PETER WATSON ventures into the ALETSCH ARENA, in the Valais canton of Switzerland, to take a walk along the largest GLACIER in the Alps
I have trekked in the Andes, Karakoram, and Himalayas and have always thought of the Alps as the less impressive little brother of these great ranges. But when I first glimpsed the UNESCO- listed Great Aletsch Glacier, in the eastern Bernese Alps, I audibly gasped. It was a breathtaking sight – one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen.
I’m staying at Hotel Eggishorn, located 2,222m up the side of Fiescheralp, a popular ski resort in the Swiss canton of Valais, just a five-minute cable car ride from Eggishorn, the highest of the four official viewpoints in the Aletsch Arena. The region is a car-free zone, so I share the waiting room for the cable car with school children and workers waiting to ride to their respective classrooms and offices. I think of when London’s Air Line cable car opened in 2012 and how novel the idea of taking a cable car to work seemed to Londoners. Most residents of the Aletsch Arena have only ever commuted this way.
The ride to Eggishorn, although only a few minutes, whisks me 650m up the mountain. When you’re travelling at 5m per second, a short journey covers a lot of terrain and now, at 2,869m, I’m enveloped in a thick, damp mist. My heart sinks. I’ve seen the promotional material proclaiming Switzerland’s “best photo opportunity”. Indeed, the Eggishorn viewpoint is on the route of the tourism board’s Grand Tour of Switzerland, a 1,600km circuit of the most celebrated Swiss sights, and comes complete with an official Grand Tour sign to frame your Insta-worthy photo. Alas, not for me. It’s a whiteout.
LOST FOR WORDS?
I’m on a tight schedule, so I need to get a move on as I only have a day in the Aletsch Arena. Fortunately, it’s still reasonably early and by the time I make it to the next viewpoint at Moosfluh, the skies have cleared and I get exactly what I came for. It really is something quite remarkable to stand on a platform high above a glacier’s edge, gazing across a frozen ocean fractured with the ragged black splinters of innumerable crevasses. Now I know travel writers are prone to hyperbole – it literally comes with the job – but it’s hard to come up with fresh superlatives for such an awesome display of nature. It brings shivers. It makes you wonder. It makes you gasp.
Now, I have seen glaciers before. I once spent a week slogging my way up the Baltoro Glacier (one of the longest outside the polar regions) to K2 base camp in Pakistan. The Baltoro was of course spectacular, but what makes the Aletsch stand out is the diversity of the enclosing landscape. The immense corridor of ice is banked by rocky slopes mossed with green and rusty-leaved shrubs, viridian pine and spruce trees, and clusters of colourful wildflowers – pink Alpenrose, yellow Arnica, blue Bellflowers – all nodding gently in the breeze.
Higher up the slopes, above the treeline, behind the rocky summits of the Eggishorn (2,927m) and Bettmerhorn (2,872m), rests a horizon dominated by 4,000m goliaths: the Jungfrau, the Eiger, and the Mönch, and on the other side, the Matterhorn. In fact, from the Eggishorn viewpoint at 2,869m it’s possible to see 40 of Switzerland’s 48 4,000m peaks.
The numbers of the Aletsch Arena are phenomenal. At 20km in length and with a surface area of 79 sq km, it is the longest ice stream and the largest glacier in the Alps. At its thickest, the ice is 800m deep and, in total, the glacier weighs around 10 billion tonnes. If it were to melt, it could supply every person on the planet with a litre of water a day for 3.5 years.
The colossal glacier was shaped in the last ice age but is under threat today, as is the vast majority of glaciers worldwide. The Aletsch glacier was at its maximum extension around 150 years ago. Back then, the edge of the glacier was three kilometres longer and reached 200m higher up the slopes. Today, the ice continues to shrink by around 50m in length each year and retreats significantly at the edges.
My hike continues alongside the frozen highway to the next viewpoint at Hohfluh. I stop every few footsteps to soak in the scenery and take what feels like a thousand photos. Ahead of me, the clouds still linger on the horizon where the Matterhorn is just about visible, its pyramidal peak unmistakable despite the haze.
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
The footpath begins to drop away from the snout of the glacier along the Riederfurka ridge towards a small copse. On the trail ahead, framed by tall trees, something appears that’s at odds with the landscape. I’ve become accustomed to the small villages of traditional wooden chalets with their sunny terraces and shuttered windows, but ahead of me is something resembling a Victorian mansion.
When the first tourists arrived in the Aletsch Arena, in the early 1900s, it was for the glacier and not the skiing. Among them was Winston Churchill who stayed in the sumptuous Villa Cassel. Built by the wealthy British banker-come-philanthropist Sir Ernest Cassel in 1902 as a summer house and run as a hotel for decades after his death, the chateau-esque manor appears curiously out of place on the Riederfurka ridge. Today, the carbon-neutral property houses a museum, cafe, and gift shop, with the Pro Natura environmental study centre in its basement. I wander around Villa Cassel’s grand wood-panelled rooms and work my way through its interactive exhibits on how climate change is affecting the glacier.
Before long, it’s time for me to head back down to the valley floor and catch my onward train. It’s worth noting that for those keen to limit the carbon emissions of their holidays, the Aletsch Arena is an ideal option: it’s possible to travel from London to the glacier entirely by train and cable car.
Skiing didn’t get going in the Aletsch until the 1960s and is by far the most popular pastime today.
But it is during the warmer months from June to October when the colours come out and the scenery really sings. With more activities available – paragliding, mountain carting, via Ferrata, e-biking, yoga and glacier trekking to name just a few – as well as more accessible hiking routes, the Aletsch Arena is a spectacular summertime mountain playground, too.
Quiet, unspoilt, and crowd- and car-free, it’s astonishing that you can still find somewhere like this to rise above the modern, motorised everyday. The Aletsch Arena is just that and more, with a box seat alongside one of Europe’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders.
Peter Watson is a photographer, writer, and founder of outdoor travel blog Atlas & Boots (www.atlasandboots.com). A keen trekker and climber he can usually be found on the trails of the Greater Ranges. He’s visited over 80 countries and is currently focused on climbing the seven summits — the highest mountains on every continent. So far, he’s scaled Kilimanjaro in Africa, Elbrus in Europe, Kosciuszko in Oceania and most recently Aconcagua in South America. When not overseas he lives with his partner in the Yorkshire Dales.