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The High Life - The Haute Route by Bike

Friday, 2 August 2013

Leaving the Chamonix Valley.

There’s a tiny petrol station up in the Scottish Highlands which, for some inexplicable reason, stocks American mountain biking magazines. I have no idea why.

About five years ago, after filling the tank, I picked up a copy of Bike. I still have it on the table beside my bed. On the cover is a shot of a rider high in the Swiss Alps, sweeping down a dusty singletrack trail. He’s got clear blue skies above him and a shiny white glacier below. It’s the sort of shot that you look at again and again and the sort of trail you can’t wait to ride. But it was the accompanying article that really gave me itchy feet – a 10-page feature following Hans Rey and friends as they rode the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt*. Five days of epic descents, high mountain passes and late-night finishes all set amidst an Alpine backdrop of tiny villages, ‘unreal’ blue lakes and green pastures. Reading and re-reading the article and poring over the pictures, I was sold. I was going.

Except I wasn’t. It was four years before I found myself in Chamonix with a massive bag on my back and over a hundred Euros’ worth of maps in my pocket. (Swiss maps are NOT cheap.) Over five days, my friend Julia and I rode the ‘mountain bike Haute route’, slogging up endless fire-road climbs in exchange for some of the best singletrack we’d ever ridden. We visited valleys we’d never seen before, drank from mountain springs and dropped into villages every night for pizza and beer before heading up into the hills to find a spot to sleep for the night. It was one of the best bike rides I’ve ever been on.

But it wasn’t perfect. With no guide, we rode a lot of singletrack. With heavy bags on our backs, we had an awesome adventure, but struggled with the weight. And when we arrived in Zermatt, it was absolutely chucking it down. Riding the cover-shot trail wasn’t going to happen.

Then I found this:

Haute Route – Life is a Pass from Filme von Draussen on Vimeo.

A proper ‘Haute’ Haute Route. As high as possible. Following the walker’s route wherever we could. Three-thousand-metre passes. Fifteen-hundred-metre descents. We’d stay in hotels, carry lighter bags and ride harder and faster. Zermatt would definitely be sunny. It was going to be great.

Cheating a little, we started up the valley from Chamonix, at Le Tour, and jumped straight onto the chairlift up to the Col de Balme. We knew this section from last year, we knew exactly what was coming and we knew that it started at 2,100 metres and ended at 1,300 … Eight hundred metres of switchbacks, rocks, roots and brake-boiling gradients. (It’s amazing how much speed you pick up with a big rucksack on your back!) Flat-out blasting between flicked endo-turns around the corners and worrying exposure – I’d been looking forward to this descent for the entire journey from Sheffield, and it didn’t disappoint.

From then on, the day was relatively straightforward. We’d messed up last year and spent two hours carrying down an unrideable hillside before spotting the correct, parallel trail twenty metres below us. No such mistakes this time, just flat-out steep singletrack, huge climbs and friendly walkers as we sped on to the beautiful Lac Champex and then to Verbier. It took us a few minutes to work out that our hotel was in fact INSIDE the lift station at the bottom of the hill – a pretty unique place to stay!

When planning our route, we’d opted to go big, pushing the distance between hotels. But we’d not actually realised how big we’d made day two… Or how much of it was technically ‘off limits’ to bikes. A cheeky lift ride and a fantastic, rooty singletrack traverse through the woods carried us to the next valley, where we encountered an incredible trail. The Valais Alps have unique ‘singletrack’ waterways traversing the hillsides, carving the trees and ducking under rocks – with accompanying trails running right alongside them. Rooty sections, raised rocky platforms and occasional boardwalk, all in beautiful woodland and at a perfect, water-cooled temperature. And then, just at the point that we were rating it amongst our ‘top ten’ trails ever, we met the warden … It turns out that these trails are carefully preserved and maintained, and that bikes (and, bizarrely, small children!) are banned. Luckily, this warden, complete with sleeveless jacket, goatee and pierced ears, just wanted to practice his English and told us that if his boss asked, he had ‘seen no bikes’! We liked him.

Whoops. We weren't meant to be here ...

Inevitably, we were going to have to pay for our fun and good fortune, and that meant a 700-metre road climb. In 30-degree heat. Followed by a 400-metre fire road climb. Bikes and small children weren’t allowed here either, we discovered, but as we were on a frequently-driven track and had to get over the head of the valley by evening, we had little choice but to push on regardless. And soon we were pushing. Our 1,100 metres of climbing were topped by the hardest hike-a-bike I’ve ever tackled. Four hundred metres straight up over rocks and endless scree without a hint of shade. I’m not going to go in to how unpleasant it was. It was three hours before we reached the chains (!) bolted to the rock to help walkers haul themselves up the final few metres to the the pass – to a 3,000-metre col and to the top of a 1,000-metre descent to Arolla.

Two hours of pushing on the way up to the Col de Reidmatten.

This was what we’d come for. Properly high and technical singletrack amidst beautiful mountains, totally out of reach of day-riders and absolutely deserted. How many people had ridden this trail before us? Not many, I’m guessing.

Starving hungry and totally knackered, we fought our way down the knadgery, technical trail, dodging boulders, juddering around tight corners and hitting rock gardens with fingers firmly crossed for a successful outcome. At one point, knackered, we contemplated taking a fire-road for the final few hundred metres – until we rounded a corner and saw a perfect strip of yellow dirt zigzagging down a grassy meadow below ...  Easy choice.

Dropping to Arolla.

Day three saw us leave our hotel/pizza restaurant (we were pretty happy when we found that one!) and spinning down the valley towards a 1,500-metre climb up and over the Col du Torrent. Surprisingly easy, it wasn’t long before we’d topped the Col and begun what was to be 1,300 metres of singletrack descending. ‘Just right’ technicality at the top saw us swoop down to one of Han’s ‘unreal’ blue lakes – the Lac du Moiry, which we reached via the only bit of fire road descending we did all week. Even that was fun – foot out sketching around flat-out hairpin bends under a blazing sun. We weren’t complaining. Briefly re-joining last year’s route, we switchbacked down past a dam and then let off the brakes as we blasted down through the rocks to the pretty village of Grimentz and up to our waterfall-side hostel for the night. It was here that I broke a three-day pizza-eating streak and succumbed to the local rösti, explaining three times to the lady that no, I didn’t want the optional extra cheese. Julia maintained an unbroken pizza record throughout the trip. Impressive stuff.

Halfway down the 1,300-metre descent from the the Col de Torrent.

We’d both been looking forward to day four for a while. Yes, we were staring at 1,800 metres of climbing and two big passes with thunderstorms looming, but we were also looking at 2,900 metres of descent (!). We’d ridden the final few metres of the descent the year before – brakes-full-on singletrack dropping around the tightest switchbacks of the trip and right through the centre of the village of Embd. We couldn’t wait.

The first pass, the Meidpass, passed rapidly, with the descent, starting on snow and rapidly dropping across glacial moraine onto fantastic, pine-needle-strewn trails through bushes of pink flowers, rating as my favourite of the trip so far.  Proper fast and swoopy riding one minute, full-on death tech over wet roots and slippery rocks the next. It’s the sort of descent that leaves you grinning for days afterwards … unless you’ve got one of the longest downhill runs in the Alps ahead of you!

Another thousand metres of singletrack. The Meidpass.

A quick coffee and tea (why can’t they do proper tea in Switzerland?) stop in the valley, an equally quick assessment of the weather and we were off again – up towards the fantastically-named Augustbordpass. And good though all the descents so far had been, this one topped the lot. Over 2,000 metres vertical drop – all of which is on singletrack – it starts high in snow and rocks before descending through proper Alpine meadows and into the woods. The exposure is nuts – oblivion awaiting beneath your outside elbow with bar-snagging rocks and trees grabbing at the other.

Survive that (thankfully, I was ‘only’ running 720mm-wide bars, so just about got away with it. Julia, currently guiding on the Trans-Provence and used to exposure, didn’t even bat an eyelid at the death drop …) and you’re onto a real descent to remember. Switchback after switchback and singletrack after singletrack link villages and meadows as you plunge 1,100 metres down an unbelievable steep hillside. Look back up from the bottom and your mouth drops in disbelief at what you’ve just come down. It seems impassable (and impossible) from below!

After so much singletrack, it all gets a bit blurred. This might have been the top of the Meidpass. Then again, it might have been the Col de Torrent.

And that was pretty much that. We’d dropped into the Zermatt valley. A quick spin up the road took us to St Niklaus (home of the best pizza restaurant in the world. True fact.) and then, the next morning, on to Zermatt itself where we dropped an eye-wateringly large amount of money on a lift ticket to carry us up to 3,000 metres where we joined the tourist hordes in admiring the Matterhorn.

Fantastic though it was, it wasn’t quite the ending I’d hoped for. Picking our way down around the millions of walkers was a bit of a shock after a week of deserted Alpine singletrack and sleepy villages and, despite spotting the trail that had featured on that magazine cover and set this whole trip in motion, we elected not to ride it, diving instead into the woods and on to one, final, switchbacking trail back to Zermatt.

Down to Verbier; up to the Matterhorn.

What a week. A proper adventure, sublime scenery, a real sense of isolation and unbelievable riding – a trip to remember for sure.

Was it better than last year? Definitely. We climbed higher, descended further and got further into the mountains – and all while riding more singletrack than I’d have ever thought possible in one week. Our bags were lighter and, although we lost out on the ‘adventure’ and freedom of bivvying where and whenever we liked, having a shower and a bed each night was pretty nice.

If you’re in any way tempted by the Haute Route, go and do it. And get in touch – after our two trips, I’m pretty sure I can point you in the direction of some rather nice trails…

Alpine meadow in the Val de Bagnes.

*For those who don’t know, the Haute Route is a high-level skiing/walking route from Chamonix to Zermatt. The ‘accepted’ mountain bike version – that we rode last year – stays pretty low, skirting around the ends of the valleys and only climbing over a couple of high passes. Our route this year was a mixture of the two – taking in a couple of the best descents on the MTB route, but taking the walkers’ route wherever we could. The ‘ideal’ route for bikes is probably a combination of the two.

Tom

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