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Beyond the Val de Bagnes to the Bernese Oberland


Text: Wayne Pope Photos: Mark Shapiro

As the snow melts, skis are put away for another year and walking boots are dusted off ready for the summer months ahead. The beauty and variety of our own region can make it hard to step beyond its boundaries. But from time to time we are reminded that this region is one of many in this fair country and this is just what Wayne Hill and his loyal band of Verbier walkers discovered last autumn. They share their adventures here, just in case you should ever feel the urge to journey further.

I made the decision to tour the Bernese Oberland because it was a part of Switzerland I had never visited and I had heard it was stunning. I was led to believe that this would be a walk in the park compared to previous trips (the Haute Route and the Tour du Mont Blanc). Wrong! Stunning, absolutely. Walk in the park, absolutely not. It took some time to come up with an itinerary as there are numerous trails along the way but no definitive route. After some deliberation, I put together a nine-day trip.

Once again kitted out in gear from Outdoor Research, Scarpa and Black Diamond, one damp morning early in September, Kevin, Conchi, Marko and I made our way from Martigny Station to Les Diablerets, our starting point. In hindsight, this was an error, we didn’t hit a proper trail until Gsteig (a better starting point, if you ever do this tour) to the Krinnen Pass with its magnificent view of the Lauenensee. Unfortunately, no time to linger at the lake as, to finish our nine-hour day, we had a major climb to the Geltenhütte. The impressive hike up followed a mountain river below and behind numerous waterfalls. We arrived just as dinner was being served. Perfect!.

After a good night’s sleep, we continued along the opposite side of the valley. A little rugged at first, with some narrow footpaths with steep drops aided by fixed ropes and ladders to Chuetungel, then rolling green hills, before a steep climb again aided by fixed ropes to the Wildhorn Hut. After lunch we descended a path of scree to another picturesque lake (Iffigsee). We spent the night in the showerless dormitories of the Berghaus Iffigenalp barn..

The following morning took us through rolling pastureland, woodland with fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls above. We then ascended through green meadows, but as we got higher the terrain became more rugged and the last 300m before we reached the Ammerten Pass was very steep and just a little bit scary. It was quite a relief to reach the windy pass, but our fear was soon forgotten as we walked down to the plateau of Engstligenalp, below the Wildstrubel, so green and maintained it looks like a golf course! Here we were well fed at the comfortable Berghaus Bartschi.

The next day was all about the Gemmi Pass. We crossed the Chindbetti Pass and the glacial remains of Rote Chumme and walked beside the steely grey waters of the Daubensee. The Gemmi Pass was once a major route for traders between Valais and Bern. Nowadays a cable car links Leukerbad to the pass, but in days long gone, traders would walk goods-laden donkeys over the pass. Once you have built up the courage to look over the edge, you see that this was not an easy feat as the route is almost vertical! There are also clear views of the distant peaks of the Matterhorn, Dent Blanche and Monte Rosa. Descending the pass the way we had come, but taking the opposite side of the lake, we arrived at the Berghotel Schwarenbach. Although obviously and recently renovated, this is one of Switzerland’s oldest hotels, dating back to 1742 and it’s not hard to imagine Valaisan traders stopping there for a rest after their slog up the Gemmi Pass and of course several glasses of wine!.

Day five took us from the Schwarenbach via Sunnbüel and Kandersteg to the Blüemlisalphütte and started with a bit of a cheat; we took a cable car down to Kandersteg, which reduced our day by over an hour and pleased our knees! Kandersteg is breathtaking. The village stretches along the valley bottom and the river Kander runs through its centre, but what makes this area so spectacular are the surrounding valleys, glens and towering peaks with numerous waterfalls. Our trail took us alongside the river Oeschibach to paradise. As a Londoner, I have been known to use the odd expletive when describing something, but for Oeschinensee there just aren’t enough. It is a mountain lake almost totally surrounded by the peaks of the Dündenhorn and the Blüemlisalp, with waterfalls cascading in to it and pinewoods running along its banks. Truly, truly beautiful. From the lake our trail was rugged and steep but well maintained, ending with countless steps set into scree to the Hohtürli Pass, just ten minutes below the hut. The Blüemlisalp Hut is perched on a peak at 2,840m with tremendous views..

The first 300m of the descent the next day from the Hothürli Pass was steep and we were helped by steps and fixed ropes, but soon afterwards this changed to green fields. Later, as we approached the pass at Sefinafurgga, we crossed the remnants of the Gamchi glacier with its arches formed in ice by the river that flows from the melting ice above. At the pass, our first view of the towering peaks of the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger and to our left the Schilthorn with its famous revolving restaurant that featured in an early James Bond movie. From here we descended to Rotstock Hut, busy with weekend walkers making for a lively Saturday evening..

The following morning started with a three-hour descent through Mürren to Lauterbrunnen. In exchange for some of Marko’s pictures, the Jungfrau Tourist Office kindly supplied us with our next two nights’ accommodation and tickets for the train to the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in the world at 3,454m. You should take the time to go on this railway which is a “scenic” railway in every sense of the word, but be warned, it is a real tourist trap and having spent so much time away from people, we found it a bit shocking to be surrounded by hundreds of them. The train tunnel has been carved through the Eiger to a remarkable station with cafes, restaurants, an ice palace and the obligatory souvenir shop! From the station we walked for an hour along a snow-covered path to the Mönchsjoch Hut, marveling at the Aletsch Glacier which continues for a further 23km to Valais. The refuge sits at 3,627m with magnificent views of the glacier and the surrounding peaks of the Schreckhorn and Finsteraarhorn. That night a tremendous storm with lightening, thunder and some fresh snow made the visit to the outside toilets an adventure in itself!
The following day the sun burnt away the cloud cover on a cold, but glorious morning and we made our way back to the Jungfraujoch without a single person in view. We took the Eiger Trail traversing the Eiger below its north face, some 1,700m below its peak, giving fantastic views of Grindelwald below. Our walk took us through fields and woods and across the Unterer Grindelwaldgletscher Gorge towards the Hotel Wetterhorn which was extremely comfortable and, after a beer and our first shower in four days, we were content..

On our last day of walking, a steadily rising trail took us directly from the hotel to the Grosse Scheidegg. We left the Lötschental Valley and its views of the Eiger, Wetterhorn and Grindelwald for the valley of Haslital. A four-hour gradual descent alongside the river through Schwarzwaldalp and Rosenlaui (below the Rosenlaui Glacier) took us to Innertkirchen where we were staying (quite conveniently) at a pub/hotel..

The return train journey from Innertkirchen via Meiringen, Interlaken and Visp took us back to Verbier in just four hours with thoughts turning already to next year’s adventure and where it might take us.