The great thing about the Haute Route is that there is absolutely no need to carry a tent, sleeping bag or cooking gear. You can sleep in refuges, cabanes or hotels the whole way. You can have your dinner served and your picnic prepared at 2500m, while you sip on a cool Campari admiring the view. This is a trail for those who like to hike in style.
I found it hard to shake these thoughts from my mind as I struggled up the hill on the first day carrying all of the above items. Being the cheapskate that I am, alongside my camping gear, I was also carrying six days of Lidl's finest food purchased in Geneva, and my pack weighed an absolute ton.
The Haute Route goes from Chamonix to Zermatt, or Mont Blanc to Matterhorn if your native tongue is Mountain. It is a tough trip, with over 12,000m of ascent, and takes 12-14 days. The reward is being in the high alpine zone amongst the dramatic spiky ridges of the alps, interspersed with traditional Swiss alpine villages.
My first few days were a bit of a shambles. My feet – still not fully recovered from the tendon damage acquired on Te Araroa – were deeply unhappy with their task. I had to drag my tired body up the hill. So with the weather coming in I decided to quit early and reserved a bed at the refuge Col de Balme. I waited in the cold for an hour at 2100m for the hosts to arrive. I regret that. For as at last they opened the door Madame showered me with a torrent of unwelcoming questions and accusations that made me quickly decide this was all a terrible idea. I since learnt this is the warm welcome extended to all guests. So I made my excuses, not that Madame was bothered ('si vous voulez', as she shut the door in my face) and moved quickly down the hill to beat the rain and the darkness. At Le Peuty I just managed to get my tent up without torch, and ate my noodles in the dark, feeling a bit blue.
The next day, after a 5* night's sleep in my Terra Nova hotel-for-one, I was feeling much better and quietly confident about the climb. The first part was a delight, and I loved walking alongside the Bisse du Trient, the water course which brings water from the glacier to the town (and used to house a railway taking ice). However the rocky ascent quickly took its toll and it took me four hours to get to the pass.
The descent began with undesirable slippery scree and transitioned to an unwelcome steep giant boulder field. My ankles felt weak and my balance off; I slowed to a crawl as a fall here would be bad news. This was Type 2 fun at its best. It took the wind out of my sails and by the time I reached the Relais d'Arpette after nine hours on my feet I decided to crash despite having planned to go on a further hour.
After dinner I rummaged through my pack to find any food wrappers to jettison, in a lame attempt to reduce weight. I went to bed feeling I'd underestimated a few things about this trail: the terrain, how the ascents would feel with a full pack, how my feet would cope with proper hills. Meanwhile, as I donned all my clothes and did planks in my sleeping bag to warm up, I conceded I'd overestimated the night temperatures. Hmm.
Day 3 was a less taxing day and gave me ample opportunity to consider how to get into a better position. And I soon realised I'd been neglecting the obvious, yet again: look after the basics and the rest will look after itself. These are lessons I learnt on the TA and yet so soon I'd forgotten to take them seriously. So here I am again, relearning to focus on water, nutrition, stretching, sun protection, and sleep. Welcome back to the hiking life, Franny.
HOW I SPENT MY DAYS
Day 1: Geneva to Chamonix via Ouibus. Camped at Les Arolles.
Day 2: Chamonix to Le Peuty 1100m ascent, 20.5km, 6hrs
Day 3: Le Peuty to Relais d'Arpettes via Fenêtre d'Arpettes, 1400m ascent, 12.5km, 9hrs
Day 4: Relais d'Arpettes to Le Châble, 15km 5hrs
STATS OF THE TRACK
Glaciers adored: two
Number of times I've mistaken cow bells for church bells: four
Items lost: my Snacktaxi reusable snack bag, sniff
Amount of love I feel for my new hut shoes (North Face Basecamp sandals): all the love
Mosquitos, sandflies, midges: ZERO (the lady doth speak too soon?)