Theodul Hut – St. Jacques
Summary: Hiked from Theodul Hut (3300m) to Colle Nord di Lago Bianco (2900m) via middle lift station (-700m, +300m, 3 hours) and then down to St. Jacques (1700m) (-1200m, 4h30). Spent night at Pensione Genzianella (hotel, half pension).
Friday September 11
Despite the clouds the previous afternoon, we awoke to a beautiful, largely clear morning. Breakfast in the hut’s dining room was nothing special, but we got to watch the sun slowly illuminate the east face of the Matterhorn. By 8AM, we were descending into Italy (the hut was on the border), on a service road still gleaming frost.
Partly because of its role as major ski slope in winter and partly because of its lack of vegetation, the area below the Theodul Pass on the Italian side felt a bit drab. We passed a couple of inoperative lift lines, one with its own chapel. After some searching, we found the first of what were to be many ‘TMR’ blazes on a large rock, and after a bit less than an hour, we left the main road and began a traverse eastward passing a sizable lake in the process. The only other person we saw was operating a backhoe, presumably moving rocks to improve the area’s general skiiability.
Unfortunately, amidst the many semi-official gravel tracks, we managed to choose the wrong one. Thus the pass that we did eventually reach was a few hundred meters above the one we were supposed to have crossed, and it required a significant detour to descend the ridgeline to the proper point of crossing. There we found several more backhoes and bulldozers at work, and what appeared to be a dried reservoir with a plastic cover. Mid-September, it would seem, was prime construction season.
From the Colle Nord di Lago Bianco (2900m), we had our final views of the Matterhorn (which was, in any case, rapidly becoming submerged in clouds) before beginning the long trek down toward St. Jacques. Unlike the other side, this valley had no skilifts or other manmade structures. A steep descent down 300m had us in a high meadow, on a trail paralleling the course of the stream. The time was just after noon.
The stream led us down a series of broad grassy shelves, each one a wider, broader valley than its predecessor. At the end of the first we caught a glimpse of a glacier, reaching just below the coverage of the clouds. The second valley had two seemingly derelict structures in it, along with a good number of cows. We continued on. By the end of the third section, it was past 2PM, and we decided to stop for a lunch reak. Intermittent drizzle and a cold wind insured we were on our way again shortly.
All in all, the descent proved a lot longer than expected. At the first junction, we opted for the less direct route around the northern rim of the main valley. This took alongside a spectacular waterfall and afforded a panoramic view of the valley, although the town we were aiming for remained distressingly out of view. At the next junction, we took the path of most rapid descent. After a great many switchbacks in the pine forest, we reached first a farmhouse, then a small inn, and finally a road. At 4:30PM we were in St. Jacques.
Seeing a town on a map and seeing it with your eyes are two very different things. The reality of St. Jacques was a charming little village of perhaps 200 inhabitants, and 2 hotels. As the first one we found had both space and reasonable nightly rates, we did not have occasion to try the second. It was a pleasant place, but the prospects for grocery store, ATM machine and dinner were dim, so after a chat with the innkeeper and a short rest, we left the hotel sans packs along the road toward Champoluc.
Getting to Champoluc was actually a very pleasant walk, for after the first bit there was a pedestrian trail well of the road that took us by some very curious wooden sculptures. Champoluc was a much larger town than St. Jacques, although apparently one in the process of having its main street repaved. After a few false starts, we found both a bank and an organic grocery store.
On the return we stopped at a little restaurant for what proved to be one of the best meals of the whole trip. I daresay we over-ate, for the portions were both large and quite palatable. The owner even insisted we try a sample of some of the locally produced liqueur (grappa) which I managed to politely swallow down. Getting back to the hotel on the other hand proved more difficult than expected. It was quite dark when we left the restaurant, and raining heavily. Worse, it had been raining heavily for some time, and the road had essentially become a shallow stream. The 10 minutes we spent walking up that pitch dark (no streetlamps) road were more than enough to get us quite thoroughly soaked. The thunder merely added to the spectacle.
Back at the hotel, we changed, checked the weather forecast on the computer, and after hanging everything up to dry, went to bed.