Saturday, 17 September 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 3-4: The Cabane d'Orny to Bourg St Pierre

It would be three days until we would take out crampons and ice-axe again. A large part of me felt real regret - I was here to savour the high, glaciated alpine environment and fully 72 hours would pass before I'd have the opportunity to do that. Yet, trekking in the Alps, as opposed to day assaults on alpine summits, necessitates dropping down into the valleys and then ascending again. Repeatedly. This we were about to realise - the Classic Haute Route is a strenuous trek, not really because of the ice and snow, not really because of the miles, and not really because of the ascent and descent. It's strenuous for all those reasons and because the alps are falling apart. The mountains are dumping huge swathes of rock and scree on the slopes of its summits and high places such that moving across alpine terrain involves picking routes across an interminable chaos of rocky detritus which literally bleeds energy. I was once told that trekking in the Alps would not give me much in the way of experience for Mountain Leader - the paths are "wide and well marked", as if the UK was so much harder. Having spent nearly a month in total trekking in the Alps I feel qualified to comment on how short-sighted that statement is. There is nothing easy about the trekking in the Alps and even the red routes in Switzerland (as opposed to the "dangerous Alpine routes" marked in blue) are not unexacting simplicity. Navigation is still important as paths are often difficult to find as a consequence of seasonal rockfall (the path markings literally disappear as the rocks they are on do the same). Paths can be wide tracks, yes, but they are also non-existent on loose, scree-ridden boulder fields and moraines which make the summit of Scafell Pike look like a patio. Navigating in hill fog in the UK is a challenge, yes, but the Alps are immense, more visceral and to underestimate even the ordinary, unglaciated parts is foolish.

Day Three: Orny Hut (CAS) to La Fouly
Ascent: 425m
Descent: 1,541m
Highest Point: 2,831m Orny Hut (CAS)
Distance: 18.1km
Time: 6hr 37mins

Today, we leave the Orny hut and descend to Fouly. I found Fouly to be an unappealing place when I was there on the TMB but it was then shrouded in a thick fog that reduced visibility to mere metres - mountains? Where, I asked. Fouly a centre of Swiss mountaineering? I was unconvinced. Additionally, I abhor descent - not that I find it harder than ascending but I shudder at each passing metre of height gain I have lost. Yet I know that the Hotel des Glaciers in Fouly has cold beer and good food and we'll reach there by lunchtime. This, I confess with some chagrin, keeps my enthusiasm bubbling. We awake to a resplendent sunrise and immediately congregate outside to marvel at the silhouette of mountains beneath a sky painted deep, rich hues of orange and gold. We eat breakfast - a simple affair of (so often stale) bread and jam, coffee, orange juice and muesli before heading outside to pack our remaining gear in the eerie mountain half-light.

We begin our descent and a cheery, buoyant mood has set in. We are all anticipating a long, hard day of course - knee-jarring tortuous hours as we begin a day every bit as arduous as the hardest days on the TMB. There will be many more like that - in fact the hardest days on the TMB are akin to the easiest on the CHR. I am grateful for my preparation. Perhaps it is the fact that there will be nothing technical about the day to come - a mountain stroll where brains can be relaxed and rested. Or perhaps it is the clear, crisp sunshine. We chatter as we walk, getting to know each other better and I discover I am not the only one looking forward to a cold beer.

The path, although steep, is a good one for much of the descent. It twists and turns through craggy outcrops, but it is not long we before we are accompanied by grass and flora. It is a surreal sight from the rock and ice of the last two days. Footwork is sublimely facile. It is easy to become complacent and, if I knew what was to come over the coming days, I might have been less carefree.

Yet, this high, there is always something to grab my attention. At 2,823m, the Portalet is reminiscent of El Capitan. The Petit Clocher or Clock Tower as it is also known, dominates the skyline from the Orny Hut and the South-East face is 600m high, 300m of which is completely vertical. Like the Eiger in Grindelwald, binoculars are often employed at the Orny hut to observe those risking their futures on this monster. It is a big rock climber's playground. To me, it is a beautiful, imposing and ancient obelisk. As the sun daubs the face with further lashings of its warm, golden oils I am beguiled. I am no Kirkpatrick but, for a moment, I am in the desert of temptation. I absent-mindedly fondle the carabiner hanging from a loop on my pack, my mind whirling considering the possibilities. I have no doubt, had my (long-suffering) hillwalking companion seen me just then, I have visions of him throwing himself off the mountain in exasperation. The alps does that to you - it makes you want more. Eventually, I move on.

We meet forest and I'm thankful for the shade it provides. Even in the early morning, the sun warms us and the descent, however pleasant and perhaps even meandering, is work. Each step is a travesty for the knees. Poles are for wimps I convince myself, eyeing them jealously. I cannot get on with poles - I can see the benefits, nay the faultless logic to be applied, but they and I are on separate sides of the outdoor playground - never the twain shall meet. Yet on long, hard (usually alpine) descents, I toy with the idea of trying them again. I can live with the praying mantis spidery tip-tap ungainliness of them, but co-ordinating my body with them is to me like patting your head and rubbing your stomach whilst solving quadratic equations. I hear talk about titanium knee replacements and smile. Must look into that.

We take a break at a small alpine hut, devouring the ever present chocolate, revelling in the sugar coursing through our veins. A water trough stands nearby but glacial suspended particles have a deleterious effect on filters, slowing them down dramatically and we are cautious about what, and where, we drink. Nothing stops us from tearing off tops in some maniacal parody of the Fully Monty and pouring cool, fresh mountain water all over ourselves. It's a comic moment but entirely in keeping with the jovial mood of the day.

Fouly is at least a few hours away but there are parts of any trek that do not deserve words. It is a straightforward plod among lush Swiss pastoral fields - in fact, after a short time, we find ourselves on what I felt was the most pedestrian and tedious leg of the TMB - this time in reverse. Yet a moment's pause here is worthwhile - whether it was being on familiar ground, of just simply it was my time, this is where my mountain legs kicked in. A simple burst of energy it is not - it's something more than that. I feel energised and this feeling, despite many days of arduous toil, does not leave. As I sit and write this, I wonder if it's still in fact there. It's mental, emotional and physical all at once - an acceptance by the body of a task way beyond a simple day walk and a change in gearing. I move on ahead, alone this time, the guide and rest of the group now hundreds of metres behind. I am in a groove and happy with my own thoughts. 

Yet the TMB does not permit such luxuries. It is London-Underground-station-in-rush-hour busy - thronging with other thru-hikers. As I move - perhaps it is the ice-axe that does it - I am stopped and asked where I have come from. I explain and more advice is sought. Having done this already, I give it freely. I am then joined by others who walk with me asking about what we are doing and about the TMB. I feel I should talk to them, but really I want to be alone making progress. It does not sour the mood however and in the end I realise the group is being guided by a trainee who does not really know what he is doing. He asked advice and again I give it freely. Eventually, the move off and I wait for my own group. We rest together but quickly I am off again with one of my own group this time, Simon. We talk, sharing each other's lives. He is in his fifties and divorced as well as retired. His time is his own and he has made myriad plans. He takes his Mountain Leader assessment this year and, by the end of the trek I am convinced he will pass easily. He is an affable, sensible, natural leader. When no one will take the ropes, he always volunteers to take one. He leads, usually because he has such a strong walking style. He is easy to speak to and never condescending. He leads DofE groups and I imagine they are grateful for his easy style. Simon and I pull into Fouly ahead of everyone else by a good fifteen minutes and he disappears into the store to grab cold water and iced-tea. It is nectar. Each drop in my throat has the restorative effect of the elixir of life. We have walked for long, hard hours and I crave a beer, rösti and an afternoon getting to know my guide and companions. It is not long in coming. In the valley of the shadow the of the giants surrounding us, I learn much more about Nigel Shepherd than I thought possible. He is open and engaging - a climber of the old school and a man who kick-started a modern way of thinking years ago. I commend his clarity of thought and no-nonsense style. Last week, he sent me a book on rope work. He'd signed the front because it was his book - he authored it. The BMC carry it in their shop and Ron Walker, my winter mountaineering course instructor, has several copies too. I am in the presence of greatness, it seems. In fact, it lends the trek something extra and unexpected. There is much to learn and Nigel is keen to teach.


Day Four: La Fouly to Bourg St Pierre
Ascent: 1,445m
Descent: 1,307m
Highest Point: Pointe des Gros Six (2,873m)
Distance: 20.5km
Time: 9hr 09mins

Bourg St Pierre is owed money. Lots of it. By France. They don't appear to have been paying and it is something still remembered by the denizens of this tiny alpine village even now. Napoleon rested his 40,000 strong army here in 1800 en route to catch the Austrians by surprise in Italy. Hannibal came through here too. As did the Romans. That's the thing with the Alps - these antediluvian monsters are steeped in history because they have been here for millennia and will still be here long after we have ruined the planet and our light has been extinguished. To me, it was the next stop on our trek and the beginning of the next phase which would lead us away from civilisation completely and into the mountains properly. It was the last chance for a shower and to ditch unwanted items of kit. In short, once we reached Bourg St Pierre, we'd get a good nights sleep, and the real CHR would begin.

We leave Fouly early as usual as we have a long day ahead of us. I realise as I write that, this is nothing new. Each and every day, with the exception of the short descent into Zermatt at the end, is a long one. A short walk to the edge of town and we begin, almost immediately, to ascend. The Pointe des Gros Six, at 2,873m, is by no means the highest summit on the trek, but it is nearly 1,300m above us and the hovers next to the Col du Névé de la Rousse over which we must go to descend into the valley in which Bourg St Pierre is to be found - the Val d'Entremont.

The ground is easy going - the path is narrow but defined. We proceed slowly, deliberately. Each step is a small but essential cog in the process. Moving fast and light in the Alps is imperative, but ascents are unhurried and steady to conserve energy - a nine hour day cannot be rushed. We keep tight as a group now, moving seamlessly together. From time to time we stop to drink - the water is potable at this altitude. It is a fresh day - cloudy but the sun peaks through from time to time. The wind picks up the higher we get and soon it is time to don an extra layer. Eventually, I can see the grass receding above us and the rock and scree becoming more predominant. We pause at a shepherd's hut, set our packs down and take on some much needed calories. Despite a copious breakfast, we all find hunger biting before long on a steep, wind-blasted ascent.

It is not long before we can see the Col du Névé de la Rousse and we push on across the bouldery, scree-ridden ground to the pass ahead of us. It is adorned, as usual, with the ubiquitous Swiss signpost, yet this one is blue. This is something I've not seen before. And all of the path markings are equally blue as well. I paid it little heed at the time, something I'll come to re-think in time but now, I am blissfully unaware. The wind is fierce now and I can hardly hear what anyone is saying. The views down into the valley below are breathtaking but we have more climbing to do - the Pointe des Gros Six looms above us - a rocky, scree-besieged nightmare. We tread carefully, each step a deeply considered and tentative edging into the darkness of the unknown. Hands, elbows, knees - all utilised to keep as much contact with the mountain as possible. The wind remains a problem - without it, this would be challenging, but with it we are beyond cautious.

Eventually, we crest the last cadre of boulders and the summit - a long, flat granite expanse - is visible by virtue of a small cairn atop a bedlam of slate. We celebrate and ditch our packs to tuck into provisions bought in Fouly - salami, brioche, cheese and cake. All washed down with more iced tea. It is a banquet. In the distance, I can pick out the Grand Combin and the Petit Combin. I am aware we will be in the shadow of both in the days to come and this fills me with genuine satisfaction.

We descend into the valley, passing twin lakes - one the Gouille du Dragon - and a small alpage before picking up an easy path winding slowly down the Combe des Planards to the impossibly turquoise reservoir below. The descent soon becomes overlong and tedious, with at least one of the group lagging behind, tired and lacklustre. The sun is high in the sky now and we are overheating. Hydrating repeatedly, we relish the prospect of a hot shower and a good dinner. As the reservoir looms ever closer, we take a path which showcases the front of the dam in all its glory - Swiss engineering is not limited to watches. We segue from road into forest and the descent seems never to end. Looking back, it is not the longest descent I've done in a single day but it feels like it. Eventually, we spy the bridge crossing the river next to us and cross greedily. There is a final climb up to the road and immediately, without a warning, we are in Bourg St Pierre. It is a small, unassuming place without much to commend it. We find our hotel, on the main road, and head up to our rooms. Laying on my bed, garbed in as much salty sweat as technical fabric, I relish my aching limbs. The pain feels good, in truth, and it is more than a few moments before I kick off my boots and revel in the scalding water on my taut muscles. There is a cold beer waiting for me downstairs, I know, and a map to be pored over. Only 36 hours until I am on snow and ice again.


  1. Your teasing us, this is a real page turner. 

  2. Great photos and writing again, Maz. Since I started to actively climb again, the Alps are becoming a major attraction!

  3. What a great series of photographs! I think I'll be returning to this in future. Must get to the alps, what are the practicalities/costs of a trip like this Maz?

  4. What a fabulous trip - and more to come!

  5. I'm going to post on this soon enough, with a kit analysis thrown in, but the short answer is: it depends on what you want to do. If you want to do something like the TMB, which is essentially walking, then organising it independently is the way to go and very easy. If you want to do anything involving snow and glacial travel and you don't have a lot of experience of either in the Alps, then being guided is a tradition that has real historical significance as well as efficacy. Additionally, you can but learn from a guide. Organising it means booking huts in advance, or having the numbers to call en route if you are not sure of your timing on a longer trek. Huts cost about €40 per night for a dortoir bed. Flying to Geneva is easy and the transfers from there to Chamonix, for example, are very competitive and therefore cheap (€20 pp). Otherwise, the trains to Zermatt are frequent (2-3 an hour) and take 4hrs. Switzerland is breathtakingly expensive (think £8 for 1 litre bottle of water in a hut, or £18 for a plate of rösti). If you are unguided, you might only be paying for cable-cars if you use them, but otherwise, there's very little else. If you are guided, you can hire a guide independently or go with a UK company like KE. The CHR, 13 days in total, which included all the huts and all food except lunches, was just over £1600. It may sound expensive to be guided but the trade-off is being able to do things that are beyond you alone (or may be) and having expert seasonal knowledge which is invaluable. Also, you learn a great deal whilst being guided. As I say, I'll post on this in detail if I am able to in due course.

  6. Thanks for all the comments. There is indeed more to come, and the best is certainly still in my pocket...

  7. Thanks Maz. Would be great to hear more on this. My OH has been moaning for years we never go abroad, I think next year I have to take her somewhere new :)

  8. Maz, great writing and wonderful photographs. One of the best posts I have read for a long time.

  9. The story continues! Great writing as always, bringing the trek to life with insight and reflection. I share your thoughts on walking poles. Due to my distintegrating knees I have little choice but I hate using them. Partly because I'm clumsy and awkward with them, partly because I take it as and admission of defeat to the onset of years - I often don't use them even having carried them uphill in a display of beligerant stupidity. Titanium knee replacements - now there's an idea!