The Swiss Haute route

The crew reaching the Matterhorn
The crew reaching the Matterhorn

Having talked for months about the great flying conditions in the settled August weather, the drought was broken or at least the floods ebbed for long enough for me to get a couple of flights in Slovenia. I took a train to Milan with black and sultry skies and then a bus to Courmayer and set off up the hill, with a few days up my sleeve to make my way around to Chamonix to meet my friends. While I had some great flying, roughly completing the Tour Mont Blanc, the weather soon became horrible again and we made good use of the cards (playing 500) over the next weeks as we traversed the Haute route to Zermatt.

 

I arrived in Courmayer around 5pm on Sunday August 3. Just enough time to race up the hill and glide across the valley (after a little trouble trying to launch in nil or slight backwind). I found myself a dilipated shepherds shack and had a wash, back in man vs wild mode. The next morning I climbed up and had an early launch, chasing the cumulus clouds up the hill. There was west wind up high but I had a grand time in the sunny lee, flying into Switzerland and back again (had to land on the Val Ferret pass), thermalling over a glacier and up the Grand Jorasses to say hello to the vulture parked on top. Gliding back besides the cranes on the Italy to France chair lift the clouds were touching the snowfields. A little further past the Peuterey ridge I met the west wind and had a rocky ride past some cliffs before crabbing down to the valley floor. I walked up to Refuge Elizabeth, in Italy but near the French border, and spent the night. The staff, lodgings, and food were great, but the place was overrun with Tour Mont Blanc groupies, some of who insisted on giggling in the dormitories in the early hours. I’d avoided the afternoon showers and the cold but still hadn’t had the best sleep.
Anyway that was no issue the next day as I walked up to the pass and elected to fly rather than climb into the cloud and wait. Crossing the valley losing very little height some friendly bubbles of lift encouraged me to change my plan completely, and take a big detour following the sunny faces on the side of the valley. Eventually the west wind sliding through a low pass firmly pushed me down into a bog but moments later I was taking a contour path through alpine cow paddocks and making my way to the next launch. The cows got me in the end as I slipped in the quagmire they like to leave behind. But I trudged on and reached another pass where I could launch.

A fantastic flight followed, gliding to the bottom of a high cirque, scratching my way up to the top where I could see my earlier route, and with low clouds still, aiming for a high pass. I didn’t quite squeak through but I was only 20 metres short so I kept the wing over my head, ran up to the saddle, and without hesitation popped off again on the other side! Quite impressed with myself but I still had to squeeze past high tension electricity wires to the windward side of some cliffs before I could get back up to the wispies by a high rocky peak and continue my glide towards Chamonix.
On the last grassy ridge before Chamonix, near the Nid d’Aigle, I landed to snack on blueberries while waiting to hear from Alex in Chamonix. He was around so I took off again, glided down to the landing field, and walked the (coincidentally) short distance from the landing field to the Gite d’Etape where Alex happened to be at the counter at that very moment, checking in. We went into town for a beer and it was quite satisfying when the afternoon showers came, reminding me that I’d made the most of the day.

Late that night Aaron and Lisa arrived and the next morning was the best the weather had been in a long time. Consequently there was no hope of getting tickets to the Auguille du Midi so we went up Brevent telepherique instead. My friends left for an epic walk while I lazed around waiting for things to heat up in stable weather conditions so I could fly. I got up eventually, enthusiastically turning wildly in lift of the rocky spines, but later struggled lower and lower as high cloud thickened and the valley winds increased. We regrouped that evening for beer and pizza (again / already). I was no longer forced to huddle around McDonalds to make flight bookings and so on as Aaron the great provider enabled his hotspot.

Les Drus, Grand Montets flight
Les Drus, Grand Montets flight

Next on the agenda was a cable car up the lesser known Grand Montets for a look at the high mountains. With the weather relatively overcast but still ok I laughed at the others, noting that the destination for the evening was within a glide for me but a long arduous walk for them. In fact I had several flights, top landing and waiting for the sun that never really came, but I was happy to note that the cloud milling around Grand Montets had only started forming after I’d gotten away. In the evening I flew right over the top of Col de Balme, landing as close as the 20 knot winds would permit, but then after meeting the horrible witch of a hut warden I almost apologetically left my friends to their own devices, buggering off and flying half way to Refuge Albert 1er. Electing not to sleep metres away from human turds in a large pipe outside a hydroelectric installation, I continued up the hill, the subsequent rain assuring me I’d made a good decision to shell out some more euro for a night in the hut.

The next morning was relatively clear with a westerly wind. I decided that I would take the plus haute route and traverse over glaciers in the morning sun instead of flying off and around the corner. This seemed like a great move until my half baked idea of a route appeared cut off by crevasses and steep cliffs. After changing my mind and investigating a few options the down slope wind suddenly eased and some time later I managed a sneaky getaway, gliding over the Fenetre (pass) down towards Champex. Lower down the conditions were strangely more stable than they looked, but I still managed to poke around the Swiss Val Ferret once more, completing my little Tour Mont Blanc which had been on the to do list since May.
I had an opportunity to land in Champex (although there were very few vacant patches of grass in “Swiss Canada”) but I kept going and instead of getting another climb and gliding over to the more promising Verbier to do my shopping I had to settle for Pam’s supermarket in Orsieres. Shopping in Switzerland is generally a harrowing experience and it was funny to examine my receipt afterwards and note that almost everything on the list was from the same brand – Leader Price! I hitched back up to Champex and lazed around waiting and waiting, booking us in at Club Au Alpin for the night and just managing to get a few takeaway beers before the local shop closed and my friends arrived.

It seemed the future of the trip was in jeopardy with some very tired walkers, but the excellent meal was the best we had the whole trip and put us in good spirits once more. Aaron and Lisa tried to arrange posting their excess belongings the next morning but it was almost comical how each post offices opening hours conspired against them. Lisa’s knee started playing up so they hitched and trained to Sembrancher where Alex and I met them and together we trained and bussed to Verbier, found a Migros to stock up on 0.45c chocolate, and took a cable up to Mont du Fort refuge.

The weather was looking as good as it was going to get so after an evening wander Alex found me a great bivvy spot on a grassy knoll. Needless to say that I was rained on in the morning and there was no need for an early start. However, the trip was back on the rails again and we all set off together over a high passes route to the next Refuge (Plafleuri) on the Haute route. Alex and I dropped the packs by the glacier and raced up to Rosablanche for a great view. It was windy but the weather was holding up surprisingly well. It didn’t look to continue that evening though and the refuge was located in a gravel pit (actually used for construction material for the nearby dam) so I kept my biv gear in the pack once again. Lisa got her five francs back when her “hot” shower was of glacial temperature.
At 7:30am sharp we were kicked out of the hut and sent off to walk in the rain and fog. It was cold and not particularly inspiring but after reaching Refuge le Dix at around lunchtime there were moments were the cloud cleared and we were even treated to occasional sunshine, if you could stand the wind. We generally couldn’t, so we spent the afternoon inside playing cards. Lisa and I most of the time gave Aaron and Alex (who consistently had “the worst cards ever”) a good thrashing, although some games stretched out to 22 hands.

A late start the following morning as the cloud started to clear up around 9am. Lisa relaxed with a book and the rest of us wandered up to the pass. It was lucky that the straight laced Swiss we sat to at Ref. Plafleuri couldn’t see what we were up to. I kept following the rocks most of the way up Mont Blanc du Cheilon before deciding the snow was too hard without axe and crampons. I did however find a great spot for lunch with my first internet fix in a while. I came up with an alternate plan of climbing La Ruinette, a rocky peak towards Italy. This was a great day out, the exposure and commitment reasonably serious but in the end I wisely opted to retreat via snowfields rather than continue the traverse. Light snow started falling just as I completed the technical part of the day and scuttled back to the hut.

Winds howled the following morning as we retreated to Arolla in the clouds. We intended use the bad weather window to skip the next part of the Haute route. It was a couple of hours until the next Postbus so we decided to try hitching. The very first car stopped and a nice lady in a BMW took all of us direct to Sion train station. After shopping in Sierre we jumped on the bus and that evening we checked into Relais de Tzoucdana (another “let me check it might be full” – nope, dormitory to ourselves) in Zinal, and had a picnic on the river.

Morning in Zinal
Morning in Zinal

It was very cold the next morning with snow not that far above us but there was enough sun shining for us to get motivated. We went for a day walk, well I went for a morning flight along a similar route up the valley. I top landed to wait for sun and hours later, just as I was about to launch, a Swiss search and rescue fellah showed up to see if I was ok. I was very sorry to cause trouble but I had been moving around and I’d put my glider in a rosette. Anyway there was nothing much happening with everything overcast so I flew back to town, meeting the others for their much anticipated roast chicken. They reckon they did more mileage doing laps to the supermarket that day than their actual walk!

Besso from my slope landing above Zinal
Besso from my slope landing above Zinal

The next day promised the best views of the whole Haute route, so true to form, we were promptly snowed on. I got sick of carrying my glider so I lobbed off between showers and had a couple of interesting flights going nowhere really but managing to kill time with the glider more or less above my head rather than on my back. We regrouped again at the Refuge Bella Tolla and as snow showers drifted across the overcast skies I reluctantly agreed that it was another night to sleep indoors. And to affirm our status as the 500 champions, of course.

The next morning and it was really snowing this time. Cold as hell but unstable weather so we were treated to a bit of sunshine not long afterwards and we started off on our walk. Climbing over some high passes I set up to fly when I spotted some grass amongst the gravel. It was a wobbly exit through the lee of the hanging valley before skirting the head of the Gruben valley and landing to lie in the grass for several hours. Finally I reflew, out of the shaded valley into some sun and up to the mountain tops before pushing into the NW wind and retreating to a landing beside a farmers cabin on the side of the valley. A bivvy night! Not to mention a period of cold toes (wearing pluggers) as I followed the contour track around until I found half decent internet.
I woke to dust off the frost from my bivvy sack and paraglider and harness draped over the top. I then climbed up and reached the pass by about 8:30am. I wondered if the others had even started walking yet, it turns out they had. They overtook me when I climbed loose rocks to the south of the col for a good view – the skies the clearest they had been for a while. It really was quite fantastic, even if my internet subscription had inadvertently lapsed.

I took off around midday when the breeze through the pass had died off. I regretfully suffered the first damage to my once-was-new wing canopy, with a small tear by the wingtip line attachment and another broken line or two. It was great flying though in the lee of the westerly. I attempted to cross out into the Rhone valley but when I saw the whole world drifting sidewards I opted to turn around and fly up the Zermatt valley. I started getting lower around St Niklaus, where the numerous hard to see cables increased my stress levels somewhat. I was welcomed back to earth by an angry resident overprotective of his turf.
Some hours later I met with the other guys, Aaron and Lisa arriving on the chairlift moments after Alex who had run down the hill. In the next few minutes a few random exchanges of events led us to catching the train to Zermatt. I had some reservations about a reservation, thinking maybe I should be bivvying up the hill somewhere so I could have a crack at the Matterhorn. But in the end I think I made the right decision dossing down for the night at Hostel Matterhorn in town. I caught up with Phil a local (Aussie) tandem pilot, and resolved to probably have a half baked attempt at the snow encrusted Matterhorn without gear the following day.

We caught the lift and walked together as far as the Hornli hut (closed and under refurbishment), where at about 10am I set off alone to see how far I could get. In the end the exposure and commitment got to me, although I never expected that I had time to get anywhere near the top, I was back at the hut at 2:30pm after reaching 3700 metres. This gave me time for a wonderful walk past another tributary to the Lake Dixence mountain connection dam project and toward Hotel du Trift before dropping into Zermatt just in time before Coop closed for the night at 8pm. I’d left my glider up the top of the hill, thus committing to flying the next day and having one last night with my friends, finishing on a high after a day of great weather in the mountains (it does happen!).

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