Monday, 07 September 2020 13:30

Trekking Europe's longest glacier - Switzerland's Aletsch Glacier

Written by James Forrest

The Aletsch Glacier is billed as the ‘greatest glacier of the Alps’. Courtesy of Swiss Tourism, I visited in August 2020 days before Switzerland joined the quarantine list on returning to the UK – and discovered an achingly beautiful hikers’ paradise.

From snow-capped giants to radiant alpine meadows, and from impossibly-jagged ridges to relaxation-inducing villages, the Aletsch Arena region is the Swiss Alps at its superlative best. The jewel in its crown is the Great Aletsch Glacier, a humongous mass of ice that’s simultaneously awe-inspiring, sobering and thought-provoking. Its gently-curved shape, backed by a serrated skyline of towering peaks, is eye-catchingly handsome - but the glacier, which is retreating and melting at an alarming rate, has a deeper meaning too. It is a stark reminder of earth’s woes – and a poignant symbol of the need for all of us to respect our planet and be environmentally responsible.

Views of the Aletsch Glacier from the Eggishorn cable car station webViews of the Aletsch Glacier from the Eggishorn cable car station

My four-day trip to the region included visits to a trio of mountain villages – Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp – that serve as the gateway to the Aletsch Glacier. The focus of the itinerary was a guided trekking excursion on the glacier itself, but our group also found time for hiking, downhill karting, nature walks and much more. But, first, the basics and background...

The Aletsch Glacier

The Aletsch Glacier – or the Great Aletsch Glacier, as it is sometimes lovingly referred – is the longest glacier in the Alps. Its stats are mind-boggling: 23km long, weighing 11 billion tonnes (that’s more than 72 jumbo jets) and 900m thick at its deepest point. It’s so big that, if melted, it could supply every person on aarth with a litre of water every day for 4.5 years. It currently moves at a velocity of 200m per year at its source (Concordia Place) and 80-90m per year at its snout or terminus (the Aletsch Forest). This slow, viscous movement downhill has shaped the geography of this stunning region of the Swiss Alps since the last ice age, around 18,000 years ago.

Views of the Aletsch Glacier from near Eggishorn 2 webViews of the Aletsch Glacier from near Eggishorn

Climate Change

Sadly, the Aletsch Glacier is a retreating glacier. Global warming is affecting the glacier’s ice mass to a ‘concerning extent’, according to the local tourism association. Measurements by the Pro Natura Center Aletsch , a Swiss NGO focusing on nature conservation and environmental issues, show that the glacier is suffering ‘dramatic ablation’, shrinking by up to 50m in length annually and retreating significantly at the edges. For many, visiting the glacier can be a poignant and emotive experience, as if looking over a very tangible visual representation of planet earth’s environmental crisis. It is a blessing to see the glacier before it disappears, as well as a sobering and inspiring encounter: you’ll walk away with renewed determination and passion to live a more eco-friendly life.

Glacier Trekking webGlacier Trekking

The Aletsch Arena: where is it and how to get there

The Aletsch Glacier is located in the eastern Bernese Alps in the Swiss canton of Valais. It begins at Concordia Place – a large, flat area of snow and ice to the south of the Jungfrau, where four smaller glaciers converge – and flows south-east, south and south-west in a curving, banana-like shape for 23km.

The nearest large town is Brig, while three mountain villages - Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp (also known as the Fiesch-Eggishorn area) – are more commonly used as bases to explore the region. Collectively these villages are marketed as the Aletsch Arena  - the gateway to the glacier and a perfect base for hiking and all manner of outdoorsy pursuits.

Getting to this trio of quaint and charming villages is simple and hassle-free. SWISS  offers weekly flights from the UK and Ireland to Geneva and Zurich, priced from £80 with one piece of hand luggage and £130 with checked baggage. Once in Switzerland, a Swiss Travel Pass  – which is expensive, but offers comfort and convenience - enables unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the rail, bus and boat network, as well as discounts on mountain cable cars.

To get to Riederalp, for example, take a train from Zurich Flughafen airport train station to Brig (2hr 30 mins approx), change at Brig and take a train to Morel (10 mins approx), before hopping on the cable car to Riederalp (10 mins approx).

Glacier Trekking

The Aletsch Glacier is spectacular to ogle from the surrounding peaks and viewpoints, but the ultimate way to experience and pay homage to the Alps’ greatest glacier is to actually set foot on it. Glacier trekking gives you a closer, more intimate interaction with the ice giant, and a greater understanding of its complex yet intricate beauty, power and balance.

Donning crampons and roping up to team-mates, you will be led by your professional guide into an otherworldly landscape: a mesmerising place of ubiquitous sheets of icy whiteness, rising and falling like a raging sea of wintry clefts and folds, broken only by the lunar-like deserts of moraine debris. You will follow babbling streams of icy purity, peer into azure blue fissures piercing the icy surface like portals into another realm, and edge along icy crevices, close enough to get the adrenaline pumping, but safe enough to never feel the end is nigh. It is an intrepid, exciting and memory-forging mini expedition. 

Hikers looking tiny on Aletsch Glacier webHikers looking tiny on Aletsch Glacier

I experienced a glacier trek courtesy of Mountaineering School Riederalp. The full-day excursion began at Moosfluh cable car and involved a rather long walk to and from the glacier, as well as few hours on it. Our grey-haired guide Martin – a somewhat cantankerous but lovable character, who has been leading trekking trips on the Aletsch Glacier for decades – educated our group on the rapid changes to this iconic icy landmark. As we stood hundreds of metres above the current line of the glacier, he told us “where we are now, there used to be a glacier”, holding up historic photos for comparison, before tragically adding “by the end of the century, the glacier will no longer exist”. It was a touching moment – and one that seemed to inspire amongst our group a mixture of resigned sadness, as well as determination to take action.

Glacier trekking 3 webGlacier trekking

Once on the glacier, with our group safely roped to each other, we set off. Our crampons crunched into snow and ice, gripping without any problems, and we slowly completed a circular route, dodging chasms and crevices and generally picking the easiest line. It was surprisingly cold with a nippy breeze, considering Mossfluh had been bathed in 30C sunshine, yet that simply added to the sense of adventure. Martin stopped the group regularly, pointing out various features of interest – a pool full of glacial fleas, for example, and a bore hole with an incredibly long pole used by scientists to measure the glacier’s changing depth.

But ultimately I was in a world of my own, relishing the chance to pretend I was a polar adventurer or Arctic explorer from a bygone era – and, most of all, I left the excursion with a deep respect for the sheer grandeur and almighty power of the Aletsch Glacier.

Hiking

You don’t have to set foot on the glacier, however, to get to know it. Arguably a better way to experience its vastness and drama is from above, on one of the surrounding ridges or peaks that provide a higher, more complete perspective. The Aletsch Arena is blessed with a myriad of hiking options, from simple strolls to strenuous full day hikes, and many provide grandstand vistas of the Aletsch Glacier. The ridgeline running north-east from Riederalp to the summit of Bettmerhorn (2,872m) delivers the most spectacular of these views. You can dip in at leisure, taking a cable car to either Moosfluh or the Bettmerhorn station at 2,647m, but for the real experience why not hike the whole ridge?

Reflections at a tarn near Biel on the ridge between Riederalp and Bettmerhorn 2 webReflections at a tarn near Biel on the ridge between Riederalp and Bettmerhorn

That’s exactly what I did on my first day in the Aletsch Arena. Starting at Riederalp, in fine if not slightly too hot conditions, I hiked north-east on good, well-signposted trails to a small lake at Blausee. A Swiss flag ruffled in the wind, flying proudly above the water, as I watched families whizz down a rough, dusty track on mountain karts which looked like a hybrid between a go-kart and a sledge (I tried this later during my trip and it was epic fun).

Blausee Lake 2 webBlausee Lake

After a rest at the lake, I climbed the apex of the ridge at Sparrhorn and continued over undulating terrain towards Moosfluh. My eyes were drawn to the west, where grey-toothed ridges of brutal spikiness soared into the blue sky, and their domineering corries looked like icy cauldrons of snow. The mighty Aletschorn (4,193m) towered high, like an overlord conquering over its realm, and the surrounding layers of craggy peaks, razor-blade arêtes and twinkling glacial fields were a sight of undiluted Swiss beauty.

From Moosfluh onwards, the climb was rocky and steep, but easily achievable and without any technical sections. At Biel I was dazzled by the mirror-like reflections in a small tarn, the inversion so crystal clear it was difficult to separate reality from reflection; but, ultimately, it was the Great Aletsch Glacier that captured my attention and imagination. Every step I took the view seemed to crescendo and improve. The glacier curved sumptuously into the distance, its gentle meanders pleasing to the eye, backed perfectly by the snow-capped Walliser Fiescherhorner massif. I might’ve been almost 1,000 miles from my home in Cumbria, but the sight reminded me of Wainwright’s description of my favourite local hill Low Fell: “an inspired and inspiring vision of loveliness...a scene of lakes and mountains arranged to perfection”. That is exactly what I’d discovered in Switzerland. The ‘lake’ was an icy, frozen one in this instance, but the view was undoubtedly a vision of loveliness.

Eggishorn Viewpoint

If you don’t have any more energy for hiking or trekking, that doesn’t mean you have to stop feasting on the stunning views of the Aletsch Glacier. Take the gondola from Fiesch via Fiescheralp to the Eggishorn viewpont at 2,869m and you will be rewarded with glorious 360-degree views. From here you can see the Jungfrau triplets - Mönch, Eiger and Jungfrau – as well as the Wannenhorn, Finsteraarhorn, and to the west the Weisshorn, the Mischabel group with the Dom, and the Matterhorn itself. A delightful trail, suitable for all ages, provides a quick and simple journey of discovery, taking you to different viewpoints and information displays. You’ll also pass the so-called Million Stars Hotel. The Cube Aletsch  is a contemporary, wooden-style, cube-shaped chalet with an indescribably idyllic view, which you can take in from the outside hot tub. If indulgent luxury isn’t your thing, however, rugged adventure is also on the doorstep at Eggishorn. You can hike north from the gondola station to conquer the 2,927m summit of Eggishorn, which is adorned by a cross, or head south-west on the technical, alpine ridge to the Bettmerhorn (scrambling skills required).

Eggishorn webEggishorn

Villa Cassel & Nature Walks

A perfect base for a few days in the Aletsch Arena is Villa Cassel , a historic and opulently majestic building perched on a painfully-pretty hillside. Complete with bronzed roof, shimmering towers and turrets, and distinctive black-white wooden finishes, the house itself is undoubtedly grand – but the views of verdant valleys and craggy mountain tops are the real show stopper.

Villa Cassel, which is located at Riederfurka, about 1km to the west of Riederalp village, was built in 1900 by English banker Sir Ernest Cassel, who chose this remote, rural spot for his mountain retreat. At great expense he built Villa Cassel as both a fashionable summer residence and an elaborate display of wealth and status. During Sir Ernest Cassel's lifetime, illustrious guests came and went from the ostentatious timber-framed villa, including Sir Winston Churchill. But since his death, the Villa was run as a hotel for several decades before finally being taken over by Pro Natura, a Swiss charitable organisation. It is now home to an environmental and education centre, which is dedicated to protecting the unique flora, fauna and natural landscapes of the Aletsch Arena, as well as a hotel.

Villa Cassel web 5Villa Cassel

I spent two nights at the hotel. The view from my room was simply magnificent, the afternoon tea was delicious, and the vibe of the place – a friendly, communal atmosphere with an almost hostel-like feel – was immediately comforting. But Villa Cassel’s most endearing feature was the daily timetable of guided tours and excursions. We enjoyed a history tour of the building, a guided exploration of the surrounding nature gardens (a veritable oasis of alpine plants), and – best of all – an early-morning wildlife hike, during which we spotted red deer and chamois in their natural habitat.

A trio of villages

My visit to the Aletsch Arena was mostly based at Riederalp, a rustic, car-free mountain village at the lofty altitude of 1,925m. But I also explored both other villages, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp. Family-orientated Bettmeralp is far bigger, with a good selection of restaurants and bars, a perfect-for-Instagram chapel of unrivalled quaintness, Bettmersee lake for watersports and evening strolls, and views over 4,000m peaks including the Weisshorn, Dom and Matterhorn. Fiescheralp, conversely, is very small and quiet, with a sportier and more outdoorsy feel. Located at around 2,200m and accessible by cable car, I spent one night in Fiesheralp at the delightful Hotel Alpina . I enjoyed all three villages and it’s really difficult to choose between them – which one will you opt for?