Standing on the Col du Chardonnet checking my anxiety, I watch as Jeff repels into the swirling mist. Vaporizing into its depth of uncertainty we've taken a huge leap of faith; for this 55 degree glazed slot is the switching point. Once this bone yard of steeps and spires is crossed there is no turning back. We've laid our cards down on a questionable weather forecast in an attempt to ski from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland; some 60 miles across the spine of the European Alps, "The Classic Haute Route".
In spite of a crystal clear start, crowds and meeting logistics got us late off the mark. Running sweep on the Haute trail, we are now about to pay for it as the visibility door is slamming shut. Even though we are armed as well as any with solid off piste skills, this is not a good thing for our sorry six of mostly skiers who have never set foot on the traverse. This line requires a mountaineering perspective for good decision making, and only Tim and I are really climbers. I realize that as much as access to the Alps has been homogenized with huts, guides, cog trains, and trams; when the way is clouded with adversity the outcome can be as unforgiving as on any mountain. Having upped the ante, by choosing to do this thing self-guided, it's got my full attention. No question, since we are not prepared for a night out, we need to get to the Trient Hut quickly without a route miscue or dropping someone into a yowling crevasse. As I descend off the rope onto the continuing 55 degree slope I'm intently focused for another 200ft until all six of us are reunited. Fortunately, Scott and Tim got a fix on our next land mark before the white-out lid lowered, and now the race is on to cross the Fenetre de Saleina col before we totally lose our line of sight on the Trient Glacier. We are challenged to maintain a pace up the next cirque and its 50 degree couloir as fatigue starts to set in. Nice! Luck is with us as a brief window reveals a directional glimpse of Pte d Orny as we crest. Having done a Google Earth fly over, and getting a personal account from my brother before leaving the States, I'm certain that the hut is at the Orny base on skier's right.
Morning came too soon, and as I check outside the intermittent fog beckons for more of the same. During the early hut scramble, where gear gets mixed up and breakfast is fleeting, we make the decision to press on and force the route down the Val d Arpette, a 5,000 vertical foot descent. With guided groups ahead and a more clearly defined way, Jeff grabs the opportunity for some dynamic photography in and around the Trient glacier ice fall. However, with tracks going every which way, and once again our group taking up the rear, it wasn't until we turned the corner and booted up the double pitch Col des Ecandies, that the deteriorating weather became of less concern. Along the Haute the Arpette is one of the best opportunities for turns, and it was hard for me to give up altitude at such a place in the less than ideal conditions of frozen tracks and wind pack. Depositing us at the village of Champex, where the "Classic" route passes through an idyllic valley before regaining its high mountain form, the snow turns to rain. Apparent that the weather was continuing to conspiring against us, we decided to forgo plans to ski Mt. Velan the following day, and wait it out in the comfort of a town 'gite' in Bourg-St.-Pierre (famous for Napoleon elephants and the St. Bernard Pass). We were getting a short course in Haute flexibility…tomorrow will reveal itself.
Dang, the next day revealed more of the same, but we agreed that there was still a chance if we pushed on (the weather was predicted to break by evening). Enshrouded, we booted up the surreal Chalet d' Amont trail that lead us to our fate, a relentless white wall. Eventually we are locked and loaded into an up track with a couple of guided groups that leaves little to be decided, and the views only to be imagined. As I exit the final moraine lined basin, the Valsorey Hut is barely distinguishable from the barren windswept landscape it resides in. Settling in we make sure to confirm reservations for the huts ahead in anticipation of winter coming to its predicted end. Unbelievably, the storm rages through the night, as the hut cables whistles and the roofing tin rattles like it's going to be ripped from its foundation at any moment. The morning brings blurry eyes and the ominous feeling that we have been slam dunked. We discuss our options with Felix, a guide from Obersdorf that we have befriended. Leaning on his prior knowledge we conspired to give the Haute Route crux, the Grand Combin's Plateau du Couloir, a go in yet again a total white-out. As we come to a halt high on its flanks, Felix probes 2 meters of unconsolidated snow as I ponder fixing ropes. Prudently, it is not to be. The high avalanche hazard in thigh deep powder would make crossing the 50 degree broad slope a certain death wish. As we arrived back at the hut, I felt like our last card had been snatched from our hands, and start to consider round-about alternatives. Then suddenly the weather curtain pulls back to reveal the magnificence of Mt. Velan and the terrain we had traversed since our beginnings at Mt. Blanc. Stunned I spend the afternoon gazing at what we have been missing, and watching the mountains cleanse themselves of recent snows. Then the realization struck home. The game is not lost. There is still a chance. In a flourish of cell phones the scramble was on to secure a spot for another night at the Valsorey and to lock in the Chanrion and Vignette Huts. The Haute could have easily halted in our agony of the moment, but sometimes there are angles in the outfield and as Tim worked his magic, mystically the route unfolded.
It's amazing the difference a day makes. With the solid break in weather, groups seemed to come out of nowhere, all positioning for the Combin. To insure their route and clients the guides got together to announce that they would go first, and that no one was to interfere. Overjoyed to have our Haute back, letting them set the up track was a minor concession of our egos. We respectfully got in lock step with some 60 skiers. Delicate, and a definite struggle for at least one third of the skiers who displayed limited skills, the guides set a line at the high reaches against the summit cliffs to minimize the avalanche exposure. Firmly holding my attention, I constantly looked ahead, measured my steps, and snapped quick views. It was clear that one misstep and you would be gone forever. Interestingly, the guides and those who followed never roped up… better one, than all I suppose.
Having punched through, it was like the weight of a hundred avalanches being lifted off our chests. Attempting to capture the grandeur in the crisp, still air was almost futile. Being so immense and immersing, I nearly resolve to put the camera away, and simply be in the moment. Then, all at once we were like kids in a candy store. Released from mother nature's grip, and free to express our skier tendencies. Out slashed the turns, only to be stuffed back in the pack, as we tried stylin' the 600 ft. drop off the Plateau. Wrapped in the treacherous sun baked crust, a Norwegian skier soon faced a broken binding, a thigh deep booting uphill, and nasty descent back to the Valsorey. Ugh! Next, our Canadian friend augured in. Then, helplessly he watched his ski start to slowly meander off into oblivion with visions of his Haute abruptly ending in torture and grief. Howie, having taken a near by digger, reacted quickly and pounced on the run-a-way just in time (it was a one beer save). In the fray those with mountaineering perspectives checked their turns to simply traverse, recognizing that sometimes it's just about getting there in one piece. Running ahead I crested the Col de Sonadon, and suddenly the best of the Alps lay before my itchy skier feet. Here we could roam. Scott, Tim and Jeff chose to skirt the Mont Durand glacier icefall by taking a couloir that Felix had suggested, while Eric, Howie and I headed traditionally right sniffing out north aspect power stashes. Each revealed its own adventure; ours providing enough face shots that Eric lobbied for laps. It was very, very tempting as the turns were as good as they get. However, reason swayed desire as we still had some 10 miles to cover to the Refugio Chanrion. So reluctantly the call went out, let's just get there. Gliding at times at warp speed the picket fence of the mountain landscape morphed magically, and was punctuated with delightful drops of variable turns. As always, the last indignity manifested in a 1,000 ft. climb to the summer land hut where all the safety valves came off in a pack blow out of classic Haute Route proportions.
Stronger than most groups, we stayed out of the way in the morning frenzy, and were once again the last group out. Taking a longer alternate route up the Glacier du Brenay with the Pigne d Arolla as its finale, we hoped to notch a 3,000 ft. ski off its summit to the door step of the Vignette Hut. The best part was that the line offered more variation and mountaineering interest than the mind numbing trench approach of the standard Otemma Glacier. Moving at a motivated pace we felt less pressure to stay together as a team given topography where the directional travel was clear, or so we thought. While passing through a route junction along the Pointes de Breney the communication wheels came off. We had talked with Felix and everyone else, but not ourselves. At that point we were divided in our minds on which route we were on, which manifested in frustration and indecision upon the realization. My bad! I had let my euphoria over the good weather break down our backcountry best practices. Howie had called me up short - appropriately. Clearing the group air we continued our ascent to the Col des Portons at which point I judged wrongly the cross over point to the upper Breney Glacier. Valuable time was consumed in searching for the way through, which eventually splintered the group. With my mountaineering juices fixed on the Arolla (few mountains of comparable height in the Alps can be climbed to the top on skis), Tim and I crossed over to finish the ascent, while Scott, Jeff, Howie and Eric opted for turns down to the Otemma. It was a big effort topping the Arolla, and in doing so I bonked big time; suffering to make the summit. Scarcely able to fathom the reward of the view, the ultimate humility was bestowed upon us as we descended into our nemesis, another white-out. Sleuthing our way down the numerous tracks, with GPS in hand, we dodged mostly unaware the huge rock drops and ice falls that dotted the landscape. Squeezing out of thin air the ever difficult to find Vignette Hut, a startled realization came over us while standing tipped on a precipice. At that point Tim chanced to look right and proclaim, "Geez, there it is". The sight of the elaborate structure on its precarious perch immediately took the edge off a challenging day.
Reflecting over the six day effort, I became acutely aware that we were not alone. Some 150 strong have somehow come to take refuge at the Vignette, and all are headed the same way. The 18 mile run into Zermatt is by far the longest day of the Haute, and arguably the most dramatic. The Col de L'Eveque, Col du Mont Brule, and Col Valepelline are evenly spaced within the magnificent serpentine setting of alpine arêtes and tucked away glaciers. Never missing a beat, the view is ever striking and the terrain constantly entertaining. Jeff wants to maximize pictures, so we take turns posing and clicking at nearly every step. The lighting is dream like, and the pace encourages contemplation. I'm totally engrossed…flowing through the heart of the Alps. It's almost unfair to compare, but at the moment it’s hard to deny that it is the best mountaineering day of my life. As the distance melts away numerous powder pits present themselves with plenty of uncut between the seracs and crevasses for all. Soon we are in the shadow of the Matterhorn, arcing and gliding in child like delight to an end that is bitter sweet. It's difficult to click out of the bindings on a day that capsulizes what the Haute Route is all about; challenged by an adventureous unknown through the reaches of mountain splendor, in awe, respectful, in good spirits, dancing on the crestline with a menagerie of friends as Valhalla calls.
About the Haute Route
The Haute Route is a classic tour through the heart of the Western Alps and some of its most stunning scenery. First completed in 1860 (Chamonix/Saas Fee 1861), this high-level mountain traverse covers over 75 miles of alpine terrain, crosses over 12 different glacier systems, and connects the two major centers of alpinism - Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland.
The Haute Route is arguably the most famous ski mountaineering tour in the world. First traversed on skis in 1911, skiers stay in high mountain huts, mostly above 3,000 meters. Each day starts early, in order to cover the substantial distances in the best snow conditions and to mitigate avalanche risk. With up to 6 hours climbing per day, while carrying heavy packs at altitude, it is an arduous and serious undertaking.
Since the route was originally walked by members of an English club they dubbed it The High Level Route; however, this became translated into French when it was first successfully undertaken on skis. Now it is commonly referred to by English speakers only by the French title for both summer and winter routes.