Gemmi Pass, Switzerland, 25-26 October 2013

3 November 2013 -  

The Gemmi Pass was for hundreds of years the principal connection between the Cantons of Berne and Valais. Nowadays it provides a spectacular walk between Kandersteg in the Bernese Alps and Leukerbad in the Valais, made easy by a cable car at each end. As we ascend steadily through the clear autumn light, Nutcrackers warn of our approach with harsh calls and swoop off when we get too close. We leave the spectacular autumn colours of the larches behind and arrive in a bare, rock-strewn valley whose floor is formed by a glittering lake, the Daubensee. Alpine Choughs have been prominent on the way up, a couple even waiting impatiently for the left-overs of our picnic. A Golden Eagle and a Kestrel put in brief appearances, and there is a trickle of migrants, mostly Chaffinches and Meadow Pipits, heading south up the pass. A flock of 30 Serins also skips south in lively, unsynchronized, bounding flight, calling their bright-sounding trills and wheezes. Their wings, tails and rumps flash yellow against dark, streaky bodies.

We arrive at the 2,270 metre pass in the early evening and the view to the south is breathtaking. In the village of Leukerbad, 850 vertical metres below, cars crawl about like insects. Beyond lies a forested ridge, hiding the deep cleft of the Rhone Valley, with the Val d’Anniviers forming a curtain of shadow further to the south and west. Above all this, the majestic sweep of the Pennine Alps stretches uninterrupted from the Dom in the east to beyond the Dent Blanche and the Pigne d’Arolla in the west in a jagged, blue and white frieze. The 20 or 30 visible peaks include the Matterhorn, its summit distinctively square-topped from the north, and the splendidly isolated Weisshorn, at 4,550 metres the most imposing peak on view.

The following morning, a magnificent adult Golden Eagle glides past the top of the pass at eye level, seemingly in slow motion. Further down, high on a shoulder above the lake, we spot a group of seven Chamois. They are very distant but through binoculars their blackish legs, chests and bellies contrasting with brown backs and flanks, and occasional flashes of pale cheeks and rumps are very distinctive. We persuade the children to climb up, under cover of the ridge, for a closer look. When the Chamois come into view again, they have retreated upslope, but are close enough for us to see the short, dark, horns, hooked backwards near the tips.

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