Friday, 19 March 2010

How to hike the Haute Route (high route) in Europe

With thousands of miles of trails crisscrossing the Alps as they arc through France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany and Slovenia, you could easily spend a lifetime hiking here. But the Haute Route, linking Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland, delivers more scenic splendour in one achievable trek than any other. It takes you through some of the highest hikeable terrain in Europe, passes beneath ten of the Alps' twelve highest peaks and connects the tallest, Mont Blanc (4808m), with the Matterhorn (4478m). Weaving through pine forests sprinkled with wild mushrooms and berries, you'll frequently emerge onto grassy slopes where herders graze their cows, goats and sheep throughout the summer.

The Haute Route, or "high route", was pioneered on an 1861 expedition to establish a trail from Chamonix to Zermatt over a series of glacier passes in the Pennine Alps, the sub-range that forms much of the border between Switzerland and Italy. Today the route is both a popular spring ski-mountaineering tour and a 180-kilometre summer trek known as the "Walker's Haute Route". The trek requires no technical mountaineering skills, avoids the high glacier crossings and is well suited to healthy hikers who can walk for twelve to fourteen days while gaining nearly 14,000m in total elevation. The journey links remote alpine hamlets with wild corries and high meadow, crossing eleven passes along the way.

A network of huts offers hikers simple accommodation, hearty meals and even the occasional hot shower. You'll hike for days without having to carry a tent, sleeping bag, stove or food. But while eschewing the very thought of a cable lift or a cosy chalet hotel is certainly an option for the purist, it is not obligatory. You'll have plenty of flexibility along the way and you'll likely exercise options such as these on your first rain day.

Although the Haute Route is bidirectional, most hikers start in Chamonix since that's how the guide books are written; this also puts the morning sun at hikers' backs as they ascend the steepest mountain slopes and passes. From the base of France's Mont Blanc you'll make a quick ascent past the aguilles, the dramatic needles that shine in front of Mont Blanc's snowy dome, to a refuge at Col de Balme, the pass at the unmarked border of France and Switzerland. The remainder of the Haute Route lies in Switzerland, and though Mont Blanc will be behind you, a string of equally illustrious peaks awaits.

Considering the concentration of ski lifts, runs and utility roads in the area, the Haute Route does an admirable job of avoiding them, especially along the forest path between the deep valley village of Le Châble and the lofty Cabane de Mont Fort mountain hut, which smoothly skirts the immense Verbier resort. The path brings you to a rugged, mountainous stretch where the three-peaked Grand Combin massif crowns the southern skyline and where your chances of seeing ibex and chamois are excellent. Both species are happiest on remote alpine slopes, where the chamois, a goat-like bovid, can ascend 1000m in fifteen minutes - something you'd be hard-pressed to do in three hours.

As you pass beneath the snout of a once-giant glacier that filled the rocky bowl known as the Grand Desert, observe the clear evidence of glacial retreat, as you traverse a rubbly and barren moraine long covered in glacial ice. The next day, take a relaxing morning stroll along the western shore of Lac des Dix, the snaking reservoir behind the Grande Dixence Dam before an hour of boulder-hopping to rocky Riedmatten Pass, the toughest on the route. Descending the Forcletta Pass into the quiet valley of the Turtmanntal, you'll begin to hear new greetings from people you encounter, from "bonjour" to "guten tag" or the Switzerdeutsch "grüezi". Gruben, the first German-speaking waypoint, is a seasonal hamlet where, gazing across a meadow at a distant object, you'll be unsure whether you're seeing a horse or an exceptionally large European red deer.

A steep ascent to the Augstbordpass, used as a trade route since medieval times, leads to a sweeping view of the last valley, the Mattertal, but the ultimate prize of the Haute Route is still a day away. Finally, as you climb slowly out of the valley to Zermatt, you'll be blessed with the mesmerizing sight of the legendary Matterhorn - the perfect ending to a magnificent alpine trek. It's easy to see why the Haute Route remains the most popular and rewarding of all the long distance swiss alps tours.

Greg Witt is one of the most popular and respected guides working in the Alps today. He is an adventure guide and author and lives the adventures he writes about. His explorations have taken him to every corner of the globe. He has guided mountaineering expeditions in the Alps and Andes and paddled wild rivers in the Americas. He has dropped teams into golden slot canyons, trudged through deep jungles in Africa, Central America, and Asia, and guided archaeological expeditions across the parched Arabian Peninsula.

He is the author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Salt Lake City (Menasha Ridge Press) and Ultimate Adventures: A Rough Guide to Adventure Travel.

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