„Warmth is overrated. A photographer doesn't need to be warm. It's the light that counts.“
I keep mumbling discontentedly as we are hiking through the village of Ardez in Graubünden's Unterengadin region in eastern Switzerland. We just parked our car at the local train station and are heading out for a long hike through the southern reaches of the Silvretta Group. We have just surfaced from a very rainy weekend, after which snow covered the mountains down to 2500m. Two days ago we made a first attempt on Plaschweller (2534m), one of the northernmost mountains of the Ortler Group. Yesterday – after being blown back out of the Schlinig Valley by ice cold and fierce winds – we hiked up to St. Martin im Kofel, a village “high” (1750m) up on Vinschgau's Sonnenberg, the sunny side of the valley. Today we intend to cross the Furcletta Saddle at 2800m. Just now we have been arguing about the direction and Judith has decided that we hike counter-clockwise. She figures that we'll have the morning sun warm us during our hike in Val Tasna in the east of the loop while the afternoon sun will do the same while we'll return through Val Tuoi on the western leg. I fear that I'll have to point my camera into the light, thus obtaining imperfect shots.
But who am I to complain? After all Judith holds 51% of the shares of our relationship...
A Start as ExpectedWalking through the deserted streets of Ardez now 49 keeps mumbling inaudibly while 51 leads the way. Ardez is a beautiful village with houses typical for the Engadin area: whitewashed with beautiful patterns at the corners and around the door and window frames. They traverse the small piazza, then the big one next to the church before a sign leads them to “the hiking trails”. 49 takes over the lead as the two leave behind the last houses and soon they stand beneath a signpost with half a dozen signs. 51 points to the one leading into Val Tasna and both start to climb the slopes beneath the southernmost ridges of the Silvretta Group. After a while they cross a cattle fence and soon find themselves between the bovines and their droppings.
A quick sprint leaves the cows in the dust and our two heroes enter a small forest. The trail now starts to climb for real but after a while they reach a meadow high above the village. The Sesvenna Group is visible on the far side of the Inn River but – as 49 had feared – the sun has already turned enough to mar much of the view. In the south-east only the skyline of the rugged Sesvenna mountains is visible. Ardez itself and its castle ruin are visible enough but Piz Zuort's north face, which rises directly above the village, is already in the shadows. They take a rest, then cross the meadow and traverse into Val Tasna.
At first they follow a narrow path, which runs along the western slopes of the valley but soon they see a broad “road” which heads up from the valley bottom to join their path. Before it joins, however, they have to cross a couple of creeks and the second one has cut such a deep gully that the crossing turns into a mini adventure. 49 – ever the prudent one – heads up the bank of the creek to cross the gully in a shallow part. 51 throws herself down into the chasm and struggles out of it on the other side. United they climb across a cattle fence and finally descend to the road.
From above it had looked like a dirt road but now – as they close in on it – it turns out to be a shit road. In case you don’t know what “Almabtrieb” means – the cattle are driven down into the valleys from their summer pastures – and a couple of days ago a giant Almabtrieb must have taken place here. The road – made soft from the weekend of rain – has turned into a river of mud and cow shit. 51 and 49 struggle through it, always trying to find dry patches. Most of the times they don’t succeed. 49’s preoccupation with good photographs has turned into a low muttering against the silliness of it all. He would have preferred to climb a mountain to this stupid circling of one. Up on the summits you never find cow shit. Maybe goat or sheep shit – but that is much drier than the stuff he is struggling through right now.
On the upside 49 realizes that they are getting closer to the Silvretta main ridge. Up ahead the first glaciated peak appears above the valley floor – Augstenberg / Piz Blaisch Lunga and yes, lighting is ideal. Slowly but surely 49’s impatience settles down into something more closely related to satisfaction. He is starting to feel happy and forgets about the lousy views towards the Sesvenna Group in his back. Finally 49 and 51 are reaching the end of the valley. A farm building, Alp Valmala appears out of the cow dung. Here the road has vanished altogether and our two heroes wade through the mud ankle-deep.
MauledThe next stage takes them in a 90° left curve into Val d’Urezzas. They cross a creek, which is plain full after the rainfalls of last weekend. 49 is preoccupied with taking photos of the mountains to the east of their route and falls back a little. 51 leads the way and struggles up a bank towards another farm building, the Alp D’Urezzas. A herd of horses, mares with their foals, makes up for a beautiful backdrop. 49 is doing you-know-what. 51 has gotten quite hot during the cow dung traverse and heads for a big rock to take off the outer layers of her clothing. 49 follows and starts to do the same.
Suddenly one of the foals gets curious and wants to check out what these two people are carrying around in their hands and in their backpacks. She crosses over slowly and starts her investigation. Her mother – ever vary of unknown trespassers follows close. She also appears to be curious since she inspects 49’s walking poles. 51 tries to explain that she doesn’t carry any eatables with her and that in any case, even if she did, she wouldn’t waste them on animals. Mother and daughter listen politely but don’t believe her. 49 knows that they are right about the first part – 51 never starts on a hike without anything to eat – but he also explains that the second part is certainly true.
Back in the herd another mother/daughter couple decides that there must be something about these people and also move closer. 49 gets a little restless as the rest of the herd also closes in. He puts all the clothing in the backpack, puts it back on and turns around to go. 51 already has left but our foal follows her closely. Very closely indeed. Each time 51 stops the foal bumps into her. It’s time to leave. Resolutely 51 and 49 start hiking away and since the mothers stay back at the Alp the foals return after a short while.
The trail gets steeper. 700m need to be scaled until our heroes reach the Furcletta saddle. The valley walls also close in and up ahead a flock of sheep is bleating. Suddenly a second flock appears to the right, then another one to the left and when 51 passes a big rock which barred the view into the valley she discovers a big herd of some 300 animals. 51 and 49 head down into the valley, chasing the sheep in front of them and finally hiking right through them. An Arcadian idyll...
FurclettaUnbeknown to them 51 and 49 now start on the most difficult part of the climb. The upper Val d’Urezzas is very narrow and steep. The Urezzas Creek has cut its bed deep into the rock and the hiking trail turns into a narrow path, which often vanishes and leaves them to scramble up steep scree slopes. Now they have reached an elevation of roughly 2500m and in the north face shadows of Piz Cortschen and Piz da las Clavigliadas solid snow patches have remained. Struggling upwards and across these obstacles 51 and 49 are glad when they reach a high valley, right at the bottom of the final Furcletta ascent. 51 experiments taking photos of the snow-and-icescape in front of them while 49 uses the time to take a 360° panorama. After all he is almost in the centre of the Silvretta Group now.
A large field of blocks forces 51 and 49 to rock-hop to the base of Furcletta. Here a very steep scree slope builds up in front of them. Another climber slides down with her dog – the first human encounter of the day. The dog is a bit scared due to the horrible underground and our two heroes get a glimpse of what they will have to struggle against for the next 10 minutes. Finally the dog has made it down – “Grützi” – the humans greet each other and part ways immediately afterwards. The dog tries to linger a bit longer but - “Sarah!” – is called on immediately.
Now 49 leads the way up the scree. It is a short climb – but of the two-steps-up-one-step-down variety. He gets warmer and warmer. The engine starts to overheat. 51 takes a slower approach to the problem and takes breaks every now and then while 49 is huffing and puffing several metres overhead. He needs to be careful, however, he doesn’t want to start any rock fall on 51’s head! Still he makes it to the saddle much faster than his girlfriend, completely out of breath!
The Tuoi Cirque
The struggle is not the only reason for his breathlessness. Stretched out right in front of him is the cirque of the upper Val Tuoi with some of the most beautiful mountains of the Silvretta Group. The view is breathtaking. For once 49 forgets his camera (this type of paralysis is well-known, but passes soon) and simply watches. Piz Linard, Piz Fliana, Piz Mon, Piz Jeramias make up the cirque. But right in the middle is the giant obelisk of Piz Buin, one of the most beautiful mountains on earth, especially when seen from this angle. 49 is gaping.
He turns and while not as impressive as the Tuoi Cirque, the view down Val d’Urezzas towards the Samnaun and Sesvenna Groups as well as the Ötztal Alps in the far distance is wonderful. 49 gapes some more. Finally 51 reaches the saddle. 49 is roused from his paralysis by a shout - “It’s bloody cold up here!” Finally he realizes that his fingers are nearly frozen, that his whole body is shivering in the ice-cold west wind which blasts through the saddle. Time to look for shelter.
49 climbs down a steep face on the east side of the saddle and looks for a good place to sit down and have lunch. 51 follows and thankfully the wind doesn’t reach them here. They unpack their food and start munching. As always 51 has taken twice as much to eat and 49 finishes early. Heated by the noon sun on the lee side of the saddle he pulls on his windstopper and steps out into the wind to take the obligatory pictures. A 360° panorama doesn’t make any sense here so he settles for two 160° ones, one in the east, one in the west. He also takes close-up shots of the single mountains but soon he is shivering again as he turns back to 51.
Pian FurclettaEvery lunch break has an end and so 49 packs his backpack and the two prepare to leave. A short break in the saddle. One glance back, one glance to the front and down they go. The trail is steep but not as bad as on the other side. There’s no scree – only big blocks of stone – lots of them. The trail is barely visible but there are stone cairns to mark it – or to guide the eye. The are so many of them that they become the reason for the next argument between 51 and 49. One line of cairns heads directly down into what they call Pian Furcletta (the Furcletta Plain which is all but plain) right underneath Piz Buin, another leads to the left, crossing a bump and then heading into Val Tuoi right underneath Piz Fliana. 49 opts for the direct route but 51 makes use of her shares and decides that the left route is the one to take. 49 “agrees”.
Across some gullies and crevices they scramble their way down the slope and it becomes evident, that they are headed for Chamanna Tuoi, the mountain hut at the eastern bbase of Piz Buin. It is located where Pian Furcletta gradually turns into Val Tuoi and is a hut with one of the best views in the Alps. Before they reach it, however, they have to descend some 500m and the trail turns out to be very poor. Slipping and sliding down a scree slope they come to the banks of a small frozen lake. 51 wants her picture taken as she “steps” on the ice in front of Piz Buin. 49 complies and naturally takes a few more shots during the break. Dreiländerspitze has raised its head above the ridges in the north and 49 decides it's time for one more panorama.
Finally they reach the Chamanna but September is construction time in the Alps and the hut guardian and his brother are busy renovating the hut. No food, no drink, no rest. 51 and 49 head onwards. Three people – obviously related in some way to the guardian come up the valley to the hut – the second encounter of the day. The turn of the next curve (our heroes are on a dirt road now) reveals that these guys have come up the road with their Audi A6. 49 snorts, 51 shakes her head! Thanks to the dirt road their progress is quite fast now. And a construction vehicle which is coming down the valley behind them speeds them up even more. It seems like one of the brothers needs to drive down some debris.
He passes them after quite a while in front of a cattle fence which he opens but before 51 and 49 slip through the Audi passes them as well and these silly people close the fence again right in front of 49. Another curse about people not belonging in the mountains and the fence is crossed. The Audi has already passed the construction vehicle and rushes down the road. May the god of potholes catch these guys!
At the Alp Suot, a farm halfway down the valley. Our construction worker turns in and 49 and 51 have cause for their next argument. A few minutes before 51 had declared that they needn't go down all the way to the village of Guarda but that there was an shortcut. Knowing all about shortcut 49 thought “oh yeah - wonderful!” but due to his lack in shares kept his mouth shut. Now they are standing underneath a signpost with two signs – one for Ardez (this must be the shortcut), leading up the eastern slope – one for Guarda, heading down the valley. 49 points to the route to Ardez but 51 declares that this can't be the shortcut and that they should keep on the track. 49 ttries to convince her but as he meets stubbornness he gives in, thinking that the longer route will probably be the faster one – without any loss of one's way.
UnterengadinMeeting another couple coming up – third encounter – 51 and 49 head down the valley. Unfortunately they have gotten below the timberline and the sun has become very rare. Temperatures drop quickly in September and a fierce kind of wind contributes to these uncomfortable conditions. On the upside – when they get to a clearing or an open area – the rugged mountains of the Sesvenna group are visible on the opposite side of the Inn river and since the sun already starts to set, lighting conditions get interesting. 49 takes breaks accordingly.
Finally they come out of the forests onto the meadows around Guarda. Naturally – 49 nods knowingly – they have to go down all the way to andthrough the village before they reach the road to Ardez. A sign says “4km” so most likely they will have to hike for an odd hour. It turns out that the road they are on is paved – at least outside the villages – which speeds them up considerably. On the other hand they are now jogging along on the open pastures of Unterengadin.
There's many a view to take in and many a village to hike through. Guarda – at least the part they saw – wasn't too nice but the next village – Bos cha – is different. A dirt road – the only road in the village – leads through and you find the typical ivory coloured hoses of the area with their painted decorations. Few people live here anymore and as the sun is setting none of them is outside their houses. Finally the road starts descending and right ahead the village / town of Ardez marks the end of the trip. 51 and 49 head towards and through it and finally and happily sink down into the seats of their car. 49 has to drive for another 45 minutes but then: dinner and bed!
Statistics Ardez – Val Tasna – Furcletta – Val Tuoi – Ardez: