26 Aug 2006

The Walker's Haute Route

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I had my usual breakfast of cereal, bread and butter. I also took some extra pieces of bread and pats of butter to serve as lunch. I was getting pretty crafty!

Today I wanted to make it to Arolla, a pretty long ways away, normally two or three days journey. But I’d talked to Kris on the phone and it sounded like good weather would come tomorrow, and then be finished by Saturday. A few days ago some guys told me about the scenery in that neighborhood, and I wanted to visit in the best weather.

With such thoughts I happily boarded a lift at 8 am to save some climbing above Zinal. Continuing up through the ski area, and grateful for the lift, I thought what a fantastic place this would be to come with Kris and the kids in the winter. Great scenery and skiing terrain (that is, it seemed gentle enough for us). I was sobered to see how the snow line had come down in the night. Looking back to the meadows I walked through the day before, I saw they all had considerable snow. Pretty soon I was crunching up roads of the ski area trying to ignore a bulldozer furiously digging a deep trench. I hopped over the trench and sidehilled up the slope, hiding from the machinery just as I hid from the farmers the day before. Skirting a summit occupied by the top lift station, I trotted down to the pass Col de Sorebois (roughly 2850 meters high). The view of Lac de Moiry below was exciting.

Looking back to the Forcletta pass from the day before.

Lake Moiry with dam

Descending proved to be tricky. The grass was buried under snow, but the trail was coated in a sheath of water ice. I nearly landed on my tailbone a few times, then got wise and left the trail for the crunchier terrain on the side. Happy for hiking poles, I lowered myself straight down the steep slope, which I shared with a handful of deer. Meanwhile I thought about my options on the hike for the day.

Some folks go over the Col de Torrent due west. From there the trail wanders over meadows and down to the town of Villa. Others spend a delightful night above the Glacier du Moiry at the Cabane du Moiry, up at the head of the valley. They then double back to hike out over Col de Torrent or the pass I had in mind: the Col du Tsate. This pass would allow me to walk above the lake on the west side on a scenic trail through the meadows, and get my own good views of the glacier not too far away from the high Cabane. This pass was also further south and therefore closer to my goal of Arolla.

The Lac du Moiry has a tremendous dam, which I walked across. A cold wind whipped up the lake, but occasional sunbreaks increased during the day. I admired the somber, snowy peaks at the head of the valley, and stopped to rest in the meadows when the sun was out. I got a blister on my heel and fixed it right up with a band-aid that served well for the rest of the trip. Once leaving the dam, I saw no one until reaching the village of Les Hauderes in the afternoon. Leaving the trail for a while, I especially enjoyed a saunter up fields of La Bayenna, where I passed a hidden little farmhouse. Thick, luxourious grass made my boots wet. At the col I found snow as usual, and a whole new world of views to the west. This was addicting to have such incredible changes of scenery! However, clouds were thicker and darker on this side, and it would prove to be the rainiest afternoon of the trip. Steep peaks above Les Hauders rose into the mist (they were the Petite dent de Veisant and it’s big brother).

A hut below the Col du Tsate

Nice meadows below the Col du Tsate

Lake Moiry from the south side

Beginning the descent to Les Hauders

As I approached farm buildings I lost the trail again as usual. I believe it wound it’s official way along long low angle dirt roads. I was intent on following the straightest line down to Les Hauders, where two valleys from the south met to become the mighty Val d’Herens. So I had an intriguing time crossing steep meadows, farms, roads and forests, eventually reaching the hamlet of La Forclaz. This was the prettiest town I saw on the trip. Old Swiss houses, clustered close together, just ancient! One was built in 1500, and stood on those amazing stone stilts to keep rats out. Some old folks were sitting in front of a house. What a place, so much history and so many stories here I was sure.

A commuters trail led quickly down to Les Hauders, passing a cliff with bolted sport climbs. “Have to remember that,” I thought, temporarily forgetting my rather poor attitude towards sport climbing.

In town I ordered a meal that I couldn’t imagine what it would be (something like the word “croutons”). It turned out pretty good, sort of cheese-covered bread and ham in a pot. I called Kris who said “Dang, do you do any hiking at all?” She’s not used to cell phone reception in the mountains either! I replied somewhat defensively, and was apparently stung enough by the critiscm to abandon plans to take a relaxed bus to Arolla. Hitch-hiking wouldn’t work, no one was going up valley to Arolla. So I geared up for a rain walk, and stomped up road then trail, eventually climbing 600 meters to Arolla in about 11 kilometers. Hiking in rain isn’t too bad with an umbrella. You can take off the wet Gore-Tex and be warm enough under the “warm dome” of the umbrella. At one quaint village, I stopped to rest my feet on the porch of a sturdy house. It was nice sitting and listening to the rain in a dry place.

A strange little set of barns above Les Hauders

The town of Les Hauders. I found food here.

In Arolla I made a friend named Eric. From the Netherlands, he was hiking the opposite direction, but only for a few days. He’d had a great time and planned to see the village of La Forclaz on the way out as I recommended. Eric told fascinating stories about development projects in the jungles of Bolivia and Ecuador. He is a Ph.D. student in sociology, and full of interesting ideas. It was a great set of conversations after some kind of lonely evenings. We were the only ones in the hotel dormatory, a freezing cold side-building decorated somewhat oddly as a child’s room (complete with teddy bear on the dresser).


In the morning I had to pay for both of us with my EC card - somehow the owner thought we were together and presented one bill. It turned out well for me though, because Eric paid me back in cash. I was “land rich, cash poor”, and this boon would allow me to stay in huts away from roads for a few days. “Ciao!” I called, leaving early to crunch up the snow that came right to the edge of town. I was happy for my full-length gaitors many times on this trip, especially today - the snowiest of all days.

It didn’t take long to lose the trail above town. As they had before, deer tracks across the steep slopes showed the most efficient way, eventually gaining the trail again. I walked beneath a glacier all cold blue and white descending from the Pigne d’Arolla (3790 meters). Sadly the peak itself was shrouded. The stillness of snow muffled everything.

Fresh snow above Arolla

A snowy morning above Arolla.

Looking west from near the Riedmatten pass.

I was excited about some ladders that allowed a quick descent from the Pas de Chevres. For more skittish folk, an alternate pass 200 feet higher allowed a ladder-free descent. Unfortunately, I got the names mixed up and went to the high pass instead, having to take real care on the steep snowed-up trail on either side of the col. I cursed mildly at having missed the exciting ladders. But the expansive new view mollified me somewhat. The massive Lac des Dix in the distance would be my companion for miles. And below me, the Glacier du Cheilon could be crossed to visit the high lookout Cabane des Dix. Folks with more time sometimes spend the night there, certainly with a great view of the beautiful Mont Blanc de Cheilon (3869 meters).

Once down from the pass I hopped and slipped along in a massive boulderfield. I lost a great deal of time, first following tracks that took me the wrong way long enough, that I realized it would never work out. Boulders covered in thick or thin layers of snow, with 5 foot deep holes in between are never fun to traverse. Some people came up, I thought from the lake. I asked if they came from the lake and they said no, so I couldn’t get on their trail. There was no other trail! Later I would learn that they did come from the lake and I really should have gotten on their trail. For now though, I just figured I was on my own again, so after eating an apple and some sausage on the level glacier I descended straight down towards the lake. This was tedious, but doable, until a horrifying black cliff running alternately with water or ice blocked my path. “Oh crap!” I thought. The trail to the lake was now high above and blocked by cliffs. I found by side-hilling steep rubble I could keep descending. I thought I was home free, but another smaller hidden cliff blocked me, this time with a scenic waterfall. Scouting along the top of the cliff, I found one place that would allow a hiking descent. Sure enough, elk tracks marked the way. I slipped a little near the bottom of the impromptu path, then realized folks on the trail on the other side of a gorge were watching me carefully. “Hi,” I thought, and continued my descent. Eventually I must have made it to safety, because they lost interest and kept hiking up.

A snowy basin from boulderfields below the Riedmatten pass.

The Cabane des Dix, dramatically located above the Glacier de Cheilon.

Ladders of the Pas de Chevres.

A party hiking up from Lac des Dix.

Somewhat proud of my “wilderness descent” but also annoyed by the time and energy it took, I crossed a suspension bridge at the head of Lac des Dix. The sun was coming out, and soon great views of the Aiguilles Rouges d’Arolla soothed me. Awesome peaks and sun on both sides of the lake kept me agog for a long time. The lack of concentration allowed me to lose my warm hat somewhere in here. Hours later, I let out a wail of pain - I’d had that hat for 5 years! Boy had it been warm.

But these were minor concerns. The sun was melting the snow as I hiked up to the Col des Roux (2804 meters). I conversed in German with some day hikers, then admired the view from the top with a Dutch couple. The view was great, but…down on the south side the landscape had been altered rather sadly. Building the massive dam at the base of Lac des Dix required so much gravel quarrying, they had heavily altered this pretty basin with two lakes. Areas seemed to be cut out into gravel squares, with little roads side-hilling between them. I only had to descend a few minutes to reach my home for the night - the Cabane de Prafleuri. Actually there are two buildings, one is apparently being decomissioned. I sat and drank a beer, looking at maps and reading from the nice book collection in the hut. I was getting used to a beer a day!

The Aiguilles Rouges d'Arolla

A hut dwarfed by a shoulder of the Aiguilles

Another shot of the Aiguilles above Lac des Dix

Mont Blanc de Cheilon above Lac des Dix.

Looking back south from the western shore of Lac des Dix

Beautiful ridges above La Balma.

Snow melting quickly in the sun on the south side of the Col des Roux.

A wintery landscape from the Col des Roux.

The Cabane de Prafleuri from the Col des Roux

The caretaker working hard on the Cabane de Prafleuri!

Later a big friendly group came in, and I enjoyed a rousing dinner with them. There was an American couple from Spokane and some Scottish “Munro baggers”. The dinner was great, plenty of meat and potatoes.


A blue sky day! Wow was I lucky. I wished everyone in the hut luck and hiked away quickly as I could, crunching up through the “quarries,” following the trail in crunchy snow with my boots still wet from the day before. Some of us had tried to cozy our boots up to a heater, but the warden shut all the heaters off right after dinner. After about 1000 feet of hiking up, I rounded a buttress to reach the Col de Prafleuri (2987 meters). In the last minutes before the pass, I was admiring what looked like an easy route up an elegant mountain. The Glacier de Prafleuri contours elegantly up to the summit of Rosablanche (3336 meters). Come to think of it, now that I have a good look at the map…it would have been a fine variation! If you don’t mind a little glacier walking of course. You could then descent the Grand Desert glacier to regain the trail.

Good folk having breakfast at the Cabane de Prafleuri.

From the Col de Prafleuri, I look back to the Col des Roux and the Riedmatten pass of the day before.

The peak of Rosablanche on the horizon, from the Col de Prafleuri.

At the pass a woman surprised me by coming up the other side. It’s far from the next day’s hut. I followed her tracks down into a pretty basin with 3 lakes below the Grand Desert Glacier. It’s a barren place without snow, but for me it was a winter wonderland - crystals sparkling like jewels among the blue lakes and sky. I liked this place a lot. Still, I was pretty tired at the top of the next pass, Col de Louvie (2921 m). I lost the trail, or actually, the tracks left the trail, and I kept the trail and was rewarded by 2 feet deep snow to posthole through!

A little lake west of the Col de Prafleuri.

I got lonely, so I wrote my name in the Grand Desert.

Self portrait at the hard-won Col de Louvie.

Lac de Louvie and the incredible Grand Combin.

At the top and gradually below it was one of the best views of all. This amazing torqoise lake called Lac de Louvie nestled in the basin below. Above it across a deep valley was the monster peak Grand Combin, over 4000 meters high, with glaciers spilling in every direction. What’s better, the trail gently contoured across the basin (well, after a tedious snowy boulderfield), letting me continually admire the scene. Locally, things were dramatic too. The ground below the trail was steep, and little snow avalanches had come loose from the grass slopes above, making for exciting work climbing across the debries without slipping for an unpleasant ride. I was constantly taking pictures here. I met some people and exchanged news. Soon there were Ibex everywhere. Little herds would move their heads in unison, watching me carefully. When I finally reached my final pass for the day, Col Termin (2648 meters), I was so excited by the scene that I scrambled up a little peak to the south. An older man at the pass tried to convince me not too, citing the danger of slippery snow. I said I’d be careful, but he wasn’t reassured. “They all say that” I could imagine him thinking. Anyway, I safely returned to see him hobbling on his way to the east, while I turned north. My trail traversed a high hillside of the Bagnes valley for a few scenic miles, then entered a large meadowy basin with the usual night’s hut, Cabane du Mont Fort perched on a crest in the upper slopes. I was pretty tired when I got there. This is one of the biggest “full days” of the usual tour. I ordered a beer and a coke, and sat to admire the Grand Combin AND the other new spectacle for the day - the Mont Blanc Range! For the first time, I was seeing that compact, sharp range of granite and ice. It still looked very far away.

The Grand Combin and it's glaciers.

An exciting traversing trail to Col Termin.

Ibex above Lac de Louvie.

Ibex on a little peak above Col Termin.

Lac de Louvie, which the trail circled above.

More Ibex on the way to Col Termin.

Ibex with Grand Combin behind.

Steep and scenic trail above Lac de Louvie.

Approaching Col Termin, last pass of the day.

Looking southwest from above Col Termin.

Looking down on Col Termin from my hiking peaklet.

Leaving the hut, I hiked another hour to reach the top of a lift station called Les Ruinettes. I just hopped on and an instant later I was down in Verbier, which appeared to be a happening ski-town for the rich and famous. My knees were happy to avoid the 2000 feet of descent to get there.

A high ridge stood between me and the Mont Blanc Range. I think it would be neat to climb over it, as trails exist. But the traditional hike goes into the valley and through the towns of Sembrancher and Orsieres to reach Lac de Champex for another wilderness walk. Unfortunately, I would skip this day due to my short schedule. I hired a taxi to take me down from Verbier and back up to Champex to the west. This was expensive - 140 Euros! If I had known it would cost that much, I don’t know…maybe I would have at least hiked down to the valley from Verbier. It took the taxi a long time because of all the switchbacks descending and re-ascending.

The town of Lourtier is over 5000 vertical feet below!

Resting high above Champsec.

Cabane du Mont Fort is just visible on a little hill, center right.

First views of the Mont Blanc Range!

Cabane du Mont Fort, where walkers often stay.

Mos Eisley...I mean Verbier

At Champex I checked into a hotel, having dinner with a really nice couple from New Zealand. They were in a tramping club, and were both skilled in search and rescue. They told me some great stories from the “Southern Alps.” They knew Sir Edmond Hillary! The only bad thing about the hotel was that the owner turned up loud techno music at 2 am in the bar, right below my room. I awakened from a great, sound sleep and blearily wandered down to ask what the heck was going on. The owner came up behind me in the dark and touched my hip. This frightened her, and she screamed, causing me to yell too. The bar door flung open and another woman stared at us. Then they laughed and promised to turn it down. STill a bit miffed, I went back upstairs. The next day I found out it was a birthday party for the second woman. It’s funny, many other people were awakened too, but didn’t wonder about it. It was so loud the bed was shaking and something made of glass was vibrating with the bass. Jeesh! Oh well, that was my punishment for skipping a day of the hike!

Continue to read part three…