How to Prepare for the Walker's Haute Route
In Summer 2022 my partner Steve and I walked across the Spanish Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via the GR11 long distance footpath. We chose to do it in 6 weeks rather than the customary 8, and learnt many salutary lessons which we were determined to put into practice on future treks. You can read the article I wrote below.
Article · 26 Nov 2022
Traverse of the Spanish Pyrenees (GR11)
Sam McGrady gives an honest account of crossing the Pyrenees on foot during June/July 2022 - the why, when, what and how, with some practical and useful tips for anyone considering all or even part of the GR11 challenge
In July 2023, we walked the WHR, a classic high level route of 140 miles/225km and 46,000ft/14,000m of ascent/descent) from Chamonix to Zermatt. We applied the learning from last year, and I am pleased to say that we think we got it spot on – we experienced none of the foot/fatigue issues we had in the Pyrenees, and enjoyed the trek much more as a result.
Here’s some advice and tips on how we prepared for, and made a success of, the WHR.
Choose the right trek!
The GR11 was a monster (520 miles/840km, with 128,000 ft/39,000m of ascent/descent) and a bit of a one-off for us. Our key learning here was that anything up to around 4 weeks would be do-able and manageable and, importantly, enjoyable. For a variety of family/personal reasons, we decided just to do a 2 week trek this year (though we intend to do 3-4 weeks on future trips) and it worked very well for us. It’s really important to consider just how many days’ walking you can handle, and equally crucially how much time you have to train for that critical ‘time on feet’.
We are both active people and only work part time now, so we have the inclination, motivation and time to put in the hours to prepare physically for a challenging trek. Do not underestimate the difference between a 12 mile day in English countryside, and the same distance in the high Alps, where terrain, weather, ascent and descent are just a few of the factors which will slow you down and tire you out. Not to mention carrying your pack all day (more on this later). Put in as much time as you possibly can on your feet, going up and down hills. We worked up to walks of around 6 hours with c3000ft of up and down; this served us well. On top of that we both run and train in a gym. Getting your body used to moving for many hours each day will make the trek so much more fun.
Over many years of trekking we have honed our packs down to the bare essentials, and they really are very small and light – which means less weight on your feet/knees/shoulders/back, and also that if the weather really comes in you can move quickly to get out of it. We don’t camp, and staying in mountain refuges and small hotels/hostels in villages means you really don’t need to carry much at all. Take 3 or 4 sets of clothing (we use technical/running gear as it dries so quickly) and be prepared to handwash it as you go, or if you have a short day or day off, use a local laundrette or even laundry service. Invest in an e-reader rather than lug books around. Get a small and light power pack. Yes take a change of shoes (that’s your one luxury really) but make sure they’re light. One warm jacket, one waterproof, a buff and a sunhat are all the outerwear you need. Have a good hard look at that toiletries bag and get rid of anything that’s not essential (you can wash your hair when you’re staying in a hotel which provides shampoo, don’t carry it). We now consider walking poles essential, but again we got lightweight running ones which pack up small. Footwear is approach shoes not boots, for a summer trek. We weren’t expecting to take our micro-spikes given it was July, but we did our research before we went (including emailing some of the refuges about the quantity of snow in the high passes) and decided to take them – and we did use them. In fact, I took nothing at all that I did not use at least twice.
Plan your rests!
Our biggest failure last year was not to allow ourselves enough recovery time. This year, we stuck (almost!) to the Cicerone stages in the guidebook, and included a full day’s rest in the middle of our 13 days. The day after our rest day was only around 3 hours of hiking, mostly flat or downhill, meaning we had a really good break and our bodies recovered. Some of our other days were quite short; our longest was 6.5 hours (of actual walking, not including breaks) and the average was around 5 hours. This meant that we could either have a very leisurely start (useful if the cloud is down or it’s raining but due to stop) or an early finish – both of which provide that all-important rest time. Having (relatively) shorter days also means more opportunity to ‘stop and stare’ – which, believe me, you will want to do on the WHR as it is absolutely stunning. We were much better this time round at having proper stops for water/food en route – even a 15 minute sit down can recharge your batteries considerably.
Know where you’re going!
We are a bit ‘old school’ so took 4 paper maps and a compass with us, as well as using Mapy (free Czech downloadable maps for the whole world, which are invaluable) and GPX of the stages on our Garmin watches. We always reviewed the following day’s stage, route, any tricky bits, distance etc. using mainly the Cicerone book, so we knew what was coming. Likewise checking the weather is very important, especially if you can have flexible start/finish times (see above) and so can potentially dodge the worst of any rain.
Book your accommodation!
We booked everything in January for a July trek; even then, some places were full and we had to either compromise on where we stayed, or shorten/lengthen one or two stages. Most of the refuges we stayed in were full or almost full, and early July isn’t even classed as high season. If you want a bed rather than a hard floor for the night, it really pays to be organised and get your accommodation booked well ahead. The Cicerone guidebook was our starting point for this, but we did have to do some wider searches online for some locations. It also depends on your budget – there was no way we were paying £200 for ‘room only’ in Champex-Lac, so we stayed 30 minutes outside the town in an auberge for a much more reasonable rate (and got fed too!).
Be prepared to splash the cash – it’s Switzerland!
Yes, there is no doubt that this is not a cheap trip and you will baulk at some of the prices, especially for meals out. However, the refuges are reasonably priced if you’re happy with dormitories, and there’s unlimited food in the evenings and at breakfast, so they’re a good budget option. Drinks (not just alcohol but soft drinks and coffee) are very pricey so just be prepared. Conversely we found the public transport that we used much cheaper than at home, as well as being clean, on time and not crowded!
And just enjoy!
This is a beautiful route, which stays very high and you are rewarded with views and panoramas as a result that you just don’t see elsewhere. I have never seen so many glaciers up close! The wild flowers and animals are typically Alpine and lovely. The people we met we have stayed in contact with – our past experience is that sometimes they can become friends for life. So get a plan together and get out there – you won’t regret it.
Trekking Chamonix to Zermatt
The classic Walker's Haute Route
Guidebook to the Walker's Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. The 225km route typically takes 2 weeks to walk. Described in 14 stages, the route crosses 11 passes between Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn and involves more than 14,000m of ascent and descent. A complete guide for planning and walking the route, with accommodation information.More information
To read more articles like this get our newsletter
Sign up today for a 20% discount on your next purchase. Join over 30,000 enthusiasts from around the world. If you don’t love our mix of new books, articles, offers and competitions, you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never spam you, sell your data or send emails from third parties.