Aletsch Glacier

A beautiful hike past a massive UNESCO heritage site.

The Aletsch glacier is one of those must-see destinations in Switzerland.  A UNESCO heritage site, it is the largest glacier in the Alps and is actually the combination of several glaciers draining the backside of major peaks I’d seen just two days earlier: Mönch, Jungfrau, Eiger, and their neighbors. I really wanted to hike this glacier valley before I leave Switzerland – yet I have very few hiking days left. So, I spontaneously decided to head for the Aletsch Arena instead of returning to Zürich as planned.

This is one of those hikes that is worthy of an extensive gallery – because the scenery is so dramatic I simply could not resist that shutter button.  Check out that gallery and read on.

Aletsch glacier and, I believe, the Wannenhorns (big and small).

While we were still at lunch in Vevey (Saturday) I found and booked a simple room in Fiescheralp, a tiny ski community on the slopes of the ridge that borders the glacier.   I grabbed my pack and only the essential items – because I’d have to carry everything throughout the hike – and hopped onto a train that climbed slowly through the vineyards of Vaud and Valais, then changed in Brig (which we’d visited in December) for a much-smaller train populated mostly by school children returning home for the weekend, then climbed onto a gondola that zipped me 1,200m up to Fiescheralp.  Arriving there just after 5pm, I discovered I had booked a room in the gondola building itself, above the cafeteria.  Though the room was tiny, it was brand new, clean, convenient and cheap, which was all I needed.  The attendant pointed me to the hotel next door, for dinner, the only place in town that seemed to be open. Indeed, all the townspeople seemed to be eating there (Saturday night!). The food was simple but hearty, the views to the Alps across the valley were spectacular, and there was even a double-rainbow for dessert.

View from Fiescheralp, with Fiesch down in the valley.

I turned in early, having arranged with the attendant that I could meet him an hour before the cafeteria opened – I like to get an early start, and the forecast suggested rain in early afternoon.  So at 7am I was filling my plate from the continental buffet, and double-checking the map and the weather.  By 7:20am I was striding up the trail toward the pass that would take me over to the glacier.  There was nobody else in sight – another advantage of an early start.

I climbed steadily through alpine meadows and pasture lands, in cool morning air and under partly sunny skies. Hearing the shrill whistles of marmots, I turned to see them scamper among the rocks to their hiding places.  Although I saw many hoofprints and scats, I sadly did not see any ibex or other alpine ungulates.

View back along the trail out of Fiescheralp.

After crossing a few lingering snowfields, I topped the ridge at Tälligrat and headed down the other side.  I was a bit sad to bypass Eggishorn, the major peak of this ridge, because it has a spectacular view of the glacier and the surroundings.  As soon as its gondola opens for the day, it will be busy with gawking tourists, and I preferred to take a more intimate path that would bring me close to the glacier.  The trail descended to a pretty lake, and here I encountered my first humans.  One man was fishing along the shore, and another three were chatting on the patio of the Gletcherstube alpine hut.  It appeared they had tented nearby and were enjoying beer and cigarettes for breakfast.

On my descent to the hut my backpack hip-belt encountered a sudden failure; the strap disconnected from the pack, the result of a slow failure of the stitching.  I spent a half hour at the hut’s picnic tables attempting to sew it back on – yes, I always carry a sewing kit in my emergency/repair bag, though I think today was its first use since I created this kit in my undergraduate days. (Imagine the many hundreds of miles I’ve carried that little kit, across a dozen states and as many countries!)   After the rusty sewing needle did a better job puncturing my finger than it did the belt webbing, I used four safety pins from the first-aid kit, and those held well for the rest of the day. For good measure, as you can see below, the safety pin’s clasp is sealed with my blood.

Repairing my backpack strap – which completely tore out from the pack.

By 9:30 I was back on the trail and heading down toward the glacier, following the burbling brook that led from the lake toward the valley, past a series of tiny ponds.  Next to one of those pretty puddles was a man and a tent.  Swiss colleagues tell me that one can tent-camp pretty much anywhere you like, which is quite a surprise to me, coming from the highly restrictive (and crowded) forests of the US Northeast.

A sign at the next junction said “Glacier 10min”.  It was closer than it looked!  I scrambled down a rocky slope toward the glacier, where I could see some early-morning groups returning from a guided walk on the glacier.  Wow – that looked cool.  I watched closely to see where they could step from the glacier to the rock, and hopped my way down to that same point.  I stepped gingerly onto the edge, just to say “I stood on the Aletsch Glacier!”   I could not safely go farther than that first step, but spent some time photographing the incredible blue ice where the stream ran under the glacier, adding its energy to the glacier’s own meltwater.

Aletsch glacier – look closely and see people walking off the glacier and up the rocks toward us.

I hopped back up to the trail and was soon contouring around the corner where the hut’s tiny valley met the glacier’s massive valley.   This trail, which parallels the glacier for several kilometers, was why I was here.  As I walked, more of the glacier came into view – up the valley, where the the Grosser Aletschglacier forms by merging three glaciers descending from the valleys between Dreieckhorn, Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger, and Fiescherhorner.

It is hard to describe how truly stunning this view is, even on a somewhat cloudy morning. Because I was walking with the glacier, I would frequently turn back to look up the valley toward those peaks and the broad span of the upper glacier; each time it was a slightly different, but equally stunning view. The sun dappled those upper peaks differently every time, and eventually deigned to illuminate the glacier and to shine on this happy hiker as well.

David beside the Aletsch glacier.

Although I’d seen several glacier-walking groups of about a dozen apiece, and those few tent campers, I had not yet seen any other dayhikers.  That started to change around 11am, as the gondolas opened for the morning and brought dozens of weekend hikers to the ridgeline above me. (There are four gondolas that reach Eggishorn, Bettmerhorn, Moosfluh, and Hohfluh, and I think many hikers start there and walk down).

Each person or group greeted me as they passed – though in a different language.  It became a bit of a game to guess what I’d hear next – and how I might respond.  Gruezi, the common Swiss-German greeting, was far less common than I had encountered elsewhere; a local variant Greuzer or a German Hallo were most common; buongiorno was represented as well.  This place draws people from all over.

Aletsch glacier panorama.

The clouds grew heavy and grey, and I was concerned about rain.  Still, the scenery beckoned me to continue.  The sound of rushing water was dominant, as there was no breeze; occasionally I could hear the goats grazing this hillside when the trail passed near them.  For one brief stretch the trail had been obliterated by a recent rockslide, still unconsolidated, and was a bit tricky to cross.  I’m sure those top-notch Swiss trail crews will soon make it more passable.

Indeed, soon after that rockslide I arrived at a trail junction to find my preferred trail blocked and marked no-entry; perhaps rock slides had affected that trail as well.  I climbed up to the ridgeline near Bettmerhorn, to a pass called Hohbalm, and proceeded to walk that ridgeline down the valley, with views to the glacier on the right side and to impressive mountains on the left side. At this point I could finally see the tongue of the glacier. This photo, perhaps more than all others, demonstrates the dramatic shrinking of the glacier: notice the bare rock hundreds of feet up the slope, and a clear line separating it from the vegetation above.

Aletsch glacier – the tongue.

At about 1:30 it started to sprinkle – as originally forecast – and by 2pm it had become a light shower.  I tramped on down the trail to Riederfurka, hooked left, and down into Riederalp.  This village, much bigger than Fiescheralp where I began, is clearly oriented toward ski- and vacation-home folks. Here, seven hours after my hike started, I plopped into a patio seat at Restaurant Derby, near the gondola, ordered big bowl of local mac & cheese and a grosse Bier, and felt quite satisfied with the day.

My lunch spot in Riederalp.

From here it was a simple matter to catch the gondola to the valley, cross the street, hop the local train to Brig, and catch the IC8 to Zürich.  I really love how easy one can get around with the SBB app and the reliable train system.  The three-hour trip gave me a chance to reflect and to write up these notes.

Check the gallery for more photos – all full-resolution – and a couple videos.  Amazing place!

Hike stats: 19.8km, 7 hours, 5h38 moving time, 1h23 stopping time, gain 824m, descent 1,106m. High point 2610m at Tälligrat pass.

Map of the Aletsch glacier and area.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

6 thoughts on “Aletsch Glacier”

    1. Ahah, I expected someone would catch me on this point. I was having difficulty translating between the photo and the maps. I’ll relabel the photos. Thanks!

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