Walking in the Swiss Alps

26th March 2011, by Nicholas van Zanten

Skiers as well as walkers can admire Europe's biggest glacier

Skiers as well as walkers can admire Europe's biggest glacier

What can you do in a ski resort if you don’t want to ski? Other than sit around doing the Times crossword, that is. Well, the obvious answer is to explore some of the walks that most resorts offer, either on- or off-piste.

A bracing hike through snow covered mountains on a sunny day, with the promise of a decent lunch at a slope-side restaurant at the end, sounds just the job. In February I joined Editor Gill on a tour of four Swiss ski resorts to see how it turned out in practice – Zermatt, Crans-Montana, Saas-Fee and the smaller resort of Aletsch Arena.

All four resorts have dedicated, prepared walking paths meandering between the pistes. Paths are clearly marked on the resort piste maps. In practice, I found the paths clearly signposted and easy to follow.

Prepared paths have a surface of compacted snow. These paths require little more than a decent pair of walking boots and standard ski clothing to navigate. Two walking poles will help you up and down the steeper slopes.

However, after a dump of snow, or if you are walking off-path in fresh snow, you will need snowshoes. These can be hired at any ski shop. Snowshoes work by distributing your weight over a larger area than a regular boot – so that your foot doesn’t sink completely into the snow.

These days snowshoes are high-tech – they look nothing like the old wood-and-leather tennis racquet affairs that walkers used to strap to their feet. Instead, they are light, tough, plastic moulded platforms that can be quickly secured to any size of walking boot.

Modern snowshoes have a separate hinged section in the middle. Your boot is secured to this hinged inner section. This arrangement enables the toe to pivot, thus avoiding the need to lift the feet high when walking in deep snow. Instead, the snow shoe simply slides across the top of the snow. Steel crampons on the underside ensure a firm grip on ice, crud or snow.

Expensive snowshoes have swanky add-ons like spring-load suspension systems, contoured footbeds and titanium crampons.

Using snowshoes requires some instruction – particularly if you plan to attempt a steep slope in fresh snow for the first time. Hiring a guide to take you for your first walk is a good idea. A guide will not only teach you the correct technique, but also take you to the best places to walk on the mountain. A lower-cost alternative is to join a walking group.

Some paths start from the base of the mountain, others start higher up. For example, my first walk in Crans-Montana started at Plaine Morte – 3000m up. In this case you will need to take a gondola or cable car to the start of the walk. Most chairlifts are off-limits, but there are exceptions – check with the tourist office.

Nick enjoys a well earned beer, having walked up from Zermatt to Findeln

I found walking in the Swiss Alps an awe-inspiring experience. On the first day at Plaine Morte I snowshoed for two hours in complete silence on pure white powder snow, passing a gigantic ice cave on the way. At the end of the walk my guide and I climbed to an observation point at 3000m. Our efforts were rewarded with stunning panoramic views across the Valais Alps.

Aletsch Arena – a collection of small villages linked by lifts and pistes – is named after the adjacent Aletsch glacier, Europe’s largest glacier – up to 1km thick and 23 km long, says Wikipedia. I hiked along the ridge above it, enjoying amazing views; glacier resembles a vast, wild river that has been frozen solid in full flow.

In contrast, Zermatt provided a beautiful woodland trail with the mighty Matterhorn as the backdrop. Here I hiked to one of our favourite mountain restaurants – Chez Vrony – for some magnificent home-made pasta and a glass (or two) of wine.

By the time we reached Saas Fee I was ready to try some serious off-path walking on Hannig – a mountain devoted to non-skiing activities. My guide and I climbed 500m up the side of the mountain, driving our snowshoes into the deep-and-steep powder. This was tough. The perspiration literally dripped off us. Fortunately, we had taken fresh t-shirts for lunchtime – so as not to offend fellow diners.

Be aware that high-altitude walking is a breathtaking experience – both metaphorically and literally. The oxygen content at high altitudes is lower than at sea level. Striding up any Alp at high altitude for a couple of hours is always going to be a challenge. However, striding up the same mountain covered in fresh snow takes exertion to another level. It is like trying to walk up the side of a steep sand dune – the base keeps on giving way, making progress slow and tiring. I like to think that I am pretty fit, but I needed frequent stops to get my breath back.

All this, of course, means that Alpine walking is a fabulous aerobic workout – and in my view an infinitely more enjoyable way of keeping fit than spending a couple of hours at the gym.

Also bear in mind that high levels of exertion in the mountains can result in rapid dehydration. I drank a litre of water during a two hour walk, plus another half litre over lunch. It sounds a lot, but I needed it – supplemented by a couple of beers as well, of course.

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