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Haute Route Trip Report

After an exhilarating week in Iceland, where we explored Reykjavik and hiked the Laugavegur trail, we set off for our second country of many on our extended travel adventure. While…

After an exhilarating week in Iceland, where we explored Reykjavik and hiked the Laugavegur trail, we set off for our second country of many on our extended travel adventure. While visiting new places is obviously one of our favorite things in life, there is something incredibly wonderful about returning to a well-loved and familiar spot. For us, it was all happy memories and good vibes as we made our way towards the Chamonix Valley in France, where we’d spend a couple days before hiking the Haute Route. This was our first “repeat” travel destination together, and we made an effort to revisit special experiences while also creating opportunities for new ones. Instead of staying in Chamonix this time, we spent a few nights in nearby Les Houches. We enjoyed the low key atmosphere of this smaller town as opposed to the hustle and bustle of Chamonix. Our days in Les Houches were largely spent fueling up for the Haute Route with fresh pastries and 3 euro wine, stocking up on various hiking items, and making several trips to multiple post offices in order to figure out how to ship some items to Zermatt (and thereby lighten our packs for this challenging trek). Finally, we dropped our parcel off with a “here goes nothing!” kind of mentality, packed up our backpacks, and got ready to hit the trail.

Breakfast of champions at our Airbnb in Les Houches.

 

Ever since hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc in 2017, we knew we wanted to get back to these mountains. If asked, neither of us would be able to choose which one of the five treks we’ve planned for this summer that we’re most excited about, but the Haute Route was definitely a strong contender for both of us. I’d imagine this is how parents feel when asked to choose their favorite child; of course they don’t actually have a favorite, but there is always one they sort of like better… Anyways, suffice it to say we were pretty darn excited. Words (at least my novice words) can’t begin to capture the feeling of taking in the panorama of snowy peaks on a high mountain pass, crossing a narrow section of trail with hundreds of feet of open air below you, or simply taking your boots off after eight hours of trekking, but I’m going to give it a shot anyways. In the following trip report, I’ve attempted to sum up this most incredible adventure to my best ability, but trust me when I say there aren’t enough superlatives in the world to do it justice.

Day One: Chamonix to Le Peuty

Since we stayed in Les Houches, we needed to hop on the train to get to the Chamonix Station and the official start of the Haute Route. After a lovely train ride accompanied by chocolate croissants, we were ready to hit the trail. Despite the cool morning air, the sun was already warm as we wound our way out of town. If you plan on starting the Haute Route in Chamonix, be warned that the beginning of the trail is a bit hard to follow. The route takes you along busy roads, through a golf course, and past many confusing trail junctions. Keep your map handy! After passing through a festive market in the town of Argentiere, we began to climb up our first col. We felt strong and the conversation flowed as we worked our way up the many switchbacks to Col de Balme. At the top, we tucked out of the wind, pulled out the gallon bag full of peanuts that we call “lunch,” and savored the views. Our fresh legs handled the descent like champs (shocking foreshadowing: they wouldn’t feel as great ten days from now), and we made it to camp early enough to enjoy a relaxing afternoon. After setting up our tent at the Le Peuty camping area, we strolled over to the nearby town of Trient. We enjoyed a nutritious dinner of ramen and cookies in the company of some other campers (most were TMB hikers) and got to bed early in anticipation of a big day tomorrow.

Nice views from the tent at Le Peuty.

 

Day Two: Le Peuty to Champex

We got an early start on Day Two, as we were excited to tackle the infamous Fenêtre d’Arpette. Literally translating to “window to Arpette,” this stage involves a long, steep climb (with some scrambling) up to a keyhole-like pass that looks down into the Val d’Arpette. The ascent to the pass was nothing short of spectacular. As we gained height, the Glacier du Trient came more clearly into view, until we felt like we were right next to it. Studying the blues and grays, the cracks and contours, and the overall dynamic nature of the glacier was an unforgettable experience. It was bittersweet, as the glacier is receding rapidly due to a changing climate. It was a privilege to get to experience the glacier before it’s gone and a sobering reminder of the impacts of our human choices, both collectively and as individuals. That’s the beauty of travel and trekking; you never know when you’ll be struck with a moment that changes your perspective and increases empathy. Anyways, after mostly-fun scramble over large boulders to reach the pass, we began our descent down. I don’t have as many sentimental or poetic things to say about the descent. Basically, it started with falling on our butts on loose scree, then transitioned to falling on our butts on steep snow crossings, then to slowing picking our way through large boulders, and finally to a long, rocky descent towards Champex. With enough snacks and some well-timed jokes, we managed to keep our spirits high. Upon reaching Champex, we set up camp and then feasted on bananas, baguettes, and local cheese by the lake. It was a long and challenging day, but so beautiful and rewarding. Afterwards, we felt strong, happy, and ready to take on the rest of the Haute Route.

Getting up close and personal to the magnificent Trient Glacier.

 

Day Three: Champex to Champsec (Le Chable)

When you think of camping, you probably picture a solitary tent peacefully nestled in a remote, wilderness setting. Most of the camping we’ve been doing on this trip is not like that at all. Picture instead a large campground with the tents close enough to hear the Frenchmen next you sawing them off in vivid clarity, and perhaps some noise from trucks barreling down a nearby road. Experience has taught us a few things about how to enjoy these types of campgrounds, and arguably the most important wisdom we’ve gained is that earplugs are truly a game-changer. Which is how we found ourselves sleeping ever-so-soundly through our alarm on the morning of Day Three. We are not sponsored by any earplug manufacturers, but we can tell you firsthand that those things really do work! Fortunately, the walk to Le Chable, our destination for the day, was relatively quick and easy. We passed so many quaint villages! We had planned on restocking on food at the grocery store in Le Chable, but it was a Sunday and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open grocery store on a Sunday in this part of the world. We ended up deciding to combine a fun day-trip detour to see the uber posh ski area of Verbier with a visit to its grocery store (which was miraculously open on Sundays). After a shockingly expensive bus ride and a trip to the very well-appointed CoOp store, we struggled to define “worth it” for this particular context. After heading back down to the valley, we made our way to the little town on Champsec, where our campground was located. Although it was a funky place, it was well-appointed and the friendly host welcomed us with fresh local apricots and strawberry wine. After reading the cloud patterns (okay, actually after checking the weather.com app) we tightened our rain fly and prepared for a soggy night.

Passing through the lovely town of Sembrancher on our way to Le Chable.

 

Day Four: Champsec to Cabane du Mont Fort

We awoke on Day Four to a very wet and rainy morning. We were so focused on keeping everything as dry as possible while packing up camp that it wasn’t until we were nearly finished with our coffee that we took a good look up at the surrounding mountains. Peaks that had been clear and rocky the previous day were now totally blanketed with a fresh layer of pillowy, white snow. All that rain we’d gotten down in the valley transpired to make for a heck of a July snowstorm at the higher elevations! Better yet, it was those very same high elevations that we were set to hike across for the next three days. Feeling mildly daunted but still optimistic, we caught the bus to Le Chable, where we phoned the Cabane du Mont Fort hut. The warden assured us that it would still be possible to hike up to the hut, but traversing the trail beyond that point would be “very difficult.” We were already booked to spend the night at Mont Fort, so we decided to continue the hike as planned and figure out our next move once we got there. This was one of our favorite days of hiking along the Haute Route. The trail wound up and up through picturesque meadows, misty, enchanting pine forests, and finally to the high alpine world. Best of all, the day involved nearly five hours of uphill walking and absolutely no long descents to speak of! Our knees were so happy. Upon arriving at the insanely cozy Cabane du Mont Fort, we were met with the wonderful surprise of receiving a private room. We spent the afternoon deliberating (first over coffee, then over beers) about tomorrow’s hike. We had originally planned to continue past the typical stopping point at Cabane de Prafleuri and wild camp near Refuge de La Barma. With the weather and trail conditions as they were, a very long day on sketchy, snowy trails followed by a night in our tent at high elevation sounded irresponsible at best. Even though we knew that the safest, best choice was to detour from the trail, the decision was still somewhat agonizing. Our sense of adventure beckoned us to take on the challenge, while a little voice in our heads warned that we’d be “cheating” if we didn’t do the whole thing. Ultimately, however, our sensible sides won out and we made a plan to detour around the unsafe sections. We have enough hiking experience to know that it’s always better to give mother nature the respect she deserves, rather than put ourselves in a situation that isn’t safe and certainly isn’t fun. After some great conversation with some cool hikers we met at the hut, we finally tucked into our first real beds in few days.

Cabane du Mont Fort is a classic mountain hut, well worth a visit!

 

Day Five: Mont Fort to Arolla

The section of trail between Cabane du Mont Fort and Pas de Chèvres stays at high elevations and is frequently impassable due to snow, rockfalls, or adverse weather conditions. Unfortunately, there are no lower-elevation trail options for connecting these two points, so it’s kind of a whole thing if you need to avoid these sections. If you can’t get as far as Prafleuri, your best bet is to go back to Le Chable and then use transit to get to Arolla (the next town the Haute Route passes through). This is what we ended up doing. It was a long day of riding gondolas, trains, and buses, but it was relatively easy to navigate and fun to see some different parts of the region. When we finally arrived at the campground in Arolla, we were delighted to learn that there were showers available (it had been a few days since we’d had one). The showers promised four minutes of hot water for 1 Euro, but as we waited in the shower line, word spread amongst campers that the hot water in the men’s room wasn’t working. Rather than risk squandering a euro on a disappointing four minutes or tepid showering, Ian decided instead to just take a fully cold shower. His report: “It was good…Kind of. It was kind of good.” What a champ.

Beautiful wildflowers on the trail near Arolla.

 

Day Six: Arolla to Pas de Chèvres

Although we weren’t able to cross the Pas de Chèvres (the pass leading into the valley towards Arolla), we decided we could still cover as much of the trail as possible from the other direction. On Day Six, we enjoyed the ultimate luxury of leaving our tent set up (we would camp another night at Arolla before continuing along our hike) and our heavy bags behind as we set off for our day on the trail. The hike up to the pass felt effortless without a 25-pound pack on! Pas de Chèvres is infamous for its series of long ladders and catwalks that traverse the steep rock wall up to the pass. In reality, the ladders are the easy part. They are sturdily secured to the mountain and quite easy to navigate. If you get a little antsy around heights (like I sometimes do), just take your time, maintain three points of contact, and they really aren’t so bad. The scramble through the boulderfield on the approach to the pass is another story, though. It is steep, difficult, and there have been several close calls recently with falling rocks. We didn’t have to cross this section since we approached the pass from the other direction, but we got a good look and can confirm that it is challenging. Definitely use caution when completing this part of the trail. Since we had the freedom of light loads and lots of time, we diverted from the Haute Route to check out some other trails in the surrounding area before descending back towards Arolla. After picking up some fresh apricots and dinner items at the shop in town, we made our way back to camp. We spent the evening enjoying some beers and some people watching, but decided to skip the cold showers this time.

Emily conquering the ladders at Pas des Chevres- thankfully without a heavy pack!

 

Day Seven: Arolla to Les Haudères

Day Seven promised to be a short, easy day of walking so we allowed ourselves a nice slow morning. After a lazy breakfast and an hour of drying out the tent in the sun, we made our way towards Les Haudères . We were excited to get there since this is where we’d scheduled our rest day and had splurged on an Airbnb for the occasion. The trail was a little less straightforward than we’d expected, as it undulated through dense forest and crossed narrow, exposed sections. However, it wasn’t too demanding, and we reached Lac Bleu before lunchtime. While this lake is a bit overrun by visitors, the vivid color is stunning(as implied by the name). Upon our arrival in Les Haudères , Emily’s high school French was put to the test when we needed to phone our Airbnb hosts to figure out how to get to our place. It’s one thing to fumble through speaking a foreign language in person (at least you can pantomime), but it’s a whole new world of challenge to do it over the phone without any context clues! Somehow, after some really pathetic French communication, we found ourselves getting into the car of a nice elderly man who claimed to be our host. This sounds like it could be the beginning of a cheesy horror movie, but fortunately it all worked out. The hosts and our flat were both downright lovely. For days, we’d been wanting to try a rosti, a regional dish that is essentially a giant hash brown pancake, and Ian cooked one up for dinner. It was a delicious start to our days off in Les Haudères.

The aptly-named Lac Bleu.

 

Day Eight: Les Haudères Rest Day

Today consisted of all of our favorite rest day pastimes: sink laundry, eating pastries, sitting at sunny cafes, strolling through quaint streets, and lots of, well, rest. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the town of Les Haudères , practicing our French, and soaking up the local culture. We went to bed ready and excited to get back on the trail for the second half of our Haute Route adventure.

Soaking up the village charm in Les Hauderes.

 

Day Nine: Les Haudères to Cabane de Moiry

We rose early on Day Nine and enjoyed a relaxing breakfast before beginning the steady climb through pretty alpine meadows towards Col du Tsaté. We enjoyed winding our way up through the lovely town of La Sage, and we didn’t see any other hikers on the trail until we were over the pass. It was pretty awesome to have the top to ourselves and we soaked in the breathtakingly rugged mountain views for a good while. It was one of our biggest days in terms of elevation gain (over 6,000 feet), but we both felt great after our rest day and made it to the hut before the forecasted afternoon rain moved in. Cabane de Moiry is a fantastic mountain hut that is perched impossibly high on a mountain ledge and jaw-droppingly close to the Moiry Glacier. The final ascent to the hut is quite steep and definitely presents a final challenge before reaching the beautifully renovated Cabane de Moiry. Upon reaching the hut, we shared an excellent blueberry tart and complimentary afternoon coffee in the all-glass dining room while studying the glacier for hours. This was our second and final stay in a mountain hut of our entire trip, so we decided to make the most of it! We still opted to self-cater on our camp stove outside instead of paying for the exorbitantly expensive dinner though, and we were rewarded with having the entire terrace to ourselves for most of the sunset hours. We were even lucky enough to see some Ibex poking around below the hut. We stayed up later than usual, enjoying good conversations with fellow hikers and playing board games well into the evening. We’ve noticed that the Haute Route definitely attracts a more experienced set of hikers, and it was cool to hear about people’s various treks and adventures. If you’re considering a stay at Cabane de Moiry, we highly recommend it! It’s an unforgettable experience.

Enjoying a wonderful stay at Cabane de Moiry!

 

Day Ten: Cabane de Moiry to Zinal

Cabane de Moiry really does have a spectacular location high on the mountainside, but those views come with a cost. While the hike up to the hut on the previous day was tiring but manageable, the steep hike down from it the next morning definitely felt a lot tougher. Maybe it was our cold legs or maybe it’s because there wasn’t a homemade blueberry tart waiting at the end this time, but whatever it was it made Emily very cranky. As the trail started to veer upwards again, so did our moods, and we enjoyed the lovely long traverse of the green hillside on a stunning balcony trail. The hike over Col de Sorebois was relatively easy (as far as Haute Route passes go at least), and we found ourselves making our way down towards Zinal in no time. We stopped for lunch at the gondola station where we found some very comfy lawn chairs to kick back in for awhile. After consuming way too many peanuts, we began the seemingly endless (yet thankfully mellow) switchbacks to get down to the valley floor. When we arrived at our campground, the adjacent restaurant was positively swarming with day-trippers eating ice cream and drinking beer. Despite the crowds and the strangeness of the place (think petting zoo meets mini-golf course meets campground), we happily settled in and enjoyed a lovely evening watching the sunset over the beautiful surrounding mountains.

Breathtaking views from the Col de Sorebois.

 

Day Eleven: Zinal to Gruben

Today’s destination, the tiny hamlet of Gruben, was slated to be our first wild camping of the trip. Since we wouldn’t be able to pitch our tent until after dark, we figured there was no point in rushing to leave our campsite and get on the trail early. It was nice to sleep in and take our time, but by the time we started the long ascent towards the Forcletta Pass it was very, very hot. Although we were spared the worst of the heat wave that was currently plaguing much of the rest of the continent (temps were reaching over 100 degrees in Paris!), the sun was still beating mercilessly down on us as we trudged uphill. After a difficult start, we found our rhythm, and enjoyed some beautiful scenery at the top of the pass (which we had to ourselves once again). In reading about today’s hike and the linguistic regions of Switzerland, we learned that we’d be crossing into the German-speaking side of Switzerland once we got across the pass. In fact, many people refer to this divide as the “rosti line,” as the potato dish is more commonly eaten in the German parts of the country. As we climbed our way up to the pass, we imagined a rosti stand at the top, serving up hot, salty rostis to all of the weary hikers who reached it. Alas, all we found at the top were a couple of cairns, some baby marmots, and some pretty incredible views. Oh well, maybe that’s better anyways. After a long and tiring descent, we finally reached Gruben in the early evening. The idea of another hour of hiking with our heavy packs in search of a suitable camping spot was totally daunting. We decided to take our shoes off and kick back for awhile in the shade of the town’s church before making any big moves. Feeling restored, we began by scouting along the river for a good campsite. We found a few spots that would work if they had to, but nothing great. Then we headed uphill along the trail, where we found a spot we were happy with. It was still too early to pitch our tent, so we hiked back down to Gruben and ordered some large beers at the hotel. This seems to be the thing to do; campers hang out at the hotel, drink a beer, wash up in the bathroom, and then head up the trail as inconspicuously as possible. It’s hard to tell if the hotel loves it or hates it, but at least they tolerated us and served us cold beers. At the hotel, we saw another group of hikers with the same plans as us. When they started putting their boots on after dinner, it became obvious to us that they must be wild camping. Who puts their stinky boots back on after a long day of hiking and a relaxing dinner unless they absolutely have to? Anyhow, after cooking our ramen on a bench in front of the church (we felt like total weirdos, but one local gentleman was very amused and bid us a hearty “Bon Appetit”) we made our way up the hillside. We set up camp quickly as the last of the light receded behind the high peaks and were asleep in no time.

Alpine lakes and glaciers made for a beautiful hike to Gruben.

 

Day Twelve: Gruben to Täsch

Wanting to be as discreet as possible, we woke up very early and packed up camp as the sun came up. We hiked up the trail for a bit before finding a pretty spot to have breakfast and make some coffee. It was nice to have a head start on the trail and enjoy the cool, fresh early morning air. I know I’ve said something along the lines of “amazing views” in nearly every post of this trip report, but believe me when I say that today’s views were really, really good. The trail climbed through a peaceful meadow, crossed the majestic Augustabord Pass, and wound its way through a large boulder field before rounding a shoulder to reveal the final valley of the hike. The snowy peaks, huge glaciers, and the deep, narrow green valley so far below came together to truly take our breath away. We were feeling good and savoring every moment until about halfway through the looooong descent into St. Niklaus. We had the option to take a gondola from Jungen to St. Niklaus to cut out a lot of the downhill slog, but we knew we needed to get several miles further along the valley to the town of Täsch (in order to camp and to be well-positioned to rejoin the Europaweg trail tomorrow), so we decided to use our “cheat” transportation to take a train from St. Niklaus to Täsch and cut out a couple hours of road walking in the valley instead. By the time we made it down to St. Niklaus, we were pretty wrecked. We were dehydrated (it was another very hot day), and each of us had a cacophony of aches and pains from so much steep downhill with a big pack. We finally stumbled into the campground in Täsch feeling totally spent. However, after some lukewarm beers, a loaf of bread, and copious amounts of hummus and bananas, we started to feel like ourselves again. Even though we were exhausted, it was more than a little sad and totally hard to believe that tomorrow was our final day on the Haute Route.

The peeking into the Mattertal Valley from Jungen…and realizing we still had a long downhill hike to get there!

 

Day Thirteen: Täsch to Zermatt

We awoke in Täsch feeling better than expected. We packed up camp and began an uphill hike through the trees towards the Europaweg trail. Originally, we thought we would need to do the entire valley trail in order to avoid staying at the Europa Hut, but after a little research we realized we could still hike the second half of the Europaweg Trail, the infamous high-level traverse at the finish of the Walker’s Haute Route. We were so glad we chose this option! For the first hour or so we hiked on switchbacks through dense forest until suddenly the Matterhorn revealed itself through the trees. Wow! What a stunning mountain! From there, the views only got better. Once we joined the Europaweg, we were spoiled with wide open views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding peaks, and then down towards Zermatt, tucked in at the edge of the valley. The hiking was pretty easy, which was very appreciated on our tired bodies and allowed us to really take our time and savor the scenery. When we finally made our way into Zermatt, it was a bit of a shock to the system. There were more people and shops just in the town center than we’d seen on the rest of the hike combined! Also, for claiming to be a “car-free” town, there are a heck of a lot of electric taxis whizzing through the crowded pedestrian streets, making the whole atmosphere a bit chaotic. We struggled to find someplace casual enough to permit two very dirty backpackers to grab a celebratory finish beer, and eventually ended up on the patio of a surprisingly upscale Italian restaurant. We continued to struggle by accidentally ordering some sort of fancy syrup beer, which was not exactly the refreshing beverage we’d hoped for, but made for a funny experience nonetheless. After some showers and strolling around the town, we settled into the Zermatt campground with a bottle of wine and a picnic and reflected on our trip. The Haute Route was a unique and beautiful hike. We loved the variability of the landscape, as well as the many options for routes and variants along the way. It was a rewarding and unforgettable challenge, one that left us feeling like stronger, more experienced hikers and even more in love with these mountains than before.

All smiles heading into Zermatt!

Keep Reading

Be sure to read our entire series on the Haute Route to learn everything you’ll need to know to prepare for your trip!

 

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Update from the Trail: Iceland

Greetings from the Reykjavik Campground in Iceland! The first two segments of our trip of a lifetime/mini-retirement are in the books. It’s hard to believe it’s already been nearly two…

Greetings from the Reykjavik Campground in Iceland! The first two segments of our trip of a lifetime/mini-retirement are in the books. It’s hard to believe it’s already been nearly two weeks since we locked up our Boulder apartment and hit the road.  We spent a wonderful week in the Midwest visiting family and friends before hopping on an easy direct flight from Chicago to Reykjavik. We spent a night in this cozy capital before heading out to hike the Laugavegur trail in the south of the country. Before we get into the hike, quick aside about our first night in Reykjavik: 

When planning for an extended trip while trying to maintain a rather modest budget, we knew we needed to keep our lodging costs down.  We have managed to travel hack our way into a nice bounty of points and miles, but not nearly enough to cover five months of travel. Therefore, we created two guiding rules for strategically booking hotels using travel rewards.  

Rule #1: Maximize value. We tried to use the bulk of our rewards-fueled hotel stays in expensive places where we’d pay a pretty penny for accommodation if using cash. Lucky us, our Europe-heavy travel itinerary includes plenty of cities that fit the bill (pun intended). When traveling through southeast Asia, on the other hand, we will use cash for more of our accommodation since lodging is typically very reasonable in those parts. 

Rule #2: Hotels on travel days.  There is nothing better than finishing a long travel day with an easy check-in process (no fumbling in the dark to find the AirBnB lockbox or waking up the host), a hot shower, baggage storage options, and a clean bed.  We will happily rough it in our tent for most nights of our trip, but we are insanely grateful for the small luxuries of hotels when arriving somewhere new sleep-deprived and weary. 

After a very comfortable stay at the Reykjavik Hilton (early check in? Heck yes. Amazing breakfast buffet? Even better), we are feeling pretty swell about how The Rules have been working out. We spent a day exploring Reykjavik and running some pre-hike errands before hopping on a bus to Lannamanalugar, our starting destination for the  Laugavegur Trail, a 48-mile trek through rugged landscapes in the south of the country. 

Starting out on the Laugavegur Trail

The Laugavegur Trail is Iceland’s most popular and iconic long-distance trek. It is divided into four segments, each marked by a mountain hut and camping area at the finish. At the official end of the trail, there is the option to add on another day’s hike on the Fimmvorduhals Trail, which climbs up to pass between two glaciers and then descends into the small town of Skogar. Our plan was to combine the first two segments of the Laugavegur Trail on our first day to complete the entire thing and make it to Skogar in a total of four days. 

We arrived in Landmannalaugar in the afternoon with plans to camp there for the evening and then set off for our hike early(ish) the next morning.  Landmannalaugar is known for it’s amazing geothermal landscape, which is punctuated by otherworldly colors, random steam-spewing crevices, and some truly lovely hot springs. We almost talked ourselves into skipping the hot springs, considering the fact that we hadn’t brought swimsuits and didn’t want to haul around wet clothes in our packs for the next few days. Fortunately, Ian pulled the whole “It’s not everyday that you find yourself at some dope geothermal hot springs” card and I was quickly convinced. Us Coloradans would have preferred to soak in nude, but after a quick survey of the scene we determined that Iceland wasn’t ready for all that and opted to sacrifice one of our precious few pairs of underwear for the cause. Soaking in the hot springs, surrounded by dramatic mountains and dynamic colors in every direction was truly an unparalleled way to kick off our trek. We returned to a very chilly night in our tent before hitting the trail the next morning. 

The lovely hot springs at Landmannalugar.

We began Day 1 in good spirits. The initial uphill climb helped us thaw out a bit (did I mention that Iceland is a cold place for camping?) and the views blew us away from the start. Iceland is like no other place on Earth that we’ve ever been. The geothermal activity, volcanic landforms, vibrantly colored mountains, wide rivers, black sand deserts, and powerful waterfalls all come together to give this place a character that is completely unique and totally spectacular. The first day of hiking on a long-distance trek is always a bit of a euphoria-filled blur.  For example, we were so blissed out on our first day of the Tour du Mont Blanc that we missed an obvious turn and walked in the wrong direction for an hour before realizing it. On our first day of the West Highland Way, we stopped for a very long lunch (whisky included) thinking we were much closer to our stopping point than we actually were. On the Laugavegur, the trail really gave new meaning to the expression, “a surprise around every corner.” It seemed like every hill we crested or bend we rounded presented a completely new and wondrous landscape. Despite hiking for over eight hours, we finished feeling energized and totally stokey about the next day. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we decided to combine the next segments into another big day the following day. Why sit around and be cold at the campsite when we could spend the entire day exploring the trail? 

Emily doing her best to stay warm.

On Day 2, we packed up camp in damp conditions and a literally bone-chilling wind. One plus side of this weather is that it makes instant coffee taste like the elixir of life. Another positive was that although we had nearly perfect weather throughout the hike, we did at least get a little taste of Iceland’s moody dark side. We set off towards the next hut feeling a little stiff after the previous day’s efforts but totally excited for what the trail would bring. We did have some trepidation however, as we’d read that the biggest of our river crossings would occur on this stage of the hike.  For such an expensive country with otherwise impeccable infrastructure, Iceland seems curiously reluctant to build bridges over rivers. Both people and vehicles are routinely expected to ford sizable rivers if they would like to carry on towards their destination. The warden’s notes at the previous huts warned hikers to take caution crossing the Emstur River, and recent reports suggested the water could reach mid-thigh depths. We’d hoped we’d get an hour or two of walking behind us to warm up before crossing the icy water, but lo and behold, we met it within a few minutes of starting the day. For the second time this week in Iceland, we found ourselves stripping down to our underwear and stepping into the steely glacial waters. This time, however, there was no geothermal action to soften the blow. We forged into the icy, fast-moving currents, carefully choosing every step even though we just wanted to run to the other side and get out as fast as possible. Well, that was one wickedly efficient way to wake up in the morning. 

The rest of Day 2 was tremendously beautiful, but definitely more of a slog than Day 1, due to very long stretches through rocky desert and the fact that our bodies were starting to feel the miles a bit more. Still, we saw so many amazing sights, like the enormous canyon where two rivers-one slate gray and the other sepia toned-together hundreds of feet below us. Finally, we reached Þórsmörk, the technical end of the Laugavegur. We bought a ridiculously overpriced, but yet so necessary, Twix bar at the Þórsmörk campsite shop and then continued on another mile to the campsite at Basar where we’d be better positioned to start the next day’s big hike. Upon reaching camp, the sun had fully made an appearance and we enjoyed some very relaxing evening hours soaking up the endless daylight before putting on our sleeping masks and turning in for the night. 

The confluence of rivers on Day 2.

Day 3 brought more excellent sunny weather, and we knew we had to take advantage of it and bust out the last big day of walking before allowing ourselves a rest day. Today we would complete the Fimmvorduhals Trail.  Have you ever wanted to climb between two glaciers, see the youngest mountains on earth, witness recent volcanic eruptions where black ash meets white snow, crest a mountain pass to see the ocean in the distance, or gaze at 20 waterfalls all in one day? Well we never knew we wanted all those things either until we hiked this trail, but it turns out that it definitely doesn’t suck. You’ve got to work for your views though.  The trail included some ridiculously steep climbs, a mildly sketchy exposed section, and lots of hiking through slushy snow fields. Technically, today was supposed to be way harder in terms of challenge than the previous day, but we both felt significantly better. It was one of those all-around perfect days in nature.  

Cascading falls on the way to Skogar.

Reaching the end of the hike was an interesting experience. Skogar, where the Fimmvorduhals terminates, is a huge draw for tourists due to its proximity to the main highway and its very impressive waterfall, known as Skogafoss.  To us, after being on the lightly trafficked trail for the past few days, it felt like a total zoo. Giant busses dropped off camera-wielding tourists who aggressively fought their way into position for the perfect instagram shot.  It was such an entertaining spectacle that we had no other choice to embrace it and relish the experience. The campground was smack dab in the center of the action, so we enjoyed an endless stream of premium people-watching from the comfort of our tent. The waterfall views were pretty sweet too. Although we appreciated Skogar for what it was worth, we realized pretty quickly that we would struggle hang around at the campground for the nearly 48 hours until our bus was scheduled to pick us up (since we finished a day early). Fortunately, we were able to change our tickets and decided to make the most of our extra time by heading back to Reykjavik, which is how we ended up at the lovely campground where I began this post. We walked around the city for quite awhile yesterday before enjoying a picnic feast for dinner. Soon, we will head off to Chamonix, where we’ll spend a few days in town before beginning our next trek, the Haute Route.  We’ll spend nearly two weeks traversing the Alps as we make our way from Chamonix to Zermatt, sleeping in our tent all but a couple of nights. As we wrap up in Iceland, it is easy to get caught up in looking ahead to what’s next. Sure, that excitement is certainly part of the fun, but we have to keep reminding ourselves to try to stay in the moment. We’ve been planning this thing for so long and already the days are getting ticked off the itinerary at a remarkable pace. It’s amazing how time moves when you wake up every day and get to do exactly the thing you want to be doing. It has been an incredible experience to be in a given moment and realize that you honestly don’t want to be any other place or in any other time. What a rare and fortunate feeling. Until the next post, we’ll do our best to keep soaking it all up. 

All smiles after the Laugavegur Trail!

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Planning the Trip of a Lifetime

Here at TMBtent, our top passions include travel, backpacking, and financial independence. For the past several summers, we’ve been fortunate enough to take a few weeks off to explore the…

Here at TMBtent, our top passions include travel, backpacking, and financial independence. For the past several summers, we’ve been fortunate enough to take a few weeks off to explore the world. More recently, we found a way to combine our passions and experience new cultures while trekking through incredible wild places and sleeping under the stars.  We started with the Tour du Mont Blanc, then completed the West Highland Way, and we quickly realized we were seriously hooked on this kind of travel. Now, we are getting ready to realize our longtime dream of taking a more extended trip to get our boots dirty on as many thru-hikes as we can.  We are excited to share our experiences and comprehensive trip guides as we go.  Starting in July, we’ll be loading up our packs (hopefully not with too much weight!) for six months, five major treks, two continents, and countless adventures. In this article, we’ll outline our plans, how we’re pulling it off, and what we’re packing.

The Plan

So many amazing hikes, so little time… Don’t worry, we realize this is a pretty great problem to have.  However, it was a real challenge to choose which treks to complete. Although we are planning to travel for six months, the hiking season in many parts of the world is significantly shorter than that. We used a few parameters to narrow down our options. First, we decided to start in Europe since there are so many treks there that we’ve been lusting after for years. Once we decided on Europe, we tried to string the hikes together somewhat geographically so we could minimize crisscrossing the continent unnecessarily. We also tried to plan our itinerary to maximize our travel hacking schemes and minimize our costs.  That included taking advantage of a free stopover in Iceland and using hotel points for free week-long stays in Munich and Amsterdam. Lastly, we tried to include some longer treks that we might not have the time to complete in the future when we go back to “real life” and limited vacation days. Here’s our current plan:

Hike #1: The Laugavegur Trail, Iceland

We strategically booked our flights to Europe so that we could take advantage of a free week-long stopover in Iceland on the way.  We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Iceland’s colorful, otherworldly landscapes and hike the acclaimed Laugavegur Trail.  This 54km trek (with an optional 25km add-on to Skógar) climbs over snowy peaks, past towering waterfalls, through stark deserts, volcanic wonders, and green valleys. We hope to complete the hike from Landmannalaugar to Skógar in four days (camping each night), which will give us a couple of days in Reykjavik and some wiggle room to wait out any poor weather.

Beautiful landscapes of the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland.

Hike #2: The Walkers Haute Route, Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland

From Reykjavik, we’ll fly to Geneva to prepare for the Haute Route.  We fell in love with this part of the Alps while hiking the TMB, and we can’t wait to explore this strenuous, high-level route that takes hikers from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn. The 180km trail traverses high mountain passes, picturesque valleys and villages, and offers spectacular views of commanding peaks, stunning glaciers, and colorful wildflowers. We hope to complete the trek in 13 days, including at least one rest day in La Sage. We will camp as much as possible, only staying in huts when camping isn’t permitted and treating ourselves to an AirBnB for our rest day.

Hike #3: The Lechweg Trail, Lech, Austria to Fussen, Germany

This lesser-known trail will conveniently help us work our way towards Munich, where we will enjoy our first week off from hiking after completing the Lechweg Trail.  From Zermatt, we’ll hop on a train to the town of Lech, Austria, where we’ll begin our six-day, 125km walk towards Fussen, Germany.  This relatively new trek follows the turquoise waters of the Lech River, as it passes through quaint villages and some of the last wild landscapes in the region.  In doing research on this hike, we found that there was relatively little information about camping, so we are excited to gather information and share it with the community. As of now, we plan on camping all but one night along the route. Since the Lechweg has an overall downhill trajectory, we hope this hike will feel “easy” compared to the previous two and provide our legs with a little bit of a break!

Lech, Austria

Hike #4: The Coast to Coast Walk, England

After a week off in Munich, we’ll hop on a flight to Manchester, England to begin the Coast to Coast Walk. As the trail’s name suggests, we’ll be hiking from St. Bees on England’s western coast to Robin Hood’s Bay on the eastern coast.  We’ll get to experience hiking in the celebrated Lakes District, the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks, and numerous colorful towns (and pubs!) along the way. We’ve planned to take 17 days to complete this 309km trek, which includes two rest days.  With the exception of those rest days, we’ll be camping every night along the route, and gathering information about the many options for campers along the C2C!

The iconic Lakes District.

Hike #5: The GR20, Corsica

Known by many as the “hardest hike in Europe,” we are excited to take on the challenge of the GR20! This 180km trek covers about 10,000 meters of elevation gain as it traverses the jagged peaks that span the length of the Mediterranean island of Corsica.  For their efforts, hikers are rewarded with amazing views of the coast, forests, and rugged mountain landscapes.  We have allotted 18 days (including a couple of rest days) to complete this trek, and we plan to camp every night.  We gave ourselves lots of time for this one to allow for less-than-ideal weather and other challenges that might arise.  We’re also very excited to spend some time immersing ourselves in the unique and rich Corsican culture.

Stunning Corsican landscape

What’s Next?

After we complete the GR20, we’ll fly to Paris to replace all of the calories we burned in the past several weeks of hiking by consuming as many baguettes, fine cheeses, and local wines as possible. Then we’ll spend a week exploring Amsterdam by foot and bike.  From there, we’ll travel to Slovenia, where we hope to complete some additional hikes, although the length and type will depend on the weather conditions in October. Finally, we hope to head to Southeast Asia for several weeks for our final leg of the trip.  While these plans are still in their early stages, we hope to do some hiking or bikepacking in Taiwan, and also explore Vietnam and/or Cambodia.

The Logistics

Who can afford to quit their jobs and spend six months traveling?

We realize how fortunate and privileged we are to have this opportunity, but we also believe that taking a “mini-retirement” is more attainable than many people realize.  A few years ago, we learned about the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, which basically encourages people to increase their savings rate in order to have more flexibility with their money and time. By getting more intentional about our lifestyle and making some minor tweaks to our spending, we were able to start saving more and living on less.  With the addition of some side hustles, we were soon able to set aside enough savings to get through several months without a paycheck. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we’ll be camping and eating peanuts for a lot of that time!

We also relied on some pretty nifty travel hacking to save thousands of dollars on our upcoming trip.  In essence, we strategically gathered credit card miles and points, and put them towards our flights and hotels. Check out our Travel for Free Series to learn more.

You guys seem like planning nerds, did you leave anything open-ended?

Yes, and no.  For the five hikes we’ve planned so far, we have the distance we’ll cover each day and our sleeping arrangements for each night mapped out.  Many of the campsites on the Coast to Coast and the refuges on the Haute Route get booked up pretty far in advance, so we knew we needed to get our act together ahead of time.  That being said, we know that there are going to be some unexpected surprises on a trip like this. We’ve built in extra days on the bookends of each hike to allow for illness, travel delays, inclement weather, and any other unpredictable occurrences.  For us, planning trips is a very enjoyable hobby, so we didn’t mind going through each part of the trip day-by-day.  In fact, it was essential for wrapping our heads around the practical and unique aspects of each hike.

What does one pack for a trip like that?

It is both exhilarating and a little intimidating to think that we’ll be carrying everything we’ll need for six months of travel on our backs across hundreds of miles of wilderness. To prepare for this trip, we’ve upgraded a few key pieces of gear for lighter, better-quality items.  Outside of that, we are trying to keep our pack weight down by only bringing necessary, versatile items. As hard as it is, we are trying to avoid playing the “just in case” packing game. If we really need something when we’re over there, we’ll buy it.  A full packing list is coming soon!

 

Have you completed any of the treks on our itinerary? Do you have big summer travel plans? Will we cross paths on the trail? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

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