On the southern slopes of the Pennine Alps, which are actually closer to Italy than they are to the rest of Switzerland, the Simplon Electrical Power (EES) installations include three power stations – Gondo, Tannuwald and Gabi – as well as three dams – Fah, Eggen and Sera. A development that plays an important economic role for this remote region, where the force of nature is ever present, as Fabien Monthoux, Office Business Partner at the Hydro Power Generation facility can testify.
“Of all the Alpiq employees, we are the privileged few who have come to the South Simplon region, situated midway between Brig and Domodossola. When we return to the office, we like to talk about our special attachment to this region and it makes our colleagues smile.
The landscapes are at times open and welcoming, at other times tortuous and harsh, but always imbued with a rich and often dramatic history. During the warm season, flash flooding caused by melting glaciers and violent thunderstorms are not uncommon, turning the Gondo Gorge into a bathtub, not to mention the landslides and of course the Simplon fault. During winter, snow storms sheer off your flesh, while avalanches frequently bury the Zwischbergental. It is in this harsh context that the South Simplon region is to be discovered:
The Simplon pass, arriving from Brig, leads to the miraculous alpine plain of Gampisch, which is shared by the canons of the Hospice (which you can visit), a few hotels and ski lifts, a small wind turbine and the statue of a monumental eagle, built by the Swiss army during World War II. The golden eagle directs its gaze towards Italy, the Gondo Gorge being the first line of defence for Switzerland against the threat of fascism. This plain is an ideal place to take meditative walks, and is a bridge between heaven and earth. From here you can reach the foothills of Monte Leone or the Hübschhorn. You can also begin the descent to Simplon-Dorf, via “Engeloch”, which EES surveyed in the 1950s with a view to building a dam.
Coming from the pass, the village of Simplon-Dorf, with its slate roofs, can be found by following the picturesque Stockalperweg, a mule track laid down in the 17th century by the merchant Kaspar Jodok Stockalper who had a monopoly on salt and was known as the King of Simplon. The road was partially replaced by the Napoleon road, then by the national road. In the autumn, the famous Gsotus, a type of stew, is consumed at the restaurant in the square. Opposite the restaurant are the Altes Gasthaus, which houses the municipality offices and the Ecomuseum Simplon, which tells the story of the journey of Géo Chavez who, in 1910 at the age of 23, became the first pilot to cross the Alps flying a Blériot XI. Leaving Brig for Milan, he would pay for this trip with his life. As for the Simplon dairy, it produces one of the strongest raclette cheeses in the canton of Valais. Until a few years ago, milk from the Alpjen mountain pasture was transported by milking pipelines located right next to the penstock of the Gabi power station.
The Gondoschlucht gorge, courageously crossed in the Middle Ages by Brig merchants, peddlers, not to mention smugglers and other Piedmontese thieves, was carved out by the Chrummbach river and the Doveria (Diveria on the Italian side). The name evokes the winding character of the river in both German and Italian. Parts of the Stockalperweg are still visible and passable today. Fort Gondo, an infantry fortress, can be visited and tells the story of the military presence at Simplon during the two world wars.
The village of Gondo, located at the bottom of a narrow gorge, was built around the Stockalper Tower. Following a landslide in 2000, the media reported that the village had been completely abandoned. But Gondonesers have great tenacity. Very few people live there year-round, but the municipality of Zwischbergen is examining all of the options to revitalise the region. The Stockalper Tower is open to visitors and houses a hotel as well as a small museum about the gold mines of Zwischbergen. A via ferrata is accessible from Gabi (hamlet upstream of Gondo). Downstream, the Gondo power station also welcomes visitors.
The Zwischbergental experienced its gold rush at the end of the 19th century and was where the Helvetian gold mining company was based (at that time a horse-drawn carriage linked Gondo to... Paris). It is said that the vein of gold, which had already been mined by the Romans, was richer than the best mines in South Africa, but that it was exhausted due to industrial-scale extraction; there were up to 500 workers on site! Today, the mines are open to visitors for guided tours, where the tour guide will happily inform visitors that some of the passageways still contain gold. It is clear that water and hydroelectricity are currently the most valuable raw materials in the region. Up the valley along the Grosseswasser is the Sera dam (the last arch dam built in Switzerland and still in service). Here, there are many walks you can take towards the Waira mountain pasture and the Tschawinersee. You can also reach Fah and its dam, with its alluvial plain of great ecological diversity (native Raetzer's Ringlet butterfly). From here you can reach the Saas Valley via the Zwischbergen Pass.”