The sign read Col de Prafleuri 2,987m. We had chased the last rays of sunlight up the rocky scree to the summit. Now only an orange glow came from the south-western horizon with darkness settling down the steep descent to the east. We allowed a few minutes to get our headlights ready, knowing we wouldn’t reach the overnight refugio before we would need them. The refugio still wasn’t in sight; the weather & temperature could change quickly after dark near 3,000m. I wouldn’t say we started to panic – we’re both experienced enough not to & had the gear we needed to be out there at night – but certainly settled into a more determined pace as we dropped down the Col into darkness.
We knew when we had set out that morning from Champex Lac that 40km & 1,000m’s of climbing across scree, ice & snow would make for a very long day. A short diversion plus a few additional km’s around noon (and a detour to get better maps!) had pushed our ETA out to past sunset.
About an hour before we started the climb up Col de Prafleuri we had passed a group of 4. The first guy we caught up to was holding a map & said that the ladies ahead were upset. We asked if he had a headlight, food & warm gear, he said he did & that we should let the refugio know they would be in late. When we pass the ladies ahead they quickly explained why they were upset – they had spent most the afternoon going down the wrong valley. Map-guy was clearly not too popular at that point.
The group was moving slowly but seemed to have the right gear & enough food when we passed them. We would next see them climbing out of a rescue helicopter at the refugio many hours later.
That was day 2 of our 6 day fast-packing adventure across the Alps, from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland. Arriving in Zermatt we would have accumulated over 12,000m of ascent along the 190km route.
The first day started at Le Tour, just up the valley from Chamonix (we had hiked the valley earlier in the week so this still counts as EFI from Chamonix!). Col de Balme climbed out of the Chamonix valley, and out of France, into Switzerland. After a second high mountain pass the first day ended in the town of Champex Lac – also a significant checkpoint on the UTMB route.
Day 3 took as away from Col de Prafleuri across very remote valleys & freezing cold lakes. We stayed above 2,500m most the day, eventually climbing back to near 3,000m up a set of ladders bolted to the rock face via Pas de Chèvres (‘Pass of the Goats’). I’m not sure goats could get over that climb.
We next intersected civilisation – and decent coffee – at the town of Arolla, on the valley floor other side of Pas de Chèvres. A short diversion to Lac Bleu & then onwards down the valley to a good nights sleep & the best pizza in the world in Les Hauderes!
Another two big days take us over Col de Torrent, past the massive Moiry dam, over Col de Sorebois, through the small town of Zinal, over Forcletta across the Gruben valley, then up the huge Augstbordpass and down into the bottom on the Zermatt valley, to the town of St Niklaus.
The path meanders up the Zermatt valley on the final day, day 6. A late start, a relaxed early lunch to devour what remains of the 2.5kg of cheese & sausage we left Chamonix with, some ice cream & a not-so-cold lake swim, finally a glimpse of the Matterhorn & suddenly we’re on the main strip of Zermatt.
The transition from quiet mountain path to busy shopping street couldn’t have been more abrupt. It felt like stepping through a one-way mirror. From the one side we could see the trail ending & the chaotic street scene ahead. Once we had stepped into the street there was no looking back to the trail. It had suddenly become a memory, an epic experience that will last a lifetime, but one we couldn’t step back to. We were part of the chaos on the street now, and could only look forward to the next adventurous exit from it.