August 5, 2007

How to you say “Haute Route”?

Don’t know how to pronounce it, but in a month, I’ll be there, walking it. The route I’ll follow is the summer, hikers’ version of the famous ski mountaineering route between Mt. Blanc in France and the Matterhorn in Switzerland. I came across a description of the route years ago, in an Outside magazine article, and it’s been simmering in the back of my brain ever since. After missing a couple of earlier opportunities, I decided last year that this year was it.

The route begins in Chamonix, France and ends in Zermatt, Switzerland. It works its way into and out of valleys, over passes and alongside glaciers, skirting the northern side of the spine of the Alps between Italy and France-then-Switzerland, climbing up and down over the ribs bracing that backbone. The route is approximately 115 miles (187 km) long and amounts to over 37,000 feet (>11,000 m) of climbing, though none of it is technical. I plan to take two weeks, stopping each night in a town, village, or at a mountain hut.

I bought the recommended guide and read it through a couple of times. I loaned it out to friends I thought might be interested. I bought the maps recommended by the author and pored over them. (Beautiful maps, by the way.) I read every account of others who had made the trip that I could find. Along the way, I added the idea of taking in the start of the Oktoberfest in Munich, once the walking was over. And, as the year began, I started planning the trip.

This is quite a different kind of hiking than I’m used to, in some ways. The biggest difference is that most of my hiking and backpacking here in the Washington is in relative wilderness. If I’m to be out for several days, I won’t see anything approximating civilization for that whole time, unless I happen to catch a view of a distant town from some ridge top along the way. There is almost never a town or accommodation along the way. Nor is there ever anything like the public transportation that many of the towns along the Haute Route offer. These differences offer an increase in comfort and flexibility that, combined with the rich mountain history and the amazing scenery of the region, should make this a trip to remember.

Because of the relative availability of civilization, I won’t have to carry a tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, or cook set. At first, I thought that meant I’d be carrying essentially day gear, but with the travel to and from the end points of the walk and plans to spend a little extra time in Germany, I’ll have more. For instance, if I don’t want to wear my hiking boots every day of the three weeks I’m gone, I’ll need to carry another pair of shoes. Since I won’t be in the wilderness all of the time, I think I’ll need to observe higher standards of clothing cleanliness than a regular wilderness hike requires. That means more clothes.

And, since I intend to post dispatches to this blog along the way, as the availability of the requisite technology permits, I’ll be carrying a fair amount more in the way of electronics than I would bother with in the Cascades.

Over the next month, I’ll write about my preparations, starting with some advice I gleaned from another issue of Outside magazine, from Mark Jenkins, who was my favorite of their regular columnists, until they let him get away.

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