“The old are strong and can climb a mountain quickly, but they can’t ski well” says Swiss mountain guide, Rudi Julier as he guides us on another 1,000m plus ski tour in Goms in the Upper Valais region. “The young aren’t so fit,” he adds, “but they can ski well.”
“‘The young aren’t so fit,’ he adds, ‘but they can ski well’”
I’m not sure which category I fit into here but, at 66 years old, Rudi defies both. He’s climbed both Everest and Ama Dablam and is a ski instructor. He’s still going strong, keeping us on a moderate but consistent pace as we ascend the mountains of the Binntal Landscape Park and Obergoms.
Rudi slices himself some chunks of local sausage and I pick at my sandwich, trying to polish it off in one go while we sit in a sunny spot by a secluded, snow-covered mountain hut. “The young have the benefits of ski lifts so they can train alpine skiing, unlike the older generation who just had one long descent from the top of a 1,000m peak to practice their turns,” Rudi explains.
I’m not sure about how many generations we are going back here, but certainly in the 2020 – 2021 season only the Swiss had the benefits of open ski lifts all season. Even then, they didn’t use them so much, I’m told that not being able to get a hot meal inside a mountain hut had put many off spending a full day on the mountain.
“Here in Goms, there are plenty of opportunities for all types of ski tourers”
Here in Goms, there are plenty of opportunities for all types of ski tourers. For beginners, there are long but not too technical days out. Then you have shorter and steeper tours, often enjoyed by day-trippers from Bern who just park up, ‘run’ up something, then head home.
We had a four-day trip planned around the alpine of the Binn Valley, said to be ‘the wild and romantic side of Goms’. Many had stepped foot on the alpine peaks that lay before us, with one of its most famous guests being a certain young Sir Winston Churchill who stayed at the historic Hotel Ofenhorn in the village of Binn in 1897.
Churchill wrote very enthusiastically to his mother about the mountains of Valais and even climbed the 4,634 metre high Monte Rosa, which he described as ‘a most tiring mountain.’ Although, he regretted not managing to climb something harder, like the ‘Sandhurst and Harrow boys in Zermatt,’ he had more pressing priorities in life, I guess.
Not a ski resort experience
What is clear is that skiing in the Binntal Landscape Park is not a resort experience, and Rudi likes it this way. Instead, it’s as if time has stood still in the valley which is dotted with beautifully preserved historical villages.
Until just half a century ago, it was cut off from the outside world every winter by snow. The construction of a tunnel in 1964 enabled year-round access, but the villages still retain their old alpine charm. Ernen, the most populous with 520 people (and 8 more babies since lockdown), even has a bus stop; only permitted due to the fact it has more than 100 residents.
“The gallows can also still be seen on the hill just outside the village”
With its sun-baked brown wooden houses, many built on stone pillars so – once upon a time – rats and mice couldn’t get into the granary above. So resilient is this chalet craftsmanship in fact that Ernan has won prizes for being so well preserved. These days, any builds built there must be built in the traditional style.
I hear about Ernen’s witchcraft past as I take a tour of its former prison, where witches were once tried and tortured with the intention that their screams could be heard by everyone. The gallows can also still be seen on the hill just outside the village. They are the oldest in the country with the last hanging taking place in around 1774.
Over dinner, at the Gasthaus Jägerheim, our host Madlen tells us that her grandmother-in-law, Marie Schiner, had 18 children who all grew up in the hotel. She died at the age of 103, leaving a legacy of 51 grandchildren and 75 great-grandchildren. Mrs Schiner clearly didn’t have any time for ski touring, I suppose, and I toast her with a shot of local Apricotine schnapps.