Col de Torrent and La Sasseneire

I was just writing about Col de Torrent, which has prompted me to put some pictures up from our walk there, as it’s a rather spectacular spot. While there we took the opportunity to nip up to La Sasseneire, which is one of the 3000 m peaks in Valais that you can walk up without getting all technical and rope-y. We walked up from Evolène in Val d’Hérens and down to Lac de Moiry in the valley on the other side of the ridge (inventively named Val de Moiry). A highly recommended traverse!

Spring is a great time to be in the Alps - wild flowers and peaks still capped with snow

On the way up from Evolène in slightly iffy weather. But spring is a great time to be in the Alps – wild flowers and peaks still capped with snow!

View from the Col de Torrent looking south

View from the Col de Torrent looking southwest

Col de Torrent, looking back through the prayer flags to Val d'Hérens

Col de Torrent, looking back through the prayer flags to Val d’Hérens

Constantly changing clouds make for a fascinating sky, even if not the best mountain views - and here a bonus rainbow

Constantly changing clouds make for a fascinating sky, even if not the best mountain views – and here a bonus rainbow

Col de Torrent, looking through the tussocks to peaks around Arolla. A view that looks almost Kiwi.

Col de Torrent, looking through the tussocks to the peaks around Arolla. A view that is almost Kiwi in style.

View from La Sasseneire - last snows melting and ice-covered tarns thawing out on the Val de Moiry side of the ridge

View from La Sasseneire – last snows melting and ice-covered tarns thawing out on the Val de Moiry side of the ridge. To quote Robert Frost, “the clouds were low and hairy in the skies”.

It still amazes me to see wildflowers in the harsh environment above 3000 m. I don't think I'd survive so well.

It still amazes me to see wildflowers in the harsh environment above 3000 m. I don’t think I’d survive so well.

Wildflowers and tarns on the descent to Lac de Moiry. In the background is the Glacier de Moiry, site of some mountaineering adventures last summer.

Wildflowers and tarns on the descent to Lac de Moiry. In the background is the Glacier de Moiry, site of some mountaineering adventures last summer.

Last snows reflected in the tarn

Last snows reflected in the tarn

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Moments of Alpine magic

I have had a couple of particularly magical moments in the Alps in recent months.

Sometime clouds add to the atmosphere

Sometime clouds add to the atmosphere

The first was during a long hike undertaken in spite of a very dubious weather forecast. We were slowly climbing up from Val d’Hérens towards Col de Torrent when the forecast showers swept in. As we stopped to put our jackets on, the sound of a group of cors des Alpes (Alpenhorns) playing down in the valley drifted up to us on the wind. I will certainly not do the cor des Alpes justice in trying to describe how they sound, but they make beautiful music that (unsurprisingly) fits well with the Alpine environment: slow, deep, with lots of harmonies, majestic but a bit melancholy. We stood there in the rain, with the music coming and going at the whim of the wind, mixing with the sound of the gently falling rain on the grass and the separate harmonies of the cowbells of a nearby herd. The peaks played hide-and-seek with the ragged clouds swirling around the tops and the scene was so beautiful both visually and aurally that it seemed unreal.

Peaks coming and going from the clouds as the music of the cors des Alpes came and went on the wind

Peaks coming and going from the clouds as the music of the cors des Alpes came and went on the wind

The other encounter was ornithological in nature. As we were walking up the Glacier de Tsanfleuron towards the Sommet des Diablerets (which is, incidentally, the highest point in the canton of Vaud) we stopped to take in the rather impressive view from Le Dôme. All of a sudden, a bird with an improbably large wingspan zoomed into view and began to spiral upwards towards us on the thermals rising next to the cliffs. A gypaète barbu! These giant birds of prey are the “bearded vulture” in English, but I feel this name does not sufficiently convey how beautiful they are to watch soar past. They are an impressive sight on the wing, with an enormous wingspan of nearly 3 m, and striking fingery wingtips. The apparent effortlessness with which they ride the thermals is amazing. They are very rare birds, which had disappeared entirely from Switzerland until their re-introduction in 1991. Even now there are only a few tens of nesting pairs throughout the entire Alpine chain, so it’s quite special to see one. Our day was graced not only by one gypaète barbu, but by six. One by one more birds zoomed in to spiral upwards on the thermal until suddenly they all flew off in one movement, zooming south in a straight line, their giant wings still motionless, like a squadron of little gliders.

Gypaètes barbus! The photo does not convey their magnificence (or really even their presence at all; they look like tiny specks in the photo, which you may or may not be able to see/believe me are giant birds).

Gypaètes barbus! The photo does not convey their magnificence (or really even their presence at all; they look like tiny specks in the photo, which you may or may not be able to see/believe me are giant birds).

The rather impressive face of the glacier des Diablerets, which the gypaètes zoomed off past a moment later

The rather impressive face of the glacier des Diablerets, which the gypaètes zoomed off past a moment later

In fact, because I am a very lucky mountain-goer, this was not the first time I had seen gypaètes barbus. My inaugural sighting of these lovely rapaces was while ski touring on Tête de Ferret last winter, when a pair of gypaètes barbus soared briefly above us in the winter sky. I noticed them because when they passed above me, I immediately realised from the size of the shadow that flicked over me that something unusually large had just flown over. Impressive birds!

Not a gypaète, but the much smaller chocard - common companions on Alpine summits, it's always a pleasure to watch them playing in the fickle air currents of the mountain winds

Not a gypaète, but the much smaller chocard – common companions on Alpine summits, it’s always a pleasure to watch them playing in the fickle air currents of the mountain winds (here seen on the Sommet des Diablerets)

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Arthurs Pass mountains

Arthurs Pass, epicentre of my mountain exploits growing up in New Zealand, is one of my favourite places in the world. No trip home feels quite complete without a visit there. This time I made the pilgrimage with my sister and my Dad, alpine co-conspirators of old.

Driving west. Even with southerly storm clouds threatening, this is the right way to be going.

Driving west. Direction aventure. The right direction even with southerly storm clouds threatening.

A southerly storm approaches us on the summit of the endearing little Helicopter Hill (Torlesse Range). A few minutes later it started snowing!

A southerly storm approaches us on the summit of the endearing little Helicopter Hill (Torlesse Range)

We drove west into a dubious forecast, with southerly snow storms stalking periodically across the mountain landscape. The next day we awoke to snow right down to the valley, and beautiful sunshine quite at odds with the showery forecast. The mountains here are so particular. The beech forest clings to the steep slopes, petering out at quite low altitudes, from across the valley looking like a wave of forest breaking on the mountainside. Tussocky tops that seem to go on forever above the bushline. Rocky peaks above those, jumbled collections of loose rock that make for exciting scrambling. If you’re lucky, the haunting cry of the kea, our alpine parrot, flying across the mountain ranges. The braided Waimakariri river glimpsed out in the valley, so many shades of blue interlaced in this improbably intricate pattern.

Here are some photos of this beautiful area from the two walks we did, up Mt Aiken (or technically, a small knob just shy of Mt Aiken), and Avalanche Peak.

On the way up Mt Aiken, beech trees and Mt Rolleston across the valley

On the way up Mt Aiken, beech trees and Mt Rolleston across the valley

Tussocky tops and Mt Rolleston

Tussocky tops and Mt Rolleston

Spindrift! Fresh snow off the trees takes to the air in a gust of wind.

Spindrift! Fresh snow off the trees takes to the air in a gust of wind.

Beech trees and Mt Rolleston

Beech trees and Mt Rolleston

Beech trees, Avalanche Peak across the valley

Beech trees, Avalanche Peak across the valley (with some impressive incised rivers on its flanks)

Hiking trail (Kiwi style)

The track up Mt Aiken (Kiwi style)

Hanging valley, Mt Cassidy and Blimit behind

Hanging valley, Mt Cassidy and Blimit behind

Tussocky tops and Mt Cassidy

Tussocky tops and Mt Cassidy

Andy and Dad on the not-quite-summit, looking across to tomorrow's target behind

Andy and Dad on the not-quite-summit of Mt Aiken

Dad descending Mt Aiken in a sea of tussocks

Dad descending Mt Aiken in a sea of tussocks

View from Avalanche Peak: Mt Rolleston, the Crow glacier, and cirrus clouds on high

View from Avalanche Peak: Mt Rolleston, the Crow glacier, and cirrus clouds on high

Me and Andy on the summit, Mt Rolleston behind

Me and Andy on the summit of Avalanche Peak, Mt Rolleston behind

Andy descending from Avalanche Peak, Otira valley below and the Waimakariri valley out in the distance

Andy descending from Avalanche Peak, Otira valley below and the Waimakariri valley out in the distance

Driving home, sunset on the braided channels of the Waimakariri

Driving home, sunset on the Waimak

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Aotearoa, seen from the sky

I come from a small country that rises abruptly out of the sea, deep in the southern hemisphere, far from everywhere. I never saw it this way when I lived there, but now these characteristics strike me whenever I return. These are things I love, and miss, about New Zealand. For some reason, in Switzerland it is always when the stars are out that I feel how far I am from home and am unexpectedly struck by homesickness. I suppose that Orion tracing its slow arc across the sky is one of the only things that I can see in both of the places that I currently think of as home.

Flying home. The West Coast of the South Island, with Aoraki/Mount Cook, our highest peak, seen in the centre, and Lake Pukaki behind. The Tasman Sea is there under the clouds.

Flying home. The West Coast of the South Island, with Aoraki/Mount Cook, our highest peak, seen in the centre, and Lake Pukaki behind. The Tasman Sea is there under the clouds.

Aoraki/Mount Cook, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers to the left. Its the end of summer and their big névés at the top were about the only snow still around when I flew in.

Aoraki/Mount Cook, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers to the left. It’s the end of summer and their big névés were just about the only snow still around when I flew in.

Right above Aoraki/Mt Cook. Poking their noses out behind are the Hooker and Tasman glaciers (now in dramatic retreat, so they just look like a pile of rubble adorned with blue glacial lakes).

Right above Aoraki/Mt Cook. Poking their noses out behind are the Hooker and Tasman glaciers (now in dramatic retreat, so they just look like a pile of rubble adorned with blue glacial lakes).

Braided rivers, a classic feature of the landscape of New Zealand. This is so because it is the form rivers take in terrain which is not too flat. Here the Rakaia is braiding its way into the Pacific, sans meanders.

Braided rivers, a classic feature of the South Island of New Zealand. This is so because it is the form rivers take in terrain which is not too flat. Here the Rakaia is braiding its way into the Pacific.

I have just been back to New Zealand for the first time in more than two years. I had incredible views from the plane flying both in and out of the country, and was struck again by the sudden rise of the long chain of the Southern Alps out of the wild beaches of the West Coast, and how small our place is in amongst so much sea. The visibility was astounding on the day I flew out of New Zealand, and we could see the whole long chain of the Southern Alps stretching for hundreds of kilometres along the length of the South Island, right down to Mt Tutoko in Fiordland. Almost an hour out of Christchurch, I could still make out the long line of alps in the distance, their isolation in the vast expanse of ocean now striking, as I peered backwards out of my plane window. The jagged snow-dusted alps stretching into the distance looked like the bony spine of a lizard, crouched on the flat blanket of the Canterbury plains, basking in the glorious sun. What an incredible place to call home.

The Waimakariri, braided river dearest to my heart, catches the evening sun

The Waimakariri, braided river dearest to my heart, catches the evening sun.

Flying out. It had snowed a lot in the meantime, which made for very nice views. I think that is Lake Coleridge in the background.

Flying out. It had snowed a lot in the meantime, which made for very nice views. I think that is Lake Coleridge in the background.

Flying over the Torlesse Range (near Castle Hill), close to where many of my youthful adventures took place

Flying over the Torlesse Range (near Castle Hill), close to where many of my youthful adventures took place.

West Coast, Tasman Sea and Alps. Glorious mix.

West Coast, Tasman Sea and Alps. Glorious mix.

The Alps strike out amongst all that sea. Aoraki/Mt Cook is showing its tall self again.

Home receding behind us, the Alps rising up amongst all that sea. Aoraki/Mt Cook is showing its tall self again.

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D’Artsinol, the dog who wouldn’t swim

The dog wets its paws (but strictly no more) in the Gouille d'Arbey under the watchful gaze of the Dent Blanche

Our protagonist, the dog, wets its paws (but strictly no more) in the Gouille d’Arbey, backed up by the reassuring presence of the Dent Blanche

I think pretty much the cutest thing I have ever seen is these kids trying to get their dog to swim in the Gouille d’Arbey, which is the very scenic tarn pictured above. Their sole tactic seemed to be to take turns in shouting at the dog “Mets ta tête sous l’eau!” (Put your head under the water!). The dog clearly knew something was expected of it and was eager to please, but equally clearly had never learnt the command “Mets ta tête sous l’eau!” at obedience training. So the dog, whose real name I do not know but I have roguishly named d’Artsinol, moved around in the water every now and again, looking hopefully at the children, but never going any deeper into the pond. Further interesting sociological situations nearly unfolded: behind me an unrelated elderly man was carefully photographing the Dent Blanche reflected in the tarn, the surface of which was rippled every time the dog moved at the children’s behest. Eventually one of the smallest kids proclaimed “C’est un peu plus difficile que je pensais!” (It’s a bit more difficult than I thought!) and they all left, d’Artsinol in tow.

Here the dog has turned around. But remains paw-deep.

Here the dog has turned around. But remains paw-deep. Note ripples.

After this delightful start to the day, I walked up Pic d’Artsinol (presumably named after the dog). At 2998 m, Pic d’Artsinol is an excellent reminder that one should not put too much faith in round numbers. The view was just spectacular.

A small selection of the Alps on offer from the summit of Pic d'Artsinol

A small selection of the Alps on offer from the summit of Pic d’Artsinol

The clouds were particularly varied and pleasing on the day in question, as fittingly displayed by these lenticular specimens

The clouds were particularly varied and pleasing on the day in question, as fittingly displayed by these lenticular specimens behind the Dent Blanche

The Grand Combin and the Lac des Dix

The Grand Combin and the Lac des Dix

Le Mont Blanc! (I think, certainly its massif if not le mont himself)

Le Mont Blanc! (I think, certainly its massif, if not le mont himself). Note cirrus, wispy clouds that always lift my spirits.

Posted in Dogs, Mountains, Switzerland | Tagged | 1 Comment

No news is good news

In Lausanne you can obtain copies of the main Swiss-French newspapers at any hour in your local street from omni-present coin-operated boxes, which always prominently display today’s top headline. I have only once purchased one. On this occasion, the front page featured a story about some foxes that had taken up residence in a farmhouse, to the delight of the owner and as officially condoned by the Swiss Inspector of Fauna, who decreed that as long as the foxes did not move into the nearby hay (their current abode of choice was the straw) they would not represent a public health risk.

"Foxes squatting in the barn"

The title reads: “Foxes squatting in the barn”. And that is actually one of the foxes and its cub in the barn, caught on hidden camera. Awww!

Although I seldom purchase the paper, I frequently take a lot of pleasure in reading the headline on display for the day, as these sometimes relate to events that are endearingly local in their impact. I like this in no small part because it reminds me a bit of home. Astute readers of New Zealand news may recall the seal on a Dunedin beach that had spent some days near, but not on, a bike path, arousing concern amidst the authorities about danger to cyclists… on the grounds that they might be startled by the seal and fall off, given that the seal had shown no inclination to move towards the path or threaten passers-by.

It transpires that New Zealanders don’t need a visa to come to Switzerland but Australians do. On hearing this, an Australian friend postulated that it must be due to the mutual understanding shared by small mountainous countries. And I have to say that one of the reasons I feel so at home here is that New Zealand and Switzerland share quite some similarities (as well as plenty of differences). So we can now add “endearing local headlines” to the list of things we share, bringing us to the following entirely non-exhaustive assessment of the situation.
Similarities: mountains, lakes, small population and land area, good white wine, iconic adiabitic winds (the nor’wester & the Föhn), endearingly local headlines.
Differences: hemisphere; the sea (NZ); trains (Switzerland); sheep > cows (NZ); cows > sheep, ubiquitously with bells (Switzerland); chocolate fish (NZ); timeliness (Switzerland); birds that mainly don’t fly (NZ); native ungulates (Switzerland). And so forth.

At any rate, here are some of the newspaper headlines that I have enjoyed lately:

VIVARIUM: A French-Swiss woman donates a 1.30 m long salamander!

“VIVARIUM: A French-Swiss woman donates a 1.30 m long salamander!”

The Vivarium is a small reptile zoo in Lausanne, which nonetheless seems to make big waves on the Suisse Romande news scene.

“VIVARIUM: The lizards from Lausanne are going to Zurich. A REPORT“

"Heritage: Switzerland is rich in exceptional parks and gardens"

“Heritage: Switzerland is rich in exceptional parks and gardens”. Maybe I need to add that to the list of differences.

The next headline relates to the Fête Nationale, the Swiss national day which takes place on the 1st of August.

1st AUGUST: Parade of sixty luminous goats. A REPORT.

“1st AUGUST: Parade of sixty luminous goats. UNPRECEDENTED.”

The (unprecedented) prospect of seeing sixty luminous goats is the only thing that makes me wish I had stayed in town over the Fête Nationale instead of going mountaineering!

Posted in New Zealand, Switzerland | 4 Comments

Foxes yawning

Foxes look absolutely hilarious when they are yawning. Unfortunately I have yet to witness this phenomenon in the wild, but I discovered this fact one evening when I was (naturally) perusing the Wikipedia page on the red fox. For reasons best known to the author of the page, and left unexplained, the page shows this comparison of a red fox and a corsac fox yawning. The hilarious expression on the faces of both the red and corsac foxes while yawning prompted me to search for “fox yawning” on Google images. I still cannot look at the results of the search without rolling around laughing. It looks like a page full of foxes screaming.

Do try this at home.

Curiously, the effect is not nearly so comical with any other animal I tried (including tiger). Those foxes really know how to yawn.

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A siege of herons

I have become very fond of herons.

This heron had just swallowed a fish. Note top-knot.

A heron contemplates its next move by a stormy Lac Léman. This heron had just moments earlier swallowed a fish. Note (barely visible in this low quality image) top-knot.

In the last few weeks I have spent some time sitting by the lake and watching the world go by. One of my favourite things to watch go by is birdlife, among which herons have been prominent of late. I am not sure whether the sudden abundance of herons reflects a seasonal shift, or is merely an artefact of increased opportunities for observation while my injured foot has kept me out of the mountains. Herons are beautiful birds, and seem to manage to do everything with elegance. There are two things I particularly like about them. One is the long narrow spike of feathers extending off the back of their heads, which always looks to me as if it has been swept back in a rakish fashion. The other is the way that when they go to land on the water, they put down their long legs – which in flight were stretched out behind them in line with their body – just like landing gear on a plane. The abrupt appearance of their legs below them emphasises their almost preposterous length. The heron very frequently changes its mind at the last moment and, just before touchdown onto the surface of the lake, flaps back up into the sky (retracting the landing gear for flight). This always appears comically indecisive to me.

A heron on the wing, against a stormy spring sky

A heron on the wing, against a stormy spring sky

Apparently the collective noun for herons is “a siege of herons”. I quite like the idea of being besieged by herons! (Also amusing: “an array of hedgehogs”). I think French tends not to have collective nouns for such specific subsets of animals as English does, but those it has for birds in general are fittingly beautiful. A flock of birds can be referred to as ‘une nuée d’oiseaux’ (literally ‘a cloud of birds’), while a group of birds on the wing is ‘un vol d’oiseaux’ (a flight of birds). I love both of these morsels of imagery.

We witnessed a particularly impressive display of fishing by the heron in the photo below. Moments after I took the photo, it flew off its perch on the diving board where it had been standing for some minutes, swooped into the choppy waves at the very edge of the lake, immediately grabbed a fish, and flew back to its perch to consume it. We were quite astounded because the water was brown with stirred up sediment, as well as having quite big waves. The heron flew over from some distance away, but went straight for the fish. Impressive!

The heron's elegant stance betrays no hint of the swift hunting manoeuvre about to follow

The heron’s elegant stance betrays no hint of the swift hunting manoeuvre about to follow

Lac Léman was particularly wild and woolly today, whipped up by a strong wind. I love the constantly changing colours of the lake and mountains on stormy days; the light is always a bit special and makes everything look intense. The waves crashing onto the stones made me think of wilder shores: Lake Hawea in New Zealand, listening through the walls of a tent to the wild waves whipped up by a good blustery nor’wester.

Lac Léman, top surf destination for herons

Lac Léman, top surfing destination for herons

These yellow flowers made me think of kowhai (a NZ favourite). No tui here though.

These yellow flowers made me think of kowhai (a NZ favourite). No tui here though.

Ominous skies looking towards France

Ominous skies looking towards France

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Out of the strong came forth sweetness (as some lion once said)

I made a cake this week. The cake required golden syrup, a viscous syrup derived from sugar that is as golden as its name implies. Golden syrup is very run-of-the-mill in New Zealand/Australia/England, but it turns out to be a bit of an Anglo-Saxon thing. You can’t buy it in supermarkets in Switzerland, but by chance I happened across it in the grocery section of a fancy department store in Lausanne the other day. I was quite excited, as I’d been wanting to make gingerbread (the cake in question) for a while.

My exotic tin of golden syrup

The small tin of golden syrup I obtained was a great deal more expensive than it would have been in New Zealand, no doubt reflecting the small market it has here. It was shelved in the ‘exotic produce’ section, alongside Thai dipping sauces and spices from Mexico. It was strange to realise that something so everyday and unexciting at home was an exotic substance to be bought at some expense here. I enjoyed the realisation that something I have taken for granted as universal is actually a small everyday part of my cultural background!

Let's zoom in on that lion

The golden syrup came in a particularly nice tin (much better than the Chelsea ones from home). I especially enjoyed the sketch of a lion – I can only surmise that lions are connected to golden syrup through their mutual golden colour?? Even better was the pleasingly random motto associated with the lion: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”. Noble words indeed for an Anglo-Saxon sugar derivative.

Posted in New Zealand, Switzerland | Tagged | 3 Comments

The inexorable march of the seasons

Spring seized Switzerland swiftly this year in a bold early attack, met with little resistance by the snow which proceeded to melt at an alarming rate. I began to suspect our ski touring season might be drawing to a close when Tim and I arrived at the beginning of a planned randonnée to find the entire slope we were supposed to head up was completely snow-free. We tried some creative re-routing but after a morning of circling around the base of our objective without finding any way up that didn’t look like a paddock, we retreated to a pleasant patch of sunshine in the forest next to a mountain stream to drink tea and try to be philosophical about the changing seasons.

My beloved touring skis, les corbeaux, looking a little out of place in the forest where we drank our tea

Icing my sore foot in a (very cold!) mountain stream while drinking tea instead of ski touring.

I knew my ski touring season was over shortly thereafter when I fractured a bone in my foot at the climbing wall. It is not at all a serious fracture, but it has resulted in four weeks on crutches, with a couple more to come, and definitely no more ski touring. Fortunately it is an excellent season for discovering activities that involve sitting still (not usually my forté). The beautiful, calm, sunny spring days we’ve been having are ideal for taking a rug and a book to the lakeside and admiring the still-somewhat-snowy mountains over the reflective expanse of Lac Léman.

French Alps across our Swiss lake

Swiss Alps, lake, and  Lavaux vineyards

Swiss Alps, lake, and Lavaux vineyards

Plus de canards!

A spring sky with clouds to make your heart sing

A tree in Lavaux threatening to sprout leaves

A tree in Lavaux threatening to sprout leaves

Magical light in Lavaux

Temperatures have been so uncharacteristically warm for April that I even dared a swim in the lake recently. Water temperature could euphemistically be described as ‘refreshing’, but it was certainly viable (at least by New Zealand standards). It was a real pleasure to have my first lake-swim for the year, and I can’t help but be a bit excited about the impending arrival of summer! Even if I can’t yet bring myself to fully admit that my ski touring season is over by transferring my touring skis down to the basement.

Contemplating my first swim of the year at Rivaz

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