This sunny plateau with three car-free villages is a real winter paradise with almost limitless possibilities and real Valais charm.
Who is this “tough guy from Valais”? And what’s all this about 4,000m peaks that all of a sudden are no longer classified as such? You’ll find this out if you join snowshoeing pioneer Edelbert Kummer on his favourite tour to the Aletsch Forest. A snowshoeing tour interspersed with highlights and surrounded by the longest glacier in the Alps and the mighty Valais mountain peaks.
From tourism manager to snowshoeing pioneer
If you go up to the Moosfluh by cable car, you’ll inevitably stop and stare. What a view! Here on the ridge, your gaze can wander freely to the Aletsch Glacier. This majestic, gigantic tongue of snow and ice, which dates back thousands of years, stops anyone who reaches it in their tracks. Edelbert Kummer gives his guests a few moments before calling out to them: “The view is even more spectacular here at the front.”
Ed, as Edelbert prefers to be called, knows this area better than almost anyone. He was a tourism manager on the Riederalp for over 25 years. Since taking early retirement 20 years ago, he has guided guests to the most beautiful places near the Great Aletsch Glacier. He was one of the first in the region to start guided snowshoe tours in the 1990s – and still does so today, at over 80 years old. It wasn’t so easy to start with. “People looked askance at us with our snowshoes,” he remembers. And many were jealous, fearing they would lose clients to providers of this latest craze in sport.
The times when Ed went out using pieces of wood as improvised snowshoes, and almost no one understood the attraction, are long gone. Snowshoe tours are now as integral a part of tourist offerings as ski schools. “We have the perfect conditions in the Aletsch region. The sunny ‘balcony’ with the villages and this smooth ridge above, which you can easily reach by cable car,” explains the experienced tourist professional. Many a snowshoe route is waymarked and can be explored on your own. But if you go with a guide, you’ll discover secret places that others miss.
Be at one with nature
Ed rouses the beholders of the glacier landscape, who are staring transfixed in awe. The trip that he wants to take with you today has not even properly started yet – and it’s his favourite route. A final check to see whether everyone is wearing their snowshoes correctly. Then he heads west to make tracks in the fresh snow. The route crosses hollows and small valleys, where the odd rock or knotty branch pokes out from under the snow. The stillness of the winter landscape swallows up the visitors on their oversized soles. It’s hard to believe that skiers and snowboarders are speeding down the pistes just a few dozen metres away.
The pleasant, easy walk across the heavily snow-covered landscape has a meditative quality. Ed stops suddenly and points to the snow on the ground: there are delicate tracks left by an animal there. “Even when nature seems to be asleep, even in winter, something is creeping and crawling about here.” Snow grouse, black grouse, hares or foxes are out and about – and with a bit of luck, you’ll catch a glimpse of the timid animals. And if not, By observing their tracks, Ed can recount which animal has been hunting for which food and where – and can find these no matter how much snow has fallen.
Mighty summits as far as the eye can see
With the Great Aletsch Glacier behind them, the next highlight of this tour comes even more clearly into view for the snowshoe hikers: From east to west, there is mountain peak after mountain peak, and in particular 4,000m peaks, one after the other. There are 28 summits of this height, which is so magical for mountaineers, a local guide once counted. The Matterhorn is the most prominent of these, the Weisshorn the whitest, and the Dom the highest.
“I can't name all the peaks,” Ed confesses. But of course he has an anecdote ready: “Over there at the back is the Fletschhorn. That was once 4,001 metres high. But according to a new measurement method in 1950, the mountain was suddenly a few metres short of being able to call itself a 4,000m peak. Because people feared summit-baggers would stay away, the local communities here actually wanted to build up the peak in the 1980s.” But there was to be no plastic surgery on the mountains. Even if it is “only” 3,985 metres high, the Fletschhorn is nonetheless a proud component of the panorama, which is no less spectacular as a result.
Panoramic views of the expanse and the peace of snow-covered nature all around invite you to linger. Ed knows a small hut that is abandoned in winter; the perfect place for a short break. From a rucksack, he conjures up one treat after another: cheese and dried meat from the region, and nutritious Valais rye bread – giving welcome strength for the regal view. After a few snacks, Ed urges his guests on for the next stage. His favourite part of the tour is just ahead.
800-year-old trees and the Valais tough guy
Ed then leads his guests northwards, down the slope. This is not without its challenges, as the experienced snowshoe guide knows. He shows his companions how to master the descent without falling. “I actually almost hope that a guest will topple over from time to time,” Ed confesses, smiling. “It makes for a more relaxed atmosphere. Particularly if I’m the one that falls over. But nothing can happen.” For the last time today, the Great Aletsch Glacier appears in its full glory. Then Ed and his guests disappear behind the trees.
The smell of pine hangs in the air. A spotted nutcracker flies back and forth, with a protesting squawk. Ed’s eyes light up even more now. The Aletsch Forest is his favourite part of this trip. “Almost no one comes here. You really are completely alone.” The Aletsch Forest, together with the Great Aletsch Glacier, has UNESCO World Heritage status. It has been protected since 1933, and has characteristics of ancient woodland. Some stone pines have been proven to be over 800 years old – and a few are even around 1,000 years old. «You really do get away from everything here. Far, far away. You feel totally free.» - Edelbert Kummer
Ed stops at a gnarled tree trunk. “This is the tough guy from Valais,” he grins. This Swiss stone pine is actually dead – there is only one branch hanging onto life by a small strip of bark. If you go to the Aletsch Forest with Ed, you’ll get to know other such Valais “residents”: the wild lady of Valais or the tired man from Valais. You’ll lose track of time, bombarded by natural phenomena and Ed’s anecdotes. It’s almost disappointing when the Riederfurka mountain hut comes into view, and with it civilisation.
Over a coffee on the terrace of the Golfhotel at Riederalp, the snowshoe hikers enjoy the last embers of the day happily deep in thought and still revelling in the impressive experience. “The happiness on guests’ faces is the best thing about snowshoe tours,” Ed says. His mobile rings. “A snowshoe tour tomorrow? I’d love to, I already have a great idea. “Have you ever been to the Aletsch Forest?”
Published: August 2021