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September 30th 2019

Through the Aletsch forest and over the dam of the Gibidum Reservoir

This morning I took the 10.48 hrs train from Brig to Mörel, and got off two stops and 17 minutes later. The railway station in between is called Bitsch – it is funny to hear in what way this is announced in the train in English: it really sounds like “bitch” instead of “beach“! In Mörel it was only a three minutes’ walk to the valley station of the gondola, which eventually ends in Riederalp. The first part of the track goes to the village Ried-Mörel on the mountain shoulder. The gondola moves on very slowly, so people heading for Ried-Mörel can get off without a problem. Passengers for Riederalp have to remain seated: the gondola continues on another cable to the end station Riederalp. The views to all sides were beautiful again. The “home mountain” of Brig, the Glishorn (2.525m), is standing very much in the picture when looking to the southeast over the little church of Ried-Mörel. The higher I came with the gondola, the further my view reached: behind the Glishorn I also saw a high, snow-covered mountain top, the Spitzhorli (2.737m). I could also spot, much closer by, the older and more modern chalets, all built in Walser style. They were standing against the mountain slope on the already discolouring meadows near the village. In north-eastern direction at the other side of the Rhône valley the mountains around the Binntal valley stretch out. I had been hiking there yesterday. As the cow flies these distances are not that long…

From the mountain station the way to the Riederfurka was quickly found: a steep path led uphill. There the Villa Cassel was hidden behind scaffolding for refurbishment: normally an Information centre of Pro Natura, the oldest Swiss nature conservation organisation is established in this majestic villa in Victorian style from 1902. Since 1976 the Villa and the nearby chalet are also used as hotel-restaurant. As from next summer season the building and the exploitation will be as sustainable as possible and also CO² neutral. The Villa has known a moved past. Villa Cassel has been built by Sir Ernest Cassel (1852–1921), a banker and business man from London, but originally from Germany, who for health reasons had to travel to the good mountain air. He was a successful and very wealthy man who therefore had access to the highest circles in England. Many influential persons have stayed in the Villa – i.e. Winston Churchill. He had not only a strongly developed business sense, but he also spent a lot of money on charity. As he supported the poor rural communities in Ried, Betten and surroundings he was allowed a plot of land on the Riederfurka to build a villa. Due to the outbreak of the First World War he wasn’t able to travel to his villa above Riederalp anymore. He died in London on September 21st 1922 and left his entire possessions to his granddaughter. She sold the villa to a family of hoteliers who exploited the hotel, in its original interior and style, from 1924 to the end of the 1960s. From this period on the villa risked to completely deteriorate. In 1973 the predecessor of Pro Natura has managed to prevent that by buying the building and doing it up. In 1976 Villa Cassel was opened as an information centre – there also is a possibility to spend the night. After the actual refurbishment the Villa will open its doors in the early summer 2020. A large alpine garden has also been created at Villa Cassel.

At the western side of the Riederfurka I could see the overwhelming panorama of the area around the Aletsch glacier. Not only the barren mountains an both sides of the enormously large ice masses are impressive, but also the southern spurs of the Aletschwald forest. The protection of this area of 400 hectares has been achieved in 1933 because the municipality of Ried -Mörel, the “Alpgenossenschaft Riederalp” and the foundation Pro Natura had agreed on a lease. Nowadays the area is managed by Pro Natura and financially supported by the Canton of Valais. In this area as one of the core parts of the UNESCO World Heritage Jungfrau-Aletsch many protection measures have been taken, like a total ban on hunting. The forest is left to itself, so it is becoming more and more a primeval forest. However a lot of research is done to the developments: it is not only about the trees that often are very old, but also about the different stadiums of development of other biotopes, like raised bogs. On an old, beautiful wooden sign is indicated that by decision of the Swiss Staatsrat of May 5th 1933 the “Reservation Aletschwald” has been founded: “Unbedingter Schutz aller Tiere und Pflanzen” (unconditional protection of all animals and plants). Because the melting of the glacier has already quite advanced, interesting geological aspects have become visible: strange round waves in the rocks can been seen. These are what is called in German “Rundhöcker” or in English “Roches moutonnées“: because of the downhill movement of the glacier over the fixed bottom of bedrock – that hasn’t been weathered yet, because the ice is covering it – a thin layer of ice melts into water through the pressure of the ice, that serves as a means of transport. When the glacier hits an unevenness the ice will polish the rock. As soon as the ice has passed this hurdle, the grinding freezes to the glacier again. Such “Rundhöcker” can be found in groups – that was quite visible here… In the “creases” trees are growing by now, so the barren round boulders clearly stood out!

Because I was hiking there and just could not stop looking around, I didn’t follow the indicated route once again. I followed the signs of the Aletsch-Panoramaweg and I only noticed later that I was going down on the steep wooded slope instead of heading to the glacier… But I was in for a huge surprise: a beautiful panorama of the Valaisan Alps at the south side of the Rhône Valley! I came out of the forest and all of a sudden I saw the greyish peak of the Matterhorn with next to it the wide, white, sow-covered top of the Weisshorn looming in the distance – and that under an almost bright blue sky with a few white clouds. That made my heart race for a moment! I have spent quite some time standing there with the sun on my face and enjoying this view.

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Between Riederfurka and Gibidum Reservoir: a dream view on the Matterhorn (centre) and the Weisshorn (right) with its top covered by clouds

After a few minutes walking I also got a good impression of the destination to which today’s part of Stage R96 should lead: I saw besides the high mountains at the opposite side of the Rhône Valley, on my side the other side of the deep valley through which the mountain stream the Massa was flowing, the white building of the Hotel Belalp, just above the treeline. Last year, on September 16th 2018, I had hiked from that point the trail to Mund – a wonderful trip, but through quite a different kind of landscape, with less forests and much more grasslands and water courses (Suonen).

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Between Riederfurka and Gibidum Reservoir: panoramic view on the Matterhorn, the Weisshorn and the area of Blatten and Belalp (destination of this part of the stage)

The walk down to the Gibidum reservoir still took more than an hour: I had to cover from the point where I had left the original route through the Aletschwald forest, near Nessul, a difference in altitude of over 500 metres. It was an imposing sight to see that large quantity of somewhat milky bluish water, withheld by the bent back dam wall. This reservoir that is in some places to 104 metres deep has been built from 1966 to 1968 and put into service in 1969. It has a surface of 21 km². The length of the dam is 327 metres and the height of the wall 122 metres. I descended on metal stairs to the dam wall, over which a wide road is running with railings on both sides. There was a large sign with a warning that seemed rather unnecessary to me: that is strictly forbidden to climb over these railings and that the Municipality of Naters declines any responsibility … I spotted towards the eastern rock wall a large quantity of tree trunks and branches floating in the water and wondered how they could ever be taken out from there. The reservoir is fed by water from the glaciers in the surrounding area, especially the Aletsch glacier. A bigger problem than the driftwood is the erosion material that is carried along with the water from the glaciers. Therefore the reservoir has to be “flushed” every year with over 400.000m³ of water – thereto the outlets at the bottom of the dam wall are opened. At the top of the dam wall water drains have been made: these are opened at a maximum water level of 140 metres. Now I didn’t see water flowing, only many, many swallows flying zig-zag across that enormous concrete wall, catching insects while crying their characteristic song. From the road over the dam I had again wonderful sun-drenched views into the direction of the Rhône Valley. The views over the reservoir where I could see the mountains in the background and still a part of the glacier, were very impressive as well.

To be honest I was rather glad that I could go over this solid dam wall and that I didn’t have to cross the suspension bridge over the Massa Gorge to the north of this reservoir… That suspension bridge has been built in 2008, because the Aletsch glacier had been retreating more and more and it was not longer possible to follow the old track across the glacier. This suspension bridge is 124 metres long and passing this bridge has been described as a “Nervenkitzel” – well, that kind of nerve-tickling doesn’t appeal to me that much…

It was clear that a lot of technicalities are involved in such a construction. Not only a narrow, metal staircase went down along the dam wall, but there also was a hoisting construction with a mesh basket, for tools apparently! Here one shouldn’t suffer of vertigo… To the west side of the reservoir a gauging rod had been installed on the rock wall, on which the perilous levels were indicated in red. Here a lot of wood was floating in the water as well. There were steep stairs from the dam wall to the paved road – once there I had a nice overview over the reservoir, the dam wall and the steep mountain slope with the forest through which I had come down. It hadn’t exactly been the trajectory of Stage R96 to Belalp, but I have appreciated it nevertheless…

When I climbed the “fire escape” from the dam of the reservoir, I passed a kind of “miniature garden” growing on a level part of the almost vertical rock wall – amid of this much human intervention and of water masses caught behind concrete walls it gave the impression of tranquillity! Furthermore I have seen quite a lot flowers. Although the flowering season was already quite advanced, I still found a special variety of violets growing on a moist terrain with coarse grass and some stinging nettles. After some research they turned out to be Rock-Heartsease (Viola tricolore ssp. subalpina Gaudin), a literal translation of the German “Felsen-Stiefmütterchen“, as the variety doesn’t have its own name in English. It is related to the “normal” violets with three shades, which is somewhat confusing, because this Rock-Heartsease actually has two instead of three shades: white and yellow en no bluish purple. That doesn’t matter much: they looked nice, with little lines from the floral heart, like little faces! Although I had missed the real Aletschwald forest, here I have seen many old and bizarrely grown conifers, which had attached themselves to the rocky mountain slope. On a trunk of an once cut spruce many torn pine cones were left: had it been a squirrel been eating here or had it been a Spotted nutcracker (a Tannenhäher, Nucifraga caryocatactes)? This nutcracker is known for collecting large (winter-)supplies of these seeds. It is capable to retrace these even under a thick layer of snow. Sometimes it is not successful and then new trees grow from the seeds that haven’t been found – also a way to renew the forest! I have heard them flying form tree to tree. The White stonecrop (Sedum album) was still in bloom as well protected by some rocks – that was within the regular flowering time.

Once on the paved road in the direction of Blatten I passed a large information panel with a map on which the structure of the “Electra-Massa” was indicated. I also saw how close the north side of the reservoir is to the end of the Aletsch glacier, and on what track of the pressure pipes run from the reservoir to the power plant in Bitsch. There is an exceptionally large grade: the water “falls” almost 750 metres down and then powers the turbines!

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Between Gibidum Reservoir and Blatten: map of the working area of “Electra-Massa” from dam to power plant near Bitsch at the Rhône

I continued my walk towards Blatten through a forest of spruce with old trees, where many mushrooms grew. I noticed that here quite a lot of large trees had been blown over. The cause wasn’t in the crown of the tree, but actually in the root system. Some giants had had their roots around large round boulders, which hadn’t given enough support… That had already happened quite a long time ago, because young blueberry bushes had been growing in the soil that was still left in the root system of the trees! Near Rischinen I crossed the bedding of an almost dried-up stream, the Bruchi, by a small bridge. It looked rather harmless, but nevertheless the municipality had placed a warning sign and a flash light: it was an area in which flooding and landslides (Murgänge) could occur. Also escape routes were indicated that had to be followed in case of flooding of landslides…

In Blatten there was still some time left before the Postal car would leave for Brig and therefore I sat down on the terrace of Hotel Blattnerhof. I had a cup of coffee and a nice piece of fruit pie. There was quite windy and many dead needles fell from the tree – a thick layer was already lying on the ground and every now and then a needle landed in my coffee and on my cake, but that didn’t spoil my good mood: I just liked to sit cosily in the sunshine and to think back to the nice tour with its surprises! It had again been a wonderful day!