At the height of the 'Golden Age of Alpinism' the Alpine Club established an aesthetically pleasing route from Chamonix to Zermatt avoiding the tourist traps of the day. We aim to follow in their footsteps to see if it is still possible.

When George Leigh Mallory was asked why he was climbing Everest he said, "Because it is there." We are going not so much because the High Level Route is there, but because after 160 years of glacial recession and permafrost melting, it may not be.


During the 'Golden Age of Alpinism', from the foundation of the Alpine Club in 1857 to the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, there were two main hubs of climbing activity in the European Alps. In the west there was the French town of Chamonix and the glaciers surrounding Mont Blanc. To the East was the Swiss town of Zermatt and the glaciers around the Matterhorn. Between the two was the Val d'Entremont extending from Martigny in the north down to the St. Bernard Pass and Italy in the south.

In 1859, the Alpine Club embarked on a quest to connect these two centres of climbing excellence. A dozen members of the Alpine Club partnered with a similar number of local mountaineers and guides to find an 'aesthetically pleasing' high level route which avoided the tourists brought in by the new railways.

They aimed to do this by finding a way to connect the glaciers of the region, many of which flowed in roughly the right east-west direction. The key to their quest was finding four high-altitude cols leading from one glacier to the next. It took them three years to find the Col d'Argentiere, the Col de la Reuse de l'Arolla (now known as the Col d'Oren), the Col de Valpelline and, the crux of the original route, the Col du Sonadon. Contemporary maps of their route are shown below.

Western Section

Middle Section

Eastern Section

Famous Participants

This group of intrepid alpinists included several famous names. Alpine Club participants included William Mathews, the land agent who had first proposed the formation of the Alpine Club several years previously, and Francis Fox Tuckett FRGS, whose climbing descriptions talk as much agbout food as the route and whose alpine exploits were described as 'encyclopaedic' by Whymper.

Local mountaineers included both Michel Croz from Chamonix and Peter Taugwalder from Zermatt. Only a few years later while on Whymper's ill-fated first ascent of the Matterhorn, Taugwalder would heroically try to hold the fall of some of the party only to see the rope break and Croz plunge to his death.

Perhaps the participant best-known today, however, is blacksmith, crystal hunter and guide Auguste Simond. In modern parlance he would be called an entrepreneur, setting up an early steam-powered blacksmith shop in Les Houches, where he manufactured early climbing equipment. This business grew into present day equipment manufacturer Simond which still has research and manufacturing facilities in the Chamonix valley and now sells equipment through Decathlon. Those of you following us on social media will have seen that we appreciate some of their kit.

The exploits of these alpine pioneers were published in the Alpine Club's 1862 publication Peaks, Passes and Glaciers. A more detailed description of what we are doing, written primarily pre-covid, is available via the Austrian Alpine Club (UK) and can be downloaded directly here.