We were still in Brig at Camping Geshina, it was another grey day but we were really keen to get up into the Aletsch Arena and so crossed our fingers that the weather would clear out by lunchtime.
The Altesch Arena is the southern facing part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Jungfrau-Altesch which is the most heavily glaciated area of the alps. This includes the Altesch Glacier which is the largest and longest glacier in the alps. The area is a ski resort in winter, linking together several ‘car free’ villages that can only be accessed by cable car (we have found that car free doesnt really mean no cars at all, but the majority of vehicles are electric vehicles to take people to hotels and occasional service vehicles for repair and maintenance). In the summer there are plenty of hiking and biking trails. The Aletsch Arena is also said to be significantly less busy than the northern side of the mountains which definitely appealed to us.
Trains, Buses and Cable Cars
Our target was a walk that would take us from Belalp in the western end of the area to the next village along; Riederalp. In order to get from Brig to Belalp, and from Riederalp back to Brig, we would need to make our first use of the Swiss public transport system. I was rather sadly excited by the prospect.
We used the excellent SBB app to plan and pay for our tickets. You can book all public transport using the app, only privately owned cable cars and mountain trains are excluded. The app gives timetables, prices and serves up your ticket, which is a QR code that covers the entire journey, whatever the transport. Most prices are based on the kilometers covered and the type of transport, there aren’t any discounts for buying a return but there are a number of tourist discount cards that can be purchased. We had decided that it was not worth buying any of the discount cards because we weren’t going to use public transport enough. When we get home I will probably work out whether that was the right decision.
The other thing that makes Swiss transport a bit different is that it operates on an honesty based system. Tickets are not checked when you board most transport, instead spot checks are carried out (cable cars are the exception to this, the ones that are on the public transport system still have barriers where you have to scan your ticket). This makes it really easy to board and change transport without any ticket barriers to navigate and again any language barriers are significantly reduced. Great for tourists.
We walked to the train station and the SBB app told us which stand our bus would be on. Luckily we got there quite early, the bus soon filled up and by the time we left the station there was standing room only. The driver took us through Naters and towards Blatten with the bus getting steadily more crowded. Only when we reached a church did we find out that the majority of the people on board were guests at a wedding. They all disembarked to the relief of the remaining passengers.
At Blatten we alighted from the bus and hopped on the gondola to Belalp. It was still cloudy and the gondola sailed through the clag with no views to speak of. It meant we didn’t see a lot of Belalp. We set off along the road from the gondola station, in company with a few other walkers, trusting in the map app and the signposts to ensure we were walking in the right direction.
Hiking from Belalp to Riederalp via the Massa Bridge
As we walked up through the village it started to snow. We began to wonder if we’d really picked a good day for a walk. Our first waypoint was Hotel Belalp where there is a viewpoint which would have given us views over the Massa Gorge on a nice day. Instead we got tantalising glimpses of a ridge ahead of us on the other side of a cloud filled valley.
We had to descend our side of the valley first and we had a steep rocky path to navigate, slippery with the drizzle, snow and smelly goat poo. Above us we could see the goats who had left their droppings so considerately on our path. In the distance we could hear bellowing sounds from the valley below us and wondered if it was a stag. In the cloud it sounded rather spooky.
As we dropped down the path the cloud cleared a little and we got our first sightings of the Altesch Glacier ahead of us. We were lucky that it was bright with the fresh snow that had been falling, otherwise it may have been difficult to distinguish the glacier from the surrounding mist.
The path eventually dropped us into a meadow with farm buildings and a small chapel. The surrounding rocks were smooth and rounded, evidence of the action of ancient glaciers. The path took us north and east across the meadow and down more of the pillow-like rocks until eventually we found ourselves at the gorge of the Massa river.
Over the Massa Gorge is a long suspension bridge or ‘hängebrücke’. We had barely seen anyone until this point where we started to encounter other walkers, all waiting for the bridge to be clear so they could walk across and take the obligatory selfie.
On the other side of the bridge we stopped for some lunch at the small lake of Grunsee before starting our climb up through the Aletsch forest.
We saw many pine cones emptied of their kernels by the squirrels we occasionally glimpsed in the trees. With the sky now finally clearing out we were glad of the shade from the trees.
Finally we reached the top of our climb at Riederfurka where there is a hotel and restaurant, views back over the forest and across the mountains to the east. We saw vultures taking advantage of the warm thermals to circle above us. All we had to do now was the short walk down into the resort Riederalp. There we could treat ourselves to ice cream and wait for the gondola to take us on our return journey.
It had been a lovely walk, despite the cloudy start, and not too far at 13km. The only downside from my perspective was that we did the majority of the downhill first. We both agreed we would rather start with a climb and leave the downhill til the second half of the walk.
Getting back to Brig
Getting back to Brig involved more public transport. This time we had to take the gondola down from Riederalp to Mörel. It was nice to get some views on this journey as we descended back to the Rhône valley. From the base station it was a quick, and well signposted, walk across the road to the train station where we had a few minutes to wait for our train. The train, when it arrived, was quiet and clean and had high windows to allow views of the mountains above. It seemed no time at all until we were back in Brig.
Despite all the different modes of transport nothing seemed difficult or time consuming.