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On Top of the World in Switzerland

"We have this moment come back from a tremendous expedition. Climbed the Allalin - guides, ropes, glaciers, precipices, avalanches, etc ...Well old boy, I'll never speak ill of Switzerland again. When one gets up there, out of sight of all culture, out of vegetation, of everything that reminds one of the avarice and stupidity of men, one feels inclined to shout, to sing, to laugh, to cry, to dive head foremost into the sky, or to fall on one's knees" — Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters.

"Outside I hear accordion music," reads the entry in my journal, written nearly 75 years after Gide's novel, partially set in Saas-Fee, was published in 1925. "On the trail a woman from a mountain hut was yelping, in German, to her goats. The trails crisscross over glacier-fed streams traversed on bridges that sag with every step.

My journal continues, "Spectacular views everywhere — layer upon layer of mountains. I can't wait to see what else is here, so I'm out the door."

Saas Fee
A cable car carries passengers high into the mountains above Saas-Fee

The Mischabels

When a friend learned that I was planning to spend several weeks hiking in Switzerland's Alps, he mentioned Saas-Fee. Whenever I'm asked, it's the first place I suggest. Eight days of tremendous expeditions, including a climb of snow-coated Allalin's glaciers and precipices, were my reward for taking good advice.

Unlike the better known Swiss villages of Zermatt and Grindlewald, which draw hoards of North Americans and Japanese, Saas-Fee is relatively unknown outside Switzerland and Germany. In a country bisected with trains, Saas-Fee is reached only by bus. The ride and small effort pays dividends. Located at the end of the Saastal, or Saas Valley, at an elevation of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet), the village is ringed by the Mischabel Range. More than a dozen peaks rise 4,000-plus meters (13,120-feet plus) in an amphitheater-like setting of snow, ice and rock.

Saas-Fee is an area that begs exploration, so that's what I did. Minutes after arriving and stashing my pack, I rode a chairlift from the village to Hohnegg and followed trails that weave along the Mischabel's west flanks.

Albert Kemp rests at a trail marker

Primed and eager, the next morning began with a walk to the south end of the valley. Instead of taking a lift I followed a steep forested trail to Plattjen, the lift terminus. After playing leapfrog with an Englishman named Albert Kemp, we teamed up for the traverse below the Mittaghorn and Egginer. We followed an exposed, knife-edged slope over huge rock slabs and peered down toward the Saastal village of Saas-Almagell and, further south, Italy. We climbed onto and up a glacier, eventually ascending to the Britanniahutte, one of the region's several mountain huts, this one built in 1912. I refueled by wolfing down a plate of rosti, grated potatoes pan-fried with butter, cheese and other concoctions. We crossed over to Felskinn, another lift terminus, then romped down the edge of a glacier before rejoining a trail to Saas-Fee.
Wander with the Pass

Other hikes were mixed with stops at the Saastal's considerable sights, including rides on the underground Metro to the Mittelallain, site of the world's highest revolving restaurant, an elevation of 3,500 meters (11,480 feet). The Mittelallain is a take-off point for climbs up the Allalin and for summer skiing and snowboarding at the Swatch Snow Park Allalin. Even more weirdly intriguing is the Ice Pavilion, the world’s biggest ice cavern, where the exhibits include a crevasse within the Fee Glacier.

Allalin overlooks the Mittellalain restaurant

Friendly marmot on the trail

A seven-day Wander Pass covers the fees for the Ice Pavilion, a day of skiing or snowboarding, Saas-Fee museums, buses, cable cars and other attractions. I sometimes used my pass on the valley's incredible network of lifts to avoid uphill trudges. One afternoon, after a sunrise breakfast at the Mittelallain, I returned to Saas-Fee and caught lifts to Spielboden and Langfluh. After lunch I hiked down along the edge of the Fee Glacier, a gnarly, heavily crevassed expanse of rutted, frozen ice. At Spielboden the trail checkerboards its way through a colony of tame marmots. Some crept close enough for me to pet, then ambled away to munch blades of grass.

I’ll Take the High Route

Hiking possibilities abound, but the Saas-Fee region is best known for its high routes. The revered Hohenweg Balfrin follows the Saastal's west side high ridges while the Hohenweg Gsponer parallels its eastern slopes. The scenery on both is routinely and incredibly description-defying, but I especially savored the Gsponer because of the people en route.

Village of Gspon, trail starting point

Wood Carver
Working wood carver

The walk begins in Gspon, a village of wooden homes and a 17th century church where I passed farmers using cumbersome hay rakes. Along the trail, at a cluster of homes at Finlu, I stopped to buy a glass of fresh, still-warm-from-the-cow milk and share smiles with wide-eyed children and their grandparents, both with skin as crevassed as the Fee Glacier. At Obere Schwarze Wald, I stopped at a stone cottage, bought tea and watched as a grizzled carver used an assortment of knives and dentist-like tools to craft wood figurines. Neat the hut at Farigen, the high elevation point of the walk, I visited with a farm family as the father barbecued sheep steaks on an outdoor grill. Further south the trail wove through a kaleidoscope of flowers and forests of Arolla, massive mountain pines, and European larch.

No villages, farms or restaurants are found along the Balfrin, which, in contrast to the Gsponer, was a virtual freeway of hikers. The trail is often more exposed — guides warn of becoming "giddy" from the vertigo — and sometimes goes through tunnels carved in the hillside. The focus along the route are the peaks of the Mischabels, especially the pyramid-shaped Bietschhorn and, closer toward Saas-Fee, the Weissmies, Lagginhorn and Fletschhorn, and the Balfrin Glacier.

Trail Tunnel
Hikers emerge from a tunnel on Balfrin trail

A Feast for the Eyes…

The mood was totally different during another full day hike to Antrona Pass. The trail follows the Furggtal, a long, broad, wild, sparsely visited, waterfalls-lined valley that climbs to the Italian border. In the Middle Ages it was an important trading route. It's a walk dominated by raw, rugged terrain, including car-sized slabs of rock and glacial rubble. It ends at the pass, the Italian border marked with painted rocks. Later that afternoon at Saas-Almagell, I devoured a well-earned plate of apple strudel.

…And for the Soul

Food is something I love, especially when hiking. The friendly, helpful staff at the Saas-Fee Tourist Office must have read my mind when they arranged lodging at the deliciously accommodating Park Hotel, where Jutta and Patrick Rossi routinely prepared sumptuous meals. My journal includes notations of drool-inducing dinners, including one that started off with creme bolet soup and tortellinis and featured salmon covered with thin slices of ham and a marvelous sauce along with potatoes, a warmed tomato and, for dessert, an incredible ice cream-like creation.

For me, leaving Saas-Fee was like yanking a post from long-hardened cement. I lingered an extra day to celebrate the Swiss National Holiday on August 1. It was funky-fun, from the toodle-doo parade in neighboring Saas-Grund to the evening Saas-Fee town square celebration, complete with yodelers, square dancers, fireworks and an oomh-pa-pa band of musicians dressed like circus performers.

Saucy, savvy, scintillating. A region of snow-cloaked mountain, tremendous expeditions, wanderlust trails. A place to sing, to laugh, to cry. I'll never speak ill of Saas-Fee.

Click here for details to plan your trip to Switzerland’s Saas-Fee.

        Lee Juillerat
        Article and photos

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