Where the Rhine moves mountains

Where the Rhine moves mountains - Ruinaulta

Ruinaulta means „high scree“ in Romansh. Where the turquoise waters of the Anterior Rhine now wind through the white, rocky faces of the imposing Rhine Gorge, an amount of rock and stone equivalent to ten Matterhorns, once dropped simultaneously into the depths. Contura has taken a trip to Switzerland’s „Grand Canyon“.

The trains of the RhB run right next to the trail that starts at the station in Versam-Safien and leads into the Rhine Gorge. For exactly a century, the RhB tracks have run through the gorge, taking travellers from Chur to Disentis – with the Glacier Express continuing on to Zermatt. The passing trains produce a powerful draught, creating a swirl of leaves. Their brightred livery stands in stark contrast to the turquoise-coloured waters of the Anterior Rhine, as it winds through the steep walls of the gorge; its curves dotted with streaks of light-coloured gravel. The sun causes the white limestone to glisten.

A mighty landslide that took place in Flims some 10,000 years ago, after the retreat of the Rhine Glacier, marked the birth of the Rhine Gorge. It is probable that more than 10,000 million cubic metres of rock broke off simultaneously, between the mountains of Flimserstein and Piz Grisch, burying what was then the river valley of the Anterior Rhine. The Flims rockfall was the biggest-ever Alpine landslide, with a volume equivalent to about ten Matterhorns.

Home to rare birds and orchids
Blocked by the landslide, the waters of the Anterior Rhine became trapped, and Lake Ilanz was formed. The name survives in the present town of Ilanz, which stands on the old lake-bed. About a thousand years later, the river finally bored its way through the lake’s natural dam. The water did not flow out completely, but the level of the lake dropped. Over the centuries, the river continued to slice through the fallen rock, and the lake disappeared. It left behind a natural paradise: the Rhine Gorge. The winding Anterior Rhine flows for 76 kilometres from its source, Lake Toma on the Oberalp Pass, through Ruinaulta and onwards to Reichenau, where it joins the Posterior Rhine. The rocky walls, which are up to 350 metres high, contain various caves carved out by the water. This mountain paradise is criss-crossed by a network of hiking trails, complete with various observation platforms and barbecue areas. Four sections of the Anterior Rhine’s riverside are nature reserves, on account of being important breeding grounds for rare birds such as the ringed plover and sandpiper. The extensive evergreen forests on the slopes of the gorge are home to many types of orchid, such as the rare lady’s slipper.

The rocks are still falling
Ruinaulta is the name given to the Rhine Gorge in the Romansh language. It is a combination of the words „ruina“ (meaning scree or quarry) and „aulta“ (high). Its name suits the geology of the Rhine Gorge. But the rocks are not as uniform as they might first appear. After the great landslide, the rocks broke into innumerable fragments, which covered the valley in scree and which now constitute a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle’s pieces are held together by lime, which was originally dissolved in the water flowing through the debris. It then precipitated over the centuries, to form what geologists call calcareous sinter. The resulting mass is not as stable as solid rock however. You can use just your hands to pull a couple of fragments out of the rocky ground beside the path. Given the irregular firmness of these rocks, anyone thinking of building here has to be extremely cautious. The reason for this is that the different levels of rock dating from the time of the great landslide are of varying hardness. The rock formations on any proposed building site therefore need to be checked carefully, well before the bulldozers move in. When analysing the quality of the rocks, the geologists in charge always pore physically over the area again and again, measuring cracks in the stones, making calculations and creating computer simulations of the results of possible rockfalls and landslides. The Rhaetian Railway naturally engages a team of such experts for its track-building projects. Minor landslides are a common occurrence, especially in spring or late autumn. This is when water gets into the cracks and gaps in the rock. When the water freezes, it expands, causing chunks of rock to break off. This is precisely what happened to the RhB rail network. A major landslide near Valendas in 2007 left rocks on the tracks. The protective gallery was then extended at this point, to stop the line being blocked by fallen debris.

The „flight“ of the swift
Passing by Chrummwag, a sharp bend in the Anterior Rhine, the trail runs over a bridge and on towards Conn. The path leads through a forest consisting largely of pines. Most of them are missing their tops. This is due to the snow. When the mantle of fallen snow becomes too heavy, the tops of the pines break off, and the trees continue to grow without them. The observation platform in Conn, called „il spir“ (the local name for „the swift“), offers – as its name implies – fine bird’s eye views of Ruinaulta. The platform protrudes 12.5 metres out over the abyss, looking like a swift spreading its wings as it prepares to take off. The Anterior Rhine is 400 metres below. The way from Conn to Flims offers further evidence of that ancient landslide: lakes Cauma and Cresta. In summer, they tempt you in for a refreshing swim. Those who wish to carry on at this point can continue their tour along one of the area’s many hiking trails, such as the one to Ilanz. And if your legs are starting to tire, there is a bus to take gorge hikers’ back into the valley from Flims.