Crossing Mountain Passes in Deep Snow
By Thalia Wünsche
Nothing. No path. No trail. No tracks. We’re standing on Plan d’Immez, a one-hour walk from the hamlet of S-charl. An unspoilt blanket of snow lies ahead of us, with just Swiss stone pine trees and the stream, which still flows freely in places, breaking through it. This is the point where I’d have to turn back if I were alone. The risk of getting lost in the vast white expanse or – even worse – triggering an avalanche is simply too great.
Fortunately, there are four of us here today. And one of us, Chantal Lörtscher, leads mountain hikes and will be our guide for the next two days. With her by my side, this view fills me with pure joy rather than fear: we are about to cross a landscape that no one has ever set foot on before us. A privilege normally reserved for mountaineers.
Swapping 350 Horsepower for 2
However, Plan d’Immez wasn’t the start of our adventure. It actually began when we arrived in S-charl on the day before. If you were making this trip in summer, you’d jump on a PostBus at Scuol-Tarasp railway station and arrive in the hamlet at the edge of the Swiss National Park three quarters of an hour later. The same route in winter takes three times as long. That’s because the road is closed to wheeled vehicles that might get stuck in the snow. The only mode of transport that’s still running is the sleigh from Gasthaus Mayor, which means swapping 350 horsepower for 2.
When we arrive in S-charl, we get a taste of the isolation that we’ll be experiencing over the next few days. From November to February, no sunshine and very few guests reach the hamlet with 13 houses, two inns and one church. And the only ones who see out the winter here are Anita and Dominique Mayor, the owners of the accommodation of the same name. They are our hosts for this evening and I’m glad I can escape into their warm inn. Despite sheepskins and hot water bottles, I can still feel the cold right down to my bones after spending two hours at minus ten degrees.
The Only Tracks Are By Animals – And Us
I have trouble getting to sleep with worries about the cold temperatures running through my mind. Our hiking guide was able to put my fears of an avalanche to rest with her expert knowledge during a pre-tour briefing. Following her instructions on how the avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe work and under her guidance, I feel safe and ready for my first snowshoe adventure on unmarked paths.
Our experience is at its most wonderful as we head away from Plan d’Immez. We slowly wade through the deep snow, step by step. Everything around us is soft and white. The only tracks that we can see are those left by animals – especially hares and foxes – and those that we leave ourselves. Apart from us, there are no people as far as the eye can see. And that won’t change until shortly before we reach today’s destination, the mountain village of Lü in Val Müstair.
Quiet, but not Silent
Our mountain guide takes care of the really hard work – making tracks in the snow. As the last person in our group of four, I have the easiest time making progress and the leisurely pace gives me plenty of time to enjoy my surroundings. It’s quiet here, but not silent. Millions of ice crystals crunch and groan under our snowshoes with every step that we take. After a few hours, I’m so used to the sound that I hardly notice it anymore. Meanwhile, my arms and legs, snowshoes and poles get into a rhythm and a sense of calmness comes over me. I’m familiar with this feeling from hiking in summer.
Lunch Break in the Lee of the Hut
At its end, Val S-charl opens out into a wide, almost flat high valley, the Alp Astras. We take shelter for our lunch break here in the lee of the alpine hut. But we don’t stop for long. It’s only now that I’ve stopped moving that I feel how cold it actually is – according to the weather forecast, between minus ten and minus five degrees. The warm tea from the flask makes little difference. The only solution is to get walking again quickly.
The snow gets deeper on the way to Pass da Costainas, the passage to Val Müstair, so it’s more difficult to make progress. This soon warms up our cold fingers and toes again and they stay that way until the end of the day.
Back in the Deep Snow
The second leg of our snowshoe tour begins where the first ended: in Lü. We manage to cover the first few kilometres without snowshoes on the levelled winter hiking path towards the Ofen Pass. This enables us to make headway and gain height quickly. However, this experience cannot compare with hiking in the unspoilt winter landscape.
My heart starts beating harder and faster when we turn off into the deep snow after an hour. Harder with joy and faster with effort. Today’s all about gaining more altitude – a total of around 600 metres. What I would class as a «light hike» in summer is a moderate day’s tour in snowshoes and deep snow. Even when you’re spared the effort of making the tracks at the front, making progress takes more effort, stamina and balance.
When You Can Read the Snow
After an initial climb, we reach a cauldron filled with white, powdery, perfect snow and a view of the Piz Vallatscha and Piz d'Astras in the background. We’re the first to leave tracks here, too. Before we do that, I need to take a moment: not because I’m out of breath – well, maybe just a little bit – but to take in the scenery. The sun is shining more brightly today than yesterday and you can see the shapes that the wind has drawn in the snow.
While I only have an eye for light and shade, our mountain hike guide sees even more when she studies the landscape: how stable or unstable the blanket of snow underneath our feet is. To make sure we aren’t making our way completely blindly, we get a crash course on avalanches during our next break. Chantal explains what she took into account when deciding how to pass the cauldron – along one side – and why we need to walk along certain passages individually. I notice that not all snow is the same and you can read it, use it to find out what you need to know in order to plan your route.
Everyday Life Can Wait
A short time later, we reach the Fuorcla Funtana da S-charl, the apex of today’s tour. From here, we head through the small ski resort of Minschuns towards our destination, the Ofen Pass. The kilometres and altitude melt away as we jog down through the powder snow.
A few minutes after the sun disappears behind the mountain peak, we reach the top of the pass and thus the end of the “Via Silenzi”. In theory, we could now hop on a PostBus and head home. But we don’t. Instead, we check into the pass hotel Süsom-Givè and delay our return to everyday life by one more night.
Thalia chose to move to Graubünden and has been bringing journalists and bloggers to the region’s most beautiful places for Graubünden Ferien for the last five years. When she isn’t sitting behind a desk, she loves being out and about in nature; either with her dog or her camera.