I’ve been hiking a 3-day stretch of the Haute Route, from Verbier to Louvie hut, to Prafleuri hut, to Arolla. It’s been a great trip, with wonderful hikes, cool, mixed, interesting weather, and what we like to call “entertaining obstacles” along the way. The Haute Route is the most rugged and remote trip we offer, and quite a few of my guides say it’s their favorite. I love it too, but I also have a slightly different perspective. It’s a beautiful hike, of course, and if your goal is to get up high, see big mountains and stay away from larger villages, this is the place to do it. But it’s also a little tricky, and it always feels like there are a number of things that can go wrong, so I hesitate to send too many people on it. In fact, when somebody tells me they want to do the Haute Route, I normally ask “Do you want to hike the Haute Route specifically, or are you just looking for a nice hut-to-hut hike?”, and if they just want to go hut-to-hut hiking, we’ll send them to the Bernese Oberland or maybe the Dolomites first.
What’s so hard about the Haute Route? Well, like the name suggests, you spend a lot of time up high (around 7000 to 10,000 ft), which slows you down and leaves you also more vulnerable to severe weather. This stretch of the route, from Verbier to Arolla, is also very, very rocky, with big boulders that you have to balance on and clamber over and around, which saps the energy from even strong hikers, and that’s before we even get to the ladders at Pas de Chevres! The route, while relatively clear, can be a bit hard to follow, especially if it’s cloudy or snowing. And finally, there’s just no way out of the hikes… you can’t go half-way from Louvie to Prafleuri hut and just decide to quit – there’s nothing in-between, not even cell service – once you start, you need to finish. The options for skipping the hikes completely aren’t that easy or appealing either, which tends to spur you onward when conditions are less than stellar. I like to say with strong hikers and good weather you can do anything, but if you miss on one of those, things get dicey. Miss on both… then you have problems. So, we arrange both guided and self-guided Haute Route trips still, quite a few times each year in fact, but I try to be very careful to make sure it’s appropriate for the people we’re sending out there. That’s the point, right? You want an adventure, but you want to be safe and have fun at the same time.
So I scheduled myself to do some guiding on the Haute Route this week, and this is unusual because I just don’t guide that often anymore. Especially on trips that take me out of cell phone and internet range for days at a time (the horror!). What? When did this happen? Didn’t I start doing this in the first place so I could go hiking in the Alps? Maybe, but maybe not. I definitely like hiking through the Alps. But I think that’s not necessarily the point either.
I’ve always found the Alps (and perhaps travel in general, but for me, the Alps) to be a very powerful and moving experience. Even still. When I came to work in Mürren in my late 20’s, it was certainly a difficult time for me. I was going through a very painful divorce, had just sold my bakery (a terrible job that I wasn’t going back to), and was certainly leaving Cincinnati, but with nothing really pulling me one direction or another. In fact, I very much did not want to be pulled in any particular direction for awhile, not yet. I had come to the Alps to center myself again. I knew where I was coming – I’d been before – but didn’t know what to expect. And it was enormously moving. Transformative even. I learned to live in the moment for a couple brief years, made friends, did a lot of hiking, and was able to find new perspective. I stayed for 2 years, I fell in love with the Alps, and came home with a fledgling tour company that has somehow turned into a career.
Of course not every moment is a crossroads, but everybody needs to get away from time to time to recharge and relax, and yes, to pause and reflect. I definitely find comfort in the power and beauty of the mountains, the waterfalls, and the night sky, from a 4-star balcony or from the simplest hut. The exhausting hikes – maybe one that you didn’t think you had in you. The crisp air. The simplifying of the daily routine. I think one of the greatest, and usually unforeseen gifts of coming to the Alps is simply the opportunity to take yourself out of daily routines, and to give yourself the time and space to reflect and think. Often on our trips, you find yourself having conversations you never would have expected with people you just met a couple days before, or even that day. Some people have gone home and changed careers, and we receive countless emails extolling their “best vacation ever” (keep them coming, please). Many people have been enormously moved, and many have come back for further trips. I find that extremely gratifying. I feel like I get to share what the Alps have meant to me with hundreds of people every year.
This week we have a private guided tour doing the Haute Route – a group of folks that met on one of our Bernese Oberland tours last year, liked it so much, and got along so well, they decided to book a private tour just for themselves this year! How neat is that? (I love people like this.) I’ve had a bit of trouble finding a guide for this trip, having booked a couple guides previously that didn’t work out for various reasons, and I’d been scrambling through August to find somebody good for them, not only to honor their trip and how it needs to be… but also so I didn’t need to lead the full tour myself and could still do my trip to the Dolomites with Sud Tirol tourism (I don’t claim to be totally selfless!).
Well I did find a guide, Jimmy, and while he has a lot of experience guiding and plenty of personal experience in the Alps, he hadn’t guided for us or guided the Haute Route before. Not knowing, really, his guiding chops or decision-making tendencies, I was a bit wary of sending him out with this group alone on the toughest stretch of our most rugged tour. As if that’s not enough, there have also been a couple important changes to the route in the last year or two that I needed to check out for our self-guided tour info, so I felt I needed to come. I skipped the dumpling-making class in South Tyrol and came back to hike with them to Arolla.
What a great group of people! They’re all having a wonderful time, they hike together easily, they’re happy in a nice hotel (of course) and just as satisfied with a rustic hut. They all like Jimmy, who’s doing a fantastic job. It’s just a ton of fun. We still had big hikes to do, worked our way over the boulders, and had a very cold snowstorm at one of the passes that made us think “hmmm… this could turn into something.” We crossed a glacier, lived through a lot of snoring in the huts, saw countless Ibex and even a bearded vulture soar overhead (the largest bird in the Alps, with up to a 9 ft wingspan!). And it was all perfect. Great for me, and an incredible experience for them, most of whom had not quite done anything like this before. No life transformations, perhaps, but we’ve had a memorable time, and I was more than a little sad to be leaving them yesterday as they continue on to the second half of their tour.
I do meet a lot of our self-guided clients, and get lots of great emails talking about what a wonderful trip they’ve had. I get it, and I love it. Helping people fall in love with the Alps, the full experience, is important and fulfilling. But it’s nice to be out with our hikers from time to time also. I told this group that really, other than two people for one run earlier this summer, this is the first group I’ve led in two years. Thank you for reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place. Their response says it all… “What are we doing next year? The Dolomites?”. Yes, yes, of course. You would love the Dolomites. See you next year!