Ächerli, 1396 m, between the Arvigrat and the Stanserhorn. Following the ridge northwards and gently uphill, I soon come to a whitewashed chapel at Ober Holzwang, almost completely hidden in the trees above a precipice that plunges down to the valley above Kerns, to the west. Beyond the valley, the Pilatus has managed to attract most of the cloud that is still hanging over central Switzerland, its rocky summit completely hidden. To the east, beyond meadows that are full of colourful alpine flowers, the snowy tops of the mountains above the Engelberg valley have broken free of their cloudy blanket.

The mountains of the Engelbert valley, seen from just above Ächerli
The path passes through a small wooded area, then runs horizontally across the flanks of a grassy bowl, above green slopes that descend steeply eastwards towards the alpine hamlet of Wiesenberg. A short climb brings me to the point marked on the map as Huserli, where a small, isolated chalet stands atop a grassy spur that runs down from the Chli Horn. Although I have only been walking for 90 minutes, it is already half past twelve and the spot is ideal for lunch. It is no surprise that I am not alone in deciding to stop here: the Stanserhorn is a popular mountain, and I share my lunch spot with maybe twenty other walkers, in small groups of two or three. The south-eastward view towards the Walenstöcke and the distant Titlis is magnificent.

Between Holzwang and Huserli, the path contours above steep, grassy slopes
Alpine flowers at Huserli
Above Huserli, the more serious part of the day's climb begins. The 300 metres from here up to the summit are steep; first of all up the southern edge of the Chrinnen ravine, then in ever-steeper zigzags across the southern face of the Stanserhorn itself. Towards the top of the climb, the path runs above steep cliffs and is secured with fixed cables and handrails; it is not unlike the track that goes up the Grosser Mythen. Just below the summit, a long flight of metal stairs provides an efficient if not very aesthetic route up the final steep section.

The final steep, narrow section of the path is well secured with fixed cables
I reach the 1897-metre summit of the Stanserhorn shortly before two o'clock, after about two and a half hours' walking. The viewing platform at the mountain's highest point is crowded, mostly with tourists who have come up from Stans by cable car to admire the extensive view which takes in a significant part of Lake Lucerne. I have yet to discover a point from which the entire lake is visible, but the Stanserhorn makes a reasonable attempt at showing at least the northern end of the lake in its entirety.

Looking north over Lake Lucerne from the summit
The Titlis seen from the summit of the Stanserhorn
My guidebook describes the northern route down to Stans as uninteresting and recommends the use of the cable car, but I decide to walk down. One of the main purposes of today's hike is to start to build up a semblance of physical fitness: in a normal year, I would be in top form by now, but the spring weather simply has not given me the opportunity. With less than a month to go before a strenuous two-week hiking holiday in the Pyrenees, I badly need to get some walking under my belt.

As it turns out, the 1,500 metres of descent to Stans are, for the most part, interesting and scenic. By the packed terrace of the restaurant below the summit, a signpost indicates that it will take me three and a half hours to walk down; this is somewhat overestimated, and I complete the descent in three hours. Initially the path follows the Stanserhorn's narrow, grassy east ridge, rather unnecessarily protected on both sides by handrails. I overtake a German couple who are engaged in a complex-looking photo session; she striking extravagant poses (pointing at distant hills, cupping her hand over her eyes to shade them from the sun and so on), while he directs her actions from a few metres away. We will overtake each other all the way down to Stans as we stop for photo and drinks breaks.

Leaving the Stanserhorn along its east ridge
There have been a lot of people on the path until now, but beyond the junction of tracks at Rinderalp, 1635 m, things become a lot quieter. The afternoon is advancing and the procession of people who have set off from Stans in mid-morning has dried up. The path runs through forest below steep slopes where signs warn of possible rockfall, then contours below a steep, grassy cone to reach the isolated chalet of Blatti, perched high above the valley at an altitude of 1566 metres. This whole section of the walk is almost horizontal; indeed, the gradient of the whole descent is quite gentle, which probably explains why so much time is needed. It makes the whole thing considerably easier on the legs though. 

Below Blatti, the path zigzags across steep, wooded slopes

Below Blatti, the path continues quite gently downhill in a series of long, long east-west zigzags, each of which takes maybe twenty minutes to walk. The path is wide enough not to be dangerous, but the slopes above which it runs are extremely steep and care is needed not to slip, especially given that in some shady places the gooing underfoot is very greasy and slippery. I descend mostly through forest, although there are plenty of openings in the trees that give views northwards towards Lucerne. I pass an isolated house marked on the map as Ahornhütte, 1440 m, where loudish rock music coming from inside does not quite seem in keeping with the location. Further down, the farm of Chalcherli, set in a wide clearing, marks the end of the mountainous terrain and the start of the easier farm tracks that will take me the rest of the way down to Stans. Not far above the village, a sudden waft of freshly-mown grass hits me with an odd and unexpected wave of nostalgia for northern France, where I once lived: that was exactly the smell of the golf course at Saint-Saëns where I spent many a long summer evening in the mid 1990s. To the north-west, the cloud has finally cleared from the Pilatus as the afternoon turns into a beautiful early evening.

Almost back down...
I reach Stans at five o'clock. The village square is an attractive one, with several restaurants and a large church, in front of which a huge statue depicts an act of what looks like gratuitous violence… I have no idea what it is supposed to represent, but it doesn't look very friendly, so I waste no time in heading for the station and escaping back to Lucerne on the next available train!

Scenes of domestic violence in Stans

25 June 2016

On the Alpine Panorama Trail: Stage 23, from Broc to Gruyères

Time: 1.5 hours
Grading: T1
Height gain: 180 metres
Height loss: 150 metres

Broc - Gruyères

My Alpine Panorama Trail walk has ground to a halt since I arrived in Broc on 1st June. Three successive weekends of truly awful weather have prevented me from continuing: I was expecting to have completed the walk by now, but it was a hopelessly over-optimistic wish.

I have booked a hotel room in Les Paccots for Saturday evening, and am determined to make some real progress this weekend, with two long days' walking. The next two stages of the trail are the last in what could really be described as mountainous terrain, before reaching the much gentler countryside along Lake Geneva for the final four days' walking.

It has been a hot, sunny week but once again, the weather forecast for the weekend is not really compatible with hiking in the mountains. Saturday will be thundery, with the satellite picture showing a big, ugly set of storms running across the region some time during mid to late afternoon. To be honest, only the fact that my hotel room is booked (having already been cancelled two weekends ago for weather-related reasons) pushes me to give it a go anyway.

The view from the train to Broc does not give me too many reasons to be confident about the outcome of the day. The sky over the Fribourg Pre-Alps is an unpleasant purple-black colour, although there is plenty of much friendlier-looking blue above the lower-lying regions. I actually start walking under an uncomfortably hot sun in Broc, where I get off the train at twenty past ten.

Almost immediately, things go wrong. I follow the waymarking for national route No. 3 out of the village, crossing fields of long grass which, after the heavy rain of the last 24 hours, soon soak my trouser legs. Up ahead, I can hear the buzzing of what sounds like a whole army of chainsaws: there must be some serious forestry activity going on. Then I top a grassy crest, and see that the source of the noise is not saws, but motorbikes. There is a motocross competition going on, and the circuit crosses the footpath, blocking it completely. Bikes are slithering up and down muddy banks, churning the ground into a black mess as they roar round the circuit. I ask a marshal if there is any way through, but the answer is no: I will have to retrace my steps all the way back to Broc and find an alternative route. The diversion causes me a delay of 45 minutes; minutes which I suspect may have been precious in my race against the afternoon thunderstorms.

The alternative route leads me past Broc's municipal swimming pool, then along a muddy path that runs alongside the fast-flowing river Sarine. The path leads me along the perimeter of the motocross circuit, unseen because of the trees but most definitely not unheard. I have to keep getting out of the way of mountain bikers, who I do not see coming because of the racket made by the motorbikes.

"Le pont qui branle"
The riverside path eventually brings me to a place marked on the map as Le pont qui branle, which could be translated as "Rickety Bridge". Rickety it may have been in some distant past, but today's bridge is a solid wooden structure, covered and completely enclosed apart from two small openings that give a view out to the fast-flowing river. On the west bank of the Sarine now, a lane leads me to the foot of the hill on top of which stands the village of Gruyères, one of Switzerland's big tourist hotspots, dominated by its castle. I cross the main road that runs round the foot of the hill, then climb steeply up a cobbled path towards one of the ancient gates in the walls that surround the village. Just before midday I reach the village square at the top of the hill, with its restaurants, fountains and hordes of selfie-snapping tourists.

Climbing up towards Gruyères
Up ahead, the view should be dominated by the 2,002-metre summit of the Moléson, but the weather has taken a turn for the worse and the mountain is covered in thick, black cloud. The blue sky that seemed to be making a good attempt to win some ground an hour ago has disappeared completely; rain and thunderstorms are very obviously not far off. I have a decision to make now: I still have another five hours' walking to cover today, I need to climb up to Plan Francey at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, then traverse below the north-western cliffs of the Moléson and its neigbour Teysachaux before dropping down to Les Paccots. Though not difficult terrain by any stretch of the imagination, it will be very much exposed to whatever weather the sky decides to chuck at the Moléson, and opportunities for shelter will be few and far between. 

The only sensible decision is to abandon the walk in Gruyères, from where at least I can get home easily. I call the Auberge du Lac des Joncs in Les Paccots, cancel my reservation but offer to pay anyway; an offer which is declined by the very friendly woman who answers the phone. I have just missed a train and have to wait 55 minutes for the next one: all in all, by the time I get home, I will have spent seven hours either sitting on trains or waiting for them for barely 90 minutes' walking, of which more than an hour was spoilt by the noise of motorbikes. There have been better days…

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