The Haute Route
Your Swiss Fitness Goal
Written by Lisa Burch
Photography by Scott Blatt
Love to stay in shape and achieve that by hiking? But maybe you’re getting bored with the same trails and need an infusion of inspiration or a goal to work towards? Perhaps you also enjoy traveling and an ideal vacation for you is to combine the two but you are not sure where to go? If this sounds like you, Switzerland is the answer to your 2018 stay or get-fit plan. Specifically, the trip involves daily hikes 6-10 miles from village to village and mountain huts in the Penine Alps with stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif, Grand Combin, Rosablanche and the Matterhorn. Not to mention rewarding yourself at the end of each day with a traditional raclette platter (gooey melted cheese served with pearl onions, gherkins and potatoes) or fondue and your choice from a variety of beers. You’ve earned it!
The trail is known as the Haute Route or the hiker’s “high level route.” It is a combination of several trails connecting Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland that meander next to 14,000+ feet peaks while you never climb over 9,000 feet passing among these giants. Every stage has its own special splendor and unique features adding up to a scenic candyland from start to finish. The best part? You’re burning 3000-4000 calories a day and doing it all while being lured and enticed around every curve and climb of the trail, hardly noticing the exertion needed to keep going as you gaze at the grandeur before you.
This was a trip high on our bucket list and it did not disappoint. In fact, it far exceeded our expectations. There are a few ways to tackle this adventure: join a group tour that transports your luggage to each daily destination allowing you to go light with just a day pack, join a guided backpacking tour or tackle it with a backpack on your own. We chose the latter, planning our route to complete over 75 miles in 10 days. We flew in and out of Geneva and spent a couple days acclimating in Chamonix, hiking to the amazing Lacs des Cheserys before our first leg on this wondrous journey. The biggest challenge was reducing the weight in our packs to be able to hike the average 6-7 hours/day without fatiguing out. This was actually quite liberating when you realize how little you need in order to have the time of your life!
We went at the end of July/early August and were treated to mostly perfect hiking weather, multitudes of wildflowers all along the way, wild blueberries bursting with flavor and the serenade of cowbells from cows still grazing on lush green grass in the pastures. This time of year, however, thunderstorms can suddenly gallop over the peaks and remind you why you packed your rain shell where you can get to it quickly. We were not disappointed when, on our first day’s hike while we were enjoying lunch in the sunshine at Refuge les Grands, the wind suddenly whipped up, the sky turned from Carolina blue to charcoal grey in a matter of minutes, and, laughing we scrambled into the refuge for cover from the short deluge. Don’t let the term “mountain hut” deter you, either. While waiting out the thunderstorm, we were offered warm soup, tea, coffee, a glass of wine and many other treats while chatting with our host family, who volunteer every summer for their own vacation to welcome hikers with shelter or a brief respite from the day’s hike.
Each evening staying in a different mountain hut or village allows you to meet people from all around the world and share stories of your day with like-minded enthusiasts. Because there are different routes, sometimes you’ll travel with the same people for a couple of days, then not see them for a few days or ever again. The mountain huts were our favorite due to the comradery and surprisingly sumptuous meals. Although, if you can plan your route to stay in Grimentz one evening as we did, this true Swiss village will charm you into wanting to take a day off to stroll along the cobblestone streets, shop for souvenirs and rest your weary legs. Hotel de Moiry in Grimentz serves some of the best authentic, fire prepared raclette in the region.
Most of the trip is French-speaking, except in the small hamlet of Gruben just before arriving in Zermatt. The hiking is challenging at times, as on parts of the trail you scramble up scree strewn slopes, boulderdash in rock fields, and climb over passes, coming face-to-face with valley-carving glaciers. Every day, we had picnic lunches at the top of passes leaving one world for another, or on a grassy slope overlooking the valley below or looking up at the soaring peaks above, munching on the fresh baked loaf of bread we’d bought warm at a bakery that morning, slices of cheese and some fruit. One of our favorite days led us up a grassy mountainside out of the thickly forested valley below with wide views of snow-capped peaks. On this section, we shared the trail with emerald and light green grasshoppers and turquoise butterflies on lavender alpine flowers, the tinkle of cowbells in the distance, while on our way to the col de Torrent before descending to view the incredibly glacier fed, light blue Moiry Lake. We climbed the ladders of the Pas de Chevres – not to be attempted by anyone suffering from vertigo – and hiked the foggy Meidpass before reaching Gruben, our last night before heading to Zermatt for some well-deserved pampering at the Hotel Julien. If you’re lucky like we were, you’ll get a rainstorm that puts a new white coat of snow on the Matterhorn as she watches over the town while you gaze upon the most recognizable mountain in the world.
So turn your stagnant, uninspired workouts into a great New Year’s resolution by booking your trip and begin training. Let this Swiss classic and one of the world’s top-rated hiking routes be your motivation to a healthier you.