Watery Lifelines in the Alps: Hiking the Irrigation Channels

July 13, 2022

Join us in exploring the fascinating world of 'les bisses', a Swiss treasure in the Valais mountains. Hiking boots and curiosity for history required.

Les bisses are true engineering marvels; systems of irrigation channels built to transport melting glacier water in the high mountains. For centuries they boosted productivity in Valais, but today they serve as perfect excursions during hot summer days. Walking beside water flowing calmly along gently sloping paths, with breathtaking views, is a must for this summer.

The Swiss have a particular knack for constructing stuff in the mountains. Record-breaking railway tunnels, imposing bridges, massive dams, and the lesser-known masterpiece, les bisses; complex water management systems where Valaisanne farmers channeled melting glacier water for their fields far below the water sources.

bridge hiking irrigation

In the middle ages, water was scarce, and les bisses took a central role in developing agriculture and allowing the villages to prosper. Hence, les bisses are an important cultural symbol for Switzerland, proven with an honor nonetheless than having the Grand Bisse d´Ayent depicted on the 100 Swiss franc bill.

To experience a bisse firsthand, I took a trip to the Torrent Neuf in Savièse, a location old as dirt, first built in 1430 when knights in shining armor roamed the valley and princesses leaned from balconies in the Sion castle. Beautiful terraced vineyards and apricot farms still lie below, just like they would have been 700 years ago.

For this tour I am accompanied by a true local expert, the Valaisanne mountaineer and certified mountain leader, Noemie Evequoz. She will guide me through the walk, and as a biologist, she will elaborate on the rich flora and fauna along the path.

irrigation hike

The walk turns exciting when we pass the corner towards the stunning mountains to the north of us. The view also reveals that this side of the mountain looks way too steep to accommodate any footpath. Alas, the path narrows, and the engineering wonders become evident. A shaky hang bridge, a gnarly tunnel, and overall exposure to the cliffs make us relive the challenges the inhabitants here faced to access fresh water.

Taking a bisse walk is well worth the adventure out to any of the multiple bisses that are spread around Valais. Guaranteed to take your breath away, it’s an experience that highlights the marvels that occur when humanity and nature work together.

Find all info including all the hikes with all the bisses in Valais here.

Get geeky about bisses at the museum in Ayent. As a bonus, you can now catch the temporary exhibition on the concept of collective governance of common resources.

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