New on Sidetracked:

The Timeless Alps

On the Edge of Autumn in Valais
Written by Sami Sauri // Photography by Rachel Keenan // Film by Summit Fever Media
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism

Living in the mountains has filled my life with a greater need to get out and explore. With the Valais area just a quick hour away by car – or a couple of hours by train from Geneva – this is what keeps bringing me back to places like Switzerland. But is it a place where nothing ever changes, where the timeless landscape calls to both past and future, or is it a dynamic location of ever-shifting realities? In September, as the seasons shift, perhaps it can be both.

I pack my clothes along with everything I need for a multi-sport trip, add my analogue camera and a few film rolls, and get on the road as the rich light of early autumn spills through the trees. I can hardly wait to be back amongst the mountains.

Later that afternoon, I meet up with Rachel, Matt, and John in the town of Brig. The local food festival is well underway and the area is thronging with a lively crowd. After finding a local pizzeria, it’s time to enjoy an evening of planning and preparation.

In some ways this feels so familiar: the anticipation before a mountain trip that I’ve experienced so many times before right here in Switzerland. But every journey offers something new. I’m looking forward to finding out what new side to the Alps will be revealed this time.


We’re up and out early the next morning. Our first stop: hiking over the Simplon, a high pass in Valais. Soon out of the pass, feeling the fresh air breezing through my hair, I take a moment to pause and enjoy the views. I’m back.

Sarah smiles as she meets us for a coffee. She’s a local guide who comes from the village down in the valley. After coffee and introductions, she points us towards a tiny mountain lake below the pass, its sparkling surface reflecting every ridge and col in the peaks above. Despite hot sunshine, the colours on the hillsides are just starting to change and soon will tip over to golds and russets. Meanwhile, back in the here and now, the cold stream water freshens us up.

‘This trail goes from Simplonpass to Simplon Dorf,’ Sarah explains, ‘a historic Alpine crossing that has been used for generations.’ We gaze up at the imposing stone eagle – the Steinadler – symbol of vigilance, built to commemorate the sacrifice of solders fighting to protect this pass during the Wacht am Simplon in the Second World War.

Our group strolls along an old mule track. I raise my camera and snap a few photos. These images will stay on my camera until I get home – they cannot be viewed, edited, or re-taken. There is a beauty in that, a nod to the past as well as the future. Permanence and the capture of moments in an ever-changing landscape. I stoop down and photograph some of the diverse Alpine flowers that cluster alongside the trail.

Next: a snack stop, then continuing on through the shade-dappled forest and along a track next to the river, where the glacial-fed torrent foams over a bed of boulders. Close to the second-last village on the southern side of the pass, Simplon Dorf, we decide to refresh our feet in the icy river and take a last break in nature. Lazily paddling in the water only heightens our anticipation for the legendary bakery in town.

An amazing hot chocolate and Apfelstrudel are more than welcome after our hike – and I even take home a traditional loaf of rye bread, unique to this area.

Aletsch Arena

As the early morning sun rises over the mountains above Brig, I realise that today will be an exciting day: we’re heading onto the glacier. And not just any glacier. The Great Aletsch Glacier is a World Heritage Site with more than 10 billion tons of ice – by far the largest glacier in the Alps, at over 20km in length.

Our guide today has spent most of his life in this area, and knows all the best peaks and hikes. We start with a 40-minute walk from the lift towards a tunnel that dives straight into the rock. Accessible only in the summer, this dark tunnel carries us through to the other side of the mountain, lit only by a couple of lamps. The fresh temperatures underground foreshadow the enormous mass of ice ahead. After emerging from the tunnel we pause at a cute hut – where you can actually sleep overnight – and stop for some coffee.

Another 20 minutes downhill bring us to the vast white of the Aletsch Glacier. This barren place of puzzling contradictions excites me. It looks eternal – and yet nothing stays still here for long. It’s an ever-changing landscape where terrain shifts, migrates, breaks apart and reforms continuously. Lifting my camera once again to my eye, I click the shutter… and wonder if I return here a decade from now with the photo in my hand I’ll be able to recognise the view.

We put on crampons. Searing white light reflects from the ice as we navigate into the maze of crevasses. Ice crunches under steel points and I listen to the tinkle of meltwater flowing into moulins. In the centre of the glacier, a 360° view of mountains – from the Matterhorn to Mont Blanc in the distance, and countless more closer to hand – amazes us all.

That afternoon, we take the cable car up to the Eggishorn viewpoint, where we can see the entire glacier laid out before us on a macro scale. Sadly the effects of climate change are clear from this perspective: the moraine-covered lower reaches, the eroded banks where the ice has dropped.

The Aletsch Glacier is shrinking by up to 50m in length every year, and by some predictions may almost disappear as early as 2090 (threatening local water supplies as well as scenic views). The glacier is a UNESCO heritage site and puts sustainability as a priority. And the Valais Matterhorn region is also taking sustainability seriously. The mountain villages of Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp are car-free, cable cars and lifts run on renewable energy, and visitors are encouraged to arrive by public transport.


Saas-Fee/Saastal is a place with so much character that it might take you several visits (or a lifetime) to fully appreciate. With 18 peaks over 4,000m, 20 glaciers, and strikingly diverse ecosystems, its natural wonders are all but unmatched. And the village of Saas-Fee has been car-free municipality since the road was built – you have to take an electric vehicle or walk into the village. It’s magical to experience a village with no cars.

When I open the curtains after a 6.30am alarm, beautiful orange light is aglow on the peaks of Allalin, Täschhorn, Dom (at 4,545m, the highest mountain entirely on Swiss soil), and Lenzspitze, as well as lighting up the last of the summer’s flowers on the balcony of the hotel. There’s a crisp feeling to the morning.

We take the little electric taxi back to the car park and go down the valley to Saas-Grund on the other side (the mountain railways and postbuses are free in summer and autumn with the guest card from the first overnight stay throughout the whole of the Saas Valley). Time for a hike. The compact peak of Jegihorn rises above us. Between marmots popping in and out of their burrows, constellations of Alpine flowers at our feet, and some rockier scrambling, we make our way up to the Jegihorn top cross. The sun’s bright, but the wind blows chill at higher elevations and I’m glad of my jacket as we step across a few snow patches. There’s even a via ferrata that reaches this point from the bottom of the cliff. I wonder how many other climbers and hikers have reached this point over the centuries. Again I’m struck by a sense of timelessness in this place.

When I’m out hiking, I always get distracted by the forms, patterns, colours, and little details that nature gives me. So this is why I bring my camera. Today, scrambling up the steep trails and climbing the last few steps with hands on the rocks, feeling the rough grit of the stone under my fingertips, I am full of awe at the detail of nature. It feels right that the grain of stone and the textures of Alpine plants will be captured in the enduring grain of 35mm film.

The view is just as good as we anticipated, and after stopping for a snack we descend to a little Alpine hut for an amazing cheese and meat board. All produce from the Saas Valley, of course.


That evening, we arrive early in Leukerbad – just what I need after days of big hikes. I ease myself into the warm waters of the famous Therme to enjoy some bubbles prior to a great dinner.

The next morning doesn’t disappoint either. I wake to a view of the enormous cliffs straight through my window – and once again the sun is painting golden light onto them. I see movement. Huge birds flit to and fro up there, visible only as tiny specks from this distance.

The four of us take the lift to the top of the Gemmi Pass, and we approach a viewpoint on the edge of the world. I’m standing on a glass surface, looking down to the valley below. Huge birds of prey swoop from their eyries on the cliffs and ride the thermals.

Next comes a hike to the tranquil lake of Daubensee. This proves to be a mellow hike, and we’re full of appreciation for the wildflowers, including the prickly blooms of Cirse épineux, one of the flowers suffering from the effects of climate change. A local farmer watches us approach, and nods as we draw near. We get into conversation about the history of Grosses Plattenhorn, the mountain that looms over the lake. ‘Farmers once carried their cows over the difficult mountain pass,’ he tells us.

Gemmi Lodge hosts us for a big lunch. Schweizer Käsepost, a famous plate of chips and cheese, replenishes energy levels after our hike. From our perch on the very edge of the precipice, we spot a bird that seems so much bigger than the eagles we’ve seen already, with unmistakable masked face and fingered wing tips. ‘I think it’s a bearded vulture!’ John says. Part of me yearns to capture the moment on film, but some experiences defy capture. And in the end I am happy to just witness it.

The mountains above Leukerbad are a stronghold for this rare and majestic bird of prey. Once extinct throughout the Alps, they have been reintroduced since the 1970s.

Back down in the valley, we embark on one of the most unusual journeys on this trip so far: the historic via ferrata between Leukerbad and Albinen. It’s the oldest via ferrata in the Alps, dating from 1781! This dramatic sequence of wooden ladders was once essential for trade, as it was the only route between the villages. Climbing the sheer 100m rock face via these ancient ladders was a true eye-opener – life in the Alps must have been hard centuries ago. I try to imagine carrying goods or even livestock up this route.

Up in Albinen on its steep hillside, we find well-preserved wooden houses dating back to the 17th century. The air’s cooler up here and I put myself in the shoes of the farmers who would have been starting to think about taking their cattle down to lower pastures at this time of year. Traditional transhumance is still practised in the Alps to this day.


A change of scenery – and sport! Today we join the trails of Veysonnaz for some fun MTB. Perfect doubletrack paths climbing up from the valley, as well as sweet singletrack, are the theme of the morning. Before heading up, we meet with a South African guide who mountain bikes in the summer and works as a snowboard guide in the winter. While the rest of the team speed around on e-bikes, I pedal up steep switchbacks from Veysonnaz, looping around the northern spur of Mont Carré where the views north across the Rhône Valley are bewitching. It provides a fine overview of the whole area and I catch myself thinking that I still have so much yet to explore.

We all pause at a particularly fine viewpoint on the prow of the mountain. John’s pointing north, towards snow-capped peaks; Rachel and Matt are distracted by patterns in the landscape closer at hand. Then I’m back on the saddle and kicking up dust in the hot mountain sun. The bike allows me to zone out thoughts, enjoy the moment, and just be present – that’s why I take a bike on most of my trips. You can always find beautiful trails like this, allowing you to disconnect and just be with nature. With a bicycle there’s always this singular unifying experience. The flow of the trail is a source that can be tapped anywhere, even when experiencing widely diverse mountain areas.

Then we descend straight to the best Swiss fondue, served to us in a small hut by the side of the road towards Veysonnaz. As we sit at the wooden table and devour our fondue, still casting the occasional wistful glance up at the mountains we have enjoyed in so many different ways, a golden autumn leaf drifts through the room on an unseen breeze, glinting in a sunbeam momentarily before landing at my feet. The seasons are changing – as this place is endlessly changing. But some things never change.

I trace my fingers over the familiar lines of the analogue camera hanging on its strap by my side. The roll of film concealed within holds images of our time here – images waiting to be processed, scanned, maybe printed. Snapshots of a place that is both ancient and young, eternal and constantly reinventing itself.

Thank you, Switzerland. We will be back.

Written by Sami Sauri // @samisauri
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 The Valais Matterhorn Region