Chamonix to Zermatt, Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn. What pictures these names conjure in the minds of those of us who love mountains! The two greatest mountaineering centres in the world – one overshadowed by the highest massif in Western Europe and the other by the most famous, if not the most elegant and most instantly recognised, of all mountains.
Chamonix to Zermatt, Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn – recipe for a visual feast!
To walk from one to the other is to sample that feast in full measure; a gourmet extravaganza of scenic wonders from first day till last, and each one (to carry the metaphor to its limit) a course that both satisfies and teases the palate for more.
The Walker’s Haute Route does just that.
In two weeks of mountain travel you will be witness to the greatest collection of 4000m peaks in all the Alps and visit some of the most spectacular valleys. There you’ll find delightful villages and remote alp hamlets, wander flower meadows and deep fragrant forests, skirt exquisite tarns that toss mountains on their heads, cross icy streams and clamber beside glaciers that hang suspended from huge buttresses of rock. You’ll traverse lonely passes and descend into wild, stone-filled corries. There will be marmots among the boulders and ibex on the heights. And your days will be filled with wonder.
It’s more demanding than the well-known Tour du Mont Blanc, for the route is over 180km long; it crosses eleven passes, gains more than 12,000m in height and loses more than 10,000m. But each pass gained is a window onto a world of stunning beauty.
There’s the Mont Blanc range and the chain of the Pennine Alps, one massif after another of snowbound glory: Mont Blanc itself, with its organ-pipe aiguilles; the overpowering mass of the Grand Combin; Mont Blanc de Cheilon and Pigne d’Arolla, Mont Collon and Tête Blanche and the huge tooth of Dent Blanche. There’s the Grand Cornier, Ober Gabelhorn and Weisshorn and stiletto-pointed Zinalrothorn; then there’s the Dom and Täschhorn, Breithorn and Matterhorn and all their crowding neighbours sheathed in ice and snow to act as a backcloth to dreams; a background landscape to the Walker’s Haute Route, contender for the title of Most Beautiful Walk in Europe.
THE WALKER’S HAUTE ROUTTE
The original High Level Route (Haute Route), from Chamonix to Zermatt and beyond, was developed more than a hundred years ago. But this was very much a mountaineer’s expedition, for it traced a meandering line among the great peaks of the Pennine Alps by linking a number of glacier passes. James David Forbes, scientist and active mountaineer, pioneered an important section of this in 1842 when he crossed Col d’Hérens, Col de Fenêtre and Col du Mont Collon. Alfred Wills also made early explorations, but it was mainly a joint effort by other members of the Alpine Club, notably J. F. Hardy, William Mathews, Francis Fox Tuckett, F. W. Jacomb and Stephen Winkworth and their guides, that saw a complete High Level Route established in 1861. This route went from Chamonix to Col d’Argentière, then via Val Ferret, Orsières, Bourg St Pierre, Col de Sonadon, Col d’Oren, Praraye, Col de Valpelline and on to Zermatt.
The following year (1862) Col des Planards was discovered, which led to Orsières being by-passed, thereby allowing a better line to be made in the link between the northern edge of the Mont Blanc range and that of the Pennine Alps.
This High Level Route was, of course, primarily a summer mountaineering expedition that was no small undertaking, especially when one considers the fact that at the time there were no mountain huts as we know them now and all supplies had to be carried a very long way. But with the introduction of skis to the Alps in the late 19th century a new concept in winter travel became apparent, and with the first important ski tour being made in the Bernese Alps in 1897, and the subsequent winter ascent of major mountains aided by ski (Monte Rosa in 1898, Breithorn 1899, Strahlhorn 1901, etc), it was clearly only a matter of time before the challenge of the High Level Route would be subjected to winter assault.
In 1903 the first attempt was made to create a ski traverse of the Pennine Alps, and although this and other attempts failed, in January 1911 Roget, Kurz, Murisier, the brothers Crettex and Louis Theytaz succeeded in establishing a winter route from Bourg St Pierre to Zermatt.
Having successfully hijacked the original High Level Route as the ski-touring route par excellence, and having translated its British title as the Haute Route, the journey from Chamonix to Zermatt came to be seen almost universally as a winter (or more properly, a spring) expedition; a true classic that is, understandably, the focus of ambition for many experienced skiers and ski-mountaineers today.
But there’s another Chamonix to Zermatt high level route that is very much a classic of its kind; a walker’s route that never quite reaches 3000m on any of its passes, that requires no technical mountaineering skills to achieve, avoids glacier crossings and yet rewards with some of the most dramatic high mountain views imaginable. This is the Chamonix to Zermatt Walker’s Haute Route.
It leads comfortably from the base of Mont Blanc to the Swiss frontier at Col de Balme, and from there down to Trient following the route of the Tour of Mont Blanc or one of its variantes. The next pass is Fenêtre d’Arpette leading to Champex, and from there down to the junction of Val d’Entremont and Val de Bagnes, then curving round the foot of the mountains to Le Châble. Avoiding Verbier a steep climb brings you to Cabane du Mont Fort, and continues high above the valley heading south-east before crossing three cols in quick succession in order to pass round the northern flanks of Rosablanche.
From Cabane de Prafleuri the route heads over Col des Roux and along the shores of Lac des Dix, then on to Arolla by one of two ways: Col de Riedmatten or the neighbouring Pas de Chèvres via Cabane des Dix. Arolla leads to Les Haudères and up to La Sage on a green hillside above Val d’Hérens in readiness for tackling either Col de Torrent or Col du Tsaté. Both these cols give access to Val de Moiry and its hut perched in full view of a tremendous icefall, from where the crossing of Col de Sorebois takes the walker into Val de Zinal, the upper reaches of the glorious Val d’Anniviers. From Zinal to Gruben in the Turtmanntal the route once again has two options to consider: either by way of Hotel Weisshorn or Cabane Bella Tola and the Meidpass, or by the more direct Forcletta. After leaving Gruben a final climb to the ancient crossing point of the Augstbordpass leads to the Mattertal. A long but easy valley walk to Zermatt is the basic final stage, but a two-day alternative and much better option adopts the dramatic Europaweg which makes a true high-level traverse of the east wall of the valley, with an overnight stay in the Europa Hut.
Every stage has its own special attributes, its own unique splendour, and all add up to a walk of classic proportions. It is, of course, a scenic extravaganza whose main features are the mountains that form the landscapes through which you walk.
First of these is dominated by the Mont Blanc massif with its towering aiguilles creating stark outlines against a backwash of snow and ice. Unbelievably high and seemingly remote from valley-based existence, the dome of the Monarch of the Alps glows of an evening, shines under a midday sun and imposes itself on panoramas viewed from cols several days’ walk from the crowded boulevards of Chamonix.
Then there’s the Grand Combin making a fair imitation of its loftier neighbour as it soars above the deeply cut Val de Bagnes. This too is a vast mountain whose presence is felt many days’ walk away, a grand block of glacial artistry that lures and entices from afar.
Heading round Rosablanche gives a taste of the other side of the mountain world, where gaunt screes and dying glaciers contrast the gleaming snows of its upper slopes. But then Mont Blanc de Cheilon returns the eye to grandeur on an epic scale, with Pigne d’Arolla and Mont Collon adding their handsome profiles for close inspection, while far off a first brief glimpse of the Matterhorn promises much for the future.
Val de Moiry holds many surprises with its tarns, dammed lake, majestic icefall and contorted glaciers, while Col de Sorebois and all the way down to Zinal is one long adoration of the Weisshorn. The head of Val de Zinal is so magnificent that one yearns to be able to explore further, but the route northward denies that opportunity yet still allows it to be seen in true perspective – a fabulous cirque giving birth to glaciers that have carved a valley of much loveliness.
The Turtmanntal takes you back to the 19th century. Above it once more rises the Weisshorn, along with Tête de Milon, Bishorn and Brunegghorn and a caliper of glaciers spilling into the valley.
One of the finest viewpoints of the whole walk comes an hour and a half below the Augstbordpass between Turtmanntal and Mattertal. The Mattertal is a long green shaft 1000m below. Across the valley shines the Dom with the tongue-like Riedgletscher hanging from it. Above to the right is the Brunegghorn with the Weisshorn beyond, while at the head of the valley is seen that great snowy mass which runs between Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. But the Matterhorn itself keeps you waiting. Cross the valley at St Niklaus and climb steeply to Gasenried, then walk the length of the Europaweg and you’ll not only have the Bishorn and Weisshorn (yet again), but also the Schalihorn, Pointe Sud de Moming and Zinalrothorn, and the incomparable Matterhorn at last seen as it should be seen, from its roots above Zermatt to its cocked-head summit nearly 3000m above the valley. It’s a view worth waiting for. A view worth walking all the way from Chamonix to savour.
Despite its high passes, despite the fact that it runs across the grain of the country where deep valleys slice between the long outstretched arms of some of the highest mountains in Western Europe, the Chamonix to Zermatt route is not the sole preserve of the hardened mountain walker – although there are some taxing stages and a few delicate exposed sections that might give an understandable twinge of concern to first-time wanderers among the Alps. Most days lead into a touch of ‘civilisation’, albeit sometimes this civilisation might be just a small mountain village with few amenities. Every night there will be a lodging place with the possibility of meals provided, thereby making it unnecessary to carry camping or cooking equipment. Backpacking on this route is a choice, not an obligation.
Lodgings on the Walker’s Haute Route are in themselves very much a part of the mountain experience. In villages they allow you to capture some of the region’s culture. In remote mountain huts the wanderer is introduced to the climber’s world, with an opportunity to witness high alpine scenes that are normally privy only to the mountaineer.
Accommodation varies from hotels (there are luxuriously appointed hotels in certain villages on the route for those inclined and financially able to make use of them), to gîtes and basic refuges, and mattresses spread on the floor of communal dormitories in the attic of a pension or inn. But those planning to camp must understand that organised campsites are not to be found in all valleys, and that wild camping is officially discouraged in Switzerland.
Wherever lodgings (and campsites) are to be found along the route mention is made in the text. Similarly, wherever alternative methods of transport occur (train, bus, cable-car, etc), brief details are given. This is to aid any walkers who might fall behind their schedule due to bad weather, unseasonal conditions, sickness or just plain weariness.
The walk outlined in this guide may be achieved within a two-week holiday, while those with plenty of time available are given options which would extend the route and increase the overall experience. These options are outlined below. The longest stage demands 71⁄2 hours of walking, but there are several days of only 4 hours each. Some of the less demanding days could be amalgamated by fit trekkers in order to reduce the time required to complete the route, should they not have a full fortnight at their disposal, but it would be a pity to do so. This is a route that deserves to be wandered at a gentle pace; the very best of mountain holidays.
The first stage (Chamonix to Argentière – 2hrs) may be seen as a prelude. Should you arrive late in the day in Chamonix as you would, for example, if you flew from the UK to Geneva and travelled from there by train, then you would probably only have sufficient time to reach Argentière on foot that day.
However, if your travel arrangements get you to Chamonix at a reasonable time in the morning (on the overnight train from Paris, for example), it might be feasible to walk all the way to Trient, thus combining two stages for a 71⁄2–8hr day, thereby cutting a day off the overall route allocation.
Stage 12a (St Niklaus to Gasenried) links the original Haute Route with the new finish along the Europaweg, and takes about 11⁄2hrs walking time. However, it is not really practical to add this short stage to the demanding Augstbordpass crossing (Stage 12), nor to tack it on at the start of Stage 13. If you cannot allow a full day for this walk, it is possible to take a bus from St Niklaus to Gasenried itself – either at the end of Stage 12, or first thing on the morning of Stage 13.
One or two commercial trekking companies follow a large portion of the Walker’s Haute Route, but opt for public transport over some sections in order to allow a day or two in Zermatt at the end of a two-week holiday. This is an option available to the individual trekker too, of course. But again, it would be a shame to miss any single stage of this route, for each bears witness to the last and forms a unique link with the next.
Image by Marmotpost