food / travel

A Strange, Steep Journey Into The Heart Of A Swiss Mountain

A four-kilometer underground road leads to the Salanfe dam, in the Swiss Valais canton. Making this uncommon installation work is a constant struggle. And for the passengers, the journey through the dark and freezing tunnels is a long way from your local

Aboard the funicular that goes from the Miéville power plant to the Salanfe dam
Aboard the funicular that goes from the Miéville power plant to the Salanfe dam
Sylvain Besson

MIEVILLE — The Swiss citizen is more than a hard-working, pragmatic and materialistic homo economicus. His second personality, lauded by the national mythology, is that of an Alpine explorer, looking up to the sky and mountain summits — almost mystical. But that second persona also has a darker side: the tunnel and bunker digger, the burrowing gnome, hiding his treasures in the depths of the earth.

An ideal place to explore this underground aspect of the Swiss spirit is in Miéville, in the west of Switzerland. The power of the mountain is breathtaking. In 2011, huge rocks broke away from the cliff and almost crushed the power plant on the edge of the village. The office of an engineer was destroyed — luckily, he wasn't working. The rust-colored boulders are still there today, though it is not recommended to hang around outside the plant.

Here, at the foot of the steep Mount Salantin, is the departure point of what may be the most unusual installations of the Alps: an almost five-kilometer-long underground funicular railway that goes from the Miéville power plant to the Salanfe dam, 1,473 meters higher. Dug with dynamite for almost two years, between 1947 and 1949, the tunnel made it possible to transport the necessary material and cement for the construction of the dam.

The funicular is now used for the maintenance of the structure during construction jobs. It also supplies the Salanfe restaurant and lake. But just maintaining its proper functioning is a daily struggle for the employees of Hydro Exploitation, the caretakers of the dam, which is 100% owned by the electric utility company Alpiq. At almost 70 years old, the funicular is capricious, delicate, sensitive — as if it had a soul.

6,000 steps

Entering the first cavern, a torrent of sensations marks the passage into the underground world: icy draughts, the smell of cave, the racket of spring water flowing inside the tunnel.

On its first section, the funicular climbs 1,000 meters on a 94.6% (43.3°) slope, one of the steepest in the world. The carriages pulled by a plaited steel cable are quite rustic, made up of basic planks and bare iron. Each ride to the dam lasts an hour, at least, with three transfers in transitional cave arranged into stations.

Some distance from the start, a flower drawn with a black pen, in a recess, is the only visible tribute to the workers who dug the tunnel. They advanced two meters by two, with miners' bars and explosives. The rock debris was evacuated through windows that give onto the cliff side, in the wild forest.

Until 1994, each morning employees had to climb the 6,000 steps to reach the start of the funicular. Communication between the top and the bottom of the tunnel was done with hard strikes against the cable, to give the departure signal. This primitive system has since been replaced. The funicular is now automatically guided by magnets placed along the way, detecting the passing through of the wagons. The problem, the employees of Hydo Exploitation explain, is that a storm is enough to disrupt the magnets and stop the train.

Right before the dam, in the third and last section, our funicular suddenly stops with a piercing screech. The wagon itself doesn't have any breaks: only the cable is holding it. We would later learn that the stop was triggered in the station above, and that a bolt broke around the hoist. We were stuck.

Hypnotic effect

To set off again, we have to go back down 400 meters into the tunnel, hurtling down some 2,200 slippery steps in 20 minutes. The effect of advancing into the tunnel is hypnotic: the temperature keeps varying, the steps become jerky and monotonous, one must regularly straighten up as to not lean forward too much towards the slope, which, because of an optical illusion, seems flat.

Voyage dans le funiculaire souterrain de SalanfeLe Temps

But this small trip is nothing. The real ordeal is walking down the first section, two times steeper with its 1,000 meters of difference in height. "When you arrive at the bottom, you don't know how to walk anymore," the train conductor explains.

A few years ago, a group of retirees from Vernayaz wanted to take the funicular for a senior outing. In the first section, the steepest, the funicular stopped. Impossible to make the older folk to walk up or down, most of them wouldn't have had the strength to reach the exit. A rescue party, made up of mountain guides, had to intervene to help them out of the tunnel safely.

The story of the Salanfe funicular, like so many other Swiss dams and mountain constructions, is marked by achievements that most people have never heard of. Who remembers that, in the 1980s, they had to drag a 300-kilogram pump on their skis, on the dam's frozen lake, to restart the water conveyance supplying the reservoir? Or that in spring, the pumping station, had to be cleared by tearing a hole in the snow with aronite, an industrial explosive?

Today, an insidious threat is hanging over this hydraulic saga. Like all the great Swiss dams, Salanfe is on the road to ruin. Whose fault is it? The German solar and coal energies, which brought the prices of European electricity down.

Later this year, Switzerland's parliament will be called on to vote for or against more funding to keep the "great hydraulic" going. For this alpine nation's dams and their operators, it will be a good test to see if that old Swiss burrowing gnome superego lives on in our elected representatives.

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