Alps pt6 - Val D'Herens and Arolla

Lunch in the garden of the Grand Hotel Kurhaus

We had a fantastic time in Zermatt. Just like last year, every day that we were there we had good weather. We took good advantage of it and did excellent hikes every day. Now it was time to move on to our next destination.

Although the Glacier Express was fun we didn't want to travel all the way across Switzerland again. Since Zermatt might be our favorite spot in the Alps I thought we should explore some more of the area in the Valais near Zermatt. So for the second half of our trip we were going to spend time in the valleys to the east and west of Zermatt. First up was the Val D'Herens. This valley is to the west Zermatt. The town we would be staying in, Arolla, is at most twenty miles from Zermatt. In fact if we had continued hiking up the Zmutt valley on our last hike and crossed a high pass, we could have reached Arolla in another day of walking. Lots of people actually do that (althuogh in the other direction). A popular long distance trek is the Haute Route which goes from Chamonix to Zermatt in ten or twelve days. It passes through Arolla on the way to Zermatt.

Grand Hotel Kurhaus in Arolla

We weren't going to be walking to Arolla. That meant we had a long and circuitous trip to get there. The morning we left Zermatt we were up early, packed, checked out of the hotel, had our luggage in the lobby, and were ready to go when they started serving breakfast at 7am. We gobbled down our breakfast and were wheeling our luggage down the main street of Zermat to the train station. I had bought our tickets the night before so we were set. WE were at the station in plenty of time to catch the 7:37 train to Visp. This is the city in the Rhone valley at the end of the long valley that has Zermatt at its head. Although it is only twenty five miles, the route is so steep the train takes an hour and fifteen minutes to reach Visp. Once there we switched tracks and in a few minutes caught an intercity train to Sion. This train traveled through the Rhone valley and really zoomed. In less than half an hour we were in Sion. Although we were still in Switzerland, in that short trip the language had switched from German to French. This is a big adjustment for us as we now had to explain that we didn't speak French instead of we didn't speak German.

Sandy studies the map during lunch to figure out our afternoon hike

At Sion we had to transfer to a Post Bus that would take us to Arolla. That turned out to be easy - the buses stopped right outside the train station. We had forty five minutes to kill. That was easy too. Right next to the bus station was a cafe where Sandy ordered a coffee. Next to that was a bakery where she got a chocolate croissant. Travel in Switzerland is really tough.

Finally we got on our bus that took us up the Val D'Herens. The ride was very scenic as we climbed out of the Rhone Valley and into the Val D'Herens. On the way we passed the unusual pyramides, very strange formations where a heavy capstone above protected the soft rock below from erosion. They looked so improbable as to be artificial. But they are in fact real and natural formations. Unfortunately as with the Glacier Express, pictures out the window were impossible. But trust me, they were really interesting.

Mont Colon and the upper Val D'Herens

Eventually high up the valley we reached a fork at the town of Les Hauderes. The bus stopped here but there was another bus waiting to take us the last part of our journey. Up the left fork of the valley there was a view of a spectacular peak. This was the Dent Blanche, a peak we knew well from the Zermatt side. There it was one peak among many 4000 meter peaks. Here it towered over the valley and completely dominated the view.

But our destination was Arolla which was up the right fork of the valley. The bus seemed to go straight up, switchbacking to gain altitude. Eventually it reached the end of the line at the small village of Arolla. This was quite a change from Zermatt. Arolla has maybe five hotels. Zermatt probably has two hundred. We knew that our hotel was some distance from the center of the village (we'd hate to be downtown, you know) so we called them for a pickup. In five minutes they came with a van and took us up to the hotel. It was only a few minutes drive, but it was a fifteen minute hike uphill. Since I had done all the hauling uphill of our luggage that I was going to do on this trip in Pontresina, I was happy for the ride.

Sandy enjoying the view at the high point of our hike

We were staying at the Grand Hotel Kurhaus. This is a historic Swiss hotel. It was built in the 1890's and was renovated in 1979. It is an impressive stone building. It was fun to wander through it. They had a parlor just off the lobby with comfortable chairs for reading and bookshelves full of mountain books. A good place on a rainy day. They had a huge parlor with a pool table and many tables and chairs. It looked like they used it for talks. We got to our room and it was quite reasonable for an old hotel. Our bathroom had a small shower that took some skill to use but we are experienced travelers and had no problems.

We were hungry after traveling all morning so we had lunch in the garden of the hotel. There was a beautiful view of Mt. Colon, an impressive peak at the head of the Val D'Herens. After lunch we grabbed our packs and went for a hike. As long as the sun was shining we wanted to take advantage of the weather. We took the trail towards the Pas de Cheval, the pass into the valley on the west that is used by the Haute Route. Sure enough, as we hiked up most of the hikers who passed us looked like through hikers on the Haute Route. If we had a whole day we could have gone to the Pas de Cheval, a famous pass on the Haute Route where hikers need to use ladders to get down a series cliffs. But for half a day we were content with climbing about 1500 feet above Arolla. That took us high above the forest where we had unobstructed views of the peaks in the area. We sat and enjoyed the view for a while before starting down again.

Mont Colon

We were glad to get a hike in because the weather forecast for the next day was not good. We only had one full day in Arolla so at least we had a good chance to see the peaks in the area. Around dinner time I walked down to the village from the hotel to go to the market. I didn't quite make it back before it started to rain. It rained through the night and continued the next morning. That gave us a chance to sleep in the next day. Because even on clear days there is afternoon buildup of clouds on the high peaks we always get up and start our hikes as early as possible. Since it was raining we had an excuse to sleep in. It felt good for a change.

We were enjoying our rest day but around noon it stopped raining and started to clear up. What the heck. We decided to go for a hike. We started toward the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouge. This is a mountain refuge that was built as a memorial to a climber killed in the 1940's by his parents. He had just graduated from university as a medical doctor when he was killed. His parents used the money they had saved to set up his practice to build a mountain hut.

A cloudy day but at least it isn't raining...yet

It was about a four hour hike to the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouge. We didn't expect to go that far but at least we wanted to start and do some hiking. We hiked for about two hours and climbed at least fifteen hundred feet above Arolla. The feeling was very different from the day before, with clouds and mists swirling around all of the mountains. It started to look threatening so we headed down. We didn't make it back - a good rain started about half an hour before we made it back to the hotel. But we had our GoreTex jackets and umbrellas and were ok with a little rain.

The next morning we were once again packed up and ready to leave early. While we were getting ready we noticed a deer just behind the hotel in the woods. Very cool. We had a quick breakfast and then got a ride down the hill to the Post Bus stop in the village. We were on the bus in plenty of time for the 8:25am departure.

Ok, it's really raining now

Just as the bus was about to leave two people came hurrying up to the bus. The bus driver stopped and waited for them. They rushed up and asked him a question about where he was going. He responded with a curt "Bonjour!". Ouch. Serious protocol violation. How dare they ask a question before they even said hello?

It was definitely interesting on the trip to Arolla. In the other places we had been the Swiss had all been very helpful and English was very common. As soon as we got into the French speaking part it seemed like English was much less common and people were much less willing to try to communicate. It was a case of "I speak French and if you don't - that's your problem." But we were still able to get around and figure things out. We got to Sion, got on the train to Visp, and caught the bus to Saas Fee.

Mont Colon comes out of the clouds on our final morning

Our trip to Arolla had been neat. It was much more remote and a big difference from the major tourist places like Zermatt. It was a chance to see some different mountains, and some really beautiful and spectacular ones. The hotel that we stayed at was over a hundred years old and was very cool. Now we moving on to our last destination of the trip We were going to Saas Fee. This is in the valley to the east of Zermatt. I had been here once before in the 1980's when I climbed several 4000 meter mountains. But I didn't remember anything about the valley or the village so it would be an exploration for us. This would be our longest stay - five nights- of any of the places we visited on this trip. Like Zermatt, Saas Fee doesn't allow cars, so it would be interesting to explore. It is known as "The Pearl of the Alps" so we were interested in exploring the village and the mountains and hikes around it.