[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he tiny mountain village of Belalp, a little known jewel set above the city of Brig in the Canton of Valais, Switzerland may fall in the shadow of more famous places like Riederalp, Saas Fee or Zermatt but it has quite a few sparkling gems to please visitors and locals alike. One of them is the annual sheep and shepherds’ descent and festival called the Schäferwochenendewhich literally means the “Shepherds’ weekend”. Locally, this event is also called Schäful. On the last weekend of August, it hosts this old traditional event to which the locals are much attached. It is the celebration of the home coming of the sheep.
The 2014 edition took place on August 30th and 31st.
[box_light]The unseen part of the event[/box_light]
Over many generations at the beginning of summertime the sheep of the region from different farms are brought to one of the wildest regions of Switzerland, the Innere Aletschji. It is a mountain ridge surrounded by glaciers and deep ravines, a remote peninsula trapped within a sea of ice including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Aletsch glacier. Usually over 1’000 head of sheep spend their summer grazing in the steep pastures located between 2’000m (6’562ft) and 3’000m (9’842ft) above sea level. The flock of sheep is mainly composed of the typical local breed of the region, the Valais Blacknose.
At the end of the summer, young trained shepherds fly into this rugged region by helicopter. Their task is to find all of the animals, to bring them back to Belalp and to deliver them to their respective owners. They have three days to accomplish this at the risk of their own lives climbing in this steep rocky and dangerous region looking for strays and separated flocks of sheep. The group of young men is composed of their leader, called the Säckelmeister and his assistants, the Sanner.
The weather is one of the key factors for their success. A clear view makes it much easier than trying to find the sheep on such a large area in misty weather. The men are in constant radio communication with each other as those below on the slopes are not necessarily able to see the sheep located above them in the clouds. White sheep can be difficult to see in glacial moraine and rocky areas. When the temperatures are higher, the sheep also tend to spend their time hidden in the shade of the rocks. Individual sheep are the most complicated to herd in the right direction. In a panic they could even jump over the high cliffs. As the numbers in the gathering of the flock grows, the shepherds bring them close to an Alpine hut where they spend the night. Rivulets need to be crossed and injured animals, such as with broken legs, need to be taken care of.
There is definitely no abundance of visible joy coming from the young men as it is a highly exhausting task to find the animals and herd them back up the steep trails to Belalp. Sheep dogs are not used in this task because these sheep are not used to dogs and the steep area would make it too dangerous for both dogs and sheep.
The first day, the shepherds concentrate on getting the easier-to-find sheep grouped together which are those found on the more gradual slopes and fields. They hope to get at least half of the animals that first day.
The entire second day is dedicated to getting the animals out of the steep slopes. Some sheep have reached dead ends and can’t find their way back to the flock. The Säckelmeister equipped with binoculars is guiding the Sanner through steep rugged slopes to reach individual sheep. The men have to evaluate the amount of risk they want to take for themselves within the rock walls to get the animals back.
By the end of the second day, the most exhausting and most dangerous part of their job has been accomplished. In the very early morning of the third day, a Saturday, the men leave the Alpine hut and take the long hike with the entire flock towards Belalp. The path takes them through an almost completely vertical footpath down a deep ravine of the Oberaletsch-Glacier. The long hike takes around eight hours and needs quite a few breaks; not only for the shepherds themselves, but also for the sheep. Just before reaching Belalp, the parade of sheep and shepherds takes a switchback vertical path upwards which is built with dry stone walls directly into the mountain, called the Steiglen.
[box_light]The Belalp festivities[/box_light]
The public events starts on Saturday by midday accompanied with Swiss traditional music, kiosks with food and drinks along the traversal mountain path of the village. The shepherds’ weekend marks not only the return of the sheep from their summer location back to their owners; it is also a symbol in the region for the end of the summer. Visitors from nearby and as well as from far away come to Belalp and gather together in front of a lovely little church on a plateau with a spectacular frontal view over the Aletsch Glacier below. This plateau is where the sheep will be coming up the last part of the steep trail in the afternoon along with the exhausted but visibly relieved young men of the accomplished task of gathering up all the sheep in this Alpine region.
The weather on this Saturday could hardly have been better. The morning fog disappeared quickly to make room for a fairly sunny and dry warm day.
It was amazing to observe the coming home of all these sheep of different ages and gender. Some sheep seemed to be disturbed by spectators too close to the narrow path and either froze or took off through the fields. Some turned around and headed back down the trail only to meet head to head with the other sheep coming up. It was sheep gridlock for a while but the shepherds managed somehow to get them all in the right direction and back on track.
There was a surprise at the end of the entire group of sheep. One of the shepherds was carrying a newborn baby sheep that was not even a half an hour old. It turned out that it was born right before the last climb to reach the plateau of Belalp.
Once at Belalp, the sheep are brought to a large corral built with walls of dry stones, called Färricha, where they stay for the night. It is a kind of sorting facility, a main corral surrounded by many smaller pens to separate the sheep by owners. The eweand her lamb were directly placed in one of the smaller pens.
The public enjoyed the mild dry weather, the food stands and live music until late in the evening.
On Sunday morning, thick fog changed the mood of the region into something rather mystical. The day starts with the people gathering at the Färricha where everyone first receives tasty soup and cheese to get some energy for the task to come. Owners and helpers enter the Färricha under the view of the spectators for the separating of the flock. Very lively with little cooperation from the sheep, it is a kind of sheep rodeo. Some owners wildly ring bells which one would expect to frighten the sheep, but strangely enough they seem to be attracted to the sound. However, if that doesn’t work, it seems that the most successful method to gather the flock remains to carry, push or pull the animals. At the beginning in the crowded corral the task is rather easy since the animals have little space to run around. However, it is a different story for the last remaining ones since they have a lot of space in which to escape the immediate capture by their owners. In less than 45 minutes, the flock is separated.
[box_light]The way to Belalp[/box_light]
The closest train station to Belalp is Brig. From there you can take one of the famous Swiss Postal buses up the steep curvy road while the bus blows it’s well recognized horn going around corners. The end of the road is the little picturesque village of Blatten with ancient traditional sun burnt wooden chalets and a tiny white village church in the center. You can visit the Blatten-Belalp Tourist Office after getting off the bus or parking your car as they have a wealth of information and maps. Blatten is the base for a great variety of alpine outdoor activities. It is also the base of the cable car going up to the small Alpine car-free village of Belalp.
I would like to thank Belalp Tourism for the wonderful support they gave in organizing and helping me cover this frolicking and lively most memorable event. I would also like to thank Hotel Belalp for the warm welcome, the friendly and attentive staff, and the excellent kitchen which made my stay even more enjoyable. This hotel is not only perfectly located to watch this unusual event, but also the only place where one can enjoy dinner with a view over the Aletsch Glacier.
These and more photos of the region are under www.bydoms.com