Walking with Ghosts in Switzerland’s Valais

Stepping out of the Gemmi cable car onto the viewing platform, I stared dumbly as the clouds swirled, dissipated and massed again before the peaks of Mischabelgruppe, Monte Rosa, Weisshorn, Matterhorn and the Berner Alps.

Although I had the 21st century luxury of being whisked here by cable car rather than on foot along the potentially treacherous path of the Gemmi Pass as the first, intrepid travellers on Thomas Cook’s pioneering tour to Switzerland did over 150 years ago, through my eyes I could see the same magnificent magnitude that had reflected on their retinas. Those travellers were the reason I was here. Following in their footsteps was like tracking ghosts.

Gemmi cable car, Valaise, Switzerland

In July 1863 a group of friends from Yorkshire calling themselves the Junior United Alpine Club, signed up with Mr Thomas Cook, the excursionist, on a reconnaissance tour to Switzerland. For the young, keen walkers from Selby, it was the start of a great adventure. Amongst them, Jemima Morrell kept an eloquent account of their travels, beautifully illustrated with drawings and supplemented by prints and photographs. That 1863 tour was the birth of tourism in Switzerland and to celebrate the anniversary, based on Jemima’s writings and the original itinerary, Switzerland Tourism and Inntravel reproduced Jemima’s journey, albeit with rather more comfort but no less fun.

Daubensee, Valaise, Switzerland

As we made our way along the icy shore of the Daubensee we each adopted our own pace forming a single file of dark figures in the snow, like a string of small, black diamonds on a milk white neck. Looking up at the figures ahead of me, plodding through the snow along the edge of the silver lake, dwarfed by the monolithic landscape, I saw again an image I had seen of Victorian travellers trudging, knee-deep through the Alpine snow in their black crinolines and sensible shoes. In my alpine hiking trousers, hi-tec boots and thermal fleece, I was beginning to feel positively cosseted.

Unlike Thomas Cook’s Victorian party who had to sail across the Channel to France before joining the Paris-Lyons-Méditerranée railway to take them to Geneva, my Swiss Alps experience began with a comfortable flight into Geneva and a train ride to Sion before continuing to Leukerbad for a night in the Hotel Grichting-Badnerhof. The following morning, while the Junior United Alpine Club set off on foot to ascend the Gemmi Pass, I indulged in the decadent luxury of a champagne breakfast served on a floating tray in the thermal springs of Leukerbad. In my defence, just as Jemima and her fellow travellers strove to experience the culture of the Switzerland of their day and observed, but did not participate in, the ritual bathing at Leukerbad, I felt it behove me to test the water of today’s, rather more sophisticated Swiss tourism offerings, in this case quite literally.

Daubensee, Valaise, Switzerland

But the heat of the thermal springs now seemed a long way off as we progressed beneath a world-weary sky along the Daubensee where the last of the winter’s snow and ice was gradually melting to reveal the tiny faces of blue gentians and yellow anemones. Arriving at the Schwarenbach Inn, we had lunch in the same venue in which the Thomas Cook tour had taken noonday tea a century and a half ago.

Emerging from the Schwarenbach, visibility had all but vanished in the clouds that had descended, soaking everything in their wet embrace. Standing in the mist, a cart and two horses waited to accompany us on our hour’s walk to the Sunnbüehl funicular which would take us to Kandersteg. Stepping into the cart, Margaret Morrell, the wife of John Morrell, Jemima’s great grand nephew, sat and smiled through the now driving rain as the horses began their journey.

Margaret Morrell, Daubensee, Switzerland

We must have made an odd spectacle as we progressed; Margaret in her chair, knees wrapped in a blanket; me astride the horse behind her, and to our rear, our fellow travellers ambling and chatting. The rhythmic clip clop of the hooves and the gentle murmur of conversation muffled in the hood of my waterproof jacket as the unrelenting rain did its best to put a dampener on the experience. But as I gently rocked from side to side and watched Margaret’s stately and oh so British demeanour as, sporting sunglasses in the rain, she exuded all the fortitude and grace of her husband’s pioneering, great great Aunt Jemima, I realised I was no longer tracking ghosts, they were walking with us.

Inntravel offer a Swiss Alps travel package based on Miss Jemima’s itinerary which includes, Leukerbad, the Gemmi and Daubensee. For further information on Switzerland and rail travel, visit  Switzerland Tourism and  for flights to Switzerland visit swiss.com.


I was a guest of the lovely people at Inntravel and Switzerland Tourism on my Swiss Grand Tour and you haven’t heard the last of it yet. Image of Margaret Morrell (above) courtesy of  Switzerland Tourism.

Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+

About Andy 227 Articles
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is an author, freelance travel writer, award-winning blogger, and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites and travel guides. Author of The banana Road - It's Tenerife But Not As You Know It and Pocket Rough Guide Tenerife & La Gomera. Former Tenerife Expert for The Telegraph and Overseas Consultant for Inntravel. Published in The Independent, The Telegraph, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine and Wizz.

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