I am still reeling from the most incredible day at the Fest Inalpe Tortin 2012 in the beautiful Nendaz Valley in Canton Valais. The day dawned crisp and sunny and promised to be energetic and intense. It was all that and more!
An “Inalpe” is the time of year when cows are moved to their summer homes in the alpine pastures where they live a dream: surrounded by soaring mountains and dining on lush spring grasses.
A “Fest Inalpe” is a day of celebration where visitors can enjoy regional food, music and the star attraction: the Race d’Hérens who battle for the title of “queen” for the day before heading up to their summer homes.
The “Race d’Hérens” originate from the Val d’Hérens and are well adapted to high alpine terrain. They are built sturdy with short legs and can climb to 3000 meters in altitude and have a cranium uniquely built for locking their horns — repeatedly!
The Hérens are a naturally assertive and competitive breed. In early Spring, when they first come together or when they meet again after a period of absence, they are naturally disposed to establish a hierarchy in the the herd. They challenge one another with a perverse level of aggressiveness until one of the combatants concedes and turns away.
It is important to note that the behavior of the Hérens is innate. They are not coerced into fighting nor are they bred to fight. It is this natural disposition that gave birth to the “Combat de Reines” , an annual event in Valais which attracts thousands of spectators throughout the season.
I sprung out of bed at the crack of dawn enthralled with the opportunity to go to the Fest Inalpe in Tortin and see the Hérens up close. For years I had heard about these amazing animals and their natural penchant for locking horns, but I never had the chance to be a spectator to their prowess in person.
A gorgeous drive from Lavaux to Sion and up to Tortin, the sun shining in a sky dotted with puffs of clouds, promised a magical day. We arrived early enough to get a good place to park in Siviez and hiked the 15 minutes up to the pasture, the site of the days events. (Shuttle busses are available to/from Haute-Nendaz and Siviez ).
Cresting the hill, we were greeted by food and drink tents, music, and folks milling about clearly eager for the days events to begin. With an hour before the start of the morning competition, we by-passed the tents and staked out a place on the rocks around the “arena” – a large meadow enclosed by wood and rock barriers. We prepared the camera gear and waited … and then the sound of bells.
The arrival of the herds of Hérens porting massive leather collars with bells clanging incongruously turned the very large meadow into something that seemed a bit too small given the size of the animals and my proximity to them. If they stood still, I could have used their head or back as a nice foot stool. Hmpf — too close maybe?
The start of the event was rather banal. The herders left the meadow and the cows … grazed! A few herders stayed behind to manage the competition. Once the cows engage, their job is to prevent others from interrupting the fight. This can be dangerous work especially when trying to turn the trajectory of a 700+kg cow that has momentum. However, a benign tap of a stick or a wave of the arms divert most animals with no harm to human or beast. The cows are not interested in turning their aggression on people, but if you get caught in their path, accidents can happen. There are medical teams and veterinarians on site, but it’s infrequent that injuries occur which warrant intervention.
Before too long and far from my perch, a few animals begun to show some spunk. They seemed to wake to the realization that they were among strangers, cows from other herds, and the challenges began in earnest. It quickly became difficult to know where to point the cameras!
We came to understand, in short order, that our seats were in the “hot-spot”. The action became heavy and intense right in front of us and directly at our feet! We saw spittle fly, mud splash and eyes rolls. The muscles of these animals trembled with the force of their determination echoed by their grunts and snuffles. There were moments I forgot I was there to photograph the event and would then raise my camera and point it aimlessly … so much was happening it was impossible to miss a shot. Managing the wide angle and my partner the zoom, the day in photos says more than words.
As the morning rolled on, the fatigue was visible even, and perhaps especially, with the cows already head of their own herds (denoted by the orange numbers on their flanks). Long grey tongues lolled from open mouths, sweat and mud caked bodies and heads, blood from superficial scrapes smeared horns and dripped from noses. What are these girls thinking?!
It soon became evident to my partner and I and others on our perch exactly what they thought. A beautiful white speckled lady came to stand under our feet . She had a long shallow cut on her muzzle and complete disinterest in the others nearby. We had the impression she was done for the day. As mentioned, the animals are not forced to fight and can stand around and graze or even … leave ?!
Our speckled darling seemed content to stand at our feet and gaze up at us from time to time. She eventually acquired that look that dog owners, like myself, know too well: “I want to cuddle … in your lap”! This look from a 30kg+ pup is already something, but from a 700kg Hérens? Within seconds, she had her head and neck stretched up to our knees and her next move was clear. I was off my rock in a heartbeat. As she slowly let her chest follow her neck, I was tripping over backward with camera gear and my partner was diverting her trajectory with his feet. She kindly avoided stepping on me, or anyone else for that matter, and made her way calmly through the crowd of spectators to take up residence in the meadow behind us. She remained there the rest of the morning where kids and others would go to pet her. She probably was never happier.
If you attend a Fest Inalpe without a fully fortified arena, don’t allow yourself to be surprised if one of the participants decides to make for the proverbial highway. A couple more attempts were made in the same spot, by a queen too, but was held in check by two herders when it was clear our perch was the preferred EXIT point. Other than a bruise the length of my thigh, no one was hurt. It is NOT my intention to dissuade you from attending a Fest Inalpe! Quite the contrary, I encourage you to go! I plan to go again myself. Nevertheless, I would be remiss in my report if I did not mention such events can happen. As was evident by the two attempts which followed, the animals give plenty of indication of their intention. From my spot a little bit higher on the hill, it was almost laughable the “expressions” on their faces: “ I want to leave now and you are in my way! ”
At the close of the morning session, I took note that my heart was racing from the excitement. Savory smells wafted through the air alerting me to my own hunger. A group of musicians playing Swiss Horns had taken up residence in the meadow framed by snow capped mountains. Exhausted Hérens drank their fill from a rushing river. Spectators milled about, lined up to eat or found a spot to picnic. It was a truly surreal atmosphere if not a postcard perfect image.
I can’t say enough about the ambiance of the Fest Inalpe Tortin 2012. It was heart pumping: the single mindedness of the Hérens, the beautiful surroundings , the smorgasbord of food and drinks; the general conviviality. I am not even sure the organizers could have asked for a more successful event!
Félicitations Nendaz ! C’était une très belle journée ! Merci !!
NB: All photos have been taken by Michele Petrello Etter or Jean-Claude Etter and are the property of l’eXposé.ch. Use of these photos require proper reference to source (l’eXposé.ch) and photographer.
A little taste of the intensity of the combat to further entice you!