the Hardaker Trail!
Hardaker describes his epic journey:
Haute Route - 16th to 29th August 2006
Haute Route is a classic walk of around 120 miles between
Chamonix at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain
in the Alps; and Zermatt, home of the most famous -
the Matterhorn. It has been on my 'tick list' of things
to do when I retire for some time now and so this summer
I decided to do something about it.
February this year I had not been on a guided trip for
30 years, but an excellent week spent walking the Overland
Trail in Tasmania with Liz proved to me that they have
their place. So having been unable to convince any of
my walking companions to have a go, and not fancying
all the hassle of sorting things out to do it solo,
I decided to book a guided trip with Ramblers Holidays.
1 - Manchester to Geneva; then bus to Le
Lavancher; 2 hour walk to Argentiere (1252m).
it was that at 10am on Wednesday 16th August I found
myself at Manchester Airport checking in to fly to Geneva
where I would meet the rest of the group. All went well
and I arrived there on time. I met up with Terry who
had been on the same flight; and was soon joined by
Robin from Australia, with his daughter Katy.
rest of the group were on a flight from Heathrow -
Patrick, from Ipswich, Bill and Charmian from London;
Sandra from Aberdeen; Richard and Ross from Washington
USA; Phil from Geordie-land; and Anne from Halifax,
plane landed and everyone from the flight came out with
the exception of our party. We had tracked down the
minibus driver so knew we hadn't missed them. An
hour and a half passed and we were beginning to consider
our options when they all appeared.
seemed that Patrick and Bill's bags had not arrived.
As Patrick was our Leader this was not a good omen!
They were amongst the 8000 items that had gone missing
following the chaos caused by the 'bomb threat' security
restrictions. As we were carrying everything we needed
for the next two weeks this was a bit of a concern!
In the end they had to buy replacement gear, although
the loss of our Leader's 1:25000 maps proved a bit of
a problem on a couple of occasions.
all piled into the minibus for the drive to Chamonix
where we would start the walk. However by now it was
getting late so we skipped the first couple of miles
and started at Le Lavancher. A pleasant few hours ensued
walking up the valley to Argentiere to arrive at the
gite just in time for dinner!
2 - Argentiere to Trient(1279m) via Col
de Balme (2220m)
day we made a late start to allow Patrick and Bill to
get some replacement gear before setting off on the
first of many big climbs - some 40,000feet over the
next two weeks. This chart may give some idea of what
the route involves
first pass we were heading for was the Col de Balme
at 7283ft. It was an easy, grassy, path but the 3000
feet of ascent proved a fairly hard introduction for
one or two of the group. The weather however was good
and the views of the great mountains of the Mont Blanc
range - the Aiguilles, the Dru and Mont Blanc itself
were so spectacular that I was happy to go at a nice
were able to sit in the sun at the top and cut up the
bread and cheese for lunch before crossing the Col and
leaving France to descend into Switzerland. The day
ended in the village of Trient with a good evening meal
and a bottle of wine before an early night - the first
of many. (bottles and early nights!)
the climb to the Col de Balme
3 - Trient to Champex du Lac(1466m) via
Fenetre d'Arpette (2665m)
was an 8:15 start the next morning for the first of
the really big days - a climb of 4,500ft to the Fenetre
d'Arpette followed by 4000ft of descent to the village
of Champex de Lac. The sun beat down as we steadily
climbed and we had our first good view of a glacier
- the Trient.
Glacier from path to Fenetre d'Arpette
ground began to get even steeper as we approached the
final part of the climb and the terrain became a lot
rougher with boulder fields and loose scree. This was
the first time I became aware of how deceptive distances
are in the Alps. I could see the Col in the distance
and it looked no more than 500ft of ascent away. However
Richard's altimeter suggested it was nearer 1500ft.
The Boot Boys will tell you that my estimating is sometimes
a 'little bit' out but never by a factor of 3! However
an hour or so later I was forced to admit that it was
1500ft after all!
and I reached the Col feeling fairly fresh, but further
down the slope it was proving a tougher day for some
of the group. They were ploughing manfully on, so we
decided to go back down and help carry one or two people's
haversacks up the final tortuous stretch. Eventually
everyone arrived and we could then start the descent.
The terrain was even worse on the other side and care
was needed over the large boulder fields.
route from Fenetre d'Arpette
we descended I had a discussion with Robin about differing
regional identities in the UK and the fact that the
Scots and Welsh even have their own national anthem.
I felt it important to point out that God's own country
(Yorkshire) also had it's own national anthem and then
gave a rousing rendition of "Ilkley Moor Baht'at" -
passed as we chatted until the shrill warning cry of
the marmot rang out. This was ideal marmot country -
nice and sunny, with boulder fields to burrow under.
A little further on we were able to spot them playing
and sunning themselves on the rocks. But we could not
hang around long and so we pushed on down towards Champex,
even denying ourselves a beer at a hostelry a couple
of miles from the village.
Robin and Phil towards the end of a long day!
some 11 hours after leaving Trient, we arrived at the
Pension Plein Air in Champex just in time for dinner.
4 - Champex to Le Chable (821m)
following day was a much easier one - 9 miles with only
300 feet of ascent and 2000ft of descent to the village
of Le Chable. It was a leisurely walk in the sunshine
through Alpine meadows that were still being scythed
and stacked by hand. An afternoon coffee stop in Sembrancher
provided a further interlude before we arrived at the
Gite in plenty of time for a shower before dinner.
was however to be our last easy day for a while as in
the morning we would have to regain all the height we
had lost since leaving the Fentre d'Arpette! So a second
bottle of wine was ordered for Phil, Terry and myself
to ensure we got a good night's sleep!
5 - Le Chable to Cabane de Montfort (2457m)
via Verbier ski resort.
a poor night's sleep punctuated by traffic noise; arguing
couples in the street outside; and rain hammering on
the roof we were up for a 7am breakfast and an 8am start.
Our destination today was to be our first mountain hut,
the Cabane de Montforte, some 5500ft above us. And to
cheer us up even further, it was pouring with rain.
Ignoring the weather we headed upwards on steep-ish
tracks towards the ski resort of Verbier, successfully
plotting a route to avoid any road walking.
was finally reached after almost 5 hours of effort and
we all piled into a coffee shop to warm up. After a
while Patrick headed off to buy a rope (why does he
need one on a walk?) and some other gear before going
to the supermarket to buy the lunch for the next three
days. This all had to be carried by us and I found myself
adding 2 melons, a large cheese, 12 apples, and 24 energy
bars to my already heavy sack! It was to be another
two days before I was able to convince the group that
this was a good time to eat the melons!
find ski resorts to be pretty depressing places out
of season. All that concrete and skiing infrastructure
looks OK under a lot of snow, but when there is none
it's an environmental disaster. Verbier was no exception
and it was even more miserable because it was shrouded
in damp mist, so we were eager to press on with the
final 2500ft to the Cabane. As we climbed the mist began
to clear and we began to get great views back along
our route and onwards towards our lodgings for the night.
the Cabane du Montforte
we reached the hut. This was one of the larger ones
with space for 150 or so people and was very popular
because of its easy accessibility from the ski lifts.
We were allocated a room.for all 12 of us! Sleeping
tends to be 'unisex' (as does washing and showering),
with either bunks or mattresses laid side by side on
the floor. Maximum occupancy is the aim! Evening meals
are provided by the Guardian and are simple but usually
very good - tonight's was vegetable soup; carrot salad;
spaghetti with mystery meat and a custard pud to finish.
You can also get a beer and/or a bottle of wine and
surprisingly prices are not too bad - £8 for a
reasonable bottle of wine. Lighting is 'regulated' so
early nights are the order of the day, particularly
if there are climbers in residence as they may well
be setting off at 2 to 3am! I slept well although I
think I may have prevented other people from doing so
and was subsequently elected to the snorer's club!
6 - Cabane de Montforte to Cabane
de Prafleuri (2624m); via Col Termin (2648m); Col de
Louvie (2921m); Col de Prefleuri (2987m)
is early so we were up and about and able to catch a
superb sunrise over to Mont Blanc; the Aiguilles and
the Grandes Jorrasse.
over the Mont Blanc range from the Cabane du Montforte
day continued in the excellent way it started. We left
the hut and started on the long high traverse towards
the Col Termin (8687ft). This was a glorious stretch
with the Grand Combin dominating the views throughout
the day. On the way we spotted our first group of chamoix
on the hillside above us, then a few feet from us a
fox sauntered across the hillside seeming totally unconcerned
by our presence
seen from path to Col Termin
a few hours we crossed the Col and then headed for our
second pass of the day, the Col de Louvie (9583ft).
Traversing high up above the valley meant the views
continued to be excellent.
Combin range from the path to the Col de Louvie
route to the Col became much rougher but was finally
reached 5 hours after leaving the Cabane. Lunch was
taken at the Col in glorious sunshine with a great view
of our onward route towards the Col de Prafleuri (9800ft).
Entertainment was provided by a bloke showing off to
his mates his mastery of 'descending technique'
on a snow slope near the Col and falling flat on his
back. We were to make his acquaintance later!
next stretch was tricky, as the route changes each year.
It avoids the more dangerous parts of the receding Grand
Desert Glacier. We had to descend towards some small
lakes down a rock face protected in parts by chains
and in other parts by nothing! Quite exciting, although
not everyone in the group would agree!
for the Grand Desert Glacier
further effort we finally reached the Col and spotted
the Cabane de Prafleuri a 1000ft below us at the bottom
of a very steep gully. A nasty little descent followed
down a really steep and slippery gully before levelling
out to cross the remnants of a giant quarry from which
much of the stone used in building the Barrage de Dix
was extracted. We were to see it's final resting place
the following day.
de Prafleuri from the top of the gully
Bill and I arrived at the hut we were approached by
the chap from the snow slope. He was Danish and he asked
if we'd seen 4 people going very slowly. We hadn't.
Apparently he was the leader. The four were inexperienced
walkers and he had told them the route before pushing
on straight across the glacier (no rope, ice axe or
crampons and minimal experience!). He seemed pretty
laid back about it and was happily drinking a beer whilst
talking to us.
having volunteered our services for a search party we
checked into the hut. As you can see from the photo
the hut had the usual communal arrangements and was
very comfortable. In fact this was one of the best 'dorms'
on the trip because of the little wooden 'wall' between
the mattresses and the area Bill is stood on.
the Cabane de Prafleuri
few hours later we sat down for dinner next to the Dane.
No sign of his people but he'd thoughtfully asked the
Guardian to save them some food! By the time we got
to the main course the first two appeared. The other
two arrived half an hour later so search party cancelled!
I still can't get over how laid back he was about the
whole thing. Anyway next morning two of them were sent
down and home in disgrace!
7 - Cabane de Prafleuri to Cabane
des Dix (2928m) via Col des Roux (2804m) and Lac des
shining again and all is right with world. Another day
up high amongst spectacular scenery. The day starts
with a stiff 300ft climb to the Col des Roux to get
the lungs going. From the top we have our first view
of Lac de Dix.
holds happy memories for me as it was here in 1990 that
I did my first, and only, Alpine fell race from Thyon
to the top of the dam - the Barrage des Dix. Unlike
British mountain races it was all uphill - 10 miles
of it - with the downhill being done by cablecar! I
had looked longingly up the valley from the top of the
dam at the snow capped mountains at the head of the
lake and it was wonderful to now be amongst them.
trail now descended towards the lake shore where we
stopped for lunch at the unmanned La Barma hut. We then
traverse towards the head of the lake passing the imposing
Glacier de Darrey before crossing the stream flowing
from the glacial moraine. As we climbed higher we caught
our first, and as it turned out our only glimpse of
the Matterhorn still a week's walking away
rest of the route was a steady slog up the moraine until
the Dix hut came into view below us. It's in an impressive
location as can be seen from the photo.
early finish was on the cards so Bill, myself, Terry
and Katy decided on a side trip to the summit of the
Tete Noire at 9780 feet before going down to the hut.
It was a rocky scramble and on the summit we were met
by a whole flock of Alpine Choughs who were making it
very clear that this was their top not ours. On the
descent we spotted some edelweiss although doubts were
expressed as the correctness of the sighting due to
their not being small and white, clean and bright -
more a sort of grey. I leave it to the reader to decide,
but I think I'm right!
we descended to the Dix hut and it was a pleasure to
spend a sunny afternoon sat outside, reading and having
a beer until the sun began to set on the mountains above.
The Guardian of the hut is a noted character and provided
plenty of amusement. When one of our group asked if
they could have hot milk in their coffee he announced
to everyone in the hut in his loudest voice "if madam
wants hot milk she should go to Interlaken or Geneva.
Here we have cold milk and very cold milk"! Certainly
answered the question! Of such things are great days
from the hut door
8 - Cabane des Dix to Les Haudres (1447m)
via Pas de Chevres (2855m - ladders!). (or Col de Riedmatten
- Bill & Sharmian)
following morning we woke to another beautiful cold
clear day. It was to be a 7:30 start so that we
could cross the glacier whilst it was still well frozen
and so we were treated to a glorious sunrise as we ate
at the Dix hut
glacier crossing was good fun. The ice was nice and
crisp and presented a challenge to make sure you avoided
the shiny blue patches that would guarantee a fall as
one of our party discovered. We crossed on the flatter
part of the glacier which meant crevasses weren't a
problem provided you stayed to the marked route.
the Glacier de Cheilon, with the Dix hut in the background
crossing the glacier we were faced with a short climb
towards the main col of the day, the Pas de Chevres.
Having been told by our guide the night before that
there was a 70-foot ladder section up to this col some
of our party were understandably nervous. The nearer
we got to it the more concerned people became, but there
was no alternative. Bill however had other plans.
wife Charmian didn't want to go this way so they were
planning to go down the valley and spend the next couple
of days going round on the bus to meet up with us again.
But he had spoken to the Guardian that morning who told
him that another pass a few hundred metres to the right
of the ladders, the Col de Reidmatten, was actually
passable this year so they went to have a look.
rest of us were going up the ladders! Patrick led up,
closely followed by Katy. Then Sandra set off with myself
a few rungs behind. Although extremely nervous she had
opted to do it without the rope and so my nominated
role was to keep her calm. Although there were a couple
of nervous points such as two rungs which were very
close to the rock so that you could only just get your
toes on them, and the point 2/3rds of the way up where
you have to hold onto a bar and step 6 feet sideways
to get onto the foot of the next ladder, she coped really
feelings of being super-heroes however were quickly
dispelled when 3 mountain bikers came up the ladders
complete with bikes!
over the pass we then started the 3000-foot descent
to Arolla. Pat way down I decided to go back up towards
the Col that Bill and Charmian were attempting, but
after climbing a couple of hundred feet I could see
no sign of them so turned back.
descent to Arolla provided yet another set of superb
views and for me it was all too soon that we reached
was to be a treat however - lunch in a café!
We settled down and halfway through my first beer Bill
and Charmian arrived. They had crossed the Col de Riedmatten
but it had been a really tough route with some pretty
unstable ground. Perhaps the ladders were preferable
lunch we split up. I lead a small group back up the
hill to traverse towards Lac de Bleu, whilst the remainder
of the party headed straight down the valley to Les
Haudres where we were to spend two nights.
9 - Rest day - short walk to Evolene
seven pretty tough days we were grateful for a day off.
Most of the group chose to take the bus to the bright
lights of Sion an hour away down the valley. They had
a good day looking round the shops! Four of us decided
to stay in the peace and quiet of the mountains. We
mooched around, had a 3 mile walk down to Evion where
we lazed around until it started to rain, caught a bus
back and generally chilled out until dinner.
was to be a treat and a surprise. After the usual carrot
salad we awaited the next course. It was raclette, which
is basically hot melted cheese with potatoes. It comes
on a small plate and after each portion the plate is
taken away and refilled. It was only after about the
third or fourth time this happened that we realised
this was the main course. I could still taste my 7th
helping next morning!
dinner we discussed the options for the following day.
The usual route is a steep 4500ft. climb straight up
from Les Haudres to the Col du Tsate, with a further
2000ft up to the Cabane from Lac du Moiry - a big day.
Needless to say no one really fancied this, particularly
as the weather forecast wasn't too promising. Patrick's
Ramblers' notes however suggested an alternative - go
over the Col de Torrent instead. This is even higher
than the Tsate and adds about 6 miles to the day but
it's possible to hire a minibus to take you up the first
3000ft. of the route. The bus was booked!
however still fancied going over the Tsate so we decided
on a compromise - skip breakfast and walk up to where
the minibus was going to drop the group off.
10 - Les Haudres to Cabane de Moiry (2825m)
via Col de Torrent (2916m) and Lac du Moiry
7am I met Bill outside the hotel. We waited a few minutes
for Katy but she had apparently 'slept in'! It was a
pleasant walk up tracks and through villages that were
just wakening for the day. We tried to buy some breakfast
but the breadman hadn't been yet so we settled on a
pack of biscuits to keep us going.
two hours later we spotted the bus and realised that
we were too high, so had to lose a hundred feet of our
hard won ascent! The weather was clearly changing as
we headed up towards the col but at least it wasn't
raining and the views remained good.
down to Les Haudres and Arolla peaks
hurried over the col as it was pretty chilly up there
and started a steady descent towards the Lac du Moiry.
towards Lac du Moiry
track then heads up by the side of the Glacier du Moiry
towards the hut. It was a rough and very steep climb
and at times was on top of a very narrow and loose moraine
by the side of the glacier with 200ft drops either side.
towards the Cabane du Moirey
the hut came into view and it was yet another one in
a superb location, this time on the edge of a cliff
overlooking the icefall of the Glacier du Moirey. Thanks
to the minibus we were a little earlier than normal
today and so had time to have a beer before dinner.
11 - Cabane du Moirey to Zinal (1675m) via
Col de Sorebois (2896m)
forecast was again not good but we woke to blue skies.
The temperature had dropped over night and all the water
was frozen, so cleaning my teeth was out of the question!
The sunrise made up for the cold however and the view
from the hut was stunning
at Cabane du Moirey
had to retrace our steps down the steep climb and it
proved to be pretty tricky because the overnight freeze
had left a lot of ice on it. In a couple of places we
had to trust to old ropes attached to the rocks to give
us some security. The route continued a further 1000ft
down towards the dam at the foot of the lake, before
we had to turn right for the 2000ft climb to the Col
dam on Lac du Moirey
we approached the dam three of the group decided to
go down and take the bus around to Zinal whilst the
rest of us continued over the pass. The col was
reached in good time and a few of us decided to make
a site trip to the summit of the Corne de Sorebois where
we got great views towards the Bernese Oberland and
we able to pick out the great peaks around the Eiger.
was taken below the col and then we headed on down.
The weather was by now showing signs of changing but
fortunately it remained OK for the rest of the day.
changing on descent to Zinal
the top of a lift a further four people opted to try
out the cable-car whilst the remainder of us completed
the final 1500ft of descent on a very steep path to
finish at our auberge accommodation in the lively village
12 - Zinal to Gruben (1822m) in Turtmantal
valley; via Col de Forcletta (2874m)
day dawned cloudy and through the occasional gaps we
could see there had been a lot of fresh snow to quite
low levels overnight. This was to be another hard day
starting with a 4000ft climb to the Col de Forcletta.
It started gradually, then eased off, before it got
steep again as we hit the fresh snow 500ft or so below
from the climb towards the Col de Forcletta
was a chilly day, although in a spirit of optimism I
had chosen to wear my shorts, so I only stayed long
enough on the col to pose for the ceremonial picture!
the Col de Forcletta
long descent followed in improving weather into the
remote Turtmanttal valley. We were to stay in the Hotel
Schwarzhorn in Gruben, although we were not in the luxury
rooms but on mattresses on the floor of the attic!
accommodation in the Hotel Schwarzhorn
know there were luxury rooms in the hotel because Sandra,
having tired of being in the snorers' room, quickly
opted to pay the £40 for an upgrade and a good
night's sleep. Unfortunately she didn't also get the
benefit of a hot shower as the heating had failed!
Turtmanttal valley is 'evacuated' during the winter.
All the houses, the hotel, and the shops are shuttered
up when the first snows appear and no one returns until
spring - a bit like parts of Scotland really!
13 - Gruben to St Niklaus (1127m) via Augstbordpass
clear, but grey start to the day for our last pass of
the trip. The climb was yet another steep one with some
pretty rough ground as we approached the top. I got
in the bad books when I was at the front by taking a
line across a large boulder field. In my defence it
was marked with the red and white paint signs on some
boulders, but there were also red and white marks on
the much easier route to he left. I did the right thing
the boulder field route
crossing the col the weather worsened and we soon found
ourselves in a heavy snowstorm. Eventually it passed
through and we pressed on as we had 5000ft of descent
we rounded a corner high up above the valley we spotted
a group of ibex above us. Cameras were dragged out of
rucksacks as we all tried to get photos in the gloom.
we reached the buildings of Jungu at the top of the
cablecar from St. Niklaus. We found a café and
all piled in out of the rain. After a coffee it was
no surprise that half the group then decided to take
the lift down the remaining 2500ft of the route!
steep slopes above St Niklaus
rest of us ploughed on down on one of the steepest descents
so far through the woods and after much effort finally
arrived in St Niklaus. Tonight was to be a treat - twin
rooms in a posh hotel with en-suite facilities!
14 - St Niklaus to Zermatt (1606m)
final day on the trail, 11 miles up the valley with
only a 1000ft of climb maximum. It was a clear day so
we hoped for views of the Matterhorn as we approached
Zermatt. After 'slight' navigation error had us climbing
a few hundred feet up a steep gully only to descend
again a few minutes later, we reached Tasch for our
pre-arranged lunch stop. Except it was shut - the hotel
manager from the night before had failed with Patrick's
request to ring and tell them we were coming. So lunch
was taken in the only other café that was open.
we left it had started to rain and the clouds had descended.
We pushed on in the worsening weather and eventually
arrived at the bright lights of Zermatt. The Matterhorn
was, disappointingly, nowhere to be seen! We booked
into the YHA, had our evening meal, then all went out
into the pouring rain to repair to the North Face bar,
where a number of jugs of beer were demolished to celebrate
great trip that has now set me thinking of what it must
be like to be on the top of some of the snow capped
summits. Maybe next summer.......?
group outside Zermatt YHA
by Bryan Hardaker
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