Ski Touring In Valais | Exploring The ‘Valley Of Hidden Treasures’ By Ski

It may be a cliche, but there really are ‘hidden treasures’ in Valais. We spent four days exploring them on a human-powered ski touring mission

“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.

The valley of ‘hidden treasures’ – Stockhorn (2,610 metres)

Rudi picks me up the next morning for our first ski tour starting in the nearby hamlet of Imfeld (also known as Fäld) at 1,519m. The village was home to 50 people before the tunnel was built. Now, there are only five. We stop to allow a herd of cows to slowly plod across the road, their bells tinkling in the cold early morning air. There are probably more cows living here now, I think.

Parked outside a closed restaurant, we prepare our skis with climbing skins ready for the ascent. It’s been a while since I’ve been at altitude, so I start off quite sluggishly. We head up an icy walker’s path until we reached a shallow gully which, in summer, is the Lengenbach mineral quarry where children can come and hunt for crystals.

“270 varieties of crystals have been discovered in the valley, more than 100 in the Lengenbach mineral quarry”

The Binntal valley isn’t just known as the  “valley of hidden treasures” for its historical villages. 270 varieties of crystals have been discovered in the valley, more than 100 in the Lengenbach mineral quarry. More than a dozen of the rocks have also never been found anywhere else in the world, so have been named after the region (see the lengenbachite or the wallisite).

The area was so renowned for its minerals that crystal hunters would travel here in the 1850s. Famers, meanwhile, would find and sell the minerals to top up their family income. Until the First World War, there were around 40 people here looking for crystals. Nowadays though, the professional hunters are rare.

We continue to wind our way through an icy forest path, using our ski crampons until we break out into a sun-drenched plateau. Here we take a short break, before quickly setting off again. After a few more hours making a much less technical ascent above the tree line, we reach an impressive ridge. With the north wind whipping up around us, we take our skis off and bootpack up the last few metres to the summit.

There are many stunning views of various peaks from the top of the Stockhorn at 2,610 metres but I’ve got my head down. I’m not listening to Rudi’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the panorama as I’m too cold, and I can’t hear a thing in the wind.

Thanks to the bitingly cold conditions, the snow ends up being some of the softest powder I’ve experienced in a long time. My light touring skis have no problems bouncing over and through the superb conditions.

Safely back in Fäld, we pop into the local mineral museum which was set up by the crystal hunter and collector Andre Gorsatt.

“Andre’s been collecting crystals in the Binntal valley for 46 years and is responsible for finding almost all of the stones in the museum”

Andre’s been collecting crystals in the Binntal valley for 46 years and is responsible for finding almost all of the stones in the museum. Despite being quite valuable, Andre has never had any interest in selling them. Instead, he’s built up his own Binntal collection in the basement of his house. In 2011, he decided to set up the foundation so the minerals could stay in the valley indefinitely.

Over the years, the museum has expanded with minerals from the Lengenbach pit added to the collection. Factor in the other exclusive pieces from the valley, and it’s easy to see why this is considered the richest display of Binntal minerals in the world.

Returning to our hotel, we enjoy a beer in the sun where Rudi tells us that this season he’s had even more work than normal. Usually, in winter he works as a ski instructor on Valais’ 2,000km of slopes. This year however his clients, who are nearly all Swiss, want to go ski touring.

“With 45 out of the Alps’ 82 4,000m peaks here, there is – I think – probably no better training ground for mountain lovers”

I ask him why he chose to be a mountain guide. Growing up in Ernen, Rudi tells me that he started out as a carpenter and that it was his brother who wanted to be a mountain guide. When he saw what the guides were doing though he changed his mind, and has been guiding now for 40 years. With 45 out of the Alps’ 82 4,000m peaks here, there is – I think – no better training ground for mountain lovers. Its terrain certainly goes some way to explaining why the region now has around 450 mountain guides.

Hypnotising ascents – Mittelberg Cima Orientale (2,891 metres)

I head to bed early that night, worried about my (lack of) fitness and wanting to be well rested. With almost 1,500m of climbing ahead on a tour around the mountains of the Schinhorn, it’s clearly going to be a very long day.

We start at the same spot in Fäld, but end up taking a more technical path; scrambling through the trees. Breaking through the trees, we skirt an edge above the valley trying to keep high, then begin a long gradual ascent above the treeline and into the alpine. Soon after this, we reach a plateau with the 2,939m Grosses Schinhorn to our left.

Rudi opts for the peak to the right. Not letting us stop to rest, he leads us on a last push for the summit. We remove our skis again and bootpack to a rocky scramble, and finally a small plateau at the summit. Here, we bump fists and take photos all while trying to ignore the precipice below.

At the summit of Mittelberg Cima Orientale 2,891m we are, in fact, now in Italy.  No Covid-19 tests required to cross the border here though. We stop for lunch in the sunshine, and go on to ski down through at least 5 different types of snow.

‘Rest Day’ – Blashorn (2,778 metres)

Back at the hotel we grab our bags and move straight to our next destination, the village of Ulrichen in Obergoms. Better known as a ‘cross-country skiers paradise’ with its’ 100 km of groomed trails, the municipality is served by three small ski lifts. Its real secret though is its ski touring.

Ulrichen is also said to be the second coldest place in Switzerland, which is great for keeping its cross country ski tracks in good condition. Rudi says the snow here comes from all directions. He goes on to tell us that it’s the north faces we should hit in April, thanks to the shade these slopes offer.

With his words ringing in my ears, I’m surprised then when we embark out on a west face, heading towards the 2778m Blashorn from a track just above the Hotel Walser in Geschinen at 1,370m. Although as the crow flies we are only 20 km away from Binntal, there is much less snow and it’s very wind packed.

Still, it’s made for a nice easy route and we go on to cross paths with school children learning to ski tour for their PE lesson. At an empty mountain hut at about 1,795m, we take a long break. While there, we listen to the sound of woodpeckers and wait for the sun to melt the snow for a better descent.

“Ulrichen is also said to be the second coldest place in Switzerland”

In the distance, there is a dam and wind turbine whose energy, claims Rudi, goes to Italy not Switzerland. “When it’s down… Ticino has no power!” he says. With expert knowledge of the area, Rudi locates a familiar sunspot on the way up; knowing it will be the best location for soft snow on the ski down.

At one point, a mini bottle of local wine is cracked open. We stop short of the Glurichen, and enjoy it in the brief sunshine before the wind picks up again. We take a very bumpy descent back down the slope, finding some relief in Rudi’s sunspot, then it’s ‘survival skiing’ through the trees all the way to the valley; eventually skating across a field back to our hotel.

Will the ski touring never end? – Teltschehorn (2,743 metres)

By day four, I’m feeling more acclimatised and stronger for the mammoth tour to the Teltschehorn at  2,743 metres. Rudi says it’s a “typical tour” of the area, popular because it’s on the north side of the valley so there should be powder.

We start by a train track where skiers from Bern park up, ‘run up’ the mountain and return to catch the train home. At 08:00, the sun is peeking out from behind the mountains and we can see that across the valley the mountains are green and ready for spring hiking and biking adventures.

“By day four, I’m feeling more acclimatised and stronger for the mammoth tour to the Teltschehorn”

As usual, we start by heading up through trees. This time the tracks aren’t so good, having been partly destroyed by skiers coming down. I definitely need my ski crampons here as I slide backwards on the packed icy snow paths.

On the way, Rudi points out fluorescent numbers painted on trees. These are marker points for the training route of the Patrouille des Glaciers, the famous ski mountaineering race from Zermatt to Verbier organised every two years by the Swiss Armed Forces. The event passes through the south part of Valais.

I lose track of time again and after what might have been hours, we reach the summit that’s marked by a simple cross. We pose for some more photos, before eating our sandwiches and enjoy a powdery ski down through the mountains; all the while accompanied by the coos of what Rudi calls a ‘snow chicken’.

Feeling fighting fit now, I’m sad it’s all over. After months of lockdowns and restriction, being out in the mountains again, feeling the freedom and tranquillity that’s unique to ski touring, is definitely a tonic. No matter how strenuous the climbs have been, the descents have certainly repaid the effort.

As I return home, I feel like Churchill; one day I’ll be back for something harder. One day…


Check out more information on where to ski tour in Valais here

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