A calm wrought by experience

It is hard to make out his characteristic cap in the thick fog on this Sunday in February. “But the sun will smile on us soon,” assures Hanspeter Berchtold with a twinkle in his eyes. The guide from Bitsch has been taking his white head-covering up on the Valais peaks for 33 years now; no cold mist is going to prevent him climbing the slopes of the Binn valley in the company of Rosemarie and Hannelore today.

No need for maps or instruments; he’s on familiar territory here: “The climb up to the Gandhorn is one of my favourite trails in the valley on the sides of the Sidelhorn and the Ofenhorn.” The Ofenhorn is a familiar name to him as, together with his wife Rosemarie, he runs the historical hotel of the same name in Binn, the main settlement in the nature park. The Binn valley is one of leading nature parks in Switzerland, famous in the summer months for its minerals and wild scenery of coloured rocks. More discreetly clad in winter, the valley is bounded by numerous trails waiting to be discovered on snowshoes or skis. It is rudely awoken from its deep winter sleep by long columns of happy ski-tourers.

The small group with Hanspeter weaves in and out between the larch trees in single file. The two ladies point the tips of their skis into the long tracks made by the guide. “Speed up slowly...” The three tourers swing to the left and right in slow rocking movements to a rhythm set by the guide. A carved trunk looks like a sage caught deep in thought. Some branches have thrown out their twisted tentacles across the trail. Are the spirits protesting this visit? The pace remains just as gentle as the air this fresh morning, the tranquillity scarcely disturbed by a waterfall’s gurgling or the guide checking the group’s welfare. At the mountain hamlet of Eggerbode – which translates as “the field in the corner” – the chalet sports a bright sun recently sculpted in its dark wood façade. “The people of Binn are excellent wood carvers, gladly adding this smiling sun to their buildings. Is this because they don’t get to see it much some winters?” The persistent fog seems to make the guide sceptical. The beautiful trees covered in a layer of frost give the scenery a fairytale feel, and everyone soon allows their thoughts to fall into deep silence. The tranquillity of the mountains permeates the group, which is what makes ski-touring so attractive.

Group of ski-tourers ascending the Gandhorn at Binntal, Valais
Let yourself be carried away from the quiet of the snowed landscape and let your mind wander.

The larch trees with white needles are starting to thin out. Without Hanspeter to lead them, Hannelore and Rosemarie would lose their way in this unknown land. At this point, he chooses a long traverse across the hillside. The guide goes slightly ahead of the skiers, just in case the slope proves to be trickier than expected in the strong winds. White on white, you could easily believe in ghosts. Above a rounded crest, a gust of wind occasionally manages to clear the clouds from a sky that is otherwise uniformly white, to reveal a patch of resolutely blue sky. A powerful disc of light finally pierces the swirling shroud. Heads lift as hopes rise. Despite the wind and the effort, faces brighten. The panorama soon opens up, its snow-capped peaks now revealed from the Holzerspitz to the Hohsandhorn, from the Ofenhorn to the Scherbadung, from the Helsenhorn to the distant Weisshorn! So many mighty summits crowned by a plume of powdery snow whipped up by a strong easterly wind. This persistent player cuts short the break at the top, with the skiers preferring to take shelter in a shepherd’s hut a little lower down. This is the way of the mountain: mysterious, surprising, sometimes restrictive, demanding, but also truly rewarding.

All this only serves to make the home-made soup on the return journey taste all the better. The apple strudel at the Bärgkristall restaurant in the rustic hamlet of Feld is delicious. The break provides the opportunity to find out more about the valley and its hardy inhabitants in the face of the winter’s privations. After warming up, the two friends declare themselves delighted with this tour on a peak that from now on they’ll call the “Eleganthorn”. Hanspeter takes them on to visit the nearby museum run by crystal-hunter André Gorsatt, a prospector who declares that he lives not at the end of the world, but at the heart of the world.

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