Traversing the Swiss Alps on the Haute Route—the eastern end

After three days of traversing steep rocky passes in the cold and snow, we were ready for warm, clear weather and green valleys with quaint Swiss villages. The last snowy impediment was the Pas de Chévres, which was a little intimidating because of its vertical steel ladders. But by the time we had crossed over the glacier east of Cabane Des Dix, climbed up a steep, rubbly slope with treacherous snow-covered boulders, crept along a narrow ledge (happily with cables to hold on to), the ladders bolted securely into the rock seemed like an easy challenge. Here I am starting up the ladders to summit the Pas de Chévres (photo by Jay Ach).

Along the way to Pas de Chévres, after leaving rocks we could identify as parts of the ocean crust, we passed some metamorphic rocks we could not identify but that had beautiful green crystals and lovely folds. We need a metamorphic rock expert!

The next stages were downhill into the tiny mountain town of Arolla, then a traverse north along a verdant, peaceful valley to the villages of Les Haudéres and La Sage, before a climb of 1300 meters to the Col de Torrent (pass at 2900 meters) that crossed us into the valley with Lac de Moiry (another reservoir) and first views of famous peaks we’d be seeing from different sides for the remainder of the trip. Although the climb out of La Sage was long, the continued views of the green valley below made it all worth while.

We had opted to skip Cabane de Moiry and continue to Zinal in the next valley eastward. But first we admired the area around Lac de Moiry and learned from a sign at the north end of the reservoir that the rocks there record the main elements of the continental collision—in a very short distance it’s possible to walk through a piece of the African continent, the limestone remnants of the Tethys Ocean that once lay between Africa and Europe, and then the metamorphic rock of the European continent itself.

The photo below shows the rocks, covered in snow, that are in the cross sections extracted from the sign on the dam at Lac de Moiry. The first cross section illustrates how it would have looked when the Tethys Ocean still lay south of ancient Europe and was being subducted beneath ancient Africa. The second cross section shows the rocks that are found along the eastern shore of Lac de Moiry today, after the continents collided. Up the valley is Cabane de Moiry next to a quickly-retreating glacier and overlooked by Weisshorn peak, which we would see from the other side when entering Zermatt.

From Zinal we continued on to Cabane Bella Tola—a cabane not chosen by most hikers—that gave us our first glimpse of the Matterhorn and a view northward to the Bernese Alps that are not seen much on the Haute Route. The Bernese Alps is where the famous peaks of the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Mönch are located. Although they are the most famous, they are not the tallest; the tallest peaks are located in the south and are easily visible along the Haute Route. Here is Cabane Bella-Tola with peaks of the Bernese Alps to the north.

There were two more high passes to cross. The second one provided views into the Mattertal valley, and was perhaps the most impressive view on all of the route.

An interesting aspect of Switzerland’s topography of inhabited valleys surrounded by high ridges and peaks is the summer grazing of cows, which we saw at some very high elevations. The cows are driven (reluctantly no doubt) up the steep slopes to graze for the summer. Their owners must then travel upslope each day to extract the milk to make cheese that is highly sought after for its herb-and-grass-fed qualities. Here is a particularly friendly cow we encountered over the pass between Gruben and Grächen (photo by Jay Ach).

Below is a view into the Mattertal valley with the highest individual peak in Switzerland (Dom at 4545 meters) in the background. The valley is narrow and steep and the Mattervispa River has cut a deep gorge into the U-shaped valley that was previously cut by a glacier.

A use of the local slate rock is to construct roofs. Of course, the house must be sturdily constructed to bare the weight of these rocks. Here are some houses in the small village of Jungen that we passed through on the way down into the Mattertal valley. A man was on the roof of one house installing the rocks as we walked past.

The last two stages of the Haute Route are on the Europaweg (weg=trail) that wends its way along the eastern slope of the Mattertal Valley; lodging can be had between the two stages at the Europahütte mountain hut. The Europaweg is continually beset by landslides that threaten to close the trail. In the summer of 2019, landslides had closed the stage north of the Europahütte and hikers could choose a variety of other options to still arrive at the hütte and complete the second stage into Zermatt. Fortunately, it was possible to have the experience of crossing the longest suspension bridge (500 meters) in the world, which was newly constructed in 2017 and located just south of the Europahütte. Here is Jay in the northern end of the bridge.

About half way between the Europahütte and Zermatt, the Matterhorn slips into view (assuming clear weather conditions) and views while hiking south get continually more spectacular. Here is a view along the Europaweg with the Matterhorn towering over the tourist mecca of Zermatt.

Because of the steep slopes and highly fractured rocks, landslides of various types are common along this route and make maintaining the Europaweg a constant challenge. Here is an example of a huge rock slide (note town of Randa and roads for scale) on the western slope of the valley that we observed while traversing the eastern side, where we went through a section with protective tunnels in case rocks should start sliding while we were walking through.

The Matterhorn records the familiar story of the Alps—continental collision. Most of the peak is gneiss (high-grade metamorphic rock) that was once part of the African continent. Underneath are pieces of ophiolite (layers of oceanic crust) and marine sediments deposited in the Tethys Ocean, and then, underneath that are layers of the European continent. All of this is part of the Dent Blanche nappe—a giant recumbent fold that has carried all of these crustal fragments northward. Matterhorn peak is on the left side of the photo and Dent Blanche peak is in the right side. It doesn’t look so white (blanche) because this is the south side, but it was still snowy white when we viewed it the previous day from the north. Below and between the two peaks is gray bare rock where the Matterhorn glacier used to be. It is even much smaller than it was when I was here before in 1989, thirty years ago.

The photo above was taken from the east, near Gornergrat, where we saw fragments of the ocean crust and marine sedimentary rocks that underlie the Matterhorn’s gneiss. Here is a photo of limestone that was deposited in the Tethys Ocean before it was caught up in the continental collision.

The town of Zermatt is also much different than it was 30 years ago. There has been so much development and the river has been channeled and tamed to keep it from threatening expensive homes and businesses. The town still retains charm; for example, old-style buildings remain among the newer constructions. It did feel weird, though, to be in such a touristy town after the small villages and rugged landscapes of the Haute Route.

Summary of the lodging stops along our 14-day (15 nights) version of the Haute Route:

Chamonix (In France, the rest in Switzerland), Trient, Champex-Lac, Verbier, Cabane Mont Fort, Cabane Prafleuri, Cabane Des Dix, Arolla, La Sage, Zinal, Cabane Bella-Tola, Gruben, Grächen, Europahütte, Zermatt

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