I'll take the Haute Route

If Victorian women in long dresses could tackle the Alps, Catriona Bass felt sure that she could too

The woman in the outdoor shop in Chamonix looked at us dubiously: "La Haute Route - eh bien, ca fait un trot!" ("That's some walk!"). No one back in Britain had seemed to know very much about walking the Haute Route. These days, the six-day tour through the peaks from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn is famous as a ski-mountaineering run and has largely been abandoned by hikers for the more exotic slopes of Nepal and Ladakh. But the High Level Road from Chamonix to Zermatt, as it was first called, was established in 1861 as a walking expedition by the English gentlemen members of the Alpine Club.

Our guide arrived at our gite bearing harnesses and ice-axes and a coil of pink rope. Chamonix has the oldest guiding company in the world and its guides are still considered the elite. Neil was from County Durham but had lived in Chamonix for 20 years and was one of them.

Day one began mildly enough with the chair-lift from Le Tour and then a gentle climb to the Albert Premier Hut for lunch. Thus far, the route is glamorous. Within day-walking distance of the valley, svelte Parisians sat on the terrace overlooking the luminous blue crevasses of Le Tour glacier and complained about the price of the espresso. We sat in the sun, our voices echoing around us, with the occasional clatter of rocks and distant boom as bits of ice broke off inside the glacier.

Two hours later, at 2,700m (8,850ft) we were snaking around crevasses, cramponed and roped together in deteriorating weather. "Stamp your feet!" Neil kept saying. Before long, I had fallen through. Dangling from the rope, I looked down into the translucent beauty of the cavern beneath my feet with excitement and tingling fear. The rest of the party took my weight and I pulled myself out. It seemed easy (until I thought about what might have happened if we hadn't been roped up).

By the time we were nearing the top of the glacier, I was beginning to feel the altitude fizzing in my fingers and was becoming breathless, but Neil was eager to push ahead. We were making for the Col du Tour, which Neil described as "a bit technical". Like Weetabix, someone else said. It was as if someone had sliced up the rock-face with a cheese-wire. "Don't touch that rock on the left, it's loose," I heard Neil saying to the person on the rope above me. I looked up and "that rock" was the size of a car.

As we reached the top, the ice-bound Trient plateau stretched ahead of us into Switzerland. The Trient hut was just visible, perched high above the glacier on the distant side of the plateau. We slithered down the Col du Tour through a slurry of scree and rock, revealing dark smooth ice beneath our skid-marks. Below us lay a crevasse which was narrow at the top and opened out into a greeny-blue chamber. It was crossed by a fragile ice bridge over which lay our path. Neil told us to keep the rope taut. He would test the bridge and if it gave way he would spread- eagle on the snow and we would take his weight on the rope. "This time, don't stamp," he said. "Go gently, as if you were walking on eggs." He crossed. Nothing happened. We crossed, one by one, like eggshell-walkers.

We reached the Trient hut at 3170m (10,400ft) after dark. It was filled with climbers poring over maps. The smell of food mingled with the smell of damp socks and mittens drying on the wood stove. The dormitory, when we found it, had two long shelves for bunks and a neat row of pillows and blankets. The long-drop, which shot its contents on to the glacier below, was a 3am sleety head-torch walk from the hut with a glimpse of moon through scudding clouds. None of us slept well: just turning over at that altitude left us gasping for breath. At 5am we were roused by torches as the climbers got up. We set out through a blizzard, sliding down over the lateral moraine of Orny glacier. As we got lower, the snow turned to sleet forming glassy crystals on heather and moorland grasses.

The traverse around the mountain to Champex was a gentle stroll with the clouds breaking up more and more. Sometimes they billowed up from underneath; at other times they engulfed us in a dripping fog. Then as we reached the La Breya chair-lift they vanished leaving brilliant blue. We spent the afternoon in the balmy valley warmth, drinking beer by Champex lake. The previous two days of rock and ice vanished into the stony fantasy above our heads.

On the third day, the route from Verbier to the Prafleuri hut took us over three 3,000m passes through a moraine moonscape. Descending the Col de Chaux, we walked in the path of a receding glacier. The Romans are said to have used these passes, and pilgrims and smugglers also regularly trekked along these routes.

By the time we reached the Prafleuri hut, we had walked for 10 hours over rocks the size of buses. My nadir came at the top of the Prafleuri pass, having crossed what was known as Le Grand Desert. From the pass, Neil had said, I'd be able to smell dinner. As I gasped for breath on reaching the col, my vision of cosy hut with smoke curling from its chimney and aroma of lamb stew seeping under its door, vanished. The reality was another vast plateau with the rest of the party disappearing specks over the distant edge.

The sun came out on the fourth day as we sauntered round the grassy slopes of the Lac des Dix and down to the little Alpine village of Arolla. Day five dawned pink and crisp as we strolled up the path towards the Dents de Bertol. We had a 1,300m climb to the Bertol hut which was perched like an eagle's nest at 3,311m overlooking the greatest peaks of the Alps. On the valley floor, the Arolla glacier stretched out in black and white stripes of stone and snow from summers and winters of many centuries ago.

All day as we climbed, the Bertol hut was visible above us teetering into the sky. By 4pm we had crossed the Bertol glacier, unroped, uncramponed and climbed the ladders up the rock-face to the hut.

Bertol hut is the jewel of the Haute Route. The highest and oldest hut of all, it has just celebrated its centenary. If we were beginning to gloat at our achievement, however, the sepia pictures on the wall of Victorian women in long dresses, all roped together, climbing the Bertol glacier put us in our place. But we were mainly here for the view - a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the most legendary summits in the Alps: Dent Blanche, Matterhorn, Dent d'Herens, Tete de Valpelline. Clouds drifted like white duvets across their jagged peaks. Crevasses turned pink in the sunset of the snowfields. From the balcony on the other side we looked out on the peaks and valleys towards Mont Blanc from where we had come.

There was a celebratory sense of achievement in the hut. Some Swiss viticulturists had carried up a bottle of their own wine which they shared with us. Everyone kept glancing up at the peaks beyond the windows long after it had got dark. The next morning the guardian said the weather would hold out until noon. The day was overcast but sharp, etched in white, greys and black. The parties began climbing the smooth rump of the glacier together. Neil set a slow pace, but warned that he wasn't going to stop. We trudged on to "Stamp your feet!" ... "Use your ice-tools!"

Black against the snow, the different parties moved across the landscape like pall-bearers plodding towards some distant funeral. Tete Blanche reared up ahead of us; then it vanished. The clouds had rolled in on us and the air was filled with snow. We could barely see each other. "We will have to turn round," Neil said. "It will be impossible to find our way through the crevasses in this. If we leave it any longer our tracks will just disappear." We turned back towards Bertol, snow swirling around us, the other climbers lost in the white-out ahead.

The viticulturists decided that they were going to sit it out at Bertol hut and try the descent to Zermatt again the next day. But we had run out of time and had no alternative but to retrace our steps. The mountain looked entirely different on the downward path: the magic of the previous day had vanished. We reached Arolla by late afternoon. Strangely, we didn't care that we hadn't made it to Zermatt. It had been an extraordinary six days in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. And we had had it almost all to ourselves.

MONT BLANC TO THE MATTERHORN

GETTING THERE

EasyJet (tel: 0870 600 0000) flies daily from both Luton and Liverpool to Geneva, and back. The first seats on each flight are sold for pounds 68 return; maximum prices are pounds 268.

Tours with Neil Hitchens cost FFr4,350 (pounds 435), including board in mountain huts, chair-lifts and transfer between Champex and Verbier. Contact him at 96 Chemin du Toro, 74400 Chamonix (tel: 0033 450 534760).

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Haute Route can be walked between June and August.

Good advice on boots and other essential hiking equipment can be obtained from Peglers, Expedition Advisers and Suppliers, 69 Tarrant Street, Arundel BN18 9DN (tel: 01903 883375).

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