Summiting the Col des Avouillons, I scrambled around a boulder. In front of me, the trail into the valley descended in steep, rocky zigzags. To the right, the glacier’s icy curtain wound down the valley. Below, streams sliced through the fields of boulders. Perched above the glacier on a rocky hill stood Cabane FXB Panossière.
On top of the pass, we were at about equal elevation with our home for the night. It was also a whole valley away. We were about to lose 1,000 feet and gain it all back again.
The 4 p.m. sun started to slide closer to the ridges. As I waited for my friend Tommy, my calves ached and my stomach rumbled. What was I thinking?
A few weeks before, Tommy was travelling to Zurich for work and asked if I would be up for a hut-to-hut adventure in Switzerland. A return to the Alps, one last autumn escape from the city and a weekend with one of my best friends? Bien sûr, sign me up!
Tommy works at Google so he created a spreadsheet called “Mountain Goat Itinerary” for our trip, naturally. My assigned “Action Item” was to plan a trail running route from Verbier. Tommy told me that Cabane FXB Panoissière and Cabane Louvie looked like the nicest huts in the area.
Well, we only had two nights on the trail, so might as well do both.
I found a detailed itinerary of the Tour des Combins, which included a stay at Cabane FXB Panossière. Although the route suggested staying at Panossière the third night of the tour, I combined the first three days into one. We would be running, and Tommy said he wanted to do big days to train for the trail marathon in Moab anyway; 18 miles seemed feasible.
Feasible, yes, but 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) of elevation gain. After living in Paris for a year, my metric conversions still aren’t the strongest, but I often tell my friends that Aspen is at 2,500 meters, so I knew exactly what that meant. I warned Tommy, but he said he was up for it.
After a wholly mediocre, unreasonably expensive dinner in Verbier (welcome to Swiss ski resorts in the offseason), we went to bed early and awoke to the sunrise. The trailhead in Bourg-Saint-Pierre, though 25 minutes away, is a bit of a nightmare with public transit. The concierge advised us to take the bus to Le Châble and then taxi for 15 minutes. It would be fairly reasonably priced, he said.
Turns out that 15-minute car ride would cost $170. Ugh, Switzerland. We declined. With no way to get to Bourg-Saint-Pierre, I scrambled for a speedy reroute to Panossière. Luckily, I found an elevation profile on a random Swiss hiking blog that suggested a route from Orsières — only a 10-minute (and $7) train ride from us! It only went up from there … literally.
As we ascended, the leaves of the serviceberries turned a rich, dark red. The bite of the wind was a reminder that fall had arrived in the Alps.
Sunshine and an initial 5,000 feet of vert called for an hour rest in the lounge chairs at Cabane Brunet, and some bread, cheese and sorbet before the final push.
Somehow, we took the optional high route over Col des Avouillons — 17 miles and 9,000 feet of vert; that “shortcut” to Orsières was, in fact, no shortcut at all. But, yes, the views were absolutely breathtaking.
We recovered with wine, Toblerone, and a multicourse dinner. The Swiss couple next to us bought Tommy their traditional after dinner liquor from Valais — pear and apricot flavored. I preferred my pear and apricot sorbet.
The next morning, we awoke to freezing temperatures, but the glacier was awash in rosy pink light. Our second day featured steep, technical screefield descents, many, many sheep, and some seemingly cruel ascents. I say seemingly cruel because we had dropped 2,000 feet into the valley near Mauvoisin only to climb into the next valley. We love running in the Alps!
The final ascent opened up over a turquoise lake with a tiny cabin perched on its left side: Cabane Louvie, our second hut. Even with 15 miles and 6,500 feet of elevation, we arrived by 1 p.m. and had the rest of the afternoon to read, talk and watch the wind rustle the fall foliage.
It was a Sunday in September and the season was almost over, so we had the hut to ourselves. At one point the hutkeeper even left (though she came back).
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of raindrops on the roof. The lake was entirely socked in, and there was snow on the peaks above. We only had 7 miles, but the beginning was a blind slog through the fog bank and up yet another steep pass. Both of us wore wool socks as gloves. There was snow at the top of our first pass and frozen flowers. Our only companions were the local ibex.
Near the top, though, the sun broke through the clouds. We could see Verbier far below, enough encouragement for the final few miles. After an hour on a cruelly gradual dirt road on the ski resort, we reached the gondola. The ride into Verbier below was pure bliss.
I’m not sure when in my life again I’ll have a flexible enough schedule to take a rather spontaneous four-day adventure in the Alps with one of my best friends, so I’m very grateful for these moments — these slightly insane trips with no rest, insane elevation, mild suffering and extreme beauty. As long as my legs will carry me, I’ll keep saying yes.
Now back to the regularly scheduled programming in Paris.