Haute Route Day 12 – above St. Niklaus to Grat – (Cookie)Engagement Camp to Above the Clouds Camp
Kilometers hiked: 5-ish
Total Kilometers: 294.5
Haute Kilometers: 153
Gallons of sweat: 1-2
Big hills: 0
Biiiiig hills: 1
The lightning at the business end of the Mattertal flickered all night, until it didn’t. The sky overhead was the clearest I’d seen on this trip so far and the Milky Way was splashed brashly across our ceiling at each moment of intermittent waking. Dry and warm for the duration, I hardly needed my quilt at all. The weather appeared to be shifting for the better when the morning dawned totally clear. Maybe we’d see the Matterhorn today. If it existed.
A big breakfast featured a new bag cake and fruity granola. Packing up slowly, we were still hiking by 9:45am. Finishing the steep climb out of St. Niklaus was hot and sweaty work. A total waste of sunscreen. My calves were particularly rusty this morning for some reason, but knowing that today started with an ascent of many thousands of feet at least had me mentally prepared. Slow and steady, we would get there. As we breached the outskirts of Gasenried (pronounced grass-reind) we found a bunch of local youths helping out with some interesting farming chores, moving wooden planks and hay. It’s a different life out here, Alamo and I discussed. We made it a short stay in town, just enough to fill up at the water fountain, then followed the road until the end. Back on trail.
The rust on the rest of my legs made itself known as the trail one more time shot skyward. This was as steep as anything we had seen so far, but the plush footing of organic material made it seem easier than usual. I know I wasn’t the only one grinding a little bit, with packs full of food, but at least the trail was shaded and friendly as it climbed through dense larch, full of familiar smells. 40 minutes in, hopefully halfway up, there was a perfect spot for a break. While I dug a hole, Spice figured out that nutella is a great accompaniment to both wasabi peanuts and salt and vinegar chips. Alamo washed some socks. Gryllz ate stuff, I guess.
The rest of the climb was brutal too. Alamo and I churned ahead as we just felt like going for it. Bros being bros. The trees thinned as rock and low shrub became dominant textures. Echoes of San Jacinto in SoCal. Sunny, hot. I was sweating so much that I could literally wring out my hat. Drips poured from the bill if I looked down. Eventually, the terrain did flatten out a little bit as we gained a rocky shoulder with big views up and down the valley. Big mountains that we had been walking around for days looked down on our puny human forms, showing us faces that had been obscured in cloud yesterday. The Weisshorn again was the dominant feature across the valley. One rocky lump further along, we reached a point described as having a view of the Matterhorn. No Matterhorn. Of course. Doesn’t exist or still not worthy. We watched the clouds build all around us as we waited to give Gryllz and Spice the good news.
As I scrutinized the topo map, I was chagrinned to realize that, once again, we faced a woolly decision. Beyond this spot the trail embarked on the Europaweg, a high, rocky, exposed traverse to the head of the valley. The guidebook makes it sound pretty thrilling. Rockfall hazard areas and fixed rope sections. We could handle it, but the camping options would be limited or nonexistent up there. With meanish clouds moving in and four hours of sketchy hiking before finding another potential stopping point, I was reluctant to push forward even though it was barely 1pm.
Water, for the first time, was an issue as well. We didn’t have enough to camp here and might not see anymore for a few hours. The last source we saw was at our lunch spot. I was at a loss for what to do. Spice and Gryllz showed up and we discussed. If there were water here, this was the perfect camp spot. Really flat, grassy, well positioned for an awesome sunset/sunrise, and it meant no more hiking today. Anyway, it seemed silly to hike into sketchy terrain in sketchifying weather. This stretch of trail was supposed to have awesome views. Why miss them? We have two and a half days for less than two days of hiking.
Okay, sounds good, but what about water?
Alamo heroically offered to run back down the hill to fill everything up. Before letting him do that, I searched 10 minutes up trail. Nothing. I returned stressed and dehydrated in spitting rain. The others messed around with some acroyoga, but I ate some chips then lay down to clear my mind, wait for my body (stomach) to figure it out. I felt a powerful urge to go for it. Hike into the unknown, take a risk. Perfect, sold! That’s the kind of decisiveness I was looking for. Thanks, brain (stomach). When I triumphantly announced this epiphany, Gryllz didn’t hesitate to say, no. She wasn’t hiking anymore today. What a relief.
Alamo emptied his pack, then disappeared down the trail. Gryllz, Spice, and I set up our shelters against the rising rain, then piled under the tarp for endless rounds of Harambe and peanut M&Ms. It was hard work, but it needed doing. Seriously though, Alamo saved us here. Saved me from my questionable lack of planning. Alamo bailed me out. M&Ms evaporated, light rain fell steadily, Alamo returned. 11 liters of fresh water. Hero.
Back to full strength, our group polished off the colorful morsels and played cards through the afternoon. We perfected the four-person head->knee circle, but then broke to separate shelters for personal time and chores. The clouds surrounded and enveloped us as the rain left for good. I am eternally grateful for Gryllz putting an end to my madness. We would have missed a lot of good stuff hiking through this pea soup. We were right where we were supposed to be.
We peeked our heads out again around 7pm to find the clouds doing some cool things. The Matterhorn was still not existing, but other rocks and ridges swirled through our vision as cloud crashed and broke like ocean waves on rocky shore. We considered this beauty, then considered our hunger. Dinner had a ‘last supper’ feeling even though we had two to go. We were in a good place physically and psychologically. We had hit our stride, overcome a rough patch, and were happy to be right here, right now. The mood was subdued and friendly. I ate way too much nutella.
The sunset was excellent once more, this time because of the constant motion. Purple and orange flowed and pulsed over jagged silhouettes. We’re right where we are supposed to be.
Cold now, we retreated to our beds. Still feeling heroic, Alamo is risking the cowboy. Not much to lose with one tent zipper newly broken. The alarm is set early to help us hit the Europaweg while the morning is clear. I’m looking forward to it. This will be fun. This is fun. Too bad it’s ending soon. This is where we’re supposed to be.