Over the Alps on the Lötschepass

A journal entry from Kandersteg International Scout Centre, Switzerland

By Scouter Liam Morland, July 2002

Next to international friendship, the biggest draw of Kandersteg International Scout Centre is the mountains. The Scout Centre is located 1185 metres about sea level and in surrounded on all sides by the the Swiss Alps. The highest peak in the area is Balmhorn at 3698 m. Balmhorn is snow-capped year round.

The mountains are filled with hiking trails of various levels of difficulty. Wanderwegs (hiking paths) are mostly flat, smooth trails in the lower parts of the mountains. Bergwegs (mountain paths) are steeper trails which often have cable handrails on steeper sections. Alpinewegs (alpine paths) may cross glaciers and steep, exposed sections of rock. It was the latter sort that awaited about a dozen other staff members and I one day in late June. We were to do a training hike on the Lötschepass south to Canton Wallis (Kandersteg is in Canton Bern).

We had an early breakfast then headed to the climbing gear storage room to borrow a Centre ice axe. We caught the Gasterntal bus up a winding mountain road to the tiny village of Selden (1537 m) where we would start our hike. Selden is a typical Swiss alpine hamlet with agricultural roots and a few restaurants for hikers and tourists. After greasing up with sunscreen, we were ready to go.

The trail started down a gentle slope towards the rocky banks of the Kander river, which also flows past the Scout Centre. We crossed on a wobbly suspension bridge. The trail up zigzagged through a forest, never very steep, but always up. The trees thinned as we reached Gfelalp (1847 m) and soon there was nothing but grasses and moss covering the rock. The normally excellent view was obscured by the thick clouds that hung around the mountain.

At Schonbuel (1993 m), there was a fork in the road. One way follows a rough rocky trail built by the Romans. They built the trail so that they could bring their elephants across the pass without having to worry about them falling into a crevasse in the Lötschegletscher (glacier). We took the other trail. Not long after the fork, I began to feel the occasional gust of icy wind from the glacier. We soon stopped to put on more clothes.

At 2403 m, we reached the glacier. The first part is a flat snow field. We crossed to an exposed moraine and stopped for a rest and to get out our ice axes.

Two of the staff with alpine experience lead a lesson in using the ice axe for self-arrest. Self-arrest is a technique used to come to a stop if one is sliding down a snow or ice slope. The idea is simple: start sliding down the hill, get up some speed, then flip face down on top of the ice axe, burying the pick of the axe in the snow until you come to a stop. After a demonstration, we climbed up a nearby snowy slope to practise. The slope was about 60 degrees, making climbing a challenge. The first few people up were all waiting for each other to go first. Eventually, someone went. The swish of nylon on snow was quickly followed by the scraping of the ice axe as the body came to a halt. Then a snow-covered person looked up with a big smile before running up to try again. Soon, people were trying upside-down, head first, and every other possible starting position.

Once everyone was comfortable with self-arrest (and thoroughly covered in snow), we took ice axes in hand and continued on our way. We soon came to the final climb up to the pass. The hill was steep and covered in snow. We used our ice axes to help with the climb and to be ready to self-arrest.

After climbing up about 200 m on the snow, we reached Lötschepasshütte (2690 m). "Hütte" is, not surprisingly, the Swiss German word for hut. The Swiss Alpine Club operates huts throughout the Alps. They provide climbers and hikers food and a warm place to sleep overnight. We had lunch at the hut, enjoying the view opening to the south as the clouds cleared.

Wallis is a Catholic canton while Bern is Protestant. At the pass, there is a large cross commemorating those who died in wars between the cantons in centuries past.

The decent to the Lötschental in Canton Wallis is much gentler then the route we climbed up. While on the north side there is snow for the last several hundred of metres of elevation up to the pass, on the south side, after about five minutes of gentle downhill walking, the snow gives way to grasses filled with tiny flowers. The final decent to our destination in Ferden (1375 m) was through a pine forest. We passed two small Catholic shrines just before reaching the town.

From Ferden, we caught the Postbus, a public transit service operated by the post office, to Goppenstein, where we switched to Swiss Federal Railways for the journey under the mountains back to Kandersteg.

For many of the staff, the hike was their first trip on a glacier. For some, it was their first experience of snow. By the end of the summer, it would be a familiar route for the program staff who lead hikes for the thousands of Scouts who come seeking high adventure in Kandersteg.

I wrote more about my trip to Kandersteg in "A Rover Ramble to the birthplace of Scouting".