Not what we had initially planned but more than happy that crap high mountain reports ruined our early spring 4000m peak bagging adventure! What was a loosely organised Monte Rosa trip, overnight turned into a well oiled Haute Route ski tour (thanks for demanding a team meeting to bang it out Ted!).
After hitting up the Monte Rosa high mountain huts and pretty much getting the same response; very icy conditions, open crevasses, and people abandoning their tours, it was an easy decision to bring down the altitude a thousand metres and ski from my home town of Chamonix to Zermatt. The three remaining team members of Ted, myself and Christian had done most of day one numerous times this season and knew it well, the rest being less predictable. What we did know though was that we had an amazing weather window of blue skies and balmy conditions.
The Haute Route connects the two famous Alpine towns of Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland, and with various options we could easily do this tour for the next three seasons and not repeat too much of it. Our route followed the Classic tour and would cover 110 kilometres and over 6500m of elevation gain.
The 4000m peaks of the unmistakeable Matterhorn and Dent d’Hérens
With only a handful of mountain refuges to choose from we now needed a bit of good fortune – most people know more than 12 hours in advance that they’re doing a big trip like this leaving many of the refuges at capacity, even more so at weekends. Night one in Verbier, Le Chable or Champex Lac wouldn’t be a problem; could be a bit pricey but something would be available for sure. Then we hoped for our second night at Cabane des Dix, moving on to Cabane des Vignettes and finally Cabane Bertol. For our final night it would also be something overpriced, very typical in Zermatt!
Luck was on our side, with Dix having 3 beds remaining, Vignette also having 3 and Bertol having plenty. A room for 160 Swiss Francs located in the same building as the Verbier lift and coincidentally a basic hotel room in Zermatt for the same price alleviated our reservation concerns. That was far easier than anticipated. Luckily the end of March is still relatively early in the spring ski touring season.
For a couple of reasons these plans would go on to change! After a later than expected start to day two and some feedback from a refuge warden whom we shouldn’t have listened to (it’s amazing how a comment can put a seed of doubt into ones head), we adjusted our schedule to something slightly more conservative…
This was going to be my first, hopefully of many, multi-day ski tour and there was definitely a bit of panic going on as to what to take – the backpack would carry 35 litres, with the obvious items being ski skins, avalanche gear, crampons (boot and ski types), ice axe, helmet, goggles, flask, waterbottle, down jacket, a Garmin InReach GPS device, and the trusty heavyweight D810 Nikon. These items were thrown in pretty much every day I headed out. What else though?
I assumed just some refuge clothes and a sleeping liner. Still not sure how I forgot spare boxer shorts! And then the only other item was a multi-tool for tightening wayward boot or binding fixtures – another cockup as the worse than useless tool I took along would snap on day 1 after being borrowed by a fellow skier. And next time, yes I’ll take some uber lightweight flipflops for Zermatt and the train ride home.
Distance: 26.00km, Ascent: 1530m, Time: 7h 16m
Total Distance: 26.00km, Total Ascent: 1530m
With everything packed the night before it was a stress free morning; a couple of cups of Moodys drip coffee, breakfast, and a scrappily thrown together packed lunch. The 7h29 bus to the Grands Montets ski resort would arrive 20 minutes prior to the first lift ensuring no time was wasted!
From the Plan Joran gondola it was a short ski descent to take the Bochard gondola up to 2765m, the beginning of our Haute Route ski tour. The day would involve four cols, three glaciers, some fun bootpacking, and obviously a bit of skiing! After putting on skins and preparing for the bitterly cold traverse up to Col des Rachasses it was time to put one ski in front of the other…
Although only a short 30 minute skin with around 300 vertical metres this first section always sucks, the sun shining up on the col, seemingly laughing as we hurry towards it’s morning heat. And then all of a sudden it’s time to delayer, lather on the suncream and prepare to sweat! First off we had a decent ski down to the Argentiere glacier where the route to the second col of the day began. Col du Passon was straightforward enough, a 650m ascent with the final 100m being a fairly steep bootpack requiring crampons and skis to be attached to the backpack. By the time we reached Col du Passon 3h15 had already passed by.
A short ski descent followed before we made our way below the north face of Chardonnet, and across the huge Tour glacier, an area that when looking up from Le Tour looks so nondescript. A skin traverse would then lead up towards the third col, 3289m Col Supérieur du Tour which topped out with a short bootpack and the Swiss border. So far it was skins on, skins off, crampons on, crampons off! Another col beckoned but first we had to descend across another huge area, the Plateau de Trient and on towards the Trient glacier.
We weren’t too far away now from the long descent, conditions unknown, through the Val d’Arpette to Champex Lac. The bootpack up to Col des Ecandies stood before us, or at least it would have had we skied left hugging the Trient glacier! Somewhat of a miscommunication followed with directions to Champex from a fellow skier instead sending us right across a short exposed traverse to an unseen and significant bootpacking descent (probably the couloir NE de la Petite pointe d’Orny). Time for some sketchy fun! Luckily the 200m of downhill had fixed ropes, and whilst often old and fraying, ensured we reached a place to remove crampons and reattach skis. A quick ski over to Col des Ecandies and the final descent of the day began.
The timing couldn’t have been better; a ski touring binding that was very close to operating only in touring mode, a frightening prospect for the biggest downhill of the day! Whilst not the best snow the descent was long at around 6.5kms, dropping 1300m in thirty minutes to the quaint Swiss town of Champex Lax. We eventually arrived after running out of snow, the final kilometre merely a walk along the road. Hot and beat, the three of us all finally got to drool over large, and super expensive Cokes!
An hour bus and train transfer to Le Chable was timed to perfection, our arrival coinciding with the willingness of a couple of ski shop employees to fix my busted binding when they should have been shutting up shop – cheers guys!
The accommodation was perfect, the pizza dinner even more so. Roll on day 2…
Haute Route Day 2: Verbier to Cabane de Prafleuri
Distance: 14.19km, Ascent: 940m, Time: 4h 35m
Total Distance: 40.19km, Total Ascent: 2470m
The plan was still to make it to Cabane des Dix where we had a reservation – this would make for a somewhat adventurous and long day. We were dictated time wise by the opening of the first lift from Verbier, and after frustratingly paying 40 CHF instead of the Mont Blanc Unlimited annual pass rate of free (the pass gives 6 days skiing at Verbier) we were taking the first of four gondolas to 2980m Col des Gentianes. By the time we eventually put on skis it was 10am and thoughts of the day being far too long were looming!
A quick ski down to the beginning of the days first ascent up to Col de la Chaux, and the decision to switch things around a bit was made. This day would now be significantly shorter with our goal being Prafleuri instead of Dix. It was going to be a mellow day after all!
Col de la Chaux was a steady climb to a small area where it was time to remove skins and enjoy some downhill skiing again. More of a traverse than a big descent but hey, down is down! Our initial goal was the invisible snow covered Lac du Petit Mont Fort before another skin up to Col de Momin. Once again; skins on, skins off, skins on… Following a well worn skinning track the meandering 250m ascent up to Col de Momin was a breeze – we were now on the pretty impressive 2.25km long Grand Désert glacier.
The weather continued to be perfect, the views epic, and the ski touring fun and far from technical. At this, already second col of the day the summit of 3336m Rosablanche, our day 2 side trip, was clearly visible. Due to the length of this day it seemed like most guided groups also bag this summit, a fairly easy ascent with a handful of switchbacks and short final bootpack. At this point I was glad we had committed to Cabane de Prafleuri otherwise I’m sure that Ted would have convinced us to take the more direct route down towards Lac des Dix, a descent that looked just a little intimidating to say the least!
We really were far too early and standing atop of Rosablanche meant no more upward motion for the day. Had we chosen to ignore advice from one of the refuge wardens it would have been very comfortable to make it all the way to Dix on this day too! Oh well, the afternoon would be for chilling out. From this, our highest point of the day, it was to be an almost 700m descent to Prafleuri – the refuge was visible and with plenty of ski tracks leading in that direction we were there in no time.
Whilst certainly not cheap there’s something about eating communal meals and getting together with like minded people in mountain refuges. It was certainly no big deal having an entire afternoon to enjoy the views, replenish the fuel levels, and decide on the side trip objective for the following day. Seems like we would now be on the same itinerary as a few other guided groups; and how much I prefer it this way, the freedom to make our own decisions and not be tethered to the end of a rope!
Haute Route Day 3: Cabane de Prafleuri to Cabane des Dix
Distance: 20.30km, Ascent: 1465m, Time: 7h 46m
Total Distance: 60.49km, Total Ascent: 3935m
Taking breakfast at the latest time of 7am allowed the other couple of groups at the refuge to be out of the way and preparing us a nice skin track! We were in no rush and operated like a well oiled machine, transitioning from uphill to downhill smoothly and efficiently – it was fun to sit back, leave leisurely, then catch and watch others as they plodded slowly up the easiest of slopes. Col des Roux was an immediate ascent from the hut, albeit only a quick 20 minutes – this would take us to 2804m and provide amazing views of the length of Lac des Dix.
The lake is around 5kms in length and narrow. Our objective was a fun but long traverse that lead towards the lakes shore. Continuing on beneath the Rochers du Bouc it was then time to follow its long shoreline. An uncomfortable leg-burning traverse making minimal descent whilst trying to remain as high as possible – we didn’t want more skinning just yet! The end of the lake didn’t come soon enough, and yes, with it came the next ski transition up to Pas du Chat, and 500 vertical metres beyond that, Cabane des Dix.
I had travelled the summer paths along the lake a couple of times as part of the hiking Haute Route but its amazing how completely different things looks when covered in snow. Very beautiful whatever the time of year. We made our way up the steep track from the lake before contouring round the valley below the Glacier de Cheilon. Being not too far from Arolla meant that this area was busy; lots of day tourers, lots of skimo folk prepping for the PDG ski mountaineering race, and many other ski tourers basing themselves at the refuge.
Still hidden from view behind Tête Noire, I was excited to get to our third nights accommodation. The refuge was off-limits a couple of seasons earlier after having just had a toe amputated due to Everest frostbite! With no such problems this time, the refuge came into view with one final slog, views from here dominated by the impressive north face of Mont Blanc de Cheilon. It had taken us 3:07 to get here, far less than anticipated – we could definitely have combined days 2 and 3!
Luckily there was a pretty cool side trip up to the summit of 3548m La Luette, a popular afternoon out and back from Dix. We had decided the previous day that the refuge provided packed lunches were crap at best, the perfect reason to enjoy a proper cooked lunch before heading back out again. The soup of the day with sausage, cheese and crusty bread was well worth the price!
La Luette was an excellent addition to the day, a pleasant 2 hour ascent where the upper crevassed areas were spent roped together. Once again the final summit ridge was a bootpack, skis on our packs ready to descend right from the summit! Snow conditions didn’t feel ideal but I was strangely enjoying skiing anything that was thrown at me, even if it was far from pretty. Icy and hard packed snow whilst avoiding crevasses was soon confirmed! It didn’t take so long to make it back down the 600m of elevation and after some customary cursing we were soon making the short walk up to the refuge. It was now heaving; skis, boots and skins littering every outdoor space, the 115 beds almost at capacity – we had gone from a private 4 bedroom dorm at Prafleuri to a full, far larger dorm. Oh well, there was definitely a fun atmosphere!
So far we had done everything right, even the decision to break up the days working out well. Today was the first day of roping together and having to endure slightly steeper and significantly harder snow. A feeling crept over me that this is something I better get used to!
Haute Route Day 4: Cabane des Dix to Cabane des Vignettes
Distance: 11.81km, Ascent: 1104m, Time: 4h 25m
Total Distance: 72.30km, Total Ascent: 5039m
Just like the previous day we thought it best to let the masses depart first, a good excuse to fuel up with that extra bowl of porridge and drink more brewed coffee. There was no haste to hit the icy looking steep descent down towards the Glacier de Cheilon!
Today was a climbing day, the 3796m summit of Pigne d’Arolla the highest point on the Haute Route being the big achievement. To get there we had a short 80m descent followed by a vertical Kilometre of skinning. By the time we departed it was slightly after 8am, a very chilly nip in the air ensured we didn’t mess around in the shade as we changed to uphill mode. An easy traverse took us to the Glacier de Tsena Réfien where the passing fun began!
Unlike numerous other groups we continued on unroped, making kick turn after kick turn, all the time gaining elevation. As the glacier steepened we were forced left to avoid open crevasses, eventually reaching 3360m and the foot of the Passage de la Serpentine. Although the sky was clear we were beginning to suffer in the windy conditions. Crevasses, whilst not obvious, were apparently a big deal in the area, the likelihood that roping up very soon highly probable. Once the terrain flattened that’s exactly what we did, especially after seeing that other previously unroped skiers were now making the decision to be safe than sorry!
It wasn’t much further before we were also removing skis, attaching them to our packs, putting on crampons, and bootpacking up the steep and icy 100m slope of La Serpentine. This now felt like an adventure! Although we would soon be back on skis we remained roped all the way to the top of Pigne d’Arolla, some 170 vertical metres higher. The summit was small and could barely handle the half dozen people that were preparing to descend in the cold wind. We waited!
Waiting was good for me; and whilst the ski descent didn’t look so bad it soon became steep, with hard, often icy, windblown snow – just the conditions that I love (or hopefully will in a season or two!). We drop off from the top, followed by an easy flat area – clearly the calm before the storm. Although we couldn’t yet see Cabane des Vignettes it was obvious where we were heading by the many other ski tourers making their way up and down the steep slope.
Lacking the confidence to make a turn I was running out of real estate – finally I had to throw my skis and body around to face the other direction. A fall was compulsory! This wasn’t much fun but I managed to follow my Scandinavian (born with skis on their feet) colleagues and lose 600m of elevation. Col des Vignettes was now in sight, as was the refuge – happy times! Calm down I told myself, don’t get too excited; there was a still a sketchy section that required use of a fixed rope, then a couple of icy turns. The col didn’t come soon enough, although seeing the precariously placed refuge and envisaging the photos was enough to distract from the worst descent of the Haute Route so far.
After crossing onto the north side of Col des Vignettes the refuge was a short traverse away. Once again we had arrived early, the day taking less than 4h30. After following the usual refuge etiquette for ski storage, etc… it was time for a proper cooked lunch, one of the highlights of this epic day!
Haute Route Day 5: Cabane des Vignettes to Zermatt
Distance: 37.97km, Ascent: 1582m, Time: 9h 34m
Total Distance: 110.27km, Total Ascent: 6621m
A day of 4 cols. On this, our final day we would get one of the best ski descents in the Alps and end up drinking beer on the slopes above Zermatt. What could be better? But first we had to reverse the end of the previous days tour, not an exciting thought!
As usual we waited for everyone else to depart before we bothered to get geared up. Avoiding all the hustle and bustle of the other hundred people at the refuge made sense, leaving us somewhat relaxed to begin the day. It was on this final day that we had to make a decision; either to combine 2 stages via the Cabane de Bertol, or do as most others and head over the Col du Mt Brûlé. Both options would bring us out just below the summit of Tête Blanche, although the latter would have significantly less elevation gain and over a shorter distance. We would make the call at the intersection after Col Collon.
As expected the initial steep descent was sketchy in the early morning cold, the saving grace being that it only dropped 120m before reaching the Col de Charmotane. From there it was time to skin up, the next goal being Col de l’Évêque at 3382m. On easy terrain the col was knocked off pretty quick and the decision of the day would soon be upon us. With the temperature improving now that we had moved out of the shade the snow actually felt pretty good underfoot – would we finally get some decent skiing for the 500m of descent? Turns out that yes, we would have twenty minutes of fun skiing down the Haut Glacier d’Arolla to where the route split.
The left route, incidentally with no one on it, towards Cabane de Bertol looked gloomy and totally in shadow whilst the groups heading to the right were illuminated in sunshine as they skinned up towards the bottom of Col du Mt Brûlé. If we also tagged 3710m Tête Blanche then the sunny choice wouldn’t be significantly less than via Bertol – a unanimous call was made! The decision continued to mess with me as we enjoyed more skiing down to where we would soon switch back to skins!
Continuing on up the Haut Glacier d’Arolla was easy; just follow the well worn skin tracks in the direction of a crowd of other people. It would have been difficult to chose the wrong col to bootpack up. Very similar to Col du Passon, the 100m well kicked in route was a breeze (even if some of the others on it were making it look far too gnarly!), and we wasted no time with another transition back to skis. The views from here were amazing, our route very clear to the rocky side of Tête Blanche – one more uphill and it would all be plain sailing downhill to Zermatt.
That one more uphill would cover 7.5kms of skinning, far more than it looked but on a fairly mellow incline. The only discomfort being the relentless sun beating down on us! It took some 2.5 hours to gain the Glacier de Tsa de Tsan, then take a clumsy slide on blue ice, before finally navigating the heavily crevassed terrain up to the summit. A couple of other groups resorted to the initial ski descent roped together! A slightly nervous sign of what was ahead after we celebrated bagging the last summit of the Haute Route!
There it was, an epic view of the Matterhorn, its neighbour, Dent d’Hérens, and countless other 4000m Alpine peaks – this was the icing on the cake for sure. We were now up at 3710m and with Zermatt down at around 1650m we could look forward to a very long 18km ski to town!
…and so it began, an epic descent of the Stockji, Tiefmatten, and Zmutt glaciers.
Leaving the summit the main aim was not to fall into a hole, the immediate area and everything we could see below pretty heavily crevassed! The Matterhorn was smiling down on us so we were optimistic. During the 550m elevation loss on the Stockji we had a couple of metre wide snow bridges to ski across, definitely something to keep us awake. And maybe not a good time for Christian to be playing with his 360° video camera!
We had suddenly been rewarded with the best snow of the tour so far, arguably the most amazing views, and definitely the most enjoyable descent. Once down the Stockji there was a flattish traverse before a steep ski down onto the Tiefmatten glacier – we manoeuvred away from the usual ski tracks due to a huge serac fall that recently occurred, a place we wouldn’t wanted to have been at the time it broke free. Back onto more flat terrain it was time to traverse across the glacial basin to the right bank of the Zmutt glacier – more serac falls kept us from dawdling!
Unfortunately all the glaciers were soon behind us and we had to make do with an occasionally snow-free track that went on, and on, and on some more. Then at 2200m there was road and what felt like civilisation – it was time to find the pistes above Zermatt.
We had done it, a celebratory beer on a beautiful Monday afternoon at one of the piste side bars. Everything had worked out perfectly; bagging a significant peak each day, the refuge selection, the weather, and the confidence it will provide for me going forward.
Bring on the last week of March 2023 for part deux!
March 24th – March 28th 2022
Mont-Fort Swiss Lodge 53 CHF
Bus/ train Champex Lac to Le Chable 14.40 CHF
Dinner 26.50 CHF
Verbier Lift pass 40 CHF
Binding repair 20 CHF
TOTAL: 153.90 CHF
Cabane de Prafleuri 80 CHF
Beer 6 CHF
Wine 4 CHF
Lunch sandwich 6 CHF
Mars 3 CHF
TOTAL: 99 CHF
Cabane des Dix 75 CHF
Lunch 15 CHF
Beers 16 CHF
Water 9 CHF
TOTAL: 115 CHF
Cabane des Vignettes 74 CHF
Lunch 24 CHF
Beer 8 CHF
Water 3 CHF
Lunch sandwich 7 CHF
TOTAL: 116 CHF
Hotel Cima, Zermatt 53 CHF
Dinner 44 CHF
Breakfast 9.40 CHF
Train Zermatt to Vallorcine 84.60 CHF
TOTAL: 191 CHF
GRAND TOTAL: 674.90 CHF