The Haute Route
Watch your step on this spectacular journey through the Alps, or you just might fall off the edge.
By Mark Jenkins
The hills are alive: walking near the Matterhorn on the 100-mile Haute Route
|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: July–September
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
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."