La Haute Route,
Day 7 of the hike: my sunglasses were broken (and binned); flip flips in pieces (also binned); tent pole snapped (the tent could still function, just); and my right boot was ripped at the seams, slowly pulling itself apart. I was exhausted, hungry and sun burnt and as I was contemplating the 9 hours of hiking and 1,700 metres of ascent ahead of me that day, a bird swooped out of the sky from nowhere, dive bombing straight at my head. But the mountains are indifferent to discomfort. Later that evening, I slept above a glacier with views of a sweeping valley below a deep sunset, my thoughts transported.
The walkers' "Haute Route" is a classic trek connecting Europe's highest mountain, Mont Blanc, with that most iconic of peaks, the Matterhorn. It is often described as one of the best long distance hikes in Europe, if not the world, and offers a truly immersive way to experience the Swiss Alps. Physically speaking, it is also no small feat - it takes at least 10 days to complete the 12,000 metres of ascent and 10,000 metres of descent spread over the 180km-hike through the south-west corner of Switzerland.
It goes without saying that there is some amazing mountain scenery on display over the course of La Haute Route - immense peaks, ancient glaciers, turquoise lakes, epic views and, of course, two of Europe's best-known summits. It is also a suitable trek for hikers of varying experience levels and abilities. While the trail is often quite exposed and there are a couple of sections that may intimidate a novice hiker (or anyone uncomfortable with heights), the route is not technically demanding and can be broken up into manageable stages with the option of a number of short-cuts. At the same time, if tackled in less time and including the more strenuous sections, La Haute Route is a physically demanding trek (in fact, one of the most demanding I have been on).
So what are the negatives? Only one, really - Switzerland is expensive. And when I say expensive, I mean it can be eye-wateringly so. But if you choose to camp (as I did) and buy most of your provisions at supermarkets en route then you can keep expenses to a minimum.
The easiest way to access La Haute Route is via Geneva: from the airport you can link up with both Chamonix and Zermatt by bus/train. A bus from Geneva to Chamonix is fairly inexpensive and only takes around 1.5 hours; from Zermatt the train takes around 4 hours to Geneva (you have to change at Visp). It is definitely worth buying a 'supersaver' ticket online for the train ahead of travel as it costs around half the price as the normal fare (https://www.sbb.ch/en/home.html).
You can hike in either direction but I would strongly recommend starting off in Chamonix: the scenery in the two stages closest to Chamonix is not overwhelming whereas the path toward Zermatt is far more impressive. After over a week of hiking, the Matterhorn makes for a captivating finale, especially viewed from the Europaweg.
If you are short on time or only want to hit the highlights you could easily start off in Argentière or Trient without missing too much. You could also take shorter route options on a number of occasions (in particular, between Trient and Champex, Arolla and Zinal, Zinal and Gruben, and St Niklaus and Zermatt). I would not personally recommend taking the shorter routes as the longer routes and 'add-ons' really contain the highlights of the trail, such as Cabane des Dix and Cabane de Moiry. The only extra which I thought was not worth the detour was Hotel Weisshorn, which is nothing special (although the valley beyond the Meidpass is fantastic). It is also possible to take ski lifts and cable cars in various sections in order to skip out some of the tougher climbs - an option which a number of walkers seem to take. I am even less keen on that idea (surely that is cheating!).
I opted to camp for the most part. There are campsites in many of the towns - Argentière, Trient, Champex, Arolla, Zinal and Zermatt. All of them were very pleasant, with the exception of the Zermatt site which is sandwiched in between a supermarket and railway tracks and offers fairly basic facilities.
I wild camped on two nights: on a grassy hill before Cabane du Mont Fort and in a truly spectacular spot in the valley in between the Meidpass and Gruben (see above). It would be possible to wild camp in other parts of the route but you would need to study the map carefully and plan accordingly as there are many sections which would not be suitable for camping (due to the steep terrain and proximity to towns/villages).
There are a number of mountain 'cabanes' along the trail which are modern, clean and provide very good food. I stayed in Cabane du Prafleuri and Cabane de Moiry, both of which were excellent. Although expensive, it is well worth spending a night at Cabane de Moiry, perched above the Glacier de Moiry with floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining room for panoramic breakfast and dinner views of the glacier.
Of course, if you prefer not to walk with the extra weight of a tent there are hotel options in the various towns. Make sure you do your research, however, and book ahead, as hotel accommodation is limited in some stopovers and can get booked out far in advance. Feeling the need for a proper shower, I treated myself to a hotel on my penultimate night: unfortunately the only hotel open in St Niklaus during the summer was fully booked that evening so I had to walk an extra hour along the valley to Herbriggen, where there was a hotel with one free bed in a shared room. Even if I had not already decided to look for a hotel that night, there is no campsite in St Niklaus and nowhere in the immediate area which seemed suitable for wild camping.
In terms of supplies, La Haute Route is not wilderness trekking: the trail passes through a town or village every day, some of which are very picturesque and most of which have a shop (minimarket or supermarket) at which you can restock on food. Water is also never an issue as it is freely available from public drinking fountains in most of the towns/villages.
In terms of weather, apart from a drizzly first couple of days (with one very heavy overnight thunderstorm) I was fortunate to have an almost clean run of hot, sunny weather for the rest of the hike. In fact, the main issue I had was with the sun, which is particularly fierce at altitude (you are often walking above 2,500 metres or more). So I would certainly recommend a good hat, sun cream and lip balm (the altitude air does a good job of drying your lips). However, as with any trip to the mountains you should be prepared for all weather conditions and rain is very common in the Alps in summer.
The condition of the trail is generally very good and well-trodden. The route is also sign-posted, although not as well sign-posted as I had been led to believe - at times it can become confusing with so many trails available. A guide book is essential but a map is not really necessary. I bought a 1:60,000 map which covered about two thirds of the route, but at that scale it was more just to put things in context rather than provide any help with day-to-day route finding. You should be aware that La Haute Route is not a single defined route (unlike the Tour of Mont Blanc (TMB) or the Tour of the Matterhorn) and the Swiss in fact associate La Haute Route more commonly with the higher altitude mountain trek (for experienced mountaineers only). While the route follows National Route 6 for the most part, the correct path may be indicated at various times by red and white markers, blue and white markers or yellow and black markers.
Generally the trail was not busy when I was hiking (in mid-July); in fact, there were some days where I only saw a couple of other walkers. Equally, though, there are sections of the trail which are popular with day-trippers and can be fairly busy.
In terms of the best scenery, practically every day had great views and you pass through countless postcard-perfect hamlets and villages. In particular, however, I really enjoyed the Fenêtre d'Arpette (between Trient and Champex), the section between Cabane du Mont Fort and Cabane du Prafleuri (especially the view from the Col de Prafleuri), Cabane des Dix and the Glacier de Cheilon, Cabane de Moiry and the valley in between the Meidpass and Gruben, and the views from Jungu, a stunning village perched above the Mattertal valley.
I completed La Haute Route in 10 full days of walking (on the first day I flew from London to Geneva, took a bus to Chamonix and walked the first 2 hours to Argentière in the late afternoon). My 'rest day' was the shorter hike on day 8. I did meet a hiker who was aiming to complete the entire route in 8 days - he was hiking quite light and without a tent but he was still going at a very fast pace and putting in some long days.
Day 1: Chamonix to Argentière (5.5 miles, 2 hours)
Day 2: Argentière to Trient (7.5 miles, 6 hours)
Day 3: Trient to Champex (9 miles, 7 hours)
Day 4: Champex to Cabane du Mont Fort (13.5 miles, 10.5 hours)
Day 5: Cabane du Mont Fort to Cabane du Prafleuri (9 miles, 8 hours)
Day 6: Cabane du Prafleuri to Arolla (10.5 miles, 8 hours)
Day 7: Arolla to Cabane de Moiry (12 miles, 9 hours)
Day 8: Cabane de Moiry to Zinal (9 miles, 5.5 hours)
Day 9: Zinal to Meidpass (before Gruben) via Hôtel Weisshorn (13 miles, 8 hours)
Day 10: Meidpass to Herbriggen (past St Niklaus) (12 miles, 10 hours)
Day 11: Herbriggen to Zermatt (11 miles, 8 hours)
View from the Col de Prafleuri, with Glacier de Prafleuri on the right
Views from Col Termin (between Cabane du Mont Fort and Cabane du Prafleuri)
Lac des Dix
Mont Blanc de Cheilon and Cabane des Dix
Val de Moiry with Lac de Moiry
The view east from the Meidpass, marking the entry into German-speaking Switzerland