Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Classic Walker's Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt

There's a reason I've backpacked over 650 miles in the Alps.  They are some of the most accessible yet stunning mountains to wander in, a rare combination to have.  It seems like every couple of years I find my way back to France excited to explore a new section of the Alps.  After thoroughly exploring the French Alp chain (via GTA, 2011) I was looking for something in a different direction. Perusing the section of "International-Walks" of Cicerone Publishing, The Walker's Haute Route seemed like a perfect fit for a fall trek.  This trek was born from the original spring ski-touring Haute Route first completed in 1911.  Skipping glacier travel and skis, this takes a backpacker ~180km from the base of Mont Blanc, in the Chamonix Valley, to the iconic Matterhorn, in the Mattertal Valley in Switzerland, over eleven passes and meandering through some of the most stunning 4000 meter peaks the Pennine Alps had to offer.  As Kev Reynolds put it: "...a gourmet extravaganza of scenic wonders from the first day until the last."
I get extremely giddy when I travel solo with only my backpack and this trip was no different.  Twenty-four hours of travel via airplane, train, and bus got me in my tent and asleep by 11pm at Les Arolles campground (my go-to in Chamonix).  As I peeled back the tent flap, clear skies and Mont Blanc greeted me in the early morning light.  I was home.
I planned on spending the first few days in the valley doing day hike/runs.  I started that morning going up the stunning La Jonction route and it was quick to refresh my memory that the trails here are much steeper than anywhere I've hiked.  Upon finally reaching La Jonction a stunning view revealed itself.  I simply couldn't be in a happier place.  The next day I started up the Mont Blanc route from the valley floor and rented boots, crampons, and ice-ax hoping to get as high as possible.  I got to about the Tete Rousse hut in about 3 hours of hiking up before I turned back.  A recent storm made the route much icier and I felt unsafe heading up alone.  I was loving this clear weather, which based on my previous experiences was a treat.  Realizing that, I decided to head out on the trek the next day with the hope of maximizing this good fortune.  I welcomed the first day of Fall and bid farewell to Chamonix the next morning.  Col de Balme was my first pass of the day and it was the Swiss/French border.  From now on I would be solely in Switzerland.  To my surprise there was no one on the trail, a departure from previous experiences in the summer.  I wondered why at first and I soon saw why: the refuge on the pass was closed for the year.  People would be missing the fall colors and good weather but I would not be missing them.  I was happy with the solitude.
Taking the high-level variante from Col de Balme, of which there are plenty of on this trek, I camped at Col de la Forclaz.  I ate my emergency food (can of ravioli) because of the unexpected difficulty of acquiring food that day.  The next day took me through the Fenetre d'Arpette that allowed for stunning views of frozen cascades of the Glacier de Trient.  A rocky descent soon got me to Champex and I continued the relatively undemanding day to Le Chable where I camped for the night and was able to stock up on food.  Looking at the guidebook, the next day would be the most demanding of the trip: 5 passes, 25 miles, and about 11.5K feet in climbing (most of it in 17 miles).  I started at 645am and hiked hard until dark (~8pm) with two 5 minute breaks.  When I arrived at Arolla I was exhausted but extremely relieved.  The reason for this long day was because there was no food at all on this whole section and I once again had to dip into my emergency ration for dinner.  However, I had one of the best days of mountain trekking I've ever done.  The steep and ledge-like Sentier des Chamois (Trail of the Chamois) which gave impressive views of the Grand Combin massif; the large and lonely Grand Desert Glacier, the snow and icy traverse of Col de Louvie and Prafleuri, Lac des Dix, the imposing Mont Blanc de Cheilon and it's pronged glacier, and the steep talus climb up the the tiny ledge of Col de Riedmatten. 
Grand Desert Glacier
Col de Sorebois (Above), Mont Blanc de Cheilon (Below)
I started late the next day, still trying to recover off little food.  I briefly got lost when a kind farmer directed me the right way up Col de Torrent.  The weather was starting to change and the clouds threatened with rain.  After some hot chocolate at a small shop at the Barrage de Moiry, the climb up to Col de Sorebois offered amazing views of the surrounding high peaks and the shrouded Weisshorn.  I was soon descending into the Val de Zinal where I was glad to treat myself to a proper dinner and a store where food could be bought.  Rain and strong winds greeted me in the morning light and continued up the climb to the barren (Col) Forcletta.  Hail pelted me and I soon descended into the little-known Turtmanntal Valley and arrived in Gruben (or Meiden) the first German speaking town.  Everything was closed however, and after a brief stop for lunch I started the climb up Augstbordpass, an passageway since the Middle Ages that allowed access from the Rhone Valley to Italy.  This was one of the finest climbs of the trip and as the strong winds cleared away clouds I finally arrived at the pass where a wild and rocky wilderness revealed itself; this became my favorite pass.  In the distance the Reid Glacier and the incredible Mischabel wall towered over all.  An open and gently winding talus-filled descent guided me to Twara, a viewpoint where the long and deep Mattertal Valley and surrounding great peaks left an image in the mind that will never be forgotten.  Dom (the highest peak in Switzerland), Nadelhorn, and Lenzspitze tower to the east, Weisshorn to the west, and the Monte Rosa massif in the far south.
View east from Augstbordpass
After a long steep descent I finally arrived in St. Niklaus at the end of the day.  Since there was no camping allowed anywhere in the village I stayed in a dormitory and planned the final days hike.  I wanted to take the challenging high-level route of the Europaweg into Zermatt.  Winding 4600 feet above the valley floor, it hugs the east side of the Mattertal valley and showcases the spectacular mountains of the valley.  After a long steep climb I finally crested the Europaweg and saw what I've been waiting to see for the past week: the Matterhorn.  This route to Zermatt is ever-changing due to constant rockfalls and constant exposure.  The guidebook as well as signs on the trail gave constant warnings, but I wasn't terribly concerned.  No one was on the trail (as usual) but I expected people because the one hut on this route was supposed to be open until the middle of the month.  Vista after stunning vista made this route awe-inspiring and the fact I was alone made it all the more intimate and special. After getting lost after climbing down a rock slide chute on accident and having to scramble back up class 3 terrain (which got me nervous) I finally reached the hut. To my surprise it was closed.  I was hoping to get water here as there was none on the trail and I had run out.  I wondered why it was closed but not 200 yards later I found out why: one of the two suspension bridges spanning 250 meters was damaged by the constant rock fall and thus the trail closed.  Odd because that was the whole reason for the bridge.  The route sent me back way down into the valley and due to the lack of water and not wanting to climb 4K up again, I stuck the valley route the final 6 uneventful miles.  Finally arriving in Zermatt and seeing the Matterhorn put an end to the Walker's Haute Route.  I was extremely satisfied and the numbers total to: 115 miles, 43K of climbing, 43K of descent. Mile for mile the most physically challenging trek and one of the most rewarding.  I set up camp at the lone campground there (one of 2 people) and ate a burger to celebrate.  Using the campground as a base I spent the next 4 days in Zermatt doing day-trip hikes/runs that got me close to the Matterhorn and the incredible Monte Rosa massif.
At the end of that stay, Zermatt and the surrounding peaks have become one of my favorite places to play in.  These experiences give way to a deep satisfaction, joy, and freedom that I've only been able to have on these types of trips.  In particular, this is the epitome of my philosophy of experiencing this world: have everything you need on your back, minimal gear, live in a tent, explore the surrounding nature, and spend as little as possible.  Life becomes more meaningful, has more depth, and ultimately shapes perspective. (See right-hand column for photos)


1 comment:

  1. Good stuff Chamoun. Those pictures are insane - definitely makes me want to check out the Alps. See you soon!

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