This writer takes it on in 11. Here is his rambling diary — an honest and often hilarious depiction of the highs and the lows of trekking through the Swiss Alps.
DAY 1: CHAMONIX TO TRIENT, 21km, 9hrs
At last! Been wanting to knock off this hike for 20 years and this morning finally strolled out of Chamonix towards Zermatt. Thrilled that not only Gerda but four other friends have decided to join for varying stages. First 10km to Argentière was undulating forest trail beside glacial blue Arve River, dodging mountain bikers and trail runners. Usually considered a stand-alone stage, but figured it’d be easy to tack on second stage to Trient today. Bit longer but everyone had ample time to read and comment on itinerary and no one took issue with it.
Surprised to find chair lift operating from Le Tour to the top of Col de Balme, our first pass. Scotty, having done zero training, generously offered to transport our backpacks up and drink beer until we arrived. I refused, not wanting to cheat on the first day, and sweated two hours uphill under 18kgs and beaming August sun. Views of Mt Blanc excellent from the col, but descent to Trient seemed endless. Everyone glad to flop down exhausted at campsite. Saw a couple arrive late from direction we head tomorrow. On sitting down the girl promptly burst into tears. I wonder why?
DAY 2: TRIENT TO CHAMPEX, 14km, 11.5hrs
Crossing Fenetre d’Arpette looked tough — 1500m ascent plus 1200m descent under blistering sun at relentless gradient — but guidebook listed time as 6.5 to 7.5 hours, so not unduly concerned. Should have been. Group made steady progress except for Scotty who immediately dropped behind. Despite asking for detailed equipment advice beforehand he’s turned up with a wheeled backpack and a huge day pack. Sought both shade and flat ground for lunch, both of which in short supply, then waited an hour for Scotty to catch up. Like a wounded soldier he urged us to go on without him; like shell-shocked battlefield virgins that’s exactly what we did.
Finally reached pass after seven hours with half the group out of water. Who wrote this bloody guidebook? Kev Reynolds — superhero or devious prankster? Three hours descent through boulder field before possibility to refill. Made Champex at 7:30pm but still no Scotty. Decided to eat first then form rescue party. Not enthusiastic after 11.5 hours walking, but night coming on, so me, Mucki and Tim-Tam headed back up with torches. Found him safe but turned it into a 13 hour day. Collapsed into tent fully-clothed and lapsed into unconsciousness while thunder and lightning battered campsite all night.
DAY 3: CHAMPEX TO CABANE Du MONT FORT, 22km, 11hrs
Two stages scheduled for today. I reasoned 10 hours doable, but that was before I learned about Kev’s superhuman pace. Mucki, Gerda and the liability Scotty did the sensible thing and caught the bus to Le Châble; Natty, Tim-Tam and I strode onward, rain having politely eased off. Lovely walk through cute villages of traditional wooden houses gaily decorated with blooms, and always to the tune of clanging cow bells.
Reached Le Châble in time to watch slackers finish their pizza and beer. All then took a cable car, except Mucki who, I suspect more out of solidarity than desire, volunteered to join me for second stage — a brutal 1700m of ascent. No zig-zags either; straight up the guts. Don’t know how soil can stick to ground this steep, never mind trees. Conversation out of the question, so shared Mucki’s AirPods. Bluetooth range acted as a pace guide — whenever it cut out I’d stop and wait for him to catch up. After six hours, light waning, we finally sighted Cabane du Mont Fort through the clouds. Felt euphoria akin to finishing marathon. Rushed the final stretch to come in five minutes under guidebook time. Ha! In your face, Kev Reynolds!
DAY 4: CABANE DU MONT FORT TO CABANE DE PRAFLEURI, 10km, 9.5hrs
Five hardy souls on duty today, crossing three high passes over barren alpine tundra lashed by rain and hail. Scotty’s given up pretence of hiking holiday altogether in favour of drinking holiday with some light walking. Views nil and terrain entirely broken rock and boulders, with sounds of thunder and rockfalls spurring us on. Patches of snow proved treacherous, ditto an icy torrent of meltwater blocking our path. Boulder hopping possible but others preferred safer dash through shallows at expense of dry feet. Everyone thoroughly wet anyway by arrival at Cabane de Prafleuri. Caught up with American couple as hut hove into view. “If I ever meet this Kev Reynolds guy, I’m gonna kick his arse!” said guy, only half-joking.
Natty ended day badly when random slip and firmly-placed trekking pole forced her to headbutt ground. Was surprised to hear she’d arranged to meet her husband and kids at the hut, what with Prafleuri being 2500m up the mountain, but she was adamant Google Maps quoted a 17 minute drive from their AirBnB. When ridiculousness of plan confirmed by Cabane staff, near meltdown ensued. She insisted on walking several kilometres, with head injury, down pitch-black disused mining tunnel to meet family. Couldn’t let her go alone so G and I joined. Driven die-straight through the mountain, the tunnel is the legacy of a quarry used for an enormous dam in the valley below, strewn with mining debris and leaking water from passing beneath a gushing river. I loved it.
With Natty safe and two hours added to our day, limped back to Prafleuri and fell into bed, dead to world.
DAY 5: CABANE DE PRAFLEURI TO AROLLA, 16km, 9.5hrs
Finally got a reprieve — a ‘short’ day of only 9.5 hours. Natty’s plan to re-join us collapsed like wet snow on a scree slope, so our group is down to four. Clothes and boots dried in sun as we tramped over Col des Roux and down to Lac des Dix, the reservoir an unbelievable shade of blue. Located the equivalent on a Dulux colour chart: ‘Windjammer’!
Amazing what you see staring at ground all day long — millions of crickets hopping around feet, wings clattering staccato rhythm to accompany the schick-schick-schick lawn-sprinkler impression of cicadas, and brightly-coloured butterflies settling obligingly on tiny alpine flowers. I'm no botanist but did appreciate those small but perfectly formed petals, and was thrilled to spot Edelweiss. Felt inspired to launch into song but faltered after only two words, both of which were the name of said song. A poor rendition indeed.
Boulder scrambling and vertical ladders at the final pass made this my favourite day so far, but others less impressed. Tim-Tam and Mucki seemed decidedly unnerved by exposure, jellified even, and G is suffering from severe stomach discomfort. She described symptoms resembling giardia, but the culprit turned out to be consumption of particularly ripe camembert for three meals running. Detour behind rock solved that problem.
DAY 6: AROLLA TO CABANE DE MOIRY, 20km, 10.5hrs
After five fun-filled days and gorgeous traditional Raclette meal to finish, our friends departed. Shaking off cheese-coma, Gerda lingered for farewells while I walked the first of our double-stage day, firstly to La Sage. Fortunately it was a gentle morning following the Borgne d’Arolla as it cut deep into the gorge and marvelling at centuries-old wooden dwellings in Les Haudères. The kind of morning that makes one fall in love with Switzerland.
Met Gerda off the bus and embarked on another uphill epic. Without constant chatter of group, particularly Mucki’s alarmingly intellectual conversational gambits, we settled into comfortable silence. Too steep and hot to talk anyway. Larches gave some shade and we delighted at little black squirrels scampering around, but soon we were above the treeline with only occasional dilapidated farm huts as landmarks.
Greeted atop Col du Tsaté by majestic vision of Glacier de Moiry flowing imperceptibly from Dent Blanche, then discerned tiny speck of Cabane de Moiry high up on opposite flank. Concerned we’d miss our pre-paid meal, served 6:30pm sharp, G urged me to rush ahead. Pushed hard as possible but final ascent almost did me in. Lurching like drunkard and seeing double by the time I barged through door, but saved dinner. My rescue hat-trick!
DAY 7: CABANE DE MOIRY TO ZINAL, 14km, 7hrs
Shame to leave this amazing cabin. Perched high above the broken beauty of the glacier, the panorama was incredible, well worth last night’s mad dash. Felt sketchy whole way back down, but once we began to contour above reservoir, my spirits lifted. My favourite kind of hiking – wandering high above a picturesque valley, glacier at its head and tiny hamlets nestled on every exposed shoulder of mountain. Wonderful. G’s knees taking strain, so loaned her my poles to see if they’d help. She took to them like a newborn Nordic walker, so guess that’s the last I’ll see of them this trek!
Col de Sorebois busy with day trippers courtesy of cable cars on other side, one of which gives Gerda shortcut to Zinal while I gamely punish my feet on 1200m descent. Arrive just as Gerda finishes setting up tent and rain begins. Shortest day so far! Relieved to have time to relax and go for pizza in town before our customary 9pm bedtime. This is how we’d imagined every evening would be. How wrong we were!
DAY 8: ZINAL TO GRUBEN, 14km, 7.5hrs
Another day, another pass, another valley. After sharp ascent, path settled into another wonderful contour high above the Val d’Anniviers. Amazing to look down and realise we’ve ascended all that way by foot. Today’s pass was the Forcletta, reached by grinding through a boulder-strewn cirque, but enlivened by an hour of heavy rain. Fortunately able to shelter under eaves of a smelly cowshed for an early lunch, but when heading out G discovers her Gore-Tex jacket missing. Reckons she left it atop Col des Roux three days ago. Damn. Bought her that for her birthday. Has to wear cheap plastic emergency poncho instead. She may have my poles, my pillow and my heart, but no way she’s getting my Arc’teryx jacket!
Gruben a very small village with only one place to stay — fancy hotel with hikers’ dormitory loft. Mattress on floor for $50! At least shower free here so did some much-needed laundry. Cubicle tiny though, managed to get fully dressed inside before accidentally knocking tap with elbow for immediate soaking — brilliant! Set up stove on park bench and cooked hearty repast of soup and noodles under disapproving eye of hotel receptionist.
DAY 9: GRUBEN TO ST. NIKLAUS, 16km, 8.5hrs
Almost couldn’t face yet another pass! Gerda considered bussing around today but relented when saw the guidebook described it as one of the absolute best days of HR. Ascent was surprisingly gentle and topped out only five minutes slower than KevTime. Guess smaller groups walk faster — maybe his speed explained by hiking alone? Nothing spectacular until after the Augstbordpass when we rounded mountain shoulder to be confronted by the famous Mattertal Valley. What a sight! We gazed, astounded at the beauty, surrounded by Switzerland’s highest mountains — the Weisshorn, Breithorn and, still out of sight, the Matterhorn. Picture postcard villages lined the slopes begging us to visit them, and we obliged.
G took cable car down to St. Niklaus to save knees, but when I arrived 90 mins later she’d found no accommodation available. Had to catch bus to Grächen for dormitory. Distressing as I’d hoped to avoid any sort of transport during walk, but as long as I start walking from exact same place tomorrow my integrity need not be compromised.
DAY 10: ST. NIKLAUS TO EUROPAHÜTTE, 15km, 8.5hrs
Final two days of HR follow the Europaweg high above Mattertal. Supposed to be highlight, a final flourish, but today I learned the first part has been closed since last summer. Best alternative was to walk up valley to Herbriggen then pitch straight up mountainside to join Europaweg — 4.5 hours of ridiculously steep terrain, so positively vertical that only way it could possibly be tolerated was by knowing it was last of trip.
Once up, views to die for. Matterhorn remained shy behind the Mettelhorn but rest of valley impressive enough without it. Roar of melting glaciers and swoop of paragliders added to ambience. Struggled to admire view while watching my step on highly-exposed and narrow path. Ropes and chains offered protection in places, and rockfall areas signed: ‘Please cross the danger area quickly’. G catches me checking route and is furious. “I’m concentrating for my life here and you’re strolling along reading a book!”
Final night in splendid Europahütte — balcony view better than most expensive Vaucluse mansions. Sat and watched sky fade from orange to pink to cyan and warmed ourselves in the glow of tomorrow’s achievement.
DAY 11: EUROPAHÜTTE TO ZERMATT, 18km, 8.5hrs
Left 7am, eager to reach fancy hotel at end, a reward to ourselves. Toiled along Europaweg, Zermatt slowly revealing itself as large yet beautiful car-free conurbation of multi-storey chalets pooled between soaring peaks of Monte Rosa massif. Today’s path even sketchier than yesterday’s, including a tunnel blasted through the mountainside, sections of concrete roof designed to protect track from rockfall (with several areas already irreparably smashed), then the highlight — world’s longest foot suspension bridge, 494m, hung like a saggy washing line across the Grabengufer Ravine. It’s only two years old; previous structure wiped out by landslide. Didn’t tell Gerda.
Shortly afterwards heard a ‘whump’ noise and looked back to find her face down in dirt. Unharmed save a scraped knee, but I’m surprised she hadn’t made some sort of sound on her way down. “If you happen to fall off a cliff,” I told her, “please scream or something so I don’t look back five minutes later to find you’ve disappeared forever.”
Wonderful day to finish. Tackling final descent into town, reflected on last 11 days. 180km, 101 hours, at an average speed of 1.78km per hour. Hardest trek I’ve ever undertaken? Maybe. Worth every second of struggle? Definitely. Glad it was over? Loved every minute, but hell yes.
For more information on the Haute Route, or other treks in Switzerland, head to www.myswitzerland.com.