Sunday, August 31, 2014

Trekking through the Alps (and a few days of Italian wine revelry)!

I'm a bit obsessed with hiking and mountains - I guess growing up in the Rockies will do that to you! Anytime someone suggests a vacation, I don't think of sunny beaches or sandy resorts; I imagine high-altitude peaks all to myself with my trusty red backpack that has gathered dust from the Himalayas, the Cordillera Blanca, and the deserts of Jordan.

   >>>
Mountains 
Beaches
  
Bart only had two stipulations for our August vacation:
1. somewhere international (nixed my suggestion for Glacier National Park);
2. somewhere that had significantly cooler summers than DC (nixed my suggestion for Peru).

The Alps were an easy choice after I saw Google images of crampons and ice axes making their way up Mont Blanc and discovered a trek that went from the French to the Swiss Alps - the Haute Route. It was a 190-km journey, recommended to complete in 12-14 days, and had mountain huts, cabins, or refugios along the entire way...Switzerland, here we come!



The great thing about having Bart as a travel partner is that he's game for anything: I tell him the itinerary, he says, "OK." I tell him the route we're doing, how many kilometers we're walking each day, where we're sleeping, and he says, "OK, but you have to walk fast and keep up with me." The only thing he demanded was that we spend at least 2 days in wine country after the trek. Easy enough to tag on Piedmont, Italy after our hike!


The only downside to our vacation was the flight I chose; I had to wait until Bart's work schedule was settled, so I ended up booking RT tickets to Geneva on Aeroflot. Both out-bound and return itineraries had layovers in Moscow. Look at a map and tell I'm not a genius when it comes to mapping out flight itineraries; but it ended up saving me $2200 in plane tickets, so hey, you get what you pay for!

La Premiere Partie: "Stuck" in Chamonix, France
Well, Aeroflot lost our luggage, so we spent our first 48 hours waiting in Chamonix, France. Not a bad place to get stuck! Chamonix is at the foot of Mont Blanc, and I scrounged through our hostel's lost-and-found to uncover some jewels: the next few days, I lived in men's running tights that were 5 sizes too big, an oversized Gap hoodie, and a wool scarf! The best reason to be in Chamonix is Mont Blanc - pics galore below!

Following the ridge to base camp of Mont Blanc


Couldn't get enough! 

The valley shrouded in clouds below us...

I could stare at this forever! 

Peaks after peaks after peaks...

Freezing at the base of Mont Blanc

Receding glaciers 

One last long look before we took off for scree...

La Viande du Voyage: The Haute Route
Once our luggage miraculously appeared on our hostel's doorstep, we immediately sorted through our hiking gear and set off for the Haute Route. Each day took us over a pass (or two, or three) - which is essentially a hiker's route through a mountain range or over a ridge.

For nerds like me who love Excel, our route is detailed below (and in the link). If you're looking to replicate our route, I'd recommend the following changes:
  • Day 4 - take Col Termin route, which avoids Col de la Chaux. Col de la Chaux was extremely difficult to ascend and descend; wouldn't be surprised to learn if there had been a rockslide earlier this year! 
  • Break Day 6 up into 2 days, sleeping at either Cabane de Moiry or Barrage de Moiry. 
  • If you're pressed for time, cut a day out by taking the train from St Niklaus to Zermatt on the last day - you won't miss any sights, and you're skipping out on the part of the trail that essentially runs parallel to the train tracks anyways. 

Day
Route
Distance
Time
Notes
1
Chamonix-Argentiere-Col de Balme-Trient
21 km
8.5 hrs
Easy; shares route with the Tour of Mont Blanc
2
Trient-Fenetre d'Arpette-Champex
14 km
8.5 hrs
Pass is difficult; first glimpse of awesome glaciers. Champex is about 45 min from Champex-Arpette (stopped for a snack)
3
Champex-Sembrancher-Le Chable-Clambin-Verbier-Cabane du Mont Fort
22km
11.5 hrs
One of more pleasant days; saw where the Tour de France climbed Verbier; Cabane du Mont Fort had some delicious spaghetti (and 4-Euro showers)
4
Cabane du Mont Fort-Col de la Chaux--Col de Louvie-Col de Prafleuri-Cabane de Prafleuri-Lac des Dix
15 km
8 hrs
missed turn for Col de la Chaux and went up Col des Gentianes, adding ~3km to the day. Col de la Chaux NOT recommended; difficult pass, especially in areas with ice. Lots of loose screw, vertical climb on ice. Cabane de Prafleuri does not accept CCs and turned us away; had to hike another hour to an ugly hotel at bottom of Lac des Dix, which turned out to have an amazing dinner and hot showers!
5
Lac des Dix-Col de Riedmatten-Arolla-Lac Bleu-Les Hauderes
22 km
8.5 hrs
Chose Col de Riedmatten route because Pas de Chevres has three vertical ladders that are dangerously close to rock face. Happy we chose this route; had ropes and chains to aid us in climbing the loose areas. Les Hauderes was one of our more favorite villages to stay in. Tried raclette (essentially mounds of steamed potatoes with even more mounds of melted cheese) for dinner. Had a fantastic bakery for morning bites!
6
Les Hauderes-La Sage-Col du Tsate-Glacier de Moiry-Barrage de Moiry-Col de Sorebois-Zinal
28 km
11 hrs
This day sucked balls. Col du Tsate - essentially a 3.5 hour climb straight up a mountain. Didn't enjoy it. Glacier de Moiry has two routes - we chose to continue to Barrage de Moiry rather than Cabane de Moiry. The descent from Sorebois to Zinal was grueling and we were starving. To the point of delirious. Thank the Buddha for the kind lady who helped us find a hotel in Zinal; tried croute for dinner and stuffed myself silly.
7
Zinal-Forcletta-Gruben
14 km
6 hrs
"Easy day" relative to past 2 days. Officially left French Switzerland and passed into German Switzerland. Forcletta climb was easy, if only because we had just done 3 passes on Day 6 alone.
8
Gruben-Augstbordpass-St Niklaus
16 km
6.5 hrs
Another "easy" day - view from the Twara was absolutely magnificent. Enjoyed last day at high altitude. St Niklaus is a fairly busy town; bakery, post, bus systems.
9
St Niklaus-Tasch-Zermatt
18 km
5 hrs
Easy day, but the route follows the railway tracks and is extremely boring. No sights until right when you break into Zermatt. If I were to do this hike again, I'd take the train from St Niklaus to Zermatt - you don't miss any sights/peaks/panoramas, and you can do several day treks or trail runs from Zermatt!

Each night, we stayed in a hostel or a mountain refuge. Switzerland is not cheap, even in the high passes; rooms per night were anywhere from 55-90 Swiss Francs/person, but everything was so clean and meals were often included - no need to pack any camping stoves, sleeping bags, pillows, or even water purification tablets! 

Some pics below, but see the full album if you'd like to see all the photos of our hike! 

Looking out from our first pass, Col de Balme 

View from Col de Balme

Water Break! 

Our descent into the valley from another pass 

From glaciers to cow pastures

Perfect timing - cows let out for grazing for the day! 

Cabane du Mont Forte, Day 3's hotel 

The tiniest room for 2 people! A cozy squeeze. 

View from Col de Louvie 

An unusually cold summer in Europe meant that not all the trails were clear of snow...

Looking back on our ascent past a glacial lake 

Where there is no trail...make one! 

Lovin' this life! 

Despite trail markers, we managed to get lost in at least 3 major ways during the trek!

Obligatory picture at another pass 

King of the lake! 

A rare moment when I feel much, MUCH taller than 5'...


Just before it started to snow...top of Col de Prafleuri

Lac des Dix 

We passed through an ibex sanctuary! 

Where we're standing used to be alllllll glacier...

Another receding glacier...still beautiful, but quickly receding. 

Trail markers mapping my route! 

Top of Col de Riedmatten

Jagged peaks for miles and miles!

Lac de Bleu, before Les Hauderes 

Passing below the tree line on our way to Les Hauderes 

Swiss village that seemed to have only one inhabitant - a cheese maker

Leaving the village of Les Hauderes

On our way up Col du Tsate 

Lac des Moiry 

Carrots for the donkeys! 

Ascent to the Forcletta 

Moooooo...this cow became quite angry at how closely I passed! 

On the only day we ran out of bread...Bart made a salami sandwich. 

Hey, North Face - need a new poster boy? 

Town of Jungen, just before the descent to St Niklaus
Unfortunately, once we reached Zermatt, the clouds were so low that we couldn't even get a good peek at the Matterhorn. I was so disappointed! We walked around town, balked at the tourists buying Mont Blanc watches for 2000 Euros, and contented ourselves with the local supermarket. I treated myself to a half-kilo bag of Haribo gummy bears...the wonderful thing about hiking is when you stumble upon a sleeve of Pringles or a freshly baked croissant...so delicious! 

Ciao, Italia! Drinking our way through Piedmont 
When I told Bart that we were going to Switzerland to hike the Haute Route, his only demand was that we have at least 2 days in wine country. We settled on Piedmont, Italy after my IT director raved about the robust wines from this region. 

A 180* change from the first part of our vacation, but 100% in the right direction! The next 3 days were spent eating, drinking, and living out of our flip flops. I discovered my favorite place just 2 blocks from our hotel in Turin: 



Our last meal in Italy - at Eataly's pizzeria! 
Among our favorite places in Italy that we visited:

La Spinetta in Castagnole Lanze


Bart inspecting the grapes...

What a lovely family-run vineyard! Ended up having our own private tour, since the Brazilian group ended up being an hour late...woot woot! They also make FANTASTIC olive oil! 

Bart's first comment when we arrived at the Spinetta winery: "They definitely have a larger production than we do. Definitely." (We're currently making blackberry wine in our basement, which should fill all of 12 bottles). 

Ceretto Winery in Alba 

A much bigger production than La Spinetta...barrels upon barrels of Barolo! 

Some cool vineyard-viewing capsule. 
a tourist hot spot, but gave us a chance to sample wines from vineyards all around Piedmont.


What an amazing vacation! The Haute Route went by so quickly, and our whirlwind tour through Italy was a blast! Next up on the bucket list: Patagonia! Life is wonderful! I'm so happy! 

We also managed to stuff a suitcase (bought in a luggage store in Alba) and our backpacks full of 16 bottles of wine! We are packing GENIUSES!!!! Only one bottle broke, but not our most valuable :) Our wine basement is now fully stocked!

Lining up our wines-to-be-packed on the last night in Italy...
Full vacation album here