Friday, 18 November 2011

Col de Balme to the Refuge Albert Premier

One of the more popular hiking routes from the Chamonix Valley is the walk to the Albert Premier Hut or Refuge Albert Premier - high above the alpine hamlet of Le Tour at the head of the valley. The hut itself is situated at an altitude of 2702 metres overlooking the ice seracs and crevasses of the Glacier du Tour but despite the high altitude and spectacular position it is a fairly easy walk along a good path.
Col de Balme
You can start the walk in Le Tour but it's a long day from there - most hikers to the Albert Premier take the gondola to Col du Balme up by the Swiss Frontier from where a good path leads in roughly a southerly direction at first to gradually ascend around the hillsides by an easy route. The first picture shows the col de Balme area from the early part of the route.

After perhaps a mile the path passes the Lac du Charamillon which is just above on the left and is a wonderully peaceful spot - this track can be busy during fine weather. A little further and the route tops the ridge ahead and turns to the left where spectacular views open up ahead of Mont Blanc and the vista down the Val du Chamonix.

Mont Blanc
There follows a short rocky section protected by a rope handrail - no difficulty - and the route heads on towards the Glacier du Tour over boulder strewn hillsides. At the glacier the path bears left up the steep moraine and meets the direct route from Le Tour which comes up from the right. Now a steady climb of the moraine takes us directly up to the hut which can be seen above. The last part is often snow covered but you don't go onto the glacier itself which is below on the right.

The views from the Albert Premier are stunning with the Glacier du Tour as a centrepiece. The high peak on its far side is the Aiguille du Chardonnet (3824m) while the rocky summit beyond the refuge is the Aiguille du Tour (3540m) - a popular climb from here. This ascent is not difficult but you need ropes as it goes onto the glacier where there is a crevasse danger.

Glacier du Tour
The panorama across the valley is just as awesome with the jagged peaks of the Aiguilles Rouges rising from the wooded valley and the usually snowy peak of Mont Buet (3099m) topping the Emosson Peaks - a view which has accompanied us most of the way from Col du Balme.

On the journey back remember to bear right on the path after descending the moraine if you're getting the
Mont Buet and the Aiguilles Rouges
gondola down - the path straight down does go to Le Tour but it's steep, rough and generally not as easy as the ascent route was. It is about 4.5km or a bit under 3 miles from the gondola to the refuge and the path climbs about 600m or 2000 feet in getting there. From Le Tour it's twice the climb.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Eiger Trail

The Eiger Trail route is described briefly in an upwards direction on day one of my Grindelwald to Zermatt trek but here is a more detailed description of one of the most enjoyable walks in the Jungfrau Region heading downhill from Eigergletscher to Alpiglen which is how many choose to do this walk. The lack of effort needed means one can concentrate on enjoying the stunning views! The following is an exerpt from Tales from the Hills.

My return from the Arctic conditions on the Monchsjoch and Jungfraujoch some 4000 feet above had brought about a change in the weather from drifting snow to merely an overcast day of occasional blustery rain showers.

I finished my meal of Schnitzel at the Eigergletscher Station restaurant and, shouldering my rucksack once again, ventured back outside. It was cool and breezy but the rain seemed to have stopped so I crossed the railway line by the tunnel entrance and followed the sign for the Eiger Trail.
Eiger Trail

The way led up a little past the hostel, giving the opportunity to go up onto the ridge crest itself where the original Mitteleggi Hut had been placed since the new hut was built on the Mitteleggi ridge on the far side of the summit. The tiny hut was locked up but I could look inside to see the layout. It was something of a museum piece and quite fascinating. A grand spot too with views across the Lauterbrunnen valley around over Kleine Scheidegg and down to Grindelwald on the other side. I was at about 7700 feet here so it was warmer than it had been on the Monchsjoch but the wind, if anything was stronger, the gusts threatening to blow me from the
ridge. I wasn't going to attempt to go much further up anyway, the way being barred by the huge rock pillar of the Rotstock rising up towards the top of the Eiger.

Kleine ScheideggAfter taking a few photos I went back down past the hut and joined the trail winding down to the right towards Grindelwald and the Wetterhorn. It was a clear well prepared and marked path leading at first below cliffs on the right and then past a cavern-like tunnel in the rock before heading down at a fairly easy angle across the screes below the North Face.

Descending all the time, the track led across a vast stone filled hollow. Down on the left were the meadows below Kleine Scheidegg with glimpses of the railway running through the trees beneath a long scree slope. Above on the other side, the slope rose to the base of grey cliffs which seemed to rise up forever, their tops hidden in the swirling cloud above.

Wetterhorn from the Eiger Trail
As I neared the bottom of the stony hollow, there appeared a large number of small cairns on the hillside. I can only assume they were memorials to those climbers who lost their lives climbing the face. It was however, a strangely peaceful spot, the view over the valley tempering the harsh rugged scene. I was reminded of the dangers by a distant crashing above; rock fall, one of the main dangers of climbing here.

The way led up slightly before heading more steeply downhill. Here were 3 people coming up the other way, the first people I'd seen on the route. I said "Hi" as I heard they were speaking English but the 2 blokes were too engrossed in a heated discussion about where they were. The girl behind them gave me a despairing look. At least it was more or less impossible to get lost on this route, they'd reach the station soon then they'd know where they were!
View of the North Face
Still arguing, they continued on up the trail completely missing the small group of mountain goats grazing a shelf of rough pasture above us. I was reminded of a misty day at Esk Hause on Scafell Pike when this guy in a group of about 6 had been telling his fellow walkers the way back to Langdale in a voice that could probably be heard there. I'd had to politely put him right before he led his group off into the wilds of Upper Eskdale!

Anyway, the route continued down towards Grindelwald with a great view to the Wetterhorn beyond. The path was now over grassy pastures rather than stones and dipped down steeply a couple of times to cross small rivers cascading down from the face.

The rain had started again but was only light as the route began to traverse a wide ledge onto a rocky section below the Mittellegi Ridge. There were good views down to the valley from this bit and below an impressive waterfall the path veered off down to the left zig zagging steeply down. There were no difficulties however and I finally crossed a small footbridge over a mini gorge worn in the limestone by the river. The path I was on now joined another which crossed the hillside lower down.

The ledge with Grindelwald below
For Alpiglen, I now followed this to the left, the other way leading towards Pfingstegg, doubling back below the route I had just descended. A short fixed handrail section over a steep bit and I was down into the pine forest before crossing a meadow to Alpiglen station.

The rain had just started up again as I boarded the train which was full of people returning from Jungfraujoch and Kleine Scheidegg. I managed to find a seat where I was duly entertained by a Japanese girl's efforts to photograph a dog on the other side of the compartment!

Start Eigergletscher 2320m >>> Finish Alpiglen 1616m >>> Distance 5km

The last section to Alpiglen


Friday, 18 March 2011

The Matterhorn Trail - the Last Day

So the journey to Zermatt is over but as I started the route with the Eiger Trail it made sense to finish properly with the Matterhorn Trail for an up close view of the mountain and its surroundings.

The Matterhorn Trail can be done in either direction. If starting at the top - which is the way it is usually done - the cable car is taken to Schwarzsee at 2583m to begin the 10km descent to Zermatt. The path is easy throughout with wonderful views. In an upwards direction the route involves an ascent of 1000m which I suppose is why most choose to go downwards.

Hotel Restaurant Schwarzsee Sustenance can be obtained at the Hotel Restaurant Schwarzsee which is a short distance from the gondola station. This is the start of the Matterhorn Trail in a downwards direction or the finish if you have walked up from Zermatt in which case the gondola will be very welcome!

Matterhorn Trail The beginning of the Matterhorn Trail in a downwards direction.

Schwarzsee The small chapel of Maria zum Schnee - Maria of the Snows - beside the mountain tarn of Schwarzsee a short way down the trail. The tarn is at the foot of the Matterhorn's Hornli Ridge.

Matterhorn North Face The North Face of the Matterhorn dominates the view in the initial stages.

Matterhorn from Stafel Looking back up towards the Matterhorn from Stafel where the forest is once again reached.
On the Matterhorn Trail Views down from the Matterhorn Trail below Stafel towards Zermatt in the valley.

Haybarns above zermatt Haybarns near Zmutt typify the lower part of the trail as it returns to the valley.
Back to day 8 >>> Randa to Zermatt
and back to the start >>> Grindelwald

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Grindelwald to Zermatt day 8 - Randa to Zermatt along the Europaweg

The most direct route from Randa to Zermatt would be to continue on the valley paths which would make for a pleasant and easy walk but though I followed these from Randa to Tasch - the next village going towards Zermatt - I took a steep path up through the woods east of Tasch (the one south of the Taschbach stream) towards Taschalp which is also known as Ottavan. When the wide easy path of the Europaweg is reached about 700m above Tasch, turn south (right) towards Sunegga and Zermatt instead of continuing to Taschalp which is still about a kilometre in the other direction.

If you have followed the trail north of the Taschbach gorge then you will pass Taschalp where refreshments are available. Either way this is one of the best days of the route with most of the climbing done early leaving the ever improving views to be enjoyed for little effort. If you want more effort then walk the full Europaweg from Gasenried (postbus from st Niklaus) instead of going to Randa. That way is much harder than this one which is a relatively easy walk of about 16km or 10 miles.

Along the Mattertal A first view (almost) of the Matterhorn (4478m) from a section of the Europaweg trail above Tasch.

Europaweg footpath This section of the Europaweg is a fascinating trail traversing the steep slopes above the Mattertal. On this trek we effectively do the last third or so of the Europaweg which on its own is a two day hike. The last section is interesting but fairly easy.

Mischabel Peaks from the Europaweg Looking back to the Mischabel peaks. The central summit of the Dom (4545m) is the highest mountain entirely within Switzerland - Monte Rosa being on the Italian frontier.

Weisshorn Across the valley rises the Weisshorn (4505m) one of the most impressive of the peaks here if not so famous as the Matterhorn.

Breithorn and Klein Matterhorn The Breithorn and Klein Matterhorn from the latter stages of the Europaweg near Tufteren. For an account of hiking up the Breithorn please see this post

Findeln Valais The meadows of Findeln beneath the Rothorn (3103m) with the cable car building visible on the summit. There is a shorter way to Zermatt direct from Tufteren but this is surely the finest approach.

Matterhorn The path descends now in its final approach to Zermatt while the Matterhorn towers overhead.

Path to Zermatt The rooftops of Zermatt appear through the trees. We are almost there.

Zermatt The view from my hotel balcony. I arrived just before the weather came in.

Back to day 7 >>> St Niklaus to Randa

The last day >>> The Matterhorn Trail

Monday, 14 March 2011

Grindelwald to Zermatt day 7 - St Niklaus to Randa

A rest day really after the rigours of the High Alps where one can enjoy a leisurely stroll along the banks of the Mattervispa - the river descending from the glaciers up beyond Zermatt. The villages and meadows of the Mattertal are quite charming and best seen from the trail rather than the trains packed with Zermatt-bound tourists.

Mattervispa Herbriggen Valais A pleasant valley trail leads alongside the Mattervispa river near Herbriggen.

landslide near Randa Valais The landslide debris between Herbriggen and Randa. The massive slide occurred in 1991 and is a reminder that the Alps here are still being shaped by nature.

Mattertal view Looking back down the Mattertal from the final rise through the meadows just before Randa.

garden with goat A typical garden in Randa, goats and all.

Randa Mattertal The main street of Randa will make the route out of town the next day. Looking up the valley towards the Mettelhorn (3406m).
Back to day 6 >>> Oberems to St Niklaus
On to day 8 >>> Randa to Zermatt

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Grindelwald to Zermatt day 6 - Oberems to St Niklaus over the Augstbordpass

From the route's lowest point at Turtmann we journey to its highest at the Augstbordpass joining for a while the path of the Walker's Haute Route. Today is a journey through one of the most tranquil and unspoilt valleys in Switzerland and up to the edge of the High Mountain zone before descending at last to the Mattertal - the Valley of the Matterhorn.

My only regret on this stretch was in taking the post bus to Gruben, for while a road does head through the Turtmanntal, it would be worth spending an extra day to walk through it. Maximum altitude 2894m (9495ft)

Gruben in the Turtmanntal
The peaceful village of Gruben lies in the Turtmanntal, one of the most unspoilt valleys of the Alps. The village is as far up the valley as the postbus goes and is the start point for the hike to St Niklaus over the Augstbordpass.

Bernese Alps Once above the treeline the path heads into remote country with views back to the Rhone Valley and the Bernese Alps.

Ober Stafel above the Turtmanntal The stone shelters of Ober Stafel (2369m) high above the valley made a good lunch stop before crossing the pass.

Augstbordpass At 2894m or 9495ft the summit of the Augstbord Pass isn the highest point of the trek. The sign we now follow is the one for Jungu-St Niklaus.

Saastal peaks from the Augstbordpass Looking east from the top of the Augstbordpass the depths of the Mattertal are still largely unseen but the distant Saastal peaks etch the skyline with snow.

Tarn on the Augstbordpass The path is signed right for St Niklaus and Jungu/Jungen just before this small tarn is reached.

Mattertal After crossing a rough (but not difficult) section of path, the Mattertal comes into view a long way below. Here is a pathside viewpoint at about 2400m that was a good place to stop for a while.

Mattertal Looking up the length of the Mattertal from nearly the same spot. The Breithorn (4164m) is the peak in cloud at the head of the valley.

Jungen The tiny hamlet of Jungen sits on a shelf overlooking the Mattertal. It is accessed by a small cable car from St Niklaus and is a popular spot in summer.

St Niklaus The distinctive onion domed church at St Niklaus is close to where the gondola descends from Jungen.
Back to day 5 >>> Kandersteg to Oberems
On to day 6 >>> St Niklaus to Randa

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Grindelwald to Zermatt day 5 - Kandersteg to Oberems by the Gemmi Pass

Following the road south from Kandersteg brings one in a short distance to the Sunnbuel gondola which saves a climb of 750m before crossing the Gemmipass - a fascinating pathway through the Bernese Alps and the watershed between northern and southern Europe. The far side of the pass also has a gondola down to Leukerbad. Not using either gondola and walking all the way will add a day to the total route though the track to Leukerbad is built into the cliff face and looked so good that I regretted getting on the cable car.

From Leukerbad I had intended getting a bus to Visp in the Rhone Valley and another to Turtmann but I was offered a lift there by the Husky Man - not on the husky sled though - which saved me much waiting at bus stops. My night at Oberems was spent at the Emshorn Hotel where I was welcomed like a friend.

Doldenhorn from Sunnbuel The spectacular valley of the Gasteretal seen from Sunnbuel en route to the Gemmipass. The high peak on the left is the Doldenhorn (3638m).

Gemmi Pass trail The wild landscape of the Gemmipass. An easy trail crosses the Bernese Alps here - a route that has been in use for centuries from the Kandertal in the North to the Rhone Valley in the South.

some random cows Trail companions!

Gemmi Pass landscape Half way to the top of the pass, the trail climbs a shallow step of about 150m - looking back towards the Kandertal.

Daubensee Gemmipass The Daubensee at 2206m lies just north of the summit of the pass

Gemmipass The first views of the Pennine Alps where we are headed. The summit of the Gemmi at 2322m is more like the edge of a plateau than a col with high country to the North and a sharp drop off to the South. It marks the watershed between northern and southern Europe with rivers to the North draining towards the Rhine and ultimately the North Sea while those to the South feed the Rhone which drains to the Mediterrannean.

Leukerbad Looking down to Leukerbad from the edge. It's about 1000m down and there's a choice of a sensational looking path or the gondola.

Turtmann Turtmann in the Rhone Valley was the lowest point of the route at 640 metres or 2100 feet. An unmanned cable car ascends from here to Oberems.

Oberems Turtmanntal The charming hamlet of Oberems in the canton of Valais overlooks the Rhone Valley and the southern side of the Bernese Alps.
back to day 4 >>> Griesalp to Kandersteg
on to day 6 >>> Oberems to St Niklaus