The High Peaks Above Zinal in the Vallais Region of Switzerland
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
In the summer of 2018 I made a trek around the mountain huts and glaciers above the beautiful village of Zinal in Switzerland. Inspired by the books on the Swiss Alps by Kev Reynolds I wanted to see for myself what he described as "some of the best panoramas of 4000 M peaks in the Alps". If anyone would like any tips on how to organise such a trek then please get in touch. However, please note that the trek will involve arduous hours of ascent each day and a good level of fitness along with experience of hiking and trekking in high mountains are essential pre-requisites.
Day 1 - Sorebois to Cabane Petite Mountet via the Alpin Route
A short cable car ascent drops you adjacent to the very pleasant Restaurant de Sorebois where you can enjoy a coffee or hot chocolate on the sunny terrace affording a wonderful view to the Weisshorn and neighbouring peaks to the west. The alpin trail is clearly signposted with the familiar blue markings a few yards along from the restaurant. The trail is obvious passing underneath some ski installations and it is not long (less than an hour) before you are traversing south south-east with increasingly fabulous views to the high peaks to the west. The first slight obstacle encountered is a patch of neve ice - all that remains from the previous winter.
The path across this small patch of ice is clear and the gradient is not steep although care is obviously required because a slip could result in quite a long slide down! Once across, an easy path traverses a slightly bendy course along the edge of the mountain (Garde de Bordon - 3189M). The view over to the peaks of Pointe d'Arpitetta, Tete de Millon, Weisshorn and Besso seems to change dramatically with each stride.
I encountered the trickiest part of the trail after about two hours of hiking at a slow to steady pace punctuated by lots of photo taking. This is a stretch of about 150 metres across a cascade of boulders and smaller rocks on a reasonably steep slope. I refer to this feature as the stone chute and the photos below illustrate why.
It is important to follow the painted markings across the chute although it is not easy to see them in bright sunshine given the lack of an obvious path and the vast number of rocks. The traverse is not that scrambly but if you stray off the indicated route (as I did briefly) you can find yourself on quite steep ground with very few rocks or footholds to aid you. A slip at this point could prove fatal. I very carefully retraced my steps and crossed a little higher up and was soon back on the recommended route - phew! As you will have gathered, this trail should NOT be attempted in windy or wet conditions when it becomes notoriously dangerous!
Once across the stone chute the path resumes on easy, grassy ground. The spectacular views across to the Weisshorn continue to hold the gaze.
In the photo above from the far left you can see a distinct ridge arriving at Tete de Millon. Moving right you can see the gendarme of the Weisshorn, the Weisshorn itself followed by the Schalihorn, Zinalrothorn and Besso with its twin horns on the far right.
The trail now traverses a broad shelf below the Aguilles de la Le' towering above. The views were so entrancing at this point I decided to break for my packed lunch knowing that the trail would soon begin to descend to the hut and the views would become much more enclosed. It was after all over three hours since I started out.
I set off once again and not long afterwards, at a stream, the trail turned 90 degrees and headed east and began to descend noticeably at this point. After a short while the trail continued to descend south south east and it wasn't long before I was gazing down on Cabane Petit Mountet, my destination for the day.
The photo above shows part of the route I planned to take the next day on the ascent to Cabane Grand Mountet. The zig zagging trail can be seen lower down on the slopes on the left. When I arrived at the cabane some day trippers were just finishing a late lunch. Finding a free table on the terrace I reflected on a lovely hike enjoying several beers as I did so. The view up the heavily glaciated valley and its dramatic steep scree slopes to the snow capped peaks at the head of the glacier was wonderful (see below).
Day 2 - Descent to Valley above Vicchiesso and Ascent to Cabane Grand Mountet
Waking to benign weather once again it wasn't long before I'd had breakfast, packed and was soon on my way down the broad, vehicle friendly track towards Vicchiesso in the valley below. I set off early as I knew the ascent to Cabane Grand Mountet from the valley would be fairly demanding and I wanted to make the most of the good weather. It took less than an hour to reach the new footbridge at a point above Vicchiesso.
Once across the footbridge the trails to Cabane d'Arpitetta (left) and Cabane Grand Mountet (right) are well signposted and in no time I was steadily ascending the trail to Cabane Grand Mountet, initially through trees and shrubs followed by a short stretch of moraine. The heavy shade lasted long into the morning giving some indication of how far below the high peaks the trail passes. After an hour of steady ascent the peaks of Dent Blanche (4357M) and Grand Cornier (3961M) suddenly came into view giving a hint of the dramatic scenery ahead.
The photo above shows how far above the scree sided glacial valley the trail rises. The trail levels off somewhat onto easier ground before rising steeply again on the flanks of Besso. About two and a half hours after leaving the footbridge in the valley I arrived at a dramatic crossing of a deep crevasse aided by a steel footbridge. The steel footbridge looked as though it had been installed fairly recently. It is extremely sturdy as you would expect from excellent Swiss engineering and is shown in the photo below. If you expand the image you will see the safety chains that have been installed on the far side to prevent anyone from falling into the crevasse.
The distant peak just falling into view in the centre of the photo is Pointe de Zinal (3789M). As you approach and cross the footbridge it is possible to see traces of the trail above that must have been used before the bridge was installed. The installation of the bridge has undoubtedly improved the safety of the trail.
The section of the trail after the footbridge is arguably the steepest and most arduous section frequently offering fixed chains for security. With the installation of the chains the level of exposure should not be an issue for anyone with experience of high altitude trekking. There are a number of steep switchbacks and eventually as the shoulder of Besso is rounded the trail delivers you onto an open shelf on considerably easier ground. The view that greets you here is one that you will remember for the rest of your life. I arrived at this point panting for breath and staring in wonderment at the beauty of what is truly a fabulous 360 degree panorama. It is at this point I filmed the short video of the 360 degree view using my Samsung phone. The video is in my gallery on this website and when you play it you might hear my heavy breathing occasionally between the gusts of wind. My heart was pounding but I was delighted with what I was experiencing at this moment and also at the thought that most of the hard work was behind me. The photo below was also taken at this spot.
The peaks in the photo are from left to right Obergabelhorn (4063M), Mont Durand (3713M), Pointe de Zinal (3789M) and Dent Blanche (4357M) with the slope up to the peak of Grand Cornier on the extreme right. As already mentioned, the path from this point proceeds on easier ground but the clear path soon gives way to a boulder field the route through which is clearly marked with the familiar painted markings - two white dashes either side of a red dash. After 30 minutes or so I got my first view of Cabane Grand Mountet. With my destination now within sight I decided to take my well earned lunch break gazing at the magnificent scenery surrounding me. As I was munching on my sandwich a member of staff from the Cabane who was on her way to start her shift stopped by to say hello. We exchanged pleasantries and she complimented me on my choice of venue for lunch and mentioned in passing that she had completed her ascent to this point from Zinal village in a record 3 hours! I guess on reflection that this was not so surprising. The frequency of her commute will have done wonders for her fitness and she was not carrying a 30 litre sac or taking numerous photographs on the way. I somehow managed to convince myself that I had done well enough on my ascent!
Lunch eaten it was now time to cross the last few yards and order that well earned beer!
On arrival at the Cabane I checked in with the Gardien and was warned that all my ablutions the following morning would need to be completed by 8am. The reason for this was that the helicopter was due to make one of its periodic visits to the Cabane to deliver supplies and "take away the shit". She explained that she would need to pull the waste bags out of the washroom ready for the chopper's arrival. If you have ever wondered what is in those large sacks suspended below helicopters flying through the Alps, well now you know. You can clearly see the windsock for the helicopter visits in the photo above.
The Cabane is built on a lovely terrace in front of this amazing cirque of peaks and it was lovely to sit and relax in the sunshine with a cold beer. Dinner that evening was delightful. I had been assigned to a table to join a Swiss mother and daughter from Sion and a lovely Swiss couple. The daughter was the head of the A&E team at the hospital in her town and was taking her ever so refined and charming mother on her first ever trekking experience! The conversation was in French and whenever I lost the thread (which was more than a few times) the mother would break into perfect English to help me out!
Day 3 - Descent to Valley above Vicchiesso and Ascent to Cabane d'Arpitetta
I had guaged correctly the effort needed on the ascent up to Grand Mountet. However, I have to confess that the effort demanded by this descent and ascent in a day surprised me. I woke early to make sure my ablutions could be completed before the chopper's arrival and to take the Cabane's breakfast. It was another remarkably fine day and the incredibly bright, early sunshine was far from ideal for photography and so I set off a little before 8am. There is no alternative route to the Cabane so the only option for the descent was to retrace my steps all the way to the trail junction close to the footbridge above Vicchiesso. I took fewer photos on the descent but the scenery is so spectacular that I still found myself stopping in awe to take it all in.
As I descended the trail opposite Grand Cornier I was shaken by a great thundercrack of a rockfall on its vast wall. You can see the cloud of dust from the rockfall just left of centre in the photo above. You can also see on the left the silhouette of two people I had passed moments earlier. My descent was taking longer than usual that morning again reflecting the fact that I had underestimated the effort I was about to make on the ascent up to Cabane d'Arpitetta. Passing the fork to the footbridge I picked up the trail to Cabane d'Arpitetta. After a short distance I took a small path to the right and stopped to have my packed lunch at a small secluded grassy area on the bank of the river that has been created for viewing the waterfall from the Torrent d'Arpitetta.
Lunch eaten, I retraced my steps from the waterfall viewpoint and was soon back on the trail for Cabane d'Arpitetta. It wasn't long before the broad trail began to climb in zigzags through the trees affording a splendid view up the to the Zinal glacier.
Grand Cornier is clearly visible in the above photo at the head of the valley with Dent Blanche largely hidden behind it. The path continued upwards through the wooded slopes and continued to ascend a couple of zigzags shortly after emerging from the trees. The path gradually attains easier ground as it traverses in a north westerly direction before arriving at a junction of trails. I knew that my trail would turn right at this point but was a little thrown by the fact that there were two trails to chose from heading in broadly the same direction. Not wanting to take time consulting the map I chose the higher of the two trails which followed closely the crest of a small ridge. To my relief at the end of the ridge the unmistakable Lac d'Arpitetta came into full view. When I later checked the map it confirmed that either of the optional trails would have been correct as they converged at this point. The lake is situated in a broad open plateau area below Pointe d'Arpitetta and offers excellent views up to the Weisshorn and neighbouring peaks. It is a favourite picnic spot for locals and visitors, particularly in summer when it is not unusual to see families cooling down in the crystal clear water.
I paused for a brief rest at the Lake still feeling reasonably strong at this point. The trail to the cabane was clearly signposted at the lake and I set off on the trail traversing east across easy ground for about a kilometre before climbing quite steeply . As I gained height I began to feel a little weary and found some steep zigzags through heather to be particularly taxing. A couple of young German climbers passed me at this point and although they were not moving much faster than me they did seem to be taking it more in their stride. It seemed as though each stride was sapping energy from me and I began to long for at least a sight of the cabane thinking that once it was in view it would not be much longer before I was nursing a well earned beer. How wrong I was. My spirits lifted when I first spotted the cabane briefly before it disappeared behind an approaching spur. I started to visualise how much closer the cabane would appear once I gained the spur only to be proved wrong as the cabane looked as far away as it did before. There then followed quite a long period before I saw the cabane again and once again I was disappointed that it did not appear that much closer. The path crossed a couple of streams all the time continuing broadly in an easterly direction. A small steel footbridge aided the crossing of a third stream before climbing steeply around a broad spur of moraine. Eventually the gradient began to ease slightly and I sensed that the cabane would not be too far away at this point. As the gradient eased further I was relieved to see that the cabane was now reasonably close and I could make out figures sitting in front of it. I decided to take one final break at this point and finish off the last of my packed lunch and drain the last of my water. I was now feeling pretty pooped and wearily set off for the final few yards. On the final approach to the cabane the path proceeds through an avenue of carefully positioned cairns - a grand finale for weary hikers.
I looked back at this point as the sun was breaking through above me and there was a fabulous view back to the peaks above part of my route two days before. The view I enjoyed is shown in the photo above. You can see the avenue of cairns in the foreground. The two peaks on the right are of Garda Bordon (3309M) just above the stone chute I had traversed on the Sorebois trail to Cabane Petite Mountet. The peak on the left is Pigne de la Le' (3395M). Cabane Petite Mountet can just be seen next to the upper edge of the mouth of the glacial valley on the left if you enlarge the image to the maximum, The stream in the valley is La Navisence at about the point where the new wooden footbridge is situated.
On arrival at the cabane I checked in with the Guardien and promptly ordered a litre of sparkling water and a beer. It had been a long and arduous day and I was very thirsty. As I sat there in the dining room slaking my thirst the friendly Guardien kindly asked if I was alright. I assured her that I was but that I was just a bit tired and she commented that she had seen me approaching and could tell by my movements that I was weary. I sorted out my bunk bed before commandeering the washroom for a major wash in the absence of a shower. Feeling refreshed and with clean clothes on I returned to the dining room and ordered a piece of homemade prune tart and a coffee. There was a large table opposite me on which a large group, including the Guardien, were enjoying telling climbing stories over beers while nibbling on salami and other titbits. They were obviously friends and it transpired later that they were all long standing members of the climbing association that owned the hut and they traditionally got together in the hut at the end of each season. Just before we were due to enjoy a hearty home cooked supper someone outside was calling to us to join them. I rushed out with my phone not bothering to grab my camera and took the photo below showing the effect of the setting sun's rays on the flanks of the Weisshorn. The perfect end to a memorable day.
Day 4 - Return to Zinal
There was a lot of rustling noise in the dormitory at an unearthly hour long before dawn and it was impossible to get back to sleep. I worked out that it must have been the two young German climbers as they had said over dinner that their plan the next day was to ascend the Millon ridge to Tete de Millon on the summit ridge before tackling the Weisshorn. They eventually left the dormitory but the interruption had been so bothersome there was no point trying to get back to sleep. I therefore headed to the washroom before settling down for a quick breakfast. Having replenished my water and packed my bag I ventured outside to put on my boots. I was surprised to see that the German climbers had still not left but were in the final throws of preparation before setting off along the moraine in the direction of the Crete de Millon. I had a brief conversation with one of the older club members who coincidentally was also called Peter and who lived in the region. He was 80 years old but didn't look anything like his age and was obviously still as fit as a fiddle as he too was going with some friends to climb the Crete de Millon to the summit ridge! The night before Peter had mentioned to me that in his younger days he had skied down from the Cabane to the valley over the waterfall I had viewed the day before which happened to be frozen at the time!
The weather was once again perfect although the bright light and deep shade were arguably too stark for taking photos. I therefore slowly began to retrace my steps back down to the valley, As I did so the light began to soften a little and the shapely peak of Besso looked increasingly dramatic as I drew nearer.
The descent was uneventful and very pleasant in the warming sunshine. I deliberately took my time so that I could enjoy the wonderful scenery surrounding me. After two and a half hours or so I reached a point on the trail perched above Lac d'Arpitetta and on the mountains opposite could make out the scar of the stone chute I had traversed carefully a couple of days earlier. Rather than descend directly to the lake I decided to make for the headland just above it and to the right from where I reckoned I could take some good telephoto shots of the stone chute for posterity. It would also be a perfect place to enjoy the packed lunch kindly provided by the Guardien at the cabane. Although it wasn't quite 11 am I was getting a little hungry due to the early wake up and the fact that breakfasts in the huts are never very substantial. When I arrived at the edge of the promontory I found a rock on which to sit and enjoy some local salami and a great view of the trail I had followed two days earlier.
Lunch eaten and feeling very satisfied with my hikes in this wonderful mountain region I made my way to the lake and began on the descent to the stream. Not long after leaving the lake a splendid view up the glacial valley to Pointe de Zinal presented itself. The photo below captures the view and shows Besso towering on the left and Pigne de la Le' Facing opposite on the right.
Retracing my steps from the day before it was not long before I was approaching the stream in the valley. Taking one final view of the waterfall I made my way to the footbridge and set off on the fairly long gradual descent back to Zinal. The descent down the track, past the redundant copper mines and through fields of cattle gave plenty of time to reflect on what had undoubtedly been an outstanding few days of hiking. As I approached the village the thought occurred to me that the Hotel Les Bouquetins at the head of the old village would be one of the first I would pass. It is my favourite place in Zinal to enjoy a quite beer because its terrace offers an unbroken view up the valley to the high peaks, the perfect place to enjoy a refreshing beer at the end of a day's hiking. And that is exactly what I did!