Ever wondered what it’s like to hike the famed Haute Route, the “high route” across the Alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland? One of our adventurers brings the trail to life with her wonderful photos and descriptions.
So many times, as I viewed the pictures that I took along our Classic Haute Route hike in July 2018, I thought to myself, we look like we are on a Hobbit quest! The image above especially inspired me! As we carefully rounded the jagged edge of an exceptionally exposed part of the trail, the velvet-like tufts of grass dotted with yellow and blue wildflowers, in contrast with the rough texture of rock towering above us, looked like something straight out of an adventure fairy tale. But this wasn’t imaginary—we really were in an adventure fairy tale all of our own!
We had begun our quest in France in the beautiful town of Chamonix, nestled in a peaceful valley between jagged and towering peaks of the Alps, a center for all things mountain and snow and sports! Our journey would lead us through remote, wild, and untouched landscapes at soaring altitudes, which left us wondering if it was the thin air that stole our breath away or the sheer beauty that surrounded us. The prize awaiting us at our journeys end was Zermatt, Switzerland, and the fabled peak of the Matterhorn. But many days of wondrous hiking, surprises, and beauty were on the agenda before we could feast our eyes on that grand reward.
Along the way every turn, every pass revealed more breathtaking scenery to inspire us. Dramatic skies, snow-capped mountains, rolling meadows dotted with trees and wildflowers were more than our senses could take in at times. Sometimes we just had to sit down and eat chocolate, just like Hobbits snacking on lembas bread.
Icy cold, crystal-clear lakes welcomed and cooled our well-worn feet.
Sometimes delightful dwellings would appear along the way. These huts were remotely located, and our imaginations ran wild with speculation as to their occupants. I found myself speculating that maybe some fantastic Middle Earth creatures lived here in this tiny cluster of intriguing cabins that lured us in with tempting signs!
Occasionally, civilization would present itself, but it was still a far cry from the smog and crowds of a big city. Beautiful little towns such as Evolene here, tucked away in the district of Hérens in the canton of Valais in Switzerland, were a joy to the senses and to the gastro-grumblings after a long hike! Exquisite homes adorned with an abundance of flowers and whimsical ceramic creatures were lovingly tended to, again inspiring one to go home and buy a potted plant—maybe even two!
The Swiss and the French are, quite rightly, very proud of their water. It is crystal clear, cold as ice, and clean as a whistle! My first encounter with a hand-carved water tank made from the trunk of a tree, complete with water spout, had me vowing to document every single one we saw, and I did—okay, I missed one in Italy later on because my camera had been confiscated because we were actually climbing an Alp—but that is another story! This was one of my favorites, located on the grounds of the Grand Hotel Kurhaus, where we spent two perfect nights.
Most days we saw no one other than each other, and the only sounds were cow bells in the distance and the warning cries of marmots as we approached their dens.
The ancient breed of Hérens cattle, named after the Val d’Hérens region of Switzerland, are famous in the area for their fighting natures. Females battle for supremacy over the herd each year. Locking horns, they push until one gives way and the remaining cow is the winner. The winning cow then goes on to battle again and again until an undefeated queen is crowned. Locals capitalized on this for sport, and for generations they have organized annual cow fights to entertain the crowds. Much honor is placed on having one’s cow crowned the queen!
To our delight, since rarely are the cows injured in this quite civilized “fight,” a pair of Herens decided to “practice” for the final in a field we were about to cross. A quick lens change and voila—documentation of our very own private cow fight!
Every day we found a breathtaking place to stop and eat lunch, usually by a magnificent lake. Lunchtime will never be the same again in my dreary old kitchen at home. The pink snow by this beauty of a lake is called watermelon snow and is caused by an algae, so it’s best not to eat it, apparently! We encountered quite a lot of it along the way, which only added to the already fantastical panorama of spectacular and sometimes quite unbelievable scenery of the high Alps!
Not all the cable cars we encountered looked like they were from this century—or the last one for that matter!
This one, for instance, was unmanned, and you simply climb in, close the door, and telephone down to the station to ask if someone could bring you down!
Before we knew it we were in Zermatt, and mesmerized by the iconic spire of the Matterhorn. Zermatt is everything you imagine it to be and much, much more, a perfect ending to an inspiring trek.
At the hotel later that evening, we rode the elevator down to the lobby with an older English couple. They were polite but not friendly—I supposed it was because they realized we were Americans. Suddenly one of us said something and they quickly realized that we had hiked to Zermatt from Chamonix, France, along the Haute Route, and their prickliness melted away! We chatted about our trip for a while in the lobby before bidding our new friends goodbye and heading off to dinner. I realized then what we had actually just done. We had experienced something really special, something most people will never experience; we had seen things most people will never see and had been places most people will never go. If you are able, hike the Haute Route—you won’t regret it!
—Text and photos by Jayne Ryan, Classic Haute Route.