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Higher ground: an introduction to Alpine Mountaineering

KE traveller Nell and her dad, Neil, couldn’t help but set their sights on higher ground, after completing a classic KE Alpine trek. Booking themsel... Read more
Higher ground: an introduction to Alpine Mountaineering
KE traveller Nell and her dad, Neil, couldn’t help but set their sights on higher ground, after completing a classic KE Alpine trek. Booking themselves on to our Italian High Level Route adventure, they took the plunge into Alpine mountaineering last summer – here’s how they got on.

Words: Nell Miller

Photos: Nell and Don Miller

Once a year my dad and I put aside some time for a hiking trip together. We’ve always walked together since the days that I toddled down to the corner shop with him on a Sunday morning to get the newspaper. Now that we don’t see each other often, our annual trip serves as valuable time for catching up on our separate lives whilst sharing our passion for the outdoors.

After completing the 'Best of Mont Blanc to Matterhorn' with KE Adventure Travel and getting our first taste of alpine trekking, we couldn’t resist booking another trip for the following year. Once you’ve experienced the fresh air, the alpine meadows rich with Snowdrops, Gentians and Edelweiss, the jagged peaks and the chime of cow bells you can’t help but return.

Walking beneath the glaciers had fuelled a desire to take our alpine trekking to the next level and venture higher so we booked onto the Italian High Level Route. This would involve hut-to-hut hiking and glacier travel, winding across the Swiss-Italian border in the Monte Rosa mountain massif.


The main reason that we chose the Italian High Level Route was that it suited our skill level: avid hikers but total beginners when it comes to glacier travel. The first day of the trip allowed not only for acclimatisation but also for an afternoon of alpine glacier skills training. As someone who descends 99% of snowy slopes on her bum, a few hours of learning how to walk on snow, use crampons and a rope, and correctly hold an ice axe to avoid any accidental stabbings was hugely important. When I first stepped onto the snow and instantly fell over, I was nervous for the week ahead and my mind filled with doubt as to whether I'd be able to complete it. However, our guide Kathy put me at ease and made me feel in very safe hands.


So what can you expect on the Italian High Level Route with KE Adventure Travel? I’ve already mentioned the fantastic guidance (Kathy was knowledgeable, easy to get on with, yet not afraid to tell you if you’re doing something dangerous and an all-round excellent woman), so let me tell you about the incredibly varied landscapes.

The first day of our trek was spent using crampons and ropes to make our way across seemingly infinite expanses of glacier and climbing our first 4000m snowy peak, the Breithorn. It was a sea of white and a stunning introduction to the trek. The second day and third days were spent hiking through alpine meadows and befriending ibex. After so much snow on day one, greenery, flora and wildlife offered the perfect contrast before ending in some more snow to remind us just how high we were.

The fourth day was my personal highlight. It was the most challenging section of the trek, with a 5am start and an early ascent of another two 4000m peaks: Pyramid Vincent and the Balmenhorn. The sunrise views from Pyramid Vincent were breathtaking, and using ladders to climb the Balmenhorn was incredibly fun! From here, with ropes tight due to a high risk of crevasses, we descended the Colle del Lys beneath many Séracs and made our way towards the Monte Rosa hut.

The final day provided the perfect vista of our journey, as we walked along an easy path with views of the Breithorn, the Colle de Lys and the Gandegg hut where we stayed on our first night, giving us the opportunity to reminisce about the last few days. It was a shorter day than others, meaning that we arrived back into Zermatt around lunch time for a well deserved burger followed by several team drinks!


Other than the fantastic guidance and the varied landscapes, one of my favourite things about this particular trip was the warm welcome that we received each night in the mountain huts and the copious amount of pasta served up to us. The food that we ate on the Italian High Level Route was excellent and the portion sizes were colossal, perfect for refuelling after a long day of trekking! All of our evening meals consisted of multiple portions, usually including soup, salad, pasta and a dessert. On one occasion we were even served up a whole, perfectly succulent, chicken for our table to carve and devour.


What about accommodation? We spent the majority of nights in mountain huts of varying luxury, but compared to mountain huts in other parts of the world (my first experience of them was on the GR20 in Corsica) their standard was very high. In some places we had dorms packed full of bunk beds, in others it was sleeping platforms where we had to get cosy with strangers, and in others we had private rooms just for our group.

The bathroom facilities also varied, with those on the Swiss side of the border tending to be nicer than those on the Italian side – but the Italian food made it worth it! Regardless of bathroom and sleeping facilities, one thing that all of the huts had in common was the stunning views which were even more enjoyable sat outside with a beer, watching the sun disappear behind the mountains.


If you’ve read this far, you’re probably considering whether or not the Italian High Level Route is suitable for you. The answer is most likely yes! As I mentioned at the beginning, you spend the first day of your trip learning the skills needed for glacier travel including how to use crampons, ropes and ice axes. This means that whilst previous experience is preferred, it’s by no means necessary – I had no previous experience and didn’t find it to be an issue at all.

There aren’t any highly technical sections, but you do need to have a head for heights. In particular, there is a rather nerve-wracking ladder to climb to get you to the Gnifetti Hut. You’ll also need to be physically fit glacier travel is hard work! There are a few very steep slogs as well, which I struggled up a little despite all of hard work in the gym. These were the Breithorn (4164m), Pyramid Vincent (4215m) and the Passo Superiore di Bettolina (3100m), which although not as high or as time consuming, included a very challenging climb over a boulder field which really got the calf muscles burning. All-in-all, with a bit of work at the gym beforehand and good overall fitness you’ll be fine!

So, if you’re looking to step up from low altitude hiking to something a little higher and wondering where to go, I highly recommend the Italian High Level Route! 


Nell is a Leeds-based travel and lifestyle blogger writing about mid-budget, part time travel. She loves city breaks, walking holidays with her dad and exploring local food and drink around the world.

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