Just above Kandersteg in the Bernese Oberland which is easily reached by train, the river Kander comes out of a gorge. The first indication I had that anything untoward had happened was a sign warning that the path had been swept away, so you would have to follow the road which was cut into the cliffs. After the gorge the valley, the Gasterntal opened up, green, sunny, relaxed and almost flat, with the river sprawling wide and slow among pasture and woodland. Here I shown my first ladies’ slipper orchids, and part of the pleasure was the meeting with strangers who somehow knew that I wanted to see them. See a piece I wrote earlier. Cypripedium calceolus I was back in the Garden.
After a couple of miles the valley narrows again, conifers crowd in, road and path wind up over rocky outcrops and the river rushes between short waterfalls. And then you come to the steep sided upper valley with its summer grazing, where there are two simple guest houses and one or two farm buildings. We’re now at about 1600 metres. I booked in at the Hotel Steinbock, where quite a few people were having lunch but I was the only guest, then I went to explore higher up the valley, towards the Kanderfirn, the glacier which is the source of the river Kander. That’s where I came to a full-stop. I followed the path, or where the path had been, over two broad, chaotic mounds of stone, but gave up at the third. There is some predictability to a scree slope, or maybe just a familiarity. It might well move, but you can slither down with it, even run. But these great new piles of stones looked dangerous, like the unsettled ruins of a bombed city, not that this analogy struck me at the time.
I made my way up the side of the valley to be able to see what had happened. Across the surviving patchwork of young trees and pasture rich with flowers ran several broad fans of stone, very narrow at the top but hundreds of metres wide at the bottom of the valley. I learnt later that in October 2011 unseasonably heavy snow was followed by a sudden rise in temperature and torrential rain; an unmoving, persecutory storm which attacked until soil and sand and rock ran before it. Easy slopes of flowery pasture where sheep and cattle brought up for the summer graze peacefully below high crags had been flayed by avalanches of rock and mud. Issuing from high gullies they charged down to the valley, ripping off the turf and disembowelling the guts of the mountainside. The upper valley had been stripped of so much pasture that fewer sheep and cattle were allowed up into the Gasterntal that summer, these things being carefully regulated in Switzerland.
If Nietzsche and Wordsworth composed works of philosophy and poetry while walking in the mountains it wouldn’t have been here. Here the only subject for thought was geology. None of the nicely developing themes you might play with while strolling or striding along a picturesque, well-worn path could survive. Only the most vicious ear-worms could resist.
Such things shouldn’t happen in Switzerland. And this summer – 2012, just a few months after the disaster – was wet and the lady who ran the Hotel Steinbock was anxious. A little lower down the valley a big crack along the edge of the narrow road suggested that it might break away from the mountainside and slip down to the bottom of the valley. The man who ran the other guesthouse was dissatisfied with the authorities’ efforts. On a shoal of shingle in the middle of the river, which was broadening again with the new rain, sat a digger, waving its bucket to and fro like a beetle on its back as it scooped stones from one part of the flood and dropped them into another, trying to reset the course of the delinquent river Kander. I stood with this man on a newly restored bridge and spoke pidgin German. He thought they should have brought a much bigger digger, and explained that they can take them apart, transport the parts by helicopter and reassemble them. All for a valley deserted in winter and a summer population of about twelve plus visitors..
I couldn’t see how the land would recover. Forest regenerates quickly after gales and fires. Flood often spreads a layer of fertile silt which supports new growth. Spring follows the hardest winter. In some places in the Gasterntal there was thick sand and mud – see the photo of the half buried farm building. And the silt that had been dumped in the river bed was six feet deep in places; the stream had already carved a new channel through it. But the forces of erosion seemed to have neatly separated different types of material. The huge fans of rock that spread nearly half a mile wide in places were full of air. Fine materials had been washed away or to the bottom, so far from the light that nothing could germinate there, and if any seeds did they would send up hopelessly thin and yellow shoots towards the light and die. Wouldn’t they? And how long would it take for those dead spaces between the stones to fill with silt and organic matter? Only snow would accumulate, then melt. At lower altitudes large quantities of organic matter are produced every year – think of the famously buried Lost Gardens of Heligan which were dug out of thick blankets of leaf mould which had built up during decades of neglect. But at 2000 metres organic matter is scarce, and here in one day it had all been taken away.
Elsewhere, a little further down the valley, below the guest houses, a different kind of destruction had chipped and shredded trees in choked gullies. This too was hard to understand. Like the wrath of God. It seemed that trees had not only been smashed and driven down the mountain side but had then been repeatedly pounded and smashed to shreds, by successive waves of rock and water.
I haven’t come any further since that full stop at the great pile of stones in the Gasterntal. and now I feel as if my brain is encased in fever and snot, though I can’t quite go to bed yet. On the web I was introduced to the extremely useful word ‘anthropocentric’. Most of what you find on the web is of course extremely anthropocentric, especially if you enter words like avalanche or Lavine (German for avalanche). How many houses destroyed, how many bridges down, what were the effects or should I say impacts on train services and roads, on power lines, on tourism? Lower down the list the scientists write, in German mostly, if you’re making European inquiries, or else in American.
It seems that what happened in the Gasterntal wasn’t an avalanche, or series of avalanches, but a Murgang, which in American is a debris-flow. Most avalanches flow swiftly over the surface. They are good for bio-diversity, because they strip away trees and eventually encourage the growth of a wider variety of plants. But a Murgang, and here I’m surmising, rips open the mountain side and a growing, churning mass of stone, mud, water, silt and melting snow comes rumbling down. A Murgang will typically break open an old, steep, moraine wall. The greatest extent of the glaciers in the Alps was at about 1850, the peak of a little ice age, and there are many dramatic moraines which date back to then so they’re quite new. In In the Gasterntal steep slopes which in the last 150 years had grown an illusory protective skin of trees and flower rich pasture are now sliding down to the valley, provoked by recent extremes of snow and rainfall, and will go on doing so until they reach a stable pitch. I’d seen geomorphic chaos in the Himalayas, but naively I didn’t expect to come across it in the Alps. India is a chaotic country, Switzerland so calm and well ordered, right? But the Alps are new, though the Himalayas are newer, and change tends to be faster and greater in new mountains. We live in such an old, stable country where almost everything that happens to the landscape is the result of human agency, where our dreadful Murgang was the one that destroyed Aberfan. The seas nibble away at the coast and in 1839 a big landslip created the undercliff near Lyme Regis. Even that was decorous enough for farmers to harvest wheat which continued to grow on chunks of land which had slipped down and broken away.
Coming to the broad valley at the top of the gorge
the Gasthaus Steinbock
two kinds of water, clear rainwater and silt- laden water from the glacier up the valley
and it kept on raining
the digger doing its best
of course there were still flowers – Orchis ustulata with raindrops
In between the showers of rain the air was amazingly clear. Here’s the Doldenhorn, which rises to the south of the Gasterntal, in the early morning