This is an account of our trip: what we saw, what the walking was like, the best bits and worst bits, the huts and dortoirs, the weather, our kit, useful tips and miscellaneous information.
I hope you find it interesting and informative (and perhaps inspirational).
There are two of us: Liz & Paul. We like the outdoors in summer (walking) and in winter (ski-ing). We are moderately fit, but live and work in London. The Haute Route trip was a chance to get out into the fresh air and see what we could do.
I'd been thinking about this trip for some years, and we were sort of working up to it, but decided that the years are passing and we'd got to get on with it. We've done several walking trips in the Dolomites and the Alps; these were day walks from a base, and our only continuous trekking trips were a couple of three-day hostel-to-hostel walks in the Lake District or Exmoor. We don't have 'alpine' experience (crampons & ice axes) notwithstanding this picture of us on the glacier (a safe one).
Our guide was the excellent Cicerone guidebook, Chamonix to Zermatt: the Walkers' Haute Route, by Kev Reynolds: http://www.cicerone.co.uk/product/detail.cfm/book/513/title/chamonix-to-zermatt
Also, I looked up as many trip notes as I could find to get more personal information - Kev Reynolds is a very fit walker with masses of experience and good advice, but I wanted to get a sense of how ordinary mortals found it. I hope this blog will supply useful information to other people trying to get an idea of the trip.
STAGE 1 : CHAMONIX TO ARGENTIERE
An early flight brought us to Geneva, and a minibus transfer with ChamExpress took us to Chamonix and deposited us in the middle of town. It was Sunday, and the Fête des Guides was in full swing - all the mountain guides in tweed jackets and breeches, with black-&-white patterned socks (with the lady guides in long skirts). We found a map shop (book shop) where we bought five maps to cover our route - total 85 euros, (but much cheaper than London). Resisted the temptations of all the lovely gear shops, knife shop, mountain photography shop etc - the knowledge that we'd have to carry anything we bought saved us quite a bit of money. We visited the cemetery to see the grave of Edward Whymper, the first person to climb the Matterhorn in 1865.
By the time we set off to walk to Argentière it was raining heavily, and we had to take shelter briefly at a waffle stall (mmm). Eventually we got out onto waterlogged paths through a wooded golf course and deserted outdoor cafe, and then up a rocky path through lovely green mossy woods with huge boulders everywhere. The low cloud and rain concealed the 'very fine views of the spear-like Drus' that Kev Reynolds refers to, but on the way to Chamonix there had been a glimmering white vision of Mont Blanc up in the sky - the only view we had of it until much later in the walk.
|Les Praz de Chamonix|
|Gite d'étape Le Belvedere|
STAGE 2 : ARGENTIERE TO TRIENT
When Paul threw open the curtain in the morning we found it was it still raining. Unfortunately the curtain and curtain rail fell down during the throwing-open process, so he volunteered to repair it with some longer screws. This took some time, during which the rain lessened a bit, and eventually we decided to set off, being English and therefore not afraid of a bit of rain. But having got very wet the previous day, we invested 5 euros each in some plastic ponchos which fitted over our packs as well as ourselves. They were rather heavy, but at least it didn't matter how much it rained.
The route up to Le Tour was via a pleasant (steep) forest path, but as it was still raining and poor visibility when we got there, and also late following the curtain-rail repairs, we decided to take the gondola part-way up to the Col de Balme, which cost 11 euros each. Walking the top section up to the Col confirmed the wisdom of our choice. (The decision also freed up other lift-taking possibilities later on, the pure-walking option having already been blown by Day 2.)
In horribly windy and misty conditions at the top we were glad to get into the Chalet-Refuge Col de Balme, though our rucksacks had to stay outside. Inside, it was rather dingy and small with a big cast-iron stove in the middle of the room. We ordered steak-frites from the rather strange old woman who wrote down the order on a little notepad, but was very reluctant to let us have any cutlery and checked the order a couple of times to see whether we qualified for it. As the refuge is on the French/Swiss border, prices are given in both currencies, which confused us a bit at first (eg steak frites 9-14).
Having enjoyed the steak-frites (plus extra frites, even though we hadn't walked all the way up) we came out and into Switzerland, where it wasn't raining. The view was visible and the way was down to Trient. We passed a couple of low vault-like stone-roofed bothies on the way down and were soon back into the shelter of pleasant woods, passing little log-made picnic spots with fireplaces every now and then.
|Stone bothy - an overnight option if you are prepared|
The glacier du Trient could be seen glimmering in white light up the valley. The village of Trient was very neat and quiet, with vegetable patches and a civil nuclear bunker dated 1992.
|The Trient bunker|
|Relais du Mont Blanc, Trient|
|The dortoir at the top of the hotel|
STAGE 3 : TRIENT TO CHAMPEX (via Fenêtre d'Arpette)
A big day today. We left at 08.20 and climbed up some steep forest trails and out onto a lovely 'bisse' path beside a little man-made watercourse (which is the bisse) taking water down from the Trient glacier.
|On the bisse path|
Stopped for a quick Ovomaltine at the Chalet du Glacier, just out of the woods, and then started up and up in the sunshine with great views of the glacier and lovely flowers and vegetation en route. A strange noise drew our attention to a rockfall happening not far behind us - screeching stones and smoke, luckily away from the path. Later there were a couple of ice-falls from the glacier, which made a noise like thunder.
|Glacier du Trient|
Stopped for refreshments at the Relais d'Arpette, where most of the people doing the Tour of Mont Blanc seem to stay. We walked on down to Champex alongside another bisse, and found our hotel, En Plein Air. It was oddly deserted, no evening meal available, and the hostess disappeared altogether once we'd checked in (so some Scotsmen who arrived after us took the liberty of checking themselves in and sorting it out in the morning). Decent room with plenty of hooks, hot showers, bed & breakfast ChF 110 for the two of us.
|En Plein Air, Champex|
- 1386 m of ascent, and a taxing descent
- early in the trip so we weren't up to full fitness
- not yet used to the altitude
- our packs were a bit too heavy
STAGE 4 : CHAMPEX TO LE CHABLE
As we knew this was going to be an easier day, we had a relaxed start. The first task was to get rid of the excess weight in our packs. We took about 2kg of stuff (spare t-shirts, the rain capes, excess toiletries etc) to the post office, which was a corner of the supermarket with a smart weighing machine. The people were very helpful and looked up the address of Zermatt post office and produced a flat-pack box to put the stuff in. We sent it off to Zermatt poste-restante, a system which still works and is much cheaper than posting stuff home. It cost ChF 11.50 + 2.50 for the box. An alternative would have been to post it on to a hotel in Zermatt, but we had nothing booked. We then weighed our reduced load - down to 8kg each, including water & food for the day.
Packs lightened, we then went to see the Jardin Alpin, above the village. The garden is full of alpine herbs & flowers with lots of little rock pathways and bridges and pools, and different situations demonstrating for example plants that grow on scree slopes. Its beauty was enhanced by metal sculpture installations by Etienne Krahenbuhl, which were sprung or pivoting or made ringing noises. One we particularly enjoyed playing with turned out to be called 'Circle of happy idiots'.
|Krahenbuhl installation in the Jardin Alpin|
|Path through the meadows|
Arrived at Le Chable in the rain, but spirits were lifted by some beautiful fruit tart slices from a patisserie. We stayed at the Hotel de la Poste, not expensive but the last word in luxury by our standards - en-suite bedroom with towels & soap, even a television, all for ChF 120 double room B&B. We met up with NZ Neil & Christine and went out for dinner - ate raclette with bread & eggs in a small cafe, having had to scuttle out of a smarter restaurant when we saw the prices on the menu.
STAGE 5 : LE CHABLE TO CABANE DU MONT FORT
The Scotsmen in Champex told us that it wasn't worth walking up to Mont Fort as it was spoilt by ski lifts, so after ringing to book us into the huts for the next two nights, I took the gondola up to Verbier with N & C. As Paul had wanted to walk up, we strolled around the resort and enjoyed a coffee sitting outside a cafe in the centre of town. The tourist office gives six minutes free internet access, so emails were checked. P eventually arrived, a bit hot but having enjoyed the walk, and we got the second-stage gondola up to Les Ruinettes. From there a broad track goes round and up to the hut with wonderful panoramic views over towards the Grand Combin.
|On the way up to the hut|
STAGE 6 : MONT FORT TO CABANE DE PRAFLEURI
As we would be in the high mountains for the next few days, we decided to walk in a group with Neil & Christine and Pete & Louise, who we'd first met on the way into Trient.
|Ready to set off from Cabane du Mont Fort|
|Looking towards the Grand Combin|
It clouded over and became rather bleak by the time we had lunch at the top of the Col de Louvie. We found a spot amongst the rocks & snow patches out of the wind to eat our lunch. Over the top was the most desolate landscape: the Grand Desert, a stony wasteland of scree, glaciers and small lakes, with a trail of red-&-white markers ahead.
|The Grand Desert|
|Crossing a tarn|
STAGE 7 : PRAFLEURI TO CABANE DES DIX
Up early and the six of us off up the steep path to the top of the Col des Roux. At the top we were met by a beautiful view down to the Lac des Dix with Mont Blanc de Cheilon at the end. On the way down we stopped for a cup of tea at a self-catering friendly hut overlooking the lake.
|Lac des Dix|
We came round the end of the lake and started on the steep climb up towards the Cabane des Dix. A strange smell drew my attention to a triangle of cheese that I'd put in the pocket of my shorts at breakfast time, now squidged out of its wrapper, not good.
Above the end of the lake we walked alongside the moraine of the Glacier de Cheilon, all bleak and grey even on a sunny day. But when we got up to the highest part (the Tete Noir) we could see over the ridge beyond the glacier and caught our first glimpse of the Matterhorn - an emotional moment. Its sharp peak twinkled in the distance like a jewel, framed in a notch in the ridge.
|First glimpse of the Matterhorn|
|Glacier du Cheilon with the Cabane des Dix|
|Open-air shower - modesty just about preserved|
STAGE 8 : CABANE DES DIX TO LES HAUDERES
Next morning we enjoyed an excellent well-organised breakfast with muesli and pink tea to take away (no drinking water), and set off with Neil & Christine at 8.30am. We crossed the Glacier de Cheilon, taking care to follow the trail markers carefully, and went up towards the ladders of the Pas de Chevres. Some people prefer to go via the Col de Riedmatten instead of climbing the ladders, but they're not too daunting.
|On the ladders|
We set off on a lovely scenic path through larches, up above the valley, past the pretty Lac Bleu and a tiny hamlet of wooden huts with low cow sheds, really chocolate-box Switzerland.
|Wooden huts look out over the valley at Louche|
Les Hauderes was an extraordinary village, with close-packed very high timber houses, several with five storeys, plus lots of granaries elevated on staddle stones. Christine & Neil had booked us in at the Hotel Edelweiss, where we had a comfortable room and nice dinner in the garden for ChF 80 each, not bad.
|A high timber house near Les Hauderes|
STAGE 8A : REST DAY IN LES HAUDERES
Woke up in the morning not feeling too good, and decided it would be as well to have a rest day now, in a comfortable hotel in an interesting place, rather than walk on and feel worse in the middle of nowhere (see day 10 for that). N & C decided to carry on, and were meeting up with Pete & Louise.
We had a relaxed day looking at the Valais architecture. We walked over to the next village, Evolene, via a meadow path amongst interesting little two-storey huts, which were barns above and animal stalls below. Evolene was like Les Hauderes but bigger, with lots of high houses very close together, with numerous balconies & external staircases. A funeral was just leaving the church when we arrived. We got some money, made phone calls and got me some medicine from the pharmacy, then walked back along the river bank.
|Meadow en route to Evolene|
|Picturesque Valaisian chalet in Evolene|
In the afternoon I had a rest while Paul went out and bought a new pair of walking poles (we had been sharing a pair) and helped some postmen fit a new letterbox. In the evening we ate in a creperie which had a weird tableau of music-playing dummies fired up by putting a coin in a slot - bizarre, like a musical version of 'Dead of Night'.
STAGE 9 : LES HAUDERES TO MOIRY
This morning I felt better again, luckily, so we got the bus up the road to La Sage for the start of today's stage. It was raining as we started but soon brightened up as we walked up and up through pasture to Remointse du Tsate - long cowsheds and a little house. The cows were very friendly. It was quite a hike up to the Col du Tsate, where we stopped for some lunch and met a new person - a lone Welshman, Steve. From the top we could see our next goal below: the Parking du Glacier at the head of the Lac de Moiry.
|From the Col du Tsate towards the Parking du Glacier|
As we came down, the views opened up, the bright turquoise water of the Lac de Moiry to the left, and to the right, the Moiry icefall, a huge and spectacular glacier. Its steeply-dropping ice flowed down into two small lakes (to allow the sediment to settle) and on down to the dammed lake. We could see our destination, the Cabane de Moiry, perched up at the top of a rocky bluff next to the glacier. There seemed to be some people on the glacier, but they weren't moving so we weren't sure what they were.
|The Moiry icefall, with the cabane on the skyline to the left|
The track from the head of the lake led along the moraine and started up the rocks in zig-zags to the now-invisible hut. It seemed interminable with no goal in sight, but eventually, there was the traditional stone hut with its green-&-white striped shutters. We went in - an empty hallway - walked through, and through further, until - wow! we came into a big modern timber-lined room with huge panoramic windows looking out over the glacier. Everything was new and smart; we had hot showers (CHF 5 for 5 minutes, then the water goes cold), and a good dinner. Price for half-board was CHF 61 each. The people on the glacier came in for dinner - they were a party of Manchester schoolboys, 16 years old, on a alpine course - not bad for a school trip.
|The dining room of the Cabane de Moiry|
|The old hut with the modern addition behind|
STAGE 10 : MOIRY TO ZINAL
Good breakfast of muesli and freshly-baked bread in this very civilised hut, which is run by a couple with small children. However, we made a late start as I didn't feel so good.
We walked back down towards the lake and along a path above it, but making slow progress as I had to keep stopping to be sick, not nice. We finally made it to the Barrage (dam) at the end of the ridiculously bright turquoise lake, where I walked down to get the bus to Zinal leaving Paul to walk up over the Col de Sorbois by himself, as I didn't have the strength to go uphill at all.
The very cheery bus driver seemed to know everyone we passed on the way through Grimentz to Zinal (fare ChF 19). Both villages are well-developed as ski resorts but still pleasant. I booked into the Hotel Trift, run by a nice and very well-dressed English woman, and was glad to get into my nice bright room and go to sleep for a bit. Paul found his way to the hotel and room later in the afternoon and by the evening I was able to eat some half-board dinner (cost was ChF 90 each for half-board).
|Walking along the Lac de Moiry towards the Barrage|
|The characterful Hotel Le Trift in Zinal|
STAGE 11 : ZINAL TO GRUBEN
Felt well again this morning, after a very comfortable night's rest. We took the precaution of ringing the Europahutte to book places for Saturday night, which was fortunate, as will be seen below.
The walk started off with a steep climb through lovely woodland paths and out onto pasture. It was a beautiful hot clear day and we could see the Matterhorn from higher up the hill. We were soon caught by Welsh Steve, and some Spanish walkers. We sat eating our lunch pressed against a rock trying to get into the only bit of shade before a stiff climb up to the Forcletta col, where there were fantastic views and a welcome breeze. A French guide pointed the peaks out to us while waiting for his party to catch up.
A boy and girl were herding cattle down from the high alp pastures as we walked down into the Turtmanntal, and the glaciers of the Weisshorn came into view. The Turtmann valley is very remote and quiet, but we rushed down through the woods because the French party were hot on our heels and we didn't want to be overtaken.
Gruben is a pretty little village with nice tiny chalets and a few teepees. We stayed at the large Hotel Schwartzhorn - ChF160 for a nice double room at the top of the house with half board; a packed lunch with tea (hot water) was an extra ChF10 each.
|Cattle on the high alpine pasture above the Turtmanntal|
|The back of the Hotel Schwartzhorn at Gruben|
STAGE 12 : GRUBEN TO GASENRIED
The morning started fine with a nice path up through the trees, but it soon started to rain. As we trudged up to the Augustbord pass it was raining heavily and very windy, and we got soaked and cold, so hurried straight down over the top without stopping.
This is supposed to be the finest day of the whole walk, according to Kev, but we were unlucky with the weather and everything was covered in cloud. The rain stopped as we came down on a rocky path overlooking the Mattertal, so we had lunch and sat out for a while until the view cleared. Eventually a superb panorama revealed itself. We continued along an interesting rock-paved mule path, and then down a pleasant little path by a wall down to the hamlet of Jungen.
Jungen hangs above the valley with no road access, just a cable car. We had decided to get the cable car down, and reckoned it would probably go at 4.00pm, so we hurried to the cable car station, where there was a four-seater gondola car. As we arrived, a disembodied voice said, 'How many are you?' We said, two, the voice told us to get in, and we set off. As we went down we could see some people standing on a little platform high up on one of the pylons - rather odd. The car stopped, and a woman and a very fat man got in, and we all went down to St Niklaus where the man went straight into the nearest bar, where he was clearly a regular customer. The fare was 5ChF each.
At St Niklaus we got some money out and caught the bus up to Gasenried because we heard that there would be no bus next day. We got beds in the dortoir of the Hotel Alpenblumli, which was rather basic but had a decent hot shower (free). We met a retired Yorkshireman, Roy, who was 'wandering' old-style for three weeks, very nice. The restaurant opposite served a good dinner with raclette. I forgot to note the price here, but it was all quite cheap. We took the precaution of booking our places in the Europahutte, for the next night, which was just as well, as will be seen.
|Rocky mule path with the panoramic views gradually revealing themselves|
|People waiting on the pylon for the cable car down to St Niklaus, looking down the Mattertal|
STAGE 13 : GASENRIED TO THE EUROPAHUTTE
Today is the exciting bit: the Europaweg. We'd read about this challenging high-level path, with its several potentially-dangerous rock-fall areas, and noted Kev's words 'everyone who tackles it should make his or her own judgement whether the risks...are worth taking' - a bit daunting. A couple of years ago the path was closed as part had been swept away; also the bridge across the worst rock-fall area had been swept away several times, but (checking online before we left) a new one had apparently been built. It's possible to avoid the Europaweg by walking to Zermatt along the valley, but that would miss out an exciting two days and some epic views.
So, with some trepidation we set off (late: 09.20) up the steep wooded path which comes out onto a lovely rocky area with fantastic views. A herd of fancy long-haired goats live up there - big things with long horns, front half black, back half white. A statue of St Bernard points the way. Our pal Steve caught us up as usual, having walked up from St Niklaus.
|Warning sign: cross the danger area quickly|
The path is hard work in places, alongside some very steep slopes and across boulder fields, and in some places a sign warns you to cross quickly in case of rock-fall.
Some bits are quite precipitous, but no problem for ibexes - one scrambled down a steep rock and then jumped about 10m down across the path, landing on a steep grassy slope, no problem.
|Tricky path, but epic views|
|Steve trying to find the route through a difficult boulder field|
|A precipitous bit of path, but there's a rope to hold on to if you need it|
We sat under a rocky overhang to eat our lunch, and then pressed on. The weather was generally good, but over the other side of the valley it looked rather stormy. The next exciting bit was a rather ramshackle-looking suspension bridge over a serious landslide area, long and wobbly, with wire mesh sides and a floor that seemed to be made of old builders' tables. Some people took a bit of persuasion to cross this, although it seemed to be safe enough.
|The rather bouncy bridge over a landslide area|
|The rockfall near Randa, across the valley|
The Europahutte was well-equipped, but the proprietor was keen to keep everyone well under control, and decided there wasn't time for us to have a shower before dinner. We sat 12 people to a table that would have fitted six nicely, and had a good meal of tasty soup, meatloaf with sauce, green beans & mash, and then custard & cream, washed down with plenty of tea. We were sleeping in the dining room so had to wait till 10 to go to bed. Paul superintended the table-moving and laying-out of all the mattresses. It was a very cold night and we felt for Steve & co sleeping in their tents somewhere outside.
|From the terrace, the new bridge is visible in the distance|
STAGE 14 : THE EUROPAHUTTE TO ZERMATT !
The last stage today. Up early and nipped outside before breakfast to see the first pink sunlight on the Weisshorn. Back in again for an efficient breakfast and paying the bill - ChF 160 for the two of us including packed lunch and a chocolate bar. By the time we set off at 8.15 it was misty and chilly.
|The Weisshorn at first light|
We worked our way round to the new bridge, which crosses a dangerous landslide area. Crossing it in the mist was rather spooky, but it cleared in the middle, revealing the broken remnants of the old bridge dashed on the rocks below! For the last couple of years, walkers have needed to go down to Randa to get past the rockfall.
|Approaching the bridge in the mist|
|The long bridge over the rockfall area, with the remnants of the old bridge below|
|The first glimpse of the Matterhorn|
We arrived at the end of our walk, the church in Zermatt, and the Monte Rosa hotel with its memorial plaque of Whymper, at 5.45, so about 8 hours walking from the hut. We celebrated with some pastries and milk, and checked into the Hotel Bahnhof (ChF 40 each in the nice dortoir at the top of the house, no breakfast but an excellent self-catering kitchen and dining area in the basement). It was very nice to meet up with our friends from the earlier stages - Neil & Christine, Louise & Pete, and Steve (who had a comfortable night in his tent despite the freezing temperature) - and we had a big 'end of the trek' dinner together to celebrate.
|Goal achieved - here we are in Zermatt, feeling happy|
THE END OF THE TRIP
The next day I felt like I couldn't walk another step, because we didn't have to, but we roused ourselves and walked up to the charming little village of Zmutt for lunch and views. In the afternoon we went to the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt, which is well set up and full of interesting things including the end of The Rope that broke on Whymper's first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 - not so surprising when you see it, as it's as thin as a washing line. We bought our train tickets back to Geneva (not cheap) ready for the morning, and cooked our dinner in the Hotel Bahnhof in the evening to economise. The self-catering kitchen there is wonderfully well-equipped and clean. The day after, we took the train to Geneva (out along the valley past the Randa rockfall) and flew home, vowing to do another of these trips as soon as possible.