The Vulture: Overnight in the Swiss Alps

It was a fine autumn day, when we found the most wonderful lake of the Swiss Alps in a remote valley and encountered a wild vulture.


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Spontaneity

ExpediTom in awe taking in the views
ExpediTom in awe taking in the views

The Swiss Alps exert an irresistible attraction. Not only do they amaze overseas’ visitors, but also its inhabitants are in awe at the glance of these spectacular mountains. Every time I return from abroad, I cannot wait to see this majestic sight again.

Summer was quickly retreating and gave way to colder nights and richer earth tones. It was at this time that Philippe called me up on a Tuesday, whether I would like to do another overnighter. For many people this might refer to clubbing and going out. Yet, for me this meant prime time outdoors and sleeping under the stars. It appears to me that there is a turning point in adulthood, when outdoor becomes more important than outgoing.

Introducing Philippe - eagle-eyed, adventurous rascal
Introducing Philippe – eagle-eyed, adventurous and one of a kind rascal

Swiss Alps Overnighter

Many visitors in Switzerland are struck by the extensive public transport system. There is hardly any corner you cannot reach. Even though its reliability does not always live up to the expectations, it mostly is a pleasure to just sit back and enjoy the scenery unfolding through the window. The train ride to this remote corner in Graubünden took more than four hours and it was not until midday that we started hiking. It was a leisure hike at first, became a well-trodden path and eventually changed to a single trail.

Short-cut or Detour?

We approached a thundering waterfall dropping of the cliff, which we were about to circumvent on the trail. This was the outlet of the lake – our ultimate destination. Unfortunately, our path did not cross the base of this wonderful waterfall, but we had an idea.

The thundering waterfall we attempted to reach
The thundering waterfall we attempted to reach

Instead of following the usual path, Philippe suggested taking the detour and try out the straight way up. This would allow us to see the waterfall up close. The route did not seem that difficult from below. Yet, I had some reservations about its feasibility. The last time, I refused to join in on an idea by Philippe during the West Coast Trail in Canada, he was quite bummed. Therefore, I overcame my reservations and agreed.

The thundering waterfall we attempted to reach
The thundering waterfall we attempted to reach

Slowly we drew closer to the waterfall along the steep creek. The loose gravel and massive rocks posed some serious difficulties to reach the sight. They reminded me of our Huemul Trek. The further we got, the clearer it was to me that there is now way of finding a short-cut to the lake by going straight up. Furthermore, the lose stones and Philippe in front of me posed a danger beyond our control. My gut feeling told me to turn back and after a couple more hesitant steps, I gave in. I retreated along the same path, partly on my butt and ripped my trousers. Philippe continued a few more meters before he also turned around.

The moment I gave in
The moment I gave in
Victim of the detour. Usually, I wear underpants. Usually.
Victim of the detour. Usually, I wear underpants. Usually.

Marmots and Rainbows

After eating some snacks at the bottom, where we had left off for the detour, we were refreshed and continued along the ordinary, official hiking trail. Even this one was not easy by any means. It was steep and narrow at times. Slowly gaining altitude, the weather increasingly deteriorated. First, the wind picked up and shortly after the precipitation reached us and caused a rainbow right in front of us.

The weather changed for the bad
The weather changed for the bad

Opting for a short break in order to sit out the rain, we found refuge under a ledge along a mountain cliff. Meanwhile, our gaze met the rugged landscape that is the Swiss Alps. The granite peaks were impressive. Suddenly, the marmots whistled loudly, and all disappeared in a rush into their earth holes. Generally, marmots either whistle repeatedly to just raise awareness or once for an immediate threat. A huge shadow appeared in front of us, but we were not sure what it was. While Philippe followed the winged creature as good as possible with his eyes, I grabbed the Sony 200-600mm Tele zoom lens that I heaved up the mountain and put it on the tripod. Paired with the APS-C camera (A6500), this gives you a full-frame equivalent of 900mm – in other words: solid reach. Luckily, the massive bird landed somewhere on the other side and Philippe was able to direct my gaze to the right spot. Thanks bro!

The bearded vulture - critically endangered and only about 40 individuals remaining
The bearded vulture – critically endangered and only about 40 individuals remaining

Serendipitous Sighting: The Vulture

There it was. About 300 meters away, the magnificent bird sat relaxed on a bolder overlooking and scanning the desolate landscape. It turned out to be a bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). These enormous creatures can reach a wingspan of up to three meters and used to populate the entire range of the Swiss Alps in the 19th century. With the increasing use of the mountain regions by humans, their food became increasingly scarce. At the same time, vultures were subjected to rigorous hunting. Contrary to popular beliefs, vultures do not kill livestock or steal children. Their diet almost entirely consists of bones from naturally deceased animals. Back in the 19th century, the sovereigns in Switzerland even offered premiums on killed birds. The last vultures were hunted in Visp in 1886 and here is an ornithological journal from 1918 discussing the matter. The bearded vulture was reintroduced in the late 20th century, but is still critically endangered. Nowadays, there are only about 40 individuals living in Switzerland. Therefore, sightings should be reported to the Bearded Vulture Foundation. They might even tell you the name of this specific vulture.

Mind-blowing size difference between an alpine chough and a bearded vulture
Mind-blowing size difference between an alpine chough and a bearded vulture

Eventually, the bird took flight and after a couple of rounds close to the granite pinnacles it disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. Stoked from this experience, we continued our hike.

Our very own island

On our final stretch to the lake, we came across a fellow Italian speaking hiker. He made us understand that he urgently needed to call someone. After checking reception, Philippe handed him his phone. Neither Philippe nor I understand Italian very well (not every Swiss speaks three national languages). However, the hiker’s exclamation “porca la miseria” clearly indicated certain annoyance. We wished farewell to him and crossed a meadow with lots of sheep. The vulture was clearly not interested in them – at least as long as they were alive.

The Italian speaking
The Italian speaking

Arriving at the wonderful lake nestled amidst the mountain peaks, we scouted the area for a suitable camping spot. It was not long, until we settled for the small island. Who has not dreamed of their very own little piece of heaven surrounded by water? We explored the area, had a look down the waterfall, which we attempted to climb and laughed about our silliness while gazing into the valley below. After observing an approaching thunderstorm in the distance, we quickly set up our tent and ate dinner from the stove. We anticipated the storm would arrive during the night, but so far, the weather at this amazing place cooperated. It was hard to believe that the scenery could change for the better or the worse in any way.

Mediterranean Views

The sun light just hit the surrounding peaks, when we looked out of our tent.
The sun light just hit the surrounding peaks, when we looked out of our tent.

The sun light just hit the surrounding peaks, when we looked out of our tent. We had slept well and the night was quiet without any thunderstorm. Immediately, I got up and regretted to have left my down jacket at home. The temperature at 2300 meters above sea level was only slightly above freezing, but at least there was no wind. Grabbing my camera, I climbed up on a small hill behind the island. The dark waters we had experienced the day before, turned with the soft morning light into various shimmering turquoise hues. It was hard to believe the views got even better overnight. This place is without a doubt among my top five camping spot I have ever been.

The most wonderful lake in the Swiss Alps
The most wonderful lake in the Swiss Alps

Philippe and I enjoyed the scenery for some time, before we had breakfast on our island. While the sun rapidly increased the temperature, we came up with the brilliant idea to go for a swim. Nevertheless, the lake was still freezing cold. The thought crossed my mind how awesome it would look like from above while floating with a mattress in the blue lake. Without further a do, I took my Thermarest Neoair X-Lite and tried to distribute my weight evenly. Yet, there was not much afloat of me anymore. Depending on the perspective, either the sleeping pad provided too little uplift, or I was just too heavy.

Now it was Philippe’s turn with his Exped Synmat UL, which has been leaking air since our Huemul trek through an untraceable hole. In contrast to my attempt, Philippe was successful and floated above the turquoise water. Moreover, the plunge allowed Philippe to locate the tiny leak and he fixed it with glue. After drying our sleeping pads and underwear, we packed our tent. We hiked over the next mountain pass and returned to civilisation. By now, the weather changed and dark clouds predicted rain.

the weather changed and dark clouds predicted rain
the weather changed and dark clouds predicted rain

Overnighter

We embarked on the journey home and contemplated about paying a visit to Robert in Zurich. The three of us had travelled to Canada together the previous summer. The following day was Robert’s birthday but due to our tiredness, we decided to pay only a brief visit. So, we arrived in Zurich with all our outdoor gear – including the smell. After the first few beers at Robert’s place, we changed our plans to stay the night and celebrate with him at 12 o’clock. The night continued with bars, clubs and more drinks, before Philippe and I finally went home with the first train in the morning. We were exhausted, yet it was a weekend to remember. Perhaps one does not outgrow outgoing though. Yet, If I had to decide between outgoing and outdoor, I would opt for the latter. There is so much more to explore.

Summary

Admittedly, outgoing in Zurich was a harsh contrast to the pristine nature and solitude at the lake. There are some other kind of vultures around in those streets. Furthermore, while seeing the dump hole that the Zurich nightlife is, I instantly wished I were back in the mountains.

Nonetheless, this journey was an incredible trip to a wonderful place in Swiss Alps. There were lots of serendipitous moments such as witnessing a wild vulture. This majestic creature truly was my personal highlight. Apart from that, we were lucky with the weather, that no one was injured during out detour and found a small piece of heaven.

Stamp from a bar saying “Erledigt” (German for “Finished/done”)

Stamp from a bar saying "Erledigt" (German for "Finished/done")
Stamp from a bar saying “Erledigt” (German for “Finished/done”)

3 Responses

  1. Rob Mellors

    Very envious of you seeing and photographing the Bearded Vulture Tom. But shocked by the photo of Zurich. There was I thinking Switzerland is such a pristine place but I guess the bar and club culture is the same everywhere.

    • Tom

      Hi Rob
      thanks for your comment. We truly were lucky to see this magnificent creature. Indeed, Switzerland is very clean apart from the nightlife scenes and I was shocked about this view too.
      All the best,
      Tom

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