October 3, 2007


Now that it’s been a week since I returned home and started back at work and I’m well past the effects of jet lag, it’s time for some impressions and conclusions about the trip to the Alps. I’ll follow this up with another post more focused on lessons from the trip that might be of use to others considering hiking the Haute Route.

The first and strongest impression I formed along the way is that there is nothing like this in the US. The combination of the stunning scenery, the quality and abundance of the trails, the many comfortable places to stay, the good places to eat, and the availability of public transportation make hiking in the Alps (and much of Europe, I imagine) unlike anything you can find in my part – or any part – of the United States. I know there are huts in Maine, and maybe a few elsewhere, but there’s nothing like the network of them as in Switzerland, nor is there the combination of factors that make this a world-class trekking location.

The next is amazement at what the Swiss can do in and with the mountains. They can build anything anywhere, as far as I’m concerned. There wasn’t a plot of useful land anywhere that I saw on my trip that hadn’t been put to use. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t see how a road or even a trail could be built to it, there was a hut or hovel in place, if not a small herd of sheep. It was very impressive.

I also was impressed at how many of the old timber buildings – barns and storage – were still in use. Black, checked, and gap-filled though the timbers might be, the buildings still stood and were still useful. The photo is proof, showing an old building being given a new foundation.

Everywhere I went, I saw evidence of a walking culture in Europe that doesn’t exist in the US. There were people on the trails, people on the roads, and people on excursions to the high points, even if they rode a chair lift to get there. I saw young people, middle-aged people, and old people on the trails. I saw families of three generations, individuals, small groups, and large groups, all with their rucksacks and trekking poles, walking up and down those steep trails. You see it in the low lands and valley bottoms, too, with people on bikes along bike trails and people walking along walking paths. Almost everywhere that my route followed a road, there was a footpath that paralleled it and, usually, was far enough from the road that you could forget it.

And, while this was a great trip, and a great way to see a small part of a great destination, there are alternatives to walking fourteen days straight and topping a new pass each day. Some people on the trip skipped sections that had less interest or too much climbing or bad weather and took transit around to the next point. Others, like the two retired, Swiss gentlemen I met on the Col de Riedmatten and in Arolla later that day, were driving from promising town to interesting village, taking day hikes from those places each day. There were some towns, Zinal prominent among them, where you could easily spend several days day-hiking. There’s a lot to be said for sampling more fully what a single valley can offer, though, for my part, I liked the broader survey and the long-distance approach.

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