Switzerland and the Tour Monte Rosa, August 10-23 2018

Lately, every summer seems to bring new family travel configurations. Alex has long been interested in attempting the Sierra High Route -- a month-long backpacking adventure that parallels the 220-mile John Muir Trail (which our family hiked back in 2008 - blogs here, here, and here), except on the High Route one eschews trails in favor of scrambling across unmarked slopes, ridges, and peaks. Alex convinced Tim and his girlfriend Clara to carve a month from their year-long post-Stanford travel plans to join the endeavor. It's going well so far.

In the meanwhile, Emily wrapped up a summer research internship at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, with two weeks off before heading back to Harvard for her senior year. Jennifer joined Emily for their own hiking adventure, the Tour Monte Rosa, which didn't lack for challenge but did feature marked trails and even real beds each evening. The most popular hut-to-hut loop in the Alps is the Tour du Mont Blanc, which our family also hiked way back when (blogs here and here). The Tour Monte Rosa isn't quite as well known and is thought to be a bit more challenging, with precipitous trails and over 30,000' feet of elevation gain (and loss) in 9 days, whew!

 As always, it's hard to capture the rhythm of a many-day hiking trip, but here are some features and highlights:

Route - The loop straddles Switzerland and Italy, and true to its name circles the Monte Rosa massif (see map). Several days involved crossing major passes (e.g., photos 1 & 2), while the last three days comprised the two-day Europaweg and the one-day Hohenweg, "balcony walks" (photo 3) cut into steep cliffs thousands of feet above the valley (posing a bit of a psychological challenge for those with even mild acrophobia, i.e., Jennifer). They're marvels of trail construction, though the more ambitious and recently-built Europaweg has been a maintenance nightmare; to avoid rockfall in one location it now boasts world's longest suspension footbridge (photo 4). Our one disappointment in the route was how often it passed through ski areas. Perhaps it's unavoidable in the high alps, and the lifts did allow hikers to shortcut some of the climbs (not us!), but we would have preferred less development.

Weather - It had been a very wet summer in the Valais region of the Alps, and the report wasn't looking any different when we started out. Our first few days saw fog, rain, and only glimpses of the glorious mountain views the trek is known for. Then the tides unexpectedly turned and we had several days with blue skies (photo 5), just in time for the most iconic of peaks: the Matterhorn (photo 6).

Other hikers - There was one other party on approximately the same route and schedule as us, and what a party they were (photo 7): three British couples in their early 60's (we'd guess), happy and hardy hikers and equally hardy drinkers. We enjoyed sharing post-hike beers with them, and wine over dinner, but when the Grappa and Amaro came out, we were typically hitting the sack.

Lodging and food - About half our nights were spent in mountain huts and the other half in comfortable hotels when we passed through towns or villages. Even the huts were generally comfortable -- only once did we find ourselves in a dorm of 30 side-by-side fully occupied mattresses (when our two days on the Europaweg unfortunately coincided with a weekend). Food varied from nourishing to downright gourmet, with Italy generally trumping Switzerland, photo 8 notwithstanding.

Glacier crossing - Although it only lasted a couple of hours, our crossing of the Theodul glacier was a highlight, not because of the glacier itself, but because of the charming older Italian mountaineer, Giuliano, whom we hired to provide equipment and guide us across (photo 9). Giuliano spoke no English but he did speak French -- Emily enjoyed exercising her French to chat with him about the glacier and the mountains, and to translate his ultimate compliment: "Your mother is a strong woman."

Pace and navigation - Speaking of strong, Emily had spent her weekends throughout the summer exploring the Alps near Lausanne, so she was in superb hiking shape. She carried most of our gear (photos 3 & 9), and she took charge of navigation using her preferred app, Maps.me. (We had ongoing navigation debates with our British friends, who were devoted to their paper maps.) When the route was straightforward Emily would sometimes hike ahead for a couple of hours to secure a good room in the hut or a nice spot for lunch.

All told, the Tour Monte Rosa was a highly successful mother-daughter expedition. Post-hike we spent a day in Lausanne and one in Zurich. Emily bid goodbye to friends in both locations while Jennifer poked around the cities, then we caught our respective flights to Boston and San Francisco to begin the new academic year.

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