Switzerland's Rhone Valley (from Lake Geneva to Martigny)

A bad weather alternative or a destination in its own right?

Geneva airport sees a constant stream of climbers arriving from all over the world, with the majority heading straight for Chamonix or the alpine ranges of Valais. Very few stop to sample the little known crags around the Rhone valley in Switzerland, between Lake Geneva and Martigny. The climbing in the Rhone valley is worth knowing about for a couple of reasons.

Moonrise over the Miroir d'Argentine, the day after I climbed the 'Y' Route with Graeme Ettle. © nick simons
Moonrise over the Miroir d'Argentine, the day after I climbed the 'Y' Route with Graeme Ettle.
© nick simons, Oct 2009

Relaxed climbing at Balme © ianm
Relaxed climbing at Balme
© ianm, May 2010
Firstly, as well as being close to Geneva, it is easily accessible from the main alpine areas such as Chamonix and the Valais. Therefore, when the mountain forecast is looking un-favorable, the restless alpinist can often find much better conditions in the Rhone valley. More than once, the short drive to find some warm, dry rock has really saved a trip that would otherwise have been spent moping around the cafes and bars of Chamonix in the rain.

The second reason to know about the climbing in the Rhone valley is that there is so much rock; it's actually worth a visit as a climbing trip in its own right, rather than just being a bad weather alternative. With over 5000 fully bolted routes up to 14 pitches in length, there really is something to cater for almost everyone. If it's a relaxing trip that you are after, then there are crags where you can virtually belay from the car. But for those wanting a bit more of an adventure, then there are plenty of bigger objectives on offer.

Rocher de Barme, Switzerland © ianm
Rocher de Barme, Switzerland
© ianm, Jun 2011

The majority of the smaller crags are lower down in the valley, nestled on the hillsides amongst the terraced vineyards that have been enterprisingly chiseled onto every available niche. The rock type is predominantly limestone, although this turns to gneiss the closer to Martigny you get. It's not all small crags though, the mighty 'tours' of Leysin tower above the valley and offer real adventure climbs with stunning views of the Mont Blanc range. There are crags of all aspects and angles, from steep pumpy routes, to long, smooth slabs.

If you're heading over the border from Chamonix, Dorenaz is one of the first areas to check out. There are a few sectors, with both single and multi pitch climbs available. For those looking for real roadside cragging, the Dalle des Vaudois has climbing at the car park as well as a nice grassy base for afternoon snoozing. A few hundred meters away near the gravel works are plenty of multi pitch routes of amenable grades that overlook the River Rhone.

On the other side of the valley, the cliffs of Miéville give equally short walk-ins, but longer routes of about four or five pitches. These catch the morning sun, but then give plenty of shade in the hot summer months. The huge waterfall above the campsite is an easily identifiable feature from both ends of the valley.

Hidden up a lesser known valley, above the popular ski village of Villars-sur-Ollon, is the Miroir de l'Argentine. This is the ultimate in slab climbing adventures but the mild grades of the routes here are not to be underestimated. The pitches go on and on and on! So an early start and a good forecast are both worth while. If the weather up high in the mountains is not looking so good, head down to the vineyards, where crags such as Drapel and Verchiez can provide both warmth and shelter on an otherwise iffy day. St.Triphon can also make a good stop off, although the quarried nature of it takes away from the alpine setting a bit, its location makes it very convenient.

Finally, the most well known of the areas above the Rhone valley are the crags of Leysin. The climbing above and around the village are steeped in history. Traditionally, the routes have been the training ground for many a budding alpinist. Here you get all the excitement and beauty of the alpine setting, without the stresses involved with crossing glacial terrain!

And that's just a handful of areas, the Rhone valley has much more to offer. So, when you are next planning a trip, consider exploring the Rhone Valley or bare it in mind next time you have been chased back down from the mountains by a storm, or your legs can't face another big walk-in.

Scenic Swiss Climbing at Balme © I.Martin
Scenic Swiss Climbing at Balme
© I.Martin

Miroir d'Argentine © jimxxx
Miroir d'Argentine
© jimxxx, Sep 2009


When to go:
Due to the diverse nature of the climbing in the Rhone Valley, it is possible to climb somewhere virtually all year round. The key is in selecting the right altitude and aspect to match the conditions. For example, a low altitude south facing crag, such as Drapel can be a winter suntrap, even when there is a bit of snow on the valley floor. In contrast, in the height of summer, moving uphill to cooler altitudes can provide the perfect climbing temperatures, while the valley base is baking.

Getting there:
From Geneva airport, it is just over an hour to the town of Monthey by car. To drive up to Leysin from Geneva it is about 1hour 45 and to get to Martigny just under two hours. All the crags described above are within a one hour drive of each other. For those driving over from Chamonix, it takes about an hour to get to the crags at Dorenaz.

Where to stay:
There are various camping, hostel and hotel options throughout the valley. It really depends on your budget and where you want to climb. Most towns have a tourist information office that operates with the expected Swiss efficiency.

Gear shops:
The town of Monthey probably has the best climbing store in the valley www.passsemontagne.ch. Hefti Sports in Leysin also sells some climbing and Via Ferrata kit.

Other things to do:
All the usual winter sports are available above the valley and as with most ski resorts now, mountain biking is big business in the summer. For rest day options, when you really want a proper day off, then try one of the outdoor thermal baths.

Useful links:
www.climbers-companions.com – a website (in English) for climbing information in the Rhone Valley. You can download an e-book with crag, travel and accommodation information.
www.meteoswiss.ch – National weather forecast website.
www.passsemontagne.ch – Climbing shop in Monthey with good local links.
www.myswitzerland.com – Swiss tourism site – good info on travel/accommodation etc.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by ianm

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