Wednesday, 10 November 2021 13:51

Switzerland - the unexpected journeys of adventure journalist

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The phone rang. ‘Jessie, it’s Dave… how would you feel about heading back out to Switzerland at short notice?’

‘When were you thinking?’ I replied cautiously, all too aware that there were still my own mountains of washing that had started to gather up in piles in my room yet to be packed away. 

‘Well,’ replied Dave enthusiastically, ‘It’d be a pretty adventurous trip organised through Adventure Travel Trade Association – an action-packed trip that will cover five distinct mountainous regions in Switzerland.  Whilst the trip will start in Ticino, the adventure will commence when you arrive in Andermatt with a via ferrata above the Gotthard pass. A hike up the Göschenen Gorge to Andermatt, a first-class train ride on the ‘Glacier Express’ through the mountains before you head towards the Bernese Alps and up via cable car to the Aletsch Glacier viewpoint, before undertaking a rock-climbing experience in Sass Fee. The trip will also combine a thermal spa experience in Leukerbad followed by a mountain bike ride over the historical Thomas cook path from Gemmi to Sunneg, finishing in Kandersteg. Rounding things off, the trip will culminate with a visit via Interlaken to attend the Adventure Tourism Mart – where you can sample kayaking, paragliding and a high ropes experience.’  Pause.

‘Does that sound good to you?’

Switzerland looking more dramatic above the Schöllenen Gorge

So, if you’ve never been to Switzerland, what might adventure travel in Switzerland mean to you?

Being invited to attend the ATTA tour of Switzerland, spanning a total of eight days, my expectation of Switzerland was one of big, jagged mountains, hiking in summer sunshine contrasted by a full programme of expensive winter sports in shiny cable cars. The polished presentation of a picturesque mountain village, complete with cows adorned with bells, rolling alpine pastures and famous chocolate bars bearing even more famous peaks was the image in my head. But what about visiting in autumn – when the seasons would yield the most brilliant colours amongst the trees, with all four seasons and multiple region-specific foods potentially available within a few hours of sustainable, car free travel? Travelling in October, I was excited to represent the ‘adventure media’ interest of a UK audience writing for My Outdoors. I was interested in examining what an adventure-hungry audience might look at in their travel destinations where the perfect holiday might just be the destination where it was possible to combines several activities in a short space of time alongside hiking, including climbing, biking and other lesser explored activities, such as geothermal spas, paragliding, e-biking, high ropes, and fine dining compliments. It’s no secret that Switzerland is fully open to more sustainable forms of travel, with the infrastructure that means it remains open until mid-October. Hotels are cheaper, and lifts allow access to the remotest villages and peaks, way above 3000m, before a brief hiatus shuts them ahead of the winter season. So, with an open mind, a bag packed with around five different activity options (B1 boots, climbing shoes, approach shoes, sandals, neoprene socks), I embraced all the adventure Switzerland had to offer.

ATTA Leukerbad Jessie Leong H68A4931

 

Scaling the cliffs of ANDERMATT and e-biking the glacial valleys. and that's just Day 1!

As a trad climber and alpinist, I was thrilled to be given the option of not only exploring a region of Switzerland that was totally new to me, but to experience via ferrata in a place of contrasts – the high snowy mountains of Gemsstock with its imposing gorges and the developing mountain resort of the adjoining Ski Arena Andermatt+Sedrun+Disentis. Not only was Andermatt a geographical crossroads, connecting the northern regions of Zurich to the southern Canton of Ticino via a famous mountain pass, but it was conveniently located just 30 kilometres from Lake Lucerne.

The connections into the town itself were simple with a straightforward single stop on the Matterhorn train. Boarding the train at Göschenen, 1101m, the ten-minute journey to Andermatt was a short but sharp journey, climbing through the steep gradient of the gorge and through Switzerland’s longest tunnel before popping out through the aptly named ‘Devil’s Bridge’, with the gorge rushing below us. Arriving 1400m above sea level, the difference in temperature made us shiver and reach for our belay jackets hastily.

Devild Bridge

Our guide Benz met us at our base, just outside the Hotel Radisson Blu Reussen, Andermatt. Weaving a captivating story about the ill-fated history of the garrison town, which has had numerous Russian/ Napoleonic connections, and still has an active, modern army presence – Benz explained how the controversy around the introduction of the tunnel in the 19th century managed to have the opposite of the desired effect in drawing the upper elite of the British society away from the area in favour of those seeking warmer climates. Now with burgeoning foreign investors, Andermatt has a strong sense of things to come – with the town being earmarked as a destination for some of the best freeride skiing and winter sports, it also feels like there was a lot of potential for the town wanting to establish itself as the portal into the bigger alpine mountains.

View of Andermatt photographed from the descent of Klettersteig Diavolo via the Kirschberg forest

 

Via ferrata are graded by exposure and accessibility, and the grades can vary across the Alps. In practise via ferrata can combine steep climbing situations and tame mountain cliffs for a wider range of audiences, who may be less familiar with traditional, roped climbing, by using quick-clip karabiners to encourage quicker movement over an array of pegs, rungs, and ladders. The way things worked out, however, meant that whilst we were keen to sample some of the most dramatic landscape available on our Swiss tour, on the day we did the via ferrata the exposure above the Gotthard Pass muted by the thick cloud cover.

Mammut Alpine school guides showing participants the cable clip points

Located in the Schöllenen Gorge, the Klettersteig Diavolo gives visitors the opportunity to try easily accessibly climbing in relatively proximity to the town. A short ten-minute walk away from the hotel and you can sample some sheer vertical granite cliffs, once frequented by the Swiss army. Guided by two IFMGA guides from the Mammut Alpine School, we collected our kit - via ferrata lanyards, harnesses, and bright neon helmets from ‘Imholz Sport Piazza Gottardo’. Our guides showed us how to clip the well-bolted cables  before we were able to commence the imposing climb shrouded in clag. 

Participants exiting through a footpath tunnel just below the Göschenen tunnel to reach the via ferrata

The pinched in the narrow mountain pass acted as a funnel for surprisingly bitter wind, a reminder that we were very much in the shoulder season between summer and winter, with frozen bilberry bushes and icicles dropping from the conifer trees. With some 519m of climbing, we climbed as a group, and it felt hugely positive to see that despite a broad mixture of abilities everyone enjoyed the feeling of climbing in an adventurous location, even with the mixed weather! Topping out, we passed a logbook tucked into a Swiss Army jerry can beneath a ‘pseudo’ beer tap, and added our names inside before we reached the summit. Not many people would usually think via ferrata would be possible in October – but with some hardy winter gloves, wrapped up in merino leggings, softshell trousers and a sturdy B1 boot – it was possible to enjoy the surroundings and marvel at the adventurous aspect of our day.

Group photo of the women who took part in the Klettersteig Diavolo

Descending back down from the high point at 1916m, we headed back down to our hotel, our breath visible in front of us, as we descended via the pleasant zig zags at speed in anticipation of a steaming bowl of soup awaiting our return.

‘Who’s up for doing some E-Mountain biking?’  asked Timo, our Andermatt host, beaming with delight at our wind buffed faces, as we wolfed down our lunch with our renewed appetite… We decided to push past the desire to have a relaxing afternoon in the hotel’s renowned spa, and after a quick changeover into mountain biking gear – myself, Hendrik and ATTA storyteller Timo were off to explore the wider landscapes of Andermatt. With several high-lrvel mountain passes in the area, including the Oberalp, Gotthard and Furka or the countless mountain bike trails there's no shortage of challenges. The area  is also the source of the four major rivers starting in or around Andermatt – the Rhine, Rhone, Reuss, and Ticino – we opted for following the Unteralpreuss valley.

With a few hours spare, an e-bike gave us the perfect way to explore the vast glacial valley at a surprising amount of ease.

e mountain bike Switzerland

I was riding a state of the art, full suspension e-mountain bike – a Flyer Uproc 4 mountain e -bike. There was a newfound confidence to tackle steep, lung busting ascents that would otherwise have seemed too intimidating on a normal mountain bike. A fully adjustable suspension system and Rockshox forks magically smoothed out every bump as it rolled over from the tarmac to asphalt and gravel; the bike felt ‘Swiss smooth’  We passed by alpine honey growers, who tell us it’s been a poorer summer than usual for honey due to the colder temperatures not favoured by the bees. We passed several dormant settlements, and water gathered and meandered through the valley. It felt beautifully serene, and whilst it’s not an ‘obvious’ choice on a cooler autumnal day, I found myself grinning from ear to ear, the flow of being out on the bike and being able to enjoy my surroundings with a small group.

The valley felt a dramatic change to the typical Swiss postcard landscape, with our views dominated by low hanging swirling clouds; the alpine peaks hidden far above the earthy ankles of the valley. Despite the vast, unknown alpine peaks above us it felt almost Scottish. and as if we were peeking into a parcel where a square of the present could only just be glimpsed – that was what Andermatt had saved for us until next time!

E mountain biking

We munched on Swiss Army chocolate – and as the weather started to turn, after climbing to 1900m we turned the bikes around, switched the monitor to ‘off’ and descended smoothly down the gravel track. For a casual mountain biker, riding a full suspension e-bike felt luxurious, the effort of pedalling furiously uphill with a heavy bike taken away by the battery, whilst also being able to still provide a smooth riding experience when descending, the wheels rolling smoothly around the rocky terrain.

Rolling back into Andermatt, we locate the bike luggage storage room in the Radisson Blu’s parking lot before we dashed up to our rooms and get ready to dine at Andermatt’s 5* restaurant located a short walk away in the town.

Fine dining involving Chocolate mousse mango chutney and hibiscus ice cream

From ‘shred’ to Chedd – dining at The Cheddi was a taste sensation fusing both swiss and Asian influence. Dining from the restaurant’s Asian menu, our day of via ferrata and e-mountain biking had certainly set us up to savour four courses in luxurious surroundings. Juicy king prawns on sweet bamboo skewers sat atop a dressed Asian noodle salad, the combination of crunchy salad alongside the tasty seafood. It was closely followed by some of the most delicious dim sum I’ve tasted – a tall order for someone whose grown up on dim sum with Cantonese parents. Melt in the mouth prawn dumplings paired with mushroom and vermicelli, beautifully steamed revealing a puff of steam when the bamboo lid is lifted. Red Thai curry duck, served with delicately steamed jasmine rice, combining Asian aubergines, lychees and pan seared duck breast reveals a depth of flavour and taste. Finally, a chocolate torte served with mango chutney and a delightful hibiscus glace throws the Swiss cookery book out of the window. It’s exotic, flavoursome, raucous, and captivating – and a restaurant which puts Andermatt on the foodies and adventurers hit list, for an action-packed day to remember.

So, a day that combined it all – climbing the Klettersteig Diavolo, a delicious lunch in Andermatt, e- mountain bike ride in the Unteralpreuss valley and 5* four fine dining. A perfect adventure day, combing thrills from start to finish.

Via Ferrate Andermatt

and so onwards and upwards, to Western Europe's longest glacier and the famous Bernese Oberland.