Making Plans: Accommodations and Travel within Switzerland

GETTING TO CHAMONIX

We took flights to Geneva and then booked a shuttle to take us down to Chamonix.  There were tons of shuttle services available, and many that you could book online.  It seemed that the price was pretty similar from one outfit to another.  We booked with Mountain Dropoffs through the internet, and were very pleased with their service.  They emailed us several times with confirmation numbers and contact information.  The driver met us at the airport with our name on a whiteboard to locate us.  We had to wait a bit for another flight and group of travelers, but we were prepared for that.  The drive to Chamonix took about an hour and the shuttle took us directly to our hotel door.  I think it is wise to book this ahead of time since there will always be a huge bolus of people arriving at once, leading to long lines at transportation services.

ACCOMMODATIONS AND MEALS

Originally I was willing to shed my usual (anal?) routine of making reservations for each night of the trip.  I wanted to allow some flexibility, and to show that I could be more spontaneous in my old age.  Then I thought, who am I kidding?  I have made all these plans and I expect that I’ll want to stick to them…  So much for spontaneity!  And after the fact, I’m glad that I did make reservations, because we would have been in trouble more than a few nights.  If you do decide to wing it – you will find that all but the smallest of towns have a tourist office that can help you find a place to stay.  We ended up making one change to our route along the way, after learning about a trail wash-out, and we took advantage of the Office du Tourisme in St. Niklaus to find a hotel for the night.  They asked what kind of accommodation we were looking for (hotel or hostel/dortoir) and then called to confirm availability.  Very easy!

We planned to arrive in Geneva on Thursday morning, August 27, spending 2 nights in Chamonix before starting the trek on Saturday the 29th, and then ending in Zermatt on the 8th of September.  From there we planned to take a train to Basel and then back to Geneva for our flight home on Sept. 12.  I sat down on the 4th of July and was able to make most reservations either online or via email over the next few weeks.  In some cases we could book directly with a hotel, in others we had to go through some kind of travel intermediary.  We’ll go into more details as we journal the trip and talk about where we stayed.  We never did make any confirmations with the Europa Hut – and that ended up being the one place we didn’t make it to.  Hmm – karma?  There was one hut that we had to call by phone to make a reservation – Cabane de Prafleuri.  My husband ended up calling from work because he has a co-worker who speaks French.  However, once on the line, when he asked “Parlez vous anglais?” she immediately switched to English and the transaction was completed without difficulty.

Many of the people that we met along the way did not make reservations ahead of time.  If you are willing to be flexible and hike to another town or stay in a cheaper or more expensive place than you had planned, you will most likely be able to have a bed each night.  Surprisingly, while I expected the mountain huts to be more accommodating and make space in a pinch, we did have friends (met along the way) who ended up having to travel another couple of hours (and more than a few meters) to a more distant and remote (read “higher elevation”) hut when the one they were counting on was full for the night!  I would recommend making reservations at the more remote areas with fewer options or smaller facilities.  We were surprised to discover a huge group of people at Cabane de Prafleuri (a private party of Swiss Alpine Club friends and family) and might not have been able to stay there if we hadn’t booked it in advance.  That was a particularly long day for us, and I can’t imagine having to hike further to Cabane des Dix (the closest option).

In smaller dortoirs and the mountain huts, be prepared to pay in cash.  We had no trouble finding ATMs in the larger towns along the way, so plan ahead and make sure you have enough to make it through to the next larger stop.  Also, at the mountain huts, it will cost you extra to take a shower.  Not necessarily a big deal, but don’t be surprised.  Typically you will buy a certain number of minutes; it is surprising how fast you can take a good shower!  We were able to “share” a shower at Prafleuri because when you’re buying minutes of water, you can shut it off while you soap up, then turn it back on to rinse off.

A word about hotels versus dortoirs and demi-pensions (half-boards) versus petit dejeuners (breakfasts).  Many of the blogs that we looked at ahead of time emphasized a frugal approach to the trip.  We were able to focus less on cost and more on comfort, so we investigated other options in each town, and we’ll let you know about those in the trip report.  In some cases, you won’t have any or much choice, in other towns, you’ll have a number of places to look at.  We tended to choose hotels when they were available, opting for privacy but losing out on meeting other people.  Think about that when you plan your trip.  One of the rewarding aspects of this route is that it is well-used by people from around the world.  In a way, it was good that a dortoir (in Trient) and two mountain hut nights (Mont Fort and Prafleuri) occurred early in our trip, because we were able to meet others who we kept running into over the next week.  Occasionally we would hike with friends we made or would meet up for a beer later on in the evening (a good option when your paces are quite different!).

Once we left Chamonix, I think we stayed at only one hotel (in Champex) that did not include breakfast (petit dejeuner) with the cost of lodging.  Every place else had at least some sort of spread laid out in the morning.  The least impressive morning meal of the trip was served at Cabane du Mont Fort, while many of the hotel breakfast buffets could not be described as “petite” in any way.  The common theme was an assortment of breads, cheeses, thinly sliced ham – and chocolate!  The Swiss don’t save chocolate for dessert.  [Barry kept choosing croissants that looked like they should have cinnamon inside; he was always disappointed when it was chunks of chocolate instead.]  Sometimes there were eggs, juice and fruit.  Always there was tea, coffee and cocoa.  We found the best value for the evening meal was to choose the demi-pension, if it was available.  When we compared to other restaurants in the area, we could usually get a 3 course meal for the cost of just the entree elsewhere.  Typically there would be a meal of the day – often involving pork, so be careful if you have dietary restrictions.  There would be 3-4 courses: usually salad, sometimes soup; a main course; then a dessert.  I only had one dinner that I really didn’t like (at Hotel Schwarzhorn in Gruben) but I also didn’t feel great that evening.  The food did tend to get monotonous after awhile.  As I just mentioned, more remote villages often served pork and noodles.  Our lunches were typically bread, cheese, salami and then sometimes an apple or cookies with chocolate.  Since that was also what breakfast usually involved, it got a little old.  Needless to say, by the time we reached Zermatt, we were looking for more variety.

A WORD OF CAUTION REGARDING TRIP TIMING

One unexpected barrier to finding space in a hotel/dortoir will be the numerous trail marathons that occur throughout the region in the summer.  We had anticipated a quaint resort village when we pictured Chamonix – instead we arrived to find a completely booked and bustling town filled with ultra-marathoners and their families!  Little did we know that the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was on – with insanely long races around the mountain that had started earlier in the week and  were continuing through the weekend.

Sign for the UTMB

There are a lot of accommodations in Chamonix, but I would bet that every bed in the valley was filled for that weekend.  So, you really should check ahead, not just for the UTMB, but about other races that are held throughout the Alps that may interfere with your trip.  There is a marathon from Sierre to Zinal in August that might make it harder to find a a place to stay in Zinal.

In fact, while leaving Zinal, you’ll see “Z” signs along the trail directing runners into the village.

When we reached Arolla, we found the town preparing for the end of another trail race – one that starts in Italy and follows the old smuggler’s trail into Switzerland, the Collon Trek.  Again, we lucked out that night, and in fact were one of just 2 groups staying at our hotel, but I think we would have had trouble if our trip had us reaching Arolla over the weekend.

ALTERNATE FORMS OF TRAVEL – CABLE CARS AND CHAIR LIFTS

You may decide that you don’t really want to hike the entire route from one end to the other (believe it or not!).  We planned from the start to take any cable car (telepherique) or chair lift (telecabine) available along our route – hey we’re celebrating 50 – we’ve gotten smarter over the years!  But we weren’t smart enough to check schedules ahead of time, or to see if there were any bargains to be had for tickets.  Oh well – you’ll learn from our mistakes.

First of all, in Chamonix there are some fantastic cable car rides up to viewpoints on either side of the valley if you have the time and the money (they are not cheap, but are worth the fabulous views).  We found out later that we should have purchased a Mont Blanc pass, because even after we had started our trek, we could have used the pass for the first chair lift that we took from Le Tour to Col de Balme.  On the southern side of the valley above Chamonix are 2 cable car lifts to L’Aiguille du Midi (the Middle Needle) that offer close-up views of Mont Blanc.

Telepherique to L’Aiguille du Midi

The second planned cable car short-cut was from Le Chable to Les Ruinettes via Verbier.  This was where we discovered more important information missing from Kev’s book.  We arrived in Le Chable on Monday, August 31, only to discover that the cable car had stopped running the day before!  Damn!  The other little tidbit we learned this day was that the Swiss take a “siesta” in the afternoon, typically from noon to 2:00 or 3:00, so you can’t conduct any business during that time (except to eat at a restaurant).  Fortunately, we were able to take a bus to Verbier and the cable from Verbier to Les Ruinettes was still running.  Good thing, since there is no way that we could have made the hike up to Mont Fort that day.

The other cable rides we took advantage of along the way were: Sorebois to Zinal and Jungen to St. Niklaus, both downhill trips that saved our knees.  The trail from Sorebois to Zinal would not have been that tough, in retrospect, but the descent from Jungen to St. Niklaus is crazy steep.  We used the tourist office to check that both of those cars were running (having learned our lesson in Le Chable).  These cables don’t run that frequently – every 30 or 60 minutes from Sorebois and the small car at Jungen basically runs as needed, but both have a late-afternoon cut-off, so check the timing to avoid getting stranded.

Taking the telepherique from Sorebois to Zinal

Jungen – and a steep descent into St. Niklaus

ALTERNATE FORMS OF TRAVEL – TRAINS AND BUSES

We decided ahead of time to take the train from Chamonix to Argentiere before starting our trip because the trail basically follows the road, and it didn’t sound all that enticing.  We were happy to find out that if you spend the night in a hotel in Chamonix, you can get a pass that allows you to travel by bus or train for free within the entire valley during your stay.  They are trying to reduce car traffic in the region (and you’ll see why when you are there!).

Midway through the trip, we needed to take a break from hiking to help Barry’s blisters heal before moving on.  We found that we could take a bus from Arolla to Sion, then a train from Sion to Sierre, and then another bus from Sierre to Grimentz, our next planned stop on the way.  Our hotel host in Arolla was fantastic in finding out schedules for us, but failed to realize that we could have purchased a 3-day pass that again would have saved us a lot of money, particularly because we also took the bus from Grimentz up to Barrage du Moiry the next day.

One last bit of info:  Before our trip, I bought rail passes (online) from Zermatt to Basel and from Basel to Geneva (we visited a friend in Basel at the end of our hike).  It was completely unnecessary to make those purchases ahead of time.  It didn’t save us any money and we could have easily bought tickets when we were there.  So, my recommendation is to wait on train tickets, you’ll have more flexibility if you need to change things up.

Eight Ball

After my adventures with my first pinball machine, Mata Hari (which amounted to a crash course in pinball machine repair), I figured I was ready for a new challenge. As I’ve already described, I had been in extensive email contact with the guys in North Carolina who sold me Mata Hari on eBay. In the course of all this I found out that they had an Eight Ball machine in storage that they were thinking of selling or restoring. They were quick to point out that this one really wasn’t in very good shape (unlike the Mata Hari…hah!). It was a restoration project with playfield wear, a beat-up cabinet, a rotten backglass, and an acid-eaten MPU board.

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The New Family Room

From the moment we bought the house in 1990, I have loathed the family room.  For some ungodly reason, the original owners had put stucco on the walls with fake beams and dark wood on the walls.  At one point, I painted the dark wood to make it blend in with the walls, but it was still ugly.  A few years ago, we bought a lovely new modern TV stand and shelving unit, and I was so disappointed when we set it up in the room, because this great clean modern piece looked out of place.  Now we have a space we love, and our more modern furniture looks and feels great.

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Getting Started – What you need

There are some essential items that you will need for your trip.

GUIDE BOOK

As I said before, the Kev Reynold’s book Chamonix to Zermatt, the Classic Walker’s Haute Route is an absolute necessity.  With this in hand, you probably don’t need to buy extra maps, although we found them useful in giving a bigger picture and showing alternate trails.  Kev is very specific in his directions, and takes pains to update the description with new editions.  That being said, make sure that you have the latest version!

There are tons of trails all over the Alps, and the Alpine Clubs do a great job of maintaining extensive signage.

You can usually tell where you are and where you need to go, and Kev’s descriptions are fantastic.  These yellow signs are at every junction, and when trails are over rocks or through towns, you will see blazes painted on rocks and buildings to help direct you along the way.

Throughout this account you will notice that we have some disagreements with “Kev time” – the amount of time the guide book tells you it will take to complete the hike.  He clarifies that this is just walking time – no breaks or lunch or stopping to take photos is counted.  I wish we had kept track of our timing, to provide another (slower) perspective that does include those necessary stops.  However, to be fair, his times were pretty similar to what was posted on the signs.  Neither seemed very realistic.   For example, one day Kev offers two alternatives to get from the Cabane de Prafleuri to Arolla – one is the route we took, over Col de Riedmatten (an adventure you’ll enjoy further on) or via Cabane des Dix and over the Pas de Chevres (involving ladders bolted into vertical rocks – no thanks!).  He suggests that it will take the same amount of time to do either one – 6.5 hours, and claims that the second route is just a kilometer longer.  Looking at the maps, and having been there and seen it, I can’t believe it!

So – whining aside – though it did often take us longer than the signs or the book suggested, we always made it to our final destination long before dark – and usually with an opportunity to rest and take a shower before supper.  Our latest arrival was still just around 6:30 in the evening.  We tended to have a more leisurely morning than most: usually on the road between 8:00 or 9:00 am, whereas most others were out the door between 7:00 and 8:00 am.

MAPS

If you are interested in having maps, you can find them online or wait to buy them in France and Switzerland.  We ordered maps ahead of time because I am just that type of person 🙂  We did see the same maps at tourist shops all along the route, but I’ll be honest that I didn’t check to see if each store had what we might have wanted at that particular stage of the journey.  Nothing in Switzerland is cheap, so I doubt that you would really save by waiting and purchasing maps once you got there.

You should be careful what you buy because the maps that you want have the letter “T” after the map number, indicating that trails are shown.  Without those, there isn’t much point in having them.  I found the maps at Omni Maps.  You will need all five maps in order see the entire route from Chamonix to Zermatt.  The maps are Martigny (282T), Arolla (283T), Montana (273T), Visp (274T) and Mischabel (284T).

EQUIPMENT

What you will need to purchase likely depends on whether you do much backpacking already.  However, if you haven’t done much hiking or other strenuous climbing activities, this is likely not the trip for you!  The first half of the route can be challenging – especially if you’re not into semi-vertical climbing.  Look for an easier route (I’ve heard that Tour de Mont Blanc is less difficult, but can’t vouch for that).

I found a packing list from a company called Distant Journeys that offers guided and self-guided trips of the Haute Route, and think it might helpful – though having backpacked before, the list was pretty standard.  I’ve put our detailed list, including what we wished we’d done differently and actual pack weights for both packs at the end of this article.  We carried EVERYTHING we would need for the entire trip, including a couple of city days in Basel.  If you plan to spend much time traveling after the hiking, you might want to pack a separate bag that you send/store at the rail station to pick up after your hike (it costs the price of a rail ticket to do so).

We purchased smaller backpacks than what we normally use for a week long trip requiring tents, food and full sleeping bags.  We love bargains, so I generally look for equipment at Sierra Trading Post – and that’s where I found our 40 liter La Fuma packs.  We also bought sleeping bag liners to use at dortoirs.  Bedding at the huts and dortoirs are NOT changed between users, so you’ll definitely want some kind of lightweight sleep sack to climb into for the sake of hygiene.

Other than that, I don’t think we purchased much else.  We had hydration systems (Camelbaks) already, all the clothing that we needed (although I did take advantage of the trip to buy a super-lightweight rain coat that I loved!).  One highly recommended item is a couple of disposable plastic food containers (like Gladware) to put your lunch items in.  We got 2 pint-sized tubs that were perfect for storing cheese, meat or fruit along with some Ziploc bags.

Another suggestion to help out along the way: I carried with us a spreadsheet with our trip and all of the contact information for our accommodations.  This proved very helpful and also provided a single spot to save email addresses and contact information for people we met during our hike.

A thing about cell phones: we purchased a phone that we knew would work in Europe and we were glad to have it many times.  Having hiked in the Sierras, Glacier and the Tetons, it felt odd to have the ability to make a call from high up on a mountain, but the coverage was there!  It was fun to text the kids as to our progress without using up too much time.  However, we found that the phone was not able to send or receive text messages from people we met along the way.  I’m not sure what the barrier was, but be aware that you might have limitations in communicating with European long-distance numbers.

Here is what my pack looked like unpacked:

and packed:

Here is a list of what we would do differently, how much the packs weighed and what was in each of our packs, excluding the following items.  I subtracted the unwanted items from my pack weight because they were significant in their contribution to total weight; Barry’s unwanted items just weren’t that heavy. (Katie/left, Barry/right):

Items I wish I hadn’t brought:

Windstopper/fleece jacket – Mountain Hardware: I could have achieved same with layering under my rain jacket

GPS: didn’t have Switzerland maps available and Cicerone book/maps were more than adequate

as many socks: I just needed 2 Patagonias and another set of sock/liners – but I packed for options in case I had boot trouble

Hiking sticks: just found these to be more of a burden than a help (this was his personal perspective; I won’t hike without them!)

Items I wish I had brought:

Lightweight pants for city/wash days

warm gloves (somehow left these behind)

Needles in first aid kit (for blisters)

charger for cell phone

Total Pack Weight

21 lbs (without water and items I wish I hadn’t brought) – but this includes all items except boots, and I would have been wearing one day’s worth of clothes…

25 lbs (without water but including items I wish I hadn’t brought) – again this includes all items except boots, and I would have been wearing one day’s worth of clothes…

 

Katie’s pack

Barry’s pack

Lafuma Nanga 40 – Ventilight System

Lafuma Nanga 40 – Ventilight System

Sleeping bag liner – Alps Mountaineering “Butterfly”

Sleeping bag liner – Alps Mountaineering “Butterfly”

Rain pants – Marmot

Rain pants – Sierra Designs

Rain jacket – Arcteryx Beta SL

Rain jacket – Equinox

warm gloves – Seirus

wind jacket – Insport

warm fleece hat – Bula

warm fleece hat

water proof rain/sun hat – Marmot

wool brimmed hat

hydration system – Camelbak 100 oz

hydration system – Camelbak 100 oz

Goretex boots – Asolo

Leather boots – Alico

gaters – Outdoor Research

gaters – REI

2 pair zip-off pants (Ground & Mountain Hardware)

2 pair zip-off pants with liners (no underwear needed) – Ex Officio

2 short sleeve poly shirts (Mountain Hardware & Terramar)

2 short sleeve poly t-shirts

Mid-weight fleece pullover – Gerry

Mid-weight fleece pullover – LLBean

quick dry button down longsleeve shirt – REI

quick dry button down longsleeve shirt – Columbia

lightweight thermal top – Hot Chillys

lightweight thermal top – Duofold

lightweight thermal bottom – Title Nine

lightweight thermal bottom – Marmot

3 pair travel underpants – Ex Officio

quick dry shorts with liner – Columbia

2 wicking sports bras – Champion

quick dry short-sleeved button up shirt – REI

mini down pillow

cotton pj bottoms

sandals – Teva

sandals – Teva

4 pair socks and 3 liners

4 pair socks and 2 liners

headlamp – Petzyl

headlamp – Petzyl

space/emergency blanket

space/emergency blanket

Hiking sticks – Komperdell

Hiking sticks – REI

paperback book

paperback book

MP3 player for flights

MP3 player for flights

camera and belt case

camera

Leatherman tool

jack knife

handkerchief

handkerchief

copies of passports & credit cards

Shared items: Katie

Shared items: Barry

compass

First Aid kit*

journal

toiletry items**

maps and Cicerone guide

Stuff sack for carry-on items (poles and knives)

small roll TP and hand cleaner

binoculars

toiletry items**

cards and dice game

30 feet rope and carabiner

extra batteries for lights and cameras

camp towel – Thermarest

cell phone

2-24 oz. Gladware containers, 2-1 qt and 2-1 gallon ziploc bags for lunch items

 

 

**Toiletry Items

2 tooth brushes, small tube toothpaste, dental floss

breathe-rights and ear plugs (for dortoire nights)

shampoo

shower gel

face lotion

body lotion

2 hair products

deoderant stick

1 razor, shaving cream

sunscreen

lip balm

hairbrush/mirror travel combo

OTC medications: (Aleve, antihistamines, decongestants, Zantac, melatonin, immodium, aspirin)

*First Aid Kit

povidone/iodine swabstick

variety of blister care products

bacitracin ointment

small ace wrap

3M medipore tape

3M microfoam tape

gauze wrap

variety of bandaids

gauze pads

extra shoe laces

Introduction to “The 50 Trip” – Chamonix to Zermatt – Aug/Sept 2009

First of all – why?  Well, why not?  We wanted to make a big celebration of turning 50 this year, and what better way to do that than an amazing backpacking trip with the luxury of a warm bed and a bottle of wine at the end of the day?  Not to mention some pretty good food that we didn’t have to schlep around and prepare for ourselves.  I got the idea for this “50 trip” after a friend took the walking Haute Route several years ago.  It sounded ideal.

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Mata Hari

So there I was, browsing this new site I had just discovered in the spring of 1999. It was called “eBay”. It occurred to me that it might be fun to search for pinball machines — surely somebody somewhere was selling one, right? I can still remember bumming nickels from my mother to play during her weekly bowling league circa 1965 when I was all of six years old. I loved playing pinball as a kid and later in college, and I had harbored hopes then (long since forgotten in 1999) of having a machine of my very own one day. Lo and behold, eBay was chock full of pinball machines. I selected Mata Hari from a seller in North Carolina. I remembered playing Mata Hari during my freshman year of college in 1978. Made by Bally in that same year, Mata Hari was one of the first generation of solid-state machines. (For aficionados, my backglass has the writing on the dagger.)

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