7 August – Day 1. Chamonix to Trient
"It rains in the Alps?!
It’s fair to say the forecast was a bit marginal for our first day with rain expected from about 11:00 am. As we waited in Chamonix for the bus which would take us to Montroc and the start, I said, “It’ll be fine”…and the rain started! (I really should learn to keep my mouth shut.)
For the rest of the day, the weather played with us, easing and then coming back with more rain. Such was my confidence that it would be a passing shower, I never put on waterproof trousers and by the time I thought about it, my shorts were truly soaked, so there was no longer any point!
Given that the view from Aiguilette des Posettes would be non-existent due to the clouds and the fact that we’d heard thunder, Alex decided to guide us by a lower route. Disappointing as this might be, it did mean we were able to get warm drinks at Chalet de Balme, and – crucially – warm up and dry off a bit!
From there we decided to take the most direct route for Trient; there seemed little point in just getting wet for the sheer hell of it and there was by now no let-up in the weather. So, we trudged on. I have to say, though, despite being very “mouillé” (‘wet’ – at least I was learning a bit more French vocabulary), it was nice to get walking and to get to know everyone; and, though the mountains were generally wreathed in cloud, there were a few views to admire.
We crossed Col de Balme and entered Switzerland before starting a long, gentle descent into the Trient valley and our accommodation for the night which we reached in record-breaking time and a complete downpour.
Although the accommodation is basic (there are only two choices in Trient, both Auberges), the place was more than acceptable and I had a room to myself in which I could dry off my kit! Happy days!"
8 August – Day 2. Trient to Champex-Lac.
Through the Window
"We awoke to blue skies!
After a breakfast which was somewhat better (and less of a ‘bunfight’) than I’d expected, we set off in good time…for about 15 minutes…and then waited while one of our number (no names ;0) ran back to get her phone from the Auberge!
Well, it was a nice rest and we then continued a slow ascent. To my great joy there was a café en route where we stopped for coffee or hot chocolate, as appropriate; some of the team even had blueberry tart (I’m still regretting not having had any!)
It’s a stiff climb up to the Fenetre d’Arpette, but the views along the way were simply wonderful as we virtually paralleled the Trient Glacier across the valley; Alex did observe on how the glacier had shrunk over her years of walking the route – it’s a worrying sign of global warming.
Lunch at the col was followed by the promised ‘challenging’ descent from the ‘Fenetre’, initially very steep and then requiring us to make our way over (through and around) a significant boulder field. However, we helped each other down and made it safely. Well, most of us did; to my utter shame, I was the only one who managed to fall.
Eventually, though, we descended to the pastures and streams of the Val d’Arpette, very peaceful indeed, before we made our way through Arpette and on into Champex-Lac and our hotel….and a couple of well-earned beers (other beverages are available.)"
9 August – Day 3. Champex-Lac to Cabane du Mont Fort.
The First Mountain Refuge
"We again started out in good time, at 8:00 am, with a great breakfast to fortify us and a visit to the Champex Lac supermarket for any vital supplies.
As we were facing two nights in Mountain Refuges we were carrying slightly more gear for the overnight stops.
We walked past a very calm Lac de Champex. Remarkably, we started with a long descent (this is not normal on the Haute Route, I can assure you) as we worked our way down into the Val d’Entremont. We also left the Tour de Mont Blanc route (the two treks overlap as far as Champex) so the paths were noticeably quieter which was nice.
Once in the valley, we headed through Sembrancher and around to Chable. From here, we took the cable car – joy of joys – up to Les Ruinettes which is part of the Verbier ski area (my wife and I actually skied in Verbier some years ago, though without all the snow it was hard to recognise much). The cable car gained us about 1300 metres (imagine having to climb that?) and we had lunch (and an ice cream for yours truly) with glorious views across to the mountains.
After lunch, we had a fairly straight forward trek around the flanks of Mont Gelé before a short climb up to Cabane du Mont Fort which sits proudly on its own little hill below Col des Roux (tomorrow’s first target.) As promised, the Cabane was comfortable, the beer more than acceptable, the food was wholesome, and once we’d moved our team snorer out to another dormitory (otherwise unoccupied), I believe we all slept reasonably well."
10 August – day 4. Cabane du Mont Fort to Cabane de Prafleuri.
“Valais. Pays de Soleil”
"The forecast was not good for later in the day, so the night before we decided to get an early start (that means breakfast at 6:00am!!) and beat the weather to the Cabane de Prafleuri. However, the weather had other plans and decided to start earlier. It was drizzling when I first stepped out for a look.
As I ate my breakfast, my eyes were caught by a poster opposite, “Valais. Pays de Soleil” (Valais. Land of sun!) Despite that encouraging advertisement, by the time we’d finished breakfast it was raining quite hard and we set off in full waterproofs, taking the steady climb up to Col de la Chaux, before descending down the other side and then climbing up to Col de Louvie.
The rain came and went, but it was a dull day and the terrain was very different; we’d lost the ‘prettiness’ and were faced with grey rock and boulders. It was still spectacular, just in a very different way when compared to the other days so far. From Col de Louvie, we descended (again) into a broad glacial valley below the Grand Désert Glacier, a quite foreboding place and rather bleak, looking like the surface of the moon. Apart from the plentiful supply of water ‘Grand Désert’ seems to sum it up nicely.
The water….yes, the plentiful water. The route has been changed slightly across the Désert, consequently now entailing a river crossing. I didn’t take any photos; I was too busy concentrating on crossing without getting a dunking. The river was running fast and deep enough, and let’s just say some members of the group ended up with wetter feet than others. Alex does get first prize, however, standing up to her ankles in what must have been freezing glacial outflow to help those who were less steady between the various rocks (do not think stepping stones here – this was very much a ‘find your own way’ across route; hiking poles were definitely your friend here.) Anyway, we all survived relatively unscathed and got to the lunch spot on the other side of the valley with a chance to dry feet a little.
From lunch, we continued the climb (yup, another one) up to Col de Prafleuri (at 2987m, the highest point of the day and, indeed, of the whole Haute Route). We were getting close to the Cabane of the same name (and our beds for the night), but there were great surprises in store as we headed down the other side. We left behind the ‘desert’ landscape between the Louvie and Prafleuri cols and encountered a greener vista – we even found some Edeleweiss flowers.
More excitingly (for me, certainly), we came upon a heard of Ibex, just – you know – hanging out, very nonchalantly, and we were able to get pretty close without disturbing them. They are truly a majestic site. And then Cabane de Prafleuri began to emerge from the cloud and, an hour after crossing the col it is named after, we arrived.
It had been another superb day, despite the rain during the first half. Better yet, the sun was out and we could get our gear dried out! And later we were able to watched Chamois clambering around the rocks on the other side of the valley."
11 August – day 5. Cabane de Prafleuri to Arolla
"Cabane de Prafleuri was pretty full, but we were up for an early breakfast (again!) and had the dining room largely to ourselves before we set off for the thirty minute climb from the Cabane to the Col des Roux.
Today’s forecast was much more promising and so it turned out – glorious, clear skies, but not too warm; perfect hiking weather, really. From there our route sank down to Lac des Dix, a largely man-made lake which looked like a big pool of light blue paint, thick with glacial water and – presumably – copper deposits giving it the blue colour.
We then had an easy walk along a good track round to the south end of the lake. Well, it would have been easy, had not a herd of Hérens cattle – a large herd – decided to join us for the journey. They are a Swiss breed and seemed harmless enough, unless you have a phobia of cows as one of our number did! Worse yet, we’d pass them on the road and they would then take a shortcut and catch us up further down the trail! Eventually, they must have got bored of this bovine version of chase and went back to what cows do best – eating – and we were able to continue unmolested.
We climbed up from Lac des Dix then descended to cross the foot of Glacier de Chellon before reaching a large boulder field and the start of the climb to the Pas de Chėvres. For some, this is a bit of a challenge, encompassing a tricky walk along the side of the cliff with a sheer drop to one side, followed by a series of ladders. However, once again, the team pulled really well together and those who found it easier helped those who did not. It was a great effort and we made it to the top for lunch (slab-like sandwiches from the Cabane, just what we needed), feeling suitably proud of ourselves.
From the col, we made our way down towards the Arolla valley, a long, but easy going hike and, perhaps more importantly, we got to Arolla before the rain started, as we’d hoped.
Arolla is the halfway point (in days, at least) and I think as a group we were all into our stride. Certainly, although quite tired at the end of the day, I was feeling fitter and stronger, and any doubts I might have had at the start (and during the first few days) about my fitness had largely subsided. I was thoroughly enjoying myself!"
12 August – day 6. Arolla to La Sage.
A ‘Rest Day’! And that “mouillé” feeling returns.
Alex allowed us a lie-in as the stage to La Sage is relatively short and pretty easy. So, breakfast was timed for 7:30am and we set off at 8:15. Luxury!
There was no rest day on this trek, but at just 7.5 miles with a ‘piffling’ 215metres of ascent, this was really as close as it would get. And it would have been lovely, no doubt…apart from the weather. Mountain forecasting is notoriously difficult of course, but we had hoped to be in La Sage by the time it arrived. It wasn’t to be. I’d awoken in the wee hours to the sound of thunder and as we set off (after a wonderful breakfast), the rain again came early.
By the time we had ascended the trail from Arolla it was time to don waterproofs. We then followed the (now slippery) trail through the woods along the side of the Arolla valley. After about 3 miles we arrived at La Gouille and – joy of joys - a café; coffee and a chance to dry off a bit. Non! “Fermé Lundi” (closed on Monday)! So, we pressed on.
And our morale was again restored when we found an open café further on in Les Haudères – by which time the weather was much improved. From there we worked our way through this lovely Swiss village and began a climb out of the village, when suddenly, “my walking poles!” Remember the group member who’d left their phone in Trient? Yup, this time it was walking poles. So, we giggled and waited…and waited…and Alex went to find the individual who by now was somewhat lost…and then we set off again.
We entered La Sage just over a mile later and found the very lovely Hotel la Sage, with plenty of time to relax…and dry out our gear again!"
13 August – day 7. La Sage to Zinal.
Jelly Baby power (other sweet snacks are available)
"I’ve read about folks hiking the big trails in the USA: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and that sort of thing. Apparently, a lot of it is about psychology: keeping going when you have months of travel in front of you. The Haute Route is not like that, of course, but at the start it seemed quite daunting.
I’ve undertaken ‘long distance paths’ in the UK (the Dales Way, the Oxfordshire Path, for example) but they seemed different (shorter, certainly)…and I was much younger.
However, you get used to the Haute Route: hiking every day soon becomes ‘normal’ and by day 7, I really felt I was into my stride. Every day offered something wonderful to see. Sure, it was hard work at times, but with walking you just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you get there. It’s great. And by now I was starting to think that the end was approaching and – as nice as it would be to see my dogs and my wife (may be that’s the wrong order), I was so thoroughly enjoying walking among such beauty with a great bunch of people, I didn’t really want it to end.
It seemed a shame to leave the hotel at La Sage; it’s a really nice place with superb views. However, onwards we had to go, with another early start and a slow climb up to Col de Torrent. This was to be a BIG day – with over 1700 metres to climb it was by far the most ascent we’d make in any single day.
I think it’s important to emphasise how the geography changes day by day as you wander from valley to valley. Thus, we had left the rocky, ‘desert’ of the previous valleys behind (and the rain, hopefully) and climbed up from the quintessentially Swiss Val d’Hérens, through extensive pasture land.
Despite a lot of low cloud and overcast skies, the views from the Col de Torrent were, again, impressive and they only improved as we descended towards the dammed (not damned) Lac de Moiry which was the brightest blue-green colour.
For reasons which are not really important we made slow progress on the ascent and although the descent was much faster, by the time we reached the Barrage de Moiry we were somewhat behind schedule. Generally, that doesn’t matter, but today if we didn’t get to the top of the cable car in time for its last run down into Zinal we’d be faced with an additional 2-3 hours of walking. With that motivation we pretty much sprinted up the other side of the Val de Moiry to Col de Sorebois!
I had brought Jelly Babies for such a moment as this – when we needed a quick sugar burst - and at the top they were dished out. However, I now understand that some of my fellow hikers don’t like them – but were too polite to say so! (Imagine not liking Jelly Babies?!) Either way, after a less demanding descent into the Zinal valley we thankfully made the cable car in good time and transported our weary limbs (and the rest of us) down to Zinal."
14th August Day 8. Zinal to Gruben.
Into the German ‘zone’
"We had an early start, being on our way by about 7:45 am, to climb out of the Zinal valley through woodland and up onto pastureland from which we had superb views of the mountains above the valley.
Lunch was eaten on the Forcletta pass before starting the descent into the Turtmanntal, the valley within which Gruben nestles, through pastures dotted with wild flowers and fed by mountain streams. In the distance we could see the Weisshorn, standing at the head of the valley. As we descended, we discovered that the original path has been closed – perhaps due to a rock slide – but we found an alternative, zig-zagging down into the Turtmanntal through forest before arriving beside the Turtmänna river.
The ‘umlaut’ in Turtmänna rather gives away the fact that we were now entering the German-speaking area of Switzerland (as opposed to the French-speaking area through which we’d walked so far). My German is far worse than my French (which means it’s disastrous), but – oddly – we were still met by plenty of ‘bonjours’ from passing hikers; may be their German isn’t very good either? Either way, we followed the path along the valley bottom until we arrived in Gruben which has the odd (to us Brits anyway) distinction of being ‘open’ only during the summer; in winter, apparently, the whole population packs up and goes elsewhere, returning after the next spring thaw, presumably."
15 August – day 9. Gruben to Randa.
Keep your sunglasses on your face.
"Thursday! It was quite a shock to realise this was the penultimate day of the trek. The time had really flown by and as we climbed out of the Turtmanntal, through Alpine forest, I didn’t really want it to end. It was a glorious day and as the sun started to open up the valley behind us (it was another early start with a long day ahead), the views were stunning. Although it was sunny, the temperature did not get too high and conditions were pretty much perfect really.
The climb up towards the Augustbordpass was – as ever – reasonably tough going, but – as ever – you get there and, again, the compensation was walking through Alpine pasture with views back across to the mountains; plus, at a ‘mere’ 1100m above Gruben the climb seemed well within our capabilities these days! I reminded myself that, in the Lake District, I considered any hike with more than a thousand metres of ascent to be a ‘big’ day, but out here it had really become the norm.
We had the added bonus of an extensive boulder field to negotiate on the ascent, where we also found a scrambler motorbike – whether it had broken down, or just achieved its purpose of getting the rider most of the way up, I don’t know.
I had gone ahead of the main group (there was a small group way ahead of me as well) when suddenly I thought, “sunglasses”! They certainly weren’t on my face! To lose them would be a bit of a disaster – I must have left them on the col. I turned and started galloping back up, refusing to leave my rucksack as Alex suggested…until, with my lungs fit to burst (running uphill at altitude is clearly not good for me), I relinquished my ‘sack and continued the climb. Fortunately, for some reason, I soon decided to look back and check my rucksack was safely positioned on the slope…and saw my sunglasses glinting from my rucksack waist belt where I’d obviously ‘hooked’ them (for safekeeping!) So, crisis averted, I continued back downhill, with my sunglasses firmly placed where they should be – on my face.
We soon entered another huge boulder field which pretty much continued until we rounded the corner to overlook the Mattertal, the valley in which Randa and Zermatt both sit. We had lunch at the Twära viewpoint, with views towards the Dom (at 4545m the highest mountain completely within Switzerland) sitting over the Hohberg glacier.
From there a relatively gentle descent led us into Jungen, a quintessentially Swiss village perched on the valley side, with the aim to save our legs (and about 800 metres of descent) by taking the cable car. It’s not the speediest form of transport, I guess, taking only four people at a time and running about every 15 minutes, but no one was complaining by this stage (as the rest was very much appreciated) and however slow it might be, it was quicker than the alternative: a 2-3 hour descent by foot. And from St Niklaus we took the train ride to Randa, a little further up the valley."
image: dknzxtjg.jpg width: 400 alt: day 9 beautiful alps valley)
16 August – day 10. Randa to Zermatt.
The Suspension Bridge and the Matterhorn.
"So, it seemed, all too soon the last day arrived. On the plus side, this day would feature some outstanding views and our first glimpses of the Matterhorn. But with 1175 metres of ascent, and about 14 miles of hiking, we were going to have to put in some effort for the grandeur.
We started with a steep climb up through the forests (passing some Valais Black Nose sheep which look a bit like big teddy bears) to the Charles Kuonen suspension bridge. That in itself required a climb of just under 650m and hiking 2.5 miles. At 494 metres long, the bridge is an impressive structure which stands 85 metres above the valley it crosses; it took us each about 7 minutes to cross and no one was hanging around! The views were fantastic.
And the views remained fantastic. Later, in the restaurant that night, someone asked what each of us thought was our trip highlight. I was a bit flummoxed, as there was so much to remember. I plumped for the ‘Ibex encounter’ but – as great as that was - that was just such a small part of this wonderful journey.
Looking at my photos, I reckon I have to correct that and say “day ten”. The sun was out, the sky was blue and the views were simply stunning – across, up and down the valley, everywhere I looked it was breathtaking. We walked along precipitous slopes with the paths carved into the side, often with rope fixed into the rock face to help us along.
We walked in superb conditions, with so much to take in. Day ten is a long hike, but I do not recall it ever feeling like that.
Once you have crossed the bridge, as Alex said, “it undulates” along the valley side. As she also accepted, some of the undulations are rather steeply up, but, as ever, they are very doable; and, as ever, they consistently repaid the effort.
Eventually, the Matterhorn came into sight as we made our way along the side of the Mattertal valley. And we continued, until finally we approached Tufteren. The plan was to head from there to Sunnegga and get the funicular down from there to Zermatt. It was partly the fact that there seemed to be a further climb up to Sunnegga and I’d had enough of climbing for one day; and – I suspect – partly that I didn’t really want to stop walking, but I decided to walk down into Zermatt with two of
the others. (And it was absolutely nothing to do with saving the funicular ticket price for beer!)
We walked down some steep paths through the woods until we reached the edge of Zermatt and then found our way to the hotel – we even beat the others by a few minutes which was quite satisfying!
So, it was over. In ten days, we’d walked about 180 kms (112 of your English miles) from Chamonix to Zermatt; we’d climbed over 11 mountain cols, ascending in the process approximately 12,000 metres (almost one and a half Everests). And it had been great, although my body did seem to be telling me, “OK, it’s been great, but that’s enough now”. Did I say “great”? It had been perfect in every respect. We celebrated in Zermatt that night with large burgers in the Brown Cow and I think
none of us were late to bed."