With the temperatures in the Cascades going up and down like a gondola, it’s easy to let one’s ski mind start to wander. As our good friend, Warren Miller likes to say, “it’s always snowing somewhere.”
Last year John and I took a Spring trip to the Alps, attempting the famous ski traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt known as the Haute Route. There’s nothing quite like the Alps–the views, the hut system, the lifestyle of the guides. Anyone interested in making the trip should do it this year, or as Warren says, “you’ll be another year older whe you do.” Below is an article I wrote recently about the Haute Route with links about guide services to check out.
On my first day on the Haute Route, the classic Alps ski tour from Chamonix to Zermatt, I stood shoulder to shoulder with 100 other harness-clad skiers on the Grands-Montets tram ride to the top of the Argentiere Glacier. Sun licked the fresh snow crystals along the slopes visible from the foggy window of the tram. Excitement buzzed like an electrical current through the cabin, the cacophony of language blending with the smell of human-scented polypro. Just another day in Chamonix.
This wasn’t my first attempt on the Haute Route. Five years earlier, my husband and I had joined a group making the trek. On the last night, the weather conspired against us, the wind whipping through the cables attached to the roof of the ancient Vignette Hut set amid the glaciers at 3157m. We spent two nights at the Vignette, our eyes anxiously watching the skies (and the roof, hoping the wind wouldn’t peel it from its timbers.)
After two nights at the Vignette, we had retreated down Arolla Glacier to the small Swiss town bearing its name, casting our gazes longingly at the final day’s route across the last three cols to the beautiful base of the Matterhorn.
Now, we were back, hoping to complete the entire tour, blazing into Zermatt on the sixth day, tired and weary, but thrilled by the view of north face of the Matterhorn ushering us towards glory. At least that’s how we pictured it.
Traversing granite spires, snow-filled couloirs and towering mountain peaks filled with sick turns laid down by Chamonix locals willing to ski slopes so steep it seemed impossible they didn’t fall off, made me want to yodel. These were real mountains.
Requiring enough skill to ski tour over steep, glaciered terrain, the Haute Route is not for sissies. Nor is if for the first-time ski tourer. Some days require several thousand vertical feet of elevation gain. Day Two–from the Triente Refuge to the village of Champex–offered us a 4,000-foot ski descent through creamy snow that started as compressed fresh and ended as well-developed corn. During the six-day trek, I used every piece of equipment I brought, including skins, ski crampons, boot crampons, ice axe, harness and every last carton of Gu stashed in my pockets.
The light travel afforded on the Haute Route is made possible by the extensive hut system found in the Alps. Each one only a day’s trek from the next, these huts are more like hostels–each complete with a restaurant, bathrooms and even showers. At the Dix hut,
after a particularly long, hot slog from the Prafleuri Hut along the Lac du Dix, our group ordered a large plate of rosti (a Swiss alpine delicacy) the size of an extra-large Dominos pizza and drank bottle after bottle of cold beer. This was living.
However, not all huts are created equal. Throughout the tour, I looked forward to the Vignette Hut with a mix of trepidation and longing. The soaring setting below the Pigne d’Arolla, the lengths of cable holding the roof down against the wind, the windy catwalk leading to the outhouse–merely a hole dropping several thousand feet onto the glacier below that formed a back eddy of toilet paper just below the precarious building–these features rang like a bell in my mind. Like a marathoner, I looked forward to the challenge of Vignette.
From the Dix hut, we climbed the rugged glacier to the Pigne d’Arolla, a high point of the tour. Clouds moved in just as we approached the summit, offering fleeting glimpses of the Matterhorn only a few valleys to the east. The Vignette Hut lay 2,000 feet below us, just 300 powder turns away.
It is hard to say if I was disappointed when I first noticed the improvements at Vignette. The much larger restaurant, improved accommodations, and indoor plumbing–these luxuries certainly soothed a soar spot in my psyche. But this was our last night, and I was ready for an epic. I had even packed my Lady J, an FUD or female urination device–the perfect antidote to a midnight trek to the outhouse, which turned out to be unnecessary.
Our guide, Yves Lagesse, of Chamonix Experience, having safely guided us up couloirs and down glaciered slopes, expressed his doubts on the morning of Day Six. The weather, previously bluebird trending towards glacier-melting, was taking a turn for the worse. Low clouds had settled overnight on the Vignette Hut, and the temperature had plummeted. My fingers were crossed, we planned to climb the first col and reassess the weather.
Unfortunately, the weather gods had not been placated and we descended our last day once again into the Swiss town of Arolla instead of across the base of the Matterhorn. While the views into Arolla are stellar, I really had my heart set on Zermatt. Yet another lesson in not planning too far ahead. Oh well, I guess there’s always next year.
If You Go
Hire a guide for the Haute Route. Not only do the local guides know these mountains intimately, more importantly they know the hut keepers. Often booked well in advance, a French or Swiss guide can secure a bunk, make last minute hut changes in case of weather delays and help you order a plate of rosti. Most importantly, a guide such as Yves Lagesse of Chamex, can pull you out of a crevasse or short-rope you up a couloir, just in case you run out of Gu.