From Mountain to Valley
Exploring the Landscapes and Nature of Valais
Written by Jess Clark // Photography by Rachel Keenan
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism
Last night I made the short journey from Chamonix, over the Col de la Forclaz and down into the Swiss Alps. Leaving the car park I declined an electric shuttle, instead wandering through the dimly lit streets towards our hotel. Saas-Fee is a car-free village and the Valais region is famed for its sustainability, boasting vast hydroelectric and solar infrastructure.
When I moved to the Alps I was doing research on Alpine air pollution and have long regarded Saas-Fee/Saastal and Zermatt as the gold standard for car-free Alpine infrastructure. The air here is light, free of diesel fumes and wood smoke, and the moonlight is dancing on the glaciated peaks above. I am no stranger to the Pennine Alps, but this is my first time visiting Saas-Fee and I can’t wait for morning to come.
After a suitably cheese-heavy breakfast I meet my guide Danny and we walk to the Spielboden gondola which takes us up to Längfluh. I feel as though I’ve entered a portal back to winter – we’re at 2,870m, the sky is clear, and the wind icy fresh off the glacier above. I scramble for an extra puffy distracted by an amphitheatre of snow-capped summits. Saas-Fee/Saastal, surrounded by 18 mountains over 4,000m. The most prominent peak is the Dom (4,545m), the highest mountain entirely in Swiss territory and the third-highest in the Alps. Just a few months ago, I spent almost three weeks on an ambitious challenge (Alpine X) to climb and ski the 10 highest peaks in the Alps. Despite attempting every peak, dangerous conditions caused by a dry winter and record-breaking heatwaves left the project incomplete. I saw first-hand how drastically the mountains are being transformed and learnt more about risk management than I have in the last decade. Failure is always frustrating, but it troubles me more to think that these long winters I have grown to love may be a thing of the past.
Roped up, we walk onto the vast Fee Glacier. It is my first time back in the mountains since Alpine X. We traverse narrow snow bridges, navigating a glacier so open that Danny compares it to an Emmentaler cheese. I hear the crunch of old snow and the cracking of ice beneath my crampons. The glacier is barren and isolated, its landscape almost lunar, with crevasses gaping like craters. I’ve come to crave these otherworldly environments. It is in the high Alpine I feel most alive.
Moving in glaciated terrain can be as exhausting mentally as it is physically, judging every step as if it could be your last. As a ski mountaineer, I place risk management at the heart of what I do. A few years ago I even gave a talk on the value of feminine characteristics in group safety. I am a firm proponent of the benefit that a female perspective brings to the high Alpine – even though women are often regarded as the weaker sex. With lower testosterone comes better self-preservation.
As we finish the glacier walk and return to safe ground, the rumbling of our stomachs leads us to the nearby Längfluh restaurant, named after a rocky outcrop of the Pennine Alps that divides the Fee Glacier. You can venture a bit higher, to the world’s highest revolving restaurant at 3,500m, but our bellies are empty and our schedule pressing. I order a rosti and strudel, the classics. Once a hearty breakfast food for Swiss-German farmers, the rosti was thought to mark the dividing line between the German and French-speaking parts of Switzerland.
After a quick change I meet Laura, a young mountain enthusiast interning in Saas-Fee. She takes me to her favourite running trail, just above her house and behind the Hannig lift station. There is no shortage of varied terrain, with a large number of high-alpine and impressive trails to choose from, but a local always knows best. On the way up I barely draw breath as we share an infectious vivacity for all things Alpine. But a sharp scream stops me mid-sentence. ‘Oh that’s just the marmots, they’re everywhere,’ she replies casually. These cartoon-like, chubby rodents are reminiscent of the internet sensations Alan and Steve. We set off running at a pleasant pace over undulating singletrack. I try to hide my heavy breathing – we are at altitude and I have recently returned from the beach.
Soon we drop into a shallow ravine and scramble down the rocks for a drink. The water is bitterly cold, flowing straight off the glaciers above. As we look out to the mountains across the valley Laura points out other trail-running routes she has recently discovered, and I suggest ski tours to try over the coming winter. After a short exchange we continue further before doubling back on a lower trail, heading for the village. My mind wanders to the other adventure possibilities opened up by the SaastalCard – included from our first night stay onward, and giving free access to the cable cars in the Saastal.
Last night we arrived in Leukerbad, a small town at the foot of the Gemmi Pass renowned for its thermal baths. There are 65 springs pumping 3.9 million litres of hot, mineral-rich water to a vast network of spas every single day.
Last summer my friend Aaron invited me on a cycling trip coast to coast across the Pyrenees. Having never ridden 100km, I thought it would be best to try before accepting the invitation. The trip was a brutal introduction to bikepacking, with harsh conditions, heavy packs, and over 2,000m of elevation gain a day. This adventure got me hooked on bikes. Having now completed several other routes, such as the GranGarda and the Badger Divide, my sights are turning to more technical trails. I know that the next logical step is mountain biking.
As we wait for the wet, heavy cloud to lift, I grow increasingly apprehensive. My last attempt at mountain biking was almost 10 years ago – and it wasn’t a success! Thankfully Christian is here to reassure me. Local farmer, ski instructor, and mountain bike guide, he knows these mountains better than anyone. We board the Torrent Gondola up to the beginning of my warm-up run. It’s a newly designed flow trail covering 400 vertical metres back down to the lift station, with a clearly marked but frankly intimidating start gate. My trepidation quickly turns to excitement and a familiar rush of adrenaline, outwardly expressed as childish whoops of joy.
In Leukerbad it is permitted to ride your bike on all types of trails and tracks; this is far from normal across the Alps. With my newfound confidence we decide to pedal uphill towards some slightly more challenging natural (but homologated) trails. I’m hooked, already asking how I can improve and what bike I should be buying. Christian isn’t surprised – mountain biking is commonly considered the summer equivalent of freeride skiing. Enamoured with my new hobby, I pedal to the chime of cowbells, almost forgetting the throbbing pain from muscles used in a new way.
We reach our high point: the top of a seemingly endless trail with views across the Swiss Alps. Christian is also a fan of steep skiing, and now he points out the Weisshorn: a conspicuous sharp white peak whose east face has recently made its way onto my bucket list. In 2019 I skied my first steep line, the Couloir Gervasutti on Tour Ronde. On that first 50 pitch I felt a rush of adrenaline, a healthy dose of fear, and a spark that would ignite my sustained fascination for exposed and aesthetic steep lines.
I begin my descent with Christian telling me to stay soft and look ahead. With each switchback my confidence grows and I pick up speed. It’s a welcome break for my cramping hands, which have spent the morning clenched on the brakes. But we reach a roadblock: a flock of adorable Valais Blacknose nose sheep scattered across the trail, forcing us to stop and dismount while they pass. They’re a domestic breed originating in the Valais region, and have been dubbed the ‘cutest sheep in the world’ due to their fluffy bear-like appearance. Well rested after pausing to admire the sheep, I set off with newfound conviction. I swoop round corners and edge over rocks with a growing sense of pride, but am quickly humbled by an unplanned tree hug. Back in the saddle, still laughing, we roll into town ready to soak tired, aching muscles in the spa.
The small village of Veysonnaz marks our transition from German to French-speaking Valais. Nestled in the heart of the 4 Vallées, it boasts beautiful views over the Rhône Valley towards the Bernese Alps. Today’s exploration will be on foot. I take a scenic trail to Cabane d’Essertze, then to Mont-Rouge and back over several mountain ridges. The start of my run is all uphill with sections of exposed scrambling toward a classic Alpine summit cross. From here I have a faint view of the Matterhorn, its classic Toblerone silhouette ever prominent amongst the mountains. Here I take a few minutes to gain my bearings – I hope to become better at identifying Alpine peaks, thereby fostering an improved sense of direction. Still on track, I begin my descent, the hard work behind me as I cruise down the mountain for lunch.
After a fast-paced morning I meet Samantha, a softly spoken yoga instructor who exudes a sense of calm. She leads me to the start of the Yoga Path: a guided trail through the green larch forest of Magrappé. The seven stations combine postures and exercises based on strength, concentration, relaxation, and inner focus. The path begins at the Bisse de Vex, a traditional open irrigation system dating from the 15th century. At the first station I lay out my mat and take long, cleansing breaths in Baddha Konasana or butterfly pose. The trail seems well aligned with the ancient Japanese relaxation practice of forest bathing or shinrin-yoku.
As we walk between asanas I find myself in a new mental posture, a sort of active meditation. I recently discovered the importance of mental control in fear management, pledging to commit to regular meditation and breathwork. In exposed terrain, particularly at altitude, it is easy to become short of breath, firing up the sympathetic nervous system in a damaging negative feedback loop. I’ve learnt that physicality is often just a small part of ski mountaineering and alpine pursuits. Eventually we reach my favourite pose, Shavasana, where Samantha leaves me to lie restfully with my thoughts.
Champéry – Region Dents du Midi
Having moved further down the valley, I find myself back on the French border – this time in one of the oldest tourist destinations in Switzerland. Champéry is in the Region Dents du Midi and is one of the founding villages of the Portes du Soleil ski area. I wake up with a view over a high street laced with Swiss bunting and windows bursting with iconic Victorinox penknives. It is inoffensively patriotic, with all the authentic charm of yesteryear.
I set off on a highly recommended circular hike in the Val d’Illiez, fuelled by the promise of waterfalls and fondue. Starting in Grand-Paradis, the trail leads me through an idyllic forest along the River Saufla, and soon arrives at my first rewards: the Cascade de la Saufla and Cascade de Bonavau. The crashing waters form a humid mist, wetting my cheeks and beading off my jacket. Emerging from the forest, the path has been cut into the mountain. I pass under an impressive overhanging roof of rock and up some roughly cut steps equipped with a via-ferrata-style hand rail. Out of nowhere appears a 55m-long suspension bridge: the Passerelle Belle-Étoile.
Farmers in the region are increasingly using Patou or other livestock guard dogs in response to the return of large carnivores, such as wolves. I come across a flock of sheep, closely minded by their big fluffy companion, which resembles a mix between a polar bear and a golden retriever. You would be mistaken in thinking that these animals are cuddly. I give him and his sheep a wide berth and traverse the last section of trail before my final destination. The Refuge de Bonavau is made up of a collection of quintessential Swiss cabins, perched on a bucolic Alpine plateau between Grand-Paradis and the Susanfe Valley. The guardian, Christine, recommends a wild garlic fondue with artisanal Valais IPAs, each beer named after a local peak. The word ‘fondue’ comes from the French verb fondre (to melt), with roots in the Swiss cantons of Fribourg and Valais. With the subject of cheese my thoughts inevitably turn to Raclette du Valais AOP – more molten cheese goodness. Mmmmm.
The landscapes and nature of Valais are undeniably its greatest assets, from larch forests across Alpine hillsides to boundless glaciers shadowed by towering 4,000m peaks – and all enjoyed in a Mediterranean-like climate. The region boasts 2,000 hours of annual sunshine and is the largest wine region in Switzerland, with over 50 varieties of grapes, some unique to the region (including the famous Petite Arvine). I am truly sold and honestly reluctant to leave. I finish my trip looking up at the spectacular Ryan Glacier, dunking crusty bread into a vat of garlic and Swiss cheese, and planning my return in winter.
Written by Jess Clark // @jess.k.clark
Photography by Rachel Keenan // @rachelkeenan9 with John Summerton // @johnsummerton & Matt Green // @mattgreen_sfm
Film by Summit Fever Media // @sfm_films
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism and Valais