Monday, July 23, 2012

Haute Route Journal (part 1)

Here's an intro to my Haute Route hike.

Day 1

Getting there.

I left the Lugano train station bound for Chamonix on a seven hour train trip with six transfers.  The SBB/CFF/FFS people first said I didn't need any ticket at all, then changed their mind and said I needed a ticket for just the bus connection in France, and then realized that I only had a Swiss Card (1/2 off) and gave me a real ticket for the whole trip.  They seemed concerned about the six transfers, and kept trying to talk me into an eight-hour trip on with just four transfers.  We settled on the six transfers and 1/2 off ticket, and away I went.

From Locarno to Domodossola I took the FART train, or Centovallina.  Yes I know I've made fun of the name here before, but I hadn't yet taken the "fast" train across this mountainous little section of northern Italy before.  Here I am stir-crazy and ready to hike, and instead I'm spending two hours scooting along at 15 mph in a jam-packed little train with no ventilation.  Now I understand why they call it the FART train (at least in Switzerland; in Italy it's run by the SSIF) - it's an apt description.  We tooted, squeaked, and rumbled our way through to Italy, with plenty of time to digest the views (so funny).

All the little Italian villages have Italian flags everywhere.  Which isn't at all necessary - when you cross the border from Switzerland, the buildings go from looking like an idealized Legoland version of rural Europe to the regular, slightly crumbling version of rural Europe.  Everyone knows what country you're in.

Then I changed to an ancient SBB InterRegio train through the Simplon Tunnel to Brig, and then another change to a newer InterRegio.  We were scooting down the Rhone Valley:

In Sion the announcements suddenly changed to French, and I realized just how frustrating the language barrier has been these last weeks in Lugano.  When I changed again to the Matterhorn Gotthard train in Martigny, I hustled over to the boulangerie and used my horrible high school French to get a ham sandwich - the woman actually understood what I wanted, responded in French, etc.

The Matterhorn train is cute:

And cruises along some remarkably steep cliffs - at one point I looked down and actually recoiled from the window:

There were only five of us on the train, and a staff person was going around asking us if we thought the train was too expensive.  More on that later.

Finally I bumped into Chamonix on a bus (the driver told me I didn't actually need a ticket for that leg, so minus one for the Lugano SBB folks), and the hike had begun:

Stage 1 - Chamonix to Argentiere 

(the "stages" are from Mr. Reynolds' guidebook - I didn't organize them, and had to lump them together/split them up in order to do the trip in six days.)

It was sunny, with some high clouds, and I was happy to be able to see Mont Blanc, the Aguille Vert, etc.  It had been mostly raining/cloudy since we've been in Switzerland, and I assumed that I'd roll into town and stare into a cloud bank/rainstorm.

I liked Chamonix, and wished I had a few days to hang around.  Despite it's pedigree, it felt like a regular ski town, and like any other regular ski town, everyone was letting it all hang out during the brief period of warm sunshine.  I found myself wondering why I hadn't come before - hey, there's a sign for the Cravasseholes:

Great stuff.  Although I've never been to a regular ski town where you can park your R.V. and get views like this:

Finding the route out of town was a little frustrating.  The guidebook is a blast from the past, using turn-by-turn route descriptions and walking times in an age of GPS tracks and easy-to-produce digital maps (heaven help you if for some reason you tried to follow it "backwards," i.e. from Zermatt to Chamonix).  I kept blowing through turns and having to backtrack, all the while trying to take it all in.  

I hiked through a driving range, but they had nets so we didn't get pelted by balls:

And there's the Hotel Montana (?):

Soon I was in Argentiere.  Soon after I was heading into La Tour, the first little ski area of the hike:

Two Englishwomen were standing in front of the big trail map debating how they should explain to friends that they were hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), but had just ridden the gondola down the ski hill: "Well, we did hike up the pass, so we did the hard part," etc.  I decided to hike the whole way to Zermatt - no alternate transportation.  Luckily for me, the gondola was closed and it didn't matter what I had decided - I started hiking up the first pass of the trip, the Col de Balme.

Stage 2 - Argentiere to Trient

I immediately realized why people used the gondola instead of hiking - switchbacking steeply up a ski area is both strenuous and boring.  This became a recurring realization - never getting old - for the rest of the trip.  I consoled myself with views of Mont Blanc:

There's a hut at the top of the pass:

In Le Peuty, the couldn't be simpler.  You either get a spot on the wood floor in the Gite for 19 euro/francs:

Or pitch your tent with all the other TMB-ers for 4 euro/francs:

I opted for the latter, and soon after a woman came by to collect.  Some American guys were poring over their big TMB map like they were going to war, they asked her how much in English, and the woman grumpily told them in French that she spoke French only - doubtful given education in Switzerland and the number of tourists she dealt with.  When she got to me I broke out my bad high school French again, and she was friendly as could be.  She joked around about my diminutive tent: "Are you sure there's no one else in there who has to pay?"  Another theme for (five days of) the trip - people seemed genuinely happy (or at least amused) at my attempts to speak their language.  

Day 2

Stage 3: Trient-Champex

I was up with the sun, and was surprised no one else was (this being a big mountain hiking launch spot and all).  There were some guys sleeping out in sleeping bags just sopping with dew.  Props to the guy with the hyperactive border collie who barked crazily at any movement.  I moved, the dog woke up one of the wet guys, and said guy transferred himself into the cooking shelter, where he laid down literally on my feet (but not the dog).  I headed out and up the Fenetre d'Arpette.  It was fun to take pictures of the big (but retreating) Glacier du Trient:

But, as always, took time out to take shots of water diversion structures:

(that's a fine splitter box).  And laughing at the trimmed trail:

Hey, maybe we're climbing a big alpine pass, but that's no reason to get our legs wet from dew/rain.

The second day defined the rest of the trip.  My second realization (or is it fourth?), is that there are people camping out along the way:

And that if I was discrete/respectful about it, I could too.  Third (fifth?), I realized that my basic lack of experience with the metric system had resulted in me subconsciously discounting the climbs - hey, getting up to the Arpette's only 1,400 meters; that doesn't sound so bad.  Nope, that's 4,500 feet in American, which is a pretty stiff morning stroll.  Fourth (sixth?) I realized I was going to have to get some real backpacking food somewhere if I was going to be climbing 5-10,000 feet a day.  Fifth (seventh?), I realized that it was going to rain, and so it did.

I had the pass to myself, which surprised me because the guidebook notes how crowded the TMB is compared to the Haute Route.  Then, on the descent I passed a herd of 50 TMB-ers - Americans, British, Aussies, Japanese, French, Italian, etc.  A few people had guides.  It seemed they were all together by virtue of leaving from the same place/hotel at the same time.  Which led to realization six/eight, that I could have the trail pretty much to myself if I didn't follow a 9-5 hiking schedule.

A guy asked me in French how long it was to the top, and I sarcastically told him 30 minutes.  He in turn told his whole exhausted crew that they were almost there - the Canadian had told him only 30 minutes.  Canadian?

Then I was in Champex, and not really feeling the love.  The town was just a little too neat, and I was having a hard time with lunch.  I got my loaf of bread from the boulangerie, and then my cheese from the eye-poppingly expensive little shop - and then ventured out into the rain to eat said bread and cheese, ending up under a tree by the lake:

Whereupon kids coming home from their tennis lessons made fun of me.

Back to realization four/six, that I wasn't going to traipse from town to town and do the bread and cheese thing.  And onto realization seven/nine, that I'd become a big baby about hiking in rain after having none on the Arizona Trail.  Realization eight/ten came shortly after, which is that despite being a famous backpacking trip, the Haute Route has some just okay sections that few people actually hike, namely...

Stage 4: Champex - Sembracher - Le Chable

Like a lot of things, it's the context that matters.  It was intermittently raining, with the air so muggy that the rain just seemed to materialize out of the air rather than fall.  Plus, I wasn't looking forward to climbing from Sembrancher (717 meters) to Cabane de Mont Fort (2,457 meters) - that's 5,700 feet in American, and on the same day as my 4,500 American foot jaunt to the Arpette.

The hike itself was some pretty rolling farmland, except that "rolling" in Switzerland means an incredible dropoff into a glaciated valley:

I liked the town of Sembrancher.  Realization number...oh, whatever about numbering these things - I had seen photos of these little Swiss towns and figured they were just for tourists, like a "wild west" mockup street in the U.S.  The towns certainly have that element going on, but they are first and foremost farming and logging communities.  Sembrancher epitomized this side of the Valais - people were working in their woodshops and machine shops, a guy was sharpening saw blades outside his house, and everywhere horns from the best cows hung on garages and homes.  Maybe all this industry is highly protected, and maybe some of it makes dubious macroeconomic sense, but it's real, it's serious, and it's the reason these towns exist.

I had hoped that Sembrancher had a grocery store as real as its commitment to agriculture and silviculture, but I knew that meant I'd have to head over to the train station to look.  And I also knew that if I went over there, as if by magic I'd end up on a clean and inexpensive train heading up to Villette, out of the rain and avoiding a muggy hike upvalley.  From there, the slippery (up)slope would lead me by inexpensive cable car to Verbier; and thus, I would make quick work of my 5,700 American foot climb.  Instead, I hustled out of Sembrancher and ate my leftover bread and cheese with the other clowns:

I was rewarded for my perseverance by getting to hike in the rain through the Verbier motocross track:

The Verbier BMX track:

And the Verbier recycling station - as well as some random signs celebrating the various cantons of Switzerland:

I did see one fellow die-hard backpacker (?) on this section, and a drunk guy stopped me to tell me (incorrectly) that I was hiking the wrong way.

I was also realizing a few (unnumbered) things about Mr. Reynolds' guidebook.  First, all of the photos of the book are either a hiker or hikers poised against an incredible alpine (or subalpine) environment; or a panoramic photo of said incredible alpine environment.  No Verbier recycling station in there at all.  Also, the book is written pretty much only for people hiking from hut to hut; which means no mention of the very important Migros store in Villette for us cheapskates:

At which I bought a few days worth of food to carry up the huge climb to Verbier.

Stage 5: Le Chable - Cabane de Mont Fort

And so, refreshed and ready for a vigorous workout of sweatily climbing through rich people's backyards, I headed right up under the gondola that would have whisked me to the top:

I did visit a quiet church at Les Verneys:

I also found the summer home of my dreams:

(all I want is a little log cabin next to Verbier; is that so wrong?)

And traversed the very cool Verbier DH course:

Oh, and of course there were some regular, which is to say amazing, Switzerland views, this time of the Grand Combin:

At Clambin I asked a guy whether the forecast was for rain.  He chuckled heartily and responded with a broad wave of his arms: "Who can tell in the mountains?  And have you ever seen such a beautiful view?"  This all sounded better in French, and I had to admit that it certainly was beautiful.  Soon after, I stopped to make some dinner at the Le Hattey picnic area:

And soon after that, it started pouring rain.  As far as I could tell, the sign didn't say that I couldn't sleep there, so I did.

(part 2 here).

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