Walker's Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt (with my parents, 2013)
Walker's Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt (with my parents, 2013)
Page Type: Trip Report
54.01366°N / 2.27369°E
Walker's Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt (with my parents, 2013)
Jul 30, 2013
Created/Edited: Aug 11, 2013 / Jan 11, 2014
Object ID: 861021
Page Score: 82.48%
- 15 Votes
Vote: Log in to vote
A gorgeous 14-day hike through the Swiss Alps
In its entirety, the Walker's Haute route is an 188 km (give or take a few km) hike from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland). It is typically broken into 14 days, although it is possible to combine or skip days by foot or with the assistance of public transportation. But there is no reason to rush it, since the route is a marvelous adventure of snow-capped Alps rising out of spectacular valleys, delightful Swiss villages and remote alp hamlets, flower meadows and fragrant forests, icy streams and majestic glaciers, and much much more.
I first hiked the Walker's Haute Route in 2005, with my sister who was at the time doing a foreign exchange program in Grenoble, France. In the years that have followed, my Walker's Haute Route 2005 trip report has unexpectedly become (as of 2013) the most visited trip report on my website. My parents, too, had become intrigued by our rich experiences on the route, and had decided that someday they too wanted to do this hike. That someday came in the summer of 2013, when my dad was scheduled to be in Europe for a conference at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. My parents invited me along as their unofficial guide, and I jumped at the opportunity for a second adventure on the Walker's Haute Route. This was probably the most memorable and enjoyable trip I've ever done with my parents.
The following page gives a detailed trip report for the fortnight of adventures with my parents along the Walker's Haute Route in 2013. There are maps, distance/elevation profiles, data/expense tables, logistical notes, daily summaries, and lots and lots of photos. Enjoy!
The go-to English guide for the Walker's Haute Route is definitely Kev Reynold's Chamonix to Zermatt: The Classic Walker's Haute Route, by Cicerone Publishing. Kev has a gift of clear and detailed easy-to-read descriptions, and it is easy to follow him through every twist and turn of the route. He also provides extra interesting details, highlights, and route variations for those who are interested. The first edition of the guidebook appeared in 1991 and by 2013 the most recent edition was the fourth edition updated as of 2011. It is obvious that Kev has high standards in keeping it updated as much as is realistically possible.
My parents like maps, so they bought maps to have along on the trip. These maps were not cheap, and cost $131 US. Maps are nice if you want to see where you are in relation to peaks and other features, but they are not necessary or even very helpful for navigating along the twists and turns and junctions of the route. All along the way, the route is well marked by signs. We found that the detailed descriptions and simple daily route overview maps in Kev Reynold's guidebook to be plenty sufficient for route finding.
Only the first day and a half of the hike are in France (where the currency is Euros) and the rest of the hike is in Switzerland (where the currency is Swiss Francs). It's a good idea to start off the route with as much cash as you think you will spend throughout the entire trip, as most of the stores en route accept only cash and most towns do not have readily accessible banks.
Adding up lodging, food, and transportation costs over the 14 days on the route, I spent a grand total of 743 CHF + 53 Euros (~$871 US). This was about 63% lodging and 37% food, with only a trivial 4.20 CHF spent on transportation during the route. (Note that I am not including transportation to and from the route in these numbers.) My parents each spent about 270 CHF (~$290 US) more than me because they bought all of their meals at huts and restaurants. We consistently stayed at the cheapest option we could find in each town. Most—though not all—of the towns had at least one hotel that offered lower-priced doitoir (French for "dorm") or matratzenlager (German for "dorm") accommodation. See my data/expenses table (above) for a detailed breakdown of our expenses. It is worth noting that prices on lodging and food had nearly doubled since I did the route in 2005, so keep in mind that with each passing year the cost is probably higher.
My first time on the route in 2005, my sister and I wore heavy hiking boots. In 2013, I decided to hike in a pair of old running shoes that I planned to retire after the trip. After these two quite different footwear experiences, my general conclusion is that the ideal footwear for the hike is something in-between boots and shoes, such as trail runners, which are comfortable yet give enough traction on snow and steeper sections of trail. My mom had trail runners and was happy with them. Wearing shoes, there might be one day where the feet get a bit wet from the snow, but one day of wet feet is worth the added comfort of shoes instead of boots.
All of the huts, hostels, and hotels along the route supplied warm blankets and sometimes sheets too. The blankets came at no additional cost at all but one place we stayed (the Gîte d'étape le Belevedere in Argentière, where a bed was cheap enough that even with the additional cost of blankets it was still one of the cheaper places we stayed). At the hotels and hostels, the linens were usually cleaned after every use, but at the huts they do not wash the blankets between guests. Several hikers on the route have lightweight liner sleeping bags for the hut stays.
All of the mountain huts offer a meal service for both breakfast and dinner, as well as lunch if you happen to be there mid-day or if you want a packed lunch. All of the towns have restaurants. My parents bought most of their dinners and breakfasts in huts and restaurants, and just had some snacks in their packs for the days. I, however, bought all of my own groceries en route and prepared my own meals. An average dinner cost my parents 22 CHF while an average breakfast cost them 9 CHF. In addition to this, they each spent about 9.5 CHF a day on snacks/lunches, for a total of about 40.5 CHF/day/person on food. I, on the other hand, prepared all of my own meals and bought all of my groceries at the small stores along the route. Buying whatever I wanted at the grocery stores with little regard for price, I spent about 21 CHF/day on food, which is about half of what my parents spent. So, indeed, it is much cheaper to buy your own groceries and prepare your own meals en route, but it does require a bit more effort and a heavier pack especially during a string of hut stays. I rather enjoyed the experience of shopping at the small grocery stores, while my parents enjoyed the experience of having meals prepared for them. It's all a matter of personal preference I guess!
Since I didn't want to buy the meals in the huts and towns yet I wanted hot dinners, I brought along my Jetboil stove. One thing to note is that you cannot bring fuel canisters on an airplane in your check-in luggage because of fire danger. I'm not sure if you can bring it on your carry-on since I did not try. Fortunately, canisters and stove gas are available in outdoor stores in Europe. An 8oz canister cost me 6 euros in Chamonix. Even if you plan on buying meals, a small stove can be a nice convenience item for brewing up hot drinks anywhere and anytime.
We found power outlets on all nights except one (the Europa Hut, where the plugs must be well-hidden because I never found one, despite the fact the hut does indeed have power). The plugs at the huts were usually not in the room, but in more public spots like the hallways or bathrooms. With all the plugs around, it is definitely worth having a charger along if you plan on using batteries a lot (such as for a camera or GPS or phone). Note that to use a North American style plug you will need a euro plug adaptor.
We were pleasantly surprised to find wi-fi at several of the places we stayed in the towns. It was always free of charge if the place we stayed had it. A couple of the smaller places we stayed did not have wi-fi, but I always managed to find at least one place in town (like a café or hotel) where I could find a wi-fi signal and acquire the password. None of the huts had wi-fi.
We decided that having a cell phone along would be a good idea for making reservations. At the airport in Geneva, for 70 CHF we bought a SIM card for the phone plus 50 minutes of time. The phone only worked when in Switzerland, so we could not use it the first couple of days. It was definitely useful to have a phone along to call ahead for reservations. There are phone booths in some of the small towns, but these are not always present or easy to find.
In 2005, my sister and I hiked the route in late June, and we were often the only guests at the huts and hostels. However, the route becomes much more crowded as the summer hits full steam. Reservations are a good idea, especially at the huts, in bigger towns, and on weekends. There were a couple of nights along our trip (such as in Le Châble, Cabane de Prafleuri, Cabane de Moiry, and Gasenried) where we noticed that the hut or hotel we were at filled up all the spots. We made all of our reservations en route using a cell phone.
You can keep your pack quite light for this hike, without the need to bring a sleeping bag, tent, stove, snow gear, or more than daytime snacks. My parents had 30 L packs that weighed in the 10-20 lb (6-12 kg) range. My pack was a bit larger and heavier since I had a lot of camera gear, battery chargers, stove and fuel, and at times up to four days worth of food. But it was still light by most multiday trip standards!
Up until Gruben (Day 11), the predominant language of the area is French. From Gruben onward, the predominant language is German. I know enough French to get by in simple conversations, and it came in handy for making reservations (especially over the phone) and communicating with some of the locals in the smaller towns. However, most locals we encountered along the route spoke enough English (about at the same level as I spoke French) that it was almost always possible to communicate in some way.
Over the course of two weeks in the Alps, it is likely that at least a few days will have rain. During our trip we experienced a rather regular daily pattern of sunny mornings and days followed by late afternoon thundershowers. We dealt with this by getting early starts and arriving in the towns/huts by mid-afternoon (the benefit of arriving early in the towns was that it gave us plenty of time to explore them, which really added a lot to our overall experience of the route). The temperatures during our trip were for the most part warm and pleasant, never really too hot or too cold. In addition to our standard hiking clothes, we had a set of rain gear, a set of insulation layers, and a couple extra pairs of socks. My parents had waterproof pack covers which were nice to have when it rained.
By "conditions" I mostly mean how much snow there is on the route. It is difficult to give any specific answer, as conditions are variable from year to year depending on the winter and spring snow pack, temperatures, and the time in the season you decide to hike the route. All I can note here is my own experiences on the route. In 2005, it had been a low snow year in the Alps, and by the time we hiked the route in late June/early July, there was no snow on the trail except for a tiny snow patch just before Cabane de Prafleuri. However, in 2013, even though we hiked the route in the latter half of July, we encountered much more snow on the route (it had been a really cool spring so melting had been slow). The section leading up to Cabane de Prafleuri definitely had the most snow of any area we encountered, and the trail was covered for a few kilometers. However, snow was never a problem, even at the high passes. We never felt the need to have an ice axe.
Shortening the route:
Perhaps the most common inquiry I've gotten about the Walker's Haute Route is: "I only have a week. How can I shorten the route? What is the best section?" My personal feeling is that the route is best done in the full 14 days, since every town and hut and pass and section of trail is unique and worth experiencing. The route is not about seeing how much distance you can pack into each day, but rather about the experiences along the way. That said, two weeks is a long time to have available, and several people we met along the Chamonix to Zermatt were doing a section it or doubling up the days by hiking twice as much each day or taking public transportation. All of these options are possible, with some logistical planning effort. I suppose if I chose one block section of the route to name as my favorite, it would be the six-day section from La Sage to Zermatt.
The 14-Day Plan (with links to each day)
Daily Reports and Photos
JOUR 1: July 17: Chamonix Les Praz de Chamonix Argentière
9 km / +214 m / -0 m
Since the first day's hike from Chamonix to Argentière is just an easy couple of hours, we decided to do the first leg of the Walker's Haute Route in the evening and spend the day hiking around Chamonix and taking the cable car up to the summit of Aiguille du Midi. Aiguille du Midi is the second most visited site in France (second to the Eiffel Tower), and the summit gives a clear view of Mt. Blanc and a 360° view of all the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps. Although expensive, it was worth the experience.
After Aiguille du Midi, I realized I had drastically underestimated how much memory I would need for photos during the next two weeks. Not wanting to be constrained from taking photographs or having to shoot jpegs instead of RAW, I set out to find some CF cards in Chamonix. When I finally did locate some, I was shocked at the 64 euro (about $100 US!) price tag for a single 8gb card (an 8gb CF card is about $25 on Amazon.com). But I figured that the value of fully documenting the oncoming adventure outweighed the exorbitant cost, so I bought three—and as the trip progressed and memories and photography ensued, I was glad I had.
By the time we started hiking to Argentière in the late afternoon, thundershowers had replaced the day's sunny skies (this would be a typical weather pattern during our hike, making early starts a good idea). We were soaked when we arrived in Argentière, so we quickly checked into Gîte d'étape le Belvedere (where I had also stayed in 2005). It sure was nice to have a warm bed and shower (and wi-fi!) rather than a clammy tent we North Cascadians are used to.
JOUR 2: July 18: Argentière Le Tour Charamillon Col de Balme Le Peuty Trient
12 km / +953 m / -925 m
This was the first full day's walking on the route, but pretty undemanding. We started out under cloudy yet dry skies, but the rain started to come down pretty hard by late morning. Fortunately, we had just arrived at the lift station of Charamillion, so we popped inside for a dry seat and bought a couple of coffees to pay for it. When the rain stopped about a half hour later, we reshouldered our packs and continued our upward trek to the high point of the day, the Col de Balme. The Col de Balme stands on the border between France and Switzerland. From now on we would use Swiss Francs instead of Euros.
There is also a refuge at the Col de Balme. Apparently you can stay there, but if so it seemed odd that you cannot bring your pack inside, the bathroom is just a hole in the floor of a dirty outhouse, signs above the outdoor seating area tell you not to loiter, waterstained postcards and moldy cookies are for sale at exorbitant prices, and a tiny woman keeps asking you if you want to buy something for each minute you are inside. No joke. It felt like something out of a fairy tale. Of the Hansel and Gretel sort.
Needless to say, we didn't loiter at the outdoor seating area or the col, and we continued on towards the small village of Trient, our final destination for the day. With its pink church and backdrop that gives a glimpse of the glaciated mountains above, Trient is a beautiful town. We needed to find a place to stay for the night, so we headed for the Relais du Mont Blanc, where I had stayed in 2005. We were a bit shocked when we were told that the cost of a bed was 50 CHF each; this was more than double* in the price (21 CHF/bed) that I had paid in 2005. We decided to check out the recently-opened Hotel La Grande Ourse next door. There, for a more reasonable 35 CHF per person, we got our own room (actually we had the whole floor to ourselves since for some reason everyone else seemed to be staying next door) and access to newly remodeled and spotless bathrooms and showers. The decor had a modern middle-eastern theme that was a bit out of character with the French feel of the town, but the owners were very nice and the rooms were very comfortable.
*The increase in prices—for lodging and also for the daily grocery bill—was something we would become used to over the course of the trip. In 2005, I had spent a daily average of 20 CHF on lodging and 12 CHF on food, while on this trip I spent an average of 36 CHF and 22 CHF on lodging and food, respectively, both figures nearly double the 2005 values. My parents spent even more since they bought meals at the hotels and huts. By the end of the trip, we probably wouldn't have batted an eye at the 50 CHF per bed price tag at the first hotel we went to in Trient.
Rested and caffeinated (my parents couldn't resist making coffee too), we began the downhill hike to Champex. Since Champex is a bit of a resort town, we had called ahead the previous day and made a reservation for a room at the Au Rendez-Vous B&B. We were pleasantly surprised by our cute room and private balcony overlooking Champex Lac. Furthermore, the lower floor was a restaurant so my parents were able to order dinner and have it hand-delivered so they could enjoy it on the balcony. We stayed in a few more room-above-restaurants over the course of our trip, and all of them were among the favorite places we stayed.
After dinner, I set out to explore the alpine garden above the village that supposedly contains more than 4000 plants. I was disappointed to discover it had closed for the evening, so instead I went on a short jog around the lake before returning to enjoy a book and hot chocolate on our balcony.
JOUR 4: July 19: Champex Sembrancher Le Châble
13 km / +104 m / -749 m
This day brought us on a pleasant pastoral walk and then valley stroll through the everyday working Switzerland. It was a pretty easy morning's effort, and we arrived in Le Châble shortly after noon. The previous evening we had called several hotels in Le Châble and had become rather worried when we discovered that everything that was reasonably-priced was fully booked; but a desperate call to the tourist office had revealed that rooms were still available at a place called Camp de Base, a hotel that had been built into some extra space at the lift station. Although not in the most aesthetic location (we walked right past the rotating lift mechanism to get to our room), it was a clean and reasonably pleasant place to sleep. Plus, there were plugs and wi-fi, which satisfied the day's in-town-must-find-wi-fi quest.
We spent most of the afternoon relaxing and reading in the lawn near the church, becoming spectators to an unexpected wedding ceremony. We also made sure to go to the local supermarket before it closed at 5:30 pm, since we needed to stock up on groceries since we wouldn't be passing through another town for a few days. My want-good-food-and-light-packs parents just bought snack food since they planned on buying meals at the huts, while cheapskate-heavier-pack-is-okay-I-like-instant-mashed-potatoes me had to buy enough to make all of my meals.
It was mostly just up-up-up the entire way. In fact—at least by Kev's quoted elevation gain and loss statistics—this day had more elevation gain than any other day on the trip. But without the downhill (which I find to be more exhausting than uphill) the day did not seem very difficult. We arrived at the Cabane du Mont Fort by mid-afternoon. We exchanged our shoes for comfortable clogs (all the mountain huts we encountered provided clogs for overnight guests since they don't want guests wearing their boots in the rooms) and enjoyed a few hours sitting on the outdoor patio, which became increasingly pleasant as the dayhiking crowds dissipated. Towards late afternoon, a now-typical late afternoon rain storm moved in, and we relocated to inside the cozy hut. After a hot dinner—for my parents, a four course meal complete with desert; for me, my standard staple of mashed potatoes with mozzarella cheese balls and cherry tomatoes—we headed for our books and beds.
It is also worth noting that this day was a Sunday. We found that Sunday is a good day to stay at huts because most stores in the towns are closed; also, since many people have to work Monday the huts don't seem to fill up as much as they might on Friday and Saturday nights.
Given that in late June 2005 my sister and I had encountered practically no snow on the entire Walker's Haute Route, we were a bit surprised to find long sections of trail obscured by snow. The three of us had opted to hike the route in sneakers rather than boots, so while the terrain was flat enough and the snow soft enough that we able to hike just fine in our sneakers, our feet got quite wet.
There were several people on the trail. At one point, I encountered an army of about a dozen hikers. I trudged behind them for a few minutes clearing my throat and scuffing my feet before becoming impatient and scrambling up onto the hillside and hiking cross-country until I could regain the trail on the other side of the army. I was a bit worried that all my passing would be for naught when I stopped and waited for my parents at the next col, but I hadn't been waiting long when my parents rounded the corner. "Can't stop long," my dad announced. "We hiked off trail for awhile to pass a giant group and we can't let them catch up to us now."
Finally, we arrived at the barren valley of the Cabane de Prafleuri. Originally built to house workers at a nearby quarry, the Cabane de Prafleuri is rather utilitarian and lacks some of the character of the other mountain huts along the route. As our day along the trail foreshadowed, the hut was rather crowded that night. But the hikers assigned to our dinner table were pleasant and spoke English, so my parents enjoyed chatting with them while I buried my unsocial nose in a book.
I always make an effort to rehydrate in the evening after a day of hiking or climbing. So I had probably drunk a couple of liters of water before I noticed the sign in the bathroom warning that the water was non-potable. Oops. I never did get sick and I somewhat wonder if the non-potable claim was related to the 8 CHF price tags I noticed on the 1.5 L bottles of water at the hut.
The walk that leads from the rather gloomy Prafleuri glen to Arolla is a true delight, full of varied terrain and beautiful scenery. We also had a couple of memorable wildlife experiences en route. First there were the ibex we saw bounding along the hillside as we descended from the Col des Roux. Then there was the run-in with the herd of licking cows on the hike along the shores of Lac des Dix. We were a bit startled when the first cow we encountered began approaching us rather than ambling off as expected. Next thing I knew there was a giant cow tongue in the viewfinder of my camera and then a wet smear of cow saliva on my lens. The cows followed us for quite awhile trying to lick us, apparently able to sense the saltiness of our sweat.
The standard route between Cabane de Prafleuri and Arolla goes directly from the Lac des Dix up to the Col de Riedmatten. An alternative and slightly longer route passes by the Cabane des Dix—which occupies a spectacular site with direct view onto the north face of Mont Blanc de Cheilon—and then crosses back to the standard route via the flat expanse of the Cheilon glacier. We chose the Cabane des Dix option and were glad we did. Cabane des Dix made a great lunch stop. We bought some cokes from hut's restaurant and enjoyed them along with the warm sun and views on the outdoor deck. I spotted a guide to flowers of the Swiss Alps on the bookshelves inside the hut, and I spent some time trying to identify the many different types of flowers we had seen so far. My dad topped off the lunch break with one of his 10-minute (re)power naps.
There are two ways to cross over the ridge into the basin leading to Arolla: the trail through the Col de Riedmatten or the ladders of the Pas des Chèvres. There are three ladders, each one vertical and securely attached to the rock, with one or two rungs so close to the rock face that only the toes of your boots can gain purchase. We chose to surmount the ridge via the ladders, which seemed more exciting than the trail.
Once over the pass, it was a pretty downhill hike to Arolla. Although a tiny village, Arolla has several hotels which probably cater to a winter skiing crowd. We stayed at Chalet Les Ecureuils, a humble chalet on the edge of town that had only a small sign on the door noting that it was a place to stay. As a result, we had the place to ourselves, which was a welcome treat after the previous night's crowded hut. Already spoiled by having wi-fi on all of our previous nights in towns and noticing there was no wi-fi where we were staying, I set out to find a wi-fi signal in Arolla. I discovered a signal at the local café, so I bought a 4CHF coke and then politely asked for the password. When the usual late afternoon thundershower arrived, I headed back to our room to enjoy the sound of rain thrumming on the roof.
We arrived in La Sage in the early afternoon, with plenty of time to explore the town and also Villa just up the road. Based on my fond recollections from 2005, we chose to stay above the Café-Restaurant L'Ecureuil; the place had the same comfortable homey feel I remembered. My parents ordered and ate dinner on the outdoor patio of the downstairs restaurant, enjoying the wholesome home-cooked nature of the meal and the idyllic views that could be seen right from their table.
The second section of uphill is along a moraine crest to the Cabane de Moiry, which stands in a spectacular position on a rocky knoll overlooking the Moiry glacier. With a parking lot at the base of the moraine, the hut is a popular destination for dayhikers and overnight guests alike. Also, climbers use it as a base for nearby climbs. When I arrived at the hut, I was surprised to see a new addition that had not been there in 2005 (I later learned it had been built in 2010). The new addition added a magnificent glass-walled dining room overlooking the glacier, as well as some new accommodation facilities above. The atmosphere of the hut had changed from small and cozy to spacious and spectacular. My dad called it the "Disney World of mountain huts."
As with many of the huts we encountered along the route, there were signs saying that the water was non-potable. I asked the guy behind the check-in counter about this, and he told me quite seriously that the last person who drank the water from the taps had to be airlifted out in a helicopter. Notably, the guy behind the check-in counter was also the person who would sell me a bottle of water for 8 CHF. But I suppose he put a bit of fear in me about the hut water, since instead of drinking straight out of the taps, I hiked about 5 minutes down the trail to a stream to fill up my water bottles.
At dinner, we enjoyed the company of a friendly Swiss girl named Simone, who had been assigned to the same dining table and whose English was good enough to have an interesting conversation. My parents really enjoyed these relatively frequent opportunities along the route to meet people from all over the world.
This section of the route has some of the most downhill of any day, but it is broken up into two legs. The first leg is just the descent back down the moraine we had hiked up the day before, and goes quickly. The second leg is from the Col de Sorebois down to Zinal. Simone caught up to us at the Col de Sorebois, where we had stopped to have lunch. She joined me for the hike to Zinal. We chatted most of the way down, but as a result we missed the trail turnoff for Zinal, and ended up on a dirt road which led us downward in long gentle loops, with open views of the Weisshorn across the valley and the town below. The road dumped us out at the south end of Zinal about 10 minutes walk from the town center. I was a bit worried that my parents (who had taken the trail down) had been in town waiting and wondering for quite awhile, so Simone and I hurried towards the town center. My mom's bright pink shirt was easy to spot. It turned out that my parents had arrived in Zinal at about the same time that Simone and I did. They reported that the trail had been a knee-crunching descent, so perhaps the way Simone and I went was not a bad way after all.
Zinal has a nice supermarket with great selection and prices, so we stocked up on groceries. It was a good thing we did, since with a small town the next night, then a night in a hut, and then a Sunday, the next time we would have a grocery store would be after three full days. We stayed at the Auberge Alpina, which offered both room and doitoir (French for "dorm") options.
The thing I remember most about this day was that it was quite hot. At the Forcletta, we ran into a Swiss fellow who told us that this kind of weather pattern (i.e. unusually warm air on one side of the Alps which would inevitably at some point merge with cooler air from the other side) meant thundershowers and rain in the near future. We were a bit concerned, as the next few days were to entail some of the more rugged and lengthy sections of the route; and there were stunning views ahead that we of course wanted to be able to see.
We arrived in Gruben by mid-afternoon. Gruben is the first German-speaking Swiss town on the route, and suddenly I felt rather lost without my reasonably-serviceable French to rely on. We stayed at the Restaurant Waldesruh at the north end of town, a converted childrens home that was just as quaint as I remembered it from 2005. As we had already discovered, it was convenient to stay above a restaurant, since it solved the "where do we eat?" problem for my parents. The place did not have wi-fi, however, so I set out on my usual gotta-find-internet quest. I managed to get the access code for the wi-fi at the Hotel Schwarzhorn (located on the other end of town) by walking up to the front desk and asking "Haben Sie Wi-fi?"
Notably, on this day we crossed the single downed tree on the trail on the entire route. Perhaps this doesn't sound significant, but to someone coming from the North Cascades where some early-season hikes have a dozen blow-downs on a single switchback, we noticed how few downed trees (or evidence for blowdowns that had already been sawed through) there seemed to be on the trails.
My parents got detained at Augustbordpass by the talkative Swiss guys from the day before while I continued onwards, so we hiked separately for most of the day. We regrouped at Jungen, an idyllic hamlet clinging to the hillside high above the Mattertal valley with Dom and the Grubenhorn rising on the left side and the Brunegghorn and Weisshorn towering on the right. I had plenty of time to walk up and down the streets of Jungen. When my parents arrived, we enjoyed a coffee (for me and my mom) and beer (my dad) at the hamlet's small restaurant, and then headed down towards St. Nicklaus.
We could have stayed the night in bustling St. Nicklaus, but since we planned to hike to Zermatt via the Europaweg (a challenging section of trail stretching 31 km between Grächen and Zermatt which maintains a route high above the Mattertal with one great view point after another), we would be better situated for the next day by staying in Gasenried. Located on the hillside opposite the one we had just descended, Gasenried is a two-hour uphill hike from St. Nicklaus, or a 20-minute (and 4.20-CHF) ride by post bus. My parents opted for the post bus. I hemmed and hawed a bit over the idea of not wanting to "cheat," but it was already edging towards late afternoon—thundershower time—so I decided to join my parents on the bus. The first post bus that arrived at the St. Nicklaus bus station went to Grächen, a town that was also up on the hillside but to the north of Gasenried; not wanting to wait another hour for the next bus (it was a Sunday so the bus service was a bit more reduced than during the week), we decided to take the Grächen bus as far as Niedergrächen and then hike the remaining 30 minutes to Gasenried.
As of 2013 at least, the only place to stay in Gasenried is Hotel Alpenrösli, where I had also stayed in 2005. It was a good thing we had made reservations a few days previous, since the hotel was pretty full that night. We had reserved the matratzenlager (German for "dorm"), and we were pleasantly surprised to discover this meant we had the entire basement—a large dorm room, two bathrooms, and an entire gutted out barroom area—to ourselves. We capped off the good day with a beer (my parents) and ice cream (me) on the outside deck of the hotel. As we were sitting on the deck, it started to become quite windy, and the dining locals warned us that the next day would be rainy. Perhaps we hadn't avoided the weather system after all. While the weather was still fair, I set off for a bit of exploration, discovering a pleasant stroll along a trail that looped above and then back through the town.
So we spent the morning hanging out in the basement of Hotel Alpenrösli, darting back and forth to the small-yet-surprisingly-well-stocked grocery store across the street for fresh bread and other goodies, and obsessively refreshing the weather forecast. By 1pm the weather forecast was still showing clearing by evening, and a lull in the drizzle encouraged us to decide to go for it. Decked out in our rain gear, we began hiking. At least we would have a warm and dry place to stay that night at the Europa Hut.
We were joined by a pair of young American hikers (Chris and Margarita) who had started out that morning but had turned around during an episode of thunder and lightening. The weather seemed to get worse before it got better, as about an hour into the hike it began to pour. At one point, it even started to snow. But we were making good time, as keeping moving was a good way to stay warm. Fortunately, the weather did start to improve by late afternoon. Not quite the sunny skies that had been forecasted for the evening, but at least it stopped raining and allowed us to dry off. As the weather improved, some wildlife came out, and on a few occasions an ibex or sheep quickly soared (the ibex) or furtively ambled (the sheep) over the trail in front of us.
I was surprised at how much the trail on this leg of the Europaweg had deteriorated since I had hiked it in 2005. Some sections were completely obscured by rock fall and slides. Previously on the route I had scoffed at signs warning to move fast and watch out for rock fall since in general the "rugged and dangerous" terrain on the Walker's Haute Route would be thought of as relatively benign terrain in the North Cascades; but I was put back in my place when a sizable boulder rolled down a gully right in front of me. The first leg of the Europaweg is undeniably more hazardous when wet conditions loosen the slopes and make the boulder field crossings more slippery.
About five hours after we left Gasenried, we rounded a spur and there was the Europa Hut! Within half an hour, we were all in dry clothes and enjoying a warm dinner inside the cozy timber-built cabin. One benefit of the weather was that it kept the usual crowds away from the Europa Hut, and we enjoyed our stay there much more because of that.
TAG 14: July 29: Europa Hut (Randa) Tâschalp Tufteren Findeln Zermatt
18 km / +348 m / -962 m (with detour: 25 km / +1521 m / -2171 m)
Over the previous week as we had gotten closer and closer to the completion of the Walker's Haute Route, we had started to hear rumors about the suspension bridge on the second leg of the Europaweg being closed due to rock fall damage. Sure enough, soon after leaving the Europa Hut we encountered detour signs. The detour involved descending about 600-700 m towards Randa (Randa is actually on the valley approach to Zermatt, so this allows access to or from the Europaweg), crossing the gully that the damaged bridge spanned high above, and then hiking steeply back up to regain the Europaweg on the other side of the bridge. This detour added about 1.5 hours to our day, but since it occurred right away, we were back on the high route by mid-morning. With the added distance and elevation gain and loss of the detour, this was probably the longest day of hiking of the entire two weeks from Chamonix to Zermatt. But we were too distracted by the sunny skies and the views to notice. For the first couple of hours of the day the massive Weisshorn towered across the Mattertal, while for the last couple of hours of the hike towards Zermatt, the Matterhorn pierced the skyline and made all of the effort of getting there worth it.
It was late afternoon when we arrived in Zermatt. As the biggest town since we left Chamonix two weeks previous, Zermatt was initially a bit overwhelming. The first thing we needed to do was find an (affordable) place to stay. We beelined for the information office and were given a list of "low priced" hotels with availability. We hiked over to the first one on the list, but before committing to this one my mom wanted to scope out a few more options. ALL of the options, ideally. So we wandered up and down the hot and crowded streets of Zermatt in a seemingly endless quest; eventually, we found a hotel my mom was satisfied with: the first hotel on the list, the very first one we had checked out a couple of hours previous. Ah, it was nice to finally take the packs off!
With our arrival in Zermatt, it set in that the amazing fortnight hike that we had been planning and anticipating for so long was now over. Completed. Checked off the to-do list. It had been such a marvelous adventure, so full of memories that the first days of the trip seemed like the distant past rather than just two weeks ago, obscured behind the experiences that had happened since. I felt an overwhelming urge to grab a paper and pen, and write things down before I forgot. So that's exactly what I did. Fortunately, I was somewhat comforted by the knowledge that I had hundreds—thousands actually—of photos that helped capture and preserve as much of the experience as possible.
My parents spent a few more days in Zermatt doing dayhikes and exploring the town. Unfortunately for me, conditions on the Matterhorn were not ideal for the solo attempt I had been considering. But I had made plans to do some climbing in the Dolomites with a friend from Munich, so before I knew it I was on the train leaving Zermatt, one adventure finished and another in the making.
From the Family Photo Albums: "Our Swiss Holiday, Aug 9-Sept 1, 1985"
Twenty-eight years before hiking the Walker's Haute Route with my parents, I had made my first visit to Zermatt with them. I was 2 years old and my sister was 8 months old. Some photos I scanned from the family photo albums are given below.
More on my websiteThis trip report is copied from my website, which has several other climbing trip reports and photographs from the North Cascades and elsewhere: www.stephabegg.com.