From the MONT BLANC to the MATTERHORN
From 17 to 30 August 2018
1. The “Classic Walker’s Haute Route” from Chamonix to Zermatt is one of the epic walking routes in Europe and connects the Mont Blanc with the Matterhorn in a never ending series of picture postcard scenery passing through many charming villages.
2. For this walk we used the excellent CICERONE guidebook “Trekking Chamonix to Zermatt” by Kevin Reynolds ((5th Edition 2015, reprinted in 2016 with updates) and the Swisstopo maps listed in this guidebook.
3. We opted for the “complete” route so finishing via the Europahut. And when a choice was on offer, we also went for the more “scenic” treks. So, a total of 14 days.
4. We set off the second half of August because Swiss schools start again then and the trails become less crowded. And we took Argentière as our starting point because Chamonix is quite busy then already in preparation for the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB) series (last weekend of August). There is also plenty of safe long term and free parking space. (Parking Les Grands Montets).
5. We stayed the night before our departure in Hotel Les Randonneurs, simple room with breakfast for 60 €. Good.
6. Several weeks in advance we had booked all our accommodation, starting with the potentially busiest ones like the Europahut and all the other cabanes/refuges.
7. Hereunder with every stage we will mention:
a. The total time we spent on the walk, including picnic time, rest, photo time, etc…
b. The time we walked from the previous milestone
c. “Gain” or “elevation” means the “Height Gain” according to the book and according to our own readings on the Garmin. (Sometimes we also mention the descent)
d. and “Distance” according to the book and our own readings
8. In 2 tables hereunder, you can find an overview of:
a. Each stage with heights and times, times that are on the signposts and our own walking times.
b. Each stage with height gains, descents and distances covered, according to the book and own measurements
Day 1: from Argentière to HOTEL du COL DE LA FORCLAZ. 6h 27 min.
According to the book: “Alternative Stage 2″: via Le Tour (45 min), Charamillion (45 min), Col de Balme (45 min), Refuge les Grands (70 min), Chalet du Glacier (60 min) and Col de La Forclaz (50 min). Gain: 953 m (book), 1155m (own); Distance: 15 Km (book), 19.75 km (own).
We started at the “Office de Tourisme”, continued along the Chemin de la Moraine and under the railway where a bit further a sign takes you up through the woods to Le Tour. From there a steeper climb takes you up to Col de Balme along a ski slope. But you do get some great views of the Mont Blanc when turning around. And for that reason, half of China and Japan seemed to be there as well. Luckily after the Col when heading towards Refuge les Grands and Chalet du Glacier the trail turns quiet and wonderful and without ski slopes. After reaching Les Grands it goes steeply down but with great views of the Trient Glacier. From Chalet du Glacier an easy path follows the “Bisse du Trient” to the Col de La Forclaz. (“Bisse” stands for irrigation channel)
Quite a walk for the first day! Especially since it started raining at les Grands and the path quickly turned into a fast running stream. Wet feet and therefore blister alarm!
Hotel du Col de la Forclaz was fully booked. (Les Grands and Chalet du Glacier are not really alternatives!) But is well organised! And good food! 65 CHF halfboard per person (pp) and a bed in the dormitory. Luckily the sun still came out that afternoon drying our clothes before sunset! But not our shoes… (better to put newspaper in them during the night!)
Note that there is a small shop in front of the hotel where you can buy daily necessities.
Day 2: from Col de la Forclaz to CHAMPEX LAC (is the same as Champex!) 7h 20 min.
Via Chalet du Glacier (40 min), Col du Fenêtre de l’Arpette (2H 50 min), Champex (3H 35 min). Elevation: 1082m (book), 1034m (own); distance: 12 km (book), 15.87 km (own).
We walked back along the Bisse du Trient as a warmup before starting the sturdy climb of l’Arpette. But great views from its “Fenêtre”, hence the name! From the Col down the first 200 meter are rather technical, better to keep your hands free! Then a beautiful arrival first in charming Arpette (Le Relais D’Arpette looks very inviting!) and then – keep on going eastward – in Champex. After 1100 meters downhill that day the thigh muscles – “the quads” – were painful and the blisters in the wet shoes were fully blossoming.
But Champex is lovely as well as the guest house “En Plein Air”! 83.5 CHF halfboard pp in a cute room (but without washroom nor shower). Good food! And very friendly! In Champex you can also get money out of the wall and get new supplies. And the “Location de Ski ” has Compeed and other relief supplies.
Note that there are also 2 posh-looking hotels on the edge of Champex : Belvedère and Splendide (the latter has however the best views!)
Day 3: from Champex to LE CHABLE. 3h 56 min.
Via Sembrancher (2h 20min), the Chable (1h 5min).
After the first two serious stages, this day could be taken as a more relaxed one, when not hurting… ! But do enjoy the alpine pastures and meadows along the trail! The route is not so clearly indicated though! When in doubt, follow yellow and stay higher!
Le Chable is tiny; just across the bridge in Villette are all the amenities like a pharmacy, an ATM and 2 restaurants: Le Gietroz (local Cuisine) and Le Cantaloupe (Greek cuisine, good!). You are in the valley of Verbier, the only language spoken seems to be English… And from here on you are no longer in TMB (Tour Du Mont Blanc Route) territory: fewer young things with no luggage and in the latest outfits hopping on the trails.
We stayed in B&B De La Poste for 91 CHF per room with a decent breakfast for 2 p.
Day 4: from Le Chable to CABANE DE MONTFORT. 5h 27 min
Via Clambin (2h30min), Cabane De Montfort (2h5 min). Elevation: 1636m (book), 1609 m (own); Distance: 9 km (book), 14.49 km (own).
Resist the temptation to take the cablelift to les Ruinettes (via Verbier) and start that 1600 m climb! It will be a wonderful day!
And do NOT follow “Montfort” and this till after Clambin! (otherwise you go through Verbier!) If in doubt: follow yellow diamonds on a black square or “Tour des Villages” with either Les Verneys and/or Fontanelle on it.
From Fontanelle to Clambin you follow a very nice path ending at a unique picnic spot with water supply (and with coffee and other goodies a few meters down on the splendid terrace of ‘Chez Dany”).
Then comes a rather dull bulldozered ski descent till “Le Mouton Noir” after which you follow again a lovely path along the “Bisse du Levron” offering beautiful views of “Le Massif du Grand Combin”. The path meanders and soon you get a first glimpse of the Cabane. You will get many more glimpses as the thing didn’t seem to get any closer….!
But it is a very nice cabane after all with dangerously delicious homemade cakes! 4 persons per room, decent food and good showers. 65 CHF halfboard pp.
Remember also that the valley of Verbier in summer looks amazing for paragliding and mountain biking!
Day 5 : from Cabane de Montfort to CABANE DE PRAFLEURI. 8h 36 min
Via Col de Termin (2h), Col de Louvie (1h40min), Col de Prafleuri (2h30min), Cabane de Prafleuri (50 min). Elevation: 885m (book), 1195m (own); distance: 14 km (book), 19.52 km (own).
This was the toughest day of the whole trek! Also height gain and distance according to the book are seriously underestimated.
The start of the walk is not so clearly described neither: you have to descend to more or less 2150 m and below the level of the Montfort cablelift before you see a first indication “Louvie”. When you first get to see the massif of Le Grand Combin and finally are on “le Sentier des Chamois” you have gone down already to 2083 metres!
But the ascent to the Col de Termin is wonderful with a series of impressive mountains on your right. The trail to le Col de Louvie is long and undulating but ends with a steep climb to the top. Fortunately, there were bouquetins welcoming us there! (Note that we start every day with 2 liters of water each; before the Col de Louvie, we had to go down to a stream to fill our bottles again. So be prepared, especially in hot weather!)
From Louvie to the Col de Prafleuri the trail is grey, monotonous and never-ending – deservedly called “Le Grand Désert”- and at times very technical and with snow patches to negotiate – névés! And you will get guaranteed wet feet!! Fortunately, the route is well signposted (red-white-red and “cairns”) and ibex and bouquetins are entertaining you again!
We were not really welcomed with open arms in the cabane. Immediate payment in cash was required and we were informed that breakfast was served between 06.00 and 07.00 am and rooms were to be vacated by 07.30 o’clock. This because “by noontime the next day it would start raining and the road to Arolla is long…” Duhhhh!?!? And 2 showers for 59 places and 1 toilet (one was broken)?!! It felt like the first day of my military service.
Of course, it didn’t help that it had started raining and that all arriving walkers wanted to find a place for their wet clothes and hence the entrance had changed into a sea of chaos. Reasons enough for the cabanekeeper to be in a bad mood. Indeed there is a lot to say about the behavior of some hikers, about the hut etiquette or the lack of it…(see conclusions!).
We got a place in a large dormitory. 65 CHF half board pp. And the pancakes which were served for breakfast were delicious and made up for the cold welcome.
Day 6: from Cabane de Prafleuri to AROLLA. 7h 30min.
Via Col des Roux (25 min), Pas de Chèvres (4 h), Arolla (1h30min). Elevation: 674 m (book), 754 m (own); distance: 16 km (book), 20.34 (own).
A great day (and without rain)! From the Col des Roux you have a unique view of the Val de Dix, surrounded by green pasture and majestic mountaintops. But the final ascent to the “pas de Chèvres” is quite technical – you need to be “on all fours” for it. Note that this pass seems to be the preferred one now to the Col de Riedmatten which is 64 m higher up and more difficult in descent. New ladders have been installed and deemed safe. And the pas is adventurous and fun! And what a view!
After 1381 m descent (own reading) and with an ever more beautiful view of our favorite mountain of the day – Mont Collon – our body felt like it deserved a night at the “Kurhaus” in Arolla (Note that it also has dorms). But we continued to the B&B “les Ecureuils” where we stayed for 110 CHF with breakfast for 2p.
Arolla is a cosy and comfortable mountain village which we may be using as an exploration basis on a next visit in the area! We would probably stay at the “Hotel du Glacier” with the most beautiful flower pots on its balcony in the whole of the Swiss Alps. And the restaurant of Hotel du Pigne certainly wins the prize for Rösti with the most melted cheese! There are also some shops! No ATM!
Day 7: from Arolla to LA SAGE : 5h20 min
Via Le Lac Bleu (1h30min), Les Haudères (1h), La Sage (35 min). Elevation: 215m (book), 582 m (own); Descent: 554m (book), 902m (own); Distance: 10km (book), 15.05 km (own).
What a blissful day! Be sure to take the upper path via Louché/Le Lac Bleu. And take a long picnic break at the lake! It will be difficult to tear yourself away from that spot!
Continue through La Couille! From there it goes further downhill to Les Haudères where upon entering (before crossing the bridge) you get a magnificent view of Le Dent Blanche! In the village itself you see Les Dents de Veisivi towering over the typical Valais Chalets. A last effort brings you to La Sage, another beauty!
And the Hotel de la Sage, to make this a perfect day!! 105 CHF halfboard pp. Note that La Sage even has a shop…!
Day 8: from La Sage to CABANE de MOIRY. 6h36min.
Via Col du Tsaté (2h40min), Parking du Glacier (1h), Cabane de Moiry (1h30min). Height gain and descending: same as book. Distance: 10km (book), 12.64 km (own).
A 1200 m climb with beautiful cows in the meadows and Les Dents de Veisivi as companion! After having crossed the Col du Tsaté the majestic Moiry Glacier and the mesmerizing colours of the Lac de Moiry soon come into view. And you can hardly believe your eyes when you spot the Cabane.
Forget coffee from the buvette at the Parking du Glacier because in decay, now. But you do need a decent lunch because the climb to the Cabane still requires a serious effort and firm feet!
But what a Cabane..!! You imagine yourself in a new example of architectural “less is more “, but now right up in the mountains and offering incredible views. And more luxurious than any cabane or refuge you’ve ever experienced. For a cool 95 CHF halfboard pp.
Day 9: from Cabane de Moiry to ZINAL. 5h42min (we took the cable lift Sorebois to Zinal)
Via the “haute Lac 2500 Sentier”: connection to Col de Sorebois (2h20min), Col de Sorebois (40min). Elevation: 462m (book), 837m (own).
You go back as you came the previous day and after about half an hour, when offered the choice between continuing along a gravel road and a higher path, take the latter with indication “Sentier Du Lac 2500m”. This path stays high and undulating. In little more than 2 hours you reach the trail leading up to the Col de Sorebois. After about 15 minutes you have to turn sharply left and up, leaving the wider path you were initially on. There is no sign for it, just “Col de Sorebois” simply painted on a large rock and easy to miss in low hanging clouds.
It started snowing on the top so we missed the unique views from it but we also didn’t see the ugly slopes and the works just above the ski resort of Zinal. We made a virtue out of necessity – not so hard when freezing in temperatures of 3 degrees Celsius! – and took the cable lift down, to Zinal direct. Well, this is now an advantage which for example the Southern Alps don’t have on offer in summer : lifts that can bring you up or down…! But you’d better choose the right days: “in summer not on Mondays and Tuesdays “!
We stayed at the Hotel de La Poste with only four rooms, but fully renovated and refurbished! (note the degree of finishing in Switzerland: No splashes of silicone all over the place, electricity sockets are straight, and floor joints do join!… like in Japan!). The room with breakfast came for 140 CHF. They also serve good food! (An alternative and “Grande Dame “in Zinal: Hotel Le Besso.)
Day 10: from Zinal to HOTEL WEISSHORN. 3h51min
A direct but splendid ascent (837m) offering such great views behind you that you wished to walk backwards! The mountains were covered with a thin layer of snow from the night before making them look almost tender. The trail at 2000m altitude showed signs of three seasons (see picture). And behind us from right to left a magnificent panorama: le Dent Blanche, the very top of the Matterhorn, the Obergabelhorn and Zinal glacier, the Zinalrothorn and the Moming Glacier.
This walk is considered to be one of the finest in Switzerland! With spending a night at the Weisshorn Hotel as an extra treat. (a small folly at 145 CHF-halfboard pp). The thing crunches and squeaks wonderfully Victorian, also at night when you need to go (in the hallway!)! Enjoy the terrace with long sunsets and Swiss wine tasting better and better!
Day 11: from Hotel Weisshorn to GRUBEN. 4h 43min.
Via Meidpass (2h20min), Gruben (1h25min). Elevation: same as the book. Distance: 11.37 km instead of 9km.
A relaxing day starting from the higher path at the hotel and directly to the Meidpass via Le Touret, Le Chiesso and La Roja. From the pass, the Mont Blanc de Cheilon, le Grand Combin and even the Mont Blanc himself come into view again. From here on you also have to speak German or rather Schwyzerdütsch. There must also be a military base nearby as the five remaining F16s of the Swiss Air Force were into practice that day and blowing vermin out of their jet engines…
Gruben is a convivial village wherein Hotel Schwarzhorn stands grand! The Hotel is also unique as the upper floor only has dorms. And wonderful to while away the day at its terrace. 63 CHF for a bed in the dorm, halfboard pp. Note: no shop (anymore) in Gruben but the Hotel stocks a lot of goodies!
Day 12: from Gruben to JUNGEN ( from there cablelift to St Niklaus). 5h29min.
Via Augstbordpass (2h15min) and Jungen (2h20min). Elevation: same as the book.
The climb to the Augstbordpass is beautiful and steady; a bit arduous towards the end. Then an easy descent to about 2400 meter followed by a long rolling piece but with some technical bits across “stonefall” . This to where the path turns to the right at the stunning Twära point (2500m alt.) with wonderful views over the Mattertal with mount Dom and the Ried Glacier demanding most attention.
Finally steep down to Jungen. They don’t come more idyllic like this one, these alpine villages! And with a “Luftseilbahn” to tempt you down to St Niklaus instead of further abusing your knees. (note that you have to be 4 people to press “Ruf” and being allowed to “sail down”; a hidden camera acts like Big Brother).
From St Niklaus we took a short bus ride to Grächen where we planned to start our last 2 days via the “Europaweg”. We stayed at the Walliserhof, an “institution” and very, very Swiss, coming also with angels in the room. 140 CFH for room and breakfast.
At the tourist office (opposite the hotel, near the church) we got confirmation that the Europaweg was closed. They advised to take the train from St Niklaus to Randa and hike from there to the Europahut.
Day 13: From Randa to the EUROPAHUTTE: 2h38 min
Via the suspension bridge at Hausli. Height gain: 838m. Distance: 5.37km.
From Grächen we took the bus to St Niklaus (every half hour, at the Post office) 20 min to St Niklaus, then train (every 20 minutes) to Randa, 35 min.
A beautiful but steep climb through the woods to Hausli with the spectacular 495m long “Hangbrugge” as a reward! One more last push to the Europahut offering an equally spectacular location and views! The Weisshorn will keep you mesmerized and hopefully you will get some thunderstorms in the afternoon making the place even more magical!
It’s a pity that accommodation here is the least comfortable along the route: large dorms with squeaking metal bunk beds and dinner from prepackaged and canned foods and fruits . But nothing outweighs the beauty of its surroundings….!
That evening we also got an unexpected visitor (see pictures).
Day 14: from the Europahut to ZERMATT . 6h30min
Via Täschalp (2h45min) and from Tufteren to Zermatt (2h25min). Elevation : 348 m (book), 831 m (own). Descent: 962m (book), 1453m (own). distance: 18 km (book), 20.42 Km (own). Note that after Tufteren the signs “Europaweg” take you straight down to Zermatt. The book recommends ignoring them and to continue at the same level and go via Findeln and Riedmatten. That is what we would do next time! And this adds little to climbing and distance.
A wonderful walk to finish! But not a light one as you may have expected! You have again to climb significantly more than described. In Täschalp there is a nice restaurant/hostel to take a break. Just after and having rounded Täschbach you actually see the Matterhorn for the first time in full glory! And in summer there are always some clouds frolicking around the elegant summit… and paragliders in front.
Just take your time and enjoy the mountain and its glorious surroundings for which you have walked such a long way! And Zermatt…. Well, it is a city fitting to be the finish of such a splendid route! Few cities give such a perfect first impression, maybe a bit artificial but we should be happy to arrive in a tidy place, car free, with some horse-drawn carriages to add to its magic, cosy terraces, posh shops, good food and with the Matterhorn towering proudly above it.
We stayed in yet another Walliserhof for 148 CHF with breakfast for 2p. Good!
We travelled back from Zermatt to Argentière by train: first to Visp, then to Martigny, then the impressive Mont Blanc Express to Argentière. 85 CHF pp. Departed at 9.30 am, arrived at 13.10. The Swiss trains run like their watches!
CONCLUSIONS CHAMONIX to ZERMATT:
1. The walk from Chamonix to Zermatt offers a wonderful 2-week tour in picture perfect landscapes with daily stops in idyllic alpine villages or surroundings. And every day “blissfully tired” as a perfect way to de-stress. And some kilos less around the waist as an extra bonus!
2. According to our own readings we walked about 210 km in total with more than 13,000 m height gain – so almost an average of 1,000 meter per day – significantly more than indicated in the book. This is not a problem as the quality of the trek is indeed in the beauty of the landscape, but nevertheless being well prepared and knowing what the day will bring can enhance the experience. Anyway, in the new edition which is to be published in 2019 , distances and heights will be reviewed.
3. We would definitely recommend to end the walk via the 2-day Europahut trek because the “alternative stage 13/14” from St Niklaus to Zermatt as described in the book sounds like an anti-climax as the end to a 2 weeks epic hike! So, either starting from Grächen/Gasenried (If what you read about the Europaweg doesn’t worry you) or straight from Randa! In this case you can cross the Hausli suspension bridge even twice!
4. An example of a magnificent and somewhat “lighter” 5 day trek, departing from Zinal :
a. Day 1: start with the walk which should be on everyone’s list: from Zinal to the Weisshorn Hotel! A good warm up. And with a stay at the Weisshorn Hotel as an extra treat.
b. Day 2: to Gruben via the Meidpass.
c. Day 3: to Jungen via the Augustbordpass. In Jungen take the cablelift to St Niklaus and bus to Grächen (or even more beautiful, to Gasenried, but not much accommodation here)
d. Day 4: train to Randa and then to the Europahutte
e. Day 5: from the Europahutte to Zermatt.
5. During our trek, it was very busy, even fully booked in Hotel du Col de La Forclaz , in Gruben (Schwarzhorn) and in the Europahutte. In the other places it was pleasantly busy. Zermatt was not too crowded, either! But to be on the safe side book anyway all accommodation in advance!
6. In 2 places you have to pay cash: Cabane de Prafleuri and the Europahutte. In other places you can pay by credit card.
7. In comparison with the Southern Alps you do see some ugly faces of skislopes and their mechanical setups. But they are very concentrated and only in a few places. The route does its best to avoid them. And sometimes you’re happy that they are there….!
8. And to finish something about the hut etiquette. Or rather the lack of it.
a. The huts and dortoirs in hotels provide mattresses, cushions and duvets. The duvets are folded upon entry. All places ask to leave the place like you have found it, so folding again the duvets and tidy the bed. Very few people do that! They just leave without any tidying up! No respect for other people’s work…
b. Some people just act like they are alone on this planet. Before dawn, they start shining their head lamp in your face, start packing while talking at normal conversation volume to their companion ( “Did you put away the sunscreen yesterday? Why didn’t you hang up your socks last night?” ) Then leave for breakfast, to come back half an hour later to get their backpacks….
c. We once had a guy who started making his backpack in the dark. Obviously, he prepacked everything in plastic bags before putting them in his backpack. The kind of plastic bags that make an awful rustling noise. After about half an hour he left and quiet returned… A good hour later, when we went for breakfast, he was still there and practicing his French ( You say “petit déjeuner”so why not: “je petit déjeune?” ) And did not seem to start his walk soon…. Then you wonder why he had to wake up the whole shack that early?!
d. Snoring! I had a person just above me in Hotel du Col de La Forclaz. He fell asleep at 21h 34min and began snoring at 21.35. I knocked a few times on his bottom. A guilty “oui?” sounded, but two minutes after he started again…!Up to 6.45 am snoring ceased. I had a good look at him in the morning to avoid having him again in a dormitory later on the trek…So, earplugs or even headphones are no luxury. Note that in New Zealand they ask you to sleep in the restaurant…!
e. Some people make and take away their lunch at the breakfast buffet… They make various sandwiches, roll them nicely in a napkin, one more boiled egg and a banana for dessert, all in the pocket.. hence breakfast buffets become more and more austere; honest people can now forget their cheese and boiled egg at breakfast..