With Switzerland now on the travel green list, it’s the perfect time to head for the hills. But if lockdown has left you struggling for fitness, an e-bike can take the strain out of the climbs
Fri 27 Aug 2021 07.07 EDT
‘C’est magnifique!” exclaims Armand. Before us lies Switzerland’s Imperial Crown, a spectacular array of five 4,000-metre peaks, with the Matterhorn looming just beyond. Armand and I have reached our magnificent viewpoint after a 1,000-metre climb on e-mountain bikes from the pretty village of Grimentz.
I’m one of a group of seven riders on the Haute Route, a week-long, 250km off-road adventure from Chamonix to Zermatt, in the charge of local guides Adrià and Vince.
The original Haute Route was first undertaken in the mid-19th century as a summer mountaineering expedition by members of the British Alpine Club; today there are also variations for skiers, mountain bikers and road cyclists, and in the last couple of years Martigny-based guiding company E-Alps has put together an e-bike version of the route.
The original Haute Route was first undertaken in the mid-19th century by members of the British Alpine Club
It would be wrong to think that because it’s done on an e-bike it’s a piece of cake – an average day involves more than 40km of off-road cycling on everything from easy forest trails to technical singletrack, and in excess of 2,000m of climbing. Even with the assistance of a motor, a good deal of leg and lung power is required, as well as a reasonable level of technical ability for the more challenging descents.
The adventure begins with Vince leading us out of Chamonix up to the Col de Balme on the border of France and Switzerland, where we stop for lunch in breezy sunshine. From here, a long, winding descent to Trient involves the first technical singletrack of the trip, with Vince and Adrià offering tips on how to negotiate the hairpins, before we end the day in a basic but comfortable auberge just outside Champex with heavy rain falling, a presage of things to come.
Cycling above Lac de Moiry
Cycling above Lac de Moiry
Driving rain, huge puddles and clinging mud characterise day two on the route to Verbier, where we hit one of the finest flow trails I’ve ever ridden. Vince leads the way on a swooping, slippery, rain-lashed descent that, despite a couple of spills and a complete plastering in gloop, leaves everyone with a broad smile on their faces.
A final ascent takes us to the Chalet des Alpes beneath Dent de Nendaz, and good news from Adrià: “The weather will be better tomorrow”.
Even so, we begin in cloud cover and fresh snow lies only 300 metres above. Starting with a traverse alongside a bisse – an ancient irrigation channel cut into the mountainside – we then drop through dank forests to Nendaz before a stiff climb to the summit of 2,491-metre Mont Rouge.
The swirling mist that has thus far hidden the views begins to dissipate as we hare downhill on rocky paths and dirt roads to our lunch in the Herens valley, while fresh batteries for the bikes are provided by a support vehicle which also carries all our gear.
After lunch another long climb ends the shortest day of the trip at a traditional Alpine auberge, which is also home to the region’s infamous “fighting cows” which lock horns to establish a hierarchy within the herd.
In the achingly pretty hamlet of La Sage our hotel is as Swiss as a cuckoo clock or Toblerone
On day three we get our first views of the Matterhorn, thrusting up into a cobalt blue sky as we ride across sunny Alpine pastures to a shady forest descent with so many hairpins I lose count.
By the afternoon temperatures are hitting the high 20s as we ride up through airy alpages and shady woodlands with the occasional jaw-dropping view of Dent Blanche, before a lovely flowing descent to the achingly pretty hamlet of La Sage and its eponymous hotel – as Swiss as a cuckoo clock or Toblerone.