Consider this quote from Amelia Earhart: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” For you, the intrepid hiker with a burning desire to traipse through storied Alpine country, the most difficult thing may be deciding between the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Walker’s Haute Route. We hope that this blog post can help you make up your mind. The rest, of course, is merely tenacity.
The Tour du Mont Blanc and the Walker’s Haute Route are more similar than they are different. That said, the two trails are very different. Both treks promise over 100 miles (170-188 km) of strenuous elevation changes through high Alpine country. Hikers will cross undulating meadows and climb high mountain passes, accompanied by ibex, chamois, and marmots. The views are of glaciers and mountains and mineral-filled streams. Cuisine will focus on the holy trinity of bread, cheese, and meat so vital to any rugged mountain terrain.
Ibex blocking the view of Mont Blanc
But these hikes are hardly interchangeable. The Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB, is one of the most popular treks in Europe for good reason. The trek loops through France, Italy, and Switzerland, and Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, is a constant companion for nearly two weeks. What it lacks in conversational skills, it makes up for in natural beauty. Those that complete the TMB can brag that they have ascended and descended more than the height of Everest, no sherpa required.
Hikers on the TMB get to see Mont Blanc from its best side, in Italy. On this side of the border, the view of the mountain is clear and its massive scale very apparent. Hikers on the Walker’s Haute Route, however, are treated to views of both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, one of Europe’s most recognizable peaks. On the way up the Rhone Valley from French Haute-Savoie to Swiss Valais, they pass 10 of the 12 highest mountains in the Alpine range. Though Walker’s Haute Route has a lower total elevation change than the TMB, it is more strenuous and spends more time at higher elevations.
A “Toblerone view” of the Matterhorn from Grindjisee, a possible destination for those spending extra time in Zermatt
The Walker’s Haute Route should not be confused with the classic Haute Route, which is a yet higher and more strenuous Alpine route that requires crampons and guides to manage its glacial passes. Like the TMB, the Walker’s Haute Route is best hiked in Summer between late June and early September and follows well-marked and well-trod trails.
Both treks allow for a significant amount of variation, whether to reach a preferred sight or destination or to dodge poor trail conditions or bad weather. The locals have been kind enough to install mechanized transportation on their mountainsides, and hikers in a hurry can take cable cars and chairlifts on some sections. If you need to stay closer to the earth, taxis and busses are available. Hikers almost always have the option to take a lower, safer trail, and sometimes are compelled to. The Europaweg section of the Walker’s Haute Route, for example, is highly exposed and prone to rockfalls and landslides, which force hikers to the valley floor trail.
No matter the trail, bad weather should be avoided. Summer weather is generally good, especially in sunny Valais, but afternoon thunderstorms pose significant danger to life and limb.
The Charles Kuonen bridge on the Europaweg spans nearly half a kilometer (1,621 feet) and hangs 85 meters (279 feet) above the ground at its highest point
The highest points on the TMB are the Col de Fours and the Fenêtre d’Arpette, respectively at the beginning and end of the counter-clockwise loop. Both are 8,743 feet (2,665 meters) high, follow a significant climb and occasional rock scramble, and afford uncomparable views. These high passes bookend the other high points of the TMB at Col de Seigne, at 8,254 feet (2,516 meters), and Col Ferret, at 8,323 feet (2,537 meters). Altogether, you will climb at least six mountain passes and your hiking will include some light scrambling, boulder hopping, and exposure to falling. But, in general, anyone with a good amount of conditioning and mountain hiking experience can complete the TMB without issue.
Hikers on the Walker’s Haute Route will encounter the Fenêtre d’Arpette early on, which is good, because it will be a warm-up for things to come. As you descend from the Fenêtre to La Chable, the amount of hikers on the trail with you will drop significantly. This is also good, because you’re about to encounter a 5.6 mile (9 km) long climb that will take you about one mile higher, and you can feel free to curse the gods of the mountains without offending the sensibilities of other mortals. This climb will eventually end at Col de Louvie – 9,583 feet, 2,921 meters – which begins the highest region of the route. Col de Prafleuri is the highest point up here and of the entire route, and sits at a breathtaking 9,727 feet (2,965 meters). Special caution should be taken on this part of the route. Pitches are steep and rocks can be loose. Snow on the ground is possible even in July, and bad weather here can be life-threatening. Those unsure of this section of the trail are advised to take the easier option.
In general, the Walker’s Haute Route has steeper climbs and descents than the TMB and hikers are more exposed to rocks from above and falling off the trail. This is the nature of the Rhone Valley, which was carved by ancient glaciers, and which the Swiss carved into Valais. Like everything Swiss, Valais is fiercely independent and does things its own way. It is at the same time one of the wettest and one of the driest regions in Switzerland. Its high mountains collect moisture in the form of snow and allow a warm, dry wind to blow along the valley floor. While you are trekking through high-altitude meadows, the people down below are enjoying a near-Mediterranean climate.
FOOD AND DRINK
These conditions make the canton of Valais a wonderful place to make wonderful wine. Slopes at the valley floor are striped with massive vineyards, so arranged to soak up the generous sunshine. The region specializes in white wines, among them the tasty Fendant, and Amigne, which is native to the valley. The Swiss know how good their wine is and do their best to keep it within their borders, so enjoy it while you can. Normally the French are known for their wine, but around here they are known for their beer. The Brasserie du Mont Blanc is a craft brewery in the Chamonix Valley that has won multiple awards, among them best witbier and best amber beer in the world. Be sure to check shops along the trail for one of their brews.
During the summer, while the grapes ripen in Valais, Swiss farmers bring their cows up to the highlands where the grass is long and plentiful. The cows remain until around mid-September, at which point they are festooned with flowers, ribbons, and colorful crowns and then led back to town, where they are received with a celebration of alpenhorn music, singing, and cheese-eating.
Swiss cow decorated for its trip down the mountain
Most cows in the Alps run the color spectrum from khaki to mocha and graze their meadows with an enviable level of peace and serenity. Those in the Canton of Valais think this is fine, but they prefer their Herens cows. This special breed is unique to the region and distinct in its black pelt, muscular build, and short horns. They are also distinct in their inclination to fight, and every year in Spring the people of Valais let the cows – not the bulls – fight it out to determine which among them is queen. This eventual winner, this queen of Valais, will maintain her hierarchy throughout the summer months.
Cows are vital to culture and gastronomy along the TMB and the Walker’s Haute Route. The French of the Haute-Savoie region have been turning raw, Alpine cow’s milk into reblochon cheese for many hundreds of years. It is a central ingredient in tartiflette, a calorie-dense dish that includes potatoes, fatty bacon, onions.
The people of Valais answer with raclette, a cheese made from milk collected during the happy summer months and left to ripen until mid to late winter. Then, a wheel of the stuff is sliced down the middle and placed under a heating coil until the top layer bubbles and oozes, at which point it is scraped onto a plate and enjoyed with whatever you like. The Swiss keep enough raclette for the entire year, so you won’t have to come back in winter to enjoy some.
This might be the Alps, but that doesn’t stop Italy from being Italian. On that side of the border, hikers on the TMB can find pizza that would satisfy even the most picky Neopolitans. Dishes like risotto, cacio e pepe, and spaghetti carbonara will be important sources to gain back calories lost on the day’s hike. Stop in town and cool off with a gelato, then grab an espresso and get back on the trail.
Melted raclette scraped from the wheel
On the TMB, the dual linguistic border matches the triple national border: on the French and Swiss sections they speak French, and in Italy they speak Italian. On the Walker’s Haute Route, linguistic boundaries are more vague. Valais is the French name for the Swiss canton on the trail, and is more common because a large majority here are native French speakers. However, in the upper part of the valley people say Wallis instead, and these people speak German. At least, in theory. In practice, they speak Swiss German, which is so thick it requires subtitles on German television. In Wallis, they speak their own dialect called Wallisertiitsch, which even other Swiss can’t understand. If in doubt, just try English.
In Valais, the Swiss like to call the invisible language border the rideau de rösti, in Wallis they call it the Röstigraben. Respectively, these mean “rösti curtain” and “rösti ditch,” and refer to the Swiss dish rösti, which is similar to hash browns and originated in the German-speaking Bern region (and is yet another delicious meal option on the trek). Specifically, you’ll cross this border between Zinal and Gruben, and more specifically at Col de Forcletta. Once mountain names switch from “corne” to “Horn,” you’ll know you’ve arrived.
The countries touched by the TMB and the Walker’s Haute Route may not always see eye to eye, but in one way or another they are inexorably bound to each other. On the Tour du Mont Blanc, the namesake of the trek is the binding force. The French and the Italians still can’t agree on who the mountain belongs to, and the border is almost as contentious as El Chaltén in Patagonia, but like it or not, it is a point where they have to come together.
One thing that binds the Swiss together is their love for their country, which they all celebrate in their own ways every year on August 1, the Swiss National Day. For more than 700 years, the Swiss have been celebrating with bonfires, fireworks, children trooping through streets with paper lanterns, and special bread rolls with the cross of the Swiss flag baked into the top. National day falls in the high season for the Walker’s Haute Route and the TMB, and is an easy addition to any itinerary.
We’re dedicated to making sure you have the best trek possible, no matter where you go. Whether it’s circling Mont Blanc or going all the way from Chamonix to Zermatt, we can help you design the trek of a lifetime. Please feel free to give us a call at 1-414-377-3555 or send us an e-mail for a free consultation at any time. We look forward to hearing from you.