I am back this weekend from my very first Alps hut hike of 2017!! You might think I’m lazy, waiting till mid-July for my first one, but the high alpine season is really only July-Septemberish, too snowbound outside those months. There is of course, the lower, quieter stuff, but those don’t steal my heart the same way a dramatic icefall or scrambling, butt-flopping marmot do. This weekend was a great hike- relatively easy by alpine standards (only 900m/3,000ft), but with huge scenery payoffs. It got me thinking, though, about my all time favorite hikes, and since I have a thing for a good listicle, thought it’d be a fun top ten. I included via ferratas, even though they are half climbing, because it’s my blog and I’ll do what I wanna.
The Haute Route. It’s not quite fair to cite this as one hike as it’s really 14 days worth of different hikes. But man- this was incredible. If I could pick out a couple days, the walk from Cabane du Mont Fort to Prafleuri was out of this world (we stopped to take so many photos that we almost ran out of sunlight, even after departing around 7:30), as well as the hike from Prafleuri to Arolla, where I ate a burger I still think about. The hut at the Moiry Icefall still stands out as probably the most incredibly situated huts I’ve ever been in- I literally sat and listened to the glaciers for hours. But overall it was just so cool to be propelled by my legs all the way from Chamonix to Zermatt, two of my favorite places. I don’t think I can overemphasize how physically exhausting this trail can be, though. An uphill climb of 1600m/5200ft plus a usually more tiring amount of downhill was typical for a single day…now imagine days on end of this.
2. The Inca Trail. Totally different thing- what made this the coolest was the cultural experience of hiking down this stony path made centuries before by a mysterious culture. And of course the amazing crown of Macchu Picchu. I think the right word is otherworldly. Actual hiking was pretty easy and only made challenging by the fact that the passes sometimes hit 16,000 ft.
3. Via Ferrata Braunwald. Not too nerve wracking Via Ferrata with really incredible views. And quite close to Zurich!
4. Grindelwald to Schreckhorn Hut. This is another tough hike, one of the few T4s I’ve done (T4-T5 occasionally require specialized climbing equipment, but in this case only meant some extra ladders and exposed sections). I think the signage said it would take 9 hours (remember without rest, normally I am above the markers), but I was with some strong hikers this day and I think we did it in 7. I was dead afterwards though. Much better to stay overnight at the hut and relax a bit. Incredible views of the Eiger Glacier and the famous Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau peaks.
5. Seealpsee Hike in Appenzell. Proof that it doesn’t have to be hard for me to like it 🙂 A beautiful hike to one of the most iconic lakes in Switzerland, together with a necessary visit to the Ascher hut tucked against a cliff. Must have their famous rösti and a cider (moscht).
6. Schynige Platte to First. Another epic (but easier) Bernese Oberland hike high above Interlaken, one of the most breathtaking views of the same Eiger/Mönch/Jungfrau mountains, in my opinion.
7. Franconia Loop Notch. Alright, it’s about time I threw some US in. There’s less of it because I’ve had less opportunities to hike it! While I’ve hung out a ton in CO, there’s not really one specific trail I’m thinking of right now that blew my socks off- I’m going for really dramatic views in this list. The Alps, in my opinion, do have a bit the edge here, with dramatic differences in elevation instead of the gradual ones of the Rockies. But this ridge trail part of the Appalachian Trail has stuck in my mind for years. I wonder if it would still hold up.
8. Olympic National Park. I’m gonna lump all these together, too- although my memory is fuzzy of the names of the hikes. Hurricane Ridge was beautiful, Hoh Rainforest, the coastline…I just remember that a lot of them looked like below. There were also the most incredible beach trails- I remember us running for dear life to catch the most amazing sunset off the coast.
9. Franz-Senn Hut and the Tirol in the Austrian Alps. Hut culture is THE BEST in Austria. Maybe even better than Switzerland. I definitely give them the edge on food- I think about käseknodelsuppe all the time. Please bring that across the border. The views are also incredible, and it is cheaper. I need to explore more!
10. Aletsch Glacier Hike from Bettmeralp. OK, I ran this as a half marathon and almost died. But this is truly an amazing view of the largest glacier in Europe. It was surprisingly hard to come up with this last one- there are so many other things! I’m still thinking about the Maroon Bells in Colorado, and the entire Engadin area in Switzerland, and Ticino…but this is my spontaneous, might change tomorrow list.
Number 1 on my hiking desires list, though…the Hardergrat! This is a trail that must be trail run, however, as it is 27km of knife ridge high above Interlaken with nowhere to descend if you get stuck. But just look at these views:
On a more distant scale, I am also dying to see the Himalayas. Let me know if you want to apply to be a hiking buddy (I promise it’s an easy application- you want to go and are somewhat fit) 🙂
I’m sure everything is sick of me nattering on for so long about this trip, but I accomplished a lot of the planning through hunting through the blogs of others, and feel obliged to give back a little. So this post will be a straight up if you wanna do it, here’s how. Smattered in are a random selection of photos from the trip, basically from only the first half of the trip. I’m thinking of doing a photo only post soon 🙂
Why should I do this hike?
The views are straight up consistently the best I’ve seen in a whole lot of hiking experience in both the USA and Switzerland, and it seems like there is a consensus that this is one of the most beautiful hikes in the world (Lonely Planet Top Ten Treks in the World). It has a little bit of everything: glaciers, mountain climbs, woodsy paths, (some) valley walks through quaint towns that haven’t changed in centuries, ladders straight up rock faces, ibix, cows, chamois, marmots, colorful locals, rock climbing, tons of items of geological interest. It is 13-14 days depending on whether you do the full Europaweg at the end (there are some options for shortening, but I would advise not missing too much, as I loved the experience of really walking all of it). It starts and ends in two of the most iconic mountaineering towns in the world, and I love love the atmosphere of both places. I have gotten into a lot of reading about famous mountaineers and climbs and got such a kick out of seeing Chamonix and revisiting Zermatt again, one of my favorite places in this whole world. I went to the museum there this time and got such a kick out of it!
It is also appealing in that it offers the intense “trekking” experience, but minimizes the amount of planning needed, since you go through a town (perhaps better defined as “a cluster of houses that also offers food for sale”) at least every few days. This means that you don’t need to take kilos and kilos of food on your back. You can also avoid taking tents and sleeping bags, significantly cutting down on weight on your back. We did not do this, but probably should have. Which brings us to…
Where do you sleep?
As an American, I automatically associate backpacking with tent camping, and that is how all of my previous backpacking trips have gone. However, the thing in Europe is hut hiking. Most nights we either ended up in a tiny mountain town or in an isolated mountain cabane. Some of these cabanes were incredible and a destination in themselves (Mont Fort, Moiry), some were literally a place to sleep (Prafleuri). Almost all of them involved a whole lot of people sleeping in one room. It gets warm. Bring ear plugs. Overall I really enjoyed the experience, and slept quite well, the odd snorer aside.
We camped several times in the towns and saved ourselves a fair amount of money doing so, in Zermatt especially. It is unclear whether wild camping is actually legal in Switzerland (like so many things, it “varies from canton to canton”), and I don’t think we had the appropriate cold weather gear to camp at altitude. Almost everything was very exposed and rocky higher up. Honestly we did a great deal less camping than expected and it would have been easier on our backs to leave the full tent and sleeping bag behind, and just bring a liner for the hut beds. However, I loved our camping nights, so there’s that.
An advantage of less wild camping is that most everywhere we stayed, including campsites, had a nice shower. The Swiss appear to take their showering very seriously, even though I consider it a requisite to be a little dirty during a trek.
Did you book these places ahead of time?
For the most part. I would recommend booking the isolated cabanes ahead, as they can fill up quickly, especially on weekends. I was told on the trail that they basically won’t turn you away in the evening at these isolated places, as that is simply dangerous, but then the option would be sleeping on the floor, which is not super appealing after a long day of hiking. I planned somewhat haphazardly other than that and there were a few nights we decided to just march into town and ask some locals and/or the tourist bureau where we should stay. Or, ahem, I had booked a hotel in the wrong country and we had to nose around to find a replacement. It worked like a charm, but I felt much more comfortable with it once we entered the Swiss German area where I could converse a bit more. We stayed in such a lovely woman’s home our second to last night there- much nicer than almost anywhere else we had stayed, and she was so kind (but only spoke German, I believe).
How expensive are these huts?
Well, this is Switzerland. Do not automatically think that because this is a trekking trip, it will be cheap. Our housing averaged between 30-45 francs a night per person, which is really quite reasonable, but adds up over 14 days. The huts offer something called “half board,” which means they feed you dinner and breakfast the next morning (you don’t get any choice on food, by the way- it’s whatever’s cookin in the kitchen that night). You usually have to book this ahead of time so they can transport enough food up the mountain, although one place we showed up without booking and they automatically had added us to the half board list because there was literally no place else to eat in “town.” Whoops. Half board usually adds another 40 francs. So if you do that every night, which most hikers did, it would be around 980 francs for the two weeks, plus the cost of food during your hiking day (probably 10-15 francs per person for a sandwich and apple from the hut). Note that this is a standard cost of eating in Switzerland. You will not get cheaper food at a restaurant, if it is available, and probably not even at the grocery store if you want to buy meat.
Did Roxana and I do this? Bahahaha. If you know us at all, you know we are cheap (and I am a poor PhD student), and we looked for ways to lessen the costs wherever possible. We loaded up on food at the grocery stores, and ate a constantly repeating cycle of baguette, cheese, cured meats, fruit, peanut butter, chocolate, digestive cookies, and nuts. Oh, and weird things like tuna in tubes. We splurged on half board I think three times, and treated ourselves to restaurant meals I think two times more on the trek (including one burger+fries that I still think about sometimes). Very roughly after some quick math, I think we spent 585CHF each on lodging and half board for the two weeks (maybe less, I rounded up), and maybe an additional couple hundred francs on meals, snacks, Rivella, and beer. Since I live in Switzerland and this is kind of the cost of living here, it didn’t feel so bad, but perhaps Roxana feels differently.
Of course, you can also stay in nicer places and spend way more than this. The sky is the limit. There is also the cost of the train ride to get there and back, and of course the flight if you are coming to Europe.
How difficult is the hike?
This is going to vary completely based on your individual fitness, and, perhaps more importantly, stubbornness and pain tolerance. I’m kind of a newb on treks, but have done the 4 day Inca trail trek, a 4 day backwoods backpacking trip in Colorado, and many many more tough day trips and overnight trips all over the Alps and the western US. Each individual day hike on the Haute Route was tough but doable as a reasonably fit person. The X factor for me was how my body would react over days and days of this in a row. For me at least, there were definitely a few days I went to bed completely exhausted and dubious about continuing the next day, but woke in the morning again ready to go. Roxana and I both got some pretty killer colds, which I think also made it more challenging than it needed to be. We encountered people unprepared for this who gave up, so this is definitely something to think over before signing up. Your experience will be SO.MUCH.BETTER if you take the time to do a little training, either by stair climbing or actual uphill hiking if you can. Just be mentally prepared for at least 6-8 hours of strenuous physical activity in a day (we had a couple days of up to 11 hour hikes…) and lots of blisters.
For what it’s worth, one of our trail friends has lived in Nepal among other places, and has done treks all over the world, including multi-month treks through high altitude. He said the Haute Route is about as tough as it gets. He recommended the Tour de Mount Blanc, another popular Alpine trek, as an easier intro to Alpine trekking. It’s also slightly shorter, so maybe more appealing to those with limited vacation time. The first four days or so went over the same path, so I can vouch it is pretty gorgeous as well (he still gives the Haute Route the edge for better views).
One of the things that makes an Alps trek easier, though, is that your pack is relatively light compared to most of the other trekking trips I’ve done. If your pack for this type of trip is more than 20-25 lbs, you are doing it wrong and will regret it dearly.
So what should I pack for a trip like this?
As little as possible. No, seriously. For 14 days I packed:
1 dri-fit t shirts and 1 dri-fit tank top
a pair of dri-fit running spandex and a pair of shorts
1 long sleeve dri-fit t shirt to throw on top on mountain passes
a heavy duty fleece
1 clean shirt and 1 pair of yoga pants to sleep in
7 pairs of underwear
2 pairs hiking socks (get good ones!)
a cap for shade (SO IMPORTANT)
travel size sport detergent (we washed stuff in sinks every few days)
I brought a kindle but Roxana said she wouldn’t bring again
sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner
Swiss army knife
So basically I had only 2 outfits and then a clean outfit to wear at night. This ended up working out really well. Roxana had more heavy duty rain gear but we really lucked out with weather- I don’t know whether it’s worth the weight or not because I’ve had the good fortune to never get caught out. Remember food will need to fit in there as well.
OK, you’ve convinced me. What should I do next?
You gotta get the guide book that everyone uses (link above in packing list). It’s not ideal. In fact, I have some words for you Kev, if you ever read this. Particularly about that final day walk into Zermatt. It’s like you just gave up! And what do you have against downhill skiing? However, one of our trail friends told us he gave our feedback to Kev and it will be included in the next edition of the book. So look out for Andrea and Rox in the acknowledgments 😀
Next, book your flights. It’s probably best to fly in and out of Geneva, although Zurich works too. The season really starts in mid July and goes until end of September, when enough snow has melted to make the passes crossable, but this can be unpredictable. Check conditions before you go.
Whew, what a handful of a post. I hope someone finds this useful. Below I’ve included a link to my handy dandy spreadsheet for help in booking huts and sussing out the toughest days (highlighted in red).