The previous day we had done the Almagelleralp High Trail with excellent weather conditions. We really enjoyed the one-way, high-level trail. The forecast predicted excellent weather again. We decided to do another high level trail, this one even longer. Good weather is important for the one-way trails, especially long ones. Once we committed to the trail, it is hard to bail out if the weather turns nasty. But this looked like an excellent opportunity. Our guidebook, the Rother Walking Guide to Valais East, has over fifty hikes in the region, but included this on its short list of "Must Do" hikes.
This hike started all the way back at the beginning of the Saastal at the town of Stalden. At this point the high mountain valley coming south from the Rhone Valley splits into two forks, one following the Matter Vispa River to Zermatt while the other follows the Saas River to the quad villages of Saas Balen, Saas Grund, Saas Fee and Saas Almagell.
We wanted as early a start as we could get. We got to breakfast as soon as it started. The guy at the hotel commented that we were always down there early. It was just us and one other couple every morning (they were hikers too and always had their stuff ready and left as soon as they finished). I don't understand why more people didn't start early since the mountains always clouded up by noon even on good days. But whatever.
It was a lot more work to reach the start of this hike. We caught the bus back to Visp and took it most of the way out of the valley. It was about a forty minute bus ride. Ok, it was a thirty seven minute bus ride. After all, this is Switzerland and the bus takes as long as they say it does. No more. No less. That got us to the Stalden train station. But we didn't want the train. We wanted the cable car that was just across the tracks. The gondola was quite small and there were other hikers there. We managed to cram ten people in and that was tight. I noticed that the sign on the car said "Ten people or 800 kg max". We had exactly ten people in the car but no way were all of them 80 kg or less. This was probably the most rickety of all the cable cars that we took in Switzerland. It started by swinging out over the gorge (there's about three hundred feet of drop right there) and going up from there. We had to take it up past the first station all the way to the village of Gspon. It took over fifteen minutes to get there.
The village of Gspon is pretty cool. It is high above the valley floor and there is no road access at all to the village. Things can only go in or out via the small gondola. It must be pretty tough to order a refridgerator! The village was very pretty and the setting was spectacular. We could see all the way to the valley floor, with the very bottom being a steep gorge. We could see north to the Rhone Valley and the peaks of the Bernese Oberland on the other side. These were impressive mountains dominated by the Bietschhorn. We could see part of the way up the valley towards Zermatt and part way up the other fork towards Saas Fee. The high ridge between the two forks had impressive peaks on it culminating in the Nadelgrat, a massif of five 4000 meter peaks that included the Lenzspitze, Nadelhorn, Stecknadelhorn, Hoberghorn and Duerrenhorn. Large glaciers flow below the needle-sharp rock peaks on the ridge. In the morning light it was an impressive sight.
All ten of us who came up in the gondola were there to hike the trail to Kreuzboden. Normally it would be kind of annoying since we would all start out in a big bunch together. That was fixed because there was only a single toilet at the upper station. This did a good job of spreading all of us out so that we started sevearl minutes apart instead of all together. Clever arrangement by the Swiss.
The beginning of the trail was a very wide and easily graded track that climbed very gently. It was very pleasant walking in the cool of the morning, enjoying the great view. This is going to be easy, I thought to myself. Well it didn't last long. Eventually we came to a fork in the trail, one continuing a more or less level traverse and the other taking off straight up the hill. The junction was signed and of course the sign to Kreuzboden pointed to the uphill trail. It is a law of physics that if you ever come to a trail junction, the one that you want is the harder of the two trails. The bigger the difference the more certain it is that the one you need to take is the one that you wish you didn't have to take.
After climbing a few hundred feet straight up the hillside the trail went through the tiny village of Finilu. One lady was out watering her flowers and said hello as we passed. One house had a sign that said it sold tea and coffee to hikers but we didn't knock on the door to ask for any. Slightly above the houses was a tiny church with beautiful stained glass windows. Tiny is not an exaggeration. It was only the size of a small storage shed like some people have in their backyards. It had only six benches that might each seat two people - if they were skinny and really good friends.
After Finilu the trail continued to work along the hillside and climb steadily. We found a nice rock that provided a good view - an excellent spot to stop for a break. But rnext to the rock was a sign warning hikers not to stop because of the danger of rockfall. Well I guess that explains how that big rock got there in the first place. Sandy climbed on and I snapped a quick picture. Then we moved on.
Not too much farther there was a big piece missing from the hillside. Obviously it was the result of a big landslide. The trail had to wind a long way around and climb very high to get around the deep gash left in the ridge. After that it tended upward but often with ups and downs to cross gullies and side canyons. It was definitely a lot of work. At one point we passed a lone cabin right next to the trail that had several people in the back sitting at benches drinking tea. According to the guide this was one of the few places to stop and buy drinks. But it looked more like friends of the family sitting in the back yard than a real teahouse so we kept going. We did recognize the proprieter as the guy described as a woodcarver in some of the descriptions we read. He was busy or it would have been interesting to see if he had anything small enough to carry back for sale.
After about three hours we reached a clearing with a very large boulder, a place known as OberSchwarzeWald. There were about twenty or more hikers resting or having lunch. It's the half way point so lots of hikers take take a break there. Sandy was disappointed to learn that we still had two and a half hours to go. It meant that we were a half hour behind the standard time already. So we didn't take a break but just kept on going.
When we got close to Kreuzboden we reached what we had been dreading - the last big hill. It was very steep and it was relentless. After four hours of walking we were getting tired and it was tough. But eventually we made it to the top of the hill and had one more long slope to traverse. And it was a long traverse - it took us well over half an hour. There were lots of little intermediate ridges that we had to keep climbing over. The slope was big boulders again, Sandy's favorite, although not as difficult as some of the other boulder slopes we had been on the past couple of days.
Eventually we turned the corner and could see the lift at Kreuzboden where we had started our hike the day before. From where we spotted it we only needed ten more minutes to reach it. Our total time for the hike was five and a half hours. Not too bad actually. We took the cable car down to Saas Grund and then caught the bus to Saas Fee. It was late in the afternoon when we reached our hotel. With all the travel to and from the trailheads and the long hike it had been a long day.
That night we had dinner at our hotel. It was the first time that either of us had enjoyed raclette, a traditional Swiss dish. A large piece of cheese is heated and then the gooey cheese is scraped off the end onto your plate. You eat it with vegetables and potatoes. It was delicious. We really enjoyed it and that night Sandy was already shopping online to find out where we could get raclette cheese in the US<.a> (Wisconsin of course). The next day we went to the cheese shop and she was checking out raclette machines. She is planning to make it when we get home.
An enjoyable but a long and hard hike, followed by a delicious dinner with good wine. We were in bed and asleep early.