Much as I love our English landscape, I have always felt that the sheer grandeur of walking in the Himalayas has to be the ultimate walkng experience. So when some
friends invited us to stay in Switzerland, we saw this as an opportunity to try something biggish. We checked our Lonely Planet walking guide for nearby walks, and this
one came up. We'd never heard of the Muverans massif, but the book promised stunning views of both other mountains and of the Rhône valley, with typical Swiss scenery,
so we decided to have a go. The official time to do it in was four days. Not knowing how we'd cope with the somewhat yoyo-ing nature of the Path, from col to meadow
valley and back, we decided to do it in five.
DAY 1. Les Plans-sur-Bex to Anzeindaz
We had planned a slightly shorter day to begin; and just as well. Our friends had wanted to drive us to the official start at Les Plans-sur-Bex; however, roadworks on
the little country lanes foiled this plan; so they dropped us just outside Gryon, adding about 7K to our walk. Taking pretty forest tracks to
Les Plans-sur-Bex, we went
on towards the circuit itself, soon leaving the road and winding up in a forest beside a stream. The optimism of a new walk and a new day was enhanced by a gorgeous
blue sky. We came up to Pont de Nant, and began the journey with very tasty jambon and cheese sandwiches at the cabane before setting off uphill. We climbed beside the
Avançon de Nant stream, starting in thick fir woods, and clambering up big boulder stones. The forests here are lovely, with splendid larches, a few mountain
ashes and sycamores. I heard a goat's bell and then saw one trotting across the hillside. As it was fairly late in the summer, there weren't many wild flowers - a few
mauve thistles, yellow dandelions, purple scabious and blue hare-bells. Up and up we went, and then were pleased to pause at the
Buvette La Vare for a drink.
Next came a wide meadow in a huge U-shaped valley; indeed the shape became familiar, as much of the landscape here had been moulded by glaciers. This valley was between the
jagged ridge of L'Argentine and the massif of the Muverans mountains. Although there was plenty of grass around, sometimes the bare limestone cliffs seemed a bit lunar
and desert-like. This was all tempered with the musical tinkling of the cow-bells, from the
herds enjoying the upland pastures.
Then there was more climbing, to reach the Col des Essets. We noticed our walking times relative to the 'official' estimates on the signposts: early in the day, we were
ahead of them; then equal; and now we were taking longer - definitely tired from the extended climbing. After the col, it was a gentle downhill to the tiny hamlet of
Anzeindaz, where we met a couple of Australian climbers, bright from the success of climbing 'Le Miroir' on L'Argentine. Jeremy agreed to take their photo provided he
could boast about the UK's relative success at the Olympics. They agreed with a laugh - "we can't win them all." Anzeindaz was set in a small meadow, below
spectacular cliffs, brilliantly lit by the slanting late-afternoon sun. The Refuge has a well-placed patio (see the photo at the bottom of this page) for enjoying mountain views and writing up the day, enjoying
the fine evening light (still not a single cloud, after a gloriously sunny day), plus a well-earned drink. It's right next to the farm, where a farm girl was clearing
the cow-pats from the yard. And I kept being interrupted in my writing by animal bells: a herd of goats first, then the cows, all being returned home for the end of the day. The craggy ridges of Les
Diablerets loomed above us, with impressive folds in the lines of limestone, crunched and curving, from aeons of time, pressure and mountain movement.
DAY 2. Anzeindaz to Gîte de Dorbon
The day started to the sound of cow-bells - the herd being brought back for a day's munching in the meadows here. Jeremy commented that they sounded better than some
less well-maintained carillons we have heard in Europe, and we later heard that they are carefully chosen. They have a lovely range of sweet and deep tones, ringing
all the time as the cows move across the pastures. The Refuge being right by the farm gave a happy impression of the working land to the passing walkers.
The other Refuge (Giacomini) had a really good geological map on its outside wall, which we studied before setting off. It showed the ages of the different layering
of the mountains in view. So I got a bit of an idea of the top being from the Tertiary and the lowest bit from the Jurassic Periods; though I struggle to comprehend
what 200 million years ago means.
We made the gentle stroll up the pretty Alpine valley to the col at the Pas de Cheville, and the new view of waves of mountains eastward; it was a huge panaorama,
with some peaks (unfortunately) among the clouds. Then we set off down what turned out to be a long descent to Deborence.
Cyclists round here are so keen that they even
carry their bikes up these tracks to get to the next place; we met a fusillade (what is the collective noun for cyclists?) of them coming up. Rather them than me!
There were more wild flowers today, including michaelmas daisies, a few violets, lupins and delphiniums. After the barren top, it was nice to get down to the tree-line
again, with the elegant larch boughs.
The lake came into view below, and with slightly tired knees, we got down to Deborence, stopping for salad, beer and a fine view of the jumble of surrounding mountains
at the Refuge du Lac. Then we turned southwards, along with the River Derbonne. After all the grand views of the morning, it was nice to be in a more
intimate setting -
this was a pretty wooded valley, again with attractive larches. Mostly the streambed was dry or the water underground; sometimes we heard the cow-bells from the surrounding
pastures. We saw the entrances to marmot burrows, but initially no marmots. Above, the Swiss Air Force practiced low flying.
The path turned westwards as we climbed up to the Gîte de l'Alpage de Dorbon (sometimes called La Chaud). The afternoon had clouded over, so I wrote up the day
inside. We bagged our bunk beds in the
dormitory and had a more simple cold-water wash than yesterday. This communal living meant I could smell the supper cooking.
Later we had a very tasty three-course dinner: nettle soup, polenta and home-made yoghurt. Later, word went round that the
sun was catching the tops of the mountains,
so we went out for a final look.
DAY 3. Gîte de Dorbon to Gîte de Lui d'Août
Jeremy also saw a wonderful dawn when going out early to answer a call of nature. Over breakfast we had a nice chat with Irene (the woman running the Cabane from June to September); the rest of the
year she was an ethnomusicologist, so she had a good combination of academic and alternative living. We headed off up the valley, spending much of the morning talking about geology,
being surrounded by vast hillsides with impressive lines of layering, folded and buckled by the pressures of mountain heave-ho. Here's my latest new word: some of the
nappes were in very beautiful curves and swirls. Jeremy pointed out the karst - weathered limestone. We also saw our first
marmot - sniffing the air nervously, as
we stood stock still, trying not to frighten it.
Next we were among dark grey shale and then rocks with white quartz
veins. Walking on, we saw a huge black rock, decorated by someone with yellow rocks, to look like a giant spider. Many of the mountains are Toblerone-shaped (huge 'A's) and the local
Tita Naire was too; it was so tilted that vast stone slabs had fallen off and lay around like great flat dinner tables. There were quite big pockets of snow sunk into the
mountain dells. After the small
lake in the moraine basin, there was an ice field, called the
Glacier de la Forcla; we crunched over it, observing how mucky it was. Then
there was a rather nervous-making scramble over huge boulders, up to the col - another false summit. This morning had included a lot of height-gain, so it was quite
challenging. We'd not met a soul, human or animal for a couple of hours, and then at last saw some other people.
Next there was more scree slopes, saddles, and a final very steep climb up to the Cabane Rambert; it was a remote and wild place. Recovering from the exertion, we found
ourselves in a truly spectacular position; at 2582m, we were not only at the highest point of the walk, but it felt as if we were on top of the world, surrounded by a
vast panorama of jumbled crags, amongst the turbulent, heaving seas. The sun was out; we could see for miles, including the
Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in the distance
(and some cloud). We could also see right down to the huge U-shaped valley with the Rhône at the bottom. To cap it all, there was a chamois grazing behind the
cabane (see the photo at the top of this page).
After we'd had a bowl of tasty soup, the Lodge chap explained that the helicopter was coming soon, to bring supplies and take away empties. We'd just started downwards
when it came for the first of about five visits, dropping and collecting on a big trailing rope. And then on we went, with the long down matching the long up - demanding on the
knees and requiring concentration not to slip on the steep bits. We were surrounded by more spectacular curving and buckling rock strata; it's such a dramatic demonstration
of the earth's history. We came back down to valleys sprinkled with tiny, charming, colourful flowers - vivid, deep blue canterbury bells, sweet little yellow bubbles,
and eventually delphiniums again. Going both up and down through this ice-created landscape, we've encountered a series of saucer-shaped meadows alternating with a lip
(col) connecting to the next pasture. A bit tired from the challenges of altitude and long walking hours, we got slowly down to Bougnone, and then did the final 30
minutes of mostly contouring to the
Gîte. By now it was raining, and people stopped running past us down the mountain to check we knew where we were going (I found
this community sense rather touching). It turned out we were the only people staying at the cabane. The guardien made us supper, left the breakfast for us and ran off into the rain last night, to get
back down to his car near Ordonnaz. We relished having the place to ourselves - lovely warm shower; space to
write up the day; eating in our own time; there was a nice
exhibition of photos of Nepali faces round the walls.
DAY 4. Gite de Lui d'Août to Cabane de Demècre
The change in the
weather continued next day, with some thunder and lightning while we breakfasted, and rain throughout the
morning. The cows and their bells were around us, and their music was with us for much of the day. The rain meant hood up and head down, so I relished the little flowers
near the path edge and the white quartz veins in the charcoal-coloured rocks. We climbed up the moraines to the Euloi fields. With clouds everywhere, we saw the
mountains in a more sombre mood. The Tita Seri above us looked romantic, drapped in wafting, white mist-cloud.
It was quite a climb to the
Col de Fenestral, but we saw new purple gentians. The Cabane people here gave us the now-familiar welcome; indeed, with a twinkly
smile too. And once again we had the now-familiar vegetable soup: tasty and thirst quenching; and then some very yummy nut and chocolate cake (food is so important when
walking). The Cabanes all have warming wood-burning stoves and I dried out my damp T-shirt by sitting next to it. The guardien told us more about the cow herds; that they
have a 'queen', who wears the loudest bell. We had also heard that when a cow loses her bell, she seems also to have lost a sense of herself, AND the herd's attitude to her changes too.
(Are we being anthropomorphic here?)
We ambled down to the Lac de Fully, with cow-bells all round. The big herd by the lake had mashed up the path with their hooves. Parallel to the path, there were loads of
blueberries, which I couldn't resist; we've been enjoying the local tart aux myrtilles! We were glad for an easier day - there was just one more climb to the next
col, with the Cabane just over the top.
DAY 5. Cabane de Demècre to Les Plans-sur-Bex
It's characteristic of mountains to be ever-changing and full of challenges. Through yesterday afternoon, there had been a noticeable drop in temperature and snow was
forecast. Of all the Cabanes, this one was the nearest to camping, with an outside loo - and going for my morning pee, there was a light dusting of snow and a rather
magical scene all round. With more ominous forecasts, we
set off just before 9am, in more light snow; fortunately the path was easy to follow. There was a herd of black
cows on the hill opposite. Because of the weather, we chose a lower path and wound our way down to Le Dxeman, past a pretty
waterfall, to the Chalet Neuf, and down
to L'Au d'Arbignon at 1489m. Of course, lower meant better weather and we then thought we'd be able to climb back up to La Touche (2193m). However, we were wrong. The
snow started again; the tracks were frequently mashed mud and cow-pat from the cow-hooves and the rain; I slipped often and fell once (ugh!). The higher we got (of
course) the worse the weather. The snow settled, and if I looked up, it landed in my eyes. It was quite windy too; is that a blizzard?
Perhaps we climbed up to about 2000m. But bad weather and mountains need to be respected. A young Swiss couple we'd met up at Demècre were ahead of us. When they turned
round and we met them coming back, we realised that that was what
we should do too. Laura said "Il ne vaud pas la peine de perdre sa vie". Tant pis - it was not
to be. So we all slithered our way down again, with them doing moutain etiquette and waiting for us when we got behind.
As before, we were glad to get back among the trees and the sounds of cow-bells, and collected ourselves at the farm L'Au d'Arbignan. Despite what we thought were good
mountain signs, we set off in the wrong direction (tiredness, probably). Then we met a farmer about to go out to collect his cows from the mountain; he pointed us towards Morcles.
We walked across the steep, wooded hillside, occasionally imagining we could see rooftops, but not coming to any habitations. We found a road going down, zig-zagging
towards the valley, down more and more steep hillside and thick trees. We were tired and unsure of where we were. No people; no cars; just inclement nature.
Eventually a white van came by, which I stopped, and rather dramatically told the driver we'd been lost on the mountain. It worked! He was helpful and kind: he cleared a
space for Jeremy in the back of the van, sat me in the front, and said he'd take us to Bex station (which wasn't too far out of his way). What luck - after the
stresses of the day, to be rescued in this way. He was a bouchonner, which seemed to be something to do with the trees; he told us about the 29 zig-zags
in the road, and the incredibly successful spa at Lavey-les-Bains. At Bex we had an hour before the Bus to Les Plans-sur-Bex; this was spent drinking coffee and
chocolat chaud in the Café de le Gare. The Bus took us up to
Les Plans, and - somehow - our circuit was complete. Finally we ate a huge, farmers-type meal of rosti and
croute (with bacon, cheese and eggs) at the Buvette de la Ferme. It was still raining as we walked home.
Good Swiss organisation was always welcome, and one expression of it was good signage - perhaps the best signed paths we have walked on; there were yellow signposts
with estimated timings on them, plus frequent red and white paint marks on the tracks. I also warmed to the wooden chalets and the tradition of red geraniums on all
the balconies. The mountains were like a huge playground, with plenty of ski-lifts and runs, but they didn't spoil the views for walkers, cyclists, snow-boarders and
off-piste skiers. Switch-backing up and down between the cols and basins was very enjoyable, often alongside streams, through grazing meadows, with frequent bell-sounds
and ever-changing views. By chance, we discovered that the last week in August was when the schools went back, so there were fewer people around. Of course mountain
weather is always unpredictable, and we seemed to sample most of the seasons. Swiss mountain people have fine physiques: althletic, mountain-guide-type men, and svelte
women, many with deeply bronzed faces. Had we not been being active walking La Tour, I would have felt like a comfortable North European slob. The mountain community is
very amicable, and we always felt welcome in the Cabanes. There's a nice tradition of removing your boots on entering, with a choice of all sizes of crocs arranged on
shelves at the door.
© Diana Ambache 2012