Time to saddle up for a two-wheeled adventure on a five-day ‘mini’ Haute Route e-bike tour over mountain passes from Verbier to Zermatt
I can feel my face contorting and my forearms cramping up as I careen down the trail, searching for grip under heavy-braking. Self-doubt creeps in. “Am I fit enough for this? Have I spent enough time on the bike this season?!” It is, after all, only the start of the trip; day one of a five-day ‘mini’ Haute Route e-bike tour over mountain passes from Verbier to Zermatt with E-Alps. The full Chamonix to Zermatt itinerary entails two to three days’ extra riding. “Thank god I didn’t sign up for that one!”, I think, as I am jarred to focus once again by a critical line choice.
I try to regain some composure by recalling some simple biking mantras: stay loose, look ahead, pace yourself etc., but some unhinged part of me is too intent on chasing the little orange backpack 50 metres ahead to consider backing off. So here I am, going as fast as my fitness and abilities on this loaned e-bike will carry me.
The backpack I’m chasing belongs to our guide for the five-day 198km trip, Samuel. A smiley, ostensibly chilled-out Frenchman from the Jura Mountains, he is mentally fast on a bike – not to mention he knows these trails better than anyone, after all, he’s the chap who, with the help of a couple other guides, has knitted these endless miles of trails together for the trip.
Minutes earlier we were eight GoreTex-clad specks, perched on our third mountain-top of the morning, a blustery Mont Rouge (2,491m), above the ski resort of Nendaz. And now, having dropped several hundred vertical metres – from the barren summit, through the golden grasses and purple heather, to the spidering cow paths of the pasture – we are about to enter a dense forest. I’m stunned at the diversity of the trails thus far – this natural trail through the forest almost feels like a bike park line.
Before I know it I’ve reached the road, where Samuel is parked on the side, grinning. “That section is one of my favourites,” he says. We wait for the others to regroup – with our second guide Jeremy, a Swiss alpinist, bringing up the rear – before the E-Alps support crew meets us with an enormous picnic of olives, hummus, cheeses, salamis, artisanal ice teas and coffee. It has been an epic morning’s ride – we’ve devoured the miles – and as we sit around the picnic, this concept of diversity and richness of experience echoes around the group.
And it no doubt resonates with anyone who has ridden a bike some distance. Simply thanks to their ability to cover ground with such speed, riders witness huge environmental changes within a short space of time. And I can confirm that using a motor-assisted mountain bike in the mountains turns this sort of terrain-altering magic up another level. This morning alone, we had on three consecutive occasions gained and lost thousands of metres of altitude, from valley to summit to valley again – lush to barren to lush, again and again (over the next four days we would cover 8,400m in elevation, with 9,900m of descent).
E-bikes have the ability to ‘level the playing field’ too; the motor essentially helping only when you need it. The winter Haute Route – launched in 1903 by members of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix – is characterised by the uphills being more strenuous than the downhill sections, and as such groups might spread out on the climbs. But our motors mean that our group stays close together on the ascents, despite being a mix of ages, abilities and experiences, women and men.
As for the descents, you only go as fast as you want to! And many times can choose your route, opting either for the more spicy or more mellow line (the guides can even split the group for longer alternative sections).
So, group morale from the start is high – aided by Samuel and Jeremy, who are friendly, open, making jokes and constantly building confidence in the group.
That afternoon, we pedal up a section of road to our first lodging, the atmospheric Hotel de la Sage above Les Haudères. It has enormous windows in the salon, for bearing witness to the final alpenglow illuminating the Grande Dent de Veisivi and the beautifully imposing profile of the immense, 4,358m Dent Blanche. Another element of the trip is brought sharply into focus by these impressive peaks, and my fellow riders’ reverence of them. We are traversing places of immense scale. There are talks of ski tours and conquests.
Samuel and Jeremy’s prowess for this job is validated time and time again by their stories of their experiences in these mountains and of their recommendations for further adventures. Samuel regales the group of his solo, motor-less multi-day adventures across even higher passes, and of his role in establishing these routes for E-Alps, knitting hiking trails (bikes can share hiking trails in Switzerland – take note France) and snowshoeing trails together, and trying to keep them in equal parts accessible, challenging and fun – no easy task. Jeremy speaks of peaks he has climbed and others he has paraglided past. We are in good company, no question.
As we refuel on coq au vin and beers (wine for the Europeans, naturally), the bikes silently charge in the hotel garage. E-Alps carefully planned the route with bike-charging facilities in mind, yet being Switzerland, accommodation with such facilities is not too hard to find.
Day two has us out and on the bikes promptly after a good breakfast. We are winding up the side of the deep shady valley, pedalling fire roads – the 4×4 tracks, or farm/fire roads in Switzerland, are impressively well maintained. The drainage is good, and the gravel is far finer than that found in France or Italy, meaning the progress is smoother and faster.
It is still a slog, however, a race to get to the sun-line and out of the shade, and there is a cheer from the group as we breach it. We continue up from there, our goal the Col de Torrent, our highest col of the trip at 2,919m.
The final ascent is technical, with some of the group electing to walk their bikes in Walk mode, others carefully riding the switchbacks, with Trials specialist, Jean-Marc, clearing the whole lot in one shot – before then descending on foot to assist his friend. The only other track to see on this steep singletrack ascent is that of a donkey’s hooves – not a hiking boot tread or a bike tyre (besides ours!) in sight.
The view at the col is spectacular. We are high enough to get a real lay of the land – Jeremy is pointing out all his favourite 4,000m peaks to climb and their infinitely complex glacial systems.
The descent to Grimentz is eye-wateringly fast – not steep, just fast and flowy. Every person in our rag-tag group is having as much fun as the next and playful passing moves mean positions are traded often. The easy way to add challenge to your bike ride is to simply stay off the brakes a little longer, and hey presto, the flow trail can become a wild thing! We pass the massive and vividly turquoise glacial reservoir of Moiry, snapping pictures and mending a puncture or two in the final section down to lunch.
Having crossed Grimentz and wound passed the ancient wooden huts at the tail end of the village, we traverse through beautiful forest and begin the long climb up past the resort of St Luc to a famous refuge, the Hotel Weisshorn.
I note that so many of the conversations on this trip revolve around nature: from the animals we spot (a massive bearded vulture in the first hour of riding, nutcrackers, vipers, chamois, alpine squirrels) to foraging (mushrooms, myrtilles), to tree species, to hunting and the reintroduction of wolves. In these conversations between the native French and Swiss, I enjoy the insight into their local knowledge of the landscape and laws. Who knew, for example, that in Aravis there is a program to release vipers from helicopters to control rodent populations?!
Relishing the ups
The following day begins with a traverse through red leaves of wild blueberry bushes followed by a descent from Hotel Weisshorn down to the valley floor that will remain in my memory for years. The turns were simply all the right shape. It is as if the Swiss made these ancient walking trails in anticipation of bikes! “Is there a better country to ride a bike?” I ponder, between fits of laughter and joy at how insanely good the trail rides.
After lunch (I swear I am eating more every day), we make a traverse where the light is casting almost horizontally through September’s yellowing larch trees and bouncing off the green grasses at their bases. The light on that traverse is only as awe-inspiring as the fluid, smooth, perfect-width trail that winds through them. These moments are hard to put into words – speeding through such a beautiful environment with the fluidity that only wheels or skis can afford you. I know our guide is enjoying these trails as much as we are. We’re all smiling like lunatics.
We are told that the final climb for dinner and our beds that night is a long one. The log-pile mountain hut is far up the mountain above us, but by now I’m relishing the ups and the change on mental focus. I’ve even taken to reducing the motor assistance to challenge my legs and my pacing – I would go as far to say that I am enjoying the ups equal to the downs – an entirely new feeling.
Fondue is, of course, the only answer to that sort of ascent, and our Italian support team are ready at the hut there with cold beers to accompany it. The firewood-powered hot-tub means that the axe is being swung for much of the evening.
Our final morning dawns. The ride to Zermatt is along a balcony above the valley floor, with the mighty Matterhorn appearing at times to signal our proximity to our destination. The larch trees and pale earth once again provide a perfect riding surface and we can smell victory in the air.
We have one final day riding alongside glacial rivers in Zermatt, deep up the Zmutt Valley in the shadow of the imposing Matterhorn’s north face. Yes, we are all enthusiastic to have completed the route, but really, more than just ‘getting from A to B successfully’, the feeling is more one of appreciation for the trails and nature we have experienced along the way.
In the same way that, thanks largely to advancements in gear, skiers now approach the Haute Route not just as a ‘point to point’ journey but as an actual skiing experience (often opting for a ‘less direct’ route in favour of more engaging ski terrain), so too is the E-Alps trip about the biking. E-Alps have not only plotted the route but found the best trails – and what is evident is that the quality of the trails available to those wishing to travel beyond the often crowded bike-park resorts can be utterly mind-blowing.
Check out E-Alps for its Haute Route e-bike trips. The five-day Verbier to Zermatt trip costs from 2,750CHF per person, including bike hire, accommodation, all meals and guiding. The seven-day Chamonix to Zermatt Haute Route trip costs from 3,850CHF per person.