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23/05/2007

Seas of stone

Swiss author Leo Tuor has felt the effects of global warming right up to his belly button

September 15, 2006 was a typical hunting day in the rocky crevices of the upper Val Sumvitg. Having rained the previous day, it was still overcast, mist rising from the valleys hung between the cliffs. It was a question of staying in the cabin, or taking my rifle and going down the mountain. I'll go down, I thought and eventually reached the spot where an old path leads into the Greina Ebene. The fog was evaporating, the weather was improving quicker than expected and it tempted me to go up instead of down the valley. The path leads along the mountain on the right of the Rhine, over a snow bridge and then along the left side of the water. As I approached from behind, I saw that the snow bridge was gone. People had long been used to crossing the river on this natural bridge, and something like that sticks in your mind. But it gave me no further cause for concern.

I'd just have to go through the water. I took off my clothes, stuffed my trousers and socks into my rucksack, hung my shoes and gun round my neck, and feeling my way into the Rhine with a stick, climbed into the water, paraphernalia dangling about me. Step for step I stemmed myself against the river, but it soon became clear, deep into the Rhine 1,950 metres above sea level, that I was no match for this undertaking. I was left with no choice but to turn round.

On that hunting day, standing in the ice-cold Rhine, I felt the consequences of global warming right up to my belly button: the disappearance of avalanche remains that we thought would be there forever - the vadretgs, which had served shepherds and hunters as bridges over ravines and streams. Avalanche remains, slippery snow, solid snow masses, snow bridges, only now that they are gone does the mountain man realise how important they were, for getting into the mountains quickly, for crossing valleys and ravines, or for sliding down and descending the mountain as rapidly as on skis.

Snow in summer and autumn has become a rarity in the mountains. It brought contrast to the landscape, it made orientation easier, helped explain where animals are: "D'you see the wedge-shaped bit of snow up there on the cliff-face above that long field of boulders? On the top right corner, go up the slope to the red rock. There's a chamois lying on top of it."

Had I been been able to cross the Rhine, I could have gone into the valley on a sheep path and up to the Terrihütte. Behind this lodge, separated by a hill, stretches the famous Greina Ebene. There used to be old snow in the middle of the hill. In wet conditions when the sheep clambered up too far into rock slabs, they'd slip sometimes. Then they'd fall down onto the snow and come away in shock instead of falling to their deaths in the stone field. The grass grows ever higher up the mountain, and the animals follow the food. Where once there were glaciers, now moraines and seas of stone have emerged. In this grey area, the sheep can find their way in everywhere and disappear. Oh the glaciers. Gone like the gods. Will they return?

In search of the lost snow, I go round the hill, climb up way above the lodge until I reach the Piz Terri. An old map writes of the ring of mountains in this area: Here are many icebergs, called glaciers, no man has been known to reach them. At the very least, I expect to find a fearful glacier here, its tongue reaching out towards us. Instead I find an ice-eating lake. Its waves hit my ears, the ring of mountains are reflected in its waters.

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Leo Tuor is a writer who lives in Val Sumvitg. He was a shepherd for many years on the Greina. His most recent book of prose appeared translated into German in 2004, "Onna Maria Tumera oder Die Vorfahren" (Onna Maria Tumera or the ancestors, Limmat publishers).

This article was originally written in Surselvish, and appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on March 10, 2007.

Translation from the German: lp
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