Two days of backpacking in the Gotthard massif – 5th and 6th of September 2020

As soon as the car gains some elevation in the switchbacks leading to Andermatt, my heart starts to beat a little faster at the view of the jagged peaks and the pristine alpine rivers. After being away from the Swiss mountains for almost two months, it feels like a homecoming. Our plan for the weekend is a two day backpacking loop around Pizzo Centrale, a peak in the Gotthard massif. On this Saturday morning, the Gotthard pass is sunny and busy. As we leave the car, we are already spotting the little sausage hut at which we plan on stopping the next day before driving back home. Little do we know how hard of a contrast the pass will be the following evening when we finally come back (spoiler: not sunny at all and not busy either).

Justine in the Gotthard Massif. © 2020, Nevin McCallum.

My backpack is heavy with camping gear and food. But it feels good to put it on and strap it around my hips, like meeting with an old friend I haven’t seen for a little while. And it’s very satisfying to be carrying on your back all you need for 2 days. That first day I’m filled with joy. I’m happy to be back in the mountains and grateful to be hiking under the sun. After reaching the Lago della Sella, we keep going up on a rather steep trail before reaching a saddle and dropping down in the little valley behind. I’m awed at the jagged rock formations surrounding us. From that point on, and for the next 24 hours, we won’t see another person. Just an enormous amount of sheep, reminding us that even the remote looking places of Switzerland are not that wild.

Nevin and the jagged rocks. © 2020, Justine Le Cam.
Camping spot. © 2020, Justine Le Cam.

The goal of that first day is a high alpine lake we’ve seen on the map. We plan on setting up camp next to it, thus avoiding the load of carrying water for cooking in the evening. The area is quite rocky, and it’s a bit challenging to find a nice flat spot but after a few minutes we’ve pitched the tent, got some water and treated it. We’ve been spending a few nights camping this summer, both in Switzerland and Norway, so we’ve built habits and start to be quite efficient. Even at this altitude and in such a rocky terrain, there are still some sheep and we are amazed as we watch them go in the most precarious spots. In the evening, the weather moves in and the blue sky is replaced by some clouds and a few rain drops. So, after a feast of cheese, saucisson, pre-cooked flavored rice and freeze dried food, we quickly slide in our sleeping bags.

The night is a bit restless, as we both try to find a comfortable spot in spite of rocks sticking out of the ground below us. We are also not used to sleeping at 2’600m above sea level. When dawn finally comes and we unzip the tent, it is cold but the sky is mostly blue, fog lingering lower down in the valley. We sip instant coffee, holding the cup tightly to get our hands warm and eat watered-down oatmeal, that we try to make more exciting by adding dried mangos. It’s time to clear camp and start the second day.

Camping spot. © 2020, Justine Le Cam.

As we are getting higher above our camp, the views get increasingly impressive: the mountains are bathed in the morning light and faraway peaks are covered by a myriad of small clouds. We decide to push to the summit of Gemsstock. It is not exactly on the way but it’s only a short detour from our route. Having left our heavy packs at the trail junction, we go fast through the rocky steep trail leading to the summit. Around a corner, we spot a group of ibex and we stop to admire their graceful ascent. We’ve stood at the top of Gemsstock several times already, but always accessed it through the cable car running during the ski season only. So it feels strange to be standing here, all alone, without the snow and the dozens of skiers.

Gotthard Massif. © 2020, Justine Le Cam.

To be honest the rest of that day is more challenging. As we make our way down in the valley, the weather starts to deteriorate. By time we start ascending again, we are surrounded by thick and wet fog that won’t leave for the next 12 kilometres and 700 meters elevation gain up and down back to the Gotthard pass. Nevin didn’t give me the nickname of “sun princess” for no reason: my mood drops. The rain is scattered but persistent and cold. Nevin tries to cheer me up with something along the lines of “it’s still better to be outside in the mountains than sitting in an office”. Which is true and works for a while, but even his enthusiasm starts to fade as the kilometres go by and the cold creeps in. The few last kilometers are particularly challenging, as, after reaching the Lago della Sella, we expect to be back at the car much sooner (yes, it seemed shorter to us the previous day, when we had fresh legs and sunny weather). So we don’t want to waste time by stopping to put more layers and gloves on. At that point the fog is so thick that we don’t see more than a few meters away and the wind is gusting. It’s a relief to finally arrive at the car and it takes me a good 10 minutes to get warm again once we are sitting inside, the engine running. Needless to say that the sausage hut that we spotted the previous day is nowhere to be found.

The last kilometres under the rain © 2020, Nevin McCallum.

Looking back on it, these 2 days were pretty much filled with everything that draws me to the mountains and keeps me coming back: the highs but also the lows. The warming sun and the moody fog. The moments filled with pure joy and the moments of doubts. The overwhelming feeling of being all alone under the night sky and the dreadful realization that you still have several hours of trudging through the wet mist. But most importantly, the satisfaction of pushing through a difficult moment. It will sound very cliché but I guess it’s a nice metaphor for navigating life. There will be highs and there will be lows, but none of it lasts, so I’m just learning to clench my teeth and keep going in the difficult moments. And primarily, I’m learning to recognize and take my time to appreciate the little wonders that life throws at me.

More photos from that adventure

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