Tour des Dents du Midi, Valais, Switzerland

Hiking in the Swiss Alps is a humbling experience in so many ways.  Here the trails are steep and narrow and sometimes exposed, leaving you with a clear view of the river/precipice/gorge below.  Here switchbacks are for the weak, and trails climb steeply upward, making mileage a useless measure of distance – which is why trails are marked in number of hours instead of number of kilometers.  Here you find people of all ages, including the old and the infirm, and all appear to nimbly make their ways up and down the mountains.

I found this tour both exhilarating and hugely humbling.  Having done the Tour du Mt. Blanc some years back, I figured that this one, entirely in Switzerland, would be along the same lines in terms of trails.  Either I blanked out some scary moments while circumnavigating Mt. Blanc or that tour was truly easier.  Using the Tour de Mt. Blanc as a reference point, I didn’t do a whole lot of research outside of looking at an English guide book (which made cursory mention of hand-guides, those chains that are attached to a rock face when there’s a steep drop off), and in hindsight, ignorance was bliss.  Had I known what we were gonna get into, I probably would have chickened out.

As it was, the worst parts of the overall tour took up about an hour while descending the Pas d’Encel gorge near the town of Champery.   We had been open jawed for most of the morning, with the all encompassing views of this mountain chain, its glaciers and the high elevation pastures.  Rounding the corner to this gorge we saw Champery literally underneath us, and it didn’t dawn on me how we’d actually hike down until I crossed a bridge and noticed that N was no longer in sight and there was what looked to be a cliff a few feet in front of me.   It was actually a rock step, and the first few were amusing, but after a couple more steeper ones, including one where you had to drop about 20 feet before you saw any trail, I started to get nervous.  Ironically enough I have a fear of heights.  Just as my nerves started to get to me, a family of 6, with 3 small kids and an older grandmother type, cross our paths as they made their ascent.  That jeered me into continuing without having a full-fledged panic attack, but just barely.

We continued down on some genuine goat paths barely wide enough for my feet, let alone hips, and crossed the gorge.  Looking up I was hard pressed to find the actual trail we took.  Can you?

Happily the rest of that day’s hike was relatively benign.  A steep climb up an alpine pasture or two, a contour of the Dents du Midi’s flanks, and then finally, beautifully, the Refuge d’Anteme.  Located at 2,000 meters, just under the cliffs of the Dents du Midi, this hut is a small dormitory affair of the keeping it real genre.  However, they do serve pastis, which is what I promptly ordered upon arrival.  I figured with approximately 4,000 feet of ascent and 3,800 feet of descent (often on my ass) I deserved a most un-alpine like cocktail.  And it was damn tasty.

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