Hasty hike up the Barrhorn

The highest hike in the Alps culminates 3,610 metres above sea level at the panoramic summit of the Barrhorn. Pascal Bourquin has hiked thousands of kilometres of trail in Switzerland, and this climb is one of his favourites.

Pascal Bourquin laughs. «Sure, I’m a bit mad,» says the 52-year-old TV journalist from Moutier, «at least for two days a week.» He goes hiking every single weekend; his girlfriend and daughter have to do without him – as they have every weekend since December 2013. That month, the former marathon runner began his ambitious project, which he named «La vie en jaune» or «Life in yellow» – the yellow of footpath signs in Switzerland. By 2041, within a total of 28 years, he intends to hike the country’s entire footpath network: 65,000 kilometres in all. Bourquin has already covered more than 12,000 kilometres, nearly 20 per cent of the total. He ticks off 50 kilometres every week, and has already hiked 4,000 of the 8,000 kilometres of marked trail in the Valais Alps. «Switzerland is the perfect destination for hiking,» he says. «It’s just a shame that 90 per cent of walkers use only 10 per cent of all the paths.»

The adventure enthusiast remembers one hike with particular pleasure: the climb up the Äusserer Barrhorn. Located at the end of the Turtmann valley in Valais, it culminates at 3,610 metres: the tallest mountain in the Alps that hikers can climb without rope and crampons. They still need a sure foot and a good head for heights – and have to be in good physical shape, too. The official grade of T3+ indicates a demanding mountain hike. Fredy Tscherrig, guardian of the Turtmann mountain refuge since 1997, concurs: «This is no easy hike!»

For Bourquin, the Barrhorn is hike number 317. The date is 31 August 2016; he has spent the night at the Hotel Schwarzhorn in Gruben in the Turtmann valley. At eight in the morning, he sets off in a stout pair of hiking boots and an orange windproof jacket. The trail leads across lush alpine meadows along the river Turtmänna. Bourquin jogs. After the Turtmann reservoir, the path climbs steeply. At 2,519 metres above sea level, it reaches the Turtmann mountain refuge, owned by the Swiss Alpine Club and run by the SAC section of Moutier in the Jura mountains. The meadows around the mountain hut are full of flowers: edelweiss, gentian and veronica all flourish here. Fredy Tscherrig, the guardian of the refuge, has equipped some rock climbs in the area.

But Bourquin presses on: he follows the trail across slopes of scree and rock walls, and clambers up the Gässi, a steep rock couloir, with the help of fixed cables. He then climbs along the moraine of the Brunegg Glacier before zig-zagging steeply up to the Schöllijoch col. On to the Innerer Barrhorn, and then one more precipitous climb to the Äusserer Barrhorn. Up here, the air is thin. Bourquin signs the guest book at the summit and sets off on the descent. He stops at the Turtmann refuge for a plate of Rösti.

He maintains his fast pace all the way down. At around 2 pm, the turbo-hiker is back in Gruben, where he rubs soothing cream into his feet. He has managed the 30 kilometres and 3,600 vertical metres in five hours. «For most hikes, I only need half the suggested time,» he says. Normal mortals are recommended to do the Barrhorn hike over two days – with an overnight stop at the Turtmann refuge.

During 2018, too, the unstoppable walker will be spending a lot of time in Valais: he is planning on doing the Val de Bagnes and the Zermatt valley. He is saving the trails of the Swiss Plateau for the end of his adventure. «By the time I’m in my 70s, I certainly won’t be this fit any more,» he says. In 2041, Switzerland will celebrate its 750th anniversary. Bourquin is aiming to finish his very last hike at Parliament Square in Bern, just as the festivities are taking place, with the triumphant cry: «I’ve made it!»

Thrilling hikes in Valais: Bourquin’s top tips

   - For families: from the Sanetsch Pass to the Quille du Diable: 13 kilometres, 5 hrs round walk (without breaks).
   - For ambitious hikers: from Visp to the Baltschiederklause mountain refuge (SAC): 16 km, 7 hrs 30 min (ascent only). Overnight in the refuge.
   - For super-fit hikers: from La Sage in the Val d’Hérens over the Col du Tsaté (2,868 m) and down to the Lac de Moiry. Over the Col de Torrent back to La Sage (22 km, 9 hrs 30 min).

May 2018

Text: Thomas Kutschera
Photos: Pascal Bourquin

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