Wayne Hills takes on the spectacular Haute Route in 8 days…

I wasn’t exactly lazy when I was younger, but I was never one for walking further than I had to. Even going to the shops with my mum, I would always ask “can’t we take the bus” or “why can’t Dad take us in the car”. So, I’m not really sure why I enjoy hiking in the mountains or where the idea of doing the Haute Route first came from. Maybe it was fate, as my dad’s surname is Hills and my mum’s maiden name Walker! More likely, it was my need to prove to myself that, despite wrinkles and hair loss, I was still young enough to take on a challenge – and a challenge this definitely was.

Let’s get the technical details out of the way. The walk took us 8 days (most guided tours take 12/13 days). We walked approximately 160 km in a total of 56 hours and 15 minutes, with 8,371m of vertical ascent, 9,640m of vertical descent and we crossed an impressive 10 cols (mountain passes).

[quote_center]The Haute Route is known for being very busy in the months of July and August, so I decided on a mid-September start, keeping my fingers crossed that the weather would hold.[/quote_center]

The Haute Route is known for being very busy in the months of July and August, so I decided on a mid-September start, keeping my fingers crossed that the weather would hold. I carried out some research online and came up with a route, bought the necessary maps, booked various accommodation and on September 14 set off on my little adventure along with two friends, Marco and Regine.

The plan for the first day was simple, leave Verbier on the first bus and take a train to Argentière and then walk to the Cabane d’Orny overlooking the Fenêtre d’Arpette. Everything was going to plan until Regine phoned to say she’d missed the bus. Fortunately she was able to get a lift from her boyfriend and join us on the train, we arrived at Argentière on time and started the climb to the Col de Balme. We reached the col in good time and stopped at the refuge for a coffee, where a dear, sweet, old lady laughed and wished us “bonne chance ” when we told her we were walking to Cabane d’Orny. My first mistake, I had underestimated the time and distance to the cabane. We continued on our walk to the refuge at Les Grand Dessus, where a lovely Swiss couple confirmed our fears and after a team talk we decided to alter our plans as we probably had an expected arrival time of midnight at Orny! We descended to Trient, where we spent an enjoyable night in the Relais du Mont Blanc.

An early start the next day and a pleasant uphill walk to Forclaz with great views of Martigny and the valley beyond. Onwards and upwards to Bovine before making a picturesque descent to Champex Lac. Here we took lunch before continuing our descent to Sembrancher and on to Verbier to spend a well-earned rest in our own beds.

Day 3 saw Marco leave us, but Regine and I were joined by Leah, who would continue with us to the end of our adventure. We cheated a bit here taking the lift to Les Ruinettes, from there we walked to La Chaux and via the Sentier des Chamois to the Col Termin. The weather wasn’t the best, raining most of the day, but visibility was good and we saw plenty of chamois including one that had been recently caught by a hunter as we were now in the season of ‘La Chasse’. From the Col Termin we continued on to the Col de Louvie, the Col de Prafleuri, (our highest col at just under 3,000m) and to our home for the night, the Cabane Prafleuri. As cabanes go, this has to be amongst the best. After a long day and a hearty meal we retired to our dortoir, me on the bottom bunk, Leah next one up and Regine higher still, saying a small prayer as she went that she wouldn’t fall out in the night!

The next two days were the longest of the trip, but we had to push on if we were to reach Zermatt in 8 days. We left the Cabane Prafleuri and had a short hike to the Col des Roux and our first glimpse of Lac des Dix, looking splendid in the early morning mist. We went around the lake and then began the slow and gradual ascent to the Col de Riedmatten, one that I had crossed four years earlier in the opposite direction whilst doing the Patrouille des Glaciers. I found it daunting then and nothing had changed this time, scrambling the last few metres, almost on my knees. Riedmatten conquered, we took the long descent to Arolla and then traversed along the scenic valley to the quaint village of Les Haudères, where we spent the night in the dated but comfortable Hotel Edelweiss.

Awaking to our best weather so far, we started the day with a three hour, 1,416m climb to the Col de Tsaté and then the descent to the incredible sight of the Moiry glacier and the blue water of the Lac de Moiry. We continued our descent from here through the gorgeous alpine village of Grimentz, where great effort has been made to maintain the village’s original character and on to Mayoux, where our beds awaited in the Auberge de la Puchotaz.

Day 6 was possibly my favourite. A steady climb from Mayoux to the Meidpass, 1,600m of vertical ascent, but mainly through forest, following the river and the waterfalls appropriately named Les Cascades. Crossing the pass meant that we were now in the German speaking area of Switzerland and we dropped into the valley to the small summer resort of Gruben, closed during winter due to the avalanche risk from the srrounding peaks. Here, we stayed in the Hotel Schwarzhorn where a bed, breakfast and fantastic four course evening meal cost us CHF 56. Truly amazing!!

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast we set off for the Augstbordpass, our last col before reaching the Zermatt valley. We made our ascent in good time and, as we started the long descent to St. Niklaus, the valley gradually appeared below us with its backdrop of 4000+ m peaks – stunning! At this point, we still couldn’t see our final destination, but we knew Zermatt was now within our reach. To finish the day, we had a 500m ascent on the other side of the valley to Gasenreid, where we would spend our final night. The village was small and we had the Hotel Alpenrösli to ourselves. We were made to feel very welcome and after a couple of beers, a glass or two of Goron (local red wine) and a homemade liquor, collapsed into bed.

Finally, day 8, our last, and by far easiest, day of The Route. We left Gasenreid and started a gradual descent through the forest to the valley. Following the river along the valley floor, we passed through the villages of Herbriggen, Randa and then on to Täsch, the satelite village for those arriving by car or coach, to board the train to Zermatt. No such luxury for us, we finished as we had started with a climb to our final destination. One last hour, 200m of vertical and there it was, Zermatt, sitting at the base of the famous Matterhorn. September 21 and the village was as busy as a mid-January day in Verbier, so after a celebratory beer we boarded the train and returned home.

If reading this inspires anybody to take on the challenge this summer, here are some tips for your trip: If possible, avoid July and August.

  • Plan your trip and book all your accommodation in advance (and don’t forget to phone if your timing changes).
  • Buy the necessary maps.
  • Pack light and take technical underwear that can be worn more than once. Take a towel.
  • Take the option of evening meals and breakfast at your accommodation, the food is good and very reasonably priced.
  • Pack lots of chocolate, muesli bars and dried fruit and nuts to keep you going between meals.
  • Drink lots of water and refill your containers at every opportunity.
    Take little notice of the route times shown on the markers, they are not always accurate, sometimes in your favour, more often not!
  • Finally, don’t forget to take a camera and pace your walk so that you can stop often and use it. The scenery is amazing!