Travels with Smartie (2)

Posted on: 03 Feb 2020

At the beginning of September, we were off on our travels again, this time to Saas Fee as volunteers for the Monte Rosa Ultra. Two trains got us to Visp, where we picked up our hire car, another Smartie (to which I never got quite as attached as I did to Smartie 1, however.) Saas Fee is closed to cars, so we left it in the car park at the edge of the village, and went in search of our studio flat. It was small, but had everything we needed for the next few days, including beds that folded down out of a cupboard, with the bedding strapped in situ! - these proved surprisingly comfortable. Minimal unpacking, then off out to do some shopping and have tea and cake in a bakery cafe, and explore some more of Saas Fee, including the checkpoint where we would be working. No-one there yet, but barriers and other race paraphernalia stacked outside. I had volunteered us for a night shift, but Saas Fee being the second-last checkpoint, the 4-day stage race having only started that day, and the single stage due off early the next morning, I had planned that we would have a free day to go walking before runners started to arrive. A visit to the Tourist Office revealed the exciting (to me) information that this part of the world also had Suonen! - one in Saas Fee itself, others down in the valley between Saas Almagell and Saas Grund. The evening was still young, so off we went to look for them. A lovely track took us down to Saas Almagell, where we began to see the orange flags and bands marking the race route, and, Suonen temporarily forgotten, began to follow these back along the route, re-inserting some that had fallen over, repositioning one or two to make them more visible. Where the track reached a road, we turned back and returned the same way, passing this sign outside a restaurant, and chuckling to think of the temptation it might pose to thirsty runners:

Back in Saas Fee, we found the Bodmerwasser Suone - only a short one, 2 kms maybe - and followed it through the dim green twilight of the woods, emerging near the sports centre, and walking back through the village to the flat.

Visited the checkpoint again the next morning: still no-one there. So we got a bus down to Saas Almagell, and took the chairlift up to Furggstalden. In contrast to the previous day's sunshine, it was dull and sprinkling with intermittent rain, but at least it spared us while we were imprisoned in the chairlift! A sleepy little settlement, Furggstalden took all of 2 minutes to view, then we walked back down to Saas Almagell. From there we got another bus out to the lake at Mattmark (another reservoir with a massive dam wall) and walked round it. More of the Ultra route - or at least it was from the far end, where the runners come down from the pass at Monte Moro. It was pretty bleak and windy even here. We ran parts, to get the authentic race flavour. Reaching the dam, we debated whether to cross it and get the bus back, or carry on following the Ultra route. Our sense of adventure won out, though the descent from the top of the dam was 'not enjoyable' - a very steep, slippery, rocky series of zigzags. The  woodland path that followed was kinder on the knees (and the nerves), but still not exactly easy. One real highlight though: something flew through the trees ahead of me, a flash of black and white stripes and dusty pink........ I do believe I've just seen a Hoopoe! This path came out on the road where we had turned back the previous day, and the track back to Saas Almagell. By now we were starving, and went optimistically into the nearest restaurant. Too late for lunch, too early for dinner....... but the owner took pity on us and magicked up a sandwich. Never has food tasted better! Bus back to Saas Fee, and still in exploratory mood, we followed the Ultra route in the other direction, towards the Saas Fee Höhenweg, which we walked some of from the other end last year. But darkness came early on this gloomy day, so we couldn't go far. One more visit to the checkpoint; still no-one there......... so 'home'. I kept checking my phone for updates, and late that night received a disquieting message: very bad weather was expected, and there was a possibility that the race might have to be suspended, or even cancelled; further updates to follow.

Looking out of the window the next morning, I couldn't believe my eyes!
SNOW!!! In early September! And still coming down. The latest update left the decision pending; runners were being 'temporarily' held at checkpoints, in the hope that the situation would improve and the race could continue. As the day went on, though, this looked less and less likely. Apparently there was more than a metre of snow in places, and the temperature, with wind chill added, was far into minus. This left us in limbo too. We went by the checkpoint again, but there was still nothing happening there. For sure, though, we would not be needed that day, so we might as well go out. We took one of Saas Fee's numerous cablecars up to Hannig and  plodded around in the snow for a while, but it was slippery, foggy, and impossible to actually go anywhere. Back down in Saas Fee, we decided to retrieve Smartie from the car park and drive over to race HQ in Grächen to find out what was happening. In the building where we helped with registration last year, we explained who we were, and someone took us over to the sports centre, where there was a kitchen and sitting room. There we were reunited with Hilda, one of the helpers we met last year. She was delighted to see us again, told us to help ourselves to soup and anything else on offer, and phoned up Kateleyn, one of the other helpers from last year, who lives in Grächen. She came over to see us too. We missed Ilse, though - she had just left. There was also a man who who looked somehow familiar. Was he also one of last year's helpers? He was chatting to someone else, who addressed him as Damian........ and suddenly the penny dropped. "Are you Damian Hall?" I blurted out before I could stop myself, feeling a real fool as soon as the words were out. But he was indeed, and quite happy to chat for a while. I'm always surprised by how friendly and 'normal' some of these superstars turn out to be. People came and went, rumours and weather reports flew, but still no concrete news. We decided to go out for a while and come back later. Leaving Hilda preparing more soup in anticipation of returning runners, (that seemed the likeliest scenario), we went to revisit Grächen's main Suone, Eggeri. Always a pleasure, if a rather soggy one this time, the snow here having mostly melted. Again we ran some of it. Returning from our 10 muddy kms, it was to the news that the race was now definitely off, and the runners were being brought back - something of a logistical nightmare, with hundreds  of them having to be transported from mountain huts via paths, cablecar, and hastily requisitioned buses, and hundreds more already over the other side of the mountains in Italy. They were all given the option to take part in a short (23 kms) race new in the programme, starting and finishing in Grächen on the final day, but obviously this was not what they had travelled hundreds of miles (thousands of miles, in some cases) to do, and some of them were apparently very disgruntled and critical that the race had been stopped. A very tough call for the organizers, but surely the right one. A quick coffee while we took in this news, then leaving Hilda still slaving over yet another vat of soup, we collected Smartie from the car park and drove back to Saas Fee. Out of habit, another walk over to the checkpoint, but it was definitively redundant now......... as were we.

Ah well, another two days for exploring. We began the next morning with the walk down to Saas Almagell again, then followed the Heuwete and Moosgufer Suonen to Saas Grund. Someone else has done a photo-reportage of this route, so by way of illustration: It was somewhat more wintry when we were there, but still gorgeous. A couple of animal encounters en route: some 'Saaser Mutten', a rare and very local breed of sheep with long, dangling ears; and this lovely fellow. I do hope Realbuzz will let me include the photo! - but in case it doesn't, it's a very photogenic marmot. (Taken with zoom - we weren't actually this close.)

Lunch in a restaurant in Saas Grund, then the cablecar up to Hohsaas, and a very short, very cold walk in the snow, which at least earned me another Conquercise zone; back down in the cablecar to the halfway point, Kreuzboden, and another (longer, but still cold) walk, and another 2 zones. Back in Saas Grund, we decided to walk back to Saas Fee by the Kapellenweg, a path taking in 16 chapels containing carvings of the '15 mysteries of the rosary', whatever they might be. The description on the website sounded innocuous enough, but this 5km walk proved the most strenuous of our whole visit, relentlessly uphill, much of it steps.

We still had the flat booked until the next afternoon, but J. decided to go home that evening. I opted to stay the extra day, hoping for better weather. Alas, it was colder than ever, but I made it my mission to take in as many of the remaining cablecars as possible, since the Tourist Pass that came with the flat entitled me to free use of them. More Conquercise zones....... but I did begin to doubt my sanity as I trudged a few hundred metres - all that was possible - round Spielboden in snow and thick fog, frozen to the bone despite wearing almost all the clothes I'd brought with me. (These challenges have a lot to answer for!) Down again, I walked the length of the Bodmerwasser Suone again to warm me up, and tackled the next cablecar, Felskinn. At just under 3,000m, this was the highest I visited. (There is the Metro Alpin, which goes even higher, but that wasn't included in the pass.) Thick snow, and bitterly cold, but above the fog at least, which was pleasanter; though again the walking possibilities were minimal. I had noticed a restaurant at Morenia, the halfway station, so stopped off there, planning to thaw out with a hot drink. But it was not to be - it was closed. So I walked round it a couple of times to collect the zone, then went down again. Back at the flat, I finished packing, ate the strange assortment of food that was left, cleaned the kitchen, and set off for home. No Smartie now, but there was a postbus. In a final twist to the tale (isn't there always one?!), about halfway down, I began to question whether I had actually locked the door of the flat. I remembered standing outside it with the key in my hand, and putting the key back in its hiding place....... but had no recollection of actually locking it. I knew I could not leave with an easy mind unless I checked. Nothing for it - I had to go back. So in Visp I waited around for half an hour, then got the next postbus back up again. Walked back to the flat........ and of course it WAS locked. So another wait, another postbus, and finally I really was on my way, worry-free. All in all, almost 80 kms logged that week, mostly in bits and pieces, except for the first evening's 13.6 kms, Mattmark (13.3), and the two Suonen walks (about 10.5 each), but the bits and pieces add up. So although the volunteering was a non-event, the trip to Saas Fee was not wasted.

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