What goes through your head when someone mentions Switzerland to you? Maybe words such as chocolate, cheese, watches, banking, Rodger Federer, neutrality. I’m sure there are lots more clichés that could be included but Switzerland has huge diversity in terms of its culture and landscape and it is this that makes it an ideal location for a geography trip. It is a landlocked, mountainous (hosting 20% of the Alps) country with a geographically central position in Europe and is one of the world’s wealthiest countries. From glaciation, drainage basins, settlement studies, fold mountains, the range of subject matter is impressive.
The small, mountain settlement of Leysin makes an ideal base for a stay in Switzerland. It lies at an altitude of 1,263 m and is built on a plateau behind a mountain knoll, so it is hidden from the valley below. The Tourist Board claims that the air is pure, fresh and dry and the sun shines here more often than anywhere else? This would explain its history as one of the most important Swiss centres for the treatment of TB but the discovery of penicillin proved rather bad for business and the large sanatoriums were transformed into hotels, schools and apartments as the town was reinvented as a tourist and sports destination. Leysin first gained international recognition in 1789 when Thomas Malthus (yes that Thomas Malthus – The Principles of Population one!) included 6 pages in his book about the higher life expectancy compared to other Europeans.
Leysin was the chosen location for Stamford School as they embarked upon their annual visit with their Year 10 geography students to Switzerland and this is an account of their stay.
Having travelled overnight by coach from the UK the group arrived at lunchtime, looking remarkably fresh and eager to start exploring. Bags were hastily dropped in rooms and then we were off on the short walk to the cable car which would take us to a height of over 2,000m to the top of La Berneuse. The panoramic views were stunning and we could even see Lake Geneva. There were lots of wows and oohs and ahhs and not just for the views – you should have seen the size of the plate of chips from the mountain top café.
Time was taken to enjoy lunch, sit in the deck chairs and soak up the sun but soon it was time to start learning. Ian, the Field Study Tutor with the group, used the study guides to help orientate the students and to explain the process of how the Alps were formed, land use in the Rhone Valley and to pick out glacial features from the surrounding terrain.
As we made our way down the cable car the clouds were closing in and by the time we were back at the hotel it was obvious we were in for an impressive Alpine thunder storm. Students were keen to get wet but chose the safer, indoor option of the hotel pool.
Feeling refreshed after a good sleep and hearty breakfast the group were ready to journey along the Rhone Valley and into the Lotschental valley to start the treck to the snout of Langgletscher, a 5.8km long glacier. Along the way they were able to appreciate how glaciers sculpt the landscape, understand the processes at work and the landforms created. As the sun came out and lit up the stunning views there was also time to contemplate global temperature changes and their impact on glaciers.
As we walked back down the valley to the coach park we managed to stay just ahead of the rain clouds but they were closing in fast and by the time we were on the coach the rain had set in. That didn’t dampen spirits though as we were off to soak any aching limbs in the Thermal Baths. This included a water slide for anyone with any energy left.
Passports were needed as we were crossing the border into France to visit the town of Chamonix. The weather was wet but spirits were high as we collected our tickets for the cable car ride to Aiguille du Midi a 3,842 m peak with spectacular views over Mount Blanc. It looked as though the screen showing the web cam from the top was broken as it was just grey and fuzzy but the attendant assured us it was working – we were in for some interesting weather!
As the cable car made its steep assent we started to lose sight of the valley floor and as we headed into the clouds the rain turned to snow. This caused great excitement – it was July after all. Once at the top you knew you were at high altitude and although we couldn’t make out the panoramic views it was very atmospheric and easy to see why climbing in these mountains can be so dangerous. There was lots to explore and hot chocolate to be had in the café before making our way back down into Chamonix.
We weren’t done yet though. It was straight to the Train de Montenvers which would take us to the Mer de Glace, France’s largest glacier. From the station at the top a cable car takes you down to the glacier but you still have to descend 398 steps to get all the way down. It was fascinating to see the markers from over the years showing the different height of the glacier as it has shrunk down in the valley. Once at the bottom though, there is an amazing ice cave that takes you into the glacier and it is very strange observing it from this angle. Time then to head back up to the station to catch the train. Remember those 398 steps – take a deep breath!
The weather wasn’t great again today. I’m taking issue with the Leysin tourist board as it’s been a while now since we’ve seen the sun. Onward, however, to Les Diablerets where we can view the source of the Grande Eau, a tributary of the River Rhone. As we walk along from the middle course to the upper course it is a chance for students to understand how drainage basin systems work, the processes and landforms of a river along its long profile and the flood prevention strategies that are in place.
As we get closer to the source of the river the impossing Creux de Champs corrie is laid out before us and this forms the backdrop to our packed lunch. It is hard to take your eyes of the view but we make our way back down the valley to the village where our reward is a visit to the local Coop supermarket. As we head back to Leysin time now to get in the zone. Tonight it’s bowling!
Bags are packed as today is departure day but before the coach leaves there is still time to spend in the town undertaking a settlement study. As afternoon approaches it is time to get on board. There are smiles all round as the group board the coach, their minds still full of the many amazing sights they have witnessed in such a short space of time.