SUE AND I ARE HALFWAY through the most famous mountain trek in Europe: the Haute Route—the High Route—a 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, France—crossing some 20 glaciers with a total ascent and descent of more than 25,000 feet—is 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 later—four days of weaving up and down through unforgettably stunning mountainscapes—we 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.