Alpine summer in Switzerland

John Collins followed in the footsteps of scientist John Tyndall in the pristine mountain villages around the stunning Aletsch glacier


Was John Tyndall murdered or was the death of possibly the most important scientist to come out of Ireland a tragic accident? Given Tyndall died in 1893, it wasn’t a question I expected to grapple with on a four-day hiking trip to the Swiss Alps last summer.

But speak to the locals in the pristine mountain villages around the Aletsch glacier, Europe’s longest frozen river of ice and rock, and it won’t take long to find subscribers to the theory that Tyndall, who made this area his summer home and kick-started its tourist industry, was murdered by his wife, Lady Louisa Hamilton.

Of course the official line is Tyndall died of an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate, a sleeping draught he took for his insomnia. Sceptical locals in the village of Belalp will remind you that draught was administered by Lady Louisa, his junior by 25 years. Further evidence, you will be told, is the massive stone obelisk she erected above the village in his memory; clearly just an effort to soothe her guilt.

Tyndall, a Carlow man by birth but a staunch Unionist by choice, began to holiday in the Valais region of the Swiss Alps in the 1860s to study the glacier. He pioneered the theory that glaciers were frozen rivers, and flowed accordingly. This was in an era when many Alpine peaks were still unclimbed and belief in yetis and other mountain terrors commonplace.

Tyndall came here to debunk such myths but also became a noted mountaineer at a time when the Victorians were putting up first routes across the Alps. He hoped to be the first to climb the nearby Matterhorn although ultimately, he had to content himself with a first ascent of The Weisshorn (4,506m) and other local peaks.

Although most of us associate Switzerland and the Alps with winter snow sport holidays, Tyndall and his peers pioneered summer visits to this region. The solid mountain lodge he built still stands above the quaint car-free village of Belalp, although sadly, it is now boarded up. However, you can visit the rustic Anglican church and the traditional Hotel Belalp, both built in the 19th century to accommodate Tyndall’s visiting friends and associates.

The Aletsch Arena – the collective name for the three mountain villages of Riederalp, Bettmeralp and Fiescheralp – to the south of the Aletsch glacier, and Belalp, Tyndall’s base to the north – are ideal spots for a summer break, when temperatures are ideal for outdoor activities.

When we visited in early September we enjoyed four days of temperatures in the low 20s, although the combination of the thin atmosphere at over 2,000 metres and fair Irish skin made it feel even warmer. Even better given recent damp and dismal Irish summers, while you might get the occasional flurry of snow here during the summer, extended rain is highly unusual.

Although the Alps are synonymous with challenging mountains such as the Matterhorn and the Eiger there are walks and activities for all levels of fitness in this area. Leaving Dublin on Thursday morning and arriving home on Sunday night I managed to squeeze in a stunning but challenging ridge walk above the glacier, a long trek from one side of the valley to the other and a quick solo jaunt to the top of a nearby 3,000m peak.

Our initial mountain base was the luxurious four-star Art Furrer Resort Royal, which features nice traditional touches combined with spa, swimming pool and stylish restaurant. It’s unlikely you’ll have ever heard of Art Furrer, the 75-year-old hotelier, mountain guide and ski instructor, but in the German-speaking world he’s something of a legend.

The logo for his hotel chain is a silhouette of its owner on skis and wearing his trademark stetson hat – a reference to his time in the US in the 1960s, where he taught Leonard Bernstein and members of the Kennedy family to ski and appeared on the Johnny Carson Show to demonstrate his “ski acrobatics”.

After continental breakfast at the Resort Royal we grabbed a tiny electric bus to Bettmeralp. (The villages around here are kept free of cars and vans to maintain the pristine mountain atmosphere). The Bettmerhorn gondola whisked us up to 2,647m for a walk along a ridge high above the glacier, offering stunning panoramas. The route is graded as a blue Alpine trail with all sorts of safety warnings. In reality, suitable clothing, a sturdy pair of boots, a head for heights and the ability to follow the route markers painted on rocks are all you need for a lovely couple of hours scrambling in the fresh Alpine air blown off the glacier.

We fuelled up afterwards on hearty mountain fare at the quaint mountain hut below the summit of Eggishorn before a stroll back to our hotel along the lower mountain paths which wind through the villages.

If we’d been feeling more adventurous we could have donned climbing gear, clipped into the steel ropes and tried the via ferrata route on the cliffs below the Eggishorn station.

The hikers, mountain bikers and paragliders we met on our Friday afternoon stroll were testament to just how popular the area is with both Swiss and visitors.

The next day we were moving across the gorge to the Hamilton Lodge in Belalp so we sent the luggage ahead, a service offered nation-wide by SBB, the public transport company, and hiked the five hours over. The half-way point is the vertigo-inspiring 124m long suspension bridge, preceded by a couple of hours in the cool (literally) Aletsch forest.

After the suspension bridge you are walking in Tyndall’s footsteps as you can see the markings on the valley walls of where the glacier would have been in the 19th century. The calm of the valley recharged our batteries before the steep climb to Belalp village.

The next day, a late flight home from Zurich meant I could sneak in another hike before lunch. I headed up to Sparhorn at 3,021 metres along a trail that offered a fresh perspective on the Aletsch glacier.

There are still some hints to be found of Switzerland before it became home to discreet banks, international sporting bodies and some of the richest people in the world.

Overlooking Riederalp you’ll find the Alpmuseum, a 17th century Swiss mountain dwelling, where traditional cheese making is demonstrated once a week and you get a glimpse of what rural Switzerland was like in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The villages around the Aletsch Glacier are easily reached on Swiss public transport – the gateway town of Brig is just two hours by train from Geneva airport or two and a half from Zurich. From there a local train or bus will bring you to the cable cars at Morel, Fiesch or Blatten, which will whisk you up to the villages above.

Most of the cable car infrastructure that is in place for winter skiing is also open during the summer months, which makes access easy, and all the trails are well sign-posted. Switzerland is not a cheap holiday destination, but as with most things in life,you get what you pay for.

John Collins travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism