It seemed like a good idea at the time… The Haute Route

“Thank F*** for that!” a thick American accent greeted me at the top of the ladders. This outburst was used many times throughout our assault of the Haute Route, but for once it wasn’t me using it! For her, getting her feet back onto Alpine Granite and her hands off the ice cold steel ladders was a relief. I was buzzing though. I had just climbed about 60m up vertical ladders with a bike strapped to my back, what a feeling. What we were undertaking wasn’t normal. We had slipped into our own deluded form of “normal”. Few would consider what we were doing as normal.

The Haute Route, a traditional ski route, that according to our Tour Guide Andrew, was a route once used by a doctor to cross the Alps between Chamonix and Zermatt. This had become a famous ski tour and subsequently a famous walking route. It had also grown fame as a cycling route. Using roads to cross the alps, not the walking path. We don’t do roads. A night plotting in Finale Ligure on our last trip led us to this point. We wanted something different. It was Brians 40th coming up so he wanted to celebrate in style. This wasn’t really what he was thinking. A throw away comment was made about the Haute Route, little did we know it would lead to a 210km, 5 day spin across the alps. walkers do it in around 12 days. Could we do it? Some videos of the Norwegians attempt were shared and the deal was done.

The best laid plans and all that

Dates were confirmed for September and flights booked in March. This was actually happening. I wasn’t sure if we were 100% committed until then when myself, Ian, Andrew and Brian all got our flights booked. Davy must have fell out with us and didn’t want to come so Chris was drafted into the team for this one. Andrew made full use of his sparse work calendar and started planning the route and we cracked on with the accommodation. A few evenings with maps and the Cicerone guidebook and we had a route loosely planned. There wasnt much talk of this being done by bike. Wonder why? My fitness wasn’t where it needed to be so I put into motion a new plan. But like every good plan that went to shite. A job and move home in April threw the training calendar out the window so had to make up some ground. I even bought a road bike to get some after work miles in around (its hardly seen daylight since).

The lead up to the trip was kit planning. No one really knew what we were going to need. We were relying on Ian and Brian for their knowledge from a previous Tour du Mont Blanc and our own mountaineering knowledge. We shared out as much kit as possible and slimmed our kit down to fit our packs and make sure if shit hit the fan we could ride or see it out. (personal kit list below). 5 days was a long time on the hill, but we were staying in the valleys at night, hoping to get cleaned up and fed, so not totally self-sufficient. The big ticket items we had to add to our usual kit was extra warm clothes, group shelter and first aid kit. i managed to fit all my kit into my 35l Evoc FR tour. It was perfect. It took a while chopping and changing what I wanted to bring but got there in the end.

Our plan was flexible. We picked September as we hoped this would offer up some stable weather. But this was the Alps, we could get anything. We got to Chamonix on the 4th, bikes built, no issues from the baggage handlser so we called a team meeting, basically tea, Milka and talking shite. We agreed to go for it on Thursday, September 5th. No messing about. The weather looked favourable so no point hanging around.

Day 1 was familiar ground for Ian and Brian as it took in some of the Tour du Mont Blanc. We set off excited but apprehensive as to what we had let ourselves into. Andrew was on nav duty. He had downloaded all the maps and was using Ride With Gps. He had the traditional route and the Norwegians route available and had plotted what he felt would be the best route for the duration. Fingers crossed he hadn’t missed anything- no pressure. We started just before 10. A little late but we were on our holidays. From Chamonix we climbed to the Col De Balme through Argientiere. A glorious morning and great start to the trip.

First Aid. The worst injury of the Route

The route started as it finished with pacing myself. I knew we were in this for the long run so didn’t want to be chasing the lads to the top and killing myself when I hadn’t the fitness for it. The Col was a scary reminder of how the weather can change quickly. It was Baltic at the top. A brief haribo stop and on we went. The descent was cracking. Fast rocky and not too tight. If this was a taste of things to come, we were in for a treat. From Trient it was a long road climb to pick up the Bovine route. We stopped at Forclaz. It was now hammering down.  Waterproofs were donned and espressos all round to get us going again. We expected Bovine to be a slog, but it turned out to be pretty good with some cracking descents. From here on we met many walkers and runners undertaking the Epic Swiss Peaks challenge. These guys were in various mental states. Some laughing and joking, some absolutely broken. Little did we know we would be going through a similar ordeal. On the descent Ian punctured his shin with a pedal strike. A tiny entry wound but a hell of a lot of blood. Not to worry, myself and Andrews first aid training coming into force by handing Ian a couple of wipes to clean himself up and some steri strips to tie it back together. Onwards and downwards. It didn’t stop raining. Thankfully we weren’t bivvying. We passed through Champex, a stunning wee Swiss Village in the woods and on down to Orsieres to the Hotel Terminus for the night. Great bike wash, but the food was a rip off! Fed and watered it was time for bed. Day 1 was over. This didn’t seem too bad!

Day 2. Oblivious of what lay ahead

Day 2, a monster. Looking back, it was probably one of the best days of my life, it’s amazing how rewarding a physical and mental challenge can be, this day was one of those challenges. a better breakfast would have been nice!

We set off around 08:40, a little too late in hindsight. Sandwiches made in the shop car park and off we went. Down the road to Sembrancher and on to Verbier. The climb from Verbier was through a stunning alpine village. The climb continued into the forest, one of the DH runs teasing us on the way up. A clear start to the day soon changed as the fog rolled in, we weren’t going to get many views today. We continued onto the open mountain to Cabin du Mont Fort. This was a combination of riding and carrying. We couldn’t see a thing, luckily there was a decent path to follow. The chains along the way seemed a bit out of place, but upon later Instagram searches, this was the most exposed section of the route! We were oblivious to it all though and plodded on. We expected a coffee stop at the Cabin but Ian wasn’t for having it. He was getting cagey. Maybe we weren’t at the halfway point we expected. A quick water top up and off we went. Onwards and upwards into the clouds. Up and over electric fences the whole way, the local cows judgingly staring at these idiots carrying bikes in the rain. A few hours passed and Ian and Andrew were having a look at the stats, “lads, we’re in the shit”. Ian’s outburst put it all into perspective. It was getting late and dark, but I don’t think the rest of us wanted to admit it. Hunger was kicking in and I had to share out the gels, Haribo had lost its appeal. I brought 4/5 thinking these would do me for the trip incase of emergency, this was the emergency! Sun down was due at 20:04, we were hoping the cloud would clear to give us a bit more light, it didn’t. We were up and down for hours. This was soul destroying. We took it in turns to lead the way, but soon everyone was flagging. 50m up followed by 50m down. We were getting nowhere. Just before dark we made the highest point of the day. At this stage I had accepted our fate. We were going to be in a group shelter for the night. I had an insulated jacket, gilet, waterproofs so it was going to be chilly but not life threatening. We had prepared for this. A group shelter between us, warm clothes and a couple of headtorches, not to worry! Brian was struggling to eat at this stage. Ian was at him to eat, but he wasn’t in the mood. I handed over the last of my gels to keep him going. I was plodding on, fucked off and fed up with the situation but having accepted our fate, my body felt suprisinlgy good. keep going, keep eating sweets and drinking water. Its all I could do. I was impressed with how I could keep going, there’s always something more to give.

Darkness came and tree headtorches quickly became 2. Moral of the story Petzl torches work, even when it’s cold. Andrew’s phone with the GPS route decided it had had enough and the powerbank didn’t want to charge it. We should have dug the map out, but honestly none of us could be arsed with the nav. Me and Ian spread out leaving Andrew to try and charge the phone and the other two to get a breather. We were searching in vain for the red and white markers, our guiding lights, we had been following them all day but they had disappeared. I spotted a Cairn, was that the one? I took a chance “lads, I’ve got it”. Music to their ears. Back down to get the bike. Ian couldn’t see us, but could hear us through the dark. This could turn serious if we weren’t careful. He had to use our voices to find us again, fine work by the team. I led the guys up and over and found the path, a glimmer of hope, but how far did we have to go? 5 of us and 2 torches made for an interesting descent. Andrew led the way and myself at the back. Slowly making our way down, stop/start the whole way. Andrew, Ian, Brian, Chris and myself. Who would give up first and call for the shelter? I wasn’t going to let it happen. My headtorch didn’t want to stay on my helmet so every so often would add insult to injury and whack me on the forehead. Thank god for cable ties. It was now cold. I stuck the trousers on to keep some heat in. Ian was quiet now and looked cold. a worrying sign. He was the fittest of the team, but was this his downfall? I can only imagine he had the sickening feeling that he would have been off the mountain by now if he was on his own and not waiting on us all day. Time to keep talking and keep everyone going, if one of us gave up now the shelter would have to come out and I wasn’t ready to give up. We were getting quieter and quieter as the night went on, not a good sign. The descent looked a cracker! Such a shame to be walking down it.

Was that an engine in the distance? We couldn’t see a thing through the fog. We struggled to get our bearings. Hunger and tiredness clouding the mind. There should be a hut somewhere down there but where? Some lights came into view, but they were above us? Where the hell where we! It turned out to be a hut, a nice final kick in the teeth was the climb up to it. Hopefully the last climb of the day. It was 22:30 when we got to the hut. Thank fuck for that! Ian found a door and got chatting to someone inside. No room for us and he was told to get out and shut up! We had to get on the charm offensive, Andrew was dispatched with his limited French. He excelled in the task and soon came out with food, a room and a semi naked French chick who took us across to the guides hut! A nice upgrade to the group shelter I had accepted we would be staying in. A full dorm to ourselves so we took every available blanket and got stuck into the 2 sandwiches, 3 gingerbread and 3 snickers Andrew had managed to negotiate. Ian got stuck into his soggy old pizza. We just laughed. What  had just happened. What a day. What a team. 14 hours on the go. Lots of nav. 43km. 3000m of ascent. 1564m of descent- mostly in the dark and 5414 calories burnt. We weren’t ever going to forget it!

Our 5* hotel

Day 3 did not start how we had planned. We were due to be starting out from Arolla. We had missed breakfast, no surprise really, we had no notion of setting alarms. Some negotiations ensued and we were offered tuna quiche. Eventually some pear and apricot pies were produced and bowls of coffee. I would have eaten anything at this stage. We then had to endure a lecture about not being prepared for the conditions or the fact the Police would take our wheels in Arolla as bikes weren’t allowed. We were all still alive and kicking so didn’t give a shit, but Ian bit and informed her of his many, many years of mountaineering experience.

Bowls of coffee all round
Home is where your heart is. The saviour of a hut

We proceeded to Lac Dix, a nice descent down some old quarry tracks. Then we followed these incredible tunnels along the lake. The views were stunning in and out of the fog. We soon met the guides and the group who were in the hut the night before, confused as to where the bikes had appeared from the night before, we gave them the low down. They couldn’t believe what we were attempting. We started ascending. This was a desolate grey landscape. We were lucky to be up here later in the season as it saved us some glacial river crossings. The sad reality that many glaciers were disappearing form the Alps.

Tunnels along Lac Dix

Then the scrambling started. This was full on boulder field. Up, down, over trying to protect the bikes and keep ourselves on two feet. The going was tough. It was extremely steep. The ladders came into view and the excitement grew. The last section up to the ladders, was probably the sketchiest part of the trip for me and the only time I really felt I could get hurt here. Andrew had tried a lower line which hadn’t been a good choice. Scrambling up a scree slope with a bike on your bike is not ideal. There was a cable on the left. Bike on the shoulder, across I shuffled to join the queue for the ladders behind some walkers. Ian was already at the top loving life. Brian was struggling to get going up the ladders. He managed to get the hang of it and up he went. Me and Andy had talked a lot about these ladders. We had planned to strap the bikes onto our bags. Strap through the grab handle and on to the top tube. Andy mounted up and off he went. Piece of piss, the system works! Some small adjustments and up I went.

Saddle up

The long balcony was the most awkward. Face to the rocks, bike hanging out, side stepping across. The rest was easy. Not often you climb 60 odd metres of vertical ladders with a bike on your bike. A surreal experience.

Buzzing

It wasn’t over though. Chris was down below trying to get going. His bike weighed a tonne. The SWAT stash on his bike full of shit. We got 3 slings hooked up and myself and Ian started hauling it up. ‘watch it on the rocks’. Feck the rocks, we need to get it up! This wasn’t the trip for shiny new bike syndrome! Finally got it to the top.

Carbons light no?

As we reached the top an 80-year-old yank came up behind, fair play to him. For him this was his big achievement. For us, it was getting a bed in the hut. It was all downhill now! The cloud was still low at this stage and with the lack of food we were getting cold. We layered up for the descent. What a descent it was. Rocky and flat out in places. This was what it was all about. We met another group of Americans on the descent and got chatting. “its good yall get along”, we hadn’t time to explain that yes, a group of Irish/Northern Irish/English can actually get along nowadays and we weren’t here to blow each other up.

The descent ended with some fine alpine corners with a maze of line options.  Andrew bombed up the inside and took a sneaky line. Straight into a gate, a fine somersault dismount into an electric fence caught on camera by the walkers below. Perfect timing! We got down to Arolla. It was Sunday. No supermarkets open- disaster. We plodded on down the hill and in search of accommodation. We missed our slot the night before so had to find somewhere new. we ended up the wonkiest hotel ive been in. Not a square wall in the place. Bikes cleaned, kit washed, accommodation rearranged for the rest of the week, and a 4-course meal to top things off. What a day. what a descent. Could get used to this.    

Day 4 was a wet one. Starting off with a road descent in the cold and wet. Wet gear was well used on this trip. Dropping off the road Brian realised he had forgotten his phone. Ian volunteered to go back for it. True love!  The now customary stop off to make sandwiches outside a shop for the day ahead. The Andrew and Tony production line in full swing. A long fire road climb took us into the hills from Evolene, a cute little Swiss village. The descent was cracking. We were well wrapped up at this stage as it had started snowing. Good job we hadn’t left this any later in the year.

Getting slicker

We descended towards Lac Moiry. The bluest lake you will ever see. It looked like a painting! This descent was fast and great fun, like most we had encountered. It was freezing though. Hail and snow the whole way. Our target was Grimentz. We missed the line down to the town so some head scratching ensued. But we got there in the end. This was my time to shine. I was tasked with the Grimentz leg of accommodation and I had picked a cracker. As I checked in I was given the key for the Spa. Not what you expect on a trip like this. But definitely well needed. We were due to do 2 more days, but due to the extra night in a hut we were considering doing it in a oner.

#nofilter

Goggles work

We got to our family suite and we quickly donned the dressing gowns. Quite the luxury. We got planning. Andrew took to the desk and started the sums. 60 odd kilometres would be required with over 3000m of climbing. We decided to go for it. Chris returned from the shops to the news. He had missed the vote. Not sure if he wanted to laugh or cry. We would need an alpine start for this one.

Big sums for the wee man

We made the most of the spa. The only people in there. We needed the recovery session and probably couldn’t have done the last day without it. Sitting in the outdoor Jacuzzi in the snow was the icing on the cake. A stunning hotel, wouldn’t fancy the winter prices. We got the kit washed and scattered everywhere to dry, not what the luxury hotel was used to, but Everything needed to be tip top for the day ahead.

Standard
Ripe

5am came around quickly. Iced lattes all round with croissants and baguettes to get fuelled up. By 6 we were on the bikes. Headtorches on and ready to hit the road. We had a long road descent ahead in the freezing cold. We started our climb up a ski slope leading to a river side path up a steep ravine. Simply stunning in the fresh morning air.

Must be Day 5, there was no rain

We proceeded into the open meadow to the Meidpass. This was amazing. Sun rising beyond the hills and the sound of cow bells all round. It was like a dream. Day 2 seemed like an eternity ago. The view from the Meidpass was incredible and the descent was the best yet. Loose switchbacks to start leading into open twin track with lots of line choice. Such a buzz. We then came on to a path closed sign. The last time we ignored a sign like this was a “zona militaria” sign in Finale. This ended with a bollocking from a fat Italian man with a German Shepherd. What’s the worst could happen this time? We couldn’t really see a work around on the map so we went for it. We had a tight schedule. The descent into the forest was incredible. This was the best I felt on a bike in a long time. I was flying into everything and just letting the bike do the work with Ian on my back wheel. The Orange Five never faltered. Its the perfect bike for this! Not often you truly get in the flow, this was one of those times. We then realised why the trail was closed. The sound of chainsaws and falling trees below. Only one thing for it, plenty of shouting on the way done and hope for the best. They weren’t best pleased and a lot of shouting ensued. We ploughed on with Chris bringing up the rear and apologising as best he could.

Water stop on the way to Gruben

We made it into Gruben for 11 and had a quick lunch stop.  We were bang on time but had plenty more to do. The sun was out and spirtis were high from the epic descent. I would definitely do it all again for that descent. The sign said 3 hours to Augstbord pass. To Ian it was a red rag to a bull, no way would he want it to take as long as the mere walkers. For me I was hoping for 3.5 hours and I’d be happy. This was a long climb and the week was starting to catch up. Ian was gone. A mere spec in the distance. I kept plodding on. There was a false summit. My timing had me nowhere near the pass, but couldn’t shake the notion that just maybe this was the top. It wasn’t. I was still on for 3 and a half hours so kept pushing. The legs were feeling good. Maybe they were learning to deal with this, the rest of the body was aching. The bike getting heavier and harder to lift onto the shoulders with every break.

I made it to the top, exhausted but excited for the next descent. The early start seemed like yesterday. It was cold up here. Autumn was coming and we probably couldn’t have done this any later. Ian was waiting near an hour. Machine. The descent was technical and rocky. Ian was hooning down it. Something had clicked and he was cleaning everything. Me and Andy leapfrogged down the trail. I was too tired by this stage to work some lines. Think we need to come back for this again. Another climb welcomed us at the bottom. We thought the carrying was over! This lead to some extremely exposed singletrack and a nice descent through an alpine village. We continued an epic descent to St Niklaus.

The last stretch

We had a pitstop for coffee here to get the energy levels up. The fun was over and we still had to get to Zermatt for our pickup. Google screwed us over. The distance it gave us to Zermatt was nowhere near Zermatt, but the end of the no car zone. We had a long 20km climb ahead and it dragged. Head down and pedal. Lovely.

We rolled into Zermatt and got the customary photos of the Matterhorn. We had made it. A pipe dream whilst sitting in Finale became a reality. How many had actually done the walkers Haute Route with bikes is unknown, but it can’t be many. The taxi back was on time and uneventful. I don’t think we could have managed any last minute hiccups.

She could have at least focussed on the Matterhorn

What a trip. What a team.

Next up, Dolomites for some bici ferrata!

DayTotal TimeMoving TimeDistance kmAscent mDescent mCalories
108:46:4806:26:4551224724994008
213:57:5110:13:3842.56300015645414
305:42:0303:58:0022.9580016342196
407:11:5804:29:5231.54159519602781
512:44:1109:25:0261.98333933755122
Total48 hours 23 mins34 hours 34 mins210.03109811103219521

Kit List

  • Orange Five
  • Evoc FR tour 35l
  • Troy Lee A2 Helmet
  • Troy Lee Raid knee pads
  • Norrona fjora shorts- wore these every day
  • Alpinestars shorts- these were spares and kept clean for evenings
  • Fox padded shorts
  • 2x pairs gloves
  • merino boxers
  • Merino mix short sleeve baselayer
  • Troy lee ruckus jersey
  • Spare jersey- mostly worn in evenings
  • Nano puff gilet
  • Montane prism jacket
  • Berghaus gore tex active shell coat
  • Berghaus paclite trousers
  • Wooly hat
  • Buff
  • Five ten access trainers- these were perfect for all the hike a bike and really good on flat pedals
  • Petzl tikka
  • Flip flops
  • Guidebook
  • Earplugs
  • chargers
  • Spare hanger
  • 2x tubes
  • quick links
  • 2x pairs brake pads
  • tubeless repair kit
  • spoke key
  • leatherman
  • multi tool

Urge All M Helmet Review

They say a helmet should be replaced after five years, a few dents didn’t help matters and maybe it should have seen the skip sooner. The old Urge all m had been my go to helmet for a few years now. The full face and piss pot took a back seat now I wasn’t doing as much push up, nail it back down stuff and doing more pedalling to the top. 

With so many trail style helmets on the market, a wee trip to Chain Reaction was called for to see what was out there. It didn’t take long to confirm that urge helmets just seem to fit my head. I felt slightly guilty just using CRC to try stuff on, but I’ve probably spent thousands on the site over the years so they’re just returning favour. 

So I managed to sort myself out with a new Urge All m in matte red. The new colour schemes are a huge improvement. Just make them look a bit more slimline. 

 

red urge all m
Out with the old, in with the new
 

So as I’ve said before this helmet just fits. There is no real adjustment other than padding so if it’s a good fit you’re onto a winner. The ventilation is great, such a nice open helmet. Some kids even thought the helmet had inbuilt speakers due to the not so normal vent design. 

The fit with goggles and glasses on is spot on. I run Oakley o frame goggles and flak jacket glasses and they fit perfect. No issues with the goggles pushing the helmet up. 

Some people don’t like the look of urge helmets but I like the unique look about them. The only down side I can think of is its often difficult to get my goggles sitting nicely when they aren’t on my face, but let’s be honest they’re just as well hanging round your neck!