Haute Route Day 7 – Arolla les Haudères to Grimmentz. What a beautiful day!

This morning commenced with a early departure. Having only joined us on day 4, Rob sadly had to leave the trek. I noticed him talking intently on the telephone yesterday evening but thought nothing of it until later. He told us that while he and his wife were in France his daughter had remained in Australia. She called him to say that their house was under dire threat from a major bushfire and she needed to discuss the situation and salvage options. After a night’s reflection Rob decided that he needed to be closer to reliable communications and maybe to return down under immediately.  Either way we said goodbye early this morning. Good luck Rob!

Meanwhile the remainers were heading to Grimmentz, a village in the neighbouring valley. We were to take a minibus to Cotter to save the roadwork and group members were invited to choose whether to go in the first run or the second. The first group were to walk a little futher than the second group and were taken to the hamlet of Cotter, via Forclaz and La Sage. It was only 7 miles or so but we gained an easy 700m.

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Setting off the views all around were stupendous and my heart really sang for the first time. This was chocolate box Switzerland and there was more to come. This view looking northeast.

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And this looking back the way we had come, to the southeast down the valley towards Arolla les Haudères. The prominent mountain in the centre is Grand Dent de Veisivi, with Dent de Perroc beyond. Pigne d’Arolla is the highest snow-clad peak to the right.

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In due course the group was reuinited and we set off for the top of the ridge, but the views kept calling and being in a hamlet served to accentuate our height and the beauty around us.

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As we progressed the shade of blue in the big sky above darkened and the early light cloud began to disperse. Sunlight stole over the surrounding mountains and our dry soil zig-zig path led us ever upward towards the ridgeline.IMG_6804.jpg

At about 11 we stopped for a break at a particulalrly photogenic spot. Though these photos may not do it full justice and maybe the bloke in green should have got out of the way, it was very special. There were a lot of photos taken and a lot of chocolate shared. Swiss of course. Oh, and some more of my bro’s mint cake and some well travelled Trail Mix that had actually been to the top of Mont Blanc in June. No expense spared eh?

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Then it was onward to the Col de Torrent another hour’s climb away in increasing heat.

IMG_6816.jpgThe path remained dry and wasn’t always steep as we traversed natural terracing. After the ropey weather of the first few days we were blessed with glorious sunshine, light winds and endless views. While the steep section was always in view the smiles never faded. Why on earth would they?

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Eventually after a prolonged section of steep and rocky path through a blasted area of boulders and scree we reached the col. From here the views exploded and became even more dramatic, if that was possible. We were now looking down from nearly 3000m into the Val de Moiry with the Lac des Autannes in the foreground and the much larger and stunning Lac de Moiry below.

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Shortly after leaving the col we stopped for lunch and Pascal with customary wizardry produced a feast. New this time was a ‘gendarme’ sausage to be eaten with mustard.

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In fact there was so much food and we had made such good time in the morning although it was fairly chilly at this height there was time for a siesta.IMG_6842.jpg

Then Bobbie helped Amanda’s stiffness with some painful-looking contortion aerobics. The mountain air affects different people in different ways but it was jolly entertaining for the rest of us and Amanda did say she felt better. Extraordinary!IMG_6848.jpg

After lunch we headed fast down into the Val de Moiry and the stunningly intense aquamarine or turquiose waters of the lac. This breathtaking colour is apparently due to rock salt in the water that absorbs some of the spectrum of light and predominantly reflecting the blue. The intensity of the blue is normally enhanced by the blue sky above although by the time this photo was taken it was getting distinctly grey.IMG_6861.jpg

The Lac de Moiry is actually a reservoir holding a massive 78 million cubic metres of water. While the lac is 120m deep the dam at its head is 148m high. By now the sky was blue again and the lac really glows blue.IMG_6876.jpgOur route took us to the side of the lac and then over the massive dam to a little cafe on the far side where we were to meet Yves. Yves is actually a very senior, extremely talented and knowledgeable Alpine guide in his own right. He is so much more than a driver and we were lucky that this week he supported Pascal with kit transfer.

After a well-earned refreshment at the cafe Yves took us several miles north to the village of Grimmentz where were were to spend the night, thereby saving the road walk. Grimmentz is a delightful little village that epitomizes Switzerland for me. I don’t think I can do better than to show you, rather than try to describe its charm.

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From this hostelry is was only a short walk to our accommodation. Having described last night’s hotel as a million percent better that what went before, the bar just got raised higher. The Gite de St-Jean was perfect. The owners were charming, the food was very tasty (soup followed by unlimited cottage pie), the wine and beer were chilled, the rooms were spacious and each sleeping space had plenty of elbow room and colourful bedding. There was a good Wi-Fi and numerous charging points. The showers were clean with plenty of hot water and the views were magnificent. There was even a sensible sized window ledge in the 12-man room I shared with Bernie, J-P, Bobbie, Amanda and Jacqui where I could put my smelly trainers. I think we had our best night’s sleep on the whole trip here as this group were to the quiet end of the snoring spectrum. Best of all there was real Swiss muesli for breakfast in addition to a continental spread. I couldn’t recommend the Gite de St-Jean in Grimmentz more highly.

Here are two of the views.

The first being enjoyed by Nigel and J-P, along with some complementary peanuts:

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And this looking back towards the mountains at sundown.IMG_6915.jpg

Such magnificence. I wanted to stay here all week! Could tomorrow possibly be better?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haute Route Day 6 – from the Cabane de Praflueri to Arolla les Haudères

After the broadly fine weather yesterday we barely dared hope for another. But we got lucky!

From the Cabane de Praflueri (2662m) we headed across boulders and up rocky and still icy paths to the Col des Roux at 2800m. It was cold in the ealy morning mountain air and the sky was almost cloudless as we slipped and stumbled down into the valley and then up to the col. The distance was only 800m or so but it was tricky underfoot. The view from the col looking south was superb. Grande Dixence lake, or the Lac de Dix, shimmered and reflected the high mountains beyond: Mont Blanc de Cheilon (3870m) to the right and the Pigne d’Arolla (3796m) on the left. I climbed Pigne d’Arolla on my first Alpine skills course several years ago.

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From the col we headed down steep and initially icy but dry rocky paths to the side of the Grande Dixence lake. In the north to our left we could see the top of a huge dam.

The Grande Dixence dam, the world’s highest gravity dam, is part of a vast complex that includes four pumping stations and three power stations with a total output of 2,000 MW. 100 km of tunnels in the midst of the mountainous area collect meltwater from 35 glaciers in the canton of Valais. The Grande Dixence hydroelectric power complex accounts for 20% of Switzerland’s energy storage capacity and provides enough electricity to power the equivalent of 500,000 homes.

But we turned to the right and made our way along an uncommonly flat vehicle track dodging, and occasionally climbing up the rocky sides of the track to avoid, several dozen sizeable horned cattle. The delicately toned bells around their necks did little to diminish the size of these beasts and we were wary as they passed, usually closer than this.

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By mid morning we had reached the southern end of the lake where we stopped for a break. Even though most people had snacks, and I was enjoying and sharing some Kendal Mint Cake which was a gift from my brother Richard, Pascal passed around some sweets and biscuits to keep us going.

After 10 minutes or so we began the climb up to what, for some people, is a significant challenge, the Pas de Chèvre ladders close the the Col de Riedmatten. The way was initially up steep but well-defined paths through mixed grass and rocks. With the view of the lake expanding all the time and the weather reamining good this was a joyous section, but it wasn’t without a slippery climb or two.

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Eventually the grass thinned then disappeared as we climbed a moraine and the way became rocky and desolate once more. Further on we walked for a while alongside a mountain stream. Though were were pretty warm for our exertions nobody was tempted to dip their toes into the glacier meltwater.

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Towards lunch time a decision was to be taken. Would we cross the ridgeline overlooking the Cheilon Glacier into the Arolla valley by the Col de Riedmatten or would we use the ladders at the nearby Pas de Chèvres?

Until 2014 the ladders, installed decades ago and subjected to the elements as well as the traffic of thousands of hikers, were not used by everyone. Many hikers opted instead for the steep, loose terrain of Col de Riedmatten. Given these two options, this section was often more of a dreaded moment than an enjoyable experience. Now, however, all of the stunning glory of the Cheilon Glacier and Pigne d’Arolla can be enjoyed free of trepidation. At least by those with a head for heights. New ladders, installed in 2014, are a marvel of Swiss engineering. Built directly into the cliff face on freshly scoured granite, these ladders inspire confidence, alledgedly. The views from the platforms are stellar, and you can take in the splendor in relative safety. As for Col de Riedmatten, though there are cables and chains protecting the upper sections of the trail, rockfall is always a possibility. We, or more precisely, Pascal, chose the ladders. Everybody was fine on all of the 4 ladder/platform sections, but some were more able to enjoy the panorama than others and those yet to climb looked on apprehensively.

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Mercifully, once were were all safely at the Pas de Chèvre it was time for lunch. Once more Pascal broke out the little red and white tablecloth on to and around which were placed the various lunch items by those who had carried them. Food carriage is a shared responsibility but Pascal always carried more than his fair share.

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After lunch we had a relatively easy, and definitely less stressful, walk down to Arolla with stunning views of the Pigne d’Arolla and its glacier to our right.

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In due course as we lost height the way became green and the air warmer, although it had never been really cold. Shorts and t-shirts were the order of the day for some while others preferred a little more coverage upper body and some on the legs too. As we aproached Arolla the vegetation became more green.

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Arolla is at the end of the Val d’Hérens at just under 2000m at the foot of Mount Collon and we were to be taken to our overnight accommodation at Les Haudères from Arolla. This would save unecessary and unwelcome footslogging along roads. As we approached the village anticipation of there being a source of refreshement grew. It had been a long day after all.

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But Pascal’s colleague, Yves, was waiting to take half of the group to les Haudères village and I opted to be in that group. There would be refreshment there too, and being in the first group guaranteed a choice of beds and a hot shower!

Most of us, all except 3 of the women, were staying in the delightful Hôtel Pension des Alpes. They were in the slightly more up-market Hôtel des Haudères around the corner, but we all ate and drank together and the girls were escorted home, some later than others. In this picture my room-mate Bernie is happily guarding my meagre refreshment in the beer garden while I took the photo. The others were not far away.

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This was the start of a fine evening. The better weather had consolidated and the new joiners were fully integrated. The hotel was several million percent better that the Cabane de Praflueri in every single aspect and this alone demanded celebration. Indeed some people didn’t make it to bed until 2am, not least due to the discovery of a digestive called Génépi, This is a traditional herbal aperitif related to absynthe (but without the hallucinagens) popular in Alpine regions. I couldn’t possibly say who the late revellers were and everyone made it to breakfast on time in good shape.

What a great day! Bring on day 7.

 

Haute Route Day 5 – at last a day of sunshine

At the Cabane de Louvie we awoke to the strains of The Eagles ‘Desperado’ at 6:30. This has been the team wake up alarm since it was first used in Corsica on the GR20 in June 2016 but sadly not used sooner on this trip. What a difference it made! We awoke to blue sky. To say the crowded dorm of 14 exalted would be a step too far at this hour but the joy and relief was palpable. This is the view over the lake that greeted us.

As I watched from outside while trying to find the satellite on my satphone, the sun crept over the horizon and illuminated the crests to my left. I can still feel the goosebumps now. At last. AT LAST!

In the other direction the left flank of the Grand Combin appeared majestic and commanding in a crystal clear azure sky. Today was going to be a great day!

After breakfast we set off around the western side of Lac de Louvie. We were still in shade and some mist had returned. It was cold but the track was firm and the sky was pale blue rather than grey.

While on the track Pascal pointed out some fox tracks. Little by little the mist lifted. Then we saw Ibex tracks too and scanning the mountainside we saw the animals themselves.

Shortly after we turned away from the lake and climbed towards the Col de Louvie. As we climbed the mist lifted, the sky became darker blue and the sun reached us.

The gradient gradually increased and we then found ourselves in a boulder field. Boulders covered in snow and ice aren’t fun and the way became quite tough.

The best solution was to hop from one exposed and dry rock to another. But that technique tempts a slip and is not adopted by everyone. However a few of us did use that technique without mishap and were soon at the col. Others followed close behind. Jacqui, Bobbie and I were among the first up.

After another al fresco picnic lunch close to the col we continued into Le Grand Dèsert. This was a blasted and barren area of rock through which it was necessary to go to reach the Col de Praz Flueri.

Once over the col it was a straightforward matter to head down through greener pastures to the Cabane de Prafluri where we were to spend the night.

This accommodation presented challenges in terms of drinkable water, showers that worked, its welcome and its unique operating rules but it was comfortable enough for a one-night stay.

Haute Route Day 4 – summer snow

Hi everyone. Sorry for there being no blog for a few days. The last 3 nights have found us in locations without any phone service coverage or WiFi.

On the morning of day 4 we awoke to a winter wonderland; unexpected in early September.

After breakfast, with a degree of reluctance, and wearing just about every bit of clothing, we headed out.

The raw cold air banished any early morning cobwebs as we headed carefully along previously muddy but now frozen narrow pathways.

Despite heading down towards the ski resort of Verbier, or maybe because of it, the snow got heavier. But the scenery, or at least as much of it as we could see through the murk, became more picturesque.

Sadly, shortly after this picture was taken my camera phone decided it was too cold and shut down. While being unfortunate that at least saves you being presented with endless snowy photos of us trudging through snow until lunchtime.

At about midday we neared the valley and in coming out of the snow we were treated to the first close-up view of an Ibex.

Once in the valley we were transferred to the village of Fionnay where we found a cafe in which to warm up before having a picnic lunch outside. At least it had warmed up a little.

At this point our group increased to 14 with 5 new joiners; Ian’s girlfriend Catherine, Rob from Australia, Bobbie and Mandy from Pennsylvania and Dallas, and a Frenchman called Jean-Pierre.

After lunch we headed up into the clouds again and soon lost any visibility. There was little snow at this height, the precipitation having been replaced by rain.

The occasional glimpses of the valley below were welcome but the afternoon became an uninteresting uphill slog. But spirits remained high as we got to know our new trek-makes.

In due course we reached the Cabane de Louvie, a traditional wooden building with a great view over the Lac de Louvie, apparently. Unfortunately we couldn’t see it and the lack of communications added to the joy.

After dinner things perked up somewhat as Pascal produced some pipes and proceeded to entertain us with wit and music. What had been a fairly challenging day and one in which good humour had been in short supply ended very well. Thanks Pascal!

And so to bed in hope of better weather the next day.

And we got it!

Haute Route Day 3 – to the Col de Mille

Our third day on the walkers Haute Route started with a 45 minute transfer by minibus to the small town of Bourg-St-Pierre. We were then to walk broadly north for about 10 miles, crossing under the Grand Combin and crossing alpine meadows to the Col de Mille where we would spend the night.

The Grand Combin is a large glaciated massif consisting of several summits, among which three are above 4000 metres.

Following a tummy-settling post-minibus coffee in Bourg-St-Pierre we headed off north. Initially walking along minor roads we soon left the town behind us and followed farm tracks up to the high pastures. As we gained height we were treated to an unexpected early view of the valley we were to skirt to the east.

As we gained height we became more hopeful of a clear day. The surrounding pastures were great and we could see across the valley to the alps on the other side dotted with chalets. It was shaping to be a good day and I even risked a photo.

But that proved to be the cue for the mist to roll in again. Five minutes later this was the view.

As a result our eyes turned to our immediate area and I was delighted when Jacqui handed me a mountain raspberry which she had just picked. Closer inspection showed there to be dozens of them and all were beautifully juicy little red gems. Each was no more than 1cm wide or long and often they were smaller, but all were very red, ripe, juicy and tasty.

Then we were unexpectedly granted a glimpse into the murk. Across the valley a very small window appeared in the cloud curtain and through it poked (I think) the Grandes Jurasses. It was a moment of exquisite pleasure. Look closely in the centre-left of the picture.

But the view was short lived as the curtain closed and the mists rolled in again.

At about 11:30 we reached Le Coeur, a creamery making Coeur cheese from cows milk. Our arrival was a little surreal. As we walked through the mist and with the sound of cowbells clanging cheerfully in the distance, a small group of dwellings appeared together with what appeared to be a giant hurling huge sawn logs around to a rock music accompaniment. It turned out to be one of the burlier cheese makers moving the logs closer to where they were needed and he had Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on his radio. Pascal knew the man as one of 3 who worked at Le Coeur and we were invited to tour the creamery.

What a treat it was. We were shown the room where the milk was heat treated. There was a delicious smell of woodsmoke in the room although the cheese is not smoked. It transpired that the wood we saw being piled would in due course be burned in a huge metal container over which a massive cauldron of cheese would be manoeuvred to be heat treated. In the photo below the fire box is on the left and the milk cauldron in on the right. The pulley and lever system to manoeuvre the cauldron over the fire is hidden above.

Once the cheese had been made and shaped it was stored in another building, here:

In this picture you can see new cheese stored alongside more mature cheese. The latter is clearly marked COEUR.

After our tour we bought a quarter of a cheese and proceeded to have some of it for lunch. It was only just after 12 but it was a perfect location to sample the Coeur cheese with fresh artisan bread, saucisson and some terrine du porc (one infused with cognac). We also had some quiche and peaches. Once again Pascal used his delightful little red and white cloth and we tucked in watched closely by 2 very energetic collie dogs.

After lunch we continued our journey north, sometimes in weak sunshine but often in thick mist. During one brighter spell we were closely watched by a cow, in this case a brown one rather than the more usual black.

Once past the path guardian we could see our target for the day, the Cabana de Mille, in the distance around a huge amphitheatre. By the time this picture was taken the mist had obscured it but it was roughly in the middle of the photo.

We could have gone directly to it using the obvious tracks seen on the photo, but instead elected to go the long way round to the right and to approach the cabana indirectly.

In contouring around we came upon this relatively new dwelling. We were amused to see the loo, proudly exposed below and to the right of the house. Undoubtedly the best seat around but lacking in privacy and likely to be very cold given the strength of wind typical up here.

Moving on, we continued to contour around to the cabana, which was reached about 3pm. Modern in style the bar/restaurant area had magnificent panoramic windows.

From which the view was stupendous!

To cap a really good day sadly lacking in decent weather but otherwise most enjoyable, Pascal prepared some of the mushrooms gathered yesterday for us to eat. The orange ones are the Saffron Milk Cap that I mentioned yesterday while the pale ones are porcini. They were cooked simply with garlic and were completely delicious.

The mushrooms were followed by dinner and a lots of chat over a beer or two. Then time for bed in another one-team dorm. Thank goodness I don’t need much sleep.

See you tomorrow!

Haute Route Day 2 – Forest trails

Today we were to walk 18km or so from Trient to Champex, mostly on forest trails.

We started at 8:30, crossing the road from our accommodation and entering an area of extensive forest. With occasional glimpses of Montigny to our left we walked uphill through the forest for 2 hours. This photo is of Pascal trying to enthuse us before heading into the wooded gloom.

This won’t be everyone’s idea of a good walk but we knew from Pascal’s briefing that today would be like this; largely forest walking with limited views. It was nice therefore that there was interest within the forest itself. Not from birds, animals or tree types but from mushrooms. We must have been in ‘mushroom central’. Every few yards, feet sometimes, there were different mushrooms. Mushroom spotting isn’t my field so I can’t tell you what they all were, but they came in a variety of shades, colours and sizes. I think my favourite was this beautifully coloured amanita muscaria. Although classified as poisonous reports of human deaths resulting from its ingestion are extremely rare.

Pascal was particularly interested in this lactarius deliciosus, commonly known as the saffron milk cup, of which he picked a few dozen for eating tomorrow.

And this monster, the big daddy of one he had picked earlier and shared with us. It was absolutely delicious.

Eventually we became mushroomed out and continued our upward toil. There really wasn’t anything else memorable to record other that the steepness and lack of interest, as seen in this photo.

Once we had gained the plateau of the Bovine, an area famous for the raising of beef, the sky cleared a little and we found ourselves at the delightful Alpage de Bovine.

A popular lunch stop for those people walking the Tour de Mont Blanc, the alpage is owned by a lady who also keeps cows, complete with neck bells, and sells wonderful home made treats, charcuterie, and drinks to travellers. Pascal introduced her to us and she poured us some of her delicious white wine. Then she learned it was one of the groups 60th birthday and she poured some more on the house. Happy birthday Nigel!

Had it been lunchtime we would doubtless have investigated the food in more detail, as others were doing.

But it wasn’t so we moved outside where a helpful panoramic photograph showed whet we would have been able to see if it wasn’t for the wretched mist.Apparently the Jungfrau is out there somewhere.

After an hour or so more forest trekking and mushroom harvesting we stopped for lunch at the L’alpage du Plan de l’au. This amazing and highly rated alpage was very popular and included a viewing terrace conplete with tables and red and white parasols. Although we did use the facilities and the bar for some amber refreshment we didn’t eat there. Instead Pascal prepared a salad and we dined al fresco on cheese, bread, saucisson and cantaloupe melon in an old shed round the back. Jolly delicious it was too!

After a longerthan customary lunch due to Nigel’s birthday we made tracks for the Relais d’Arpelle where we would spend the night. Once more the otherwise largely uninteresting, to me at least, trek through the forest was enlivened by the mushroom spotting. This was also enhanced as one of our group is quite an expert on mushrooms and was happy to bring us up to speed on characteristics andtheir names. My favourite from the afternoon was this little family. Sadly I didn’t get their name.

Eventually even we were mushroomed out for a second time and we headed along forest roads and then tracks by a surging watercourse and waterfalls to our Relais.

After finding our rooms, two dorms with much more room and light than last night, we showered and rested before dinner. Some wine and other drinks accompanied a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday dear Nigel’ then it was time for bed.

Apparently the weather is looking better for tomorrow and we should be above the clouds. Can’t wait!

Haute Route Day 1 – rain vs. smiles. The smiles won!

The first day of our bimble began this morning. Following a fine breakfast at our hotel we caught the Number 2 bus from Argentière to the village of Le Tour, a few minutes down the valley but too far to walk with our overnight bags. He are the gang (in addition to me) at the bus stop: L to R Steve, Jane, Ian, Clive, Wanda, Bernie and Nigel. Jacqueline, on holiday in France from Brazil, was to join us at the start.

We met our ace guide Pascal Rolle in Le Tour. After much handshaking, backslapping and hugging, as he knew most of us from previous trips, we had some tea and coffee in the Chalet Alpin. At 1462m this traditional chalet is owned by the French Alpine Club and Pascal briefed us on the trip from there. that’s him in the black hat and shades.

Then we were off. At about 10am we headed up through an area which, in winter, would have been a huge ski slope but was now a steep grassy slope cut by gravelly access roads. These were used by the maintenance teams to access the pylons and winch gear driving the cable cars overhead. By and by, and in particular once we had climbed past the Charamillon, which at 1850m is a restaurant and first aid post and where skiers would leave their cable cars and continue upwards on ski lifts or tows, the terrain changed. The grass became more sparse and colourful, being dotted with wildflowers in yellow, blue, pink and white. The paths became more narrow and rocky, and steeper. At the same time the sky which was unbroken blue at the start was becoming cloudy. Nonetheless our chatter continued as we climbed towards the Col de Balme, casting occasional glances back across Le Tour to the Mont Blanc massif brightly illuminated by the golden late summer sunshine.

By 11:30 we had reached the col at 2185m and were at the French/Swiss border and took advantage of the bar/café positioned there, the Chalet du Col de Balme. Most people had a coffee or tea but not all as there was also a fine selection of beer from the Brasserie de Mont Blanc. It would have been churlish to pass it by. It was after all nearly lunchtime and we had climbed almost a vertical kilometre to reach it.

After this brief rest we continued. But instead of following the normal Haute Route which just went down the other side of the ridge to the village of Trient, Pascal took us on a path which contoured along the ridgeline to the south east. The purposes of this were to make more of the day, to save our knees from a simple downhill slog, and to give us a view of the impressive Glacier du Trient.

As soon as we crested the col, from the southern, French, aspect to the north-facing Swiss side of the ridge the environment changed. The grass became longer and more green while the pretty little wild flowers were replaced by bushier and tougher wild plants including thistles and heathers. The terrain including the paths became more rugged. Most telling the cloud cover increased dramatically.

After an interesting walk of an hour or so during which our views progressively deteriorated to this…

…we stopped for lunch at about 12:30. Pascal had prepared a delightful picnic of cold meat, cheese, tomatoes and bread with peaches for dessert and placed them on a little red and white tablecloth on a flat rock in a clearing and we ate heartily.

We had just finished lunch when the rain started. Gentle at first so we were a little slow in donning full waterproofs. In fact as there was no wind to speak of and it wasn’t cold some people including myself only wore jackets, deciding against the often unpleasant wearing of waterproof trousers too. Pascal even produced a mountain umbrella which he delighted in demonstrating with Bernie.

Then we moved off into the murk, over sharp-edged rocks which were increasingly slippery. Indeed one of our number took a painful tumble which required Pascal’s first aid skills to make good – no it wasn’t me! They finished the day at a reduced pace but in significant discomfort and may take a rest day tomorrow.

Meanwhile while the intensity of the rain increased we were afforded just one glimpse of the glacier when, extraordinarily, the grey curtain parted briefly. Although indistinct the Glacier du Trient may be seen in the upper part of this photo, to the right of the cascading rivers.

Then it was gone and we headed onwards once more. Up and down slippery rocky climbs, sometimes assisted by chain link but mostly just taking great care.

There was one section which would have been very difficult indeed to pass were it not for some impressive Swiss engineering and a grabwire.

That was about the last of the excitement. There followed an hour or so of wet slippery trudge down muddy and rocky paths to complete the walk of around 18km. The woodland was extensive and on a drier day we would have spent longer investigating the lichen, mushrooms and other interesting facets of this valley. Pascal did his best to engage us but with waterproofs struggling to cope with the deluge we headed for our overnight accommodation without delay.

Perched 300ft above the valley and the village of Trient there were some superb views which I would have been delighted to share with you had my camera not given up the ghost. In my pocket for easy access it was always likely to get wet. Had it been in my pack to keep it dry I wouldn’t have been able to reach it without constant stops – and that wasn’t going to happen. Anyway it would still have got wet in use. So with my shorts dripping wet we just headed for home for the night; the Hotel du Col de la Forclaz. Google maps says it has dorm-style and private rooms in an unfussy hotel offering free breakfast, 2 eateries and a bar. Yep, that’s about right. It’s warm and dry. The bar was welcoming enough and the ‘take it or leave it’ dinner of tomato soup, chicken and chips with cauliflower cheese, and ice cream to follow was just fine.

I’m writing this from our dorm. We have a room to ourselves. All 9 of us together in one room. There’s not a lot of space or light but the bedding is clean and we’re all pretty tired. There is a separate bed for one person while the other 8 are in two rows of 4, one row up and the other down. Space on the upper deck where I find myself was eased when one team member unused to sleeping in such close proximity with relative strangers announced that wasn’t going to happen. They took their bedding down to a common space and was last seen kipping in a chair. Ah well. That’s how it goes sometimes. Once my camera recovered and before the aforementioned incident I took this from which you get the gist. It is a bit tight but I’ve slept in a lot worse

Anyway. It’s just gone 11:30 in Switzerland and I’m now the only one awake in the dorm. Mercifully the loo is just next door. The sound of rhythmic breathing is everywhere intermingled with more strident utterances. And it’s not only the chaps.

Now where did I leave my earplugs.

Haha. You have to laugh. But you know, despite the rain there was not one complaint all day and everyone kept smiling. Even a slight error in navigational understanding that resulted in one gang member striding ahead and ending up arriving at the accommodation two rounds of drinks behind the rest was resolved in good humour over dinner. No, that wasn’t me either.

What a great group of people I’m with. And thanks Pascal. What a star!

Night night John boy

 

The Haute Route – a bimble through Alpine France and Switzerland

Hi everyone,

Two months have passed sinse I was last in the Alps and the old feet are getting restless. But the itchiness won’t last for for long as I’m off again tomorrow and for once I won’t be climbing but walking and the views will be green rather than white.

A group of friends and I, led by the fantastic guide and good buddy Pascal Rolle, are currently heading for France and are going to walk the Alpine Haute Route (or the High Route or the Mountaineers’ Route).

First identified as a summer Alpine mountaineering route by the English Alpine Club over 150 years ago, it normally takes around 12 days to walk (or 7 days to ski) the 180 km from the Chamonix valley, where I stayed prior to climbing Mont Blanc in June, to Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn. There isn’t a fixed route and depending on the conditions day by day some sections of glacier may need to be avoided by those not geared up for glacier travel. However, we will try to stick as close to the original route as possible, and will do it 10 days. Now there’s a surprise…

I believe that for some of the time we will be on the “Walker’s” Haute Route, which is an alpine hiking trail that follows a network of well-marked and signposted paths. The “Walker’s” route stays below 3000 meters and takes advantage of the popular mountain huts and small inns and hotels in the villages along the way. Sounds good eh? In the spring, summer and fall, this route is safe and requires no ropes, crampons, or protection devices but remains challenging because of its daily elevation gains and distances.

Whichever way we go, the Haute Route in 10 days (actually nine and a half as we finish in Zermatt early in the afternoon of day ten), will be a wonderful leg-stretch in glorious mountain scenery and I am looking forward to taking you with me.

I shall try to post a blog every day, but that will depend on phone coverage (likely to be spartan in the valleys and more remote areas) and the availability of Wi-Fi in the evenings.

All things being equal, my next post will be tomorrow from the village of Trient, just over the border into Switzerland, in the canton of Valais. We will get there via the Col de Balme (the Balme Pass). The col is at 2195m (7201ft) and we will climb nearly 900m (nearly 3000ft) to reach it before descending almost but not quite as far to the village in the valley beyond. As a ‘taster’ this is what it should look like in the pass (courtesy of Wikipedia).

560px-Col_de_Balme4-2.JPG

More tomorrow. Hopefully…

Mont Blanc summit day and return (the Full Monte)

Hi everyone,

Here is the full story of our climb to the roof of Europe. Mont Blanc to the French and Monte Bianco to the Italians.

Our alarms roused us from lack of sleep in the noisy 12 person dorm in Tête Rousse at 03:45 Monday morning. Breakfast was at 04:00 and comprised cereal, bread and butter with cold meat, cheese and jams with fruit juice and coffee or tea. Such luxury at 3167m. There was only one problem: I couldn’t see properly through my left eye. To avoid messing around with putting in my contact lenses at oh God o’clock with grubby fingers I left them in overnight. I had done this many times without problems, sometimes up to 5 days, but today the left lens had gone. Where I didn’t know. It could have come out during the night if I’d rubbed my eye carelessly, or it could have disappeared around the other side of my eye. As it was unlikely to have fallen out I assumed it was dislodged and repeatedly massaged my left eyeball to bring it back. By departure time it still hadn’t reappeared and I was managing, in effect, with only one working eye.

Fully ready for our big day in the Alps, and having packed our rucksacks yesterday evening we heading for the ‘sharps’ room at 4:30. The sharps room is where the items of mountaineering apparel not welcome in the dorms are kept. Items like crampons and ice axe of course but also less sharp but nonetheless unwelcome things like mountain boots, harness and rack, poles and helmet.

Grabbing our gear and finding no room to don it inside we headed outside. This is Stephen fitting his crampons under the watchful eye of David, our guide.

I had let David know about my eye issue and we agreed that it was probably still hiding at the back of my eye and I would set off in the hope that exercise would bring it back. At about 5am we headed out on the first leg of our journey to the top around 1600 metres vertically above us. We were to climb to the Goûter Hut, 600m higher and the place we were to sleep this evening irrespective of today’s climbing outcome. This meant that we could deposit things that we wouldn’t need until this evening in the hut and avoid lugging them to the top and back. Things like sleeping bag liner, spare pants, contact lens fluid and washing kit. Not much but unnecessary extra weight.

The route from Tête Rousse to Goûter was not straightforward. Starting up the left hand side of the Tête Rousse glacier the mixed icy snow and rock terrain gradually got steeper and ended in a series of ledges. This route is in itself a significant climb requiring the use of rope, crampons and ice axe. The most significant obstacle is the Grand Couloir. This is a shute of snow and ice that sweeps down the west face of the Aiguille de Goûter frequently bowling rocks upon the unsuspecting.

Guidebooks advise the Grand Couloir should be crossed extremely carefully and as quickly as possible. While there was plenty of evidence of recent rockfall in the couloir we crossed without incident. Our departure from Tête Rousse had been timed to arrive here in daylight, while the snow was still solidly frozen. This reduced the risk of being struck unawares. In passing we were treated to a view to the west which featured the shadow of Mont Blanc.

Once across the Grand Couloir we continued to climb steeply towards the Goûter Hut. This 90 minute climb was quite tiring as the elevation was steep, evidenced by the number of steel cables fitted to the steepest sections to aid protection. This was my view about 30 mins from the old hut, which can be seen at the top of the rocks. There is a new hut not far away.

We reached the Goûter Hut at about 7 and dropped our ‘not needed for the summit’ gear. As my eyesight was still not optimal I figured that, no matter how unlikely, the left lens had simply fallen out so I replaced it with a spare. Instantly I felt better but was nonetheless confused as to what had transpired. All I kept thinking was ‘why now???’.

After a bite to eat and drink we set off up the big hill at about 7:30. The ever-vigilant David checked our gear and estimated arrival at the summit around 12:30. Here he is on the snowy crest of the Aiguille de Goûter getting ready to get us roped up for the journey ahead. The amazing space capsule-like new Goûter refuge may be seen in shadow just over his right shoulder.

The next stage of our journey was to climb the Dôme du Goûter. The start was a gently sloping snowfield with a couple of hillocks. Not especially taxing at sea level but now approaching 3900m in softening snow it brought challenges and shortness of breath. The scale of the Dôme may be seen in this photo of Stephen striding out. The keen eyed will see a team of 3 climbers making their way up a track slightly to the left of the ridge in the middle of the photo.

The slope up to the summit of the Dôme de Goûter gradually increased but our route made this a little easier by following the zig zag path already trodden by others and which avoided the crevasses. It wasn’t necessary to crest the Dôme; instead having caught up with another group we followed the trodden path to its left towards the Col du Dôme.

Once around the Dôme, after about 2 hours of climbing from the Goûter refuge and having reached about 4250m, we were presented with our first relatively close up view of the summit of Mont Blanc, still over half a kilometre vertically higher than we were. Once again we were struck by the scale of our endeavour and the size of this mountain snowscape. This may be seen though the minuscule figures of 6 climbers on the right of the diamond-shaped track in the middle of the photo by the Col du Goûter.

Beyond where the team of 6 were and up a significant rise is the Abri Vallot shelter. This isn’t manned but, at 4300m, it provides a simple shelter for those who need it. We stopped for some food and drink here. Not for long, but long enough to fuel up as the going ahead was daunting. More to the point we could see from here that while the mountain was bathed in warm golden sunshine there was a significant wind blowing higher up. From our vantage point we could see the Bosses Ridge and beyond it the awesome summit ridge. All the way, and particularly along the summit ridge, a strong wind from the left was blowing plumes of snow and ice over and beyond the cornices that line the route from now to the summit. Here is a close up of the summit ridge showing the plumes.

In light of this any lingering foolishness about summiting in shorts and t-shirt were finally dashed as we donned hard shell (wind and waterproof) jackets with hoods raised. At about 10am we struck out for the the first feature of the Bosses ridge, the Grande Bosse. As the name suggests this was a monster ridge. If ever there was a moment of doubt about our capability to climb Mont Blanc it was here. This was ‘heads down and dig in’ time and we did just that. With the wind gradually picking up and driving shards of ice into any exposed skin we kept our heads down and climbed. Every step felt like a Herculean effort but if we wanted to summit, the Grande Bosse had to be climbed. And so it was. And so the belief in eventual success grew. Each painful step climbed was a step closer to the summit and after 30 minutes upward slog we reached the top of this Bosse at just over 4500m. Just 300 vertical metres to go.

Next we had to climb the Petite Bosse. The same approach and focus was required even though this was a lower Bosse.

Then we were onto the summit ridge, starting at about 4700m and rising to 4810m at the top. We still had work to do but we were getting there. We were now so very near and the emotions were kicking in.

Due to the wind from the left, the French side, it was necessary to follow the trodden path just below the crest cornice on the Italian side. “Just 10 minutes more” called David above the howl and I felt a wonderful glowing rush knowing beyond doubt that despite the rising wind I was going to get to the top of this magnificent mountain, clothed as it was in white but today with a mantle of deepest blue.

As we approached we could see the group we had had in our sights. They were whooping and cheering and then we were with them. It was midday exactly, around 30 minutes sooner than David’s estimate when we left the Tête Rousse 7 hours earlier. There was a wonderfully spontaneous upwelling of emotion as we stepped onto the highest point in Europe. Ok, Western Europe if you insist, but we were there high fiving, handshaking and back slapping. The emotion became too much and I grabbed Stephen’s jacket at his chest with both gloved hands and buried my sobbing face into it. Just for a few seconds then everything was ok again. Extraordinary.

We asked for a team photo from one of the other group. Here it is:

We had to have a selfie too of course

And Stephen took this one of me.

Once we had calmed down a bit, David gave us a panoramic calling out the names of all the significant peaks below, including the Matterhorn and Gran Paradiso. The Aiguille du Midi which towers over Chamonix was a tiny spike far below us, as was the plane that flew by. David even showed us Lake Geneva many miles away in Switzerland.

We could only spend a few minutes up there. While it isn’t obvious from the photo it was pretty cold. David estimated the summit wind to be 25mph gusting to 35mph. We needed to move off. Getting to the summit was only half way, but what a journey it was to half way.

We did get back to the Goûter in good shape and in good time and had a fairly good night’s sleep. The following morning, on Tuesday, we had breakfast at 7am and then retraced our steps down from the Goûter Hut.

This meant crossing the dreaded Grand Couloir for the second time. There was evidence of recent rockfall and I took this photo of a following group, but nothing befell us.

With this behind us there were no more objective dangers and our job was done. We didn’t stop at the Tête Rousse Hut instead preferring to head down to the Chamonix valley by the fastest route. This was glissading (bum sliding) down the snow and icefields almost all the way down to the Mont Blanc train station. What had taken 2 hours to climb on Sunday took about 20 minutes. Thereafter we took the train to Bellevue and the cable car down to Les Houches.

It had been quite a few days and we group hugged for a final time.

We 4 have been quite a team: David, Stephen, me and you. Thank you for being with us. I hope you enjoyed the trip.

Goodbye until next time 😀

Day 6 – summit day (a quick update)

Hi everyone. It’s now 5:30 pm CET (French time) and we are in the Goûter refuge safe and sound if a little weary following a most amazing day. The story of our day deserves to be told more fully than I feel able to do today as I’m fairly tired and the refuge has a strict ‘lights out’ policy at 8pm and we need to repack for tomorrow and eat. However I know you’ll want to know the outcome. The weather turned out not to be as balmy as forecast but I am delighted to tell you that David, Stephen and I stood on the summit of Mont Blanc at midday CET, that’s 11:00 uk time. We are all in good shape and looking forward to being back in Chamonix Tuesday afternoon. I will blog the story tomorrow or Wednesday.