Haute Route, Day 12: Making Our Way to St. Niklaus

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When the alarm goes off at 6:15, I am ready and waiting for it. We are in a dorm room with about ten other people, and I don’t want to wake up the others, if that’s even possible in such tight quarters. We fold up our sleep sacks, grab our stuff and tiptoe out of the room as quietly as possible. All of our stuff is in a cubby in the hallway, and this makes packing up a little easier. Even though it’s a bit cramped, at least we don’t have to try to be quiet while putting everything into our bags.

We are downstairs at breakfast in record-fast time, and we are ready to hit the trail at 7:30. There is no sign of the boys, but we are eager to get up and over our last pass while the weather holds out. We message them in What’s App and tell them we will see them on the trail. Despite some really heavy rain last night, the skies are looking pretty clear as we set out.

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We pick up the trail just outside of the hotel and start heading up the wet, grassy slopes. There are already lots of other hikers on the trail, and it appears that we will be spending a lot of the day passing others and being passed. That’s something that we usually don’t have to worry about as we typically hike against the grain. It will be interesting to see how today goes for us.

Before long, we are in the cover of the forest and gaining elevation steadily. We take a short break when we finally get above tree line and then start the long climb up to Augstbordpass (2894 meters). The next trail signage we come to tells us we are at 2468 meters, meaning we have climbed about half of our total elevation gain, but we still have 500 meters to go to the top. Child’s play!

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We continue to ascend gradually as the clouds start to build in the sky, making both the views disappear and the photography less exciting. We cross a few streams and overtake a few slower moving groups (hooray!) before the real climb begins. After passing a small tarn, we cross a boulder field and then zig zag our way up to the top. We get there just as the Frenchies we have been playing leapfrog with leave.

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There is a recommended sidetrail to the top of the Schwarzhorn, which we were hoping to do, but the clouds have rolled in, and there are no views to be had. This is our last pass of the Haute Route. It would be fun to celebrate with everyone, but our Aussie gang is nowhere to be seen, and the weather isn’t looking very encouraging.

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Instead, we take a few photos and start the descent to St. Niklaus without too much fanfare. The trail is a steep, scree slope to start with, and I am grateful that last night’s rain has wet everything down making it less slippery for us. Thankfully, we are done with the scree before too long, and then we return to just the standard steep Swiss downhill.

After 12 days of this, I feel like I am finally starting to get the hang of it, and we make pretty good progress. Of course, it’s helpful that the skies are cloudy and gray, which makes the stark, rocky landscape seem even more bleak and unphotogenic. The camera stays clipped on, and down, down we go.

We pass through a narrow rocky cleft and finally reach some flatter, greener terrain that looks like a suitable spot for lunch. At a trail junction sign, we climb up to a flat rock and eat our standard lunch fare: cheese and crackers, nuts, and a nectarine. It still feels like such a treat to have some fresh fruit with our lunches.

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From our little perch, we can see lots of hikers coming through the rock cleft and making their way towards us. We see the nice, Swiss couple (Jacqueline and Reinhold) who stop for a break much higher up than we are. We see a group of miserable American teenagers who are now ahead of their two mothers but decide to wait for them at the trail junction just below us. But there is still no sign of the Aussies. What is taking them so long today?

Matt checks his phone, and sees some conversation about not getting on the trail until almost 9:30 after last night’s festivities. No wonder! It looks like we may not see them today after all…

After the trail junction, we cross a stream and start heading toward the Matteral Valley ahead of us. Before we get there, we have at least a kilometer or so of boulder hopping that comes a little bit as a surprise to us. Luckily, the boulders are a nice size and have been laid out and arranged to make the walking a little bit easier. Jacqueline and Reinhold catch up to us here and slow down to hike with us for a little while. Then they are off, moving stealthily amongst the boulders in a way that must come with hiking in these environs on a regular basis.

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We continue plodding along, and eventually reach a shoulder of the mountain where we get our first real view into the Matteral. The clouds have lifted a bit, but most of the 4000-meter peaks that we are supposed to be seeing are still obscured by heavy cloud cover, so we press on.

After contouring the mountainside on a narrow trail, we come to the TWÄRA juncion viewpoint and stop for a short break, which is supposed to be absolutely phenomenal, but we can’t see anything with these darn clouds in the way. There is blue sky farther up the valley, but, as much as we will it to move down towards Zermatt where the money shot of the Matterhorn is, it stays put, and we get no good views of the iconic peak.

We hike on along the mountainside descending toward the village of Jungen. At first, the path is made of large flat stone slabs that rock under the weight of our footsteps. From there, we enter the forest and zig zag our way to the village eventually alongside a stone wall that has an alpenblumen display.

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Jungen is about as cute a Swiss village as you can imagine, and it would be fun to poke around the little maze of three or four streets, but we have our eye on taking the gondola down to St. Niklaus and have heard that it only carries 4 people at a time. We decide that we better get in line.

There are two foursomes ahead of us when we get there, so we prepare for a wait as the tiny gondola gets loaded up and heads down to the valley floor far below. Each roundtrip takes about 15 minutes, and we pass the time chatting with the other hikers who have gathered while we wait for our turn.

When it’s our turn, we climb into the car with Reinhold and Jacqueline, putting our packs in the storage bins on the outside. From the air, we can see the steep path down to St. Niklaus, and our knees thank us for giving them a much-needed break. We climb out at the bottom and pay the operator 24 Swiss francs ($24) for the ride before walking into the modern-feeling town of St. Niklaus.

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In the town square, we bid farewell to our Swiss hiking mates. They are headed home to Lucerne tonight, and we are headed to our hotel on the outskirts of town, about 10 minutes up the way. St. Niklaus is our last stop on the Haute Route before reaching Zermatt, and we see our first sign indicating that Zermatt is a mere 20 kilometers away, which is pretty exciting. We spend a few minutes wandering about the cute town before making our way to our hotel.

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Hotel La Reserve is also a bar and pizzeria, and it is the perfect spot for our last night on the trail. We enjoy a delicious dinner of a mixed salad and pizza before calling it an early night. We are tucked into bed by 9 and ready for a long night’s sleep!

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