On the Hardaker Trail!
Bryan Hardaker describes his epic journey:


The Haute Route - 16th to 29th August 2006

The 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.

Until 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.


Day 1  -  Manchester to Geneva; then bus to Le Lavancher; 2 hour walk to Argentiere (1252m).

So 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.

The 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, Nova Scotia.

The 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.

It 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.

We 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!


Day 2  -  Argentiere to Trient(1279m) via Col de Balme (2220m)

Next 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

The 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 slow pace.

We 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!)

On the climb to the Col de Balme


Day 3  -  Trient to Champex du Lac(1466m) via Fenetre d'Arpette (2665m)

It 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.

Trient Glacier from path to Fenetre d'Arpette

The 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!

Bill 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.

Descent route from Fenetre d'Arpette

As 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" - with translation!

Time 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.

Ann, Robin and Phil towards the end of a long day!

Finally, some 11 hours after leaving Trient, we arrived at the Pension Plein Air in Champex just in time for dinner.


Day 4  -  Champex to Le Chable (821m)

The 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.

This 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!


Day 5  -  Le Chable to Cabane de Montfort (2457m) via Verbier ski resort.

After 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.

Verbier 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!

I 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.

Approaching the Cabane du Montforte

Finally 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!


Day 6  -  Cabane de Montforte  to Cabane de Prafleuri (2624m); via Col Termin (2648m); Col de Louvie (2921m); Col de Prefleuri (2987m)

Breakfast 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.

Sunrise over the Mont Blanc range from the Cabane du Montforte

The 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

Fox seen from path to Col Termin

After 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.

Grand Combin range from the path to the Col de Louvie

The 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!

The 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!

Heading for the Grand Desert Glacier

After 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.

Cabane de Prafleuri from the top of the gully

When 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.

So 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.

Inside the Cabane de Prafleuri

A 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!


Day 7  -  Cabane de Prafleuri  to Cabane des Dix (2928m) via Col des Roux (2804m) and Lac des Dix.

Sun 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.

This 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.

Lac de Dix

Our 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

The Matterhorn

The 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.

The Dix hut

An 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!


Finally 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 made.


Sunset from the hut door


Day 8  -  Cabane des Dix to Les Haudres (1447m) via Pas de Chevres (2855m - ladders!). (or Col de Riedmatten - Bill & Sharmian)

The 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 breakfast.

Sunrise at the Dix hut

The 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.

Crossing the Glacier de Cheilon, with the Dix hut in the background

After 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.

His 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.

The ladder section

The 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 well.

Any feelings of being super-heroes however were quickly dispelled when 3 mountain bikers came up the ladders complete with bikes!

Once 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.

The descent to Arolla provided yet another set of superb views and for me it was all too soon that we reached the valley.

Descending towards Arolla

Today 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 after all!

After 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.


Day 9  -  Rest day - short walk to Evolene

After 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.

This 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!

Over 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!

Bill 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.


Day 10  -  Les Haudres to Cabane de Moiry (2825m) via Col de Torrent (2916m) and Lac du Moiry

At 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.

Some 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.

View down to Les Haudres and Arolla peaks

We hurried over the col as it was pretty chilly up there and started a steady descent towards the Lac du Moiry.

Descent towards Lac du Moiry

The 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.

Heading towards the Cabane du Moirey

Eventually 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.


Day 11  -  Cabane du Moirey to Zinal (1675m) via Col de Sorebois (2896m)

The 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

Sunrise at Cabane du Moirey

We 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 de Sorebois.

Above dam on Lac du Moirey

As 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.

Lunch 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.

Weather changing on descent to Zinal

At 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 of Zinal.


Day 12  -  Zinal to Gruben (1822m) in Turtmantal valley; via Col de Forcletta (2874m)

The 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 the pass.

Zinal from the climb towards the Col de Forcletta

It 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!

On the Col de Forcletta

A 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!

'Simple' accommodation in the Hotel Schwarzhorn

We 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!

The 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!


Day 13  -  Gruben to St Niklaus (1127m) via Augstbordpass (2894m)

A 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 and grovelled!

On the boulder field route

After 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 to do.

As 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.


Eventually 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!

The steep slopes above St Niklaus

The 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!


Day 14  -  St Niklaus to Zermatt (1606m)

Our 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.

As 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 our completion!

A 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.......?

The group outside Zermatt YHA


Contributed by Bryan Hardaker
September 2006


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