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September 19th 2018

Pioneers of watercourses and railways

Today I continued from the point of Stage 97 of the Red Trail, where I stopped the day before yesterday: in Ausserberg. I took the 08.36 hrs. train from Brig, the track of the Bern-Lötschberg-Simplon line. We were even slightly delayed on departure – there were engineering works on this part of the line.

After we left the railway station of Lalden, we passed rather swiftly over a switch somewhere and some construction workers, followed by a bang and a kind of emergency stop. The driver got out of his cabin, wearing an orange vest, and called out of the door: “Da ist doch nichts passiert?”(“Nothing happened I hope?”). Fortunately it appeared to be not too serious: the train had only hit some equipment… After a few minutes we continued to the next railway station, Eggerberg, where a sternly looking railway employee entered the drivers cabin, as it turned out to collect the data from the board computer. After a few brake tests we could continue…

Safely arrived in Ausserberg I went on over the trail of the Via Alpina, that here not only follows the Suonen, but also the hiking trail along the “Lötschberg-Südrampe“, the southern slope of the railway tracks from Hohtenn to Brig or the other way round. Today’s hike would be a combination of waterways and railways.

On my way I spotted again many Valais Blacknose sheep, the white, woolly sheep with their black noses, ears, tails and knees. Their twisted horns are very practical for scratching the back or other places they can’t reach with their feet! In a meadow I saw a group which had just been sheared – the black patches were even better visible now. They are so cuddly!

Ausserberg: these Valais Blacknose sheep have been sheared

Moving on wonderful views were offered again: the Rhone valley was laying in the beautiful morning light. I passed over an old path paved with large stones, that has supposedly been used very much over the centuries. In the valley itself I saw on the left bank of the river Rhone the village of Turtig – on the right bank is the village of Raron, approximately halfway the trail. On the northern side of the mountains along the valley are Unterbäch and more to the west Eischoll. The cable cars connecting the villages to the bottom of the valley were quite visible.

Ausserberg: view into the Rhône valley towards the west with below Turtig and halfway the northern slope Eischoll

An information panel indicated that the construction of the railway line had been a large investment on its own as to finances and manpower, but that in the years after it has been put to use in 1913 the protection against avalanches and earth- and rockslides also took a lot of time, money and work. Many trees have been planted and 117 supporting walls and avalanche barriers have been constructed, especially high above the tracks, where the snow and the scree start to move…

Not long after that I arrived at the Marena Suone, a rather wide water course that runs through a green landscape and has quite a modern appearance. However this Suone has been mentioned for the first time in 1300! I would follow this Marena Suone until deep into the Bietschtal Valley, where the Bietschbach stream runs to the river Rhone and flows into it near Raron.

Ausserberg: the Marena Suone from 1300

The Marena Suone is visible in different appearances. The prettiest way is of course the friendly running water in an open bedding with shoring made of wood or stone or with earth walls, but there also are more modern forms, like large pipelines mad of dank metal, that are dug in or are placed on concrete supports. There also are the old-fashioned hollowed tree trunks which are connected to each other with mitre joints, so not too much water leaks away. At some points planks have been placed on the mountain slope over the Suone to prevent it from blocking with stones and debris running down the slope.

Ausserberg: a joint of two hollowed tree trunks in the Marena Suone

I was able to read a short lesson on railway history on an information panel and later on see it with my own eyes. On a mountain track like this of course many tunnels have to be made. Despite research it always is possible that the rock at the location is too brittle or too instable. This was the case when they were drilling the Sefigstei Tunnel. The engineers noticed that the rock was subsiding while they progressed drilling – this did not only happened with the first tunnel, but also with the second one: work on the track of both the Sefigstei I and II Tunnel has been stopped. The Sefigstei III Tunnel proved to be stable. The Swiss army has used one of the tunnels as a warehouse for a long time, but nowadays a private person stores his precious Valais wines in the tunnel space. A narrow and very steep path leads from the hiking path towards the railway tracks. There was quite visible that one of the tunnel openings has been bricked up. It made nice pictures, especially when a train passed and disappeared into the tunnel!

The landscape became more arid and stony. I had already spotted many lizards, but there was one of them that didn’t consider me being dangerous or that was just lazing in the sun: it allowed me to take a picture in its camouflage colours…

Ausserberg: a lizard between the scattered rock

At a quarter to eleven I reached a point where a flash pointed into the direction of Raron and another Suonen trail (the Niwa). I however followed the trail along the panels with the railway history. There was explained that at that location a lime stone quarry had been where workers cut stones to measure for the construction of the supporting walls along the dangerous spots of the railway. After a blasting had gone wrong (1912) an enormous boulder came loose, that rolled into the direction of Raron. After that this quarry was put out of use, and it collapsed in 1915. Further on during the hike these supporting walls are clearly visible.

In the meantime the views were unabatedly stunning, but now the destination of this stage, Gampel/Steg came in sight – however still very much in the distance!

Raron: view into the Rhône Valley with int the middle Gampel/Steg

The path into the direction of the Bietschtal valley is partly cut out of the rock and is the original track of the supporting railway line built for the construction of the main line. On an old picture on the information panel the construction locomotive is clearly visible, but it can also been seen by the width of the road and the height of the tunnels. Even in the rather overgrown sides of the road you can spot the stacked stones that served as a support for the path. Since 1960 the old railway track serves as a hiking trail.

The impressive steel railway bridge over the Bietschbach stream can be seen from afar.

Raron: the Bietschtal Valley railway bridge comes in sight

At the foot of the railway bridge I had the choice: a longer walk and cross the Bietschbach over a natural bridge or climb up and walk over the railway bridge to the other side. The railway bridge was up to 1980s built as a single-track railway connection. After doubling the tracks the bridge is also accessible for hikers. It shortens the hike by 30 minutes in comparison with the longer hike. I opted for the railway bridge.

The views were beautiful – not only to what was beneath my feet (the wild Bietschbach stream), but also to the Rhone valley in the south.

Raron: view into the Bietschtal Valley towards the south

The Bietschtal valley bridge is 142 metres long and lies 78 metres above the deepest part of the valley. The bridge shows a curvature: the radius is 300 metres. For the original bridge 125.000 rivets were used. The in the 1980s enlarged bridge weights 1.400 tons. When I arrived at the other side of the bridge and I walked on the wide path along the tracks I noticed that there also are operator’s stairs (without a landing) underneath the bow of the bridge…

The path went on over the former construction tracks at the right mountain slope of the Bietschbach stream. A sign warning for falling rocks also had the remark that one should keep moving… Some tunnels were a bit supported, in others ferns were growing at the entrance of exits. Each time I looked back, the railway bridge looked more imposing – quite a technical masterpiece dating from over a 100 years ago!

Something remarkable while walking at the opposite side of the valley was the layered nature of the rocks: the working trail of the former railway track runs horizontally, but the layers of the rocks are under an angle of 45 degrees!

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Raron: view on the geological composition of the mountain slope at the Bietschtal Valley

Shortly after that I arrived at an inn, that looked appealing with a large garden where vegetables and flowers were growing side by side: it was the “Chrüter Beizli”. Here the other hiking trail, longer than the one over the railway bridge jointed in. It was around noon and it was quite busy. I found a seat under a parasol near the main building. From the menu I chose the “Walliser Käseschnitten” (a Valais baked cheese sandwich) with a glass of Riesling. It was a pleasant break of about half an hour. At the road sign at the entrance also a sign of the Via Alpina was attached.

After this rest I moved on. Around one o’clock I got a nice panoramic view of the mountain slope where the railway track of the BLS runs, the sparse vegetation and somewhere hidden also that pleasant inn, “Chrüter Beizli”.

Raron: view on the tracks of the BLS into the direction of the “Chrüter Beizli”

From this point the view over the Rhone valley was stunning as well, to the west as to the east. Gampel/Steg also drew nearer.

In the meantime I had spotted from the direction of the side valley in which the Jolibach stream is running, a glimpse of a construction crane and heard the noise of construction works going on. When I followed the road along the mountain slope I reached a cross-roads. Much to my distress I noticed that the easy way was blocked due tot the construction works and that I had to cross over the suspension bridge instead. On a red sign the words “Hängebrücke nur für Schwindelfreie“, “Suspension bridge only for persons without vertigo”. When I reached the bridge it didn’t offer much of a reassuring appearance…

Immediately a book came into my mind that I have read at school and that has left a lasting impression: “The bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornston Wilder. This American author (1897–1975) wrote this book in 1927. Th book was an instant best-seller; he was awarded the Pulitzer Price for it. Until today he and his books are famous, especially in the United States. The story is about a (fictive) Inca suspension bridge near Lima in Peru at the beginning of the 18th century. Just when five different people whose lives were intertwined in some way of another crossed the bridge over a very deep ravine, the bridge collapsed and the five fell into the ravine. A Franciscan monk had witnessed the accident and wrote a treatise about the possibly “cosmic” reason why just these five people were on that bridge at that very moment, that it could have be God’s plan. Because this book was considered to be blasphemous, the monk was burned on the stake. With this reminiscence I was standing there anno 2018, at the beginning of this sturdy looking suspension bridge made of steel and had serious doubts… I decided however “to embrace my fears and cross the bridge together”. I had expected that the suspension bridge would be swinging enormously while I was crossing it, but that wasn’t very much the case – especially the landings with the wire netting were swaying! At the other side of the ravine, where below the Jolibach stream was running, I found myself quite bold…

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Niedergesteln: the suspension bridge over the Joli ravine is crossed

Strengthened by this emotion I walked on. But the following part of the walk wasn’t without obstructions neither: first I had to climb down over an open staircase into the deep ravine. In spring the stream had transported large tree trunks that were stuck halfway the waterfall on the bedding. After the stairs came a path made of mesh that was attached to the rock face above the wild stream. When I looked up the suspension bridge appeared rather fragile! Around the corner the metal path disappeared together with a water course into a crevasse in the rock. It turned out that there was a light switch at the start of the tunnel: a series of lamps lightened up the footpath running over wooden planks above a new Suone. Once at the other end of the tunnel the path became a kind of concrete edge between the water and the stream far down. After that the track became less adventurous!

Although the mountain slopes still were very arid and rocky, a lot of common sea buckthorn were growing, as the name already indicates could be near the sea. In the Alps one of the subgenus is the Hippophae rhamnoide subsp. fluviatilis. There were many shrubs which hadn’t any berries – I thought it might be a failed fructification, but it turns out that the common sea bucktorn is dioicous, i.e. that there are male and female shrubs. So these shrubs are female! Further on I spotted marvellous golden white grapes behind blue netting – I tried one of them: it was deliciously sweet! Nearly arrived in Hohtenn I saw a vineyard with large bunches of red grapes. I didn’t taste those, because I spotted somehow too much of a greyish residue on them.

Another railway bridge covers the Luogelkin ravine, near Hohtenn; this impressive bridge is made of reinforced concrete and dates from 1910. It spans a height of 50 metres.

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Hohtenn: the Luogelkin railway bridge

From a distance I saw Hohtenn, the village is situated lower on the slope that the railway station of the BLS line. The white church with its modern tower, dedicated to St. Maurice is striking. The building stands out between the traditional, dark coloured Walser houses. Until into the 19th century the village belonged from an ecclesiastical point of view to the neighbouring village of Niedergesteln and only in 1870 got its own chapel, that became too small very soon. It was decided that a new church should be built. This new church was inaugurated in 1963.

The church has be designed by the well-known architect Felix Grünwald (1923–2005); the stained glass windows by his brother Alfred Grünwald (1929 – 1966). The Grünwald Brothers were from Brig. The atmosphere in the church at this time of the day (around half past 2) had something very special because of the incidence of the light.

At three o’clock I arrived at Steg after a descent along orchards and vineyards. By crossing the river Lonza I reached the other village: Gampel. I had arrived at the point where I started this series of stages in the Rhone Valley: on June 28th] I hiked Stage 98 of the Red Trail from Gampel/Steg to Albinen and later to Leukerbad. Walking back to the railway station I also saw the large cross, the enormous lime tree and the little white chapel “zu den Steilen Steinen” again. It brought back nice memories. The train took me back fast to Brig.

This day was a nice closure of the tracks through the Rhone Valley from Brig, Belalp in the case, to Albinen. The Stages as suggested by the Via Alpina were sometimes very long, but because the possibility to hike them in parts, these hikes all were marvellous and special. So I have got a good impression of the natural surroundings and the way the inhabitants of this part of Upper-Valais have shaped their lives over the centuries and how their struggle to survive in this sometimes inhospitable area has lead to grandiose solutions. I am looking back on these trips in admiration and awe!