What is the Walker’s Haute Route (WHR)?
An incredible trek between the two most famous mountain towns in the Alps. Travelling from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland, you will start at Mont Blanc and finish at the Matterhorn. On the way, pass the largest collection of snowy 4000m summits in the Alps: Mont Blanc, Grand Combin, the Weisshorn, the Zinalrothorn, the Dom, the Täschhorn, the Breithorn and the Matterhorn, to name a few.
The WHR is 206km long with 14,000 metres of ascent and 13,500 metres of descent. 12 magnificent mountain passes (or cols) are crossed.
What kind of scenery can I expect?
The WHR has everything you would expect from the Alps and much more. Almost daily, you cross incredible high mountain passes (or cols) enabling passage from magnificent valley to magnificent valley. And there are exquisite alpine pastures, sparkling azure lakes, and carpets of wild flowers, the like of which you will never have seen before.
But there are perhaps two other key features of the WHR. Firstly the wildness: the WHR has sections which are fabulously remote and rugged. It is an intense and adventurous mountain experience. Secondly, the magnificent glaciers: they are everywhere you look on almost every stage. Furthermore, you get very, very close to some of them.
How long does it take?
Normally it is walked in 12-14 days. But fitter walkers can have a go at schedules of 10 or 11 days. Our guidebook sets out 6 different itineraries of 14, 13, 12, 11 and 10 days. It really is up to you and your fitness level.
Well now that we have brought up fitness levels....Am I fit enough to do it?
The WHR is slightly tougher than the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) so it is the logical next step for those looking for a new challenge. However, most reasonably fit people could complete it: yes it is a challenge but it is a realistic one. Get as fit as you can before you go, plan a sensible itinerary to match your fitness level and travel light.
What are the trails like?
Mostly clear paths and tracks. There are some more difficult rocky sections but these are the exception rather than the rule. There is no glacier walking. There are waymarks and signs to guide you. In mid-summer and autumn, paths are usually dry and firm. In June, snow can lie on the mountain passes.
Should I go on an guided trip or walk independently?
Well that depends on you. A self-guided trip can be a life-changing experience opening the door for future adventures. And the satisfaction of planning, booking and completing the WHR on your own is something to savour. Thousands of people guide themselves each year and many of them have never undertaken a trek before. But self-guided trekking is not for everyone: some prefer to have a guide to make all important decisions for them. And booking with a guiding company has other benefits too: they can organise food, accommodation and pack transfer so you don't need to carry it. Independent trekkers have to do all that for themselves.
When to go?
Mid-June to mid-September is the normal period for walking the WHR.
Late June can be the most beautiful time for walking. The weather is sunny and warm and the peaks are frequently at their most photogenic, still fully frosted with snow. Summer haze has not yet arrived so visibility is generally excellent with wide-ranging views. And there are carpets of spring wildflowers. Of course, there is occasionally rain at this time of year but this usually lessens as the season progresses. And there are fewer visitors so accommodation is easier to find and significantly, the mountains are more peaceful. That said, as overall visitor numbers increase and reservations in July/August become harder to secure, the amount of early season walkers seems to increase each year.
As with all Alpine treks, in some years, high cols can be snow–covered until early July, making parts of the WHR difficult and/or dangerous: in such conditions, crampons and/or an ice axe might be helpful. There are now some very light, compact crampons available which weigh a mere 300g so carrying them just in case is not the burden it once was. Microspikes are another lightweight option for early-season trekkers.
July and August is the main summer season when the high cols are normally passable on foot. It can be hot, sometimes reaching more than 30°C. Mornings often start with clear and sunny skies and heat up as the sun gains height. If there is to be cloud or haze, often this will arrive in the afternoon when thunderstorms are more likely. Start walking early in the morning to complete the main climb while the temperature is cooler. This is the busiest time on the WHR and it is advisable to make bookings well in advance as accommodation is often full, particularly at weekends. Do not turn up without a reservation and expect to find accommodation. Furthermore, in this period, it can be difficult to alter your plans once on the trek: a change to one day’s schedule has a chain reaction across the rest of your trip and refuges/gîtes may not be able to accommodate the changes.
September is the new June! It can be the best month for walking as the weather is often more settled than in summer. Skies are usually clear and visibility excellent. Daytime temperatures are still warm but evenings get cooler and the days get shorter. The odd flurry of snow is possible, particularly later in the month, but they tend to clear quickly. From the start of September, visitor numbers reduce so the mountains are quieter and there is less demand for accommodation. However, from mid-September some accommodation starts to close for the season so check availability in advance.
Where do you stay?
In some of the most fabulous settings you can imagine! Some of the overnight stops will be a highlight of your trip. There are remote mountain huts, lovely gîtes and hotels to choose from. Our guidebook has complete listings of the places to stay on the WHR.
Do I need to book in advance?
In July and August the mountain huts will likely be full so book ahead. In June and September there are fewer walkers and you can still normally get away with only booking a few days in advance (except at weekends).
How much does it cost to trek the WHR?
No permits are required to hike. So if you walk independently, your only costs should be food and accommodation. In French mountain huts and gîtes, bed, breakfast and dinner will cost around €50. In Switzerland things are probably about 20% more expensive. Campers can get by on much less.
What do you mean by 'travelling light'?
The lighter your pack is the more you will enjoy the trek. Every oz counts. Standard advice is to bring 'only what is absolutely necessary' but what does that actually mean? We prefer the 'Will I die, or endure pain, without it?' test. For example, that hair dryer. Yes we know it is a light travel one but you will have to carry it up more than a Mount Everest. Will you die without it? No. You may have to endure rubbish hair for a few days though. Believe us that halfway up the first mountain pass, you will be considering jettisoning it. Do you really need that make-up? That full 500ml bottle of shampoo? That laptop? It is fair to say that the more treks you do, the lighter your pack becomes. Experience helps you sift out the things that you do not really need. Be ruthless about what you take.
Is camping permitted on the WHR?
Camping on the WHR is harder than on the TMB but some still do it. Between Chamonix and Champex, it is straightforward as there are plenty of places where camping is permitted. After Champex though campsites are scarce and, in Switzerland, it is rarely permitted to camp at or near mountain huts. Our guidebook has a full section on camping including listings of all the places where camping is permitted.
Wild camping is generally prohibited on the WHR except in specific locations. In France, around the Chamonix Valley, local laws provide that it is only permitted to bivouac ‘at high altitude’ from sunset to sunrise. It is not clear what ‘high altitude’ means exactly but presumably these rules exist to facilitate climbers and mountaineers who often sleep out on long routes. In the parts of Switzerland through which the WHR travels, we understand that wild camping is forbidden. All rules and laws are subject to change so check with the local tourist offices before setting out. If you get caught breaking the rules you could get a stiff fine: we warned you!
You do hear of WHR walkers that wild camp by being discrete, staying high and only pitching up late in the day. But we cannot condone the breaking of rules. If you do camp wild, always take your rubbish with you (including toilet paper) and bury your toilet waste away from watercourses. Leave no trace.
Physically, camping on the WHR is a tougher option as you will need to carry more gear: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, cooker, food, etc. The extra weight makes a difference to your legs over 206km. That said, there is some incredibly lightweight camping gear available these days.
What are the best maps for the WHR?
We like Swisstopo's maps best which are beautifully drawn and extremely clear: these maps are reproduced in our books. But the ultimate solution is to use our book together with Swisstopo's smartphone app. You can download the maps onto your phone and use them offline. The app uses GPS technology so it shows you where you are on the map at any time and makes navigation really easy. It costs only CHF35 ($35) to use the app for 12 months. Click on the adjacent link for more information.