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June 15th 2019

No longer through the Clemgia Gorge…

Yesterday I have hiked Stage 67 of the Red Trail of the Via Alpina for the second time, that is to say the first part: from Scuol to Plan da Funtanas, about halfway to S-charl, the destination of this stage. It was almost just on the day two years ago that I hiked this stage for the first time: on June 12th 2017 I have started on the Via Alpina! I still remember very well how amazing this hike had been – and hoe promising the Via Alpina was at that moment. And I know by now hoe amazing and promising the Via Alpina is – and without a doubt will continue to be! However it is very unfortunate for the whole hiking community that the most impressive part of this stage, the passage through the Gorge in which an affluent of the river Inn, the Clemgia, flows, isn’t possible anymore. Perhaps the facts are known, but about six weeks after I hiked this stage extreme weather with terrible thunderstorms and heavy rainfalls has raged around Scuol and the Val S-charl valley on July 29th 2017, causing severe flooding. Just that same day I had made a wonderful trip from S-charl over the Costainas Pass into the Val Müstair valley and had written:

I enjoyed a wonderful day in a beautiful countryside. Unfortunately during the same evening and the following night destroying thunderstorms hit the Lower Engadin: the Val S-charl Valley has been suffering large mudslides over the sole access road. Inhabitants and guests have been evacuated by helicopter. Two years ago (end of July 2015) this kind of disaster also happened and now it has repeated itself… The Val S-charl Valley will not be accessible for at least a week. These events show once more how treacherous the weather in the mountain areas can be…

That evening such large water masses have sped up through the Val S-charl, that in the narrow Clemgia Gorge with the large drop the complete infrastructure of the footpaths and the little bridges has been wiped away. The Municipality of Scuol has seriously considered to repair the hiking route which is from a touristic point of view very important, although it would be very expensive. Eventually the decision has been made to refrain from this operation that seemed to be without any sense: the mountain slopes in a large area upstream from the Gorge are eroded to such extent that it was to be expected that with the next case of extreme weather again extensive damage would occur… That this decision has been wise has been shown by the fact that, when I was visiting Scuol again on August 1st of last year, bad weather has struck again: after a horrible “stationary” thunderstorm people had to be rescued by helicopter from Val S-charl again… Therefore the Clemgia Gorge has been closed for good…

Yesterday I decided to look for an alternative route, and that would be a track I had taken several times – especially in winter: via Vulpera, a hamlet at the opposite side of the valley, near Tarasp, and the Gasthaus Avrona, an inn on a mountain shoulder with views into the Val S-charl.

After a good night’s sleep and an excellent breakfast I left Hotel Altana into the direction of the pedestrian bridge and had a nice view over a field with recently mown alfalfa to Vulpera with the many hotels from the early 20th century. The Piz Pisoc rose high above the wooded slopes. From the bridge to the right bank of the Inn near Guirlaina the high water level in the river was again quite visible! On the hiking signs the well-known road to S-charl (4 hrs) via Plan da Funtanas had been taped off with yellow tape…

After a few minutes I arrived at a bridge over the Clemgia, only a few hundred metres from the spot where the stream flows into the Inn. The water in the depth had been coloured greyish with the silt it had carried with it. At the other side of the bridge the original footpath turns to the left along the stream into the direction of the Gorge, but there hadn’t only been placed an official road sign reading “No pedestrians”, a red and white chequered tape had also been tied over the entire width of the road. Two signs were put up with official information from the Municipality of Scuol. The first was dated August 2017, when the extreme weather had just happened. In Vallader and in German was mentioned that the part of the hiking trail from Avrona to Plan da Funtanas was accessible again, but that due to landslides the road along the Clemgia had been closed “until further notice”. On the second sign from April 2019 was indicated that during the extreme weather of 2017 landslides and broken-off rocks had caused severe damage to a mayor part of the hiking trail – at some points only barren rocks are left. Because of security reasons the “appealing hiking route through the Clemgia Gorge” has been closed, at least until Spring 2020… With some glimmer of hope the sentence was added that research was going on as to the possibilities of repair and the costs thereof, and that it was the intention to make the road safely accessible again. So I followed the somehow less adventurous track, which is also indicated as walking track in winter (“Winterwanderweg“) to Vulpera.

On a slightly rising footpath I walked into the eastern part of the at this time still quiet spa resort Vulpera with, alas, rather much former glory from the times that bathing in and drinking of mineral water became fashionable: the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. From there I took a narrow path that zig-zag goes up against the steep mountain slope. These are nice, shady and green surroundings with many moss-covered tree trunks and rocks. I also spotted several plants of the Alpine clematis (Clematis alpina) – they were in full bloom: the calyxes are soft blue, sometimes almost bright purple. A beautiful clematis had chosen a small beech tree with its still bright green leaves for support! I haven’t seen much wildlife: only a curious dark brown squirrel and an enormous ant heap under a group of spruces. Now and then I had wonderful views on Scuol and the mountain scenery to the north of the Inn Valley. Although this route wasn’t as adventurous as the way through the Clemgia Gorge, it still was nice to pass through this relaxing, cool area!

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Above Scuol-Vulpera: view on Scuol and the mountains to the north

After a steep climb I reached a clearing with a wide view over meadows, the overpowering Piz Pisoc and the snow-covered mountains at the beginning of the Val S-charl Valley. From a distance the meadows just look green, but all kinds of plants grow and flowers blossom in many colours. I especially like the exceptionally wonderful combination of colours in the purple of the Meadow sage (Salvia pratensis) and the yellow with a hint of orange of the Broad-leaved Spurge (Euphorbia platyphyllos), with which the south-facing slope was completely covered. Once on a winter’s day I had seen a group of five chamois on this meadow, to the edge of the forest.

Avrona is a small hamlet with the Gasthaus Avrona and the “Bergschule Avrona“, a boarding school with special education for youngsters with learning and behavioural problems. Horses were in a meadow and coming from somewhere I also heard the happy chuckling of chicken. When I approached the Gasthaus Avrona, a group of pupils were busy with a school task: they had to measure up the length of the meadow with a measuring tape – it was obvious that not everybody was quite motivated… But yes, they were busy, outside in the sunshine. Since a few years the Gasthaus Avrona is opened all year round,  not just in winter. It was a nice spot for a break. As the Clemgia Gorge has been closed, hikers are passing by Avrona on their way to S-charl: that will certainly influence the number of guests. It was quite busy on the terrace, but I was able to find a table under a parasol. Not all guest had come by foot: from Tarasp a wide, paved road leads to this place.

The coffee and cheesecake were fine. A sign standing on the ground shows that Avrona already is an old inn. All the good things mentioned on it are still available. The announcement “Telephon im Hause” (Telephone inside) is a bit outdated, now everybody has a mobile phone in the pocket! I followed my trail along the clearing I had been looking at during the break and went further into Val S-charl.

After walking for a while through an open forest with conifers, I slowly descended along the steep slope to the bed of the Clemgia. The sound of fast-flowing water became louder – the colours changed also from green to blue, from vegetation to barren rock. Here the influence of erosion was already visible: this part of the mountains in the Lower Engadin consists of limestone, which is very friable. The mountain slopes are thus almost barren, except for a few conifers. In this area the huge danger of landslides and flooding after extreme weather is created: the Clemgia has to cope with enormous water masses, which will cause great damage on passing through the narrow Gorge. Also with the “normal” supply of water by the melting water that in spring time flows from the mountains into the valley the forces are strong: heavy tree trunks were lying in the wide river bed… Also now the water kept on rushing by. After crossing a wooden bridge over the Clemgia I arrived at steps which looked rather robust. They were barricaded with a wooden pole and red and white chequered tape: we weren’t allowed to go that way, because the steps led to the path through the Clemgia Gorge.

Somewhat melancholically I thought back to my hike through the Gorge that I had been able to make just two years ago. Hereunder are a few pictures of the wild nature in the Gorge… Back then the repairs done because of the damage from 2015 still clearly visible – the colour of the new wood is much lighter.

Standing at the bottom of these steps I looked with some trepidation to the alternative route that had been created to go from that point to Plan da Funtanas… A few planks had been attached to the rock wall with two ropes for support and further on a few concrete stepping stones had been put on the rocky bank that had been erodes by the water. Tree roots were still stuck on the vertical mountain wall. Eventually the passage turned to be not that bad and it had seemed more menacing than it was in reality.

The narrow path went through the scree upstream along the water for a while. There the landscape turned more green again. There were also many special flowers in bloom. I saw a beautiful, big Moorland spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) growing in a protected spot under a rock – the young spruce standing next to it looked like a Bonsai tree! Small streams quietly flow through the open forest. Along the banks of one of these little streams Lady-slipper orchids (Cypripedium calceolus) were growing in a large group. This variety of orchids is the largest to grow in Europe and stands out because of its beautiful flowers in the colours bright yellow for the labellum and dark red to brownish for the upper petals. The first time I saw them in such quantities had been in the Clemgia Gorge when I hiked there two years ago – fortunately they abundantly grow here as well! Another plant that can be found in this forest is the smaller version of the February daphne (Daphne mezereum), the “Striped daphne” (Daphne striata), that only grows in the Alps. This evergreen shrub has fine, small pink flowers standing in small bunches and smelling very nice, but watch out: the plant is poisonous! This green stretch between the stony riverbed of the Clemgia and the traffic road to S-charl which runs higher up on the mountain slope is an oasis of tranquillity.

In strong contrast with this green landscape is the view on the eroded mountain slopes on both sides of the Val S-charl valley: there are large and deep clefts and large fields of scree which have been created over centuries in this friable rock by weather and wind. There is hardly any vegetation to retain the fine scree. Here in the upper reaches of the Clemgia it becomes quite clear why it is that complicated to find a sustainable solution for the repairs of the road infrastructure in the Clemgia Gorge… Also on the right side of the valley the mountain slopes are full of large cone-shaped fields of scree – therefore the paved road to S-charl gets blocked by scree slides that often. A landscape on the move, but not always into the direction we people would like it to go…

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Val S-charl Valley: the Piz Pisoc with the eroded mountain slope seen from the road to S-charl

At a quarter past one o’clock I arrived at the bus stop of Plan da Funtanas and saw that I had to wait over three quarters of an hour before the next Postal car would come from S-charl. So I went into the direction of the Riding school San Jon, the next stop for the bus to Scuol. Every now and then I had nice panoramas to the opposite side of the Inn valley, with views on Scuol – and even on Hotel Altana. I also saw on the left side of the Val S-charl the spots where I had walked in the morning, like near Avrona.

Upon arrival at San Jon it turned out that my decision to head “home” already had been the right one: the Postal car only went between the railway station of Scuol and the riding school, because there were construction works at the road towards S-charl! That had been mentioned on the panel with the timetables at the bus stop in Scuol, but not on the panels at the stops in between…

Back in Scuol again I could look back with a good feeling on a nice hike: sometimes it is certainly worthwhile to hike a stage for a second time!

Today is my last day here: for once I have decides to be idle… Tomorrow I return to the Netherlands again. That marks the end to this wonderful time in this beautiful country! A revair – good bye!