Posted: March 03, 2011
Author: Jack Shaw
This past week, Epic Europe stepped back in time, and took over a 17th century fortress with a corporate group of 30 guests. “Der Alte Spital”, on top of the Simplon Pass, is not your typical mountain hut. Some suggested it was the new location for a sequel to The Shining, but I prefer to think of it as our own mountain top ski-in ski-out castle, complete with warm showers, and if you were lucky, semi-private bedrooms. Even though I did feel a bit like Cinderella when it came time to clean the place.
The building dates from 1650, when the Swiss merchant trader Kasper Stockalper was at the peak of his success, shipping goods between central Europe and Italy. The top 3 floors were reserved as a summer residence for him and his family, and the bottom for merchants and travelers seeking shelter on their traverse across the pass. Nowadays, it can be rented through the army for groups up to 60 people, and is great base for backcountry skiing – and, this region typically receives the most snow in the Valais. Unfortunately for us, the wind was howling, and therefore blowing most of our new snow to Italy, so we used this as an opportunity to familiarize our guests with the basics of backcountry travel and avalanche safety. Our local guides lead us on a tour through little summer villages, crawling into their families’ summer hut caves, to retrieve some schnapps to warm our rosy cheeks.
Thursday evening, we had the opportunity to share in a raclette* at an old stone barn just below the Pass. Sepp and Maria Arnold (Joseph became Sepp, when they decided they could not fill the biblical shoes of Joseph and Mary) are small farmers who were raised on dairy farms on the pass, and now carry on the tradition with their family. Sharing their history and helping to promote sustainable agriculture, they welcome visitors to their alpage (mid-mountain pastures) in summer and winter. From the Alte Spitall we snow-shoed through a blizzard, arriving in Chlusmatta in about 30 minutes. Inside, we were greeted with pumpkin soup, hot tea, wine, schnapps and of course, the local specialty, raclette. Even though our hosts only speak a local dialect of Swiss German, the communication was surprisingly easy. It was clear that we were all thoroughly enjoying the meal and magical ambiance of this old stone barn, and Sepp was in his element, sharing his cheese and customs. We said goodbye and stepped out into the maelstrom, following our drifted-over tracks back to the castle.
When you usually spend your days surrounded by UIAGM mountain guides and world-class athletes, at first it’s a little different to get to know a farmer or cheese maker. But after a little conversation, (even if it is largely with body language), and a glass of local wine, you realize that they’re not so different. They all share a passion for the land and their mountains that is rarely seen in these modern times. Their common commitment to hard, back-breaking work, and old traditions passed down from generation to generation. Pure and simple; they love their land and their work, and it is all inseparable from their lives. Truly an inspiration for a happy and simple life…I think I feel the same, and will stay for a while!
*If you are not familiar with this melted-cheese delicacy, I invite you to come to Verbier in September, when we host the festival “Bagnes: Capital de la Raclette”. Two days devoted entirely to this “cheesy” tradition, and of course, a little local wine and digestifs.
Festival de la Raclette, Sept. annual : www.bagnesraclette.ch
Sepp & Maria Arnold- AlpenBrunch: Simplon Dorf, VS. CH :www.alpenbrunch.ch