Day 1 - Le Tour to Arpette (Aug 30th)
19km, 1890 metres of ascent
David, Steffen and I had flown in from Edinburgh and Ellie jumped on a flight from Bristol. We were pushed for time so needed to hit the ground running straight from Geneva airport. The minibus made several drop offs at Les Houches, Chamonix and Argentière so we didn't break trail until 1:20pm in the full heat of the midday sun. The route intially flogs up a 600m climb to the Col de Balme, following the Tour du Mont Blanc. Once over the col we took a tricky rocky high-level short cut via Les Grands before dropping down to Chalet du Glacier, where they sold expensive drinks and claimed to have no drinking water.
From this busy Sunday afternoon ice cream stop we were faced with a gruelling 1100m climb up to the Fenetre d'Arpette. This took far longer than expected and it was 6:30pm when we reached the col, having previously estimated the entire stage would take 4 hours!
The far side of the col was steep, loose and rocky with fine grit over the rocks making for a skittery descent. Lower down the angle eased and eventually a more pastural scene arrived and Steffen and I jogged down the last section arriving at the Arpette Refuge 3 minutes before 8pm, just in time to catch last orders for dinner.
It was a relief to complete the first stage before nightfall, and we were all tired from a 4am start to catch the flights that morning.
Day 2 - Arpette to Cabane du Mont Fort (Aug 31st)
29km, 1810 metres of ascent
The day started with an easy downhill hike through forest to Champex. There was still evidence of the refugee camp for the UTMB trailers. At this point we parted company with the Tour du Mont Blanc and instead turned north for a long gradual descent to Sembrancher that sits in a wide flat bottomed valley. A few easy miles of hiking brought us to Le Chable at the base of the formidable hill to Cabane du Mont Fort. We raided the local supermarche and stocked up for the 1600m climb. We got slightly lost and missed the turn for Villette but eventually found the old church at Les Verneys and plodded up and up through the forest with fantastic views of the Grand Combin to the south. Once again the hut seemed much further than we were expected, but we eventually hauled our weary bodies up the last few metres to the fine Cabane du Mont Blanc with extensive panoramic views of the whole Mont Blanc massif.
Day 3 - Cabane du Mont Fort to Arolla (Sep 1st)
31km, 1780 metres of ascent
Day 3 provided the wildest sections of glaciated landscape with numerous cols around 2900m. The morning consisted of flogging up steep boulders perched on ice to reach the Col de la Chaux, followed by Col de Louvie and Col de Prafleuri which then had a very steep descent at first, to drop down into a broad bowl of glacial debris. At the Cabane de Prafleuri we took shelter from the frazzling midday sun to grab some lunch, before continuing onwards and upwards to the Col des Roux. Once at this col we could see our next destination - the huge turquoise Lac des Dix reservoir. Speed marching got us to the far end of the lake before too long, but we then had another long complex flog up to the Col de Riematten at 2919m with the weather starting to look a bit dodgy with dark clouds looming.
It was a relief when we crested the col and began the long descent to Arolla. As usual this descent went on longer than anticipated, but we eventually made it into the village centre and checked into the Hotel du Pigne just before it started raining.
Day 4 - Arolla to Zinal (Sep 2nd)
32km, 2330 metres of ascent
Day 4 was when the group split. Steffen jumped on a bus to Les Haudères, whilst David, Ellie and I hiked the guidebook route which took us on a massive detour up to the Lac Bleu, which seemed a bit of a waste of time and effort. So when we eventually reached Les Haudères Steffen was long gone, and in fact we never caught him all day.
The climb above Les Haudères is scenic at first through grassy meadows with ancient wooden herders huts. We plodded up the 1400m ascent to reach the Col du Tsate and a gradual descent to pick up the asphalt road alongside the Lac de Moiry and stomped along the road to the restaurant at the dam for some lunch, and to escape the early afternoon rainstorm.
Once we realised by text that Steffen was well on way to Zinal we left the Moiry dam and headed over the Col de Soirebois 2847m in rather driech cool misty conditions. The descent the other side was down ski pistes in amongst the tows, before a final steep tricky section through forest and greasy tree roots to arrive at Zinal about 6.15pm with Steffen looking cold and bored. The village was looking largely deserted and shut up, but found the Hotel Le Besso was open, so checked in.
Day 5 - Zinal to St Niklaus (Sep 3rd)
34km, 2290 metres of ascent
A relaxed early breakfast at Le Besso set us up nicely for the climb out of Zinal. We eventually realised we were following the markers in reverse for the world famous Sierre-Zinal race following a narrow contouring path high above the valley floor. The trail gradually climbs and wends east to cross the Forcletta Pass at 2874m. It was too cold to wait for Steffen on the col so we headed down and he caught us before we reached Gruben for the scheduled lunch stop.
Once again we found ourselves in a completely deserted village with just a single point of salvation, the Hotel Schwarzhorn which served ice creams to get us going on the afternoon's 1100m climb up to the strangely named Augstbordpass. The descent on the other side required utmost concentration through exhausting sections of boulder field before finally turning a corner and presenting a fantastic 1300m descent of zig-zags to St Niklaus. We began at fairly conservative pace but after Jungen the gloves came off and Ellie let rip with myself and David at full pelt trying to match the pace, and vaguely wondering when someone would back off, or plummet off the track.
I think we thoroughly impressed (or baffled) a couple of English hikers as we flew past. We met them later in the village square in St Niklaus as we were hunting accommodation. They suggested the Edelweiss, so after a brief look at the Monte Rosa which looked like something out of a Nicolas Roeg horror film, Ellie and I followed suit.
Day 6 - St Niklaus to Zermatt (Sep 4th)
30km, 1900 metres of ascent
The final day of the trip began with Ellie giving Steffen her rucksack to take to Zermatt on the train, since Steffen was opting for an easy day. No such luxuries for David, Ellie and I. Instead we launched straight into a 1500m climb up past Gasenried to reach the rather gnarly and contrived Europaweg that has been hacked around the hillside following a contour at 2600m, passing through huge rock slides and with one very wobbly suspension bridge across a rotten gully. Once we'd passed the Europa Hut we called it a day and barrelled down the hillside on wooded zig-zags to arrive at Randa, right back at the bottom of the valley. From here it was easy hiking to Tasch for ice creams, and then the final 6km or so up to Zermatt where we found Steffen dossing at the Youth Hostel. The evening was rounded off with a few beers at the cosy Elsie Bar where Ellie finally got to try out the Rab duvet jacket.