A Journey to Snowy Saas Grund

I’ve never seen snow like this, thick as Gruyère double cream. It lies just like three-feet thick royal icing, smooth across boulders and house tops, dripping down the sides of the roads by the stream.

Though a ski centre, Saas Grund is still a traditional Swiss village. Not chocolate box, prettied-up chalets, but old wooden huts built on stilts to keep the damp and the rats out of the stored hay.   As you pass these rambling, tumble-down huts you get a strong sense of animal and hear the odd tinkle of a goat bell. It makes what lies locked up inside seem mysterious.

This morning a kind gentleman let me watch him feed and water his bump-nose sheep in his ramshackle shed. I don’t have much Swiss-German and he had little English but I managed to learn that his big, shaggy sheep will be kept indoors until the end of April then be let free to roam the high slopes until November. He was keen to show me a second shed where a mother ewe had had two bouncy lambs just two days before. She looked at me cautiously with her unintelligent eyes on either side of her large-nosed head, such a strange face, I wonder what the breed is?   Her lambs bustled energetically around, then stopped to suckle roughly. I’m told Swiss-Germans say ‘Merci’ but it still seems mistaken so I said Danke Schöne to my farmer acquaintance and left mother ewe to her business.

Saas Grund is high, and the skiing can be at 3,000 metres, some of it on the Triftglescher glacier. Wide, sun-baked ski slopes play out beneath a range of the highest peaks in Switzerland. In nearby Zermatt, just around the mountain, I thought that the Matterhorn was the local king, but the mountains in the Saas Valley are taller, and the mighty Dom at 4,545m looks down on the Matterhorn.     Perhaps the Matterhorn earned its fame because of the legends surrounding the climbing of it. Early British alpinists in the great age of British mountaineering came to Zermatt to conquer the Matterhorn as their own. What must the local Swiss have thought?   The story surrounding its mastering is a thrilling one, of seven men going up and only three coming back down with – was it a snapped or cut rope?   But their names live on as the first conquerors and the little alpine church houses a sad number of British men in the ancient graves in its small churchyard.

The Matterhorn towers over Zermatt like the original sharp Shard. Majestic is not a strong enough adjective for it. In the excellent local museum you can read the many names of those who have since climbed it since its original conquerors, Theodore Roosevelt being one of them.   It has also gained fame for inspiring the logo on the Swiss Toblerone Bar – on which, if you look just right, you can see that the white patch on the Matterhorn is actually a standing Bern bear.

After the sparse simplicity of Geneva’s protestant churches the ornate St Bartholomäus with its tall baroque altar-pieces comes as a shock in Switzerland. Geneva was converted and quite dominated by Calvin and one can forget that much of the rest of Switzerland remained Catholic.   St Bartholomäus is a rainbow church, each of its stained glass windows portraying the twelve stations of the Cross are separate rainbows, sending their fanned out colours into the wide, renovated nave. It feels odd to find an old Bible opened at Isaiah 41 written in German words.

Later that day, at 5pm, the numerous bells of St Bartholomäus rang out loudly for all their worth across the village for fifteen minutes celebrating, a young barmaid told me, the end of the working week. Good for them.     Across the road, in the mountainside cemetery, the graves are in neat, perfectly ordered rows, each wooden cross the exact same as its neighbour, save for the picture of its incumbent.   Each is covered in a metre at least of snow, up to my waist, so it seems as if each grave’s occupant has been buried deeply again, and is so annually of course.

Just up the hill is the busier, larger and more touristic Saas Fee. Here there is a different grave, that of young Constance Witherby, a sixteen year old American girl, who visited Saas Fee with her family in 1929, died and is buried there.   This is her poem :

I came to the country of sunlight and gold

Blurred by the shadows of fleet-footed clouds,

To mountains whose summits in swift-wreathing shrouds

Stared on blue valley unspeakably old.

I saw all the splendour of castle-like peak,

Chiselled from granite, and amber and blue,

And staring at sovereignty, sudden I knew

How ineffective is man, and how weak.

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