Gruelling mountain journey is 170 kilometres from Chamonix to Zermatt
Three Niagara-on-the-Lake hikers overcame extreme altitude, vertical climbs and even illness to traverse the famed Haute Route through the Swiss Alps in “epic” trip of a lifetime.
Margaret Northfield has had the Haute Route hike in her sights since 2016, when she first experienced hiking in the European Alps on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
When she and her fellow hikers set off this summer, the trip had been long anticipated and twice postponed because of COVID.
Northfield and her NOTL hiking buddies Rick Waters and Elaine Aldridge-Low were part of a group of eight from Niagara and an experienced guide who ventured onto the 170-kilometre route from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland, hiking from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn.
Seasoned hikers all, Northfield, 64, and Waters, 71, have completed the entire 900-kilometre Bruce Trail three times each, while Aldridge-Low, 54, has hiked the whole trail once so far.
But the Alps had some surprises in store, even for veteran hikers.
“Within the first two days everyone had come to me with bulging eyes asking, ‘Did you know it was going to be this tough?’ ” recalled Northfield.
They weren’t ill-prepared, but “all the reading in the world can’t prepare you for the actual experience,” she explained. “Everybody had moments. There were several meltdowns and some people felt overwhelmed.”
“It’s the toughest hiking I’ve ever done. I was nauseated for eight days, and my legs shook every day for eight days. I think it was because of the altitude,” said Aldridge-Low.
“I did think, ‘I’m not going to make it to the top.’ ”
Others had trouble breathing, given the elevation of 3,000 metres – or over a mile above sea level.
“I kept asking myself, why is this so difficult?” said Northfield. The answer, she said, was the fact that they had to concentrate every moment to stay safe in the face of various hazards.
“We had to be on all the time and that drains your energy,” she said.
Each day started with a steep climb up to a mountain pass, followed by an equally steep descent. Along the way, conditions presented a range of challenges even for veteran hikers.
Terrain above the treeline was very rocky.
“There were many kilometres of climbing over boulders and rock hopping,” said Waters.
“We were often hiking over tippy stones, which normally I love, but 30 minutes of that is one thing. After three hours I was over it,” exclaimed Northfield.
“We were scrambling over boulders in some sections. On one day, we spent six hours climbing over rocks,” said Aldridge-Low.
“Then there were narrow gravelly trails with the mountain on one side and a steep drop off on the other,” added Northfield.
She said that one day the guide noticed that one of the hikers had developed a list to one side because of tight muscles. Since the list had her leaning toward the precipice, she took a couple of days off to recover before resuming the journey.
On other occasions, on the most steep parts of the mountain climbs, the hikers had to navigate chains and ladders.
The chains “were essential. You can’t use your poles in those spots. It’s a very narrow path and you’re going hand-over-hand around the mountain,” said Northfield.
The ladders followed, perpendicular to the cliffs, drilled into the rock face.
“When we got to the top, we all said, ‘We made it, we did it!’ and we had a windy hug and stopped for a break, then hiked down the other side for three hours,” she said.
Ever present throughout the hike was the risk of rockslides.
‘“When we were climbing up, holding the railing, our guide said, “Sshhhh, we’re in a rockfall area. A single stone can cause an avalanche,’ so we had to be silent,” explained Aldridge-Low.
In certain sections,”there was an avalanche shelter every 200 feet, so we knew the danger was real,” she said. “We met a woman who lost her husband to an avalanche two years ago.”
Amid the challenges and dangers, there was great beauty, grit and inspiration.
“I kept my mouth shut, put my head down, and got on with it. The scenery was just so beautiful, it made me forget my discomfort at times,” said Aldridge-Low.
“I really had days I really didn’t think I could do it and I had to tell myself to hang in there. In my head I kept repeating, ‘I can do this, I can do this.’ ”
Waters said, “I took it one step at a time. You can’t beat the mountain.”
“It was a tough hike, but then you turn around and see an amazing view. The natural beauty is spectacular.”
Not just the sights were memorable, but also the sounds.
“We’d be hiking along and then hear ding ding ding ding ding, cowbells, the cows wear different sized bells, some small, some large and heavy, it’s very traditional,” said Waters.
“The sound of the cow bells, I’ll never forget it,” asserted Aldridge-Low.
In addition to the spectacular views, there were at least two other moments each day that kept everyone motivated.
“Everyday at the top of the pass, there was a sense of aahhh, we made it this far,” Waters said.
“We were always ecstatic at the top of the pass, and again at the finish each day. You get to feel like you’ve done something, even getting to the place to put your head down for the night. It’s very satisfying,” he said.
And no one will forget the feeling they had when they first saw the Matterhorn.
“When we sighted the Matterhorn, it took my breath away,” recalled Aldridge-Low.
“When we saw the Matterhorn, it’s so iconic, and we knew we were near to the end, so it was an amazing moment,” said Waters.
All three hikers agree they have no regrets.
“We were at times uncomfortable, but it’s good to challenge yourself and have an adventure,” said Northfield, adding, “adventures are not always comfortable!”
“I’m proud of myself, I got through it! I’m glad I did it,” concluded Aldridge-Low.
As for Waters, he said, “I just felt lucky to be able to do this.”
All have resumed their many hikes on the Bruce Trail closer to home and all say they’ll never again complain about their climbs up the Niagara escarpment.