Monday, July 23, 2012

Haute Route journal (part 3)

Here's an intro to my Haute Route hike.

Day 4.  

Stage 8: Arolla - La Sage

After day three, day four was bound to be a letdown (and sore).  Just to underscore this point, it was raining in the morning, and all those day three views were gone.  Arolla was deserted:

The morning hike was through a string of little towns.  The cottages and hay-barns picked up the striking characteristic of resting on disc-shaped rocks:

Apparently this is a means to keep rodents out.

So, if I had to pick a town along the Haute Route to stay for a few days, it would be La Gouille, at the bottom of the Val d'Arolla.  Like Sembrancher, La Gouille was a mix of tourism and stalwart farming.  It seemed like about half the buildings were "a louer" to tourists, but then the rental place would be right next to a serious trucker's place:

It was Sunday, and there was exactly one business open in town - the boulangerie.  I sat at the public water fountain in the middle of town, and watched everyone pad their way through the wet streets to buy their bread, greet their neighbors, and head back home again.

Finally, I motivated to start hiking up the Val D'Herens.  I saw house with an old Willys Jeep.  Was it Army surplus, or did it have a story to tell?

Alternate Stage 9: La Sage - Col de Torrent - Barrage de Moiry/Grimentz

I thought about the Jeep, how Switzerland is Europe with 1,000 years of no war, and hiked up above the town of La Sage:

Here, I took my first "alternate" stage route from the the guidebook.  The clouds were too thick for me to see the high mountains, and I didn't plan on staying at the Cabane de Moiry, so I hiked over the Col de Torrent instead of the Col du Tsate.  It was windy, dripping humid, and occasionally raining.  It was also a popular hike - I hadn't seen anyone in the morning, and only two hikers on day three, but on the pass I saw maybe 15 hikers.  Maybe they were all looking for "Sex de Marinda:"

Over the Torrent, another big reservoir (Lac de Moiry) - this time the route went over the dam crest:

They definitely don't go for instream flows here - there was exactly no water being released from the reservoir (except into the extensive water project facilities:)

Stage 10: Barrage de Moiry/Col de Sorebois - Zinal

Now the wind was blasting away, and it was time to hike up the Col de Sorebois:

Here I learned why Swiss cows are so well behaved.  So, I've been hiking around Switzerland for a few weeks, and see these little ribbons used to fence pastures.  I didn't understand how the cows don't just walk through the ribbon.  They aren't barbed.  They aren't electrified.  How does it work?

It works because the cows are trained.  I was hiking up the Sorebois, watching a farmer a little ways ahead of me visiting his cows.  He'd go up to a little group of cows, feed them snacks, pet them, talk to them, check them for injuries, etc.  Then he'd walk up to the next little group and do the same thing.  The cows are trained - they stick around their pasture to get more treats, petting, etc.  At least that's my theory (and it's made me a big supporter of Swiss cheeses/milk).

Over the Sorebois, it was another long hike through a ski area - this time above Zinal.  They, too, trimmed their trail:

At the Sorebois gondola station:

there seemed to be a reality show filming in progress involving women arts students - there was a cameraman and sound guy chasing the women around, and they were acting accordingly.  The gondola was only $14, and it was leaving in 20 minutes, but alas, my day one decision came back to haunt me yet again, and I banged down 3,000 feet of steep/rocky trail to town:

Zinal had a grocery store, open on a Sunday (!), with only semi-eye-popping prices.  Food in tow, I was pretty excited on my way out to the legitimate campsite at the edge of town.  A shower!  Hot water!  I wonder if they have a pool!  Unfortunately, it turned out to be just a grassy area past the town park and next to a gravel pile.  No shower.  The area was a little confusing - people were camping all over the place, but it seemed clear that some areas were day-use only.  Some Belgians were using a broken "no camping" sign to anchor their tent.

Day 5.

Stage 11: Zinal - Gruben

Zinal was unlike any other town I saw on the trip.  Wide streets and new-ish buildings.  Not a lot of character:

This was a big change from Les Haudres, La Sage, and the other towns in the previous valley.  I was hearing more German, and indeed on day five I was passing back east through the language demarcation line at Gruben - no more high school French fun for me.

Day five was beautiful and clear, and I could see the high peaks again.  For the first 3/4 of the day, it was a straightforward grunt up and over two passes.  Then the last 1/4 was back to the eye-popping scenery of day three (foreshadowing - you can skip down to the Twara viewpoint photos if you want).

On the way up the Forcletta, I saw signs for the Sierre-Zinal mountain marathon:

(let's see, 19 miles and 5,300 feet elevation gain - and I'd make back my entry fee and then some if I could run it in under three hours.  Doable?  Nah.)

And on my way up the Forcletta, there's that no-instream flow thing again.  Here comes the mountain stream into the diversion structure:

And nothing comes out:

It's like a water roach motel.

I saw some more trained cows:

And became briefly demoralized when I saw how high the Forcletta pass is, emphasized by a little fresh snow:

The hike down into the Turtmanntal/Gruben was quite pretty - here's the Weisshorn: 

There's the valley, and the tiny little town:

And there are some teepees (?):

There's not much to the town - here it is:

And here's the one big hotel:

Stage 12: Gruben - St. Niklaus

I crossed the street, and it was time to grunt on up to another pass, the Augstbordpass:

And here's a big group of people climbing up to the pass:

By this point, I knew the deal - regular people, i.e. people who haven't taken a foolish vow against public transportation/gondolas, only hike the best parts of the trails.  I'd go a day hardly seeing anyone, but then as soon as I'd get to the really good pass, or when the trail would join a popular loop hike, there would be tons of people.  I concluded that the Haute Route is a made up thing to beat up foreigners' knees so they don't swarm the best parts of Switzerland.

Even given this perfectly-sensible conspiracy, I had the feeling there were less people in the high country than usual.  Which matches what I've read about tourism being down in at least some of the Swiss Cantons.  There's a simple (non-conspiratorial) explanation - the Swiss franc has appreciated massively against the euro and the dollar so that people are taking a 10-20% haircut on what they're used to paying in Switzerland.  This is in addition to the economic crises.  They stay away.

What this means is that it's actually the perfect time to be here.  The trains are empty, the trails are peaceful, and you can get a spot in that special mountain hut without trouble.  If the franc goes back down, the hordes will return.  If it doesn't go back down, probably services/business cut back to reflect fewer visitors.  So now is the time.  It makes sense to me - at least I'm good at rationalizing as I overpay.

As I was pondering this, the views got really good.  Here's my first view down into the Matteral valley:

And then, out of the blue, I turned a corner and was at the famous Twara viewpoint:

Let's see that again:

Oh, come on - one more:

There's Dom, the Breithorn, the Klein Matterhorn, etc.  I immediately sat down and tried to absorb this place.  It's definitely an impressive view, but I can't say it's the best ever.  Why?  Well, first, I've been to Nepal.  Second, I'm American.  And I recently hiked across the Grand Canyon.  The Grand Canyon is a bit like the Twara viewpoint in that you can't see anything until you come right up on it.  The Grand Canyon is unlike the Twara viewpoint - at least for an American - in that it is a touchstone of American identity.  So while I was amazed by the view up the Matteral, I was moved by hiking down into that big canyon.  As Whitman would say, the Grand Canyon is "Freedom - to walk free and own no superior."

The trail quickly drops down into the town of Jungen, clinging (but comfortably clinging) to a bench of pastureland 3,000 feet above the valley floor:

Here, I had the chance to walk down past the last gondola that could have saved me a long, knee-banging hike down into a valley.  Yet again, good thing I decided to hike all the way to Zermatt.  Bypassing the gondola did mean I got to see the little shrines/stations of the cross on the way down:

And a farm where they raise all kinds of camelids:

Including the vicuna, bringing back memories from our Chile trip:

In St. Niklaus, there's a Bosch factory:

I couldn't tell exactly what was being made inside, but I could see workers moving around and some CAM equipment:

In my first post from here, I wrote that Switzerland is a "version of utopian dream."  My specific example of that dream was a hay field next to a laboratory.  Since then, I've thought about that dream quite a bit.  It sounds simplistic and stereotypical.  But here it was again.  A few hours walking from the Twara viewpoint is a Bosch factory.  It's a factory right in the Matteral, maybe fifteen minutes by train from Zermatt.  And it all fits in - perfectly, seamlessly, and harmoniously.  The town is there, the cliffs are over there, the old church is bonging out the hour, and in the factory people are making stuff to export.  I don't really know how this all works in such tight quarters, but from what I've read it rests on some very unique circumstances specific to Switzerland (and very specific externalities Switzerland can incorporate/transmit).  I'll stand by my statement - it's a version of utopian dream (and very high on the quality-of-life index).  Not that it would work anywhere else, but interesting to see nonetheless.  

Outside of St. Niklaus, the signs started pointing to Zermatt:

Which would have to wait until morning:

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