The Vaud Alps

My private paradise is in a little corner of Switzerland known as Chablais. It straddles the Swiss cantons of Vaud and Valais, and a part of France, at the point where the Alps meet Lake Geneva, a few miles from Montreux.

At the heart of this area is the sleepy town of Aigle, surrounded by vineyards that make some of the best wines in all of Switzerland. Aigle is also the home of the International Cycling Union (Union Cycliste Internationale), is a major stop on the trains that run from Geneva Airport to Brig and has a prominent castle, but for skiers and snowboarders Aigle is noteworthy because it lies at the nexus of a number of railways and roads that take you to some of the best winter sports resorts in the Alps and is the gateway to the Vaud Alps.

From Aigle direct trains run to the resorts of Leysin, Les Diablerets and Les Portes du Soleil. Villars and Torgon are only half an hour away by bus. With only one change of train, it is also an easy day trip to Verbier in the Four Valleys, Les Marécottes and several resorts in Gstaad Mountain Rides (including Rougemont and Château-d’Oex). From Les Diablerets a courtesy bus runs to Glacier 3000 (Glacier des Diablerets).

Les Diablerets was in the papers for all the wrong reasons this week, with news of a 21yo English skier dying when he hit a tree on the edge of the Vers-l’Eglise piste, a relatively straight-forward red run. I would count Les Diablerets and the connected resort of Villars as being amongst the safest resorts in the Alps, and I can only imagine that this was a freakish accident. It’s always tragic to hear of a skiing fatality, and this was a slope I was skiing on only last week when conditions seemed near perfect.

fanny smith racing skicross
Vilars was also in the news this week, when the Swiss skier, Fanny Smith, gained a bronze medal in Skicross. Fanny has won nearly everything there is to win in skicross, but an Olympic medal has eluded her until now. Despite her English-sounding name – she was born to an American father and English mother – Fanny skis for Switzerland, was born in Aigle and brought up in Villars where she no doubt honed her skicross skills.

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Longest Pedestrian Bridge Opens

The world’s first peak-to-peak suspension bridge opened in 2014 in Switzerland at the Glacier3000 ski area. The 107m long bridge, known as “Peak Walk by Tissot”, has been more than matched by a new suspension bridge in nearby Valais.

The 31km long Europaweg, a hiking trail between Zermatt and Grächen, lies along a route prone to rockfalls. A bridge was built along a section of the route in 2010, crossing the Dorfbach river, but was swept away in a rock avalanche two months later. The determined Swiss went about building a replacement, high enough to avoid the fate of its predecessor. The resulting Charles Kuonen Hängebrücke, or Europe Bridge, opened on 29th July 2017, and is 494 metres long, making it the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. At its highest it is 84 metres above the valley.

The bridge has around 8 tons of cable, and employs a system that prevents it from swinging. It is named after the principal sponsor behinds its construction and is located just east of Randa at map co-ordinates 46° 6′ 6.5″, 7° 48′ 4.7″.

To walk the Europaweg usually takes two days, with an overnight stop in the Europahütte. It is rated T3, i.e. a challenging hike that requires good footwear, orientation skills and some basic Alpine experience (the rating associated with the most difficult hikes is T6). However it is possible to visit the bridge without taking the entire hike by taking the train to Randa – 2 stations from Zermatt – and hiking up from there. It is a steep 650m ascent, and takes around 2 hours each way.

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Dogs banned in Switzerland


Dogs banned in Switzerland
I often get a news flash from somewhere in India or Saudi Arabia or Elephant Butte, New Mexico, telling me about something going on in the world of skiing.

It is my fault, of course. I subscribe to the news feeds in the first place. However, it is not only the incongruity of these places having a keen interest in Switzerland and Winter Sports resorts that I find fascinating, but also how misleading the headlines sometimes are.

Dogs are not banned in Switzerland. I made that up. But it is sort of true, if the press release I am looking at is true. The favoured headline associated with the underlying story is actually “Swiss ski resort bans selfies with iconic Saint Bernards”, and the story is a rash running right across the world this weekend. There are over 4500 Google references to the phrase, and most sources that have published the story seem to like the headline in all its bizarre, naked glory. Newspapers running the story, and there are hundreds, have on the whole published the press release without any changes.
Matterhorn, dog and dork.
Not surprisingly, the agency that originated the story is AFP, a French outfit that often comes up with outlandish press releases. One I researched a few months ago on this blog was headlined with something that was, quite frankly, poo. Untrue.

And the truth in this case is no more that dogs are banned in Switzerland, than that you can’t take selfies with St Bernards. You can, just in case you were considering cancelling your next trip to Switzerland out of concern you would miss out on an iconic selfie. And the story is nothing to do with selfies at all, the word just seems to garner clickbait. Or it now means any photograph with a person or a dog in it.

Switzerland is keen on the prevention of cruelty to animals. The more lurid presentation of this in the press release is that you are not allowed to kill a goldfish without procedures that are usually reserved for executions in Texas. And budgerigars cannot live in households without another budgerigar of the same sexual orientation. Or some such… perhaps I exaggerate: go google the press release if you want to know. Anyway, it is true that animal rights are more stringently regulated in Switzerland than most countries.

So, to cut to the chase, the real story is that some St Bernard dogs – with whom you can be photographed against a backdrop of Zermatt, on payment of a small fee – are being badly treated.
Swiss St Bernards looking the part
The Swiss animal protection group STS (aka SAP or SPS, depending on the language you speak) has apparently called for the ban, citing examples of dogs not taken for walks, left for long periods without food or water, hanging around in the cold and being kept in miserable conditions. Following a study conducted between 26th January and 4th February this year they have filed a criminal case against the owners of the dogs. At least that is what the organization says at their site, where they have a detailed report in German. Our AFP press release claims that Zermatt Gemeinde “has banned tourists from posing for photos” with the dogs, but I can find nothing about this at the Gemeinde’s web site.

However, some German language newspapers report that the mayor of the Gemeinde has agreed with the two local companies that organise the photographs that they will no longer take pictures of St Bernards on council property, and specifically from two popular vantage points of the Matterhorn, with effect next winter – apparently there are some Japanese tourists this summer who are desperate to have their pictures taken with the dogs and he wouldn’t want to let them down.

I am sure the mayor is an admirable man and an animal lover. However he has had sustained pressure from people who have felt that the animals were being badly treated, culminating in the latest report. He had hoped the lift company would have banned the dogs going up, or that his local veterinary adviser would have said the practice was inherently causing suffering, but neither gambit worked. I don’t really get why the photographers didn’t smarten up their act, but reports suggest they see it as a storm in a teacup.

So it appears there is nothing to stop you having a selfie with a dog of your choice against a backdrop of the Matterhorn, or of someone taking pictures of you getting friendly with a canine in a bar or hotel lobby. Generously, the mayor has suggested that you will still be allowed to take pictures on council property with people dressed as St Bernards (according to Die Welt). Sounds like a job for a ski bum. I’ll be writing my application shortly.
Zermatt in the evening
Incidentally, Zermatt is still open for business and I hear the snow is still good, with over 120km open over the Matterhorn section through to Cervinia.

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Fatalities in Swiss Alps

Pointes de Tsavolire: Traversée Eison - Saint MartinAgence France-Presse report that two employees of CERN, the lab famous for its particle accelerator and for Berners-Lee’s invention of the worldwide web, died in an avalanche over the weekend.

A 49 year old Frenchman and his 33 year old Swiss colleague were swept away at the 3000m Pointes de Tsavolire in Valais. They were amnongst five members of CERN’s ski club who set off from Eison in Val d’Herens. The area they were skiing is shown in the picture above, which I took when I was skiing in the valley a couple of weeks ago.

The two men were members of CERN’s ski club and were among five skiers who set off cross country Sunday from the village of Eison for the Pointes de Tsavolire.

This is a popular and relatively easy itinerary, just the other side of the Bec de Boisson from Grimentz. It is possible to make the ascent on skins and make the run back in a day, and there is a hut at the top for those who want to make a longer trip of it, but it sounds like this party set off Sunday morning for just a day’s outing.

It just goes to show how dangerous the late snow from a couple of weeks ago has made late season touring. The dry avalanche risk is very low, but by lunchtime the risk of wet, full-depth avalanches across Valais has been rated considerable for some days. Wet avalanches occur where snow has frozen overnight but starts to get heavy and wet as the temperatures rise and the sun starts to hit it.

Apparently two members of the party were dug out by a fifth, but the other two remained buried until rescue workers arrived and dug them out of three metres of snow.

They were taken by helicopter to hospitals in Sion and Lausanne, where they later died.

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