The rain is still falling in the morning but by the time I have finished my breakfast it seems less heavy and there are noticeable patches of lighter grey overhead. Stepping outside my hotel reveals that there has been a sharp drop in temperature and my breath steams in the cold air.
The sky was brightening slightly and the rain beginning to ease off so I had another wander up the Gotthardstrasse where there were even fewer people than on the previous evening. I decide to head up to the Gotthard Pass, and on the way back to collect my gear from the hotel, the clouds part to reveal the mountains above Andermatt cloaked in white down to a surprisingly low level. My walk of the previous day would have been through snow had I done it today.
The St Gotthard at 2165 metres is the pass to the South of Andermatt which divides German speaking Uri Canton from Italian speaking Ticino and is an historic crossing point of the Alps having been in use since the 13th century.
The half full bus progressed steadily up a steep sided and vegetated valley that lacked both the ruggedness of the Grimsel and the bleakness of the Furka. The landscape was more pastoral and verdant and it was only as the upper reaches of the pass were approached that the view through the steamed up windows began to appear alpine. The road crossed a windswept plateau which was marked by outcrops of gnarled looking rock around which the road went until we left the main highway to divert to a collection of buildings on the plateau – the Gotthard Hospice. Here I left the bus after the passengers had given the driver a round of applause. This is a practice I’d seen before in Switzerland and I wondered if it was for getting us up the pass in one piece. I can’t imagine Manchester commuters giving their bus driver three cheers for getting them to work on time.
There was no snow here but a cold wind blew and grey cloud hid the rocky slopes above. In the middle of a lake was a rather unexpected sight. An old style horse drawn coach was seemingly floating – presumably attached to floats – and was harnessed to a pair of motorbikes instead of horses. Someone had a sense of humour and I guess it appeals to the many bikers who visit the Gotthard.
Windblown sleet stung my face and I fastened my hood in place and followed the single track road which led uphill away from the lake before entering a wide heathery valley.
There are some days when the weather dictates that that mountain ascent or day’s walk is not going to go ahead as planned. This was one such day. Wishful thinking brought on by being once again on the southern side of the Alps and some distant patches of blue along with 2 whole minutes of sunshine allowed me to continue as far as the dam on the Lago della Sella or Sellasee reservoir but as the higher peaks remained stubbornly hidden and the light showers became more frequent my plans to climb a peak called the Pizzo Centrale became just that – wishful thinking. The path for the 2999m Pizzo Centrale leaves the road just before the dam and is signposted or at least was when I was there.
The route’s a blue and white marked “alpine” trail which suggests that it includes some hard or scary bits – the path certainly looked steep from here – but given the weather I only went as far as the dam. Another option from here would be to cross the dam (or take the longer way around the lake – the paths do meet up) and cross a high pass over to the Vermigelhutte from where a track leads back to Andermatt. That one’s red and white suggesting that it’s not so steep or scary but still I wouldn’t take the kids over it. I contemplated the map and the damp misty mountains around the head of the lake and set off back.
Just as I reached the buildings at the Gotthard, the rain started up in earnest sending the few braver tourists who were still outside running for their cars or the restaurant. My next bus back to Andermatt was in a few minutes so I didn’t have time for a look around the museum as I’d intended but it provides a full history of this route across the Alps from medieval times to the present day. The road I were on here is the Old Road which leads down to Airolo in a series of hairpin bends known as the Tremola while the main road bypasses the hospice by a few hundred metres. There are 2 tunnels as well far beneath the pass which carry both road and rail traffic across – or rather under the Alps.
So finished my journey from the Grimsel to the Gotthard and it was now time to head back as freezing rain swept across the bleak and exposed landscape and the more distant mountains retreated behind a cold grey curtain. I got back onto the bus and took off my wet coat while a few more people got on all looking relieved not to be outside any more and we all waited expectantly for the driver to set off for Andermatt.
Pete Buckley September 2008