by Julie Ferro
Aletch Glacier, high in the Swiss Alps. With both trepidation and excitement, I allow myself to be tied to eight other people, single-file, about three feet apart from one another. Our guide, the very experienced and well-known Art Furrer, ties himself at the head of the line to form a ten-person dragon.
Art is a world-renowned ski instructor and mountain climber, but looks more like a rodeo cowboy because of his trademark cowboy hat. Eyes twinkling, moustache spreading into a grin, Art asks “ Are you ready?” Our stomachs settle; we feel safe under his leadership.
There have been tragic stories of people falling into ice crevices, never to be found. Glacier-walking in Switzerland should be done under the supervision of an experienced guide, with full attention given to his or her directions.
Unpleasant scenarios swirl in my mind as our group follows a trail running above the glacier for a thirty-minute walk to where we will ascend to our walk on the river of ice. Art informs us that he has the final “yea” or “nay” for this morning’s Aletsch Glacier walk. When we reach the glacier, Art tells two very disappointed walkers to remain behind for safety reasons. For a moment, I would not mind trading places with them, as the glacier does not appear very foot friendly at close range. Art’s final instructions are that there will be no talking, and to follow his hand signals, important silent commands.
Art has mapped out a rough course that will give us about four hours to walk a portion of the famed glacier. As we march along (not unlike a chain gang), all we hear is the crackle of ice under our feet. This crunchy ice-song seems to transport us into a vast, unknown winter-white world. The temperature is cold, making warm clothes essential. Gloves are useful, too—if you take a fall, the ice can sting—and for glare, sunglasses are recommended. Shoes with a good grip are important; since we are tied together, we learn that spiked ice-shoes are not necessary. An ice pick is the only required equipment.
A contrast of landscapes appear, with the blue sky spreading like an umbrella over the stark, treacherous ice-cold of the glacier. Our attention is drawn to an impressive natural vista of hiking trails dabbed with green trees and pink, purple, and yellow alpine flowers. Above, herds of sheep stop grazing for a moment to look down at the strange creatures walking below.
From a distance, the glacier looks like a glistening, smooth, and fluffy playground where snowmen await a carrot nose, button eyes and a black top hat. Hiking miles into the glacier, you notice how hard, slippery and uneven the ice actually is.
The glacier is honeycombed with thousands of razor-sharp dwarf ice mountains, forming a spine of islands whose slick, satin sides sink into unknown depths. We marvel as our guide finds the invisible path across the eternal ice giant. We all have cameras, but have forgotten to use them.
Our focus is on the path and our feet. One can see tiny, melted puddles, the enchanted home of the glacier flea. Glacier fleas are frozen and dormant during the winter months, but thaw from the spring warmth. I wonder if there is frenzied competition for the title of Olympic Champion among flea swimmers, skiers, and ice-skaters.
It’s mid-September, and although we are absorbed by this adventure, we are also calmed by the natural beauty that surrounds us.
At one point, not feeling as footsure as our leader, several of us refuse to follow in his footsteps. Most of us are first-time glacier walkers, and we all agree that our hike today is a challenge. Art searches for a suitable alternate path and before long, fears subside, a body and twenty legs again moving right on beat.
Viewed from the frozen highway of the Aletsch Glacier, the silhouettes of Jungfrau and Schilthorn rising high in the distance seem like a canvas-painted backdrop.
Piz Gloria, at 9,744 feet, is the Swiss Alps’ highest revolving restaurant, sitting like an eagle’s nest on Schilthorn. It is a spectacular location, where scenes from the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was filmed. Lured outdoors by the unusually mild weather, hang-gliders and para-gliders dot the sky above us. I imagine that 007 is among the gliders, making a grand escape. My fellow hikers agree: our walk on the glacier would fit into the action-packed excitement of a Bond script.
Later, our group hikes through the Aletsch Forest that runs along the rim of the Aletsch Glacier. The trees of the Aletsch Forest, thought to be one thousand years old, are the oldest living trees in Switzerland. The Aletsch Forest, looking proud and towering protectively above the Aletsch Glacier, silently guards the secrets and wisdom of this ancient wonderland.
The Aletsch Glacier is the longest glacier, or river of ice, in Europe. The present-day Alps were formed about 100 million years ago as the earth’s crust began to compress to about one-third of its original width. The alpine glaciers are tempered bodies of ice. They contain water and are not frozen solid to the earth, which means they are capable of eroding the rock underneath, causing ridges and deep valleys. The Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences has been studying and measuring the movements of alpine glaciers since 1880.
Our spirits soared from the impressive, indescribable sights and sounds unique to the Aletsch Glacier. It was an honor to walk on this ancient ice—with thoughts of James Bond hovering protectively.
When you go
You can reach Rideralp (noted as part of the first UNESCO Alpine World Heritage site Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region) directly from the Zurich Airport via two train connections and one tram-ride.
For information, contact:
Swiss Center, 608 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10020
501 Santa Monica Blvd., Ste. 607, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Swiss International Air Lines
Swiss Travel System, Swiss Flexi Pass
For chateau accommodations, contact: