Zermatt – Crowded, Carless, and (at times) Sunny

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The small Swiss town of Zermatt sits at the very southern end of a deep valley nestled below the Matterhorn and Weisshorn, some of the highest peaks in Switzerland’s Alps. Like Chamonix, where we started our hike, Zermatt is a mountaineering center (and the starting point for ascents of the Matterhorn), but in the summertime it feels more like an outdoor adventure center – skiing, paragliding, climbing, hiking, ziplining – everything but bungee jumping – were readily available.

Knowing that Zermatt has been carless for decades, I was expecting a quaint Swiss Alpine Village, so the actual town was a bit of a disappointment. There were wide asphalt streets linking a small city center to miles of sprawling chalets. Like many popular tourist destinations, it has grown exponentially with its popularity. The much described ‘view of the Matterhorn’ was a little hard to find (even with clear skies), and required walking up to the upper part of the village, near the Gondola station, to get past the cluster of buildings. In the center, ugly chalets rubbed elbows with quaint traditional buildings. Everywhere we looked construction was underway. I’m not sure what sort of historic preservation ordinances are in place, but it seemed like they were preserving the quaint little buildings by building mega structures around and under them.
We had been hoping to run into our friends once we reached town, but soon realized there was no way that was going to happen. The town was filled, brimming full, of Swiss Orienteers – Swiss O Week. More than 4,000 people plus their families running courses throughout the hills! No matter where we went we ran into swarms of them, with their distinctive coats and backpacks – racing through courses.

Zermatt truly is carless, and almost everyone arrives by train or a train shuttle from nearby Tasch (where there is an enormous parking lot.) Train passengers are greeted by little electric taxis or hotel shuttles – or if staying in a five star hotel, horse drawn carriages.
We had one day of good weather while we were in Zermatt (between the downpours) and started off early in the morning by taking a Gondola to Glacier Paradise on Klein Matterhorn (3800 m) for views of the entire Alps. We had to squeeze into a huge Gondola with hundreds of excited skiiers (and their equipment) on the first morning run, but it was worth it for a view that stretched from Mt. Blanc to the Matterhorn to Weisshorn. It was our hike laid out in front of our eyes.

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After a quick run through the Glacier Palace (basically a tunnel through the glacier with a bunch of ice sculptures – interesting to walk through a glacier and see the crevasses from the underside) we headed down to a mid-station for more pictures, this time of the Matterhorn reflecting in some little lakes. We had to wade our way through photo shoots and Swiss O participants, but I think that just meant they were running more gondolas than usual. After that we headed up yet another peak to get shots back to the other side of the valley.

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Mid-morning and we had ducked our way back through Zermatt and were riding the Gornergrat railway – a cog railway – up to the highest hotel in the Alps – at just over 3,000 m. From there were spectacular views of a glacier and the Matterhorn.

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And finally, we rode funicular and two gondolas up to another viewpoint for more views, because after three weeks of crummy weather, we wanted to see as much as we could.

Haute Route Summary Blog

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Our Adventure on the Haute Route

During one of the rainiest summers (July 2014)  in Switzerland, my husband and I walked the walkers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt.  Along the way we made great friendships, hiked/slid through snow in the high mountains,  stayed in B&Bs, hostels and hotels in bucolic Swiss and French villages, tested our mental and physical stamina, witnessed a deadly avalanche, and saw a few snow-covered mountain peaks.

I won’t say it was the adventure we had expected, but I don’t think we’ll ever forget our three weeks in the Alps.

This page brings together all the blog posts (now with photos) as well as some practical information for people planning for the walk.

Practical Tips for Hikers

Grocery Stores and ATMs

Chamonix – everything you could possibly need

Argentiere – smallish town – at least one grocery store and a few sports stores.  Our friends stayed at the Belevedere and loved it.  We were at the Randonneurs – a walk out of town.  It was ok.

Trient (first time you may need Swiss Francs) – theRelais de Mont Blanc has a bar and small store – they take credit cards.  The other place (next door) was rumored to serve great meals.

Champex – Pension en Plein Air charges 3% for credit cards.  The dorms here are better than most (more privacy) but upgrade to a double room isn’t much extra.  Good radiators to dry things – and washing facilities.  Town has a very small grocery store (closes mid-day) and an ATM outside the store.  One small sports store as well.

Le Chable – Pizza place (second floor on main drag) is good and reasonably priced.  Two grocery stores – closed on Sundays.  We didn’t take out money here – but I’m sure there was a bank or ATM.  Verbier has everything (short cable-car ride away).

Cabane du Mont Fort – takes a credit card.

Cabane de Prafleuri  – cash only.  Must pay for dinner before dinner (and also order drinks before dinner).

Arolla – We stayed at a three star hotel – Hotel du Pigne (since the rest of the town was booked – it had a bathtub – great for weary legs). Hotel Glacier / Edelweiss was supposed to have a great breakfast.  Not so for the Ecureuil. Two small grocery stores – didn’t look for an ATM.   Only a small grocery in Haudreres (and out of the way – down the road the opposite direction).

La Sage – No store or ATM as far as I know – really tiny village.  Ecureuil was cheap, but not that clean, and the food was canned and over salted.  Showers didn’t lock.

Cabane de Moiry – will take credit cards for the deposit, but must pay the balance in cash.

Zinal – larger town – two grocery stores open every day.

Gruben – tiny village.   Hotel Schwarzhorn charged 3% for credit cards.  No ATM or groceries available.  Double-check if they say they have no room in the dorms.

St. Nicklaus – Grocery store and ATM (I think).

Blog Posts – July 6 to 26, 2014

Heading into the Alps – Haute Route

Haute Route Day 1 – Raining and Stormy

Haute Route Day 2 – Conversation and Laughter

Haute Route Day 3 – Wet and Muddy  – Are we crazy for pushing on?

Haute Route Days 4 and 5 – Worst Summer in Switzerland’s History

Haute Route Days 6 and 7 – Should we go for the crossing?

Haute Route Day 8 – We are alive, and We had our most Spectacular but Grueling Day Ever

Haute Route Day 9 – Snow is Gone but the Ladders to get Over the Pass were Out

Haute Route Day 10 – Arolla to La Sage – A Quiet Day

A Rough Day-Witnessed an Avalanche that Claimed Two Lives

Haute Route – Days 12, 13 and 14 – Saying Good-bye 

Haute Route Days 15 and 16 – Into Zermatt

Zermatt – Crowded, Carless, and at times, Sunny

 

Packing List

The biggest mistake people made was taking too much.

My Essentials:

  • Good boots – well worn in (we wore low boot/shoes and they worked fine – but everyone else chose leather hiking boots.)
  • Socks (I took 3 pairs – one to wear – one that was usually wet – and a spare).
  • Light, quick dry pants, shorts, and shirts.  I took 3 tops – one to wear, one that was drying, and a spare to wear in the evenings after my shower.
  • One long sleeved light cover up.
  • One mid-weight fleece
  • A rain coat.  (I didn’t use rain pants and I was fine.)
  • A sun hat and a fleece hat (it got cold, I used my fleece hat a lot.)
  • Something to sleep in for the dorms (or to get up to go to the bathroom at night.)
  • Good backpack
  • Water bottle (we didn’t take purifier stuff but if it was hotter out, we would have needed more water.)
  • A sleeping bag liner (lightweight).  They don’t wash the bedding in the cabins.
  • First aid and blister stuff
  • Headlamp and space blanket for emergencies
  • Personal stuff
  • Camping towel (ours was the smallest – I’d get a larger one next time)

We also took:

  • Kindle with guidebook loaded (lighter than a paper copy, plus had other books to read).
  • Cell phone (worked in most places)
  • Chargers
  • Maps and compass (used the maps in the evening, but felt safer that we had them. )
  • Sandals (the huts provide sandals, but its nice to have your own for the hotels as well).

Is the Route Well Marked?

Yes.  If you have Kev’s book for directions (get from Amazon) and a decent sense of direction, and the weather is fine, you shouldn’t have a problem.  Most people carry maps and a compass as well as backup.  We didn’t need them at all, but used them in the evening to better understand the next day’s route.  It can get confusing in the valleys where there are many roads and trails – but the maps won’t help there, and getting lost isn’t that big of a deal – except you waste time.

How fit do you need to be?

Fit.  You should walk – a lot – before you attempt the route.  You need to be comfortable with heights, exposure, and scrambling over uneven surfaces.  It’s also high -so expect shortness of breath going up the passes.  You don’t need to be a super athlete.

Book in Advance or On the Go?

Accommodations fill up on the weekends, so book those as much in advance as you can.  Those that booked in advance found canceling expensive or a pain.  Those that booked one or two days ahead found accommodations sometimes expensive or hard to find.  It’s a coin toss in my opinion.  If the weather is bad, it’s nice to have the flexibility to change things around.

 

Haute Route Days 15 and 16 – Into Zermatt

On the evening of day 14 and after I finished the last blog, we ran into our Polish friends at the hotel.  We were both on a slow but steady pace to finishing the route -assisted by a looser schedule than pretty much everyone else, and the once again nasty weather.  Surprisingly, we were joined for a drink by a British man who had been doubling up the route.  When he first told us he was doubling up when we met in the Moiry Cabane, I explained “so are we” thinking that doubling up meant staying an additional night once in a while.  It actually meant doing two stages of the route in one day.  Technically this is possible if you are super fit, insane, or take some gondola and bus assists at crutial points.

We must have corrupted him, because he came around to our way of thinking and took three days to complete two stages of the route, finally getting some rest and food in his stomach.

If you are afraid of cows, this route is not for you.
If you are afraid of cows, this route is not for you.

The next morning we all slogged our way over the pass (another 1,000 m up ) in the rain.

Wind and snow at the pass.
Wind and snow at the pass.

 

There were also three localish families sharing the trail with us that day, and many others going the opposite direction.  It was highly unfortunate that it was overcast, because the views we missed were supposed to be fantastic.  We did stop for a long time at the viewpoint when it was clear enough for a partial view.  Ken took a time series with his camera of the rolling clouds.  I can’t wait to get back to our computers to see if it worked!

This was supposed to be one of the best views on the trail.
This was supposed to be one of the best views on the trail.

The trail was an old middle-ages trading route.  It was pretty tough, exposed and rocky, in parts, but other parts were over constructed like an old road.  About 900 meters above St. Nicklaus was a small Alp village, accessible with a cable car or steep path.  We were planning to take the cable car, but when we got there it was deserted.  We found a timetable that showed is operating every hour and a half, with capacity for only four. Luckily we were the only two there.

Of course we couldn’t figure out what to do.  Ken said, “I’m just going to sit in the thing and hope it moves.”  We were that tired of walking downhill.  He tried pushing the intercom button a few times, nothing!

Finally someone answered the intercom, asked us how many people were there (still just us two) and told us we could get in to wait.  Then another man showed up, then two kids. Turns out the kids had helped our Polish friends figure things out earlier, and we’re just looking for a jacket.  So there were three, and eventually, and without any warning, the gondola started moving.  It swung to a stop at the bottom of the village, where two men were waiting on a rickety metal staircase (in the fog).  We swung there while they lowered a s,all metal bridge, opened the door, and one climbed in with us.  I think my jaw almost hit the ground.

It was a little surreal descending out of the fog and seeing a steep cliff behind us and the valley below.

We had plans to meet our Polish friends for dinner at our hotel.  After dinner we met up with the German couple for drinks, and to our surprise the Hungary group was also still in town.  It was a great ending to the tough part of the hike, sharing stories of stinky boots and clothes, nutty hikers, and reminiscing about all the dodgy places we stayed in. We were all on the floor rolling with laughter as our Hungarian friend described how his two companions (the two ladies) couldn’t figure out how to open the door of the cable car and were yanking at it in desperation hoping it didn’t leave without them, forcing them to walk down the hillside.

We all finished the hike in different ways.  The German couple were going to hike the Europawag, a trail that runs high up the edge of the valley.  Unfortunately, a 250 m suspension bridge that anchored the second day of that route has been out since 2012.

The Polish couple was planning on walking the valley route to Zermatt and catching a train back to Chamonix to pick up their car.  The Hungarian group took the train to Zermatt and were planning on a short hike in the mountains (five lakes) to finish their trip.  We booked accommodations in Tasch, and we’re planning on hiking from the Tasch Alp to Zermatt, completing the last bit of the high trail.  Unfortunately, it was also closed due to some rock slides (they really need to update their maps) and after catching a bus from Tasch up to Tasch Alps, we ended up walking straight down to Tasch.  Grrrr.  Then we took the train to Zermatt for the afternoon.  Maybe tomorrow we’ll walk the low path into Zermatt just to end the hike  on foot.

Matterhorn
Matterhorn

Today we were treated to a few fabulous glimpses of a cloud free Matterhorn, before the storm rolled in.  Friday looks to be clear, and if it is we may take to cable car to Klein Matterhorn and Glacier Paradise, for what is advertised as a spectacular viewpoint.  Perhaps we’ll be able to see some of the peaks we walked under (but didn’t see).  Stay tuned.

Haute Route – Days 12, 13 and 14 – Saying Good-bye

After the accident at the Moiry Glacier, we spent two nights in the town of Zinal. We had planned to stay at the Moiry Cabane, but moving on to Zinal a day early allowed us to process what had occurred as we hiked, and decompress.

The hike from the Cabane to Zinal was a mild one, and should have been almost a rest day, but either the shock from the accident, the hot weather, fatigue from the massive hike up to the Cabane the day before (1,600 meters of elevation), or all of the above led to one of the longest and hardest hikes we’ve had so far.  I even asked Ken to carry my backpack on the ascent to the pass.  I was dragging that much.  Luckily the Cabane gave us free gondola passes which saved two hours of a knee grinding descent.

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When we arrived in Zinal we checked into our hotel.  All the rooms and dorm beds were taken, but they gave us a small private chalet in the back.  It was hilarious.  As we checked in they asked if we had our sleeping bags with us, then she looked Ken up and down and said, “you are not too tall.” Turns out the chalet was built for a hobbit, everything was miniature.  But it was private.

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All of our friends (except the couple from Poland) were staying in the same hotel, and we closed the evening with our German friends, who treated us to Schnapps to say good-bye.  One couple left the next morning for home, and the other moved on to Gruben.  We may see them again.  It was also good-bye to our Hungarian friends who were on a tight timeline to finish the hike.  We had spent seven days with our German friends, and six with the Hungarians, and have really grown fond of them.  It won’t be the same hiking without them.

The other people in the hotel that night were two men from Israel, who had been hiking the same path, but staying in some different places, for the same week.  They also stayed another night in Zinal, so we had dinner and breakfast with them, and saw them on and off on the hike from Zinal to Gruben today.

It is hard to explain how the hike is enhanced by meeting these wonderful people from around the world.  You may have to put up with dorm rooms and sharing bathrooms, but it is well worth it to meet people and not be doing the hike in isolation.

Day 14 we finally moved on to Gruben.  It was a rainy, overcast day, and the hike was almost routine.  It’s hard to believe that I have gotten to the point were I find a hike with 1,000 m elevation gain and loss routine!

Cloudy and windy at the pass.
Cloudy and windy at the pass.

Tonight we are staying in the dorm rooms of a fancy hotel.  The restaurant/bar is filed with a tour group doing some hike.  The tour company transports their luggage for them and makes all the travel arrangements.  They are wearing normal clothes, like jeans, which makes me a little jealous.

The room feels strange without our friends, plus for the first time since we started the hike, we are in German-speaking Switzerland, and I miss the French.  But I’m happy to be here, and be on the last stretch of the hike.  If I had realized how difficult it was, I might have pushed for something easier like the Tour de Mont Blanche, but it feels good to be almost finished with one of the toughest walking hikes in the Alps.

A Rough Day-Witnessed an Avalanche that Claimed Two Lives

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the two climbers that were killed and the four that were injured by the avalanche at the Moiry Glacier this morning.

We completed Stage 9 of the hike from Chamonix to Zermatt on Friday, and spent the night in Cabane Moiry.  The Cabane is perched high up on a rocky bluff overlooking the Moiry Glacier Ice Fall, and has what is considered the best view of any mountain cabin in Switzerland.

The Cabane was full, packed with both hikers and climbers, excited for a sunny weekend.  On Saturday morning we woke up early.  We had slept in a dormier with 10 beds crammed together, so when the two climbers got up a 4 am, they woke us.  It was actually great to get up early and have a leisurely breakfast in the glass-walled dinning room that overlooked the  glacier.

We were fascinated with watching the progress of a group of climbers making their way up the snow covered north side of the glacier.  From the distance they were no larger than ants.  We started watching them just after 6 am, just little dots working their way up one small chute, across the face of the ice, and then up a larger chute.  We thought there were four climbers on that route, with another three making their way up another ridge to the east.  There were actually six on the north face, perhaps two were down slightly lower than the others.

It was a little disconcerting to watch them climb the main chute.  It was steep and to their right was what looked like a large chuck of ice hanging precariously to the rock face.  The area had experienced almost a solid week of summer snow, followed by four full days of sunny wealth, and down below where we were, the snow was soft, mushy, and melting quickly.

It was a lazy morning for us, and we were still nursing our coffee at seven twenty five when we heard, then saw, the avalanche.  Immediately our hearts leap to our throats as we realized the avalanche occurred right where we had been watching the climbers.

It was a very large avalanche.  I estimate the snow fell around 800 meters, starting from just below the ridge (where we had last seen the top climbers), through the main chute, the down another steep area.

The glacier the evening before the avalanche
The glacier the evening before the avalanche
The next morning.
The next morning.

The staff at the Cabane immediately called for a rescue team, and we all held our breath for about twenty or twenty-five minutes until the first rescue helicopter arrived.  By that time we had seen one black dot moving on the very lower part of the avalanche.

The helicopter set down a rescue team right there, and within half an hour or so they had located four of the climbers alive and transported them to the hospital.  A miracle in my opinion.  At one point there were three helicopters helping with the search and rescue.  The remaining two climbers were confirmed dead by early afternoon. 

Living so close to Mt Rainier, this shouldn’t  shock me, but of course it did.  We we supposed to spend another evening at the Cabane, but  chose instead to hike out to Zinal, away from the glacier.  Tomorrow we will regroup and figure out the remained of our hike, but tonight our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the climbers.

Haute Route Day 10 – Arolla to La Sage – A Quiet Day

The best part of this hike is meeting people. Tonight we caught up with our Polish friends, who took the bus around the high passes and ended up in the tiny town of La Sage. Our Hungarian friends are here, but not sure if they can continue.  The 15 year old is having trouble with her foot.  The four German teachers are here as well.  Our Australian friend was here yesterday, and is a day ahead of us.  It is just a small group of people doing this hike.

The hike today was reasonable, but a little harder than the book described.  We hiked up to Lac Blu (cold but the crazy Germans went swimming) and then through the forest.

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Tomorow is a much harder hike back up to the high mountains.  We’ll spend two nights up there before coming back to civilization.

 

Haute Route Day 9 – Snow is Gone but the Ladders to get Over the Pass were Out

Day 9 and we awoke to blue skies.  I can never get tired of writing that.  I didn’t sleep well in Cabane Praflueri.  We were in one of the dorms with 10 other restless bodies.  It was humid and hot, and even with the earplugs it was hard to tune out everyone.  All in all I found the Cabane kind of crummy.  There was no potable water and they charged 8 Swiss franks (10 dollars) for a bottle of water, 5 Swiss francs for a three minute  shower, and 2 Swiss franks for electricity to charge devices.

The dining room was crammed full with tables smushed up against the walls so you had to crawl over people to get a seat. They fed us well (4 courses) for dinner, but breakfast seemed disorganized.  I guess it is the only place for miles so they are always busy.

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The hike that day was to Arolla.  We quickly cleared a pass and dropped down towards Lake Dix, then followed a flat trail along the lake.  Easy hiking.  The only difficulties we had were trying to pass an enormous group of Korean hikers.  They took so many pictures of the flowers, it was hard not to be tripped when they stopped suddenly.

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The lake is fed by a beautiful glacier, and you have to either cross the river or the glacier to reach the pass.  We had heard mixed news about the ease of crossing the glacier, so we were planning on crossing at the river.  The problem was that the path on the map showing the river crossing was the old path, so it was all a little confusing.  A couple from Great Britain spent almost two hours looking for the path, only to find the old one and take it.  The new, and easier path, was well marked, but much higher up on the moraine. Luckily for us, we were trying to figure it all out when the guide of the Korean group caught up to us and gave us great directions.

As it turned out, the glacier could be crossed with normal equipment, but the crossing was described by someone who attempted it as scary.

Cabane Dix sits above the  Glacier on the far side.
Cabane Dix sits above the Glacier on the far side.

Trying to keep ahead of the big Korean group (thankfully they took a long lunch) we scrambled over the moraine and up to the pass.

Now there are supposed to be two ways to get over the pass.  There are basically two notches in the mountains.  A lower one that has three vertical ladders bolted into the rock.  It is not the way to go if you have vertigo, but it is slightly easier.  Unfortunately for us the ladder route was closed because they were doing maintenance.  Maintainance  meant causing intentional rock slides to clear the route. We thought there was a huge rock slide at first and are worried about the safety of our friends that were just ahead of us.  Talk about getting your heart racing.  The pass we took was – well awful.  It was an unrelentless scrabble up the side of the hill – often on all fours (for me at least) until it got so steep you had to haul yourself up hand over hand using cables affixed into the rock.

This is the way up the pass.  The worst one by far on the entire route.
This is the way up the pass. The worst one by far on the entire route.
The view was worth it.
The view was worth it.

After that was a long, steep, and tedious descent into Arolla.  Because we weren’t sure if we were going to make the crossing, we had canceled out accommodations in Arolla, and the Cabane from the night before had no cell service, so we entered the town without a place to stay.  Our choice was dorm beds or a three star hotel.  Ahhh – the luxury of a private room and best yet, private bathroom, with a bath tub.  It does not get better than that.

This hotel hit the spot!
This hotel hit the spot!

Our little group of nine is still hiking the same route, running into each other a few times a day.