Switzerland 2014

Sunday June 29, 2014
Geneva, Sion, and Cabane de Prafleuri

Monday June 30, 2014
Cabane de Prafleuri to Verbier

Tuesday July 1, 2014
Verbier, Chamonix, and Zermatt

I woke up around 4am.  I was at least facing knee deep snow on the first col, along with a fresh inch or two of snow covering the col.  The weather looked awful - not at all the improving weather from the forecast.  After perhaps 15 minutes I decided to proceed with the hike - I could always turn back if conditions warranted.  I had requested breakfast at 6am, the earliest possible. 

After breakfast I put on all my rain clothes, as well as the brand new gaitors I had purchased.  I had assumed I would return the gaitors unused to REI at the end of my trip.  The gaitors were a last minute purchase for the 'easy' 4000m peaks I intended to try to climb later in the trip, not this hike.  I guess now I would find out how waterproof my shoes really were.  While I had hiked in the rain for hours to get to the Cabane in 2012, my shoes ended up somewhat wet inside, probably because my rain pants weren't waterproof. 

cabane de prafleuri



I left the Cabane at around 6:50am.  While the trail is easy to see in the picture above, it did not take long before I could no longer easily find the trail. 

cabane de prafleuri

7:07am, looking back at the Cabane de Prafleuri. 
The end of the tunnel covered by a roof, seen as a black box in the center of the picture. 
The clouds were coming up the valley from the direction of the dam, and they quickly shrouded everything.

There's a trail marker in the lower left hand corner of the picture.  Trail markers in Switzerland are two bands of white paint with a band of red paint between them.  White paint on a rock looks just like snow, so the trail markers that weren't covered in snow were often very, very dificult to find.

Click here for a panorama of Prafleuri taken at 7:30am

At about this time I started to loose the trail.  I couldn't find any painted trail markers, but I could find kairns, and I started following the kairns.  After at least another 20 minutes of route finding I realized that I hadn't seen a painted trail marker in quite a while, so I turned on my MotionX app to verify that I was still on the trail.  I was alarmed to find that I was nowhere near the trail, and instead was near the base of the Prafleuri Glacier.  I quickly backtracked and within perhaps 10 minutes was back to the place where I'd lost the trail markers.  I checked MotionX again and started plodding ahead in the general direction MotionX told me the trail should be.  Eventually I found the biker's tracks and a few painted trail markers, and began making forward progress again.  I had lost a considerable amount of time already and I hadn't even gotten to the first Col.

8:38am - looking back to Prafleuri
The trail back is the more or less snow free patch on the right side of the picture.
I was making very, very slow progress finding the trail and getting up the Col de Prafleuri

8:38am - the trail forward in the snow

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I reached the top of the Col de Prafleuri.  There wasn't much wind, and there wasn't much snow, but the clouds made the conditions near whiteout - I could see, but poorly.

Col de prafleuri

9:18am, finally at the Col de Prafleuri.  
It had taken me 2-1/2 hours to get to the top of the Col. 
I had assumed I'd be on top in an hour or so - the sign in the picture above says it takes 50 minutes to get to the Cabane de Prafleuri. 
Note that the same signs say it takes 3 hours and 10 minutes to get to Cabane du Mont Fort, my tentative destination for the evening.

Col de prafleuri

Looking back on the trail I had just climbed up to the top of the Col.

Col de prafleuri

Looking back toward Prafleuri.

Col de prafleuri

The signs say this is the route forward toward the Grand Desert.  It is important to note that there is not a formal trail ahead, it is a route, and you need to be able to find the route to move forward.  I nearly turned back, but decided to see if I could find the route.  I started postholing downhill for a few minutes before one of my legs went in much deeper than expected and my way too heavy pack shifted and nearly took me down.  That scared the hell out of me.  I yanked my leg out of the hole and climbed back to the top of the Col in a near panic.  I gathered myself for a few minutes before deciding on one last attempt to find the route forward.  I picked a slightly less steep line down the mountain and had no real dificulty.  Within a few minutes I found a painted trail marker and celebrated the re-discovery of the route.  I proceeded downhill into the trackless white.

At 9:45am, about 15 minutes after I started downhill into the white, the clouds broke up briefly. 
I was quite happy to be able to see anything, and I assumed the route went downhill into the valley.

9:45am, looking back up toward the Col de Prafleuri. 
I was counting on being able to retrace my tracks in the snow if I needed to turn back.
While the snow made finding the route nearly impossible, it also provided snowtracks for an easy way back if I needed to turn around.

9:45am - note the two painted trail markers in the left center of the picture.

I proceeded downhill, and then I proceeded downhill into the valley of Grand Bandons for a few minutes since this had to be the way ahead, right?  After a few minutes into the head of the valley I decided to check MotionX again just to be sure.... The GPS told me that I was way off course, and the actual Haute Route was well above me in the vast trackless white.  I clammered back uphill in a near panic to get back on track.  It wasn't scary being on route alone in trackless snow in near whiteout conditions in the middle of nowhere, but it was certainly scary finding out that you are offroute alone in trackless snow in near whiteout conditions in the middle of nowhere.

I couldn't find any sign of the route forward for quite a while.  I would find a painted trail marker or two, then nothing for 10 or 20 minutes at a time.  I picked a higher line on the mountain since the GPS told me the route was up there somewhere.  I postholed once badly, dropping me to my knees, sending the pack forward, and sending my water bottle rolling downhill in the snow for perhaps 50-75 yards.  I quickly considered it 'gone', but then decided another GPS check was in order.  The GPS told me the route was below me, so I followed the water bottle down the hill, recovered it, and plodded on in the general direction of the route forward.

10:36am - do you see the painted trail marker ahead?

There were a few rock bands that provided trail markers and an easy route forward, but nearly the entire route forward was in the snow and was unmarked. 
Occasionally would find bike tracks from the mountain bikers to guide my way, but for the most part the route was hidden in the snow.

10:36am - I had studied the maps of this area for over two years, and I had read the route descriptions dozens of times. 
What I had failed to appreciate from the maps was that this route hugged the top of a gentle cliff. 
To my left was a mountain in the clouds, and to my right was the void in the clouds.

I literally went in circles around a few small glacier lakes at the base of a steep ridge, even with the GPS on.   I spent a good 20 minutes going one way, then another, and could not determine the route ahead.  Finally the clouds lifted for a few seconds and I could clearly see huge painted trail markers on rocks on the mountain in front of me.  The route went up the mountain perhaps 50-75 yards in steep snow, then jogged left in a switchback, then jogged back right in another steep switchback.  Without the break in the clouds I would not have found the route.  Toward the top of the steep snow climb I decided that I really, really didn't want to have to downclimb here.  This was the end of my ability to turn around safely and/or easily.  I felt as though I was pushing the limit of my abilities as I carefully moved left one step at a time in steep snow to the switchback across the rock ridge.  I finally made my way up the switchbacks. 

I had turned on the GPS perhaps a dozen times by now to find the route.  My battery was down to abour 44%.  I turned my iPhone to airplane mode every time I put it away to conserve battery.  If I ran out of GPS battery I would have a severe problem.

Perhaps 10 minutes after the switchbacks I saw the outline of another human appear over a ridgeline perhaps 75 yards ahead.  I was overjoyed to see another human being for many reasons.  The most practical reason to be happy to see another person was I would be able to follow their tracks in the snow, and of course they would be able to follow mine as well.  I yelled out to them and they yelled back.  They were 4 older gentlemen from Singapore who spoke perfect King's English.  They asked me if the mountain bikers from Verbier had made it to the Cabane and I proceeded to tell him about their spectacular entrance to the Cabane.  They commented that the mountain bikers were quite motivated, which was certainly a polite way to put it. 

11:36am - Picture taken by the Singapore hikers, looking back the way I had come.

11:36am - Picture taken by the Singapore hikers, looking ahead

It turned out once I had found the Singapore hikers the route ahead was pretty easy to find. 
There were more rocks and more painted trail markers. 
It was certainly helpful to have fresh tracks in the snow to follow, but it was nowhere near as dificult as it had been for almost the last five hours.

11:49am - the route ahead.
I finally see somewhat clearly for the first time in hours.

11:49am - looking back the way I came.  There are a couple of painted trail markers visible.

12:02pm - there are several painted trail markers visible... finally

grand desert, swizterland

12:07pm - the Grand Désert.  Note the painted trail markers leading off to the right.

Lac du Grand Désert

12:07pm - Lac du Grand Désert

12:07pm - looking back the way I'd come.

Click here for a panorama of Grand Désert taken at 12:07pm

This was the first sign I'd seen since the top of Col de Prafleuri.
Note the times from the signs:
Cabane de Prafleuri is supposedly 1 hour and 45 minutes away - I had just taken nearly 6 hours to get this far.
I had a very, very serious problem with my pace.
Col de Louvie is supposedly 30 minutes in front of me, and Cabane du Mont Fort is supposedly 2 hours and 30 minutes away.

Grand Désert

Note the path of rocks across the stream. 
The British mountain bikers had warned me I'd get my feet wet on this crossing. 
Perhaps the water level was higher for them, but I had no problem keeping my feet dry. 
Of course my shoes are also waterproof, which makes a difference.

Col de Louvie, the second of the three passes I would cross today

1pm - Looking back to Grand Mont Calme and Petite Mont Calme

Petite Mont Calme

1pm - Petite Mont Calme at 30x zoom

I crossed the stream and proceeded to hike up Col de Louvie

Col de Louvie

1:42pm - looking back toward the Grand Désert from near the top of Col de Louvie

Col de Louvie

1:42pm - looking up to Col de Louvie

Col de Louvie

1:42pm - looking up to Col de Louvie.  Note that the route goes right.

Col de Louvie

1:46pm - Col de Louvie

It had just taken me 1 hour and 16 minutes to get up the Col de Louvie, and the last sign I read said it would take 30 minutes.
I left Cabane to Prafleuri nearly 7 hours ago, and this sign said it should take 3 hours and 15 minutes to get there.
I continue to have a really serious problem with my pace.

1:46pm - I thought this sign was quite appropriate.

Col de Louvie

1:47pm - looking east, the way ahead, from Col de Louvie

Col de Louvie

2pm - the way ahead

Col de Louvie

2pm - looking back up at the Col de Louvie

2:21pm - the intersection of the trail over Col de la Chaux. 
I had no interest in another high mountain pass, plus the most picturesque part of the hike was supposed to be the high traverse across Col Termin
This is where I took off my gaitors. 
The gaitors had allowed snow near my socks perhaps once or twice when I postholed into deep snow, but other than that had performed flawlessly.

2:53pm - note the chains along the trail.  There were chains in perhaps 4 or 5 spots along the trail.  A few times I held my hand over the chain ready to grab it, but generally the dropoff wasn't steep enough for me to worry about the chains.
Only once did I gladly reach and grab the chains, and that was after a short leap I had to make to get over a rock or puddle.

Click here for a panorama of Louvie taken at 2:56pm

It is starting to become apparent that it will take me forever to finish this hike.
I really enjoyed the scenery, but the pace was a real problem.
I had always wanted to hike all the way to Verbier to avoid another night in a cabane, to get a shower, and to avoid having to hike tomorrow morning into Verbier from the Cabane du Mont Fort.
I was worrying that even if I headed to the Cabane, I may miss dinner at 7pm.
The last bus left Verbier at 9:15pm - I was starting to worry that this may be a problem.

I saw large amounts of skat along the trail for a few miles, but unfortunately didn't see any ibex or chamois.

3:14pm - a very short but very steep snow traverse.  I had crossed a few of these, but the snow was now melting quickly in the hot afternoon sun and turning to crap, making footing quite treacherous.

3:14pm - looking back toward Col de Louvie.  Note the trail on the left - you can barely see the thin ribbon of dirt.  The trail averaged around 10" - 12" wide at most.

3:40pm - intersection of the trail to Lac de Louvie and Cabane de Louvie

3:51pm - I had just crossed a lengthy snow traverse.  The snow wasn't too steep, but a slip would most likely have been fatal nonetheless.

3:51pm - looking down after the snow traverse

lac de louvie

4:01pm - Lac de Louvie

Cabane de Louvie is at the far end of the lake
Mont Blanc de Cheilon is hidden in the clouds to the left of the dam that is barely visible across the valley
The dam across the valley is Mauvoisin
Grand Combin is hidden in the clouds to the right of the dam that is barely visible across the valley

Click here for a panorama of Louvie taken at 4:01pm

Col Termin

4:13pm - Col Termin
I was so happy to cross the third and last pass of the day and to enter the same valley as civilization that I let out a yell.

Val de Bagnes

4:13pm - Val de Bagnes

4:13pm - The trail ahead.
It appeared to go on fovever.
I was now extremely concerned about the schedule. 
I started hiking as quickly as possible

After a short while I had to hike across yet another short snow traverse.
Unfortunately it was very steep, and the snow was complete crap.
I was exhausted and very, very concerned about the footing.
While I was traversing a young couple approached from the other side. 
They were headed to Cabane de Louvie, and they told me about a much bigger and more dangerous traverse ahead that was 100 meters long.
They mentioned that the area is so dangerous that a sign indicates stopping is prohibited.
They said I would be able to use the footholes they had just dug into the snow. 

In about 10 minutes I got to the snowfield below Bec Termin the couple had warned me about.
Sure enough, signs said stopping is forbidden because the mountain is so unstable.
I searched for a few minutes but could not find any recent footholes in the snow.
The snow traverse went on much longer than I was comfortable with.
It was not quite as steep as some of the other shorter traverses, but the snow was now a melted mess and I was exhausted.
I decided to put on my crampons, which took a good 15 - 20 minutes.
I decided I'd feel pretty stupid if I slipped and fell to my death with perfectly good crampons buried in my pack.
Once the crampons were on I gingerly made my way across the snowfield.
It took perhaps another 20 minutes to cross the snowfield, and another 10 - 15 minutes to take off the crampons and put them away.

While I was taking off the crampons a boulder dropped from the mountain above, bounced down the mountain, and crashed across the snowfield I had just crossed.
I guess they weren't kidding, this spot really is quite dangerous.

5:37pm - after the long snowfield.  It was much longer than the picture makes it look.

5:37pm - looking up the mountain.  The boulder broke free from the mountain at the upper right hand side of the picture.

5:37pm - looking down the long snowfield

grand combin

5:37pm - Grand Combin

Shortly after the snowfield I reached the intersection of the trail up to Cabane du Mont Fort and the trail down to Verbier. 
I realized there was no way I would reach the Cabane in time for dinner, and I wanted nothing to do with any more snowfields. 
I checked the map, then immediately decided to head down toward Verbier.

6:03pm - Grand Combin

The trail crossed a stream and dropped into Les Shlerondes, which is a collection of about 5 buildings along a mountain road. 
At this point I wasn't sure where the trail went - it appeared to follow the road, but there were too many trails.
I followed the road, hoping it was the correct trail, and it was. 
The trail went back into the hills and tree, and continued to rise and fall. 
Hiking uphill now was a real challenge.

la chaux

7:15pm - La Chaux
I couldn't believe I was just now getting to the gondola.
I tried my best to maintain a fast pace but was fading fast.
I took virtually no more pictures because I was very tired and in a hurry

I finally started to do some basic math in my head.
Col Termin is 2648m
Verbier is around 1500m
That means that I am now hiking down over 3300' vertical in addition to hiking way, way too many miles.

I ran into a few people along the road and asked everyone if there was a hotel closer than Verbier - the answer was of course 'no'. 
One gentlemen suggested I camp out, and I seriously considered it.
I reached a covered beautiful picnic area with grills and a picnic table, and almost decided to sleep under the picnic table.
The signs continued to tell me I was over an hour away from Verbier.

I was now dangerously tired and dragging the hiking poles along the road.
My shoulders hurt badly from carrying a very, very heavy pack for way too many miles.
I hadn't taken any ibuprofen since morning.
I also hadn't eaten anything substantial all day.

I found a huge mountain bike park. 
There were retractable nets that ran along all the roads to prevent cyclists from crashing into the trees. 
There were advanced bike pathes that pedestrians were warned to stay away from (else you get runover by a mountain bike rounding a blind corner at 20 mph)
The mountain bike park went on for perhaps 45 minutes, and basically went all the way into Verbier.

At 9pm, I was still over half an hour from Verbier.
Dusk was setting in as I realized I had missed the last bus down to Le Châble.
I started to think I might have missed my best chance for a good nights sleep, and that I should have bedded down under the picnic table a few hours back.

At 9:45pm I finally got to Verbier, then started to wander into town.
I was very worried that I wouldn't find anyone open this late.
I wandered up to the first hotel I found, the Hotel de la Poste.
I believe I caught the front desk clerk right before she was leaving for the evening.
She had a room available for only 70CHF including breakfast.
I would have paid double or triple that but I didn't tell her.
I took a bath, wrote a lengthy trip report on my iPhone, and eventually fell asleep after midnight.


Kent hikes up to RothornHutte

Sunday June 29, 2014
Geneva, Sion, and Cabane de Prafleuri

Monday June 30, 2014
Cabane de Prafleuri to Verbier

Tuesday July 1, 2014
Verbier, Chamonix, and Zermatt