Two Days In The Aletsch Arena - The Longest Glacier In The Alps

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Tuesday 10 July 2018

Two Days In The Aletsch Arena - The Longest Glacier In The Alps

4 years ago!
Four years ago, in the very first fortnight of our very first trip in our very first motorhome (which is a lot of firsts), we visited the Aletsch Glacier. There was no particular planning involved. We drove into Switzerland, pottered along the Rhone valley and happened to see a sign. A couple of days later and we had hiked up to the top of a ridge and got our first glimpse of what more than 20 kilometres of glacier looks like, which is amazing by the way. We spent the rest of that day wondering how we were ever going to top an experience like that and twenty-four hours later were parked alongside Lake Maggiore, which is also amazing - teaching us that everything is great, just different and special in its own unique way. Anyway, the reason I mention this is because, for four years now, we have been wanting to come back to the Aletsch Glacier and spend a little more time appreciating it, and that is what we have been doing for the last two days.

After leaving Anzere we headed east along the Rhone valley, swiftly crossing that invisible line which separates French and German speaking Switzerland. One moment it was all ‘si vous plait et merci’, a few metres down the road and it was ‘bitte und danke’. It really is quite surprising how stark the transition is, and how few people either side of the line seem to speak the other language. Our French just so happens to be much better than our German, but now that we’re in German speaking Switzerland the number of people who respond ‘oui’ to a ‘parlez vous Francais’ is very small indeed. Thankfully, many of them do speak English though or, at the very least, can follow our English-German-Dutch mix in the end.

Our initial plan for our return to the Aletsch was another flying visit, one day and with one ticket for a particular cable car. Since the Aletsch Glacier is so long, there are basically three villages which have cable car options (Morel, Betten and Fiesch), and each one has various lift options depending on how high you want to go. I could list the various options here, but it would start to sound confusing, so if you want to see a map I suggest going to, which also contains up to date details of timings and prices etc.

At first glance some of the prices might seem a bit high (around £20-30 for a return trip on one lift), however, there are lots and lots of multi-ticket options which bring the prices right down. For example, if you wanted to use any cable car in the valley, from any of the villages and move between them using any of the interconnecting trains for an entire week, the price works out at about £15 a day.

Various factors came together and instead of buying just one ticket for one lift, we ended up with a ticket option which gave us access to all of the lifts and trains for three full days at any time in the summer season, without the days having to be consecutive. It cost 90 CHF each (about £25 a day). That way we could spend a couple of days here now, doing whatever we wanted to, and then have a day in hand any time until the end of October.

On day one we went from Betten (826 metres) up to Bergstation Bettmerhorn at 2647 metres. This is a real iconic viewing point, positioned as it is about three quarters of the way along the Aletsch’s 23 kilometre length and so capturing the curve of the glacier wonderfully. And it isn’t just the Aletsch that catches the eye, but the fact that there are so many 4000 metre plus summits on display across the rest of the Alps - including the famous horned shape of the Matterhorn.

A few Aletsch facts that I picked up (and can still remember) from the many information boards up there. In no particular order, the Aletsch contains enough frozen water to give everyone on earth a cup of water every day for 6 years. In the height of summer 60,000 litres of water melt from the glacier each second. The Aletsch glacier is formed by three different glaciers coming together at the so called Konordiaplatz, which is where it is deepest at over 900 metres. The 2 dark lines running along the glacier are the ‘median moraines’, with rock from the meeting points. It takes 1 metre of snow 10 years to get compressed into 1 centimetre of glacial ice. The glacier moves up to 200 metres a year at the Konkordiaplatz and about 90 metres a year closer to the tongue.

I think that’s about it - I’m writing this offline so apologies fact-checkers if I’ve remembered any of those wrong. Oh, and there is a type of flea (called a glacier flea) which lives on the ice, eating pollen which is blown onto the glacier. Amazing!

Anyway, back to our visit and from Bettmerhorn we hiked the challenging Alpine ridge (named the UNESCO Hohenweg) which runs along at around 2900 metres all the way to the summit of the Eggishorn (2926 metres). This was real high-level hiking, not a ‘walking’ route but class as an ‘Alpine’ route, with lots of huge boulders, ladders and roped sections to negotiate on something that could only just about be called a path but with a staggeringly good view of the Aletsch for most of the way. It took 3 hours, after which we stayed around at the Eggishorn for a while before catching the cable car back down to Fiesch and a train back to the motorhome at Betten.

That same evening, after an afternoon with the pack, just because we could, we hopped back on the very last cable car to Bergstation Bettmerhorn, sat up there entirely alone for an hour or so (which was awesome) and then walked back down to the intermediate station at Bettmeralp and caught a late cable car home again. A very full but very fun day.

The following day we also went up to Bergstation Bettmerhorn early, but this time hiked down to follow the ‘Panorama Weg’ along the Aletsch instead. This path, which runs much closer to the glacier surface gives a much better sense of just how giant and undulating the ice is. From high up the complete glacier effect is one of sweeping majesty, but from low down cracks and ripples in the surface can be seen for what they really are, gaping holes big enough to swallow a car, or a cathedral in some cases. The surface is also far from flat, with height differences of tens of metres across the surface like a giant ocean swell frozen in the moment. It’s amazing and, I have to admit, slightly vertigo-inducing when you’re walking almost above it.

The turning point for our hike was a place where we could hike right down to the glacier, which is where the size really is on display. Considering we were stood next to a tiny wafer of the edge, the fact it towered above us like a multi-storey car park says a lot. It was also interesting to feel how hard the ice was, even in this sun-exposed part. I did ‘accidentally’ break off a couple of tiny-ice cubes about the size of a pea (sorry UNESCO) which I ate. I’ve no idea why, I just thought it was kind of cool to taste water which fell as snow possibly centuries ago. And it was, cool I mean.

We then powered back along the Panorama Weg to Bettmerhorn and headed back down, or at least I did. My legs were knackered and the pack were waiting, but Esther wanted a little more outside time in this incredible place so walked along to Fiescheralp and took the cable car back up to the Eggishorn, just because she could. These multi-day tickets really are great.

Which brings us kind of to the end of our time at the Aletsch, at least for now. We still have a full day ticket left on our passes which we will plan to use in the next month or so. We’re not planning to get too far away from this part of the Alps, perhaps crossing over the Grimselpass next and maybe following a few other high mountain passes in the subsequent days but, as always, until we get there we never really know.

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