How hard is the Walker’s Haute Route? In a word, it is difficult. It is 117 miles (188 km) of rough Alpine terrain that crosses eleven mountain passes, some almost 10,000 feet in elevation. Unstable trail conditions and afternoon storms can force hikers down to safer, low-altitude paths. Trails can be covered with snow until July. It ascends a total 39,000 feet (12,000 meters) and descends 32,000 feet (10,000 meters). Exposure, heights, and steep drop-offs test nerves and resolve.
But the Walker’s Haute Route is an iconic, world-class trail that runs through some of the best mountain scenery in France and Switzerland; passes by 10 of the 12 highest peaks in the Alps, among them Mont Blanc, Grand Combin, and the Matterhorn; stops in charming villages and luxurious tourist meccas, like Chamonix and Zermatt; and is known, among other things, for a spectacular wine and cheese selection. Yes, it is difficult, but it is completely worth it.
Look closely and you will see a satisfied hiker
Let’s dive into the details. The standard Pygmy Elephant itinerary splits the Walker’s Haute Route into 13 stages and 14 nights, including a night in Chamonix before the trek. A bus takes hikers from Chamonix to Argentière, where the trek starts.
Stage 1: Argentière to Col de la Forclaz
Distance: 8.18 miles (13.16 km)
Total Ascent: 3470 feet (1057.7 meters)
Total Descent: 3387 feet (1032.4 meters)
Max Elevation: 7221 feet (2201 meters)
Min Elevation: 4108 feet (1252 meters)
Beginning in Argentière, the day’s lowest point, the path climbs some 600 feet through forest to Le Tour and continues steadily to Charamillon at 6069 feet (1850 meters). There is an optional gondola between Le Tour and Charamillon and a chairlift to Autannes, which is close to the Col de Balme, the highest point of the day. The col also marks the border with Switzerland. From here the trail steadily descends, ending in Col de la Forclaz at 5010 feet (1527 meters).
Stage 2: Col de la Forclaz to Champex d’en Haut
Distance: 9.06 miles (14.58 km)
Total Ascent: 4909 feet (1496.3 meters)
Total Descent: 4273 feet (1302.4 meters)
Max Elevation: 8747 feet (2666 meters)
Min Elevation: 4810 feet (1466 meters)
Stage 2 starts on relatively flat ground before taking a steep turn uphill to the Fenêtre d’Arpette, the highest point of the day. Avoid this route in bad weather. In good weather, the view from the Fenêtre of the Trient glacier below is worth the climb. The descent involves some scrambling and loose scree, but is steady, and ends at the lowest point of the day in Champex d’en Haut.
Stage 3: Champex d’en Haut to Le Châble
Distance: 8.35 miles (13.44 km)
Total Ascent: 1294 feet (394.4 meters)
Total Descent: 3453 feet (1052.5 meters)
Max Elevation: 4866 feet (1483.2 meters)
Min Elevation: 2374 feet (723.6 meters)
Stage 3 involves relatively little elevation change and is easier on the legs. The trail descends from Champex d’en Haut into a valley and to Sembrancher, the day’s lowest point. From here, the trail ascends slightly to end the day in Le Châble at 2693 feet (821 meters).
Stage 4: Le Châble to Cabane du Mont Fort
Distance: 6.96 miles (11.2 km)
Total Ascent: 5914 feet (1802.6 meters)
Total Descent: 653 feet (199 meters)
Max Elevation: 8061 feet (2457 meters)
Min Elevation: 2693 feet (821 meters)
Today is shorter, but packs in over a mile of ascent in a little less than 6 miles of trail. Try to enjoy the views of the Combin Massif as you trudge uphill. There are two cable cars that will do the climbing for you: one from Le Châble to Verbier, and a second from Verbier to Les Ruinettes. From here to Cabane du Mont Fort, the zenith, the climb is a mere 853 feet (260 meters).
Exposure and loose scree on the route
Stage 5: Cabane du Mont Fort to Cabane de Prafleuri
Distance: 8.31 miles (13.37 km)
Total Ascent: 3882 feet (1183.2 meters)
Total Descent: 3164 feet (964.4 meters)
Max Elevation: 9728 feet (2965 meters)
Min Elevation: 7548 feet (2300.6 meters)
Stage 5 begins with a short descent before turning back uphill and heading to exposure and steep climbs. The trail crosses three mountain passes today: the Col Termin at 8687 feet (2648 meters), the Col de Louvie at 9583 feet (2921 meters), and the Col de Prafleuri at 9728 feet (2965 meters). Some hikers find this stage challenging (and unnerving), but are rewarded with beautiful views of the Combin Massif and the sweeping valleys below.
Stage 6: Cabane de Prafleuri to Arolla
Distance: 11.13 miles (17.91 km)
Total Ascent: 3103 feet (945.8 meters)
Total Descent: 5544 feet (1689.8 meters)
Max Elevation: 9576 feet (2919 meters)
Min Elevation: 6555 feet (1998 meters)
Today is slightly less challenging than the previous stage, involving a bit less climbing and a good deal more descending. The trail crosses two passes, the Col des Roux at 9199 feet (2804
meters) and the Col de Riedmatten at 9576 feet (2919 meters). The first col is about 30 minutes into the day’s hike, and after the descent from the col there are about 3 miles of flat ground before the climb to the Col de Riedmatten. This is a steep climb that will challenge hikers with a fear of heights. Four ladders at the top avoid the loose scree on the trail. After the summit, the trail descends steadily and sometimes sharply to Arolla, the lowest point of the day.
Stage 7: Arolla to Les Haudères
Distance: 4.9 miles (7.9 km)
Total Ascent: 1523 feet (464.2 meters)
Total Descent: 3064 feet (934 meters)
Max Elevation: 6998 feet (2133 meters)
Min Elevation: 4639 feet (1414 meters)
Stage 7 is a short and easy (mostly) descent to Les Haudères. Lac Bleu is the highest point of the day at 6857 feet (2090 meters). It’s all downhill from here. Rest up in Les Haudères, as Stage 8 involves a lot of climbing.
View of Cabane de Moiry and Moiry Glacier
Stage 8: Les Haudères to Cabane de Moiry
Distance: 9.3 miles (15 km)
Total Ascent: 6010 feet (1832 meters)
Total Descent: 1506 feet (459 meters)
Max Elevation: 9400 feet (2865 meters)
Min Elevation: 4757 feet (1450 meters)
The climb from Les Haudères is long and rough but wonderfully scenic. After about 5000 feet of ascending, hikers reach the Col du Tsaté, the first of two cols on this route and the highest point of the trail. There is a steady descent from Tsaté to Parking du Glacier and views of Lac de Moiry, followed by a sometimes-steep climb to Cabane de Moiry at 9268 feet (2825 meters). There is a network of buses and trains that bypasses much of the day’s climbing, but where’s the fun in that?
Stage 9: Cabane de Moiry to Zinal
Distance: 9.11 miles (14.66 km)
Total Ascent: 2330 feet (710 meters)
Total Descent: 6081 feet (1853.5 meters)
Max Elevation: 9501 feet (2896 meters)
Min Elevation: 5455 feet (1662.7 meters)
The first two thirds of stage 9 stay at high elevation and have relatively little elevation change, besides the climb to Col de Sorebois, the highest point of the stage. After the col, the trail descends more than 4000 feet (1219 meters) to the valley floor below, the lowest point of the stage. This descent is at times very steep and can be hard on the knees and nerves. There is a cable car from the summit of the col to Zinal for those who want to avoid this descent.
Stage 10: Zinal to Gruben
Distance: 10.9 miles (17.54 km)
Total Ascent: 3936 feet (1199.7 meters)
Total Descent: 3436 feet (1047.3 meters)
Max Elevation: 9429 feet (2874 meters)
Min Elevation: 5488 feet (1660.5 meters)
Zinal is the lowest point of the stage today, and from here the trail climbs steeply, and at times on narrow shelves, for a bit more than a mile in the direction of Forcletta pass. After a few miles of mellow climbing, things get steep again before reaching Forcletta’s summit and the highest point of the stage. Unfortunately, you will lose almost all of this elevation gain and end the day in Gruben at 5978 feet (1822 meters). Again, the tough stuff on this stage can be skipped with a series of bus rides and one gondola ride.
Steep drop-offs and narrow pathways abound on the Walker’s Haute Route
Stage 11: Gruben to Grächen
Distance: 11.64 miles (18.73 km)
Total Ascent: 5639 feet (1718.8 meters)
Total Descent: 6321 feet (1926.6 meters)
Max Elevation: 9495 feet (2894 meters)
Min Elevation: 3515 feet (1071.4 meters)
Stage 11 is known for having the best views on the Walker’s Haute Route after the summit of Augustbordpass, which is the highest point of the day and of the entire trek. Unfortunately, getting there requires ascending about 3500 feet in a span of about 3 miles, starting at Gruben. The climb can be rocky, but shouldn’t be as challenging as some other climbs on the trek. After descending from the summit to a plateau area, hikers encounter Twära, a spur that overlooks the Mattertal valley below and allows unspoiled views of the Nadelhorn, Lenzspitze, and Dom, Switzerland’s highest mountain. Be cautious on the descent to Grächen, as there are some exposed areas on the trail.
Stage 12: Grächen to Europa Hut
Distance: 9.04 miles (14.55 km)
Total Ascent: 4877 feet (1486.5 meters)
Total Descent: 2801 feet (853.7 meters)
Max Elevation: 8825 feet (2690 meters)
Min Elevation: 5286 feet (1611 meters)
Today marks the beginning of the Europaweg, which runs from Grächen to Zermatt and is known as the most dangerous part of the trek because of exposure, and possible landslides and rockfalls. Detour to the valley floor if you are not sure-footed or if there is bad weather, as conditions can become dangerous here. That said, the Europaweg offers beautiful views and an adventure for the intrepid hiker.
The trail starts with a climb from Grächen, the lowest point of the stage, and ascends quickly to Gasenried and then Grat at 7546 feet (2300 meters). The most dangerous part of the trail is the Grosse Graben Combe, which is just before the day’s high point at Galenberg, and is less of a defined trail and more of a loose boulder field. After the summit, the trail descends easily to the Europa Hut at 7431 feet (2265 meters).
The path to Zermatt
Stage 13: Europa Hut to Zermatt
Distance: 11.2 miles (18 km)
Total Ascent: 1142 feet (348 meters)
Total Descent: 3156 feet (962 meters)
Max Elevation: 7727 feet (2355 meters)
Min Elevation: 5276 feet (1608 meters)
The last stage of the trek is a long one, but with little climbing involved. Besides the normal exposure and chance of rockfall on the Europaweg, the most exciting part of this stage is crossing the Charles Kuonen suspension bridge, the longest suspended pedestrian bridge in the world at almost half a kilometer long. It hangs a vertigo-inducing 279 feet (85 meters) above the valley floor below. As you approach and descend to Zermatt, the Matterhorn will grow in size until it looms above you, dominating the Zermatt skyline.
YOUR HAUTE ROUTE
The Walker’s haute may be known as a challenge, but that doesn’t mean it’s unconquerable. Just like with its better known cousin, the Tour du Mont Blanc, if you prepare yourself physically and choose the right time to hike you’ll have no problem getting through all 117 miles. We want you to have the best Haute Route experience possible, and we can help you design the trek that’s right for you. If you have any more Haute-Route-related questions, please feel free to give us a call at 1-414-377-3555 or send us an e-mail. We look forward to hearing from you.