We have had fifty days when the temperature went over thirty degrees centigrade. Finally at the end of August, after some milking cows were already back in the valley for want of grass on the upper slopes, it grew cool enough for a walk to see someone we knew who is looking after cattle at one of the higher chalets just below one of the passes on a major hiking route. At these chalets without road access cheese is no longer made and carried down to the valley by the men on special frames strapped to their backs. Here cows will give birth to calves, calves are fattened and perhaps some goats or sheep kept. The animals will be sent up by several owners and one chalet 'lad' can manage about a hundred beasts.

      The Chalet and the pass

       Shelter for goats

The man in charge at this particular chalet works as a joiner restoring old buildings during the winter. We found with him three of his six uncles. It is from one of them, now too arthritic for the task, that he took over running the chalet. Uncle was hobbling around the chalet using a stick. It does not seem possible that he gets back down with the aid of two sticks to where the car must be left. The path is steep and rocky in places, a walk they will even do by moonlight. At the beginning of each season as many supplies as possible are dropped by helicopter, including a store of white wine. They were drinking a bottle when we arrived and someone had come up that morning with freshly baked bread.
After so many summers of life up there they all knew the history of the chalet. It belongs to their village together with about half a dozen others. Thirty years ago the roof was reshingled. At that time a beam in an obsure position was discovered with the date 1682 and two sets of initials.
"One would have been the owner, a cheese baron, the other the man who constructed the chalet" explained one of the uncles. By the seventeenth century the trade in cheese was so booming that it was worthwile using every scrap of grazing land. This chalet may have been enlarged later. The position, while not on a major route down to the markets, was still a good one and the advantage over lower locations was, while there were trees for fuel, it was not necessary to clear the forest to provide grazing. The merchants therefore financed the construction of more chalets, which, like all buildings, were partly built with recuperated material. Mules may have been used, but much was carried by men and women as old photographs bear witness. The roof has massive trusses to support the weight of snow which may be deep enough to bury the outer walls.

  Going up through the roof is a massive wooden chimney in which sausages and hams can be smoked. When the work of reshingling was done the shingler's wife cooked them all a dinner on the fire.

Every year some of the chalets are inspected. This year those selected were in the same region but on what used to be the main trade route until the mule track was supplanted by a mountain railway. Now access to most of these chalets is well over an hour on foot and if they are privately owned they are abandoned. But if we have more droughts it might be worthwhile to renovate them. There was no shortage of water at the chalet we climbed to. We were told there used to be a mountain tarn by the chalet until a small earthquake fifty years ago. Now there is only a bog but the men thought the water source they used is fed by an underground lake. Being limestone the mountain is full of channels through which the water finds its way. Some courses have been traced and demonstrate long and tortuous routes underground.

The third Saturday in September a gang of friends will come up to help get the animals down. There could be twenty centimetres of snow and then they must be taken along the path. But otherwise they are driven straight down the slope being left to pick their way. The first Saturday in October there will be a big celebration of the return held in the village.
Pictures of this last year can be seen on
The Return from the Alps.

7th September 2003