Hiking amongst the glacial screes

The feeling of walking amongst harsher surroundings changes a hike from being a good piece of exercise to being a memorable experience. The scree-lined slopes of a jagged peak, with the scars of so many millennia of geological activity, draw me much more than a wiggly earthen line amongst varyingly-steep cow pastures.

After perusing the detailed, free online map of the Swiss topological service, I decided to head quite a way from home. After nearly two hours of driving, having dealt with a traffic jam and a slow schlepp behind camper vans crossing the Grimsel Pass, I arrived at the bottom of the Furka Pass. The road up from the seasonal hamlet at Gletsch was made famous when James Bond raced Jill Masterson over the series of switchback hairpin bends in the 1964 film Goldfinger.

I stopped off on the way up the pass road to fly my drone at Furka Belvédère: a famous hotel which was once dramatically close to the huge tongue of the Rhone Glacier. The building was shuttered in 2016 as a result of the dramatic retreat of the glacier and the ease with which drivers can return to civilisation in just a couple of hours. The dwindling Glacier Grotto and the roadside café are still very popular, so I parked up in one of the lay-bys before the tourist hot-spot and took my break there instead of trying to find a take-off spot on the busy car-park.

The glacier in 1900, photographed from the valley floor
The modern view in 2008
The glacier, the abandoned hotel, and the switchback road to the Furka Pass

After flying my drone above the cliffs where the glacier once cascaded down to the valley floor, I continued up the couple of kilometres of pass road to the pass summit. Leaving the bikers, a white-haired coach party and numerous selfie-takers to enjoy the tourist view, I headed out along the clearly-visible path towards the more peaceful part of this vast mountain arena.

The peak I’d chosen for my walk’s goal was the Tällistöck, on a ridge some four kilometres from the car park. The altitude would make the going a little slow, especially on the steeper section leading up to the lowest part of the ridge known as the Tällilücke, but I was in no hurry. The first section of the walk was a steady incline and allowed me to begin acclimatising to the slightly less oxygen-rich air, whilst providing a preview of the steeper section ahead.

The further I progressed, the more the sound of revving motorbike engines from the pass road dwindled, and I was soon in comparative peace. The noise of the bikes is always an unavoidable part of visits to this region, but it’s sufficiently muffled by a couple of miles’ distance.

I could see the easy path leading across the middle of the scree slopes from the walk in, from which the steeper path branches off and heads up to the ridge (here in shadow)

Although I had checked out the distances and altitudes involved in advance, I’d chosen not to worry about the difficulty of the route. Where I used to pore over topographical lines and worry about metres of ascent before I even left home, I now strive to enjoy the experience and go where my feet take me. If I arrive at a section which looks too hard or dangerous, I choose a different route. If the path looks hard but achievable, I take a swig of water and a dose of chocolate and make my way up at my own pace.

Looking back towards the Furkastock along the path into the less-well-trodden part of the landscape
The view down the glacial Muttbach stream to the Furka Pass road and Belvédère
Looking to the Gratschliecht cliffs. Tiny hikers are visible in the full-resolution version of the photo.
Forty-five minutes into the walk, I reach the junction with the steep section of the path

As you can see from the photos, the walk into the mountains is green and lush: indeed, it’s a farmers’ access track. Parts of the mountain on the steep cliff-side of the path are bounded by a temporary, solar-powered electrified fence to keep the black-nosed sheep safely enclosed.

Around forty minutes into the walk — having picked my way around and across the large boulder field and the icy-cold run-off from the Mutt glacier — I reached the junction at which the path turns steep. From here, I made slow progress thanks to a combination of the thin air and not being in any kind of hurry. The path through the landscape quickly became a gravelly scree slope, with only very low-level plant growth and intermittent succulents.

The rocky path across a moraine landscape, caused by a glacier which has long-since retreated
The ridge in sight, with a first view of an unmapped military building

The path leads up on a zig-zag route through the scree and reaches a slight plateau before the main ridge, from which an abandoned military building came into view. I took a break here for some photos and another dose of sugary energy, before tacking up the steep incline to the level of the ridge.

Having arrived on the ridge, I flew my drone again for quarter of an hour or so, capturing some panoramic images and video sequences. I’d known that the view from this dividing line was pretty spectacular, given that the view from there across to the Grimsel Pass and beyond was unobstructed. I also took a look inside the apparently abandoned building — empty save for some very basic wooden bunks and a lot of rock dust — which was dug into the hillside. After Googling it, I found that it was a military bunker built as a remote observation point for the Galenhütte artillery point across the valley. The larger military outpost was built at the beginning of the twentieth century as part of the huge network of alpine military defences.

Galenhütte artillery point (photo from geocaching.com)

Having reached the point where I could see the topmost section of the walk, I re-assessed my initial goal of reaching the Tällistock, an additional 140 metres of ascent away, and found from the map that the actual summit wasn’t on the path. Given that the landscape on the upper ridge was formed of very friable schist, my new-found sense of priority — that of views and enjoyment over achievement — I decided to head up the remaining slope of a nearby summit instead. The Swiss seem to think that naming it is unnecessary, given the number of other, more worthy summits nearby, but “Aussichtspunkt” (viewpoint) seemed a worthy top and so that’s where I plonked down, eat my sandwich and took more photos.

The summit of my walk with its view to the Grimsel Pass (left) and Rhone glacier (right)

From there, all that remained was to head back along the path I’d come, stop off from time-to-time to enjoy the scenery, and return to the car and the long drive home. It had been a brilliant walk and I’m very glad to have chosen somewhere new. I’ll be adding other routes in the region to my “want list” for future days out.

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