Ideal trek for hikers with high hopes
As the Swiss Alpine Club celebrates its 150th year, Caroline Bishop sets off on an awe-inspiring trip, staying at the organisation's simple mountain huts
Saturday 28 September 2013
It was meant to be a five-hour hike and we'd been going for more than that already. We'd gained 1,000m of elevation, had just trudged through snow to the top of a mountain pass and had swigged the last of our water. Surely it couldn't be much further. "You've probably got about another hour to go," said the lone hiker coming the other way, adding helpfully: "There's a bit of a steep climb just before the cabin."
Getting to Cabane Rambert certainly takes effort, but arriving brings rich rewards. Perched at 2,580m on a peak in the Valais region of Switzerland, this mountain hut weathers the elements to provide accommodation for 44 hikers a night in a location that feels a privilege to sleep in. The view from its terrace takes in France's celebrated Mont Blanc, its slightly smaller Swiss cousin the Grand Combin and numerous other summits (the Valais region sports 47 peaks higher than 4,000m). These views – and the hearty meal we're presented with – were ample recompense for my aching legs.
There are 152 such cabins dotted about the Swiss Alps belonging to the Swiss Alpine Club, the national mountaineering organisation that celebrates its 150th birthday this year. Generally open from June to September, the huts offer basic, dormitory accommodation and hot meals, though little else in the way of amenities – Rambert has no showers and the outhouse toilet is simply a hole in a shed positioned over a cliff edge.
The club was founded in 1863 by university professor Rudolf Theodor Simler and 35 of his male friends – women weren't allowed in until 1980. The aim was the further exploration of the Alps by the Swiss. It was in part a reaction to the numerous British mountaineers who, since the UK's own Alpine Club had been founded six years earlier, were descending on the region to conquer the peaks for themselves.
Ever since its first (no longer habitable) hut was constructed at Tödi in the canton of Glarus, the Swiss Alpine Club has been instrumental in creating a tourism infrastructure in the mountains. It has a network of huts and well-marked trails, and provides mountaineering training. The club also acts as a safeguard for the preservation of this dramatic landscape.
Today, the Swiss Alpine Club has more than 100,000 members, but you need not be a member to stay in its huts if you decide to head off on a hike next summer. You simply need to make a reservation, equip yourself for the hike, and follow in our pioneering forebears' footsteps.
We'd arrived at Cabane Rambert – built in 1952 – from the village of Derborence along a 10km section of a 50km circular hiking route known as the Tour des Muverans. Just getting to Derborence, at 1,469m, was an experience in itself. From the valley town of Sion, the postbus wound its way up through tunnels carved out of the rock and around curves that a 50-seater really isn't designed to tackle.
We arrived without drama, however, and fortified ourselves for the hike with hot chocolate in a café overlooking Lake Derborence. The lake was formed in the 18th century when two massive landslides fell across the Derbonne river.
The setting became ever more impressive as we left the lake in the direction of the Gite de Dorbon, a lunch spot about 90 minutes and 500m of elevation away. The path wound upwards through verdant fields: butterflies flitted about us, while the hum of crickets was constant. It was fairly busy with people, too.
After picnicking at the gite we carried on into an ever more wild, remote landscape. Scrambling over a section of boulders we hiked uphill until the path flattened out into a dry river bed. The distinctive red-and-white markers painted on rocks meant we were never in danger of losing our way.
It was 25C and the height of summer. Even so, we'd already passed several patches of snow. As we approached the Lac de la Forclaz, an artificial lake created to irrigate vines on the slopes below, the snow became unavoidable. It was a thigh-burning, slippery ascent. We persevered, following a trail of footprints to reach the top of the Forclaz pass for a plunging view into the valley on the other side.
From here, we faced a tricky downhill path of loose rock and then another arduous climb to reach Cabane Rambert. We were just in time for dinner, and occupants of the packed hut were already enjoying the wine-fuelled après-hike ambiance. We were welcomed by Sébastien, the hut's guardian, and his trio of assistants. For the past five years Sébastien has spent three months each summer living in this isolated perch while his staff stay for two-week stints. Food, drinks and supplies arrive by helicopter.
After swapping hiking boots for rubber clogs we were ushered into the communal room for a three-course dinner of vegetable soup, chicken curry and tinned fruit with custard. Visitors can buy alcohol at a premium – it is flown in, after all. That night's guests took full advantage to fuel an evening of card playing that became ever more rowdy until Sébastien declared curfew at 10pm. An early start lay ahead for all.
It was a clear night, and as we waited our turn for the toilet hut, the stars were blazing. Shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower darted across the sky, while satellites tracked a steady path through familiar constellations. Our comfortable night in an eight-bunk room was spoiled only by snoring as constant as a cricket's chirp. Note to self: next time bring earplugs.
After a 7am breakfast most hikers prepared to leave. We took our time, savouring the light on the mountains and watching Alpine ibex grazing near the cabin. Our plan was to hike back down to the village of Ovronnaz and end our weekend in its thermal baths. Some do that trail the other way, said Sébastien, in an annual race to the cabin which tackles 1,350m of elevation in eight kilometres. The record is a mere 51 minutes. "Ils sont fous," said a smiling Sébastien, making the universal hand gesture for crazy.
As we hiked the knee-crunching descent to Ovronnaz, I had to agree. But at the same time, despite my painful muscles, I could see why a landscape like this inspires superhuman efforts. Lying in the outdoor pool at the thermal baths, I looked back up at the mountains. Somewhere far above was a cosy little hut, waiting for the next batch of hikers with whom to share its very special perspective on the world.
The main airline from the UK to Geneva is easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), with other options on Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com). Continue to Derborence via Sion by train and postbus for Sfr65 (£45) one way (sbb.ch).
Cabane Rambert (00 41 27 207 11 22; bit.ly/SwAlps) has beds from Sfr31 (£21). The Swiss Alpine Club (00 41 31 370 18 18; sac-cas.ch) has details of all its cabins, while Switzerland Mobility (wanderland.ch) describes all Swiss national hiking routes.
Admission to the thermal baths at Ovronnaz (00 4127 305 11 11; thermalp.ch) costs Sfr19 (£13).
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