This autumn I am starting a new series of guest posts. They will be reports from trips done by the readers of the marmot post this summer. First up is Helen who did the walkers’ Haute Route together with her husband Tom this July. They walked from Chamonix to Zermatt in just 11 days and took some amazing photos on the way. This is the first part of Helen’s trip report. Part 2 is now also on the blog. Many thanks Helen! Everyone else, have fun reading! ^marketa
We travelled along the Haute Route as a couple, self-guided. However, accommodation, maps and route cards were by Alpine Treks in the UK.
We carried all our kit the full distance. We bought two 55 litre lightweight, foldable duffel bags to carry our rucksacks onto the plane. These bags were lockable to give security and prevented damage to the rucksacks too. They folded down and stored nicely in the bottom of our bags for the duration of the trip.
I carried a Lowe Alpine rucksack 45+5L and Tom carried a Berghaus 48+5L. They weighed 13/15kgs each.
We used Cicerone Chamonix to Zermatt by Kev Reynolds as our route bible. We carried GPS with basic Swiss maps simply to record our route. We were able to record daily distances, along with ascent and descents. All distances shown are what we recorded, we found that our GPS distances were a couple of miles further than the book stated.
You will find that the whole route is superbly way marked all along. Just one moment where the signs, maps and book can cause confusion and that is the route to Gruben (Day 9).
2015 was reported as the hottest summer in the region for decades. Having completed the Tour de Mont Blanc a few years earlier in searing heat, we didn’t think it could get much hotter. It was blisteringly hot. It was 35C+ most days and this made climbs very thirsty work.
We experienced rain with a little thunder for about an hour on one day, other than that the whole route was cloud free every day. We never struggled to find water, there are plenty of standpipes and troughs along the way to refill bottles. I did however, refill from a stream and didn’t use the purification tablets one day and suffered terrible stomach cramps for days afterwards.
We opted for basic 2 and 3 star Auberges and hotels along the way with a couple of huts/cabanes. This was our first time in huts so read on to see what we learned. We were demi pension in all accommodation. I will name the hotels in my route description but my full reviews of accommodation can be found on www.tripadvisor.co.uk.
We completed the Haute Route in just 11 days instead of the traditional 16. This is a serious undertaking; several of the days we completed two days of the route in just one day. In hindsight, taking longer would have been more sensible!
Day 0 (Saturday 18 July): Arrive in Chamonix
We flew with Easyjet from Manchester to Geneva and caught the AlpyBus to Cham. This service is the cheapest shared minibus transfer you will find, we waited about 15 minutes for the driver and then it was pretty straight forward with drop off at the Hotel.
We stayed in a private en suite room at the Hotel Gustavia which is directly on Avenue Michel Croz. This Avenue is the named start of the walkers’ Haute Route. The driver told us that all attempts on Mont Blanc had been cancelled due to the unusually hot weather. Not that we were going that way, but it demonstrates just how hot it was!
Day 1 (Sunday 19 July): From Chamonix to Trient via Argentiere and Possettes
Distance:18.6 miles; Ascent: 4387 feet/ 1337 meters; Descent: 3561 feet/ 1085 meters
Today we walked two days of the Haute Route in just one day. As we have previously completed the high routes along this valley to the French/Swiss Border, we chose to walk through the valley floor from Chamonix to Argentiere then to Le Tour before climbing up to Possettes continuing to Col de Balme.
We started with the gentle undulating path of the South Balcony to Argentiere where we bought lunch at the bakery. Then the route continues, steeply, on the opposite side of the valley for the North Balcony. There was a closure on this part of the route but the diversion was well way marked.
This is where you get views of your first Glacier of the Haute Route, Glacier D’Argentiere. As you reach Le Tour, you could take the cable car up to Le Balme, or follow the zig zag paths up through the ski areas. We chose neither of these options, we extended the route.
The trail got steeper as we took the ascent up to Possettes in searing heat. There was very little shade on the climb and we huddled from time to time in what shade there was to be found. From the top of Possettes, there is a descent of 500 feet or so to the top of the ski areas and then another climb to the border on Col De Balme. Refreshments can be bought at the refuge on this Col, beware though, the guardian has a fierce reputation!
By this time, we were both feeling the effects of our first day at altitude; headache, stomach ache and exhaustion. From Col De Balme, it is a long descent, with Marmots shouting at us all the way, into Switzerland and the village of Trient, where we spent the night in a bustling Auberge, Hotel la Grande Ourse.
We had a private room but the washroom facilities were shared. There is no shop in Trient so we purchased packed lunch to the following day at CHF16 each.
Day 2 (Monday 20 July): From Trient to Le Chable via Champex
Distance: 18.6 miles; Ascent: 4387 feet/ 1337 meters; Descent: 6304 feet/ 1921 meters
Another two days of walking squeezed into one. The path is uphill from leaving the hotel. It’s a spectacular walk up to the notorious Fenetre d’Arpette alongside the Trient Glacier. Before the serious climbing starts there is Chalet du Glacier for refreshments if needed.
The views all the way to the Col are amazing and its worth taking the time to enjoy it. On the way up we saw our first chamois of the trip and at the top we got the first Ibex sighting. The descent is steep and boulder strewn making progress a little slow for the first couple of hours.
Once we reached to the lake-side village of Champex, about 8 hours of walking, we wished we had booked here for the night. However, we still had another 8 miles to complete and at least 4 hours of trekking.
It’s all downhill through alpine pastures and idyllic Swiss villages to the village of Le Chable. On already exhausted, and now blistered feet (thanks to the extreme heat making my feet swell), it was a tough day with a total of 12 hours walking, when we finally fell into Hotel de la Poste in Le Chable,.
We bought lunch the next day at a Boulangerie around the corner.
Day 3 (Tuesday 21 July): From Le Chable to Cabane Mont Fort
Distance: 9.3 miles; Ascent 5358 feet/ 1633 meters; Descent: zero
From the village of Le Chable, we followed the route in Kev Reynolds book to avoid Verbier. The Haute Route is lovely here, starting up through beautiful traditional villages and then into the trees offering much needed shade.
With view of the Combin Massive all day, it is well worth making the effort to walk rather than take the cable car as most people tend to do on this stage of the route. Having said that, this is a steep, steep, steep, route! Once we emerged from the trees, we had views over Verbier and we continued to walk under the cable cars, along a ski piste until we reached the old irrigation channels (bisse).
We passed a lot of day trippers on this part of the route because there are many cable car options to get you up here. There are information boards and fun sculptures along the route for the next hour or so.
When we finally glimpsed Cabane Mont Fort it was high up on a bluff, and once more, we dug in deep to make the final ascent. It was worth it and satisfying to know we had walked all the way.
A well earned beer and a private room made our first night in a mountain hut a great experience. Mont Forts location is stunning, as are views of the Mont Blanc massive and most of the Grand Combin massive. Showers are on token system and male and female facilities are separate.
We watched the sun set behind the mountains before we turned in. Packed lunch was bought here the next day.
Hut tips: Wear lightweight PJs or base layer to get to the WC in the night. We took our lightweight Teva sandals for wearing in huts too. A head torch. A sleeping bag liner is a MUST – there is bedding, however, it is not changed very often and the liner offers some hygiene for yourself (… and anyone using the bedding after you). I also used my fleece layer on the pillow each night. Ear plugs too.
Day 4 (Wednesday 22 July): From Cabane Mont Fort to Cabane Prafleuri
Distance: 7.95 miles; Ascent: 3103 feet/ 945 meters; Descent: 2523 feet/ 769 meters
From Mont Fort we went straight up and over Col de la Chaux where we had lovely close encounters with Ibex again.
Most people in the Cabane Mont Fort that day chose to go down to Verbier in the cable car and then get a taxi round to take the hike up to Prafleuri. They missed the stunning scenery and a very wild walk across barren bolder moraine, passing blue alpine lakes along the way.
This was the only day on the Haute Route we got to have fun in the snow fields too. We soon got the second pass of the day, Col de Louvie, and made our way to Col de Prafleuri, crossing glacial streams along the way.
This day took us through very rugged alpine terrain. We caught some thunder and rain as we neared the top of Col de Prafleuri, the highest point of the whole route. However, we didn’t lose visibility and from here you can see the hut an hour or so away in the valley below. We ended the walk in full waterproofs at the Prafleuri mountain hut.
This hut offers dormitory rooms only, and it was full to capacity. You cannot drink the water, although there is a hose pipe a few minutes from the front door, we never suffered any ill effects from drinking the water here.
This was our first night in dorms, we chose the bunk bed in a room that squeezed in seven people. The toilet and shower facilities are unisex with showers being on a token system. Two toilets, two showers and one urinal for all to share!
Packed lunch was purchased for the next day for CHF16 each.
Day 5 (Thursday 23 July): From Cabane Prafleuri to Arolla via Glacier De Cheilon
Distance: 13.5 miles; Ascent: 2721 feet/ 829 meters; Descent: 4709 feet/ 1435 meters
From the Prafleuri hut we were directly on the route and quickly ascended to Col des Roux, this only took about 30 minutes and is where we got our first glimpse of the Dix Lake. The descent was pleasant with the squeak of marmots all around as we got closer to the enormous Dix lake and dam. What follows is a gentle and enjoyable walk, on the level, along the lake to the very end where there is a huge water inlet that causes a mist.
Here, we took the option of climbing up towards Cabane Des Dix and Tete Noir. This route is beautiful and barren along glacier moraine and streams all the way to Tete Noir. From here you see Glacier De Cheilon below you underneath the gigantic Mt Blanc de Cheilon.
We followed the red painted boulders across the snout of the glacier. Progress was slow across moraine and then eventually onto the ice itself. After a while we came across a very fast flowing moulin and the red pained boulders showed us where to cross; jumping onto a bolder wedged in the moulin I was petrified of falling in!
We survived and went on to cross another, less terrifying moulin a little further on. The terrain then steepened and became even more bouldery, if that was possible!
We chose to take the ladders over Pas de Chevre before our descent to the village of Arolla. The ladders are not too much of a challenge (look out for the lizard!) and the walk to Arolla from the pass is spectacular with glaciers falling from mountains in all directions.
Arolla is very pretty, we stayed in a private en suite room at Hotel du Pigne. We bought lunch for the next day in the shop attached to the hotel. I also bought new walking socks in the village sports shop.
SAFETY TIP: Before crossing the glacier, it is advisable to speak with the guardian who resides at Cabane des Dix. We didn’t, however a New Zealand couple we spoke to did and the guardian advised them not to follow the red painted stones as someone had fallen in the moulin a few days earlier! He had not got round to re-routing the red stones to a safer route. This route is a serious undertaking, the boulder terrain makes for really slow, ankle breaking progress.
In another six days, Helen and Tom made it all the way to Zermatt. Part 2 of Helen’s trip report from the Haute Route is now also on the blog.
- The walker’s Haute Route part 2: From Arolla to Zermatt
- Walking in the Valais: 6 days of meandering around the walkers’ Haute Route
- An Haute Route menace: Ladders at the Pas de Chevre