AT A GLANCE
Trek Length: 1012 days, 100 miles
Maximum Altitude: 12,470 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Self-organized Trek): $500$800*
Price (Group Trek): $2,195$2,350
Prime Time: JulySeptember
Staging Cities: Zermatt, Switzerland, or Chamonix, France
Recommended Outfitters: Bill Russell's Mountain Tours, Camp 5 Expeditions, and Distant Journeys (for contact info, see page 71)
THE FOG IS SO VISCOUS I DON'T see the edge. I'm feeling my way with my feet, one step at a time. Lowering a leg through plasmic swirls, it inexplicably keeps dropping and I suddenly realize I'm stepping into space. My body flings itself back from the brink as if struck by lightning. I land on my side in the snow, my heart rattling out of control.
On the flatter parts of our earth, say in Holland or Kansas, if you can't see where you're going it's no big deal. The worst that could happen is you fall into a canal or a ditch. Here, on the neck of an arête high in the Swiss Alps, so high this tapioca air is really not fog at all but cloud, one misstep and you'll be airborne.
I sit up, crawl forward on my hands and knees to the lip of the precipice, and lean out. An updraft folds around my face and I feel the abyss directly below me, yet I see nothing but white. Everything's swimming in milk. I retreat from the cliff, get to my feet, and find my way back to the tiny bivouac hut.
Sue, my wife, is sitting on a metal bunk, wrapped in wool blankets, licking Nutella off her pocketknife.
"Find the descent?"
"For BASE jumpers."
She grins, chocolate on her lips.
I open the map.
"We're lost?" she asks.
"We're in a hut," I counter. "How could we be lost?"
"Is the hut on the map?"
"So we don't know where we are, exactly."
Sue opens the blankets and pulls me in. "Where are we generally?"
I point with my thumbnail to the far corner of the map. "Somewhere here, on the western edge of the Plateau du Couloir." Unfortunately, at this map's scale, my thumbnail is one kilometer across. Trying to find the descent route off a kilometer-long cliff smothered in fog is akin to searching blindfolded for the fire escape along the roof of a high-rise.
Staring out the doorway into an ethereal pearliness, we finish off the last of our water. Inside our wood-ribbed, tin-skinned plane wreck of a shelter, the scene darkens or brightens depending on the density of the clouds blowing past. The cables anchoring the hut to the ridge thrum in the wind.
I look around the grim bivouac hut. "Not really a bad place."
"No different than the huts we used in Mexico, or Africa."
"This is Switzerland." Sue touches her teeth with the tip of her tongue, and reconsiders. "Boy, have we been spoiled."
SUE AND I ARE HALFWAY through the most famous mountain trek in Europe: the Haute Routethe High Routea hundred-mile hut-to-hut track through the heart of the Alps. The truth is, it's more like chalet-to-chalet. The bivouac shed we're holed up in is nothing more than an emergency shelter, and bears no resemblance to the seven standard huts of the classic Haute Route, each of which is a veritable three-story stone lodge positioned with Alpine feng shui on some high ridge that affords panoramic, jaw-dropping views. A steaming, multicourse French meal is served every evening to some 50 to 100 hikers, along with good wine and beer and worldly conversation so boisterous and astute it rivals anything in a late-night Left Bank café. On successive nights we've discussed the World Bank with Germans, ecology with Norwegians, the European Union with Dutchmen, the lingering impact of imperialism with two Scots, poetry with Czechs.
Hut-to-hut mountain travel is a classically European invention. For most Americans, mountain hiking is synonymous with wilderness travel, and wilderness with isolation. Except the Alps are not isolated. They are a peaks-and-glaciers playground smack in the middle of one of the most densely populated regions on the planet: Some 200 million people live within one day's drive of the Alps. Without huts, helter-skelter camping would have trashed these idyllic ranges long ago.
Huts change mountain travel in two fundamental ways. First, they completely overhaul the evening ambiance, replacing tent-and-stars serenity with cosmopolitan camaraderie. This is a controversial trade-off. (Bring earplugs, even sleeping pills, to drown out the round-the-clock clamor.) But huts also dramatically alter the hiking experience itself. Because there is a roof, a bunk, and dinner waiting for you at the end of every day, you can dispense with a tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, cookery, and all food besides snacks and lunch. Suddenly you're bounding blithely along with little more than a daypack through heavily glaciated, saw-toothed mountains that would otherwise require a leg-torturing, morale-crushing expedition pack. This is an indubitable joy.
At their best, mountain huts elegantly combine polarities. The barbaric remorselessness of high mountains with the civilized warmth of humanity. Hardship with luxury. Fear with security. Distance with closeness. Silence with conversation. Hunger with satiation.
Although there are several hut-to-hut traverses in the Alps, the true Haute Route, connecting Zermatt, Switzerland, with Chamonix, Francecrossing some 20 glaciers with a total ascent and descent of more than 25,000 feetis the most prestigious. First hiked in 1861 by members of the British Alpine Club, it became the premier mountaineer's trek of the 19th century. By 1903, smaller versions of the modern-day huts had already been established. The Haute Route was first skied in its entirety, including a crossing of the Plateau du Couloir, in 1911. By the late 1920s onward, however, as the skiing industry blossomed in Switzerland, the Haute Route became the most coveted ski traverse in Europe. Today the classic Haute Route is hiked in late summer or skied in the spring. But whether done on foot or by ski, it is still considered one of the world's most technical commercially guided treks. Indeed, Sue and I were practically eighty-sixed from the Alpin Center in Zermatt for intimating that we'd like to try the Haute Route on our own.
"Iss impossible!" hissed the man at the center's information counter. "You cannot do the Oat Root vitout a gueed. You vill never find your vay. I am telling you right now, you American tooreests: You vill die."
Right. I bought the maps, Sue bought the Nutella, and away we strode, passing up into the mountains directly beneath the nose of the Matterhorn. Four days laterfour days of weaving up and down through unforgettably stunning mountainscapeswe find ourselves fogbound in our wind-raked tin shack. We have traversed nine glaciers, hopped hundreds of crevasses, crossed four passes (rappelling off one), climbed one peak, forded a half-dozen creeks, and contended with blinding fog every single day. In other words, unless you are proficient at navigating by map and compass, possess solid mountaineering skills (from crevasse rescue to self-arrest), and know how to read glaciers, moraines, icefalls, and clouds, the man at the Alpin Center is right.
"IT'S CLEARING." Sue is standing in the doorway of the bivouac hut. "Mark, come check it out."
I've been trying to memorize the map. Somewhere just to our leftto be absolutely avoidedis a drop-off of 5,000 feet.
I fold up the map and step outside. The clouds have lifted just enough for the ground to materialize. Sue is kneeling beside a boulder protruding from the snow. There's a wide yellow dash painted on the rock.
"Follow the yellow brick road. Follow, follow, follow..."
She's making a joke. We've discovered such slashes of paint intermittently. They are the most useless of trail markers. You only find one when you are standing right on top of it.
"It's getting late, Suz. Should we stay or should we go?" I already know her answer. A glowing hearth, wooden benches, kitchen smells, a hot mealthey all form an irresistible vision that draws us toward the next hut like kids to Christmas morning.
We reload our small packs and set out in the direction the dash indicates. The fog is still thick, so we stay close together. Keeping
our eyes on the ground, we find three more random rocks with yellow streaks before they disappear.
According to the compass, we've been moving due south. This makes me anxious. The Valsorey hut is due west.
"The trail must swing right," I insist.
We veer west and immediately begin to descend through a series of small ledges. Visibility is still no more than 20 feet. We carefully belay each other from one slick ledge down to the next. The farther we go the more uncomfortable I become. Something's not right. Even for the Haute Route, this is too technical.
Eventually we reach an exceedingly steep snowfield that drops into the mist. I descend first, facing in and front-pointing. When I reach the end of the rope, I set up a belay around a rock outcrop.
"On belay?" Her voice is unnatural. I can hear the fear.
When she rejoins me, appearing out of obscurity, she says nothing.
"I think we should traverse north," I tell her.
On the next pitch I kick steps simultaneously down and left. Before I reach the end of the rope I drop beneath the cloudsand instantly realize we have made a grave mistake. Below me is a thin rock band, then nothing but damp sky for thousands of feet. We are exactly where we didn't want to be: too far south, on the cliffs far above the Valsorey Glacier.
I stop at the ledge and set up another belay.
"On belay! Take! Your! Time!"
Sue starts to descend. I bring in the rope. She's moving too quickly.
I hear her scream, "Why?"
When Sue drops out of the clouds she immediately looks to her right, then to her left, then down between her feet. She stops dead. She stands still, both toes kicked into the snow, both hands on the adze of her ax, leans forward and presses her forehead against the snow.
I don't say a word. She begins to downclimb very methodically. Reaching me, she silently clips into my belay, looks over her shoulder at the chasm of air below, and says, "I'd say we're off route."
We both break out laughing.
"You know what went wrong? Those yellow dashes, they loop up to that bivy hut, not down to Valsorey. We went the exact wrong direction."
I point to a mellow couloir to the north of the face we're on.
"That's where we were supposed to descend."
"Then we'll just have to get over there," says Sue with can-do aplomb.
And so we do. When you have no choice, you do what you have to.
THE TRAVERSE IS steep and icy and slow, but successful. We slip into the main cirque of the Meitin Glacier, drop down to the moraine, find the trail, and burst into the Valsorey hut just at dusk.
It is like coming home after a great adventure. The warm, wool-moist heat of a blazing black woodstove envelops us. We sink into the safety and soft foreign voices as if into a hot tub. The caretaker is pulling a homemade peach pound cake from the oven. We order four thick slices.
AT A GLANCE