The Aletsch Glacier - In the Aletsch Arena with the Longest Glacier in Europe

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Tuesday 1 July 2014

The Aletsch Glacier - In the Aletsch Arena with the Longest Glacier in Europe

After leaving Grimentz on Monday morning we drove down to the Rhone valley (more than 1000m below) and along to Brig to the east, just 40 miles away. Following a smooth(ish) descent of the winding mountain road we easily made our way to Camping Geschina, our first real campsite since starting our tour almost 2 months ago. Before we set off, Esther had bought (only £13.50) the ACSI Camping Card which apparently gives off season discounts at thousands of campsites across Europe. The Campergids we've been using, indicated there was a lack of permitted camping spots so as high season hasn't quite started we found a participating ACSI campsite. Arriving in bright sunshine, the simplicity of hooking the motorhome to mains power and wandering over to a clean toilet and shower block was a stark contrast to living 'off-grid' for so long. I could get used to this!

Brig Castle in the Old Town
Wandering into Brig, passing through the impressive Aldstadt, we made our way to the tourist information office opposite the train station to find our how to get into the surrounding mountain peaks. Our goal, if we could make it, was to visit the famous (UNESCO World Heritage Site) Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps at more than 30km long and lying hidden somewhere behind the peaks to the north of us. For anybody in the area wanting to visit the glacier, the cable car network servicing the 'Aletsch Arena' can whisk you straight up to any of several viewpoints just a short walk along a decked walkway further, making the stunning views accessible to anybody. The prices are also not ridiculous, with day passes available for 40 chf (about £27) per person giving access to all the cable cars and local train as well. We, however, wanted to make more of an adventure of our visit so our planned to slip on our hiking boots and see where our feet took us.

It was cold the next morning when our alarm went of at 6 a.m. Having checked the weather the night before we knew that rain was likely in the afternoon and our best chance of sunshine at the glacier was to get an early start. After weighing up the transport options we'd settled on heading to the closest cable car to the Aletsch Arena at Morel, 6km away from Brig. However, rather than spending 5.20 chf each way for the train we would cycle. Setting off into the chilly morning air and, with the sun yet to reach the valley floor, we bumped 3km along the river bank before crossing onto the road for the final 3km slog uphill (we'd cycled this way along the valley the day before).

Cycling in full hiking gear with water laden packs we arrived after 40 minutes or so sweating, but now wide awake. Arriving at 7.30 we didn't have to wait long until the next cable car just 10 minutes later (they start running before 6am!) The first leg of the cable car carries you up from Morel at 759m all the way to Riederalp at 1925m, not bad for 9.40 chf each (~ £6). With the sun shining and just a few wispy clouds in the sky, as the cable car climbed the view opened up into an impressive panorama of snow covered peaks, including the Weisshorn and Matterhorn to the south of us. In just a few minutes we docked at Riederalp and stepped into the cool mountain air.

Not a bad spot for breakfast!
We could have headed for a second cable car at this point up to the Moosfluh station at 2333m. However, with the sun shining and rested legs we decided to get hiking and walk the 400m climb up to the station where we expected to get our first view of the Aletsch glacier. Stopping only to take some photos of the majestic alpine panorama in the morning sunshine, it was just over an hour before caught our first glimpse of the ice flow. Stepping onto the trail that traverses the top of the valley containing the glacier, we were confronted with our first view of the Aletsch glacier stretching miles into the distance before sweeping to the left and out of sight cradled by the saw-tooth peaks of the surrounding mountains. Incredible. The view took our breath away and we both stood dumbstruck by the beauty.
Arriving so early we were the only people in sight as we found a bench overlooking the glacier to enjoy our breakfast. At 30km long and more than 900m thick at it's deepest point, the Aletsch Glacier is formed by the coming together of 3 other glaciers at the Konkordiaplatz. Each 1cm of compacted glacial ice takes 10 years to form from 1 metre of powder snow and in volume the glacier holds enough water to provide every human on the planet with 1 litre of water each day for 6 years. However, the glacier is currently shrinking at 30cm each year and now sits more than 200m below it's last peak, which you can easily see in the glacial bowl as a scar cutting across the mountain sides.

Gathering ourselves we mapped our hiking route to stay as close to the glacier as possible. Traversing the Panorama Way, we passed the Moosfluh station before climbing up to Bergstation Bettmerhorn at 2647m (which you could also take a cable car straight up to) to get a view from higher up. From here starts the UNESCO World Heritage High Trail from Bettmerhorn to Eggishorn, which I was keen to hike (Esther a little unsure) but the decision was made for us as sadly the route was closed.

Traversing along the glacier
We descended back to the Panorama Trail and decided to carry on traversing the glacier. Although the path is relatively flat here, undulating around 2300m, as we hiked the surface of the glacier got closer and closer as it rose up towards our feet. At one point we rounded a bend and both got a case of vertigo as the depth of the undulations and crevices in the surface came into sharp focus. The only slight negative was that as the day drew on clouds began to gather, hiding the surrounding peaks but making us even more grateful that we'd set off so early.

View towards Konkordiaplatz
As we progressed, the sweeping corner of the glacier became to open in our view and we started to see first one, then two of the three tumbling glaciers which feed the Aletsch Glacier at the Konkordiaplatz. Although the third remained hidden from view and we couldn't go much further, the sight of these mountains of ice pressing down onto the surface of this 30km ice flow was magnificent.

Spot Dan!
After around 5 hours of hiking we reached a point where the path was almost level with the glacier surface and we hiked down to within touching distance of the light blue ice. Although from above you get a sense of the whole glacier, from this close you feel the real scale of the giant ice sheet which towers above you, and this is just a fraction of what lies beneath.  

Tired legs as we cycle back!
Sadly, with the clouds darkening we knew we had to set out for home and so retraced our steps along the Panorama Way still in awe of the glacier below until at Moosfluh we finally lost sight of the ice. Descending to the Riederalp station for the cable car back to our bikes we felt exhausted by the hike but exhilarated by the experience we'd just had. Although the bike ride back to the camping was a challenge, it was mostly downhill and the excitement kept us going (plus we managed to stay dry).

Looking through the many pictures in the evening we felt very lucky to have enjoyed such an amazing day and started to wonder what we might see next that would take our breath away the way our first view of the glacier had that morning.  

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