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Valais: Four Days, Four Seasons

A Journey through Time in Switzerland’s Valais Region
Written by Anke Eberhardt // Photography: Johny Cook // Film: Summit Fever Media
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism and Valais Matterhorn Region

There’s this moment when a 4.30am wake-up call turns into magic. When your boots break trail through misty grass, obligingly following the spotlight of your head torch. With every step, nature wakes from the dark a bit more. At this moment, it seems as if the mountains will stretch towards the sky, just as we did to the ceilings of our bunk beds at the Alpine hut only two hours ago. But, instead, the peaks are reaching towards the hazy pastel colours that only a sunrise can paint on the horizon. And then, there they are in full glory: summits as far as the eye can see, rough and proud, perfectly fanned out in a circle around La Pointe de Bellevue – and if a peak in Switzerland is called ‘Beautiful View’, that’s saying something.

Last night we made our way to Valais – a canton in the south-west of Switzerland entirely located within the Alps. Valais is home to Switzerland’s highest mountain, the Dufourspitze, at 4,634m. Now we’re standing above 2,000m, in the Région Dents du Midi, turning and turning, again and again, absorbing the 360° panorama. With views across the iconic Dents du Midi range all the way towards Mont Blanc, it feels like there must be more mountains than people in this part of the country. Indeed, we meet more cows than humans this morning, all welcoming the sun like we are. It’s the end of August, but the air seems young, like in in the first days of spring when warmth returns to the heights. And with rising temperatures, our jackets, beanies, and sweaters disappear into our backpacks.

In winter, the mountain resorts of Les Portes du Soleil (appropriately, ‘The Gates of the Sun’) attract skiers and snowboarders, while in summer, Champéry, Val-d’Illiez, Les Crosets, Champoussin, Troistorrents and Morgins – forming the Région Dents du Midi – and Torgon (also on the Swiss side of the resort) are a paradise for hikers and mountain bikers. The resorts on the French side of this transborder skiing region are mainly known for huge apartment buildings, but on the Swiss side of the frontier there are mainly little villages with a charming mountain feel.

As we make our way down the hill for breakfast, we follow the cows and the tinkling of their bells. They know that it’s exactly 7.30am and stroll to the stable independently to be milked. Just a few steps further, all kinds of dairy produce are already waiting for us on the wooden tables outside the age-old alp. Our guide Baptiste even claims that the Valais cheese is so good that the fondue here is way creamier than a couple of kilometres across in France. But, as temperatures have already made it up to the T-shirt zone, hot cheese will have to wait – let alone the schnapps that you have to drink when you lose your bread in the fondue pot. This morning’s spring vibes have turned into full-on summer: it’s now boiling hot outside. And while we explore more of the valleys on bikes, any cheese left in a backpack would easily become an unintended DIY fondue.


When the dark clouds roll in towards the Dent de Nendaz peak the next day, even the locals are surprised. Valais is spoiled with an exceptional climate and almost 300 sunny days per year. But, even if the sun isn’t mirroring in the Lac Noir (‘The Black Lake’) at Alp Tracouet today, the surroundings are no less impressive. With views of the Rhône Valley and the limitless mountains of the 4 Vallées, Switzerland’s biggest ski area, Nendaz offers plenty of reasons to defy the weather. And so, we pull out the sweaters and continue our hike. In addition to the breathtaking panorama there are other reasons to take a breath; scores of wild blueberry bushes surround the trail, offering complimentary snacks on the way. Every time we lean down and pick one of the sweet treats, the front of dark clouds seems to have crawled a bit closer towards us.

When the first raindrops bounce off our jackets, the air smells like autumn and the snow-covered peaks on the horizon suddenly fit the scene even better. But the clouds are gentle; there’s no thunder anywhere close to our small Gore-Tex caravan. Reaching the summit, the gigantic wooden cross proves a novelty for our Scottish photographer, but as a German I find the ecclesiastical peak decoration so commonplace that I’m only surprised by his surprise. Whether it’s goodwill from above, or simply the Valais weather karma, the dripping sounds suddenly stop just half an hour later on the descent. One of the gigantic rocks serves as a picnic table next to the Balavaux forest, known for its hundred-year-old larch trees. In the autumnal climate, the cheese on our sandwiches is far from melting in our backpacks today, and we devour the local samples.

And later, after sunset, we’ll return to the mountainside with friends to enjoy a delicious raclette prepared over a wood fire.

‘In the 17th century, the Aletsch Glacier was much bigger,’ Aletsch Arena local, David Kestens, recounts the next day as we wander through thick fog in an area so rugged it feels extraterrestrial. Boulders everywhere, covered in far more than 50 shades of grey and green – but a glacier? Nowhere in sight. The Aletsch Glacier should be at our feet, but instead, the entire valley is wrapped in dense clouds. ‘Back then, the size of the glacier was a problem,’ David continues in his Swiss-German singsong as we follow the trail further and further away from the Bettmerhorn peak. ‘When big ice blocks burst off the glacier, villages were flooded. So the locals asked the Pope for help – and the prayers worked! Every year, the glacier got smaller.’ At 20 km in length and containing 10 billion tonnes of ice, the Aletsch Glacier is still the biggest ice flow in the Alps and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nowadays, of course, its shrinkage is a reason for concern, so the local people recently reversed the 17th-century petition, hoping now to make it grow again. And just as we reach a dramatically protruded rock on the side of the trail, our own prayers are heard: the mist slowly vanishes and like a frosty Fata Morgana the glacier appears, as if someone has quietly poured the ice into the valley. We zip up our jackets and pull down our beanies. Winter has arrived.

We feel small and ephemeral as we approach the glacier, sensing its magnitude. Gigantic caves are carved into the stream as if they have been there forever. But huge fragments falling off the sides prove that the shimmering domes are not made to last. Moving with a speed of almost 200m per year, the Aletsch Glacier is constantly on the go – and so are we when we notice how much time we have spent sliding our fingers over the sleek icy walls or letting crushed ice slip through our hands as if it were made especially for an Alpine cocktail. Time flies when you stare into a kaleidoscope of turquoise ice crystals, but now the rumbling of our stomachs leads us to the Gletscherstube.

We feel small and ephemeral as we approach the glacier, sensing its magnitude. Gigantic caves are carved into the stream as if they have been there forever.

Unsurprisingly, David recommends a local cheese speciality for lunch at the hut. A Käseschnitte: toasted bread with ham and grilled cheese. And, of course, David claims that the cheese here is the best. An egg, sunny side up, tops off the golden morsel. Even if we won’t see the real sun all day, it doesn’t satisfy any less – or maybe, having hiked through the elements, even more so.

As if Valais wants to showcase absolutely e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g it has to offer, Christmas comes early for us on the last day of the trip. With a cracking sound at every step on the white surface, it’s surreal that it is still, in fact, August. But the high Alpine air isn’t causing hallucinations; last night it snowed in Saas-Fee/Saastal – a very rare occurrence for this time of year.

Saas-Fee is surrounded by no less than 18 (yes, 18!) 4,000m peaks. And taking in the panorama from up high is even more impressive in fresh powder, under a picture-perfect blue sky. 4,000m – that’s a magic number, marking a level of adventure above the average weekend hike. And at the Allalinhorn, this number is now in our reach for the first time. The 4,027m peak above Saas-Fee is one of the most beautiful in the Valais Alps and makes the perfect debut for aspiring mountaineers. Thanks to the smooth ride with the Metro Alpin gondola up to 3,500m, the tour is not too strenuous when it comes to elevation gain. But as we put on our harnesses and depart into the world of white, we immediately sense that the high Alpine terrain demands our full focus. Focus is, however, quite hard considering the views around us, courting for attention. From afar, the Matterhorn greets with its iconic shape, peeking out from a seemingly never-ending sea of rock.

4,000m – that’s a magic number, marking a level of adventure above the average weekend hike. And at the Allalinhorn, this number is now in our reach for the first time.

Along the west flank of the Allalinhorn, our little crampon caravan makes its way closer and closer to the peak. The regret of having had too much of the delicious bread (enriched with crunchy nuts) and an extra portion of Bircher muesli (a legendary mix of oats, yoghurt, and fresh fruits) vanishes, as our lungs have to pay tribute to the height – and the breakfast energy is more than welcome. Then, there it is: the Allalinhorn. We reach the peak, standing above 4,000m for the first time in our lives, though rather feeling as if we just tackled Everest and K2 in a day if our endorphins were to ask. Squinting our eyes a bit, we can see skiers hit the jumps in the snow park across the valley. Skiers and snowboarders come to the glacier from all over the world to turn summer into winter. It’s safe to say that the Saas Valley is truly an outdoor paradise.

And below, quiet and peaceful, lies Saas-Fee, one of four villages in Saas-Fee/Saastal (the others being Saas-Grund, Saas-Almagell and Saas-Balen) with its historic wooden houses and rustic huts on stilts. The whole charm of the town is so traditional, so authentic, that it makes you feel like you just stepped out of a time machine right into the good old days. And because the village is car-free, the air downtown is almost as clear as up on the mountains around. And whether it’s the world’s highest revolving restaurant at the Mittelallalin or fine dining at a restaurant with glass floors above a river gorge, even the cuisine celebrates the unparalleled Alpine location.

Photos: Saastal Tourismus AG/Puzzle Media

For our last Valais supper, the bonfire plays tricks on us, sending us from one side to the other with its sparks, changing direction as the wind pleases. It’s hard to believe that we experienced a whole year’s climate within just four days – spring, summer, autumn, and winter – only a couple of hours apart from each other. While the sizzling fire melts raclette cheese from the huge wheel directly onto a baguette and straight into our mouths, we savour the evidence that raclette originating in Valais is still the best on the planet – as the locals claim. The conclusion is easy: whether cheese or season, the best is always the one you’re experiencing right now.

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Written by Anke Eberhardt // @anke_is_awesome
Photography by Johny Cook // @johny.cook
Film by Summit Fever Media // @sfm_films

Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism and