Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Up the valley with Jordan Mara

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In early September, shortly after Eileen and I returned from a month-long trip to Canada, I received a message from my cousin Jordan. He had bought a last-minute charter flight from Vancouver to Amsterdam for $400, and proposed to visit me in Geneva for two or three nights.  He conceived of the trip, bought the plane ticket and departed all within a few days, so he left most of the details to organise en route.

For his visit, I wanted to take Jordan hiking in the high Alps. The two highest ranges in the Swiss Alps rise to the north and south of the Rhône River, which runs roughly east to west through the southwest of the country. The Bernese Alps rise north of the Rhône, in the Canton of Bern, and include the famous Eiger-Jungfrau-Mönch (Ogre-Virgin-Monk) massif. The Pennine Alps rise above the south bank of the Rhône in the Canton of Valais, and straddle the Swiss-Italian border. They include the ultra-famous Matterhorn and the two highest peaks in Switzerland: Monte Rosa and the Dom.

The following map from the SOIUSA shows the partitions of the different zones of the southwestern Alps, with the Pennine Alps zone (#9) highlighted. Zone 12 is the Bernese Alps and zone 7 is the Graian Alps, which centre on the Mont Blanc massif in France.


Map source: Wikipedia, “Pennine Alps

For our hike, I chose a valley called Val de Bagnes, which ascends southward from the town of Martigny to the slopes of some of the 4,000m+ summits in the Pennine Alps. The most famous place in the Val de Bagnes is perhaps the ski resort of Verbier, which lies midway up the valley. Jordan and I were bound for the head of the valley, above Verbier.

I have devoted a large portion of my travel time in Switzerland venturing into the Pennine Alps from the long list of valleys that drain them: just two weeks prior to my hike with Jordan, I hiked at the top of the Val d’Anniviers, two valleys to the east of the Val de Bagnes.

My referencing all of these valleys may make for a plodding read, but it reflects my fascination with the differences between how Canadians and Swiss conceive of their geographies. When I describe the location of places in Canada, for example towns or mountains, I usually begin by naming the province and then the nearest big city – the political geography of the place. Only occasionally would I use a physical feature for further description, and then just the features that are huge enough to appear on a world map: the west coast, Vancouver Island or the Saint Lawrence River, for example.

By contrast, for a long time in Switzerland, I found myself lost when a Swiss person tried to describe to me the location of their small hometown, their favourite ski resort or the town where their parents own a second home. I had a rough image of the Swiss political map in my head, complete with the big cities and some of the main cantons. But in their descriptions, the Swiss often omit cantons and cities entirely, and situate places in the little valleys where they are found.

This was a revelation to me, as I have made many trips into the mountains in Canada and never once paid attention to what valley I was in. Banff is in Alberta, a couple of hours west of Calgary, but what valley is it in? I skied most often at Mt. Washington on Vancouver Island, but what valley is that? Conceiving of geography by valleys is a method of pinpointing places that corresponds both with the physical landscape and with a human being’s interaction with that landscape: to reach the town under the mountain, you have to travel up the valley, or cross over from an adjacent valley.

Despite my learning the whole valley-talk, my Swiss geographic acculturation remains incomplete. Sometimes the Swiss swap between naming a valley and the river that drains it, and the names do not always match. For example, the Dranse River drains the Val de Bagnes, and both names are used interchangeably when situating towns in the valley. So after building my Swiss valley vocabulary a little more, I will then have to go back and match rivers to valleys…

For our hike in the Val de Bagnes, Jordan and I began in Fionnay, a pretty little village at 1,490m, just below the head of the valley. From there, it was a short but steep first hike up to the Cabane FXB Panossière at 2,650m. My normal hiking speed is faster than the estimated times in my guidebooks, but Jordan had me moving even faster than normal on this trip. He graduated last year from the University of Arizona, where he was a star middle distance runner: he ran the 800m in just over 1:50 and the 400m in just under 0:49. For pace and distance, I doubt our hike was taxing in comparison with his training, although I hope the up-and-down with a pack gave him a bit of a challenge.

Here is a photo of the spectacular scene awaiting us: the Cabane, built on a lateral moraine, just 200m from the colossal Glacier du Grand Combin, which flows down from the snow-encased mountain of the same name. In the middle of the photo, the Combin de Corbassière is the rocky mountain with the two-fingered cirque glacier clinging to it.

The Panossière hut is among the most comfortable of the Swiss Alpine Club (CAS) huts I have visited.  Its facilities still feel new and clean, although the current structure dates from 1996. It dorm beds are divided into smaller, soundproofed rooms – essential for reducing the number of snoring roommates. And the food was more imaginative than the usual CAS fare, highlighted by Italian espresso-style coffee in the morning: a significant improvement over the usual powdered coffee.

Fresher, tastier food and other comforts is no small feat for these isolated huts, as they are often supplied only by helicopter. Here is an example of the heli-sacks in which they receive their deliveries from down the valley:

The highest point above the Val de Bagnes is the Grand Combin, at approximately 4,300m. It is the centre of the surrounding glacial massif, of which its eponymous glacier is the largest feature. Since we were staying next to the glacier, I was hoping to hear it crack and groan as it flowed. But we visited the area in late summer conditions, which meant less heat to melt the ice and therefore relative quiet from the glacier, other than the muffled rush of meltwater flowing beneath it, unseen.

The sun had blazed during our hike in the afternoon, but the clouds ambushed us in the evening, thwarting my plan to shoot sunset and then star photos.

The hut has a capacity of approximately 100 beds, but with only 15 or so guests staying that night, Jordan and I had a 10-person dorm room to ourselves, so I slept relatively well, despite my heart racing a bit from the altitude.

The next morning, I woke before dawn to shoot sunrise photos and was thankful that the sky was clear. I was outside early enough to attempt one final shot of the stars. Unfortunately the following photo was just my test shot, as the sky brightened so quickly that the real shot was blown out with its long exposure. I was lucky to have a test shot that worked this well!

As I was preparing the above photo, the glacier released a resounding CRACK. The sound seemed to come from its impressive icefall section, which is dimly visible just above the big corner in the photo above. Here is a tighter shot of the Grand Combin just before sunrise, with the icefall below:

The sunrise alpenglow on the Grand Combin was limited to a short, bright glimpse on the upper slopes. When I edited these photos on my computer, I zoomed in to look for a pair of Polish climbers who had left the hut in the middle of the night to climb the mountain. I did not see them in the photo – likely it was still too early for them to have reached the upper slopes. More impressive than the Polish pair’s attempt to climb the Grand Combin was their commitment to the excursion: they had driven 1,500km directly from Poland for their two days in the mountains, and planned to drive directly back after descending!

The morning routine in Swiss mountain huts is brisk. The previous night, the wardens usually cut the lights at 10h or so, and then they serve breakfast between 7h and 8h the following morning. Climbers often leave during the night, but the majority of the remaining guests rise, wash and pack their bags before breakfast. I enjoy the image that awaits me after breakfast: a neat line of backpacks on the bench near the door, shoulder straps all facing outwards, with a pair of boots under each one.

Jordan and I were the last ones to leave the hut, at 8h30 or so. We hiked in the chilly shade for the first half an hour, up to a pass called Col des Otanes, at 2,900m. Here is Jordan at 9h, just at the point when the sweaty climb overcame the chilly air and we shed layers of clothing:

From the Col des Otanes, we descended in the morning sunshine to Mauvoisin, the end of the road at the head of the Val de Bagnes. “Village” may be a generous name for Mauvoisin, as it seemed to consist of a hotel, a bus stop and a water fountain fashioned out of a log. Oh, and a little Notre-Dame des Neiges chapel whose information panel says it was closed and unused for decades before tourism and heritage authorities refurbished it.

Mauvoisin earned its place on the map not for its current size, but because it was a bustling little village during the construction of the Mauvoisin Dam in the 1950s. The dam is still the highest arched dam in Europe, at 250m, and was a monumental project for this isolated area, providing electricity for the entire valley and prompting the construction of the modern road.

For Jordan and me, the dam provided an unexpected and memorable interlude during our hike. We spent three days hiking under blue skies, gazing at vast mountain vistas, amidst which we assumed that crossing the dam would be a forgettable detail. But the valley museum, located down the road in the village of Le Châble, had other ideas.

The museum has appropriated the mountain trail where it passes over the dam and has converted it into an interpretive exhibit about the dam. Leading up from Mauvoisin, captioned photos show the chronology of the dam’s construction, with its effects on Mauvoisin and the valley. Then the surprising part: near the base of the dam, the trail continues underground, through the service tunnels that workers used during the construction. The well lit tunnels are lined with photos and exhibits describing the construction. So soon after blue skies and mountains, Jordan and I were amazed to find ourselves wandering through a few kilometres of dark tunnels, learning about dam construction and shivering slightly from the damp air.

I did not shoot any photos in the tunnels, but here is a photo from the dam deck. The “village” of Mauvoisin is the single green roof visible at the end of the service road that snakes away from the bottom of the dam.

Along with the interpretive trail through the old Mauvoisin tunnels, the Musée de Bagnes has also erected frames on the deck of the dam that they use to exhibit large prints of paintings or photographs. During our visit, the frames displayed 30 photos of Oregonian cowboys, shot by Genevan photographer Christian Lutz.

At first glance, I laughed at the bizarreness of seeing cowboy images on a dam in the high Alps. But after reflecting, I realized the link: transhumance. The Oregonian cowboy drives his cattle from winter to summer pastures, just as the Swiss farmer does with his cows, sheep or goats.  The Mauvoisin dam as a setting for the exhibition was nonetheless ironic, or perhaps wistful, as the dam’s construction in the late 1950s eliminated a lot of the transhumance that was previously practiced in the upper valley.

We stopped for lunch a little ways up the trail from the dam. After eating, we both napped in the sun:

From Mauvoisin Dam, we climbed gradually to the idyllic Col de Tsofeiret at 2,630m. Just below the pass is a shallow lake, surrounded by rolling, verdant meadows. The hills protect the lake from the wind, so the warm air felt as soft as the spongy meadow underfoot.

Earlier in the day, before we left Mauvoisin, we had watched a group of mountain bikers pedal off towards the dam. We kept wondering where they had gone, until we saw them again at the pass above us.

We readied our cameras to shoot their sure-to-be-exciting descent, but unfortunately they were beginners. I stood next to a little rock drop that a confident mountain biker would roll over without pausing. But each of these bikers, in turn, stepped off the pedals and straddle-walked his bike over the obstacle. The following photo was my best action shot, but even in this one, the biker in the background has stepped off his pedals to walk over a rock. Pros or not, these guys looked as if they were enjoying a great day.

With eating and photo breaks, our second day stretched to a little more than seven hours. By the end of it, we were both quiet and ready to arrive. Our home for the night was the Cabane de Chanrion. The following photo shows a little lake, with the Chanrion hut in the near distance.

Unfortunately the hut was undergoing some work during our stay. It was a bit noisy until the workers stopped in the evening, but otherwise the only effect of the work was that all of the dorm rooms save one were closed, meaning that all 15 or so guests were together in there. Despite my worries that this would mean a poor sleep for me, I slept better than I ever have in a hut – eight solid hours of Z’s.

Here is a photo of a muted sunset, shot at the same little lake just below the hut. The mountain is Mont Gelé.

The Chanrion hut has an earlier breakfast hour than other huts, serving it between 6h and 7h. This actually suited me well, as it meant I could eat before shooting sunrise photos. Here is a shot of the dawn pinks over Mont Gelé and Chanrion:

The Grand Combin massif was once again the dominant feature on the horizon, albeit a less ice-encrusted profile than the one we saw above the Panossière hut. Here are the day’s first sunbeams hitting the east flank of the Grand Combin:

While shooting sunrise photos, I was able to sit cross-legged behind my tripod. At one point I glanced between my legs and was startled to see what looked like an edelweiss flower. Sure enough, it was a single edelweiss flower that I had somehow avoided squashing. But when I stood up, I saw that I had also sat on a few others. Fortunately, the edelweiss is revered for keeping its shape after being picked and pawed, so the ones I sat on should survive.

The edelweiss is an iconic image, associated with the hardy plants, animals and people who live in the high Alps. I mentioned in an earlier entry that I had never seen one in the wild, and here was one literally in my lap! I did not have my macro lens with me, so the following photo is slightly blurry and grainy, but I was excited to see one.

When I returned to the hut, even the boring old door was enlivened by the mountain vista:

On the third day, we needed to return to Mauvoisin to catch the bus down the valley. Given how beautiful we had found the Col de Tsofeiret, we decided to retrace our route from the previous day. We left the hut relatively late, at 9h or so, and arrived at the Col a half-hour later. There, we found perfect light conditions for photographs, so we snapped away for 30 minutes.

Here are a couple of portraits in front on the Grand Combin:

Next is a photo of the trail topping out on a grassy bump above the pass:

The following photo shows shadows of the mountain ridge receding along the meadows that border the Lac de Tsofeiret:

Lastly, here is a giant panorama of the Tsofeiret area. From the right, you can see the yellow trail marker at the pass, then the Lac de Tsofeiret, then Jordan in the foreground, and then the Grand Combin massif on the left in the background.

Altogether, this was a special hike. As a package, the landscape, the weather and the huts would have made for a “great” hike. But enjoying the hike with Jordan made it special. This was Jordan’s first trip to Europe and I was glad to introduce him to hiking in the Alps: perhaps my favourite aspect of living in Switzerland, and probably different from the rest of his city-oriented trip.

This was my first opportunity to have long conversations with adult Jordan, now 23 and contemplating his first steps in post-university adult life. I have been lucky to know Jordan and his two brothers throughout their lives, but once I began living abroad and they reached high school and university age, I had only infrequent and short visits with them. Spending long days with Jordan in spectacular mountain scenery, away from the City, the Computer and the Phone, was a great opportunity for us to have long conversations and for me to know Jordan as an adult.

Over the course of the two days, I also came to realise that Jordan may be the first person I have known well from birth to adulthood. His older brother Tyrell is ten years younger than me, so I would have seen him as a baby, but I do not have specific memories of baby Tyrell. By contrast, I have clear memories of baby Jordan in his crib, with Tyrell looking down at him – a bit skeptically at times – in their parents’ house in Burnaby. I don’t know what that realisation means about me, but it highlights how special it was to spend three days in the mountain with a cousin I have known for his whole life.

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