An incredible sea of ice stretched out far in front of me. The strenuous day of walking was now behind us, the aim for the day and a bed for the night had – finally – been reached. I took off my backpack, and stood to catch my breath, looking down in wonder at what I saw ahead of me – the prized reward. I had made it. It was worth it.
High in the mountains of Pennine Alps of southern Switzerland, at a height of over 2,800 metres, a mountain refuge hut finds itself perched dramatically above the Moiry glacier icefield, offering lovers of hiking, walking, mountaineering and climbing the chance to spend a night overlooking an unimaginable wall of ice. We had arrived at the Cabane de Moiry.
In the summer of 2014, I undertook a two day trek to the hut, as part of a week long trekking trip along the second half the walkers Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt.
After flying into Geneva and boarding a train to Sion, we took a distinctive yellow Swiss Postbus up a road with multiple hairpin turns, disembarking at the end of the route, in the small town of Les Hauderes. While on the bus, I had managed to make a dreadful first impression, upsetting our bus driver by inadvertently putting my backpack onto an empty seat and being rather unceremoniously asked to remove it. Perhaps he didn’t like me after some initial confusion attempting to tell him our intended destination, but managing to horribly mispronounce the destination – probably also his home town.
Following a short evening stroll from Les Hauderes to our accommodation in Evolene, a pretty town with traditional wooden built chalets lining the narrow streets, the next morning we started the two day trek to the ski resort of Zinal, with the night in-between the two walking days spent in the unbelievable Cabane.
Rather naively, I had done very little training for the trek in the previous weeks prior to departure, with my exercise limited to walks to and from the station to get to work and the odd 5k run, my weekends during the summer otherwise wonderfully occupied by friends weddings both home and abroad, by organising stag weekends and other activities, sadly leaving less time than I would have liked on a hill with a rucksack on my back.
This lack of preparation initially wasn’t an issue. Upon leaving Evolene, we took a steep path retracing our steps from the evening before, to rejoin the route to the cabane described in our guidebook. I found myself at the front of our group of three, leading the way up to the treeline, just below 2200m at a small hamlet where we were able to refill our water bottles. After ascending approximately 700m in only a little over a couple of hours, my legs were already aching, not being used to a full pack, I was concerned I had taken the first steep ascent too quickly, and it wasn’t even lunch yet.
I felt a cold coming on, briefly stopping to brush my nose to stop the flow of mucus. It was red. A nosebleed. Great. We were only at just above 2000m – heights I have higher than before with no issues – and already I was a walking cliché. Having travelled straight from London, having only one night at 1300m, it perhaps wasn’t a surprise. A symptom of altitude, cold and low humidity, not being used to the dry mountain air. However, it was annoying to hold up my friends for such a relatively small issue at a relatively low height for in a mountain range.
As the treeline faded away, the scenery morphed from woodland into alpine pastures, we separated slightly, each taking their own steady pace as the path climbed progressively higher. At 2500m, we passed a small collection of farm buildings leading to a small tarn and a suitable lunch spot. As we ate, from the distance the unmistakeable sounds of clanging bells and movement came ever closer, we were suddenly surrounded by a herd of cows being driven down the mountain by a couple of farmers. We nodded a quick hello as the inquisitive cows briefly inspected our food before nosily heading further down the slopes we had just risen from.
From the tarn, the landscape changed again – grassy pastures turned into a rocky, almost lunar landscape as we climbed slowly and steadily on, aiming for the Col du Tsate at 2868m. Greg and Andy were way ahead by this point, but I felt happier taking a slow and steady pace, pausing to rest more often than my two friends. I thought back, and couldn’t remember the last time I had walked with more than a weekend bag, and it was showing.
After what seemed like hours, the uphill was no more. We paused at the col, gaining our first view of the vast Moiry icefall and the hut far away to our right, the views big and dramatic, far more impressive than I had dared to realise when researching our trip in the months before we travelled. From our height in the col, we could see our destination and route for the rest of the day, our path dropping away 400m to a roadhead, before rising again on the other side of the Val de Moiry, firstly on well used footpath to a significant moraine, before evolving into a steep zigzag rising up again to the dramatic location of the cabane.
Upon reaching the road end, we could now see the range of peaks behind the cabane in full glory. Away ahead of us were glacial peaks with evocative and dramatic sounding names such as Grand Cornier and Pointes de Mourti. The first half to the uphill section to the cabane was relatively easy going, the only negatives coming from the aches in my legs. The path initially was wide and well used, as we frequently passed groups of day hikers returning to their cars at ‘parking du glacier’ below us. Before long, the path found itself hidden behind a significant lateral glacial moraine before emerging onto the ridge of the moraine, rocks and debris deposited parallel to the glacier. The way ahead was littered by attractive yet non-functional tiny cairns of rocks, balancing precariously yet irrelevant in both their purpose and unnatural appearance. I wanted to kick them down, but chose to take some photos instead, not adding to them.
From the moraine, the path then dropped into a small ablation valley, nestled into the space between the glacier and the valley side. We crossed a few small snow fields, before hitting the extremely steep, multiple zigzagged last stretch of path up to the cabane. The contours on our Swiss map compressed into what looked like one solid line, the black line of our path disappearing among them. This made me all the more grateful for the excellent Ordnance Survey maps we have in the UK, highly detailed with different colours indicating footpaths and contours, the level of cartographic detail of OS maps a genuine interest of mine since a young age.
For the next hour, we slowly climbed the path, with the hut and the glacier largely out of sight. The path was well used and obvious, and we didn’t need to use the map for this section, but I was grateful for trekking poles and decent hiking boots due to the Alpine nature of the path. My legs were weary. It had been a long day, not in distance, but the combination of height gain, steepness and my relative lack of conditioning had made it one of the most demanding days walking I had experienced, the height gain and loss almost the equivalent to summiting Ben Nevis (1344m), and Box Hill (224m) combined, then tackling the height of Dunkery Beacon in Exmoor (519m) almost straight away again.
Finally, the uphill was no more. At the rocky summit of the approach path, an incredible sea of ice stretched out far in front of me. The strenuous day of walking was now behind us, the aim for the day and a bed for the night had – finally – been reached. I took off my backpack, and stood to catch my breath, looking down in wonder at what I saw ahead of me – the prized reward. I had made it.
Stretched around our location, multiple snow and rock lined peaks surround in a horseshoe shape, with the Moiry glacier being the undoubted star attraction – the flatter, almost river like lower reaches of the glacier further down the valley rising into a steep and dramatic distorted jumble of ice; jagged cracks and deep fissures clearly evident from our viewpoint in the panoramic windowed dining room of the contemporary extension of the cabane. Our sense of perspective was not clear. The glacier appeared close, but unimaginably large. It felt impossible to place a sense of scale, as there were no obvious reference points for comparison. A recent chuck of ice had fallen from the glacier, the dirty grey surface of the ice replaced by a hole of deep tinted blue, but it was strangely impossible to gauge the size of the displacement.
The hut makes full potential of the available panorama; a modern wooden built extension to a 1920’s built stone building uses a wall of high glass windows to overlook the glacier below. Although the cabane appears remote, it can be reached by day hikes and walkers, just a two hour walk from a car park at the roadhead we had passed earlier in the day, offering the chance for non-technical outdoor lovers the chance to experience a night in a Alpine refuge.
After an excellent meal (for the location) of pork curry, and a couple of beers, we sat simply gazing out of the windows. There was no need to read a book, or play around on our phones, seemingly my default setting when at home. The entertainment was simple and effective, relying on the staggering views of the natural landscape and each others company to fill the time before darkness descended. The show was over for the evening. Our dorm room was in the newer block of accommodation block, functional yet basic. I was too tired to care if it wasn’t, and feel asleep quickly.
The next day, we retraced our steps back down to the moraine ridge, keeping height above the parking area we had been at the day before, contouring above the deep ice blue dammed Lac du Moiry at the bottom reaches of the Moiry valley. In our ears were the unmistakeable squaking of marmots, the mixture of rocky and grassy landscape perfect for their habitat. We caught a glimpse of some of the animals scurrying away to safety across the path infront us, as we turned to climb again up to 2800m up to the Col du Sorebois, our modest and solitary height gain of 400m for the day.
After the exertions of the first day, I was happy to sit at the back, slowly plodding up the slope in my own time, joining a waiting Greg and Andy at the col, to be presented with another amazing view into the valley ahead. The isolation of the Moiry valley was replaced in the Val de Zinal by man made features of ski lifts and animal grazing, before a heavily forested valley dropped steeply into the town of Zinal, with views of the Weisshorn mountain opposite us, which we would see from the opposite angle later in the week, but were otherwise obscured by a level of low, damp looking grey cloud.
The descent into Zinal was tough going, and I was again glad I had purchased some trekking poles before leaving the UK, the decision vindicated by the reduced stress reductions on my right knee, where I still sometimes suffer the effects of a medial ligament injury from a few years prior. After passing a large herd of cows shortly after leaving the cafe at the top of a cable car at Sorebois, we left an injured Andy to get the transport down, unfortunate tendentious preventing his capacity to walk as he would have liked. Greg and I dropped into the woods below for the hour long descent into Zinal, finally crossing a bridge and into the town, and our next hotel for the night. The spectacular few days were over, but we still had the rest of the week to look forward to as we journeyed toward Zermatt.