September 21, 2007

Dispatch from Gruben

Breakfast at the Auberge Alpina was a good set up of mueslix, fresh bread, three homemade jams, and fresh coffee. The other person in the dormitory upstairs is named Swen and doing this segment of the Haute Route, so he, Glyn and Elena, and I set out shortly thereafter.

I was last, as usual, so I last saw Glyn and Elena just before they reached the pass, Forcletta. Swen and I made the pass at about the same time, but he headed up the ridge for the summit, rather than drop down to Gruben right away.

Swen's trip is an example of how hiking in this country, Europe, really, is different. He left his car in St. Niklaus and took transit to La Sage, where he started his hike. Where in the USA is using transit to get from one trailhead to another a viable option?

The first part of the hike was the usual climb up tracks and trails to gain the top of the cliffs forming the lower slopes of the valley (these are all glacial valleys, of course). Once that level was achieved, the trail was a wonderful walk through mixed alpine rock gardens and meadows. The views ahead, down the valley, extended all the way to the Berner Oberland. Views behind were the peaks and glaciers at the head of the Val d'Zinal. Above, a herd of twenty-five to thirty chamois ran through the rocks across the slope above me around the corner. Wonderful walking.

Along the way, I met a number of tourist-dressed people on a morning's walk from the Hotel Weisshorn. They were about an hour from the hotel, along a level path, near a ridge which would give them a stunning view of the peaks and glaciers up valley. It might be worth returning for a couple of nights at the Weisshorn and a couple of walks in the vicinity. It's supposed to be quite a place and it's certainly well-placed.

The climb up to the pass Forcletta (2874m) was not particularly steep and the trail was good (well-graded, smooth, and solid footing). It traveled through meadows below, past a large cow shed, with a road to it and a car parked there (all this walking to get to a car park), and then up into to rock field below the pass.

By this time, it was clear that the weather was changing. The peaks' backdrop was more cloud than blue, making photography more challenging. Rain was visible in the distance, over the peaks to the north. Clouds were blowing past as I made the pass. Still, it was pretty warm and not windy above a cool breeze.

At the pass, another valley and a new view of some of the snowy peaks I'd seen from the descent into Zinal. The valley, the Turtmanntal (note the German name -- we've entered German-speaking territory; at least I now know how to pronounce the names), is very steep and narrow, with a number of glaciers gathering at its head. According to the guide, it is essentially agricultural and I believe it, from what I could see.

Coming down from the pass, I walked through two groups of sheep, the first high in the valley. The lead ewe (what's the word for the boss ewe in a group of sheep?) was bold and walked right up to me and sniffed my pockets. She was wooly. Then, I scuffed my boot and spooked her, and consequently all of them. After the spook, she was behind me and the rest were ahead, so they all quickly scooted by and we parted.

There were a number of alp hamlets, with houses, barns, storage and other buildings. During the descent in the meadows, I met three hunters (two armed with guns and the third with the huge binoculars). I had thought I'd heard shooting earlier. No wonder the chamois were running earlier.

Gruben is a small place, and, according to the guide, empties at the end of summer. The Restaurant Waldesruh, where I'm staying, is probably the funkiest place yet, but is very cozy. The shower was great and the floor in the dormitory on the top floor squeaks in a very satisfying way. I was immediately attracted by the smoke coming out of the chimney.

So far, I'm the only one staying here. I walked up to the Hotel Schwartzhorn, the big place in town, to see if I could find someone. Sure enough, Glyn saw me walk up and came down to say hello/goodbye. Swen was there, too, so we had a beer and chatted. His trip ends tomorrow, in St. Niklaus. The Australians must have stayed in Zinal.

I'm at the Waldesruh because the Schwartzhorn Web form wouldn't give me a reservation -- groups only! -- and the site for Waldesruh was very nice. The proprietor speaks English easily, too.

Dinner was very good. First, there was a nice, thick vegetable soup, followed by a salad of lettuce, grated carrots, cabbage, and some good tomato slices. The main dish was a Swiss steak in a nice brown sauce with sautéed onions, peas and baby carrots, and a big slab of fresh hash browns. Dessert -- count them: four courses -- was pudding. Very nice, and quiet, too. Though there were people in and out during the afternoon, I was it for dinner.

The predicted rain began right on schedule, as I came out of the shower (which has a separate, outside door). It stopped a little later and became sunny up above, so if that's what rain is, it will be OK tomorrow. Even put a picturesque dusting of fresh snow on the peaks.

Tomorrow is a big day. The regular route has a 16 km length and a 1000 meter climb, with a long drop to follow. That would be enough, but there's a little hole in the regular route, which means another 4 km and 500 meters. At this point, I feel strong, but am also noticing signs of fatigue. The combination of the biggest day (20 km) and bad weather concerns me. We'll see what tomorrow brings, but I do have an option to take a bus up that last 4 km and 500m. If I'm beat, if the weather's been terrible, if it's late, I'll do that.

Fortunately, whatever the weather tomorrow brings, the prediction for the next day is for no rain. That will make the final two days, across the Europaweg to Zermatt, a better bet.

Sept. 17 from Restaurant Waldesruh, Gruben, Switzerland: map, 1822m; accum. 135 km, 8827m gain, 8042m loss (5978'; accum. 83.9 mi, 28,960', 26,385')

Updated for spelling, links, and photos on 11/17.

Link to photo album

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