For travellers with plenty of time, it’s worthwhile making the detour from Innertkirchen into the dramatic Aares Gorge or to the Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty were allegedly locked in mortal combat. Unfortunately our time is limited, and we are eager to reach our night’s lodging before the sun sets and the cooking pots grow cold. In great sweeping esses, the route leads through the forested Hasli region to the village of Guttannen about eight kilometres south at the foot of the Ritzlihorn, where the famous Grimsel Pass road links the Bernese Oberland with the Upper Valais. It’s a stunning trip: in tight S-curves, the crossing takes us through dramatic, narrow ravines, over raging mountain rivers, with barren dark rocks left and right, climbing slowly through many tunnels to the Räterichsbodensee and Lake Grimsel further on.
The road in its present, well-finished form was only completed in 1986 – but the history of the Swiss Alpine Traverse over the Grimsel is much, much older. The route was already used in Roman times, and there is historic evidence that the Grimsel Pass was an important trading route between Lucerne and Milan from the 14th century. The mule trains – which the early hauliers used to transport goods over the precariously narrow paths of the Alps with the help of horses, mules and oxen – delivered cheese, leather and iron products from the north to Piedmont, with wine and rice winding their way over the Alps from the south.
Stemming from the time of the hauling trade are the hospices spread throughout Switzerland and South Tyrol. Often run by monks, these hospices served as refuges during storms. The original Grimsel Hospice is reputed to have provided traders and herdsmen with shelter as early as 1142.
When expansion began on the Alpine Passes in the 19th century, it heralded the end of the mule train era at Grimsel. However, when the traders left, the paths were not abandoned but were explored by the first intrepid tourists. While writing his satirical travel book A Tramp Abroad, American author Mark Twain read in an 1878 travel journal that Grimsel and Furka were a must for tourists, and promptly dispatched his agent, H. Harris, on a reconnaissance trip to the area. In his report back, Harris talked excitedly about the hospices and the high mountain valleys: “The Grimsel is certainement a wonderful place; located at the bottom of a sort of huge crater, the sides of which are utterly savage gebirge, composed of barren rocks which cannot even support a single pine arbre.” Even in the cold months of the year, the hospice seemed no less delightful to the agent: “Enormous avalanches fall against it every spring, sometimes covering everything to the depth of thirty or forty feet; and in spite of four-feet-thick walls and furnished with outdoor shutters, the men who stay here when the voyageurs are snugly quartered in their distant homes can tell you that the snow sometimes shakes the house to its foundations.”
But it wasn’t the avalanches that ultimately heralded the end of the historic Grimsel Hospice – it was progress. From 1925, the first hydro-electric plant was built at Grimsel, and in 1932 the high valley was submerged along with the totally derelict hospice. The water level of the once small Grimsel lake rose by 36 metres, creating a massive artificial lake. The pass road, built in 1894 for the horse-drawn postal service, had to be relocated to make way for the power station. A new inn was erected at the same time on a higher granite rock jutting out from the 42-metre high dam wall: The Grimsel Hospice, a four-star Alpine hotel at an elevation of almost 2,000 metres, offers spectacular views of the Zinkenstock, the Finsteraarhorn and the lake, and pampers its guests with regional specialities and a rustic well-stocked wine cellar hewn into the rocks.
In winter, the hotel perches above a deserted snowscape, while in late spring, when the water level of Lake Grimsel is at its lowest, at least part of the “lost world” remerges from the waters. The power plant authorities are currently at the planning stage of raising the dam by another 23 metres for better storage and use of the water. Seven hundred metres of the Grimsel Pass road would then be flooded and replaced by a suspension bridge. Today, the road still runs from the dam wall to hug the shore of the artificial lake to the east end of Lake Grimsel, before writhing steeply upwards to the top of the Grimsel Pass at 2,165 metres, opening up expansive views of the Valais Alps. Then past the Totensee (dead lake), whose morbid name recalls the bloody battles of the Napoleonic wars, to finally snake down in tight curves and with magnificent views to the Rhone Glacier and the twisting Furka road to Gletsch in Upper Goms. Those who miss out on a room in the Grimsel Hospice can lodge here at the Grand Hotel Glacier du Rhone Gletsch – a spacious building where time seems to have frozen in the 19th century golden era of the Alpine passes. (c) Stefan Bogner, Text: Jan Baedeker