trip report: segmented Walker’s Haute Route, June 2014

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Recently, airfare between Europe and United States have been on an all-time low driven by budget airlines like WOW, Norwegian, and Level even in the summer high season. With the ease of the trans-Atlantic commute and the beginning of summer hut to hut trekking season in Europe, I thought it was appropriate to jump back in the time machine to June 2014 and write about the time we did a segmented Walker’s Haute Route trek. As with my previous report about the past, my information might be dated now. Please cross check all the trail information with reputable sources.

Before I get started on the report, a key aspect to keep in mind is that the Walker’s Haute Route is really sections of different hut to hut hikes that was put together to fit the 2 week holidays Europeans, especially Brits, have by Kev Reynolds and the Cicerone guide books. There are many, many different alternatives you can take or loop together. The number of trails in Switzerland is pretty astounding, though it fits since the entire country is pretty much just glacier carved valleys.

A unique aspect of our trek was that we started the hike in mid-June, which was before the official Walker’s Haute Route season that year. So we had to mixed and matched different sections of the trails around, hence the segmented nature of this trip.

index

  1. the decision and planning
  2. trip report: getting in
  3. trip report: Mont Blanc warmup
  4. trip report: Walker’s Haute Route – La Sage to St. Niklaus
  5. trip report: Walker’s Haute Route – Fionnay to Arolla
  6. trip report: getting out
  7. final impressions
  8. useful links

the decision and planning

Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) provided me with the first amazing experience in the Alps. Even after returning, I wanted to go back, but this time to the more challenging Walker’s Haute Route that I had hear about from others on the TMB. The Summer of 2014 provided such an opportunity as both Meg and I had conferences in Europe separated by a little under 3 weeks during the second half of June. Despite the official season for Walker’s Haute Route not opening until June 30 in 2014, I was determined to do the trek.

The Walker’s Haute route is a hut to hut hiking trek, so no technical skills or special equipment beyond a day pack is usually required.

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Cabane de Louvie

The traditional route can be found in the most updated edition of Kev Reynold Cicerone’s Guide. It starts from the French town of Chamonix under Mont Blanc and ends at Zermatt under the Matterhorn while crossing several passes between glacier carved valleys. The trek usually takes around 12 to 14 days and covers over 180 km.

early season challenges

Despite the nontechnical nature of the hike, the timing of our plans in June would likely mean we were looking at snow on most of the passes. We could have delayed our start a few days had we decided to visit Cinque Terre, our other destination, first. However, hanging out on the Italian coast seemed like it would be more enjoyable after the Alps. It’s not like the snow would have melted with the difference of a few days.

Going into planning for the trip, there were 2 major worries for me that involved the snow. The first was navigation in the snow and the second being the exact trail conditions and challenges going through the passes still covered with the snow. To that effect, the most clue I had about the situation was from a trip report from sTePh aBeGg, a trip journal from Bluebearee, and a lonely planet thronetree post (These were the resources I found while preparing back in 2014). Although these reports provide different levels of experiences with the snow, it was still difficult to know the exact conditions we would encounter that season.

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early season snow covered most of the passes

To get a better sense of the feasibility of our plans and more real time condition updates, I started my own Lonely Planet Throntree thread. The user meckerdv on the thorntree was the most knowledgeable and helpful regarding the alps and confirmed my worries that snow will definitely provide navigation and possible technical problems at the passes. Specifically, the navigation issues involved knowing where the passes are and staying on the trail hidden by the snow to minimize injury possibilities due to postholing and the snow giving away. To address that concern, I bought my Garmin 62stc gps and loaded it with openstreetmap.

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gps was in a lot better condition when I first got it for this trip

On the other hand, technical issues that were involved with snow is the possibility of falling off the mountain. Since we needed to plan for equipment ahead of time, I decided to researched snow hiking, order a set of snow axes and crampons for both of us, and watched a lot of youtube instructional videos just in case. However, the best way to address these concerns is to just be smart and flexible. If it doesn’t seem like a good idea or the trail looks too dangerous, turning back and taking a different route.

An useful realtime resource to help you plan for the snow are the ski cameras from skiweather.eu.

classic Walker’s Haute Route

That leads me to the major theme I picked up from the Lonely Planet Throntree. The classic Walker’s Haute Route is not necessarily a through hike as the TMB, but rather it is a series of hikes linked together, again for the convenience of a 2 week holiday. The traditional Walker’s Haute Route can be really divided into 4 distinct sections, though really you can almost treat each day as a day hike except for a couple places.

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As I alluded to earlier, the first part is even part of the TMB and there is nothing to say you can’t just skip it or come from somewhere else. It starts in Chamonix and goes clockwise on the TMB until you reach Champex. Unlike the TMB guidebook, the Fenêtre d’Arpette is listed as the primary route, while the Alp Bovine is the alternative. Again, this showing the subjective nature of the route. After a connection day to hike or bus from Champex to Le Châble, you reach the second major distinct section. The second section goes from Le Châble to Arolla that first heads up to Cabine Du Mont Fort before crossing Col Termin, Col Louvie, Col de Prafleuri, Col de Roux, and Pas de Chèvres while passing by several glaciers such as the Grand Désert Glacier. This is probably the most remote section of the Walker’s Haute Route and would require quite an additional hike to get off the trail or find transportation. The third section starts after another connecting leg from Arolla to La Sage that crosses the valley either by hiking or Post bus. The third section consists of going from La Sage to St. Niklaus crossing several more valleys and passes. All the valleys here all have road access so it’s not difficult get off the trail or skip ahead in case of bad weather. The last section of route is known as the Europaweg that concludes in Zermatt under the Matterhorn. Due to landslides, you’ll need to check the condition of the section. In case of the Europaweg closing, there is a lower alternative route that follows the valley in. The network of trails in Switzerland is very large and there are many different places and alternatives you can take. The views you’ll encounters in whichever route you take will be amazing.

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view from an alternate

our segmented route

With that in mind, that’s how the segmented aspect of our Walker’s Haute Route came about. meckerdv was able to give me ideas of when specific sections and refuges will open as the days drew near. Based on the reports, I knew the middle section from Les Châble to Arolla was to be the most difficult navigation wise so I planned to do that section last. Before that, we would hike the section from La Sage to St. Niklaus. The Europaweg from St Niklaus to Zermatt was closed due to landslides during our time there, so that was a section we’ll have to come back to eventually, perhaps as part of the Tour Du Monte Rosa. Lastly, rather firstly, I opted to take Meg on my favorite section of the TMB between Courmayeur and Les Contamines instead. I would have preferred to started from Chamonix or Les Houches and head up to Lac Blanc to make up the official TMB section I had originally missed, but Refuge Du Lac Blanc wasn’t open yet and the forecast was poor for our first couple days in the area. Below is the quick itinerary for our segmented hikes.

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  • day 1 to 3: clockwise southern section of the TMB – Courmayeur to Les Contamines
  • day 4: transit to La Sage through Sion
  • day 5 to 8: La Sage to St. Niklaus and transit to Les Châble
  • day 9 to 11: Les Châble to Arolla

logistics

In the summer of 2014, the game of travel hacking was still new to me as I had just received my Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP), the first card everyone looking to play the game should begin with. I had only found about CSP as I was reading about whether my credit card decisions to closed my old Bank of America card with a flat 1% back and opening a fee free Bank of America Travel Rewards Card with 1.5% earnings and no foreign transaction fee was the most optimal decision. I started my search because Bank of America only gave me a measly $500 credit limit even though I had a $5k limit with my original card. I quickly found out I had erred and subsequently applied for the CSP to start the game. Anyways, I can’t say I was the most efficient at trip planning and probably didn’t get the best deals.

Based on airfare at the time, Milan was the cheapest and most convenient place to meet up. Milan was a large enough hub that we were able to find a roundtrip ticket from DC to Milan for Meg for around $900 during peak season. Other major airports in the area are Zurich, Frankfurt, or Paris, though Geneva is a typically more expensive option. At the time of writing this in the summer of 2017, airfare to multiple European cities can be had for around $400 to $500 or less with budget airlines. Given the ease of connecting to any portions of the trek via bus or train, any major airport would work.

Milan had plenty of cheap connections to other parts of Europe through budget airlines and to the different sections along Walker’s Haute Route with bus and trains. Specifically, bus service from Milan to Courmayeur can be found for around 20 euros and another 10 euros to get to the traditional starting point of Chamonix through the tunnel under Mont Blanc.

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one of several castles seen along the bus route from Milan

Trains from Milan to Brig in Switzerland is around 40 euros (see Rome2rio or national train companies of Trenitalia or SSB). If you can plan far enough in advance, both national companies will offer train tickets at half or ¾ price. Brig is the major city of connection on the eastern side of a train route in the Swiss Rhône valley that parallels the Walker’s Haute Route that includes Visp (connects to Zermatt), Sion, and Martigny (western end and connects to Chamonix in France). So, you can connect to any leg of Walker’s Haute Route by train (SSB for Switzerland and SNCF for France) and Post buses in Switzerland.

Since the trail is accessible at different points as describe above, it definitely drives the point that it’s not a specific point to point trek, but just a link of several sections. The added bonus of this is that you can always jump to certain sections should weather become a problem. We took full advantage of this as we planned our segments. We booked several of the connecting sections ahead of time to save on costs when we planned the trip, but wouldn’t in retrospect to allow more flexibility and less stress of having to make specific trains.

equipment

Similar to the TMB, hut to hut trekking requires a lot less weight and equipment. We had our standard baselayer, softshell, hardshell, and standard hiking pants for outdoor. For indoor clothing, I had another set of shirt and pants. We had a few ziplocks to store snacks, lunch, and electronics. We both had a set of cheap hiking sticks. We also had a basic set of toiletries and a couple micro cloth towels. We carried few days worth of cured meats, cheese, bread, and chocolates for lunch and snacks, while budgeting a little more in case we ended up at a winter hut without services. With half-board options at most of the huts, dinner and breakfast were included. Potable water was available pretty readily along the way, but we also carried a steripen in to treat stream water, which we only used once. Our electronics also included our phones and I had my old Canon point and shoot camera.

In anticipation of the snow (as discussed above), our footwear were waterproof boots and gaiters to deal with tramping through softer snow. We had a set of crampons and a snow axe each just in case.

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The crampons were definitely overkill, but I figured might as well invest in them for the future. Microspike and snow shoes both could have been applicable at different parts, more so than crampons based on our experience.  I also had a GPS for navigation through the snow sections where the markers may be covered and to make sure we were on track. Lastly, we did carry a down sleeping bag to share for the possibility that we would have to stay in a winter hut. Overall, the materials we had were daypack size, though I took my REI 65 liter bag because we only had 1 daypack at the time.

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trip report: getting in and setting up

Meg was already waiting for me in Milan when my conference in Hamburg finished. Since I was flying Ryan Air down from Hamburg, she brought all our equipment in the 65L REI backpack while I had been traveling our daypack. The roles would reverse when she flew another budget airline to her conference and I went home from Zürich after our adventures. We only spent one night in Milan before heading to Courmayeur via Savda bus. The bus left from Lampugano bus station, which requires connections via the local metro from Milano Centrale train station or the 3 different airports. The bus ride itself was comfortable and took about half a day to reach Courmayeur stopping at the different mountain towns along the way and providing some cool views of castles.

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We arrived in Courmayeur slightly after noon and the combination of siesta and early season (middle of June) lead to a pretty deserted looking town.

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Even our hotel was pretty empty in comparison and they upgraded us to a nice room with a view.

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While waiting for restaurants to open at 7pm, we walked around town and snacked on gelato and some of the prosciutto and bread we had bought. Proscuitto was my lunch for the next couple of days as we planned to hike the southern portion of the TMB. We were starving when dinner came around and the food from Ristorante Pizzeria Du Tunnel did not disappoint.

It was clear sky when we headed to bed, but that would not last as the first 3 days had clouds and rain in the forecast.

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trip report: warmup on the Tour du Mont Blanc – Courmayeur to Les Contamines

As I discussed earlier in the planning process, the first part of the Walker’s Haute Route and TMB were shared on the northern side. However, my favorite section of the TMB was actually the southern section so I decided that’s the portion Meg should see. Having done the TMB before, it would also give us a chance to have some experience with the snow. Lastly, it doesn’t add any time to our trek as we were planning to do the 2nd and most difficult section of the Walker’s Haute Route last, so we would have needed to skip ahead by transportation anyways.

trail information

  • name: Courmayeur to Les Contamines on the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)
  • type: point to point
  • distance: 31.4 miles
  • elevation change: 9819 ft ascend & 9890 ft descend
  • time: 3 days
  • location: Border of France and Italy

day 1: Courmayeur to Rifugio Elisabetta

The last time I was on this section going the other way, I pretty much slide down the mountain on the stream, I mean trail, in a big down pour. The weather isn’t as bad this time around as we headed out of town

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across the field with plenty of blooming wildflowers.

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The trail zigzags through the forest before reaching a wider dirt road next to an opening with the ski lifts.

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After reaching the top of the ski lifts at Col Chécrouit, we reached Rifugio Maison Vieille, a stop on my last TMB trip.

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It wasn’t long before we were into the clouds as we traversed through the balcony section of the hike. We had several stream crossings and some snow crossings along the way.

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Once in a while we’d get a peek at the glacial carved moraine tracts across the valley through the clouds.

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It wasn’t long before the rain started to come down on us.

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After a downhill through as few stone ruins, we reached the service road that cuts across the Lac Combal, which is feed by glacial streams and the marsh.

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After a last uphill, we reached Rifugio Elisabetta, which is said to be one of the best huts on the TMB as it’s situated just under a glacier (as you can see). The hut itself isn’t much to write home about so it was kind of disappointing. But these days happen and at least we had low expectations based on the forecast.

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A super understated aspect of the TMB is the social aspect of eating dinner and hang out with fellow trekker. Early on in the season, there were a lot less trekkers and majority was French speaking. Fortunately for us, we got to hang out with an older retired English mountaineer over the next couple of days. He really made our day in spite of the weather.

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day 2: Rifugio Elisabetta to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme via Col des Fours variante

The next morning was once again foggy as we left Rifugio Elisabetta.

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My favorite part of the TMB last time was getting all the way up to Têtes Nord des Fours, however the reports on the the Col des Fours variante was that it was still covered in snow. We thought this is as good of a time as any to try out of snow legs.

As we reached the information hut near the Col de la Seigne, we were in the clouds

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all the way up to the pass.

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We continued down from the pass around a snow field and the sky begun to open up

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in just a few steps to an amazing view of the Vallée des Glaciers.

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After introducing our knees to downhills for the first time on the trip, we filled up on water at Refuge des Mottets before crossing the bridge and starting up toward the Col des Fours.

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Unlike my previous TMB trek, I knew to take the trail that splits from the dirt road  passing by plenty of wild flowers

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and continued along the stream

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before starting upwards. The trail in this section can be a little difficult to follow. We lost it here and there under the snow. Looking backwards was a good way for us to identify if we were on the right trail.

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Shortly after, we crossed over the stream running down a cool cascading rock face.

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The gravity of the snow was clear as we continued up to our first real snow field. Meg didn’t care of the snow, she just didn’t want to stop because it was cold.

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The snow held pretty well most of the way and there were footprints toward the pass. It did less so near the rocks. The reflection off the snow was blinding, so I’d definitely recommend sunglasses.

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Meg really didn’t care for the snow as we continued on upwards. While I was kick stepping aggressively so not to slide back, she pretty much just walked up the slope. I definitely lost her in the clouds a couple times as her pace was much faster than mine.

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Thinking back, I probably should have used the crampons I had at this point though kick stepping got us to the pass fine. In terms of difficulty, the snow might almost be better than the loose shale that typically covers the pass.

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With thick clouds on the other side of Col des Fours, a trip up to the Têtes Nord des Fours wasn’t worth it.

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The snow was much softer allso and I was pretty soaked as we trudged toward the refuge in the clouds.

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We arrived at Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme after a long and tiring day. We were greeted by our mountaineer friend and had dinner and wine with him and a french guy, who was dead set on getting up to Têtes Nord des Fours for pictures no matter how many days he had to wait for it to clear up. I can’t disagree since that was my favorite spot on the TMB.

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day 3: Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme to Les Contamines

The third day was started among the clouds once again our highest point was the Col de La Croix.

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The morning sun started to break through here and there as we started our all day down toward Col du Bonhomme.

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There were sections of snow with the largest area just before the Col du Bonhomme.

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After the pass, there was a bit more snow

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before we were greeted by the lush green pasture land.

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Continuing down, we passed the Refuge de la Balme and a couple of streams rushing through some canyons.

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We reached Les Contamines shortly after noon, just in time for siesta, as the town is dead once again.

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Luckily we did find a restaurant still open.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 4.5 – As with my previous rating, the TMB will always be special for me and this was the section I decided Meg needed to see. The snow adds a complete different perspective to the hike, but we didn’t get to see too much because of the weather this time around.
  • difficulty: 3 – This rating is specifically for the early season trekking of this section. The snow definitely added a degree of difficulty to this hike. We were lucky in that we crossed the most difficult portion around Col des Fours with good weather and the snow was pretty solid on the way up.
  • technical: 4 – The snow also bumps up the technicality of this route by a lot. Knowing kick stepping and good navigation is a must here. It helped that I had been through the area before to help me with knowing the terrain.

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trip report: Walker’s Haute Route – La Sage to St. Niklaus

After a few days warmup on the TMB, we were ready for the Walker’s Haute Route. However, we skipped ahead to do the less remote 3rd section first.

trail information

  • name: La Sage to St. Niklaus on the Walker’s Haute Route
  • type: point to point
  • distance: 44.4 miles
  • elevation change: 15,315 ft. ascend and 14,093 ft. descend
  • time: 4 days
  • location: Switzerland

day 3-4: transit Les Contamines to Sion to La Sage

After finishing our last leg on the TMB, our plans is to transit from Les Contamines to Sion. We would first take a bus from Les Contamines to the train station in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.  Since arrived during siesta, we had to wait a while for the bus to start running again in the afternoon.

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At Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, we took the train line that covers the entire Chamonix valley next to Mont Blanc going through Les Houches, Chamonix, Argentière, Vallorcine, and ending in the Swiss city of Martigny. From there, we transferred to the swiss train that continued through the Swiss Rhône valley to the city of Sion. Sion was the entry (beginning of the 3rd section) and exit (send of the 2nd section) point for our time on the Walker’s Haute Route, so it provided a good location for us to store our travel luggage. I hadn’t previous booked a place so we ended up wasting a good amount of time trying to find a hotel (last time I did that). We didn’t spend too much time in Sion, but there a couple cool castles.

The next day was a zero day for us as we setup for the Walker’s Haute Route. We took the Post bus from Sion to the small town of Le Sage after resupplying ourselves with lunches and snacks for the next 4 days in Sion.

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I booked a hotel room at the Hotel de la Sage and being one of the only people to stay at the hotel in the early season, we got upgraded to a suite.

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Meg really enjoyed the enormous bathtub and Jacuzzi. I enjoyed staring out the window as it rained into the evening.

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day 5: La Sage to Grimentz

During breakfast at Hotel de la Sage, we asked the hostess to call ahead to Cabane de Moiry. She told us that the hut was open, but there is a large section of snow heading up to the hut during a normally switchback uphill. With crampon, we were confident we would be ok going up it but planned to stay flexible about it.

We left the hotel and headed up the first climb of the day toward Col du Tsaté. The trail first heads up through some trees and then replaced by meadows full of wild flowers

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and small houses and sheds used for grazing animals.

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The climb has a steady incline

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until reaching a flat area

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where the meadows give away to rock

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and snow.

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The trail continues on the left side of the valley and it was clear that not many have came this way from the lack of footprints.

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Fortunately, the steepest section was pretty clear of snow as we pushed toward the pass.

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The carved glacial valleys are no joke here as we look back from our morning climb.

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Col du Tsaté is marked at 2,868 m or 9,409 ft.

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As we look at what we have in front of us, the snow doesn’t look as friendly. Neither does the clouds.

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We decided to just stay toward the left of the snow field after following the portion of the trail we could see as we descended into Val de Moiry.

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After reaching a grassy flat area, the Moiry Glacier comes into view.

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Makes for a perfect lunch spot.

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The trail continues downward more genitally with a series of switchbacks

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with views out toward the dammed Lac de Moiry.

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The end of the downhill is a parking lot, where there are plenty of other tourists help you take pictures.

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As we started to head up the other side of the valley, a local hiker told us of some edelweiss.

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After a few minutes of looking at every white flower along the way, we found the unique edelweiss flower.

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When we reached the next junction, we had a decision to make. There were a few factors to consider. First, it was still early in the afternoon around 2pm. Second, there was a considerable steep snow field to get up to Cabane de Moiry (the red arrow in the picture below) and we’d have to return down the same snow fields tomorrow. The clouds also didn’t look very friendly. We decided to just continue on and either stay at the Barrage de Moiry (which is a self serve facility) or, if we were fast enough, head over the Col de Sorebois to get to Zinal via the cable car in Sorebois. The down hill from Sorebois to Zinal is said to be a steep one, so the prospect of taking the cableway to save our knees was fine by me.

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The trail continued upwards overlooking the Moiry Glacier

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while following the Lac de Moiry.

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We reached the Barrage de Moiry before 5 pm and the clouds were looking very threatening. When we checked with the restaurant, we found out the self serve hut was not open yet, we were 3 days off. I knew the Post bus route into this valley wouldn’t be running yet based on the Lonely Planet Thorntree, but I didn’t think that it would apply to the self serve refuge. With the rain coming, our only option was to walk down to the town of Grimentz. Not 10 minutes after we started down, we were dumped on heavily. If we weren’t tired and drenched, the walk along the glacial stream would have been very enjoyable.

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The town of Grimentz was pretty empty when we arrived. So, it took us another half hour to find a restaurant and hotel in the town center. After a swiss fondue meal and a hot shower, I slept very well that night.

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day 6: Grimentz to Zinal to Cabane Bella Tola

We woke up the next day to the most perfect day of our trek. To get back on the trek, we decided to take the Post bus from Grimentz to Zinal. The standard route from Zinal on is to cross the Forcletta pass and end in Gruben. However there were a couple of alternatives to stay high up at either Hotel Weisshorn or Cabane Bella Tola. Hotel Weisshorn is famous landmark that has been in operation since 1882. However, I opted for the Cabane Bella Tola for skyline views, which I’ll get to. We asked our hotel to call ahead and make a reservation for us for heading for the Post bus stop.

From the bus stop in Zinal, the trail heads north through some houses before switchbacking though alpine trees until the view opens up back toward Val de Zinal (upper part of Val d’Anniviers) and the peaks of Pigne de la Lé, Grand Cornier, and Dent Blanche.

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The trail continues on crossing a fields of flowers. I can’t think of a better place for the Song of Music twirl.

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Meanwhile, I was spinning around every other minute to marvel at the view behind me.

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The trail toward Forcletta pass spits off to the right at the next junction while our path was straight, eventually crossing a more rocky section.

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The trail wraps back on a shelf

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as we exit the Val de Zinal with views over Grimentz and the rest of Val d’Anniviers.

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After a while, the trail cross a dirt road that leads to Hotel Weisshorn a couple times before splitting to go further uphill.

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We arrived at Hotel Weisshorn around mid afternoon,

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which was a perfect time for drinks and apparently a huge serving of french fries.

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Hiking definitely makes me a cheap drunk as I stumble toward Cabane Bella Tora tipsily afterwards going down before back up on a dirt road.

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We were the only ones staying there that night. Good thing we called ahead.

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I did make a new friend though.

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After making us dinner and an amazing banana ice cream, the host took the ski lift back down the mountain leaving the cabin all to ourselves.

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So we played scrabble and took in the views. Such as Hotel Weisshorn among the mountains to the south,

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mountains north of the Rhône valley, and

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sunset with a horizon composed of Weisshorn, Zinalrothorn, Matterhorn, and Dent Blanche.

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day 7: Cabane Bella Tola to Meidpass to Gruben

The next morning was another beautiful day though I didn’t sleep well and was little cranky. The hostess drove up to the hut to provide us with breakfast before we headed toward the Meidpass. The trail during this section was not clear and we made the mistake of following a couple day hikers heading up to the Bella Tola peak. This lead us trying to get back on the path through the snow.

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The bright sun make the snow very soft and a battle to trudge through.

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After a bit of struggle, we finally reached the Meidpass signified by the Pigne de Combavert.

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It might have been easier just to head up to the Bella Tola peak instead, the peak in the distance behind Corne du Boeuf or Meidspitz. It’s said to be the best view in the alps.

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As we look toward the German side of Switzerland, it doesn’t look any easier.

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The trail continues by the Meidsee.

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The process of trudging though the soft snow was a tedious process. We were pretty much post-holing every step. This was probably our worst day on the trail.

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After the shelf, we finally reached some dry land.

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Our descend on the day continues down to Gruben with views of the Turtmann Glacier, Weisshorn, and Bietschhorn.

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Even though the day was a short day, the soft snow made it feel otherwise. We were happy to check into Hotel Schwarzhorn and relax on the porch with a drink.

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day 8: Gruben to Jungen to St. Niklaus

Leaving Gruben, we were use to the uphills that started everyday.

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Looking back, we can see the Meidpass we sloshed through the previous day.

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Skirting around the snow patches we continue up passing a couple false peaks.

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At the final incline to the Augstbordpass, we are met with large patch of snow.

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At first we thought of staying near the rocks but found the snow pretty solid a little further up.

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Again Meg had a lot easier time with the snow as I lag behind.

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No kick step necessary for her at all.

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A view back as the clouds continue to roll in.

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On the other side is the Mattertal valley with the Fletschhorn sticking into the clouds. There is an alternate here to summit the Schwarzhorn to the north of the pass and take around 1 hour. With the clouds low, we didn’t attempt the summit.

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Our initial down was through a pretty large snow field.

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At the next junction past the snow field, we continued on the right side of the opening. This sections was one of the only sections with some exposure, but not too bad except for a couple of small snow areas that wouldn’t be there normally.

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After the trail continues around the mountain we get a view down the Mattertal Valley at the view point called Twära. From here the peaks of Nadelhorn, Lenzspitze, and Dom can be seen on a clear day. On the right is the Klein Matterhorn that hides the Matterhorn behind it.

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Across the way is the Ried Glacier originating from Dom, the tallest peak completely in Switzerland. and in the clouds.

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After lunch we continued around the mountain and then down some switchbacks to the village of Jungen where we were just in time to take the cableway down to St. Niklaus to conclude this section of our trek.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 4.5 – Everyday on this section of the hike required an uphill to a pass before coming down to the next valley. However, each valley was unique with views of snow covered peaks and glaciers. I feel like I enjoyed the views more so because of the snow spread across the passes and the mountains contrasting the dark rocks, green fields, and the many flowers that dotted them. Nestled in each valley, were these awesome looking Swiss houses. In terms of the rating, I would definitely return to this area, but it’s hard to say if I’d hike the same trail in this section over new ones such as Mont Rosa. My favorite parts of this section was the Val De Zinal with the amazing day weather wise and watching the sunset from Cabine Bella Tola and I do want to return to hike up to Cabane de Moiry.
  • difficulty: 4 – This section of the Walker’s Houte Route is a bit more challenging the elevation profile is more aggressive, especially the passes. Again, you were literally going up to the pass and down to the valley almost every day. The alternatives on the TMB were typical passes on this section. We had a really good day and moderate days. With the snow, a really good day can make trekking through the snow fields a very bad day as we saw crossing the Meidpass. I can see this being a 3 during normal hiking season.
  • technical: 4 – At this point we were getting use to crossing snow fields in different weather situations. We did decide to not attempt the snow fields up to Cabane de Moiry. We also got lost once around the Meidpass as the snow covered the route pretty well. I did feel that at the intersections, the different pathes were marked well. So during regular season, a 2 might be appropriate especially if you following  Kev Reynold’s book.

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trip report: Walker’s Haute Route – Fionnay to Arolla

With the end of June drawing near and the beginning of the season on the Walker’s Haute Route about to begin, it was time for us to attempt the most difficult portion of the trek, the 2nd section between Le Châble and Arolla.

trail information

  • name: Fionnay to Arolla on the Walker’s Haute Route
  • type: point to point
  • distance: 23.3 miles
  • elevation change: 9,339 ft. ascend and 7,201 ft. descend
  • time: 2.5 days
  • location: Switzerland

day 8-9: St. Niklaus to Le Châble to Fionnay to Cabane Louvie

We arrived in St. Niklaus around mid afternoon. We had the option of the taking the train into Zermatt to take a gander at the Matterhorn since we could not hike the Europaweg due to closure at the time, but the low clouds and the subsequent rain that greeted us after we disembarked the cableway and gave us the impression we wouldn’t see anything.

So we boarded the train going the other way to Visp and connected all the way to the town of Le Châble where we stayed the night. We restocked on food and even bought a couple bottle of wine. The next morning, we slept in a little to recuperate before hiking an half day. We took the Post bus from Le Châble up the mountain side to the town of Verbier with the plan taking the cableway from Verbier to Les Ruinettes and continue on the easier path to Cabane du Mont Fort, outlined by Kev Reynolds. However, when we talked to the tourist information office in Verbier, they informed us that Cabane du Mont Fort wasn’t open yet, Cabane Prafleuri, the midpoint hut in this section, was questionable.

They did tell us that Cabane de Louvie was open and we could use the winter rooms at Prafleuri or one of the other winter ski huts around Lac Dix. So our new plan was formed. We took the Post Bus back down to Le Châble and another to the town of Fionnay. It was mid-afternoon when we started the uphill to Cabane de Louvie.

Ofcourse, the rain would start during our 2 hour climb, so no pictures from this section.

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Cabane de Louvie‘s location was pretty awesome though sitting on a hill over Lac Louvie with views of the mountains opposite the valley. We didn’t get much a view that first night, but we were treated to the idyllic setting the next morning.

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Again as part of the theme on early in the season, we had the privately owned hut to ourselves. There were only 2 other French guys at the hut with us, and they were there to fish. For dinner, we had the option to join the French guys in a fondue meal, but we the fondue we had so far on the trip didn’t seem that interesting. The dinner we had instead was amazingness. It started with split pea soup, which was perfect with the rain coming down hard outside. Then the main course was endives wrapped in ham backed in an amazing french mother sauce. We destroyed it; it was my favorite food on the entire trek. The nalgene of wine we hiked up might have also helped in that process. Afterwards as we headed to bed, there is nothing more soothing like the rain drumming on the roof.

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day 10: Cabane de Louvie to Refuge des Ecoulaires

The weather cleared through the night and we were up early in anticipation of the most difficult stage of the Walker’s Haute route. We decided to head out early to give us plenty of time and so the snow that we would have to cross would be firm. Furthermore, with Cabane Prafleuri possibly not being open, we may have to push further. The hostess at Cabane de Louvie had told us one other guided group went a day ahead of us, so that was a bit ensuring.

The day started around rounding Lac de Louvie before the climb started up to connect with the traditional route coming over Col Termin and Cabane du Mont Fort.

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The trail continues around the side of the forming valley crossing a boulder field. We encountered some mountain goats or ibex making good work of the boulder fields.

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The trails continues with some slight exposure toward Col de Louvie.

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As we continued up, the clouds behind us over the Combin Massif opened up briefly giving us an amazing view with Cabane de Louvie sitting at the edge of the alpine lake and Grand Combin looming.

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The slight exposure continues with some metal chains bolted into the sides.

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As we reached a flat area where the valley floor ascends to meet the trail, there is an intersection with a trail toward Col de la Chaux, an alternate coming from Mont Fort.

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As we continued toward Col de Louvie, we had to stop often in attempts to find the next marker.

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We found certain areas softer than others.

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Meg had the difficult job of paving the way since she likes to be in front. It helped me to just walk in her tracks.

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We did see some footprints at places from the group that were ahead of us, but some of it was effected by the rain from the previous night.

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The final push to the to the Col de Louvie was a little better as the snow was more solid.

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The view ahead of us was one of only snow and rock, pure desolation.

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The Grand Désert Glacier sprawling off Roseablache is covered in untouched snow in front of us. At this time point, it was one of the most impressive views I’d seen only to be eclipse by the glaciers in Patagonia. According to Kev Reynolds, the trek use to cross the glacier until the glacier receded opening up crevasses closing the route. However, since it was receding so fast, the route was changed to go around the glacial lake below the glacier.

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After marveling for a few, we started to down to the left heading for the glacial lake that stands. Kev Reynolds’ book notes of how well this section was marked, but the snow here decided to change that. From this point, note the ledge across the way as that should be the target of the hike. There is a very huge boulder with a human sized marker to guide trekkers to the right direction. Certain reports will use this as a point of comic relief, I can tell you it is very much necessary (that’s foreshadowing). We never saw it no matter how much we looked and even afterwards, I can’t find any signs of it in my pictures.

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We reached the glacial lake and crossed the snow covered stream at the outlet of the lake. This is where the trail became unclear and we got lost. Part of the problem was that there seems to be multiple marked routes, possibly old ones, from this point on. It was much easier to see the cairns and markers that were more toward our eye level than above you.

The immediate thing is to cut right hard along the lake and head back up toward the ridge. We didn’t cut right enough and while we ascended we didn’t ascend steep enough to gain the correct ridge. After a while, we saw more markers below and none above us as we had missed the correct ridge, so we ended up descending a little bit.

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That was the sign we were off track. With the GPS, we realized that we were too low and the trail was above the ridge to our south. Of course, we’d been trudging through the snow for a little bit now and realizing we were off track made the situation much more stressful. The sunk cost of wasted hiking, especially through soft snow, will make anyone grumpy. We found a section of boulders coming off the ridge and thought about scrambling up to regain the ridge. However, cooler heads prevailed and we started to double back toward the glacial lake. Once we found an area of solid snow near the lake, we started to cut uphill toward the beginning of the ridge.

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Once we gained the ridge with exposed rocks, we found the right set of markers and they were plenty. Our off trail adventures took 2 hours of our day, but we were much happier and relieved to be on track.

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In the end, it was a good learning experience and the worst case from being lost was that we’ll hike a longer today. It’s not like we needed to be anywhere. And that is a thing about trekking, all you have to do is wake up and walk. We’d already done that on a previous leg. With a look back at the Grand Désert, we continued forward.

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Along the ridge, we encountered a few more alpine pond.

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Getting into the afternoon, the fog started to roll in.

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Looking down from the ridge into Val de Nendax, there is no sign of civilization, a rarity on the trek.

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The trail continues to climb slightly,

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before a downhill section over looking 3 more alpine ponds under Col de Prafleuri.

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The route up to Col de Prafleuri continues to be well marked, which was very helpful through the clouds. We couldn’t see anything behind us as we reached the pass.

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Ahead of us was more desolation as we get a glimpse of Glacier de Prafleuri through the clouds. After working through a patch of snow, the rain started to come down. When we reached Cabane de Prafleuri, we found it empty and not open. The winter room was open though, but the valley where the hut sits is kinda sad because they mined this area to build the dam on Lac Dix. It was also kinda creepy since it use to be a shelter for the miners.

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We decided our day was not over and push forward across one more pass for the day. There were 2 winter huts on the other side at Refuge Des Ecoulaires and Refuge De la Gentiane la Barma. The way up to Col des Roux wasn’t very high in comparison, but proved to be a mess as the snow was very very soft, perhaps from the rain we received coming down from Col de Prafleuri. Despite continuously post holing and hitting my shins multiple times, I felt we powered up the slope pretty quickly. I think we just didn’t care at that point. I didn’t even get my camera out until we were at the pass.

From Col des Roux, we can see the last day of our time in the Alps.

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On the way down, we caught another glimpse of an ibex family.

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We started to feel the fatigue as we continued down the switchbacks.

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The first hut we came to was Refuge Des Ecoulaires, our home for the night.

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The hut was self service during our night there and we had the place to ourselves again. There was a iron stove, which took me the better part of the night to figure out. We didn’t the heat for our dinner, but rather to warm the hut up and to dry our cloth out. I did achieve the former decently, but not so much the latter. The hut had cool covers so I slept under a pile of them while Meg used the sleeping bag. We were out pretty quickly.

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day 11: Refuge des Ecoulaires to Arolla

We woke up early on our last day of the Walker’s Haute Route since we had a train to catch back to Milan from Brig that evening. The higher clouds gave us a nice look at the Glacier des Ecoulaies

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and out toward Mont Blanc Cheilon from the hut.

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The trail continues down toward a dirt road that runs along Lac des Dix with views of Barrage de la Grande Dixence.

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The stroll around the lake away from the dam is a easy one with marmots running about.

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In previous reports, I had read that the route here at Pas du Chat may be confusing especially regarding when to cross the stream.

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However, it was pretty well marked for us. It seems there use to be an older way to cross the the stream at the mouth of lake, but there clear signs saying do not cross. Instead the trail was clearly marked to ascend up the grassy area on your right with the stream to your left as you continue up.

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The trail continues into the rocky glacial moraine area and

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crosses the stream at a pretty solid steel bridge. Before reaching the bridge, there should be another route that heads toward Cabane des Dix, which is a cool hut sitting under Mont Blanc de Chelion and above its glacier and an alternate worth exploring.

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For some reason, I felt the rocks here had a nice purple shading.

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The trail continues up the left side of the Moraine.

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While on the moraine, we got a nice look at Mont Blanc de Cheilon and its glacier.

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Further along, we get a view of the Cabane des Dix that sit on the rocky outcrop just right of Mont Blanc Chelion seen in the picture below. While heading toward the pass, we saw a mountaineering team come our way from the hut crossing the glacier.

Also from this view, we can start to see the rocks that lead to Pas de Chèvre. When we were here in 2014, a rock slide had recently occurred so there were marker rocks all over the place. After a good scramble, we would reach the long set of ladders that make up Pas de Chèvre. I was too preoccupied at the time scrambling and then climbing the ladders, so I didn’t get a picture of the pass. There was also quite a crowd, almost more than we’ve seen on the trails the entire time. You can see a more recent video of the scramble and the ladders clipped here. An alternative to Pas de Chèvre is the Col de Riedmatten, which use to be the primary way. However, the route up to Col de Riedmatten was up a very steep incline made of scree.

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On the other side of Pas de Chèvre, there wasn’t too much snow

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with a pretty clear route.

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The Tsijiore Nouve Glacier starts to peak out behind it’s moraine.

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We got a straight on look at it as we descended.

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The last portion was through a pretty steep section zigzaging through the trees until we reach our final point of Arolla.

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ratings (1-5)

  • view: 5 – This section of of the Walker’s Houte Route was by far my favorite section out of the sections we did. It had a completely different feel of isolated desolation in comparison as the route gets quiet a ways from the villages and towns. The view of the Grand Désert Glacier and its flawless snow drove that feeling in. I’d definitely like to come back and do the alternate to Cabane des Dix and be able to head up to Cabane Mont Fort next time.
  • difficulty: 4 – For this section, there didn’t feel like as much up and down as the 3rd section of the Walker’s Haute Route since you didn’t get to the valley floor. However, there was much more snow making the trekking slower and more fatiguing in that regard.
  • technical: 4 – While the isolated desolation was great for the views and the feel of the trek, it is also the reason why this was the most challenging for navigation. We definitely got lost with the snow covering the makers around the Grand Désert Glacier. I didn’t feel the snow was any more difficult then what we had already encountered though. I have read this region has is one of the last to lose it’s snow, which is why there are so many markers. So not sure what the technical rating would be.

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trip report: getting out

Cinque Terre

From Arolla, we were able to catch a Post bus to Sion. After picking up our luggage we took the train to Brig to catch our express train to Milan. We took a train out to the Cinque Terre town of Riomaggiore, where we based ourselves for a few nights renting a room from a local. Not sure how it compares to airbnb now days. The train tickets from trenitalia, again, can be had for dirt cheap if you book early. During our time there, we spoiled ourselves eating a lot of delicious seafood and drank a lot of wine. Our favorite resturant was La Lanterna Corniglia (they may have moved) as recommended by our host.

Even though we were sloth for majority of our time there, we did take a day to hike since the region is featured out there on Instagram and buzzfeed as a top trekking place. I don’t agree with the assessment that it is a trek as the popular trail 2 is mostly paved and the other natural routes like trail 1 that goes on the spine of the mountain chain is mostly covered with trees like here in Virginia and doesn’t cover a lot of distance. However the coast and towns are indeed picturesque with plenty of great food and good wine … and we are back being sloth. Here are a couple guides for the area.

For our walk, we hiked out to Vernazza and took the train back. We had to take a slightly different route (purple dashed line in the map found online below) since portions of the coastal route 2 was closed, specifically between Riomaggiore and Monterosso, while we were there. The National Park has a pass that allows you to access the trails and park services. However, I don’t remember purchasing them while we were there in 2014.

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We hiked trail 3 from Riomaggiore to the Madonna of the Seas (Santuario di Nostra Signora di Montenero). From there we continued on trail number 3a before hitting trail 1 going along the spine of the mountain chain. We kept on thinking we’d get a view, but were utterly disappointed. We took trail 7a down the mountain and walked around the town of Corniglia. Lastly, we walked the coastal trail 2 from Corniglia to Vernazza. After walking around the town and taking a dip in the Mediterranean Sea, we took the train back to Riomaggiore and recommenced our slothiness.

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Schwarzwald – The Black Forest

My flight back to the states was from Zurich so we took the train from Riomaggiore connecting in Milan. Meg had always wanted to visit the Black Forest in southwest Germany, so with the 1.5 day we had before her conference, we took a little drive with a rental car from Zurich. Here were a few resources about the Schwarzwald.

For convenience and price sake, we booked Meg’s budget airline flight to Berlin for her conference from Stuttgart. After dropping her off, I drove back to Zurich to conclude my trip and fly back to the states. I may have hit 100 mph on the autobahn.

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final impressions

The Walker’s Haute Route is one of the most enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing walks in the world. For the most part, the combination of mountain passes and glaciers with towns nestled into the valleys while only carrying a daypack signifies the European trekking experience. I personally liked the views on the Walker’s Haute Route better than the TMB, mainly because the passes are a little more aggressive in comparison to the standard TMB, so we were able to get up closer to the many glaciers especially in the second section. However, as I’ve tried to emphasize throughout this report, the trails that make up the Walker’s Haute Route can be separated and combined with the many other treks in the area. The views throughout the region are amazing almost irrespective to the specificity of the trail.

tips and thoughts

  • Similar to the TMB, Kev Reynold’s Ciccerone’s guide is really all you need to Walker’s Haute Route during the regular season.
  • Many of the same tips and thoughts hold between TMB and Walker’s Haute Route.
  • In the early season, a GPS is definitely useful as we did get lost a couple of times around the Grand Désert Glacier (as there were some conflicting markers and snow covering up important markers around the glacial pond) and the Meidpass by following others heading up to Bella Tola peak.
  • For realtime snow and weather updates, check out the cameras of skiweather.eu.
  • One negative for the early season on the Walker’s Haute Route was that we were on our own more often than not. We had entire refugees to ourselves and I did miss the social aspect of the TMB a little bit.
  • Even in the early season month, we did not end up using our crampons at all. We never felt any of the pass with snow had much exposure.
  • The softer snow was the most problematic because of post-holing and the struggles climbing a hill while the snow was giving out.
  • There were some slight exposure sections after the Augustaborgpass, the scrambling portion on the boulders up to Pas de Chèvre, and heading up to Col de Louvie, but didn’t feel too bad and there weren’t much snow on those sections when we went.
  • A hurtle in the early season planning is knowing when the services for certain huts begin or when the Post bus schedules open up. We did have modify our route and plan specifically because of huts not being open, though it was still worth it.
  • In remote sections such as between Veiber and Arolla, there are snow cabins available for use for a small fee. Though, you need to have cash to leave in the dropbox.

budget

I would budget around 50 to 75 euros or swiss francs a day for the trek. The huts were around 60 frans for a half board that includes all but lunch. If you have the British trekking association, you can get a discount at the publicly ran huts. Most of the refuges have wine or other items you can buy, so having a bit extra euros are nice for that. Hotels in the towns were around 100 Francs, but you maybe able to get a discount early in the season where there aren’t a lot of people on the Walkers Haute Route. Lunch and snacks are the last bit of expenses you should account for, but the delis and cheese mongers are a nice cheap way to go. Nom prosciutto nom.

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useful links (in no specific order)

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