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August 9th 2019

Panoramic views from the Rifair Scharte and the Glurner Köpfl

Yesterday morning I have started to hike Stage 69 of the Red Trail of the Via Alpina: from Taufers im Münstertal, just on the border between Switzerland and Italy, via the Rifaier Alm over the Rifair Scharte Pass to Stilfs in the valley of the Suldenbach stream and the Stilfserjoch Pass. This stage is the sequel of Stage 68 of the Red Trail: from S-charl to Taufers over the S-charljöchl and through the beautiful Val Avigna valley, which I have hiked about two years ago, on June 13th 2017 and which I have enjoyed so much! ! This time it took a while before I, arriving by postal car from Mals, had found the starting point of the stage. A sign with arrows pointing to Rifai(e)r Alm, Route Nr. 10 and to the St. Rochus church in Puntweil, a hamlet of Taufers i.M was standing on the corner of the main road, the Strada Statale, near the Swiss border. Furthermore a faded sign with the logo of the Via Alpina was added to it – the Stage could begin! Following the road to the hamlet I passed by a small church, the de St. Rochuskirche. It is a so-called Plague church, which has been built when the last extensive epidemy of the Plaque had hit Tyrol, on the location where already an old church dating from the 13th century has been. The church has lancet windows and a bell tower for the two bells integrated in the façade. It looked well-kept. I crossed the river Rom, as it is called in Vallader; the German name is Rambach. The river was carrying a lot of water that was greyish of the many rain that has been falling the past days – as I had already experienced!

When I reached the wide road at the foot of the northern mountain slope, I heard and saw a herd of cows coming, preceded by two excited dogs, of which one loudly barked at me, and followed by the farmer’s wife and a son. I was ahead of the procession. A green meadow with lush grass was close by the steep path uphill I had to follow: one of the cows took a great interest in it, so I kept her out with some gesturing of my arms! Some of the cows were trying to push one another to the side to get the right position in the row, but there was one cow that went her own way all dreamy…

At the next road sign things got serious… There the path climbed almost vertically uphill – in the detailed route description had been indicated that 1.000 meters in altitude had to be climbed. Well, so I have noticed…! At first I could still enjoy beautiful panoramas on Taufers and surroundings, and also on the Val Avigna valley through which last time I had arrived in Taufers. The small St. Rochus church was bathing in the morning sun.

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Above Taufers i.M.: view on the St. Rochus Church in the hamlet of Puntweil, Taufers and the Val Avigna valley

The past went on through an endless forest of spruce and pine, along rocks, overgrown with moss. That would continue for the next three hours. Because the location to the north there were not only regular green varieties of moss, sometimes in long strings, but also many lichens, the greyish-green ones, but also bright yellow-greenish lichens with delicate ramifications. At moments there were clearings in the dense forest, and there the blue flowers of the Wolfsbane (Aconitum napellus) were dancing in the wind. Again there were beautiful views into the direction of Taufers, that itself had slightly got out of sight, but also into the green Val Avigna valley at the opposite side of the Val Müstair valley. I haven’t seen much wildlife, except for a lot of large black ants. One of them was hauling something big and white – everything in proportion of course, but it was funny to what how the small creature handled the cargo… There were obstacles where it could not lift the cargo, so it first climbed over the i.e. pine cone, and dragged it over the obstacle! Sometimes the ant passed by a “colleague“, with which it had a kind of conversation – I think with the antennae… A few moments later the ant hauled on – and so did I (meanwhile I had caught my breath again!). There were traces of the Tannenhäher (a Spotted nutcracker, Nucifraga caryocatactes) as well, a bird from the Nutcracker family, resembling a Eurasian jay. The Tannenhäher also appears in a stylised form in the logo of the Swiss National Park, situated one mountain ridge more to the west. Everywhere half emptied cones of the Stone pine and also cracked shells of the “kernels”. Sometimes I saw a Tannenhäher flying by at high speed and I could also hear it screaming out loud.

At one point there was a change of landscape between the two mountain slopes: a clear, spattering mountain stream gave some freshness, but also a break from the endless sea of trees… There was a nice moment of stillness when a butterfly (is this really a meadow brown?) sat down on an abundantly flowering umbellifer. I also saw a real watercress plant, of which I tried a leaf: it tasted sharp, but also bitter in a pleasant way! The streams had a strong current, but there also were spots where the water was somewhat stagnant in small puddles. There was a rich vegetation like a large bunch of Harebells.

Not long after that the path continued at the opposite side of the small valley with the stream, but still through the forest. But in the end the small mountain ridge came in sight, behind which the Rifaier Alm was supposed to be. There I saw the rest of the “cable car” that connects the mountain farm at 2.145 metres with the hamlet of Puntweil at 1.220 metres: at the beginning of my tour through the forest I had already noticed the small flat trailer, parked at the “valley station”. By now I fully understood that everything needed up on the mountain or all cheese produced up there would be transported over the narrow footpath uphill or downhill…!

At the Rifaier Alm (2.145 metres) is a large farm with many dairy cows that graze near the farmhouse in a pasture fenced with electric fence – or lay down, ruminating, like “Gerda“, a cow belonging to the Simmentaler breed. Her name was on one of her yellow ear flaps! Some big white chicken and nice black-and-white dwarf hens with feathery feet were scratching around in the stinging nettles behind the farmhouse. Other hikers were also sitting down on the wooden benches after the tiring climb from the valley. Between the work at the farm (they also produce cheese) the farmer’s wife asked what I would like to drink. I had the choice between elderberry juice, raspberry juice and … nettle juice. Well, the latter I would like to try! Further there “only” was “Speck mit Brot” available. So after a shiort while I was served a large glass of nettle juice, that still had a vaguely greenish colour, and a nice fresh, “herby” taste, and a large cutting board with on it two enormous slices Tyrolean speck and Vinschgauer Paarl bread. A ultra-sharp cutting knife was served with it, which was quite useful for cutting the pork rind. Everything tasted really wonderful; in the meantime I also enjoyed the marvellous views!

Although it was very tempting to stay longer, I only spent a short half an hour, because I had still quite a journey to make. I went uphill over a steep slope to the Rifair Scharte Pass at 2.455 m. This part wasn’t very hard: many nice views high above the tree line!

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Above Taufers i.M.: the Rifaier Alm is already far below downhill – with a view on the mountains of the Val Müstair

Somewhere high in the sky I spotted a large bird of prey and I immediately heard the sharp whistle of the Murmeltieren (Marmot): whistling once means “air alarm” and whistling twice or more means danger on the ground. The sound of it carries very far! At several places I also saw entrances to their burrows. All kinds of plants were growing and flowering here, like a variety of Yarrow with bright-white small flowers and feathered leaves that only occurs in this part of the Alps: the Clusius yarrow (Achillea clusiana). This plant has been named after the Dutch botanist Charles Clusius from the 16th century… The “Striped Daphne” (Daphne striata) which has such nice soft pink flowers with darker purple lines, carried yellow berries, that quite stood out between the green leaves.

When I started this big “Via Alpina” adventure I have solemnly pledged that I would not moan about things like burning sun, pouring rain, painful feet and cracking muscles: it has been all my own idea, isn’t it?! After that climb from Taufers and the last part to the Rifair Scharte Pass I could not help thinking that this stage is a really tough one, without the possibility to split it in two parts… Going back wasn’t an option (descending that steep slope again…?), so I moved on undaunted. The impressive, wide views compensated of course quite a lot. At the Rifair Scharte Pass I got another splendid panorama over the Val Müstair and one of the higher mountains, the Piz Chavalatsch (2.763 m), in the mountain chain that separates the Val Müstair valley from the Suldental valley. The border between Switzerland and Italy runs over its top – here is the easternmost point of Switzerland.

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Above Taufers i.M.: a panoramic view on the Piz Chavalatsch (middle), the Rifaier Alm, Taufers and the Val Müstair

Despite of a good preparation the signs let me down a bit at the Rifair Scharte Pass – later I found a sign with indications, lying broken off somewhere against the slope – and I decided that the entre trip to Stilfs would not be feasible: meanwhile it was a quarter to three… Therefore I chose the road into the direction of Lichtenberg, a village near Prad am Stilfserjoch, between the Vinschgau en het Sulden valley. The panoramas continued to be magnificent!

About an hour later I had reached the next elevated point: at Plaschweller at 2.534 metres. There stood a large cairn, “Steinmännchen“, with a view into all directions: to the ortler – meanwhile with somehow less clouds around the top – in the southeast, to the Val Müstair and Taufers in the southwest and to my surprise an increasingly nice view on the Ober-Vinschgau with the Reschen Reservoir! The path was sometimes steep and stony, but it was achievable and I was enjoying myself very much.

Of course over the centuries many secretive activities have been pursued in this border region, amongst which smuggling of goods between Switzerland and Italy. That this hasn’t been without any danger will be obvious; there was not only the risk of being caught by the authorities, but also the risk of being caught in an avalanche. In 2012 a memorial has been attached to the mountain near the Rifair Scharte consisting of a metal cross and an image of a smuggler with a staff and a large rucksack cut out of a metal plate: “Den Schmugglern in Gedenken und Erinnerung” (to the smugglers in commemoration and remembrance). Further down the track, towards the Glurnser Köpfl a wooden panel is standing with letters burned in the wood reading that during the winter of 1935, on February 22nd, three smugglers, two from the village of Tanas and one from Schlanderser Sonnenberg – so locals –, have been swept away by an avalanche and have only been discovered in mid-June 1935. A request to pray for them has been added.

The sign leading the hikers into the right direction was originally placed near the Smugglers memorial, but it has been destroyed – by the snow? My intention had been to follow Weg Nr. 14 to Lichtenberg, but I had been there last year and I hadn’t liked it very much. So I decided to go to Glurns over the mountain top Glurnser Köpfl (2.401 m). Meanwhile it was already almost 4 o’clock…

At a quarter ot five I arrived at the Glurnser Köpfl, after I had seen many nice images again, like a large herd of cows, that had been relaxing in the afternoon sun, ruminating and completed with a view on the Ortler… At the “Gipfelkreuz” (summit cross) I could enjoy the wonderful panorama over the entire Ober-Vinschgau, Mals, Schluderns with the Ötztaler Alpen in the background! I could also see through my binoculars my hotel and even my balcony, if only there weren’t over 1.400 metres in altitude in between. Quite a tough descent was in store for me!

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Above Glurns: a panoramic view on the Upper-Vinschgau, Mals, Glurns and Schlanders on the foreground and the Ötztaler Alps on the background

Nothing more can be said about the descent from the Glurnser Köpfl to Glurns than it has been one long, steep and stony track, that went almost vertically downwards, mainly over eroded paths, worn out by rain water and meltwater. Somewhere however I spotted much to my delight a roe deer, a female, emerge from the forest and quietly disappear again. Just a gift, so for a moment I forgot my weariness! The journey to Glurns, that was still in the sunshine, took eventually two-and-a-half hours. I passed by the small white chapel of St. Martin, which I can see from my balcony standing there so cosily against the slope under the forest of the Glurnser Köpfl. It looked a bit grubby: it was being renovated.

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Above Glurns: the white little St. Martins Chapel outside Glurns on the mountain slope is being done up

In Glurns I made a phone call to the hotel, just to tell them not to worry about me and that I would arrive as soon as possible. Naturally I quite longed for a well-prepared meal and my glass of wine… A Swiss postal car had been scheduled at 20.09 hrs. But: what happened next…? The Postal car didn’t show up! The time that I had been waiting for that bus had done miracles to the muscles in my legs, so when I finally decided to walk those few kilometres from Glurns to Mals, it went all well. About a quarter to nine I arrived at the hotel where the Waldner family had grown slightly worried… Fortunately I still got a nice meal and a good glass of red wine. The dessert (vanilla ice cream with Amarena cherries) made my fatigue wear off completely!

Had it been a special day yesterday? Yes, for sure! Have I (eventually…) enjoyed it? Yes, for sure! But has it been a nice stage of the Via Alpina? Well, no: thereof I am not entirely sure… Anyway it won’t be a stage I would like to hike once more… I do not despair: there are still many stages to go!