The Last Man in the Last Valley of Switzerland

Jul 22 · 14 min read
Sepp at Rossbodustaful
Simplon and Zwischbergental in 1867. Click on the map for more detail

Köbi is the last man left, in one of Switzerland’s most isolated valleys. So isolated he cannot walk out of his house when it snows heavily, because of the incessant avalanches. So isolated he buys hundreds of kilos of provisions every October to last him the entire winter. So isolated he can’t drive down to sell his own cow’s milk. So isolated the municipality doesn’t bother to clear the road off snow once half a meter has fallen. That’s the limit. Once you cross that number you’re just waiting for an avalanche.

From Furggu, on the other side of Zwischbergental, looking over the Gondoschlucht

And that road. So steep and so narrow.. “even the Jeeps drive right off the turns,” Köbi tells me. “And if you venture out alone, and are taken off the edge by an avalanche.. who will even know?” So isolated everyone who once lived in the valley has left. Leaving behind Köbi.

To survive here, his father told him, you must have everything you need within arm’s reach. Anything further is too far away. And you’d probably die on the way to it. So Köbi stays home. His cheese cauldron is in the next building. His barn is across the road. Even the school he went to is framed through his kitchen window. Life here is measured in meters. Snow in millimeters. And avalanches? Some measured in ‘snow dust.’ Enough to blow you away. And then there’s just emptiness, stuck between mountains, stuck between countries, stuck with Köbi.

Köbi and a summer neighbor

Welcome to Zwischbergental, the valley stuck between two countries, mostly cut off from both. Neither would miss it. So remote it wasn’t even worth a name, just a description. Where ‘Zwischen’ means in-between, ‘Berge’ are mountains, and ‘Tal’ is a valley.

Zwishbergental. Click on map for full version

It is part of Switzerland, but like everything east of the Simplon pass, it is oriented towards Italy. The people of Simplon and the rest of the settlements around have always been on the wrong side of the pass, and have historically looked to Italy for work and food. The Simpilers were cut off from both sides each winter — almost half a year — till the Seventies. And so they developed their own dialect of Swiss German, and their own identity. And everyone always spoke Italian too. And when they speak of going over the pass to a Swiss town, they talk of going ‘to Switzerland,’ as if it were another country.

Just as everyone did, Köbi goes to Italy in October, to shop for the coming months. He returns with 100kg of pasta, 40kg of rice, 50kg of polenta. He used to make bread himself, but he buys that now, and freezes it. And so Köbi is ready to survive yet another winter.. not moving a step when it snows more than half a meter.

Köbi’s family, starting from his grandfather Johann, who first got here in 1904

And Italy is everywhere. It is at the bottom of that road, down which the avalanches tumble. It is the ridge above Köbi, the tops of the mountains that form the eastern border of Zwischbergental. It is where Köbi’s ancestors came from, their photos pinned to his wood wall in the inner room, between the old stone oven and the pope. It is where Johann Squaratti was born, on January 15, 1875.

Johann came from Bergamo (and perhaps Brescia before that), more than 200km away in Italy. He was a shepherd, and he crossed the border and climbed up into the first valley in 1904, to the spot called Bällega, where his grandson Köbi now talks to me.

It was only a summer alp in those days, and the two or three hundred sheep went back down to Gondo in the winter. Zwischbergental hosted around 120 people in those days. Johann didn't have a lot of money, but it was still better for him to stay here. It was even poorer in Italy. Even one of the most remote valleys of Switzerland was better than that.

It was the Italians who first settled Zwischbergental, but then came the plague, and they didn't come any more. And the Swiss bought the farms after that.

“I used to be a rose,” insists Köbi, half joking, half pleading, half singing to his audience of no one in the dead-end valley... “but now I’m only a thorn.”

Köbi went through women as quickly as the avalanches that keep cutting him off from the rest of the world. When he was young, he’d have three or four girlfriends at a time. But living in one of the most remote valleys in Switzerland comes with many problems. “No woman wants to stay here. Maybe a month or two. And then: Tschüss!” Or maybe it was just him.

And his first love: he was 16, and Melanie Horst was 14. She’d come for a summer holiday in the school house, down the road from him. She had hair between red and blonde.. “like chestnut…”

And things were never quite the same after she’d left. Köbi kept a book (“like a farmer’s herd-book” says Nino, his apprentice) in which he’d keep a record of the women he had been with. He’s lost the book over the years, and the women too.

What sort of women does Köbi like? “The kind that doesn’t hang around till evening!” And so Köbi loved and was loved, but in a place like this, with a man like him.. everyone knew how things would turn out. How everything must here: disappearing at the end of the day, by the end of the summer. In the end, there is only darkness, and cold, and the certainty of the next avalanche.

Köbi in his living room
Oswald Jordan, making the Tschifru, the traditional basket-like backpack, out of hazelnut branches

Oswald grew up in Zwischbergental too, back in the days when there were people there. Like everyone else, Oswald left decades ago, and lives up-valley in Simplon, making the backpack-like baskets called Tschiffru out of hazelnut branches. In those days, there were eight farmers and their families in Zwishbergental, and Oswald had eight siblings. All eight would squeeze into the kitchen in their two-room hut at Chatzhalte, and sleep there. It was so cold that Oswald used the cats as hot water bottles.

He had a dog too, called Pummer, which meant someone who was a bit thick. It was an Appenzeller-Berner Sennenhund mix. But not many things were so thick. It was a very tough life.

Bello, Köbi’s dog

Oswald walked an hour down the mountainside to school each day, and an hour and a half back up. He would start walking at seven in the morning. A lunch of Knorr soup was cooked by the children, and they rotated cooking duties every week. Seventeen children from Zwischbergental went to the school at Bällegga, where Köbi now lives.

Sunday mass was at the church in Gondo, the town below, which Zwischbergental emptied into. Gondo is where Switzerland meets Italy. And Oswald had to hike two hours to it to attend mass. He wasn’t allowed to eat anything three hours before communion. And after it was over, he’d have to hike all the way back, up that vertical road, into Zwischbergental. It would be lunchtime when he would arrive home, and have his first meal of the day.

Oswald had to be there at 7.30 in the morning for Beichte, or confession. Every schoolchild had to attend it every two weeks. Then there was communion from 8–9am. Then came Mass, which lasted an hour and twenty minutes. By the time he hiked back home it was almost one o’clock. And that’s when he’d have his first meal of the Sunday.

What was once the school, at Bällegga in Zwischbergental

Food was a constant struggle. There was so little they had, and so little that grew high up in these valleys, where half the year was lost to winter.

A typical family in Zwishbergental would have up to 25 sheep, ten goats, one or two bulls, five cows and three calves. If it was a bad year with lots of snow, there would be less to eat, and they’d sell an animal. Each year, Oswald’s family would butcher one cow, three pigs, and perhaps six goats or sheep.

Without refrigeration, they had to dry the meat. And, it would hang there, in the kitchen by the cauldron, getting harder as the year went by. The meat was so hard at the end they had to boil it to eat it. And this preparation of meat and water was ‘Gsottus.’

A daily menu was bread, butter and cheese for breakfast. There were always potatoes for lunch and dinner, and in addition they’d have polenta, vellota or risotto. Vellota is so specific to this area that most Swiss would never have heard of it. Indeed, it is so poor they used it to fatten their pigs before the slaughter. Oswald hasn't eaten it in decades, and keeps apologizing as his wife cooks it for me at my insistance. “It’s not a feast!”

Heat milk, add salt, stir. Add maize, and keep stirring a few minutes longer and you’ve made vellota: a thick, heavy, unappealing yellowish mass that will never impress anyone. It’s quick, easy, dirt cheap, and filling. We had it with Ziger, Apfelmuss and cream. Oswald drowned his in milk.

When cervelat made its appearance decades later, it made for a feast. And they’d have it on Sundays with milk and rice. In future, other wonders would become available, including confiture, ravioli and tomato purée.. but when Oswald was a child these were unheard of. Cervelat was such a favorite that Oswald would sleep at Simplon village, and go to the Sunday market that would open at five in the morning, and buy up to ten of them.

Butter was washed in a cold water bath repeatedly, and then drowned in cold water again, in a cellar, for up to three hours. This process removed as much of buttermilk as possible, to preserve the butter longer. It was tended to for a week, constantly shaped into a ball. They called this the Aichoballa.

“We ate everything from the animal, right till the ends of the ears. We had fresh meat only three times a year. The rest of the animal was turned into sausage. But towards the end of the year even the sausages were yellow.”

They boiled everything, in fact. Leek, cabbages and potatoes. And ‘Molerofe,’ the white carrot-like root vegetable that Oswald liked fried like chips. They would take the white of the mangold, cut it into pieces, and put it into bottles. One had to squeeze every piece through the neck of the bottle, and conserve it in water. This was ‘Chrutstil.’ Their salad was Löwenzahl, and they gathered wild spinach. And the Tannezapfe, from the pine tree, gave them a honey-like sap.

They would smoke their Ziger, a kind of cheese, to preserve it. But as it lay aging and hardening near the fire, it would turn gray with time. You had to scrape the ash-like layer off, but the color meant that the cheese underneath was getting better.

There were never any cereals that could grow here. But there were a lot of berries, sprinkled over the landscape. “My grandmother was constantly picking blueberries in the summer, even when she was doing other things. She sent them to Switzerland to earn a bit of money. We were poor, and my father was away in the military.”

Everything they could buy came from Italy. Once the snow cleared, they’d go shopping in the Spring over the border. And return with 100kg of polenta, 100kg of rice, 600kg of sugar, and pasta, which was a luxury. And dried herring for Lent. “Pasta has no date: we could eat it 20 years later!” They brought back up to 12kg of bread when they went to Gondo every Sunday. And when the bread was over they ate Rösti for breakfast.

And drinking? There was never any schnapps made here, since there was no fruit to make it from. “There were once two apple trees in Simplon.. but they died.” Grappa from Italy was a better bet. And, as Oswald points out, “schnapps was medicine.”

Everyone above the age of 16 was allowed one Bombone of wine, which held 50 liters, per year. A bottle was called a Fiasca in Italian, and it held two liters.

But wine wasn’t ever drunk at the table. “It was a big gift!” It was, instead, drunk while working the hay, for strength. “And courage!” A man might sip three deciliters in a day while working. And, to fortify it, a raw egg was added to a half-liter of wine. Some put sugar in it.

Alp Vaira, Köbi’s summer alp

On moonlit nights, they worked to put the cow dung, the Mist, on the fields to fertilize them. They always helped the other families, and each one was assigned a night of ‘Bootrage,’ where the Boo was the Mist.

They couldn’t grow much, but wild herbs were everywhere. Like Arnica, Mutrina, Fraumanteli, Silbermanteli, Bennedictuskraut, Augentrost, Alpenroseblute. They would pack them in sacks and sell them to a factory in St Gallen that would make them into medicine and tea.

Whatever little money they could earn through farming would dry up after the summer. So they became cigarette smugglers in winter.

Tobacco was cheaper in Switzerland. So they’d fill sacks called Briccola with 10,000 cigarettes, and hike hours through the snow over passes like Moncera, into Italy, in the dark, constantly on the lookout for the guards. “We would set off without a light, without even a lit cigarette…” Oswald would get a thousand Lira for his sack, or 7.20 Swiss francs. Plus a packet of cigarettes.

Everyone was a smuggler. They were the Schmuggler, and they had their Schmugglerweg, the ways and paths of the smugglers. Köbi talks of those days, when they would wear a white cap to signal to the others on the mountain that everything was clear. But if someone would spot a guard he’d change into a red cap, and everyone all over the valley would know immediately.

“When we were children,” says Roswitha, “the snow would be up to two meters high. You’d go outside and just disappear into it.. and the wind.. our parents had to drag us up the road because we couldn’t fight it!"

That raw, savage mix of wind and snow is something very typical of Simplon, and it can bury entire buildings. People have got swallowed alive. This mix, this thing, is called the Guxa. And it is as famous here as it is notorious.

“The Guxa can blow continuously for two weeks. And people get stone hard.”

Indeed, Simplon in the winter can look like a badly-made science fiction movie. It looks like a place that shouldn’t ever have been settled by humans.

Only the Walsers could have dreamed of living here. That ancient tribe with whom the entire Swiss canton of Wallis, or Valais if you’re French speaking, shares a name. They were masters of high altitude farming, and cultivated the slopes of these alps up to 1,700m high. They went where no one else wanted to be, and were given special rights by the nobility.

In the 12th century, the Walsers set off on a great migration, and would eventually settle on the alps in Italy, Austria, France and Liechtenstein. And on their way out, they crossed the pass and founded the village of Simplon. The oldest timber building in Switzerland still stands here today on Chritzgasse, built by the Walsers around the years 1199–1200. The Walsers didn’t use saws, but axes on logs, and the 40cm-thick walls have withstood everything the Guxa could thrown at them for the past 800 years.

Simplon village is densely packed with massive buildings, each with walls up to a meter in thickness, to keep away the cold. Most were built when Simplon experienced a boom. After the industrial revolution, British tourists flowed through the Simplon pass on their way to the sea and south Europe. And they would break their journey at Simplon, at hotels like the one that Roswitha’s family set up, and which she now runs.

Those days are long gone. Napoleon marched through, the tourists use a tunnel or just fly, and gold in Zwischbergental has been found and lost. And now Simplon is mostly buildings, still fighting against the Guxa.

Lucas sits on the steps of his home, and what used to be the restaurant of his family, its massive stones first put together in 1679. Steps away from the grave of his daughter, who died last year. Steps away from the road that he had crossed 63 years ago, with his brother Peter, who was five. Steps away from Peter, who was hit by the car, and taken to the Hotel Post, where they had laid him down on the floor. And steps away from me, as we freeze in the sun.

The restaurant, the Weisses Kreuz, or white cross, comes from his mother’s side of the family. She had seven aunts and all of them had restaurants, spread over Sion, Sierre, Domodossola, Goppenstein and St Gingol. They had worked in Cairo and Nice in the days of the British empire, and came back and built this house 150 years ago. Lucas grew up on the second floor, above the restaurant. But his father hadn’t wanted to be a barkeeper. So he made five apartments on top, and sold them, and the restaurant shut down in 1958.

Lucas was born in 1950, the year that Simplon saw 20 babies. Perhaps more than it has seen in a single year. One baby was born here in 2020.

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