Twin Peaks | Riding the E-bike Haute Route From Chamonix to Zermatt

Alf Alderson tackles a week-long Alpine MTB adventure. With climbs of over 2,000m and daily distances of more than 40km, it’s a trip that demands plenty of leg and lung power – even with the added power of an e-bike.

19th April 2024 | Word and Pictures by Alf Alderson

The original ‘Haute Route’ has become an icon of Alpine mountaineering. It was first undertaken in the mid-19th century by members of the British Alpine Club, dreamed up as a summer mountaineering expedition between the twin mountain towns of Chamonix and Zermatt. Since then, variations of the route have been cobbled together for both skiers and mountain bikers. So, it was inevitable that when e-mountain bikes came along, a version of the Haute Route would be developed for them too.

The route I’m riding was put together by Martigny-based bike guides Maxence Carron and Adrià Mercadé. I’m one of a group of eight riders, a mix of Swiss and French, about to set off from Chamonix on this week-long adventure of roughly 250km. Virtually all of it crosses off-road terrain that varies from easy dirt roads to quite challenging single-track descents, for which you need a reasonable level of mountain biking experience.

And it would be wrong to think that because the route is done on an e-bike it’s a piece of cake – an average day involves more than 40km riding and in excess of 2,000 metres of ascent. Even with the assistance of batteries and motors, a good deal of leg and lung power is also required.

Alf Alderson

The adventure begins with Vince leading us out of Chamonix on the balcony trail on the north side of the valley. Already, this stirs memories. I first rode this trail way back in 1992 on a hardtail Marin Bear Valley bike; a far, far cry from the Cube Stereo Hybrid 160 I’m on today, which would literally have been unimaginable in those early days of mountain biking.

The route takes us up to the Col du Balme, situated at 2,195 metres on the border of France and Switzerland. Here we stop for lunch in breezy sunshine before a long, winding descent to Trient, which involves the first technical riding of the trip (and the first puncture).

Vince and Adrià offer invaluable tips on how to negotiate the tight hairpins and more technical terrain before we eventually end the day in a basic but comfortable auberge, just outside Champex. Heavy rain is falling. It’s a presage of things to come…

Day two of our ride brings a full-on rain and mudfest as we proceed for hours through a never-ending summer deluge to Verbier, where we hit one of the finest flow trails I’ve ever ridden. Vince leads the way down a swooping, slippery, rain-lashed descent that, despite a couple of spills and a complete plastering in gloop, has everyone laughing out loud.

Noone really cares how soaked and bedraggled we are. For we know that at day’s end the welcoming Chalet des Alpes above Nendaz awaits, complete with hot showers, filling dinner, cold beer and a warm bed along with the chance to dry out our gear and fettle our bikes. And there’s good news from Adrià: “The weather will be better tomorrow”.

Alf Alderson

Over the above-mentioned cold beers what is to become a regular conversational theme develops amongst the eight riders in the group – are e-bikes ‘real’ bikes? We’ve all ridden mountain bikes of one kind or another for most of our adult lives, and we all find it easy to agree that e-bikes are not necessarily better or worse than ‘regular’ bikes, they just allow you to do things differently, and, let’s be honest, more easily. From my perspective this is no bad thing, especially when you’ve been mountain biking for almost forty years, at which point in life the climbs definitely get steeper and longer, whatever Strava might say.

Despite Adria’s forecast we begin in thick cloud cover. Fresh snow lies only 300 metres above us. Starting with a traverse alongside a ‘bisse’ – an ancient irrigation channel cut into the mountainside – we then drop through dank forests to Nendaz, before a stiff 800-metre climb to the summit of 2,491-metre Mont Rouge.

Mont Rouge

The swirling mist that has thus far hidden the views begins to dissipate as we hoon downhill on rocky paths and dirt roads for over a thousand metres to our lunch in the Herens Valley. Here energy in the form of food for humans and fresh batteries for bikes awaits us at a support vehicle, which also carries all our gear.

By the time lunch has been gobbled down the sun is shining, heating things up for another long climb, which ends the shortest day of the trip. Tonight, we’re staying at a traditional alpine auberge that is also home to the region’s infamous Herens ‘fighting cows’, which literally lock horns to establish a hierarchy within the herd.

Mont Rouge

Day three dawns bright and sunny (weather we’ll thankfully experience for the rest of the trip), which means the trails gradually dry out and become dusty again. We get our first views of the Matterhorn thrusting up into a cobalt blue sky above Zermatt, as we ride across sunny alpine pastures to a shady forest descent with so many hairpins I lose count.

By afternoon temperatures are hitting the high twenties as we ride up through airy alpages and shady woodlands, with the occasional jaw-dropping view of 4,357-metre Dent Blanche, before a lovely flowing descent to the achingly pretty hamlet of La Sage and the eponymous hotel, as traditionally Swiss as cuckoo clocks and Toblerone.

“Today will be the most spectacular of the journey,” says Adrià over breakfast the next morning, before laconically adding, “We start with a 1,300-metre climb”. Had I been riding my regular mountain bike this would have been the signal for a mutiny, but with an e-bike – well, it’s still a slog, but not with all the grunting, gasping and cursing that accompanies long ascents on a ‘normal’ bike.

Col Du Torrent

After two tough hours, we reach the top of the Col du Torrent between Val d’Herens and Val d’Anniviers. At 2,919 metres this is the highest I’ve ever ridden on a bike (although, full disclosure, there was some pushing too, up the steep singletrack just below the col).

Even on an e-bike it’s been challenging to get up here, but on the rudimentary Marin Bear Valley I was riding in 1992 – well, I’d have been pushing or carrying it most of the way. And as for the descent – comparing the experience on the two different bikes would be like comparing a Ferrari and a Morris Minor. Today I wouldn’t even think about attempting to do this ride on that old bike.

Lac Moiry

I’m actually the oldest member of our Haute Route group (just), whilst the youngest riders are still in their twenties. But thanks to the miracle of motor and battery we can all comfortably ride together when, let’s face it, the young whippersnappers would be leaving me eating their dust if we were on regular bikes.

The view takes in magnificent 4,000-metre peaks thrusting up into a dazzling blue sky with summer-grubby glaciers tumbling down their slopes, jade green alpine lakes, cool shadowy forests and a long, long sliver of singletrack that will take us down into the next village. It proves to be arguably the best descent of the week, a whoop-it-up, dusty 1,400-metre downhill past the improbably turquoise waters of Lac de Moiry to chocolate-box pretty Grimentz.

Lac de Moiry

Day five begins with – yes, you guessed it – another long climb, the reward for which is a spectacular view of Switzerland’s ‘Imperial Crown’, a magnificent array of five 4,000m peaks, with the Matterhorn looming just beyond. The trail eventually brings us to our overnight stop, the 2337-metre Hotel Weisshorn above Val d’Anniviers, an impressive Victorian pile once accessible only by mule or on foot.

Our group has by now become a well-oiled machine. Bikes, equipment and bodies are all working in relatively perfect harmony, so the following morning’s superlative 1,800-metre descent through sun-dappled forest all the way to Sierre is a sheer joy.

But what goes down must also go up – 1,300-metres in this case – to a lovely rustic mountain cabin above Moosalp which we have to ourselves for the night. Since it also has a wood-fired hot tub and plenty of cold beer and wine on tap things get pretty raucous by the time the sun is setting, and four of us choose to sleep out under the stars, with the outline of inky blue alpine peaks silhouetted against the black of the night sky.

La Sage

We wake in crisp mountain air and see the sun rising over the mountains before our final day’s riding, which starts on a glorious high traverse before a steep singletrack down to the Matter Valley; less than two-hours later the Matterhorn hoves into view as we approach Zermatt and journey’s end.

By now I feel as if I could ride for ever (my bike disagrees, mind – I’m on to my third set of brake pads since I set off and there are various creaks and groans coming from various parts of the old gal). But having an e-bike has enabled me to complete and enjoy a challenging off-road adventure that in all honesty I would have found incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, on my ‘regular’ Orange Five MTB; certainly, I’d never have been able to do it in a week.

Yet it’s still been a challenge both physically and technically, but an enjoyable challenge; so much so that when, before our transfer back to Chamonix the following morning, we’re given the option of hanging out in the coffee shops of Zermatt or going up into the mountains for a few hours of additional mountain biking on the sunny, dusty trails that lie in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn. My choice? Well, there’s no contest, it’s gotta be one last ride.

More info

Alf rode with Swiss-based E-Alps The ‘Haute Route by E-Bike’ includes guiding, all accommodation and meals and transfer back to Chamonix. Rental bikes available if required.

Alf Alderson is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about adventure travel for 25 years, with his work appearing in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and websites globally. He divides his time between the Pembrokeshire coast and Les Arcs in the French Alps.

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