SWITZERLAND // ZURICH - HAUTE ROUTE HIKE (CHAMONIX to ZERMATT)
July 25th - Chamonix to Trient
Elevation gain: 2,476' - Elevation loss: 3,175' - Distance: 8 miles // 5 hours
I sat on a dead bird! I sat on a dead bird! Is that good luck? No, that's being pooped on by a bird. This is a bad omen, isn't it?
We took a 30 min bus ride to the edge of the valley from Chamonix to start our hike. Immediately we were lost and need to pull out a map and our trail notes...to find the trailhead. After five minutes of serious confusion we found the start around the corner and were off on a steep two hour incline. We had feared we were not strong enough for the Haute Route (I mean, we only hiked twice in the Blue Hills to "train" beforehand; one of those times may have been hungover) but once we mentally and physically settled into the pain, dismissed self-conscious concerns about the face sweat and heavy mouth breathing, and gave into the need to blow snot rockets, we realized this adventure was definitely a challenge we could handle. Once above the tree line, Mt. Blanc sprawled before us, not a cloud in sight. The view was too beautiful to believe; nothing this incredible should be easy. This is what we came here to do, to see, to experience.
August 2nd - Gruben to Grachen
Elevation gain: 3,550' - Elevation loss: 3,098' - Distance: 10 miles // 6 hours
Pronounced Gra-hen, like you're digging phlegmy bits out of your throat, not gra-chen. I made this mistake with a Swiss couple along the trail; after asking if I was on the right path, the main tilted his head, confused, then pointed at his crotch, "graCHEN, YOU are going to GraHEN." Got it.
Snow drifts in Summer
Nature, you crazy.
August 3rd - Grachen to Europahut
Elevation gain: 4,000' - Elevation loss: 2,500' - Distance: 10.5 miles // 7.5 hours
Today was tough. Tougher than I thought it would be, than it could be. The trail notes were worrisome, leading me to believe it'd be a miracle if I didn't die today; they oddly chose the second to last day to finally warn about the hazards of hiking here - "exposure" not meaning little, if any, protection from the elements/sun but rather - one side of your narrow single track trail is a straight drop off a cliff. I had been told that this section was impassible in poor weather, had heard a guide talk other hikers out of this trek because of the danger. I'm so damn stubborn though and the weather outlook was perfect. I had the hotel call the Europahut to ensure the trail was safe. They said it was, so there's no excuse. I can either give into fear and shut down or I can try.
Up at 6am and out the door at 7, I had a lovely relaxing walk through Grächen, a flat woodsy path brought me to Gasenried village where I finally started my ascent, the typical daily routine of aggressive switchbacks through the woods for two hours. Finally I arrived at the statue of St. Bernard in an open area just past a hundred goats, slowly walking towards me, staring with their black judgy eyes me as I huffed my way to the top. A flat, safe area to stare at the mountains and devour a sandwich before heading off into three hours of terror. An important note I learned here, the statue points towards the mountains, IT DOES NOT point in the direction of the trail, trust me, I tried following this logic and I was very wrong.
Finally on course, I chanted "You're doing good. You're doing great" to myself for the better part of this section while I navigated the most strenuous and dangerous section of route. I flailed about crossing loose boulder fields, like Jack Sparrow, arms swinging around trying to maintain some sort of balance. There were long sections of narrow trails undulating along the mountainside. One foot in front of the other, no room for error. The entire way, l leaned my 25 pound pack uphill to ensure a breeze wouldn't throw me off balance the wrong way. In particularly precarious areas ropes and chains were bolted into the rocks like loose, unpredictable handrails. I'd bend to grab one section from the ground, the next would be broken in half, forcing me to stretch to clasp the next. A sandy decline near an edge caused me the most panic, I'd try and take one step, feel the earth give way and back up..nope, not that. Try again, nope not that either. Finally, I took a risk and quickly half fell into the next rope. Did it. ok. ok. One more section of narrow cliff path, I encounter a giant flat-ish rock covering most of the path, no way above, no way to safely climb up and over it, so I laid on top, hugging the stone while I shuffled my feet along the trail until I could stand, again.
"You're doing good. You're doing great."
Around yet another bend I see a warning sign that says "cross the danger area quickly" with a crude illustration of a cliff and a bunch of rocks falling down. Ahead, there's a steep slope of rocks stretching from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley and I need to run across it. I desperately wish I wasn't alone at this point; would anyone know where to look? I haven't encountered any other hikers all day traveling in either direction. I haven't even heard or seen people in the distance - is this really safe? Should I really be here? I think about that dead bird I accidentally sat on on day one - was that a warning? I take a moment to listen for danger - just a breeze in the distance and my heart beat pounding in my ears. I take a deep breath and dart across trying not to disturb any of the rocks where they've settled. I knock a few small ones loose and hear them knock down the slope, taking a few more with as they go, but don't cause a huge disruption. I scramble to the other side, finally reaching the other warning post signifying that I've made it. The final obstacle is just ahead, a suspension bridge, the most horrifying looking suspension bridge I've ever encountered. A narrow set of metal panels lined up to walk on, floating on a shady looking cable net - each panel not quite attached to the other, all wobbling and tilting, the entire bridge tips and sways; I'm trembling as I slowly make my way to the other side. To grass and stability and a hut with beer.
This day was full of the moments that I love. These moments wrapped in a tough exterior of tears and temper tantrums, I can'ts and I won'ts, with a fear weighing so heavily I cannot breathe. When I feel those emotions that deserve my attention then wipe my nose and grit my teeth and say no, this moment is mine and I will not be controlled by fear. These are the moments I'm most thankful for.
And the beer.