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

The Haute Route was established as a route for skiers but is now also very popular for hikers in the summer. The route extends from Chamonix (France) to Zermatt (Switzerland). There are many variations on the route; most people choose a 7–14 day transect that could include “short cuts” of chair lifts, trains and/or buses. The map below (from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/205828645448998187/) shows a relatively short 8-stage route; we choose a longer, more rambling 14-day route. The first two days are part of the TMB (Tour de Mont Blanc) but the Haute Route diverts to the east after that.

It is not necessary to carry a large pack because at the end of the day, hikers can lodge in mountain huts (cabanes or hüttes) or small hotels. Dinner and breakfast are often included in the room price.

Of course, people like to hike in the Alps because the scenery is stunningly beautiful. What has created these spectacular landscapes? The Alps are the result of a continental collision between Africa and Europe that is still continuing. This collision has uplifted, folded and faulted rocks ranging from the deepest levels of oceanic crust to continental sedimentary layers. All of this deformation has been spectacularly exposed by the power of eroding glaciers during the Ice Age of the past 2 million years, most recently during the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago. Here I am with Jay at the Aiguille du Midi, excited to hike through this amazing landscape.

The Haute Route crosses through some of the most highly deformed (internal part) of the Western Alps. The external (less deformed) part arcs around in the valley from Geneva to Zürich and north into the Jura Mountains. There the fold-and-thrust belt involves only the more surficial layers of Earth. In the internal part, very deep levels have been uplifted to the surface. The map of Switzerland below shows the Haute Route location in SW Switzerland. Refer to route above to see location of the starting point in Chamonix, in relation to Mont Blanc and the three-point boundary between France, Italy, and Switzerland, and the ending point in Zermatt.

It is worth spending a few days in Chamonix, to acclimate to the altitude and see some sights, before starting the long trek eastward. Like so many valleys in the Alps, the Chamonix valley was carved by glaciers. This view to the southwest across the valley is from Le Brévent (a téléphérique goes there) and shows the Mont Blanc massif (4810 meters—the highest mountain in the Alps) with the Bossons glacier hanging over the valley below.

To get a closer view of the Mont Blanc massif, take the téléphérique to the Aiguille du Midi (3842 meters), where you can admire the views and maybe see some climbers striving for the top. The massif consists of ancient metamorphosed sedimentary rocks around 600 Ma (Ma equals million of years ago) and granite rock that intruded in the Carboniferous about 300 Ma. These old rocks were caught up in the Alpine Orogeny of the past 65 million years, when a succession of collisional and uplift events brought these old rocks to the surface. This view is of Mont Blanc (right side of photo) and other mountains to the east in Italy (left side of photo) from the perspective of the Aiguille du Midi.

Another interesting site to visit is the Mer du Glace (Sea of Ice), which is the next glacier north from the Glacier du Bossons. With its tributary glaciers, it is the largest glacier in France and the second largest in the Alps, but like all other Alpine glaciers, it is disappearing rapidly. Visitors can take a scenic rack and pinion train to Montenvers where they can hike around and walk down over 400 stairs to tour an artificial ice cave. Most impressively, there are sign posts along the stairway marking the location of the glacier over the past ~150 years, since people have been frequenting the site. Here I am at the place where the glacier was in 1985—that’s a lot of deflation in 34 years (photo by Jay Ach).

Most people fly into Geneva and take a bus to Chamonix to start their hike. From the bus window (photo below) can be seen impressively thick sequences of limestone rock that are remnants of the Tethys Ocean that lay between Europe and Africa before the continents collided. These oceanic rocks are just a hint of the deeper oceanic layers that await Haute Route hikers as they venture farther eastward.

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