by David Court, IAG international Trekking Guide
Imagine hiking for 9 days in a rugged alpine setting without having to carry a burdensome backpack that’s more than a third of your own bodyweight that is typical of North American backpacking. And to make the experience even more of a dramatic contrast to overnighting in the American wilderness, think of what it would be like to end each day with a four-course dinner, a selection of some of the best wines in all of Europe, and - most importantly - having a cozy bed to sleep in for the night. This is just a brief description of the Swiss Walker’s Haute Route Trek, a 180km trekking adventure that starts in Chamonix, France and ends in Zermatt, Switzerland - all the while taking advantage of the popular mountain huts, small inns, and well-appointed hotels along the way.
We started our own journey on a cloudless morning in Chamonix from the base of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. The village is rich with the history of rock climbing, extreme skiing, and mountain exploration. The Rue du Paccard (the main street in Chamonix) was already crowded with suntanned mountaineers who were carrying technical backpacks and slinging colorful climbing ropes over their shoulders. Circling high above us was a group of paragliders catching the first uplifting thermals of the day. And in the cool morning air, one could catch the aroma of espresso and freshly baked croissants. It was a quintessential mix of outdoor adventure and European culture.
We began our adventure along the Haute Route by quickly hiking into Switzerland with an easy descent to the charming village of Trient where we had reservations at the Auberge du Mont Blanc and cold beer waiting for us at the bar.
Our next stop was the lakeside town of Champex. The correct pronunciation is not immediately obvious - even to French speakers who sometimes include the ‘x’ - but we say “Champey”. One typically gets there by going over the Fenetre d’Arpette (2,665m), which is a highlight of the WHR. But with recent snow and rain making its steep slopes unstable, we decided (from a guide’s standpoint) that the Fenetre was not a safe option and we opted for a variant that took us over the Col de la Forclaz and into lower elevations. When we emerged from the forest into the stunning pastures around Bovine, we found a small restaurant with sublime views of the Rhone Valley and an excellent menu of local cheeses. Arriving in Champex later that afternoon, we checked-in to our hotel, toured the town, and returned for an amazing all-inclusive dinner.
Stage three from Champex to the Mont Fort hut in Verbier was a true representation of how traveling in Europe can be so convenient. Knowing it would be a long day, after hiking down the valley from Champex, we saved some time by jumping on the train at Sembrancher and arrived in the small town of La Chåble in just under 15 minutes. From there, we boarded a series of ski lifts, which took us to an elevation of about 2,100m - shortening our walk to the hut to just under an hour. At this point, we began making friends with fellow Haute Route hikers along the trail as well as those who we had been exchanging “likes” and useful information with via Instagram. The energy reminded me of the days that I experienced during my ‘gap year’ when I was traveling between youth hostels in Europe. We all had something in common: an insatiable love for travel and adventure.
Stage four required some last minute re-routing since the Prafleuri Hut was unexpectedly closed for repairs. Fortunately, we found accommodation at a small hotel near Lac de Dix and - with the night secured - we began our hike up and over the Col de la Chaux. Here the terrain begins to shift to an alpine environment with rocky and uneven paths. In bad weather, when the visibility is low, this route would be a bit tricky to navigate, but our day was clear and the views were absolutely amazing.
Stage five of the Haute Route Trek from Lac de Dix to Arolla could possibly be my favorite as we continued hiking through the high alpine terrain, passing over the Pas de Chevres via a series of vertical ladders situated at about 2,800m. Despite it seeming extreme, I find it to be not too challenging - as long as one can get their head around the exposure. The day ended with a walk through a beautiful larch forest, which ultimately lead us to our hotel, a three-story stone building with a saddleback roof and private wooden balconies, situated in the middle of what was, at the time, an an even more extensive forest. Records show that the first visitor to the hotel signed-in on August 6, 1896, nearly 123 years ago and it is still managed by the founding family. Dinner was excellent and we managed to put away two bottles of Humagne Rouge, a variety of red wine grapes that excel in the glacial soil of these high alpine valleys.
The stage from Arolla to the Val de Moiry required perseverance. The day was going to be long and between us was one the Haute Route Trek’s most unrelenting climbs: a hefty 1,676m of ascent over the Col du Tsaté. Fortunately, we had plenty of beautiful views to take our minds off of our exertions. From the col, situated at 2,867m, we could look back to the west on the routes of our previous days and to the east, we could see the routes to come. The highlight of the stage was our stay at the newly constructed Moiry Hut, set right beside the glacier. The architecture is superb, perfectly blending the old stone building with a modern structure which ultimately blends into the hillside. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining area made for a panoramic view like none other.
Stage seven took us to the small Swiss village of Zinal via a small saddle near the Col de Sorebois. It was another beautiful day in the Alps and the views of the Weisshorn were amazing.
Stage eight started with a long ascent out of the Val d’Anniviers, up over the Col de la Forcletta, and down into the Turtmanntal Valley towards the small village of Gruben. The ridge on which the col is situated is the dividing line between the French and German speaking parts of this area in Switzerland. It is also one of the most remote valleys in the country since it becomes completely cut off in the winter. The paths are quiet and peaceful and there are plenty of opportunities to refill your water bottles from the streams created by the melting snow. Hotel Schwartzhorn is the only one place to stay in Gruben, so once again, we saw familiar faces and it seemed as if the conversations after dinner ran longer and more in depth. There was also an air of excitement since the end of the Haute Route trek was suddenly getting closer. We’d be in Zermatt the next day.
The last stage of the Hikers Haute Route is always an interesting balance between the excitement of reaching our final destination and that underlying anxiety associated with the realization that our journey is finally coming to an end. For the first time in 9 days, it seems as if the hours go by just a little bit slower. Our pace feels less strenuous, the steep paths ahead of us don’t appear as ominous, and stopping to have a friendly chat with a fellow hiker suddenly doesn’t seem so distracting. Getting to Zermatt is certainly the goal of our day, but it’s not something we necessarily want to have happen right away. By 1:00, we reached a tiny hamlet high above St Nikolaus where we caught the last gondola to the train station several kilometers below.
I can’t count how many times I’ve taken the cog-wheel train from St Nikolaus to Zermatt, but I never tire of watching the expressions on everyones’ faces as we make our approach to the base of the Matterhorn. The passing views of the enormous mountains on each side of us are barely contained within the huge panoramic windows. Deep green forests, bright white glaciers, then dark blue sky fill their frames. The movement of an occasional waterfall reminds us that we’re not looking at a painting. It’s so surreal that no one talks. They just stare out the window and smile - probably without any realization of their expressions. I imagine that they are already reminiscing over the past few days and thoughtfully acknowledging their personal experience of a lifetime.
Interested in joining us on the Haute Route Trek next year? Check out our 2020 Walker’s Haute Route Trek