Since the day we arrived in Switzerland, I’ve been anxious to visit Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps. The photos of it that we’d seen online looked spectacular, but we wanted to visit during the summer so we could not only see the clear delineation of the glacier from the surroundings (rather than just a solid sheet of snow), but we also wanted to do some hiking. When we happened to wake up on a random Wednesday to the Aletsch weather forecast calling for robin’s-egg blue skies, Trav spontaneously took the day off work, choosing to go in on Sunday instead, and we packed for a day of hiking in the mountains with Touille…my favorite kind of day!
The glacier is located just over two hours southeast of Fribourg. Because it’s at high altitude in the Bernese Alps, it requires taking either multiple trams up nearly to the summit of the Bettmerhorn, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can opt to hike the 1800 meters (6000 feet) of elevation gain over a distance of 21 km. Though typically we opt to hike rather than take trams, this is one time where I’d actually recommend taking the tram and hiking once you get to the top. Hiking at the top is superb with miles of scenic trails.
We were grateful to arrive at the start of our adventure, the Betten BAB tram station, to find ample parking for just a few francs for the entire day. With our half-fare Swiss travel cards, we paid only 24 chf for both of us to ride any of the trams in the area for the entire day. That, my friends, is a good deal!
Boarding the first tram, we rode for several minutes up to the actual town of Betten where we disembarked and walked directly onto another tram, which took us all the way up to the town of Bettmeralp. Like Zermatt, visitors aren’t allowed to drive in Bettmeralp.
From there, we walked 10-15 minutes across town to yet another tram station. We passed the longer, final tram ride by chatting with a nice local who’d lived in the area for 40 years and was eager to identify the nearby peaks for us and offer tips on the best hiking. He, himself, was taking the tram up just to have lunch near the glacier. Most folks aren’t so lucky!
The round restaurant at the top was almost completely deserted, so we sat on the patio for a bit to enjoy the view.
From the restaurant, our “hike” started on a wide boardwalk.
Within minutes, we arrived at the main overlook, gathering with just a few other folks to stare in awe at the massive ribbon of ice and debris snaking between the mountains. The view was superb, not just of the glacier but of peak after peak rolling into the distance in every direction.
Itching to get closer to the glacier, we didn’t stay long at the overlook, just long enough to ask a nice couple to snap a photo of us together and to take one of them in return. The trail we had planned on taking, the UNESCO World Heritage high trail, was closed due to landslides. Our second choice also started out along the same trail as the first, so it too was blocked off to hikers. In hindsight, we’re grateful because the hike we ended up doing was longer and allowed us a more varied experience of the glacier – we saw it from above, at the same height, and below. We’ve seen glaciers before and even hiked to them, but none like this.
Aletsch and the entire region that consists of multiple glaciers, mountain peaks, and watersheds is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch Protected Area, it was the first UNESCO site to be declared in the Alps and has been protected as such since 2001, which was actually considerably more recent than I expected.
Extending for a total of 23 km (14 miles), the glacier is so massive, at least in part, because it’s the union of three separate glaciers further up the valley.
As these individual bodies of ice and snow slide downhill, the Great Aletschfirn, Jungfraufirn, and Ewigschneefeld (eternal snow field) converge at a place called the Concordia (which appears more commonly as the Konkordiaplatz in German) to create the Aletsch Glacier.
The glacier is at its deepest at Concordia, where a tremendous amount of precipitation is funneled from the three glaciers into one, creating a depth of snow and ice nearly a kilometer deep. Not wide…deep. Even when right next to it, it’s hard to fathom its size.
When you think that it takes up to 10 years for an entire meter of snowfall to be compacted into a single centimeter of glacial ice, it gives a new respect for the length of time necessary to create such a sizable glacier and the incredible force required.
After following the trail for miles, angling down slowly and drawing ever closer to the glacier but still disappointingly high above it, we finally neared the point in our trail where it would veer away from Aletsch. We started to see more water, steep creeks cutting across our trail and large pools of melt water by the wayside.
A single short incline over boulders coursing with creek runoff and another short section led us to a sharp almost 90 degree turn in the trail. A series of stone steps led away from the glacial valley and up into a side canyon toward Märjelensee (Lake Märjelen). Despite the superb hike, we were both disappointed that we weren’t able to get closer to the glacier. But as we approached the lake, we saw a sign just off the trail that said “Aletsch Glacier 10”.
Stoked that we might get close to it after all, we disregarded the late hour and our weary feet and set off along Märjelenbach, a raging creek flowing from the lake down to the glacier.
I crossed more slowly than Travis and with more unease as rocks rolled precariously under my feet. Getting swept up in the unforgiving rapids of the stream would likely not end well.
Dropping steeply down through the boulder field, the creek disappeared in a raging torrent beneath the hulking glacier. I’ve always had an irrational fear of falling into a crevasse, which is rather bizarre considering I’m not in the habit of trekking across glaciers (though I’d like to give it a try!).
I remembered coming across photos of a couple of guys who photographed their trip hydrospeeding (yes, it’s a thing) down 7 miles of Aletsch’s glacial melt water last year. It’s INSANITY, but you really should check out the photos.
We sat and enjoyed the view for a bit with the sound of the roaring water next to us, then poked around along the glacier’s edge, peering underneath at rocks suspended in the solid ice.
The ice at the very base was an intense shade of blue, almost unreal.
Standing right next to it, I heard a groan from deep inside the ice.
Not only is the entire mass moving, but it slides downhill about 200 meters a year at Concordia, slowing to less than half that by the time it reaches the Bettmerhorn, the peak where we started our hike toward the end of the glacier. It was just plain eerie to be next to something not living but still moving with such force.
While it moves, it’s melting. Water was gushing down in small rivulets from above, and when a sizable rock tumbled down from the top right next to us, we realized we should be even more careful than we had been. Looking straight up, we could see a line of boulders perched on the edge, ready to come down with just a bit more heat from the sun.
By then, it was already after 7 pm and we were still hours away from the tram at Bettmeralp, where we planned to hike in a giant hook rather than returning to the tram on top at Bettmergrat. We had failed to check out what time the last tram would depart ( 5 pm is typical for many of them) and recognized that we might very well have a very, very, verrrrrry long hike down ahead of us. Myeh, live life with no regrets! Seeing Aletsch up close and personal was totally worth it.
We retraced our steps through the boulder field up the hill, again crossing the creek, and resumed hiking on our main trail. The creek above Märjelensee connected an entire series of mini lakes – ponds really – that I assume are dry later in the fall.
Opting to take a shortcut, we turned at an intersection in the trail and headed into a walking tunnel so long, only a pinprick of light was visible from the other side. It took us nearly 15 minutes to walk the entire length in near darkness. Most of the tunnel was full of several inches of water so we stayed to the right on the only semi-dry ground. Midway through, we refilled our water bottle from a mini waterfall gushing down the natural rock wall of the tunnel. Mmmm…glacier water!
Despite the rather warm day, our breath was visible in the tunnel and my hands were icy by the time we reached the other side. I was grateful when we finally popped out the other side, stunned at the startling change in scenery and just how far the valley below us was.
We steadily wound along the hillside, seeing more and more marmots whistling warnings to their neighbors and scuttling along the rocks to safety as we disturbed their evening shenanigans.
The last truly stunning views of the evening emerged of another glacier, Fieschergletscher, peeking out from behind the mountains.
We made good time for the next couple of hours, dropping 300 meters over the seven kilometers back to Bettmeralp. We laughed as usual at the confusing array of Swiss signs pointing in opposite directions to the same site, relying instead on our map to locate the right trail. One sign in particular near the village of Fiescheralp actually made me laugh out laugh. Standing at an intersection with 4 or 5 different routes we could take, the only sign we saw said “Downhill”, pointing downhill. Not helpful, but really funny! Our own route was also downhill, but in the opposite direction. Now this would have been an appropriate place for them to post a sign for the same thing in opposite directions.
We arrived back at the town of Bettmeralp, this time by foot, and were eternally grateful that the tram happened to still be running, the only tram in the area with extended hours (we passed one at Fiescheralp that was in bed for the night). Since we were the only ones at the tram station, we sunk onto their comfy benches inside, giving Touille food and water, then taking off our hiking boots with relief. Nothing feels better than flip flops and cool air after a day of hot and sweaty hiking boots. After about a half hour, the next tram whisked us back down to our car at Betten BAB, and we were on our way home before midnight. It was, to say the least, one of the most memorable days we’ve had in Switzerland.
Know Before You Go:
- Make sure to check the time table for the trams so you don’t get stranded in the mountains. It’s a very long walk back down. 😉
- Fuel – 370 km roundtrip to Aletsch for our car that gets roughly 100 km on 6 l of diesel x 1.57 chf/liter = about 35 chf.
- Parking – 3.50 chf for 8-10 hours
- Tramfare – 24 chf total roundtrip for 2 half-fare adult tickets
- Food – Less than 10 chf. We packed bananas, sandwiches, salami sticks, bread, and cheese for 2 meals on the go.
- Total estimate cost: 72.50 chf