This is getting a bit silly now! - but I've written it, so 'publish and be damned'!
Last year, I won a guided tour of the inside of the Grande-Dixence dam, in Valais. (Wikipedia description: 'At 285m high, it is the tallest gravity dam in the world, the fifth tallest dam overall, and the tallest dam in Europe.') This enormous structure is not just a wall holding back a lot of water, it is also a hydro-electric power station with all kinds of clever tricks hidden in its concrete interior, and though far from being an engineering nerd, I thought it would be interesting to visit. The fact that it is situated amid some spectacular mountain scenery was another good reason to go there. And finally, I discovered that on the last weekend of August, a mountain ultra passed nearby, and it would be possible to combine spectating at that with a mountain walk. The perfect ingredients for a couple of days away. And so we found ourselves on a train to Sion, where we picked up our transport for the weekend: a 2-seater Smart. I had never been in one of these little cars before, but I loved it instantly. A bit like people used to love the original Minis, I suppose, before they were made bigger and lost that special character. It safely carried us up the long, wiggly road to Pralong, where we checked into the hotel, and then up the even more wiggly road to the foot of the dam. It towered over us, scarily enormous. So enormous that there is even a cablecar to the top. (And for the masochistically inclined, there is actually a race up the long, serpentine road that also goes to the top.)
The tour check-in was by the lower cablecar station, with a small museum to while away the time till the start. It began with a 10 minute uphill walk to a mysterious little door in the concrete wall, where the natural world abruptly transitioned into one of science fiction, a labyrinth of shafts and tunnels and strange machinery (including one that measured earthquakes, to which Valais is rather prone!) A bit unnerving to think of the millions of gallons of water the other side of that wall....... And very chilly - I was glad of my fleece and jacket. At one point there was a flight of steps seemingly designed for giants, which we hauled ourselves up by an icy cold metal handrail. Altogether we must have walked over a km underground, though of course Garmin didn't record it. Back out by the mysterious little door again, blinking in the sudden sunlight; the walk back down to base; and into the cafe for a hot chocolate, and to write the postcard we'd been given at the end of the tour - free postage to anywhere in the world. Then as we were there, we decided we might as well get the cablecar up to the top and see what it looked like from above.
Back down the wiggly road to the hotel, and off exploring in the other direction. One false start which led to a dead end, but then we found a lovely path through the woods, alongside a little stream........ or was it? I suddenly thought, "I know what this is.......!" - yes, it's a Suone (or 'Bisse' as they're called in the French-speaking areas), the network of irrigation channels so characteristic of Valais. Most are centuries old, some are hair-raisingly constructed across sheer cliff faces, and many are the basis for wonderful walks. I really enjoy discovering and exploring them, and was quite excited to have recognized this as one. It turned out to be called Bisse d'Erneya, 14th century, no longer in use, just a dry ditch in parts, but mysteriously carrying water in others. It runs for miles, but as it was now late evening and getting dark, we couldn't go far before having to turn back.
The next day's agenda was mountain walking, the Sentier des Bouquetins, 'Steinbock path' - though not a single Steinbock did we actually see. It began with the cablecar up to the top of the dam again, and a path alongside the lake, then turned uphill. J, for reasons best known to himself, decided he knew a better way, ignored the official signposting, and took us on a circuitous route involving crossing 4 rather feisty mountain streams before we found our way back to the proper path - I was not best pleased! After quite a strenuous climb, we reached the Col des Roux (2803m), and saw below us on the other side the Cabane de Prafleuri, the mountain hut that was one of the staging posts for the ultra. The path down was steep and tricky, through a rocky wasteland of scree, one of those I would far rather go up than come down, but heigh ho, I made it, albeit with considerable strain on both my nerves and my knees (J meanwhile skipping down it like a mountain goat, which was rather irksome.....) There was a tent where the runners reported in, and where they could get food, drink, medical attention, a massage if they wanted. We sat beside it for a while, cheering them in, then migrated over to the hut to get something to eat. I went in and got us a couple of pieces of quiche (generous portions, and good) and we sat at a table outside, still watching the runners coming and going. Their onward route looked a bit alarming - still more so when I realized that was ours too. Pudding (Apfel Strudel and cream) followed the quiche, and eventually we decided we'd better be on our way. I couldn't believe some of the runners actually ran down the steep slope that followed, leaping nimbly from rock to rock, while I inched my way down like a geriatric snail. The path after that seemed relatively uncomplicated, until we were brought up short by a red and white plastic band across it. I consulted the route description I'd printed out, and it seemed clear that it went straight on. I surmised that the band was for race purposes, directing the runners down the hill onto a lower path, so we climbed over it and carried on. It was only some way further on that doubts began to creep in. The path no longer seemed very clear, winding its way across boulder fields, sometimes disappearing altogether. Nor did it seem in any hurry to descend - rather the reverse! We could still see runners, tiny coloured specks on a parallel path far below. Go back, or carry on? We decided on the latter, but my unease was growing by the minute. How were we ever going to get down from here?! Just as unease began to verge on panic, we saw a couple of people - other walkers - some way ahead and lower down. We steered a course across the now featureless rocky wilderness towards them, then saw with relief that there was a diagonal path that we would intercept. I was all for going down, but J, with a certainty I didn't share, said no, we have to go up. What?! - but we want to go down! 'Trust me.......' Hmm, I've made that mistake before! but he's got the map, so I follow. And alleluia, we reach an unmistakeable path at last, where we also find a notice referring to the one behind us: 'Path closed, due to rock falls.' NOW they tell us! - why couldn't there have been a notice at the other end too, instead of that ambiguous striped band? But now we are certain where we are, and even heading downhill at last. The lake came into view again, and we descended towards it in a long series of zigzags, ending up by the cablecar station once more. On the way back down to the car, I noticed the sky darkening. Within minutes, it turned almost black, and as we drove back to the hotel, the rain came down in sheets. It was so bad, we couldn't see through the windscreen any more, and had to pull in to the side of the road for a while. I was so thankful we had got down from the mountain just in time, (poor runners!) and felt such gratitude and affection for Smartie, as we had begun to refer to him, this little bubble of shelter and safety. It was still siling down when we reached the hotel, so we sat there in the car park a bit longer. Two drenched women hurried up to the adjacent car and piled into it, stripping off their soaked clothes with no regard for modesty (not that we were watching.) Once the rain eased off a bit, we made a dash for the hotel and whiled away half an hour over a drink before collecting our luggage and setting off back to Sion. By now the rain had stopped, and the sky was a watery pale blue again. In a fit of optimism, we decided to have another go at the Suone walk, since we were in no hurry to get back.
Our optimism was misplaced. Some 2 kms into the walk, the heavens opened again. Erneya, our acquaintance was not meant to be! We waited out the worst of it, squeezed into the inadequate shelter of some fir trees, watching happy frogs hopping about in the undergrowth, then squelched our soggy way back to Smartie, whose heating dried us out nicely as we drove on towards Sion. It still didn't feel like time to go home yet, so we made a detour via La Luette (another aborted walk) and Euseigne (blurry photo of the famous pyramids through rain-lashed windscreen) before admitting defeat and returning Smartie to his home in Sion. Or not quite: it seemed he was reluctant to leave us too, as we couldn't get the barrier to the car park to go up, so after half an hour of trying and failing, and with a train to catch, we had to abandon him in the adjacent garage.
Naturally the rain had stopped, and it was now sunny.........
This post was supposed to have photos (nice ones too!), but Realbuzz won't let me include them - just keeps requesting me to confirm I'm not a robot! - by which time the post has vanished, grrrr!
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