One Alp, Two Alp, Three Alp, … Thirty-Four?!

Some of you are probably wondering why I keep going back to Switzerland. The speed limits on the highways stink, a 40 € vignette is required for use on these lame roads, German sounds even uglier when spoken by the Swiss, “great there are lots of mountains who cares get a life”… these are some of the reasons that I could have stayed in Germany this weekend. But… in my three previous Alpscurisions, I never saw what is in my mind the quintessential “Alps” picture — something like this, perhaps. My trips to both Zermatt (week 7) and the Bernese Alps (weeks 10 and 14) always showed only a few mountains; whether from the cities themselves or from observation platforms above 3,500 m, “la chaîne des Alpes” never really made themselves known. I subconsciously gave up on the idea of ever finding them — until this trip, that is.

My first trip to Zermatt (exactly two months ago) took me into and out of clouds during one part of the drive. The problem is, I drove that section in the dark and had no idea how steep the dropoffs were — or where I was, to be honest. I just knew the lanes were narrow and that I was high enough to be above the clouds. On the return drive to Germany, I realized in daylight what I had driven on: hairpin after hairpin of Swiss mountain road excellence. This is the Furka Pass; its existence enables getting from Stuttgart to Täsch in six hours instead of nine. (In Series 10, Top Gear drove on the Stelvio Pass, which appears to be similar.) Because the Pass was high enough to breach clouds, I knew that I might run into problems this time of year. On Thursday night, when I was fretting about whether to go to Zermatt at all (I didn’t book a hotel room until Friday), the Pass was listed as closed. Instead of gambling to catch the last car-carrying train that circumvents the Pass, enabling travel to Zermatt in the winter, or crossing it at night in fear of black ice on 12% grades, I decided to stay Friday night in Andermatt rather than continue all the way to Täsch. As my GPS took me on a roundabout loop into that sleepy ski-town, I saw two signs that said the Pass was, in fact, open — so I went to bed early on Friday in order to get up on Saturday to catch the sunrise and to see if the Pass was indeed open. It was, and it was even better than I remembered it. I don’t have a photo to do proper justice to the scale of this road. It’s harrowing and breathtaking and gorgeous and infuriating and jaw-dropping, all rolled into one stretch of asphalt that I didn’t even know (for you French speakers: connaître, not savoir) when I first drove it.

Hairpins, anyone?
Left of the buildings is the end of the Furka Pass; to the right is the Grimsel Pass

I drove back down the Pass to get breakfast at the hotel, then drove across it again to get to Täsch and onto Zermatt. Unlike weekend 14, when I planned out some hiking possibilities before arriving, this time I had no idea what to do. I had already been on the flanks of the Matterhorn, I didn’t plan to ski, and there didn’t appear to be too many more hikes that would blow my mind. After a lengthy (and frustrating for her, I’m sure) discussion with the hotel receptionist, I finally decided to take a series of gondolas up to the Klein Matterhorn on Saturday afternoon. I was dubious that it’d amount to much and mentally thumbed my nose at not needing to hike one step to arrive at 3,883 m. It was there, however, at nearly 4000 m, that I finally saw it: the Alps in a way I had been craving since 2005.

My jaw doesn’t typically drop, but when I got off the gondola I must have looked like an idiot: I was trying to grin with mouth agape at the same time. Ridge after ridge, this is the Alps I had pictured — minus the sunrise or sunset, of course, but there wasn’t not much I could do to prepare for that on this trip.

That said, my plans for Sunday were far more ambitious than a fifty minute ride in some cable cars; even the hotel clerk was noticeably worried when I told her what I planned to do. As I mentioned in my previous post, getting to the right place at sunrise can be difficult in Switzerland, because all the trailheads really only open when the first gondola or cable car or train gets there. This was the case two weekends ago in the Bernese Oberland and was again true in Zermatt this time. My plan was thus to leave Zermatt at 3:30 AM, hike three trails, and get to the Riffelsee just below the Rotenboden station on the way to Gornergrat (from where this photo was taken). Riffelsee reflects some of the Alps, and since I couldn’t get the shot I wanted at Bachalpsee two weeks ago, I figured this would be a better opportunity. At least hiking from my hotel to a reflecting lake wouldn’t take twelve hours this time! The three trails went from Zermatt to the railway station Riffelalp, then along the Mark Twain Weg from Riffelalp to Riffelberg, and then from Riffelberg ultimately to Rotenboden. Total elevation gain was a healthy 1214 m, and though less steep than the hike from Paradise to Camp Muir, I had never done a hike in complete darkness or one of this magnitude by myself before. Perhaps now the consternation on the hotel receptionist’s face is more understandable. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a bit worried myself: my imagination works overtime in the dark, and I wrote a note just in case something ominous happened to me in the middle of the Swiss Alps. [I should note that while I patted myself on the back — just for a second — because I came out alive, I took a serious risk for myself physically and also financially (in case I did get hurt), and also for any rescuers that would be required to find me, by doing what was in many regards a dangerous hike for someone of my experience. This is a serious point that I alluded to in my first Zermatt post (c.f. helicopter photo), and I can’t stress enough that what I did wasn’t altogether intelligent.]

The hike turned out to be tougher than I had imagined. Because I hiked two weeks ago from Schynige Platte to First  faster than the hiking brochure had suggested, I figured I wouldn’t need the 4.5 hours recommended for this series of hikes. The first trail went well — I did the hike in 1.5 hours instead of 2, arriving at Riffelalp at 5 AM, but that’s when the problems started. Most Swiss trails are extremely well marked, but someone had either taken the sign for the next trail, there simply wasn’t one, or I missed it entirely. I wandered around the station for half an hour, trying out various paths, before I took a bet on a trail and went for it. I planned to follow it for maybe fifteen minutes and give up if it didn’t pan out. Luckily, at a juncture on that path, I saw a sign confirming that I was on the right one. By the time I got to Riffelberg, I was a bit behind schedule, I was tired and getting colder, and the sky was already starting to turn light. I was annoyed for two reasons — first, if I waited at Riffelberg for another fifteen minutes, the first train from Zermatt would arrive (making my 4 hour effort worthless), and second, I wasn’t actually at the lake itself — and again there were no trail signs at the station for where I wanted to go! Nevertheless, I was far from discouraged. The vista was gorgeous — far more impressive than from my attempts at a sunrise in the city itself — and so I decided to see what the sunrise would entail at this cold, tourist-less location. It didn’t quite drop my jaw as much as it fell the day before, but I was thrilled by the sunrise. I haven’t ever seen colors like this during a sunrise photography session. The usual disclaimer applies: it looked far more impressive in person. (Chalk up to this particular result to a lack of experience in the digital darkroom.)

The sky itself glowed purple, red, and pink for about fifteen minutes before the first light peeked over the mountains behind me, illuminating the summits of the mountains neighboring the Matterhorn. (If this were Rainier, I’d know exactly what these peaks are… but I never got around to asking. I believe the lit peak to the right of the Matterhorn is the Wetterhorn edit 2016: Dent Blanche is the lit peak to the right. The next peak (unlit) is the Obere Gabelhorn, and the next lit peak — in bright red — is the Zinalrothorn.)

     

The Matterhorn was the last to light, and by the time it did, all the color was already gone from the sky. I was tired but continued on to what I thought was Riffelsee — and was a bit relieved to find it frozen over: it meant that the reflection picture I wanted wouldn’t have been possible, even if I had gotten there in time. Hooray!

[But wait, there’s more!] I was wrong, however, about this being Riffelsee. By this time, a few hikers had come down from the Rotenboden station (yeah, the train had reached that one by the time I got to Riffelsee, too) and said that there was an even bigger lake just a few minutes from this one. I got off the ice of pretend-Riffelsee (it was thick enough in most places to support me) and headed to what I realized was the true Riffelsee: though just a few minutes from the previous one, this one had deeper water that did not freeze. Ooops.

I came into this weekend wondering if it’d be worth the expense. I had seen the Swiss Alps three times already, and though I love Zermatt, I wasn’t sure how much more I could get out of it. I learned at 7:30 AM on Saturday, October 15 just how wrong I would have been to stay in Germany. Sure, Swiss interstates are  boring and slow, but holy cow (hastily: pun — c.f. Switzerland’s dairy industry — honestly not intended!) can they design amazing mountain passes. I didn’t think that I’d ever find somewhere where there were too many alps to count, but the Klein Matterhorn is just the answer for that. I thought I would never be able to catch a decent sunrise in the Alps without camping overnight, but with some effort I realized this, too, is possible. (Nota bene: it’s easier when sunrise isn’t until 7:30 AM; with a summer sunrise around 6 AM, the same hike I did would basically mean not going to bed the night before.) I didn’t think I would respect the Furka Pass more than I did on the drive back from Zermatt last time, but truly, what an astonishing piece of civil engineering.

Naturally, with this much gushing it goes without saying that I’d be more than happy to go back to Zermatt in the winter. This trip reaffirmed my love for the Swiss Alps more than any of the other trips so far. In doing it, though, it also subtly reminded me in how much esteem I hold Mt. Rainier, which remains — even after this long, swooning post — my favorite mountain.

One Alp, Two Alp, Three Alp, … Thirty-Four?!

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