By Marc Ethier
The days became weeks and the weeks months and suddenly we were staring down the departure date for our return to The States. We wanted to end with something spectacular.
We had a plan.
Sion, Switzerland is two hours east of Geneva by train. The minutes fly. The countryside is broad and green and the mountains that tower over it are sharp against blue skies – hard-rock cutouts wreathed in mist and grey clouds. The clouds roll down the mountainsides to become fog in the upper valleys.
In the late afternoon, the fog thickens, and the mist gathers on your hat brim and drips, drips, drips in your path …
A handsome hamlet surrounded on three sides by impressive vistas and swarming banks of vapor, Sion was where, last August, we met friends Flora, Uli and Martin, who came down from Trier, Germany to join us for a hike in the Alps.
Our plan was to spend four days in traversing the Dents du Midi, a range of peaks in the Canton of Valais in southern Switzerland along the border with France. The Dents du Midi reach a little more than 3,200 meters or 10,600 feet: No Matterhorns here.
The weather report had rain moving in for three of the four days. The one benefit of this was it cleared the trail of all but the hardiest trekkers.
The trail itself is just over 22 kilometers start to finish. Four days was more than enough: realistically we needed only two. In the early Nineties several men competed to see who could complete the trek in the shortest time, with the winner (one Pierre-Andre Gobet of Bulle) finishing in just over four hours and 20 minutes.
That’s a humbling number when you’re huffing and puffing. But none of us – with the possible exception of Martin, a Bavarian mountain-climbing machine – were that kind of trekker. So we took four days and they were four mostly relaxed, drenched but exhilarating days in the Great Up-and-Down of the Doorstep to the High Alps.
We took a train, followed by a bus, from Sion to Mex where we joined the trailhead. We climbed steeply through the first late morning as the clouds gathered but never emptied. We had a stock of energy bars and other camp-light comestibles.
The upward march: rivulets of rainwater: waterfalls hushing and cowbells ringing: the buzz of bees and the slap of green branches against pack tops.
The plan was in action. Uli spoke French fairly fluently – convenient, as the Swiss tend to forget their grade-school English with unfortunate frequency. The lager at the first stop, the chalet at Chindonne, was so good we dispensed with etiquette and continued drinking it with the white-wine fondue. (Much to the clucking disapproval of the lady of the house.)
We were joined in our celebration by a troop of Boy Scouts who sidled expertly up to the bar: I don’t remember any beer-drinking merit badge: if there had been one I surely would have progressed past Webelo. Stretching our legs as the sun sank behind us we watched a lone spotlight move diagonally across the mountain face in the middle distance … a stein the size of my head in my hand … a crown of clouds obscured the tallest peaks on the horizon – peaks we would see all the clearer in the morning as we again ascended ….