Mont Blanc seen from Rébuffat Platform at Aiguille du Midi above Chamonix, elevation 12,000 feet (as may be seen by hikers or skiers on Haute Route). Credit: Nicolas Sanchez
The lingo of mountaineering in English has borrowed much from other languages, particularly French. A mountaineer may cross a glacier to a col, descend a couloir, and on the way rappel down a face to rendezvous with friends. One of the newest additions is haute route, first used in English in June 1912. Literally it means “high route” and designates a traverse made entirely at high elevation. It’s a generic term now, but as a proper name, Haute Route, retains its original meaning. It’s the trans-Alpine traverse between Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland.
Yet an English connection lurks behind that bit of lexicographic simplicity. In 1911, French skiers reported the first traverse of the Haute Route on skis. Understandably, they wrote in French and consequently were reluctant to use “The High Level Glacier Route from Chamonix to Zermatt”, the name in English under which it was first described in 1862 in “Passes and Glaciers”, a publication of The Alpine Club, founded in 1857 in London. Why the English readily embraced the French name in 1912 remains unknown. Most likely, the acceptance of the name in French reflected the warming of Anglo-French relations of the time. Railroads had brought Paris closer to London, and travelers flocked in both directions across the Channel. Moreover, Haute Route was the shorter term, more easily dropped into casual conversation upon returning to England from a mountaineering vacation in the Alps.
The classic hike starts in the hamlet of Le Tour, at the end of the road northeast of Argentière just north of Chamonix. Here the vertical scale is awesome. The two-stage gondola of the Argentière ski area is among the world’s tallest, serving slopes with a total vertical drop of 1.3 miles. Mont Blanc, with a summit elevation of 15,782 feet — the highest in the Alps — towers nearby. The elevation gain of the first day’s hike is more than 4,000 feet, up to the Albert Premier cabin, named for Prince Albert the First of Belgium, an avid mountaineer who was killed in a rock climbing accident in 1934. From then on, the trail goes up, to a high point of 10,379 feet at the Trient cabin, to a low point of 4,820 feet at the town of Champex in Switzerland. On the average, the hike to Zermatt takes 11 to 12 days, or longer whenever hikers take alternate routes over surrounding summits. In winter, the ski route takes an average of seven days.
Unsurprisingly, both the summer hiking and winter skiing routes invite competition among mountaineers, principally for the fastest time from the Church in Chamonix to the Church in Zermatt, or the other way round. The current record of 21 hours and 11 minutes was set in May 2008 by French mountaineers Stéphane Brosse and Lionel Bonnel, who combined hiking and skiing on the route.
The trails that the Haute Route follows are well marked, and the topography of the surrounding peaks unmistakable. You can do it on your own, using a guidebook (see Further Reading). But it’s more enjoyable if you hire a guide, particularly if you don’t speak or read French or German. There are many guide services based in Chamonix, Zermatt and the surrounding towns. One of the better-known is run by an American couple, Mark Houston and Cathy Cosley (who retained her maiden name in marriage). They first met in the seventh grade in Seattle, fell in love with the mountains and then with each other. Guiding became their lifestyle, first in the USA and then with international certification, from their home in Les Houches, France, a town down the valley from Chamonix; details on their website at www.cosleyhouston.com.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.
There are many books on the Haute Route, in English as well is in the languages spoken along it. Two popular paperbacks in English for summertime hiking are:
Chamonix to Zermatt: The Walker’s Haute Route, by British mountaineer and guide Kev Reynolds, London, Cicerone Press, 4th edition 2007. 240 pages, ISBN 978-1852845131, author’s website at www.kevreynolds.co.uk .
The Walker’s Haute Route: Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn, by adventure traveler Alexander Stewart, London, Trailblazer Books, 256 pages, ISBN 978-1905864089; author works for World Expeditionary Association (WEXAS) travel company, www.wexas.com .