Letter from Switzerland

Farewell and Hello

Stephen Senn

6 Jan 1995: Wasserfallen to the Hohe Winde

A bitter chill mist drowned the valley at Reigoldswil but we would soon be rising above it. We had decided to take advantage of the exceptional conditions. The children were with a friend and I had taken the day off work. On the 31 December, when out for a walk on the Passwang, we had been surprised at the amount of snow around. Why hadn't we brought our skis? It was snowing again as we left and we determined that we would come back over the same ground in more style, just as soon as we could.

Reigoldswil lies in one of the many valleys at the foot of the Jura in the so-called "Baselbiet". The ridges here are narrow and crested with occasional limestone crags but ways for the skier can be found among them. A telecabine takes you up to the top of the Wasserfallen (literally, "the waterfalls", but it is the name of the hill) but if you strike out from there on a Friday in January, you have the tops to yourself.

Victoria above Reigoldswil

This was the day for seeing ranges. The Jura we were in. Across the Rhine the Black Forest was now white. Away to the west the Vosges were clear and sparkling too. As we crossed the first ridge we saw the Alps ahead of us. Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau are always the first to be recognised. Their frowning foreheads give them away. Then as your gaze swings east you see the white pinnacle of the Finsteraarhorn and, across a huge chasm, its darker twin, the Schreckhorn and then the mass of lesser peaks, Titlis, Spannort and many others that crowd together in a jumble that seems to stretch forever, until right at the end you have the Säntis on its own. To the west the ridges march on past the Blumisalp and eventually towards the Mont Blanc itself.

Emerging on the ridge

The way was often awkward, but it didn't matter, The snow conditions were excellent and we were out on our own. Only as we approached the Hohe Winde did we see another skier: full steam ahead on his Alpine skis. The descent that awaited us was terrifying: unofficial and very steep and through a wood. We managed somehow and then we were on the piste that led down to the road and finally belting along this to catch the bus, which we just did.


14/15 January. The Goms

There is a big broad valley of the Rhone, several kilometers wide which (heading upstream) stretches from the shores of the Leman to Brig. At Brig, the valley narrows and climbs rapidly, but then opens out again. Here, in the German speaking part of the canton of Valais (Wallis) the river is called the Rotten and this, other higher broad valley of the Rhone is known as the Goms or, in French as the Vallée de Conches.

The Goms is always linked in my mind with the disaster of Reckingen. It was the winter of 69-70. December had not been particularly snowy but it snowed every single day in January. On the 1 February it rained On the 2 February it started snowing again and snowed every day for three weeks. Snow upon snow upon snow piled the Alps. Later in the year, when the spring melt came, part of the thaw-sodden hillside above us slid away, threatening Villars but more especially the lesser village of Chesières. We lived in just about the highest chalet in Chesières. I ran out when I heard the crack, to see trees tumbling down in slow motion on the hillside above us: a sight which is clear with me still. It was several weeks before we were allowed back into our chalet. That was in May but in March there had been a horrific avalanche in the Goms and the barracks at Reckingen had been obliterated, killing some 30 or so recruits. A monument in the village bears witness.

On a cold (-18o C), clear sunny and snowy January weekend the Goms is a cross-country skier's paradise. I should have been enjoying myself. The views were stupendous and the conditions were perfect but there were people everywhere and they were on those fancy thin skis. (My last pair were burned in Norway and I never replaced them.) I was on my Telemark skis and it was all very flat.

The valley stretches some 22 km or so from Niderwald to Oberwald, in which length it only rises 150m. We (of the "Ski und Berg Sektion") were staying three quarters of the way up at Ulrichen. We arrived on the early morning train from Basle. (Well, it was early when it left Basle) and started skiing as soon as we had dumped our stuff. I skied down to Niderwald and then I skied back and there was a nice restaurant on the way and I suppose it was all very pleasant but where was the adventure? On the Sunday I skied up to Oberwald. and paid to have myself dragged up to a height of over 2000m. Well before I had descended the 700 m to Oberwald I was cursing myself for an idiot. It was all extremely steep and I had underestimated the difficulty, or overestimated my strength, which came to the same thing, but at least it was skiing. I had lunch in a restaurant at the bottom. It really was all very pleasant again, especially now that you weren't gritting your teeth to force the Telemarks down a steep and mogulled ski-piste. After lunch I raced back to Ulrichen, picked up my things and caught the train back to Basle.

28 February. Montfaucon

We were staying at a Reka holiday home in the Franche Montagnes. The children had decided to go swimming. Victoria and I took the cross country skis and raced around some of the neighbouring villages. It was all a bit pastoral if your soul was yearning for the top of Jock's Road but pleasant and peaceful and there was snow and sunshine. We enjoyed it.

22 May. Anzeindaz.

"Anzeinde a toujours été pour moi un lieu aimé."
René Moreillon

What can I say about Anzeindaz to do it, or even my feelings for it, justice? I camped there at 13, did one of my first ski-tours at the age of 14 and have returned many times in every season since. It is beautiful.



My father drove me to Solalex. I shouldered my skis and set off. Before long I could put them on my feet and all was set for a perfect spring tour. I arrived on the plateau. It stretches 3-4 km from west to east and is perhaps a kilometer and a half wide but its topography is both simple and complicated in a most satisfying way: simple, where I was following it on the north side, heading east. Here the Diablerets brooks no argument. The rocks stretch up for ever and the dazzling white plateau beneath climbs steadily to the Pas De Cheville where the view of the great Valaisan peaks, Weisshorn, Zinal Rothorn, Dent Blanche and Matterhorn, awaits you. To the south, however, the plateau rolls and climbs in and out of little combes and up and down hillocks too numerous to be matched by the cartographer's art. Here too it eventually reaches rocks and crags but the wall which looks continuous from a distance reveals weaknesses on closer acquaintance which the skier can exploit. One of these leads to the Col des Chamois (Letter from Switzerland passim), another to the Col des Essets, yet another via the difficult Pas de Cavange to the Col du Brotset. The plateau is a very bad place to be in a white-out, but on a fine May day with spring snow everywhere and the whole drenched in sunshine, it is simply wonderful.

A cold wind came up behind me as I reached the Pas de Cheville. I put some rocks between it and me and ate my lunch admiring the view. It would have been easiest to return the way I had come, but today I was in a mood for exploration. There was a little valley to the south I had a mind to find. This is a place where in the summer, the stream winds a marshy way past hillsides covered in gentian and alpine rose. It ought to be a superb snow bowl in the spring, I argued. A compass course past crag and cornice found it and proved me right. Several Telemarks later I was in no mood to stop. What next? I climbed to the Col des Essets and had a delightful swoop down to Anzeindaz.

Later, carrying my skis on the road from Solalex I didn't care that there were 5kms of foot-slogging between me and the train. I was singing like a lark. It was sunny and I had just had a ski-tour and what a ski-tour I had had.

On this luckiest of days my luck was in. I rounded a corner and took the last step I shall record for Letter from Switzerland to see my Father driving up the hill to meet me.

"Belle montagne, je fais un voeux pour que longtemps encore on te respecte et que tu restes ce que tu es maintenant."
René Moreillon

Farewell and Hello

Family Senn is on the move again and saying good-bye to Switzerland and I shall be saying good-bye to this column which I have been writing these past eight years. I shall be taking up a chair in Pharmaceutical and Health Statistics at University College London and we shall be living in Harpenden. I doubt whether there will be enough material to cover in a letter from Hertfordshire, but we shall see. On the other hand, Scotland will be that much closer, so who knows.

See you all on Driesh.


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