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Swiss "Haute Route" TR Part I

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Swiss "Haute Route" TR Part I

Postby BSquared » Sun Dec 23, 2012 1:30 pm

Here is a very late, very abbreviated (for which you’ll thank me ;) trip report of our hike in Switzerland last summer. We took the “Walker’s Haute Route”—publicized by Kev Reynolds—from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland. The original haute route between these two cities is a high-altitude ski tour usually done in spring, but Reynolds figured out a way to string several trail systems together to connect the same points by walking, at slightly lower altitudes. The areas we traversed are generally under private ownership, and wilderness camping is either prohibited or discouraged, so we stayed in hotels or mountain huts and carried only clothing, a little emergency gear, and lunch; our packs were less than 10 kg each. I had downloaded iPhone-version Swiss topo maps covering the entire area, and we also carried printed maps (at smaller scale). Signage is excellent.

Day 0: Chamonix, France. We took the cable-car up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi (thinking adventurous thoughts about Gaston Rebuffat) during our day of recovery from the trans-Atlantic flight, and I recommend it highly. Weather seemed iffy, but views of Mt. Blanc and most of the rest of the alps turned out to be spectacular. There were dozens of climbers setting out from the top cable-car station for guided climbs of Mt. Blanc, and we were happy we weren’t part of that particular zoo.

Mont Blanc.jpg

Day 1: Chamonix to Argentière, France. This is really a half-day valley ramble, so we spiced it up a bit by starting with a cable-car ride up the south wall of the valley to La Flégere. But it was a misty part-rainy day, so we didn’t see much. A pleasant downhill ramble got us to our hotel in Argentière by mid-afternoon. It rained pretty seriously after we arrived, but we scouted out the next morning’s departure route anyway.

Glacier d'Argentière.jpg

Day 2: Argentière, France, to Trient, Switzerland. The morning of our first real hiking day was misty/rainy, but the hiking was beautiful. We rambled along to a small village called La Tour and then began climbing fairly earnestly (up a ski slope—a lot of these on our route) to Col de Balme and the Swiss border (marked just by a stone; the border is uncontrolled). We’d planned to have lunch at the Refuge du Col de Balme, but it was dark and smoky and the proprietor was unpleasant, so we just had a cup of chocolate (at ski-resort prices) and moved on. The sun came out, and it was beautiful, with spectacular views back toward the Mont Blanc massif, but cool and windy. On our way “down” to Trient, we took a scenic detour up over a saddle called L’Arolette and found a beautiful lunch spot overlooking the distant Lac d’Émosson and its dam. I highly recommend this variation! We stayed at the Relais du Mont Blanc in Trient, which was a solid 5 on a scale of 1-10. ;)
Lunch Spot below l'arolette.jpg

Day 3: Trient to Champex via Alp Bovine. Weather looked iffy, so we opted not to go over the moderately exposed (to weather) Fenetre d’Arpette. Later we learned that one group that day had a wonderful time with beautiful weather on that route, but another that left later had snow and got moderately lost, having to bivouac in the rain. Not unsafe but very uncomfortable. We followed the electronic maps where they differed from the signed route, and that turned out to be a mistake, putting us on an older version of the trail that was muddy and slippery. Stayed in Champex at Au Club Alpin, clean and pleasant but nothing to write home about.
Alp Bovine.jpg

Day 4: Layover day at Champex. We visited the alpine botanic garden, again highly recommended. While there, we bought a tiny little plant guide in French, which neither of us speaks fluently, but it turned out to be remarkably helpful even so.
Jardin botanique alpin.jpg

Day 5: Champex to Le Châble. An easy, mostly downhill day through agricultural fields and a couple of villages. We passed a small field of lemon balm, which we guessed was going to be made into Ricolla cough-drops. ;) Got an excellent room at Hotel la Poste and then pre-hiked the beginning of tomorrow’s big climb. Had our first fondue of the trip at dinner.
Farmland between Champex & .jpg

Day 6: Le Châble to Cabane du Mont Fort. Our biggest climb so far (1611 m—5,350 ft) (increased by several hundred meters as I had to go back down to look unsuccessfully for a dropped pair of [cheap] binoculars). The guidebook’s directions for this piece are very complicated to avoid the sprawling ski resort of Verbier, but they were spot on and we arrived with no trouble, but very tired. The hut was gorgeous, in a glorious location (if one could manage to ignore all the ski machinery), and recently remodeled inside. It was the only hut where we had a room for two, small but (as everywhere in Switzerland) spotless and comfortable.
Cabane du Mont Fort.jpg

Day 7: Cabane du Mont Fort to Cabane de Prafleuri. This day had by far the most alpine and remote scenery of the whole trip, including crossing of two cols, one on an alpine “blue” route (rather than the more sedate red or very sedate yellow-marked routes). We crossed the “grand desert” (“desert” means roughly the same thing as “wilderness” in French) and basically saw nothing but rock, scree, and snow and ice all day. Weather was threatening all day (but never actually bad), and we were quite happy to get to the hut, although it was the least friendly and inviting of all the huts we stayed at. Still very clean and tidy, though.
The Grand Désert.jpg

Day 8: Cabane de Prafleuri to Cabane des Dix. We went a bit out of our way here, because we wanted to stay at this particular hut and because we wanted to try the ladders over the Pas de Chevre, tomorrow’s col. One could fairly easily go directly from the Cabane de Prafleuri to Arolla, our destination for tomorrow. The hike was gorgeous, up and over a small pass and then down to an old road that wandered along the shore of Lac des Dix. The guidebook was seriously wrong about the trail from the end of the lake, but both the electronic map and the signposts showed the correct route, so we didn’t get lost. We did run across an English couple who insisted on finding the guidebook’s route, and we could see them struggling on slid-out trails across the valley. Cabane des Dix itself was superb, and we’d recommend this detour to anyone taking this trip.
Cabane des Dix.jpg

Day 9: Cabane des Dix to Arolla. On a very misty, foggy morning we had a good time navigating our way across a glacier (mostly covered with rock, with a well marked path) between the hut and the Pas de Chevre, where one of us (me) got part way up the ladders only to decide that a long climb up nearly vertical ladders just wasn’t in the psychological cards for the day ;) ) So, we scrambled over to the nearby Col de Riedmatten, still steep and a bit exposed but nothing like the ladders, and popped on over. It stayed misty almost all the way down to Arolla, where we met our Swiss friends for a layover day or two.

To be continued...
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Re: Swiss "Haute Route" TR Part I

Postby Wandering Daisy » Sun Dec 23, 2012 2:46 pm

Great report! Cannot wait for the rest. What dates did you go? Is all that weather usual or did you hit a particularly wet period?
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Re: Swiss "Haute Route" TR Part I

Postby LMBSGV » Sun Dec 23, 2012 5:15 pm

Wonderful report. Hiking in the Alps has always been something I've wanted to do since my father did it when he was in high school (he climbed the Matterhorn, among other adventures). I'm looking forward to part two.
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