This is a reprint of an article I wrote back in 2006 and have been requested to publish again as interest in the Chamonix to Zermatt Winter Haute Route grows. Hope it inspires a few people to give this classic ski tour a try this coming season…
I’ve been skiing since I was 22 and a ski instructor since 1989 but after years of resort skiing and teaching, I developed a yearning for a purer, more adventurous form of the sport. To that end, myself and a bunch of similarly minded mates – most of them ex ski instructors who are now settled back in the UK, started to use the big resorts as access points for some fairly interesting back country adventures. This would take the form of using the lifts to get high, followed by some footwork and hard graft to get even higher and into some of the less accessible places. There, fresh tracks and steep pitches could always be found leading to remote valleys and villages. We often used the expertise of friend and guide Serge Gas from Tignes and would travel all over the Tarantaise region with him using buses, taxis and his car to link skiable domains together.
Over the years as we all honed our technique in every type of snow from perfect champagne powder to the worst windblown breakable crust, our fitness also improved which allowed us to ski steeper and travel further. We tended to use downhill equipment – fat skis to aid deep snow flotation together with regular bindings and boots, as any additional climbing we did would be tramping or kicking steps. A couple of the guys had used ski touring kit in the past but weren’t impressed with the performance of it for descending. How things have changed over the last five years or so…
Changing to ski touring equipment from downhill kit
Four years ago, I bought some BCA tour converters to change a downhill binding into a lifting tour binding together with a second hand pair of skins. The idea was that after a days regular skiing, I could go out at night with a headtorch and top up the fitness levels. This I did to the alarm of the pisteurs of Courchevel who performed the night time grooming of the slopes and who I would have to evade by hiding as they came close.
After several night time ascents and descents I was hooked on the idea of ski mountaineering and touring and the next step was to get rigged up with some proper kit as the BCA converters weren’t ideal. I bought some Fritschi Freeride bindings and put them on a pair of Movement Evolution skis (left) knowing that this would be a rig that would be versatile enough for all my skiing. The rest of the guys I was skiing with off-piste didn’t seem that interested in going the same way, so the only time I used the skins and climbed was on my own. Still, it was enough to recognise the potential of this type of equipment and to know that downhill performance didn’t have to be compromised provided one was fit enough to push a little extra weight.
Mountainfeet Ski Touring intro course
Through the shop and our fantastic friends in La Clusaz, French Alps, we organised an introductory ski touring course which was run by the incomparable Yann Quenet, a Haute Savoie instructor and guide who used to coach the British Olympic Team. By participating in this course I learned loads of technique – you’d be amazed at the amount of effort saved going uphill with just a few tips from an expert! Our clients on this course were equally impressed with their new outlook on a familiar sport and all of them want to continue with the discipline…
The Haute Route
Prior to this course I’d set a target of completing the Chamonix Haute Route which is probably the most famous of the high mountain ski tours. Because of lack of time and suitable interested partners I decided to join a Jagged Globe trip run by Rick Marchant, an IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Association) guide who years ago worked for Outside in Hathersage.
I’d quizzed my guide friend Serge about the Haute Route who’d said that completion was quite weather dependant and that fitness more than great skiing technique was of the essence. So from Christmas onwards and through the remainder of the winter I became a regular sight running around the Pennine hills near Marsden, lugging a big rucksack laden with ropes and climbing ironmongery to add weight! Weekly sessions at Manchester Velodrome built loads of fitness as did turbo training and time on a rowing machine. The winter before I’d vegged out with eating and drinking featuring as top activities but this year I could honestly say I’d never been fitter.
In March, three weeks before the Haute Route route trip I took our two shop lads up to Cairngorm for a couple of days skiing. After getting them sorted out I skinned up to the top of Cairngorm in appalling visibility. I was glad I’d taken our shop eTrex GPS up as I used it to ski safely down. The following day I skinned back up in clear blue conditions and had a great run down the back of the mountain followed by another good climb. Only problem was, my new Garmont boots had blistered my left heel big style – would it heal up in time? (This was my own fault as I’d undone them and left them loose on the longest climb!).
Meeting the others
I drove out to Chamonix with some trepidation. How demanding was the Haute Route going to be? Had I trained enough? Did I have the right kit for the job?
When I arrived at the splendid Hotel l’Arve I was asked to meet Rick and the others at an informal meeting in the bar. One guy, Mark was delayed but the others were a Scottish couple Brian and Alison who appeared to be old hands at the ski touring game, and a Norwegian called Erling who was heavily into Nordic skiing. Rick was a refreshingly chilled out and unassuming guy who I could vaguely remember from the Hathersage climbing scene years ago and who has done some very impressive ascents and descents over the years. I liked him immediately and although I privately wished some of my own skiing mates could have been there, felt that this would be a good trip. I also felt out of my depth touring-wise as the others all seemed to be very experienced and had travelled world wide. The conversation went slightly over my head at first but we all soon relaxed and a bond started to develop with talk of the trip to come.
Our missing team member Mark showed up late that night, and like me he was on his first real tour with similar doubts about his ability. We got on well from day one – Mark was a tough, straight talking Northern bloke and as a fireman, has seen and survived many a scrape. A couple of years earlier he’d taken an accidental header down a couloir in La Grave, which as well as breaking some bones had shaken his confidence. This trip would hopefully be a recuperative experience for him.
I hit the sack looking forward to the following day…
Day 1 Friday 21st April
This was to be a warmup day where we could get familiar with each other, check our equipment and discover any flaws in our ski technique. The weather was glorious as we headed up the Brevent side of the valley, finally being deposited at the top of the Col Cornu lift. From there we booted up a steep little pitch to a plateau where we smoothed our skins onto the skis and for the first time started ascending as a group. I didn’t know what constituted a normal pace – in my limited experience with skins I’ve always gone at whatever speed I can manage without thought for keeping something in reserve. We progressed upwards for around three quarters of an hour at a comfortable lick, taking care to regularly take water on and to shade our heads as the sun was already fierce. We eventually reached the edge of a cliff and keeping well back from the inevitable cornice, dug out a bench with our shovels on which to have lunch.
After scoffing, boots were set to ‘ski’ mode and skins peeled off and carefully stowed in the warmth of our jackets. We set off skiing initially on perfect spring snow which altered to sun blasted mush lower down. For the first time I could see that there was a wide range of off piste ability within our group which confirmed what Serge had said about fitness being the key to the Haute Route.
After some fun free skiing in the afternoon’s slushed up bumps we concentrated on practising searches with our Avalanche Transceivers. You can’t do enough practising with these – little did I know that in just over a week, after our return from Zermatt I’d be using mine in anger…
Back at the hotel, Rick bid us goodbye and advised us to get a good nights kip after getting everything ready for the mornings departure on the Haute Route proper.
Day 2 Saturday 22nd April
Unable to sleep properly, I was buzzing and raring to go early. Rick’s wife Isobel, herself a well regarded and qualified guide, ran us down to Argentiere. After buying our ticket for the Grand Montets lift, Mark and I reflected on the fact that for the first time we were carrying a full rucksack of around the 10 to 11 kilos mark. This included extra food as our first nights stay was in an unmanned hut which had no provisions. Try as we might, Mark and I never got our packs anywhere near as light or compact as Brian and Alison’s and we never did discover their secret!
We spilled out of the cablecar onto the top of the Grand Montets in bright sunshine. What a fabulous start! After the obligatory group photos and buckling on of climbing harnesses, we clicked into our bindings and started sliding down towards the awesome Argentiere glacier. Rattling down frozen crud, chopped up by tens of previous Haute Route aspirants, soon had the blood pumping and then before we’d really thought about it we were coming to a halt, way out in the middle of the glacier. Time for Rick to remind us that from now till Zermatt we were travelling in a glacial environment where all is not necessarily as it seems beneath the feet and skis are best left on when resting…
Now the skins went on in anger, and we crossed the glacier at an easy angle to the start of the famous Col du Chardonnet climb. The start of this is fairly steep, in fact I can’t remember skinning up anything much steeper on the Haute Route. The snow was also rock hard as it hadn’t felt the benefit yet of the rapidly rising sun. Immediately, good kick turning technique is required and believe me, if you can’t do it then you’ll soon learn, otherwise you’re skiing back down the glacier to Argentiere with your tail between your legs!!!
This seven hundred and odd metre climb is a good fitness barometer for the coming trip. Paced properly it’ll probably only take 2 hours or so but you need to reach the top still with plenty of ‘go’ in your legs.
We trudged steadily up with the only major signs of suffering coming from Erling. By his own admission he wasn’t as fit or as light as he would’ve liked and through the week he would usually be the tail end charlie. It highlighted to me that preparation is vital if you’re going to enjoy this trip – it’s no fun constantly bringing up the rear and feeling pressured.
Half way up as the gradient eased I took the ‘classic’ Haute Route photo with the Aiguille Verte as the backdrop and we stopped to eat lunch. From here we could see the top of the climb and the notch of the Col itself. We’d all heard of the famous rappel (abseil) down the other side – what would it be like?
Rick decided that we’d head for a higher notch in the rock where the far side snow pitch was less likely to be cut up and where we wouldn’t encounter other people waiting their turn on the rope. I went up to the main Col just for a look and found about 20 people of various nationalities all queuing to be lowered down the first section of 55 degree slope. In normal circumstances I’d say it’d be eminently skiable but because a lot of people side slip down it on a rope instead of rappelling, a deep ‘trench’ develops down the fall line which makes turning impossible.
Anyway, we booted up another 100 feet or so where Rick fixed a 30 metre back rope for me. This pitch was about the same steepness but not trenched so it was possible to ski it although the weight of my pack made initiating turns difficult. At the end of the rope I detached myself and carried on down the pitch with fading legs to wait at the bottom for everyone else. To my surprise I then saw Rick get another 30 metre rope out and join it to the first, allowing the others to safely sideslip virtually all the steep section. Bloody favouritism…!!!
Once down I think we all were on a bit of a high, but after a short ski down the skins were back on again and sometime after that a tiring boot up led us to a spectacular gap in some rocks where we rested before stashing our skins again. This skins off, skins on routine several times in a day was new to me and took some getting used to – the trick is to preserve the glue at all costs by not allowing it to dry out or get too wet…
Now we were getting pretty tired but after a great little downhill pitch making fresh tracks, we were on our way up for the last time that day to our own little bivvy hut, the Bivouac de l’Envers des Dorées instead of the more widely used Trient Hut. The advantage would be the probable lack of other tourers, the disadvantage I could feel hurting my shoulders – we were carrying our food and drink! When we arrived there were two French climbers stretched out like lizards in the warm afternoon sun. They didn’t seem in the least bit put out that we had taken away their sole occupancy of this delightful hut and welcomed us warmly.
My first and last (until here) experience of a ski touring mountain refuge was the winter room of the Refuge de Gramusset on Pointe Percee on our touring intro course which is to say the least, rustic! (A good fun night though returning to the luxury of Al and Ali’s chalet next afternoon). This was a major surprise of the nicest sort. Clean as a whistle and warm with a kitchen better than all of the houses I lived in in my twenties – my spirits lifted higher than ever. Brian and Alison told me that although this standard of unmanned hut wasn’t the norm, the accommodation in the manned huts was generally very good and we should expect to be relatively comfortable during the rest of the week.
Hats off to Rick who from the contents of our rucksacks cooked a fantastic and tasty carbo packed meal – we even had a small ration of wine and so it was a tired but content gang that crashed out that night at the end of a superb day in the mountains…
Day 3 Sunday 23rd April
Another day dawned bright and after a quick breakfast we cleared the hut with skins on and made a relatively quick climb that had still asleep lungs gasping for mercy and my blister starting to make itself felt. After reaching the limit of the grip of the skins we shouldered the skis and booted on up where I thanked the grippy soles and solid construction of my Garmont Adrenaline boots. A few people had questioned the wisdom and weight of my kit but so far I was enjoying the security and performance of boots, bindings and skis and hadn’t felt I was suffering from the extra load.
After a slightly technical step kicking section where I mysteriously sliced my finger open, we topped out at the head of the Trient Glacier. After an initial easy fast descent on perfect spring snow we picked our way down the steeper ice fall section before shedding skis and booting up to the Col des Ecandies leading to the Val d’Arpette. Then we had the luxury (or so we thought) of a descent of almost 4400 vertical feet to the village of Champex. However, after the first steep pitches which were out of the sun and in good condition, the slope’s aspect changed and as we got to the shallower gradients the snow changed to porridge with a thin crust. This did for everybody and reduced even the expert skiers to looking fairly ropey. Thanks to the humble stem step turn – never thought I’d need one of them again – we managed to descend to the road where after some serious leaping from snow patch to snow patch and a bit of walking we arrived in sleepy Champex.
The guardian of the Mont Fort hut was a most attractive girl – not the gnarly old mountain man I’d have associated with the job! Still, she didn’t stand any messing about from the occupants of the refuge and ran the place with a brisk efficiency that characterises the Swiss. We had our own room and after a terrific meal and a couple of beers with some American lads who were also on the Haute Route, we got an early night. From what we’d heard, the next day promised to be harder…
Day 4 Monday 24th April
An early start saw us outside the hut and fixing skins for what looked like a long slog to a Col in the distance. Because we could see our route in the clear visibility we all made our own pace and I soon had my MP3 player playing a mix of music which inspired me to charge up the climb in hot pursuit of the American lads who’d set off before us. I reeled them all in bar one who was waiting for me on the col. He was a amiable Californian guy called Kristian who was living and working in Alaska and had done an impressive amount of climbing and skiing which had obviously given him an outstanding level of fitness. We chatted long enough for him to tell me he wanted to ski Mont Blanc – I said the two of us should maybe fit it onto the end our trip as I was keen too and he agreed to swap mobile numbers at the next hut.
After a welcome but only short bit of downhill it was trogging time again for a couple of hours in bright sunshine. One thing you need on this trip is a daft hat with a broad brim or cap with neck coverage and PLENTY of suncream, preferably waterproof so it doesn’t sweat off! Something else really useful is a white baselayer that will reflect sunlight as it can get phenomenally hot when you’re slogging upwards.
We were now headed through the Col de Momin towards the first of two biggish summits on the Haute Route, the Rosablanche (3,336 metres). For the last couple of hundred feet we shed skis and donned crampons although we could have managed without. When you’ve lugged the things all that way then you might as well use them! You don’t actually have to climb to the top of the Rosablanche but it’d be seriously rude not to and the ski down was fantastic, bringing us eventually to our overnight hut, the Prafleuri. I was a little shocked to be there so early in the day but everyone else seemed to enjoy the chance to chill out and enjoy a lunch of the famous Rosti – a Swiss potato dish often incorporating copious amounts of cheese, ham, onions etc. A huge dish of the stuff arrived on our table and I was about to start splitting it up into portions for three of us when I was told it was for me alone! No wonder Swiss skiers need to spend the whole afternoon sunbathing and not skiing!!!
After lunch everyone vanished to bed but I was feeling a bit unfulfilled and wanted more activity. The American lads suddenly appeared out of nowhere with their French guide Eric who they’d persuaded to take them on an extra curriculum ascent of the peak opposite to then ski down a gulley from near its summit. Although it was now getting late, I figured there was time to do the same but after trying to rouse my teammates concluded it’d be a solo endeavour. I thought Rick should know where I was going and had to wake him from a well deserved snooze. I could see exactly what was on his mind – he was honour bound as guide to go with me! This made me feel bad but once he was up and doing he seemed quite keen on the idea and we set off skinning from the hut to the disbelief of most of the sunbathers! Rick soon showed me who was boss as he dropped down a couple of gears without effort and steamed away from me. I was in fair awe of the lad’s fitness and by the time I got to the little col before the summit ridge of the peak, he’d been waiting over five minutes for me! And I thought I was fit…
We traversed around the back of the ridge on a steepish slope of fairly insecure and rotten snow and as we did, there was an enormous bang which reverberated around the surrounding peaks. I nearly passed a brick! Avalanche? Another similar crash and then we saw a helicopter low over an adjacent peak and dropping dynamite to trigger slides. Of course! Tomorrow was the famous (and mad!) Patrouille des Glaciers where ski tourers race from Zermatt to Verbier, via Arolla, a distance of 53 kilometres in under 7 hours! The helicopter was preparing the route but whether it could see us we’ll never know and it continued dynamiting an area around us much too close for comfort. We quickly booted along the ridge, climbed though a notch and put our skis on for the 40 degree ski down a different and longer gulley than the Americans’ one. 20 minutes later we coasted back to the hut after a quality descent and now I felt ready for some serious chilling out and a couple of beers!
The group convened in the evening for a meal and over a couple of drinks we looked at the plans for the next day. The weather forecast was fairly pants now for a couple of days but on the up side it might put some fresh snow down. Then, after persuading Erling that he needed to give up one of the three bunks he’d spread himself out on, I went to bed tired but content.
Day 5 Tuesday 25th April
Tuesday dawned with low visibility but about a foot of fresh snow. Unfortunately it was up, up, up to start and after digging our skis out we broke trail and zig zagged slowly up to the Col des Roux. My blistered left foot was now beginning to cause fairly bad pain and I’d strapped it up with zinc oxide tape and some magic gel pad that Mark’s wife had given him. This had got me through the last few days but now the gel pad was disintegrating and every step was making me wince. Not much to do but just crack on and look at it at the next hut. After popping out on the Col, the grey murk had cleared enough to see the huge expanse of the Dix Lake which we would have to traverse on the Western slopes above it. These slopes are very avalanche prone but it was fairly obvious as we picked our way though rock hard frozen debris that most of what was going to avalanche had already fallen, and we’d have a safe but strength sapping passage to the end of the lake.
After partially skiing and partially shuffling the few miles to the end of the lake the weather was damp and misty. My skins refused to stick to the skis despite efforts to dry the bases and warm the skins. The ski tourers secret weapon was plumbed from the depths of my sack – duck tape! On went the skins and we went to work on the long, energy sapping ascent to the Dix Hut which seemed to go on for ever. Luckily, with the low cloud we weren’t experiencing the usual flaying by the sun which from all accounts can make this particular climb hell on legs. Mind you, the peculiar conditions were really disorienting as peaks and other features kept popping out of the gloom and then vanishing. Then after a couple of hours, in the distance, a huge expanse of rock (part of Mont Blanc de Chelion) reared up what looked like a thousand metres. I had it in my daft head that the hut was near the top of this and we would approach it from the back. It looked like hours worth of miserable climbing and I felt quite depressed as we marched on towards it. Then after getting close to the base of it and trying to mentally prepare for a few more hours of blister grief, I realised that the Dix Hut was actually just above us to the right, only half an hour more away!
Happily ensconced in the warmth of the Dix Hut we scrapped a plan to go out again and ski another peak as the weather was still grim. Now I was tired enough to enjoy just relaxing and drinking tea. There was still the small matter of the blister to sort out so not wishing to revolt the good people in the hut I went outside. The blister was big, bloody and under a lot of pressure. It had to be cut open to release all the crap inside. A small operation with the trusty Swiss Army knife and a lot of the pain was relieved. I enjoyed the improving view for half an hour and then joined the others as Rick told enthralling stories of his trips to Alaska and South America. We also met a group of fellow Brits travelling with a French guide – the girls in the party had worked the season in Chamonix and this was their reward from some of their clients! Wish I’d had clients like that when I worked in the Alps!!!
Day 6 Wednesday 26th April
Wednesday was an earlyish start – about 7am. The routine of stumbling out of bed and fuelling up with much needed breakfast was becoming second nature to us all, as was buckling on avalanche bleeps and harnesses. The visibility was far from good although this gave the early morning start a slightly ethereal quality as figures came and went in a ghostly kind of haze. We were going to stick close to each other today on account of the conditions – usually we’d be able to fan out and choose our route depending on our speed and fitness. A lot of other folk were out early, anxious to get some distance done before the weather turned potentially worse and every now and then, a line of figures would loom out of the mist. We skinned parallel to a group of Germans for a while and were amused to see their legs moving in perfect synchronisation with each other!
We were climbing up towards the Col de la Serpentine, and through an area of immense crevasses and seracs caused by an ice fall. The terrain was steepening up enough to call a halt in freezing conditions to don ski crampons. I was pleased to have the semi permanently mounted Fritschi units that can be flicked into position with a ski pole – others were fiddling around with frozen fingers to mount their older type harscheisen. The only disadvantage I found with these is that the teeth aren’t quite long enough for a positive grip when on the top step of the bindings. Because the older, separate units don’t have to retract towards the boot, the teeth can be much longer and they bite better.
Up in front of us we met the other Brits group with the two girls who were roping up for the steepest part of the ascent. We nipped past unroped but took things very steadily as a fall would have possibly had consequences. The gradient was probably the steepest thing we’d skinned up since the bottom of the Co du Chardonnet on day one but this was harder because of deep and heavy snow deposits. Each kick turn sapped the energy and the altitude could definitely be felt. I really recommend practise at kick turning – a good one takes a surprising amount of technique but will save a lot of effort.
Now the visibility was clearing briefly, just in time for us to top out on the Pigne Arolla, the highest summit of our route. At 3796 metres, it’s an easy summit to reach on skis in terms of technicality but needs caution and good navigation to descend.
We took the obligatory summit photos and watched the peak opposite vanish into the cloud as the weather once again took a turn for the worse. We decided to bail off the summit quickly to avoid the myriad of other tourers who were now converging from all directions.
Skins off and rapidly stuffed inside jackets, boots flicked to ‘ski’ and now we were about to reap the reward of several hours hard slog. The snow was distinctly challenging and not for the first time I was thankful for being first and foremost a skier rather than a mountaineer! As Rick and I used the float of our skis to avoid breaking the areas of windblown crust, I could hear colloquial variations of the English language coming from behind as skis caught and bodies fell. Things soon improved and everyone’s enjoyment increased as we skied lower, but then it was back into the clag and time to start some serious navigating. An altimeter watch, compass and map are Rick’s only tools – no GPS for him and after some intricate route finding we left the clag again to see an amazing sight; the famous Vignettes Hut. This phenomenal refuge sticks out of the rock over a colossal and dizzying drop and is the last hut that most Haute Routers stay in prior to reaching Zermatt.
It hadn’t been a particularly long day, but there’d been some fair climbing done so we were happy to chill out and rest – tomorrow was going to be a big effort… We organised ourselves for an early start by readying all our kit. The hut was rammed full of all nationalities and those failing to be first in the boot room in the morning would find chaos and lose valuable time.
There was a war waged all night between Erling and some Germans which was quite amusing. The Germans wanted the window open of the dorm but as Erling was sleeping under it and getting covered in blown snow he naturally kept closing it! As soon as he’d gone to sleep, the Germans would creep over and open it until the snow woke him up again and so the rigmarole went on and on…
Interestingly, I had my most frightening moment here! At two in the morning, unable to sleep because of a couple of serious snorers (take earplugs!), I went in my hut shoes in the pitch black across the icy outdoor gangway to what must be the most extreme toilet in the Alps. Slithering back the 50 yards to the hut in a howling wind and in about a foot of snow on solid ice, I slipped and nearly went through the guard wires that protect a drop of several hundred feet! What a way to go that would have been…
Also having problems that night were a couple of French lads whose navigation had let them down and who couldn’t find the hut in the worsening visibility. Despite being only a few hundred metres from the hut, they couldn’t see it and spent a rough night in a snow hole!
Day 7 Thursday 27th April
This stage is definitely a challenging day with around 1100 metres of climbing and is a fitting climax to the trip as it passes right beneath the Matterhorn on the finish into Zermatt. As such, we bolted breakfast and were first to the bootroom – payback for a little organising the night before. At 6.25 we were carefully traversing the spur that links the Hut with the outside world. We’d had a look at the map the night before and the distance we needed to cover today looked a big undertaking.
Climbing, climbing and more climbing, – that’s largely my memory of a long but highly satisfying morning. Three cols dominate the route towards Zermatt, the Col de L’Eveque, Col du Mont Brule and Col de Valpelline. There were others on the route and navigation wasn’t hard so we fanned out and I settled down to catch a posse of Germans ahead, helped by my improving fitness and some inspirational rock music on the MP3 player!
It was noticable on this climb just how much the groups performance had increased over the last few days. Ironically, I could see that the biggest improvement in fitness was from Erling, who had been seriously shaky during the first couple of days. He’d suffered early on, but being a resilient type had come through and was now fitter and well acclimatised.
Soon, we came to a steep pitch some 250-300 feet high. This was booted up with skis on packs and lungs bursting from the cold, dry air. At the top, the visibility eased and blue sky could be seen for the first time in a while, revealing also some impressive glacial terrain which we glided effortlessly down before fixing skins for the next climb. The glue on my skins was drying and hardening with the cold – this is where I was glad I’d brought enough duck tape to bodge them onto the skis! Plod, plod, plod – you need to get a rhythm you’re happy with and settle down. Use good technique and avoid lifting the skis, imagine pushing a matchbox along the floor with your toes to improve your style.
My kit was holding up well and despite agonising over using fairly heavy Adrenaline boots, the advantage of having precision skiing for the descents was well worth the extra effort of lugging them around. Blisters now had reached the stage where they were so painful, they occupied a portion of my thoughts virtually all the time! Make sure you pay attention to your feet – imagine how many footsteps you’ll make on the Haute Route, with every one rubbing away at already inflammed skin…
One other piece of kit that was a sound investment were my Black Diamond Expedition poles. These lock to the length of your choice with a clamp and can’t come loose. Previously I had a pair that twisted on a thread (like walking poles) to lock and these were always unwinding and collapsing – often at critical times.
On the last big climb of that long day, we wound our way up to the Col de Valpelline. Up ahead we glimpsed our American friends who had stayed the last night in another hut, the Vignettes being fully booked. Despite all being very adept skiers, they were making slow progress as a couple of their guys by their own admission weren’t terribly fit or used to mountaineering. I was now looking foward to standing on top of this last big col and started racing, buoyed up by the thought of a hotel bed and a bath at the end of the day. At the top, I was pleased to meet Kristian again and we discussed climbing and skiing Mont Blanc the following week. He was obviously by far the fittest and most experienced of his team and a great choice of ropemate for a trip much more technical and extreme in temperature than this one. While we waited for our teammates to appear , we put a plan together to meet in Chamonix in a couple of days time while our level of acclimatisation would still be good.
Sadly, at this point we should have seen an unfolding panorama including the Matterhorn, but once again the cloud was rolling in and out so as our respective teammates climbed up towards us, we regrouped with Rick and peeled the skins off for what surely would be the last time? Rick lead us down some great downhill sections towards the Stockji Glacier which in places were tricky and relatively demanding as the snow was in less than perfect nick. As we got lower, the temperature rose significantly and although we swished confidently though the last of the steeped sections, we could see that the almost flat glacial terrain ahead was going to be hard work!
Now we were on the last leg of our journey, part skiing and part shuffling down the Stockji Glacier. Up above us to the right we could see the flanks of the Matterhorn vanishing upwards into the clag and made up of rotten, yellowish rock. Clothing was coming off as we got lower and every zip that could be opened for a bit of airflow was utilised. I was really pleased with the clothing system I was using – a mix of North Face and Patagonia base, mid and outer layers.
Now, the once consistant snow was fast giving way to patchy slush and grey glacial moraine making picking a route hard. It carried on like this for a mind-numbing distance until the gradient eventually got so flat that we unhooked the bindings and nordic skied the last half mile to a road head. This was the top of the marked ski terrain of Zermatt and we found a patchy but fast forest track to schuss down for what seemed like miles.
Suddenly, we came out of the forest and into civilisation with a couple of restaurants – this was Furi above Zermatt and virtually the end of the line! An incredibly welcome beer and some food revived our team from the fatigue of what had been a long and punishing day and we shook hands and congratulated each other. The Haute Route was over and all of us had been challenged in ways only us as individuals will fully realise.
Would I do it again? Well, the Haute Route has many different faces depending on the variation taken, the time of year and the weather. So yes, I wouldn’t rule it out.
Day 8 Friday 28th April
Some of our team wanted to high tail it back to Chamonix but I’d never been to Zermatt before and the thought of some more high level skiing the following day was too good to miss. The others proved persuadable and the following day, after a wash and scrub that night at a great little hotel, we donned our mountaineering kit again to climb a peak opposite the Matterhorn. The descent off the back of this peak gave us some of the best downhill skiing of the week and once down in the town again we had a quick beer and within another hour were Chamonix bound.
Massive thanks are due to Mark, Brian, Alison and Erling for great and entertaining company. And to Rick must go the most gratitude for managing that most difficult of blends – a highly professional mountain guide and an excellent companion.
Kristian and I did indeed attempt to ski Mont Blanc the following week, making use of the altitude acclimatisation we’d had. A gap in marginal weather was spotted which we went for and after overnighting in the Cosmiques Hut near the Aiguille Midi we set off in the dark at about 1.30 am, quickly climbing first up Mont Blanc du Tacul and then on to the North Face of Mont Maudit. At about 6 am we were front pointing steep neve, roped but moving together, when a wind deposited layer of snow in a pocket above us avalanched, causing us a fairly terrifying and violent cartwheeling fall of over 500 feet to the plateau below.
Amazingly, we were relatively unhurt and virtually unburied with mainly cuts and bruises. However, because of ingesting snow in the avalanche and suffering a whiplashed neck, I was helicoptered down to Chamonix with some other guys caught lower down the face who were injured. In the helicopter I found I couldn’t see properly and was diagnosed with temporary corneal damage which although worrying, healed within days.
Despite our lucky escape, our kit and clothing was shredded pretty badly. The star survivor was my Osprey Switch 40+5 rucksack which merely had a shoulder strap ripped off. Very impressive considering the state of everything else. We also had the trauma of having to search for a suspected burial victim who luckily was found unhurt. (Two years later, the damaged neck came back to haunt me and was treated by the excellent Morten Johannessen at Oldham Chiropractic Clinic opposite the shop).
I’d like to offer grateful thanks to the Chamonix Gendarmerie for the amazing helicopter rescue they performed and for the support they provide year round to all mountaineers in jeopardy.
Massive gratitude to Rick and Isobel for picking me up from hospital and the fantastic hospitality they showed both myself and Kris at their home. Also cracking to see old Saddleworth mate Andy Perkins who’s now enjoying a successful career as a Chamonix guide. And to Kristian, thanks for your help and excellent company – let’s try it again sometime soon…