[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen one goes for a winter holiday or just a day excursion to the Upper Valais in Switzerland, the chances are high that the visitor will choose better known areas like Bettmeralp, Riederalp, Saas-Fee or the famous Zermatt. A few weeks ago, I attended and shot photographs of the Belalp Hexe, the craziest ski competition of the Alps where there are costumed witches and other bizarre skiers in on the race. It takes place in the village of the same name and some weeks later I wanted to go back and discover more about this hidden Alpine gem.
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Belalp can’t, of course, be directly compared to the much larger resorts mentioned above. However, for winter lovers, it definitely has something to offer everyone certainly winter sports enthusiasts with its slopes from 1340m (4400ft) up to 3100m (10’209ft) above sea level. In addition to the 48km (30mi) of pristine ski and cross-country ski trails, Belalp also offers snowshoe trails. From Brig, one takes a 20-minute public bus service to Blatten bei Naters from where an aerial cable car brings visitors, luggage and goods up to Belalp.
The weeks after the Belalp Hexe a lot of fresh snow fell on to the Swiss Alps. I continually monitored the weather forecast for the weekends waiting for the perfect day to explore the resort again and walk on its snowshoe trails in the best possible photographic conditions.
On the first day I selected, the weather forecast was for snowfall in the early morning, but with the sun coming out by mid-morning. I had to take my chances at being there just at the moment when the sun comes through in order to illuminate the mountains and forests immediately after the fresh snowfall; a photographer’s heaven. The forecast turned out to be only true for the first part, the early morning snowfall which continued all day. I discovered a region under thick dark grey cloud cover and snowfall giving an almost mystical touch to the landscape. The only things missing were the witches. The visibility was not good enough to venture on a snowshoe trail through the forest. I took some time to visit the old village part of Blatten.
After taking the cable car back from Belalp to Blatten, I highly recommend visitors to cross the main road in front of the bottom cable car station into the old part of the village. Immediately one realizes that one did not only cross the road, but also crossed a timeline to find himself in another century in the narrow lanes of an ancient authentic village with typical sun burnt wooden chalets. On this particular winter day, the chalets and the paths were also covered by mountains of fresh snow.
Blatten is not a township of its own. It is one of 31 small villages belonging to the town of Naters. The oldest houses date back to 1630. The chapel was initially built in 1449. It has been rebuilt in 1645 to point eastwards.
After this interesting experience of Belalp during a grey and snowy day, I returned a few more times later this winter to find perfect sunny winter days under a deep blue sky and a snow depth of 198cm (6.5ft). I could not ask for better conditions for photography as well as for snowshoe hiking tours.
Belalp features a few good snowshoe trails. As a word of caution, these trails are well marked, but not groomed. Snowshoes are highly recommended and the level of difficulty of the trail is highly dependent on the amount of fresh snow.
From the top station of the Belalp aerial cable car on 2096m (6850ft), the winter walking trail is almost flat as far as Aletschbord on a well groomed and wide trail without any special difficulties. Good walking boots are enough for this first part. This trail passes between wooden chalets with impressive thick layers of snow on the roofs. Beside a charming small church, Aletschbord gives the visitor an impressive view over the Aletsch Glacier which is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Depending on the needed physical conditions as well as proper snowshoe equipment, the visitor can take either the Tyndall-Trail climbing up to Hohbiel on 2680m (8800ft) or the Holzji-Trail to Blatten on 1329m (4360ft).
This steep trail above the forest is open terrain with untouched fields of snow with an impressive view on eighteen mountains in the Swiss Alps known as the “4’000s”. These mountains higher than 4000m (13’124ft), include the famous Matterhorn above Zermatt. The trail passes the Memorial of John Tyndall, a British scientist from the 19th century who elected Belalp as his summer residence, before reaching Hohbiel. From there, a comfortable chair lift brings one back to Belalp within walking distance from the top station of the Belalp cable car.
This is definitely the trail for nature lovers not to miss. This trail starts right below the Hotel Belalp on Aletschbord and quickly enters the forest. Walking through a forest freshly covered with snow is a unique experience. Clean fresh air fills the atmosphere. The shadowed light in the forest gives some relief from the harsh sunlight on the snow-covered landscape. Apart from the noise of one’s own footsteps, it is almost silent. Walking close to the edge of the forest, one can frequently get a glimpse on the Aletsch Glacier below. The experience is close to how one imagines a winter fairytale. Once out of the forest, the trail crosses some clearings with a few wooden chalets powdered with untouched snow before reaching the little village of Egga which seems to be inhabited even at this time of the year. The walk continues mainly through forest until one reaches Blatten.
Belalp is truly a winter jewel tucked away in the Upper Valais, overlooked by visitors going to much better known resorts. I am glad I returned to the village after the first visit during the Belalp Hexe witch ski competition in mid-January. Now I have discovered the secrets of Belap hidden in the deep snows of winter.
If interested in visiting this magical place, do not hesitate to contact the friendly and helpful staff of Belalp Tourism office in Blatten which is located right at the bottom station of the cable car up to magical Belalp.
More photos of the region are under www.pbase.com/tcom/belalp