The Walker’s Haute Route is a strenuous traverse of the French and Swiss Alps. Beginning in Chamonix, France, the route travels 100+ miles to Zermatt, Switzerland. The High Level Route, as it was first called, began as a summer mountaineering expedition. Over time, it has evolved into a classic hike that doesn’t require technical skills, but rather strong legs and perseverance. Over the course of two weeks, the trail weaves below 10 of the 12 highest peaks in the Alps and crosses high-alpine passes almost daily. From Mont Blanc (15,778 ft), the highest mountain in Western Europe, to the Matterhorn (14,692), the most recognizable, the Walker’s Haute Route is one of the most stunning hikes in the world. But don’t just take it from me, in the words of the author of the popular Cicerone Guidebook Chamonix To Zermatt and hiker of the route at least 4 times:
“Chamonix to Zermatt, Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn- recipe for a visual feast! To walk from one to the other is a gourmet extravaganza of scenic wonders from first day till last. […] In two weeks of mountain travel you will be witness to the greatest collection of 4000 meter peaks in all the Alps and visit some of the most spectacular valleys. […] Your days will be filled with wonder!”
Every single day brought more incredible views than the last. The snow-topped mountains were straight out of an Ansel Adam’s picture, while the little hamlets that dotted the countryside were like something out of a storybook.
My Haute Route adventure began with two busy days of preparation in Chamonix. Glenna and I had to thin our packs, buy some more cold-weather gear, and find a tent. In a town as serious about mountaineering as Chamonix, I thought finding a tent would be as easy as finding Asian food in Chinatown. Sadly, it was a major struggle and we were forced to make do with a Walmart-esque €30 tent that undoubtedly would not hold up in any serious weather. Europeans just don’t do camping like us Americans. Luckily, figuring out what to do with our extra stuff was much easier. For some extra cash, we found a tour company guy who would tag our pack and send it to Zermatt a few days later.
With everything taken care of, we spent the afternoon on a brief hike that took us over the Chamonix Valley and brought us a glimpse of Mont Blanc and things to come.
That night we met up with Gustav, a friend of mine from Germany, who would be making the trek with us. We caught up over some beers and a couple of rounds of pool. The pool hall was so empty we actually had to ask the attendant to turn on the lights. Only in Chamonix! After a session in the hot tub, YES our hostel had a hot tub, we got a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, our hike began.
Day 1: Chamonix-Le Peuty 12.5 miles
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
It was a cloudy, dreary day and the valley was enveloped in a layer of fog. The towering mountains that were so impressive yesterday were now gone, hiding like a child under the sheets of a bed. The ugly weather had no such effect on our spirits; we were excited to be underway! Our morning began with a stroll through Chamonix, eventually trading buildings and shops for trees and ferns. Through the forest we tramped, following rolling hills and, at times, the curves of the Arve River. In a few short hours we passed through the small village of Argentière and eventually Le Tour.
At the base of Le Tour was a chairlift that took the less fit to the top of the first pass, Col de Balme (7230 ft). We chose to make the climb by foot, and huffed and puffed our way up the mountain. When we started the climb the sky had seemed to be clearing, but the higher we went, the more the fog reappeared. At the top of the pass, visibility was down to 10 feet or less.
A small concrete pillar marked the French-Swiss border. We warmed our hands and took a rest in the refuge before starting a miserable descent down the far side. During the next 3 hours, we hiked through hail and driving rain until we were saved by a shelter and a fireplace on the outskirts of Le Peuty.
The place turned out to be a campground and cost less than 10 Swiss Francs per person. Despite some soggy wood, the fire crackled to life and so did we. We laughed and talked over food and chocolate, bonding with some Israelis who had started their hike yesterday. Just before dark, we set up our tents and made cocoons out of our sleeping bags.
It was a COLD night.
Day 2: Le Peuty-Sous La Le 11 miles
“It’s easier to go down a hill than up it, but the view is much better at the top.”
-Henry Ward Beecher
I woke with Glenna clinging to my side, shivering, her breath condensing as it mixed with the frigid air. As I unzipped the tent flap, a sheet of ice slid off and crashed against the ground. Between the three of us breathing all night, we had created a thing coat of ice that clung to the nylon ceiling and walls.
My fingertips were frozen by the time everything was packed. We hurried to the nearby town of Trient to eat some breakfast and warm up. Unfortunately, Gustav would not be continuing the hike. His knee had flared up yesterday and this morning it was even worse. It was upsetting, but there was not much else to be done. We said our goodbyes and Glenna and I continued on the gravel road out of town. It was still quite early when we heard gunshots from above. Instinctively we ducked down, scanning for any sign of where they came from. BANG! Another shot… this time something was moving up above. It was a target! While there were no warning signs and the guidebook failed to mention it, the trail crossed right under a moving-target gun range.
After our scare, we began a demanding climb above the valley. We hiked in awe of the massive Glacier du Trient sprawling down the mountainside opposite the valley, its ice field scarring the landscape in a kind of agonizing splendor. It was a long, difficult climb to Fenêtre d’Arpette (8745 ft). Along the way, we passed several groups of hikers and spotted a couple of Ibex grazing on the hillside.
When we reached the pass, we rested on the rocks and gobbled down our lunch.
It was an equally long descent down to Champex on the other side. Champex was a pretty little town situated along a beautiful lake. We stopped for dinner before heading out of town, hiking until almost dark when we set up our tent in some woods between patches of farmland. It was much warmer than the night before had been.
Day 3: Sous La Le-Cabane du Mont Fort 12 miles
“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”
Back on the trail bright and early, it was a relief that the first part of the morning was a nice stroll down to the valley. We passed through two small chalet filled towns, before coming to the largest of the three, Le Châble. Here we filled up on bread, sausage, canned goods, and snacks. Enough to last us the next few days.
Over the next five hours, we climbed and climbed, and climbed some more, forever circling higher. In all, we ascended 5370 ft, over a vertical mile. We followed dirt tracks, gravel roads, and scrambled across small electric-fenced pastures. Before the village of Clambin, we emerged from the woodland to an opening with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains.
We rested on a bench, staring at the Grand Combin Massif straight across the valley. It was one of the most impressive mountains I had ever lay eyes on.
For the remainder of the day the mountain would be in sight. Oftentimes, it seemed as if we were chasing it. Through fields of grass and flowers we tramped, the Combin creating an incredible scene and providing the backdrop to many great photos.
We rounded a bend and the final destination for the day lay ahead: Cabane du Mont Fort.
A final push to the cabin spent the last of our energy. Fast moving clouds circled ahead and ended our debate of whether to pitch the tent or rent a room. For €70, we were put in a private room with a tiny window looking to the mountains. We chowed down our dinner and passed out in the cozy wool blankets.
The Chamonix Lodge was hands down THE BEST hostel I stayed at during my entire trip. The fact that it had a Sauna AND Hot Tub says it all. It is on the edge of town, which is possibly it’s only downfall, although that does add to its peaceful and relaxing atmosphere. Outside there is a deck and a garden, complete with hammocks and, in the summer, a slack-line. When the skies are clear, there are incredible views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding Alps. The staff were all very friendly and helpful. A big breakfast of grains, packaged bakery, and some fruit is provided free of charge every morning. If you are staying in the Chamonix area, book your stay here. You won’t regret it!