Being a Kiwi, I am no stranger to the backpack and I have taken on some pretty serious walks in my time. I’ve covered a lot of the North Island back country at home, along with the obligatory Milford Track, and even crossed a glacier or two.
Beyond the comforts of home territory I have also trekked to Everest Base camp, spent two weeks out walking on the Mongolian Steppe (the horses are too small for my legs) and even done the granddaddy of them all (in my humble opinion), the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
But what had eluded me up until this summer was the Haute Route – that classic hike from Chamonix to Zermatt in Switzerland that’s the stuff of European legend, and takes in the mountains at the high end of the scale.
My wife and I trained semi-hard for a couple of months for the trip, hiking through the forests and hills around where we live in preparation for the trek and making sure our legs were tight as bowstrings. Our boots were worn in and our lungs were in tip-top condition for the rarefied air and steep inclines waiting during our 10-day, 177km journey through the Swiss Alps.
While the trails are well marked and require no technical skills in the summertime – making it possible to do the trek by yourself – we didn’t fancy carrying all our gear, so we chose to do the trip with a guide.
And so it was, that after a long plane journey and a couple of days in Chamonix “acclimatising” on wine, cheese and animal parts, we set off on a sunny Monday afternoon with said guide and four other climbers – in the shadow of the noble Mont Blanc.
On that first day we set quite a good pace, mainly because we only had to carry daypacks, and we reached our first overnight stay by late afternoon. A routine we were happily to keep to throughout the trip.
Up and Down
Despite being billed as a mountain walk, we were pleasantly surprised with the variety of terrain and landscape along the route. One moment we were crossing a barren alpine pass and dipping our toes in a frigid mountain lake surrounded by jagged, deathly looking peaks – even climbing sheer rock faces on ladders. Then, a few hours later, we were walking through a lush alpine meadow taking photos of bell-wearing Swiss cows grazing on dandelions and grass.
The scenery is stupendous, but made ever so slightly more enjoyable by the Swiss villages, which are perfectly located en route when you need some sustenance and a soft bed.
There are 11 high passes along the trail in all, with lots of forest and glaciers, and the walk took us below 10 of the 12 highest peaks in the Western Alps. Awesome doesn’t quite describe the view. Starting with Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe and one that stays in view for days, the names of the other peaks were rolling off our English-speaking tongues in faux accents as we laughed our way along.
What’s that one? I would say. And my wife would reply in her best Brigit Bardot voice, “eet ees the Pigne d’Arolla, or zee Dent Blanche”, and then, switching to Marlene Deitrich for “za Weisshorn” for the German-speaking peaks. The trek finished on an even bigger high with the Matterhorn, one of the world’s most iconic mountains. Even Disney built a Matterhorn in his theme park and put a roller coaster in it. I can only imagine what it must be like to do the crossing in the winter on a pair of skis.
The accommodation on the way ranges from beautiful old hotels in towns and villages, such as the Grand Hotel Des Alpes in Chamonix, which made us feel like we were in a 007 film with Roger Moore, to those quaint Alpine lodges that used to grace the box tops of 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles that you did at your grandmother’s house when you were a child. Even the alpine huts where the roads don’t reach were beautiful in their simplicity, especially when you arrived to a hot meal.
Despite the fatigue, we loved each and every bed we slept in because after walking for so many miles each day all we cared about was sitting down with our fellow hikers around a roaring fire, drinking in cold beer and drinking in those spectacular views.
The Haute Route may well be the most beautiful walk in Europe. Indeed it has been described as such, and after 11 days and almost 180 kilometres that took us up in excess of 3,800 metres (taller than the highest peak at home in New Zealand), we were so high on life and beauty that the relief of finishing what, at times, was a really gruelling trek, accompanied by aching feet and foul language, was marred by the realisation that it was over and we wouldn’t be seeing those peaks anymore.
That said, that last night in Zermatt was a good one, with another roaring fire, more good food and wine that you could shake a walking stick at, and lots of happy, happy people who had just shared something wonderful.
Add some method to your mountaineering madness to ensure you make the most of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- Train hard before you go because it may not look very strenuous, but believe me it is. You also better make sure that your boots know your feet better than you do because a blister is the last souvenir you want to pick up en route.
- Consider a guided trip – it may be a more expensive, but having a support vehicle on hand to transport your baggage onto the next village is a godsend. It may be the “cheat’s way”, but who cares? It’s so much nicer to only carry a daypack up the side of a ladder on a vertical rock face.
- Spend at least a couple of days in Chamonix before you start, so you get used to the altitude – headaches and nausea are always best avoided.
- Pack some serious thermal and wet weather gear because it can get very cold very quickly up at that altitude – even in high summer.