First successfully completed in the early 1900s, the Haute Route connects the two historic capitals of alpine climbing and skiing: Chamonix and Zermatt. The ski tour is one of the most famous and coveted in the world, traversing through some of the most incredible jaw dropping alpine terrain in the world. I have completed many ski tours before but it typically involves schlepping a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and food for the entire trip – how uncivilized! The Haute Route is a much more civilized affair – we still get to endure long strenuous days but its followed by basking in peaceful, beautiful alpine huts with three-course meals, wood fires, showers, and most importantly beer! I can get used to this but I am getting ahead of myself.
I have been dreaming of completing this route on skis since I completed the walkers’ variation in 2008. The walking route yo-yos up and down over cols and through valleys but in general stays pretty low, out of the heart of the mountains. I have since dreamed of getting higher on the peaks and gliding joyfully across the endless blankets of white snow and glaciers. When we learned we would be stationed in Ireland, I immediately started dreaming of doing some sort of ski tour but questioned the logistics and whether or not I could find a buddy crazy enough to join me! But alas, one of my best friends, Imran, threw the idea out there in a passing conversation and I quickly said “HELL YEAH!” or something to that effect.
The first big decision we had to make was wether to go on a guided or unguided trip. There is not very much beta on the internet besides the itineraries on guides’ websites. After some research, we determined this much: 1) the route traverses through high alpine terrain crossing dozens of glaciers littered with crevasses (Kelley: read as “DANGER”); 2) the weather can be fickle with little to no visibility at times (Kelley: “More DANGER”); and 3) there are many, many route variations – the classic route, the Verbier variation, Grande Lui variation, and on and on. As a result, to ensure Imran and I had the greatest chance of success we decided to sign up for a guided trip through Alpine Guides based in the UK.
Imran and I arrived in Geneva the Friday before the trip to explore the Chamonix valley and get a few days of skiing in before the start of the trip. Chamonix is the original mountain town that everyone strives to be like, situated around 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) in elevation it is surrounded by massive mountains, spires, and glaciers. More impressively, you can be whisked away in a cable car from the city center to Aiguille du Midi sitting at 3,842 meters (12,605 feet) on the Mont Blanc massif (the highest mountain west of Russia) in minutes. It is an incredible place!
On Saturday we skied in Argentiere at the Grand Montets ski resort, which is just up the valley from Chamonix. We had a casual alpine start of noon (<—sarcasm), the jet lag from Ireland was brutal (<—even more sarcasm)! Naturally, for our first run we headed up the tram to the top. On the tram I was amazed by the number of people with harnesses, ice axes, and other technical gear – #hardcore. At the top, the visibility was low and the wind was whipping but the skiing was pretty good considering the conditions.
That night we met our guide and the rest of the group. Our guide, Neil, was from the UK and had an excellent accent – everything sounds better with an accent. Our team consisted of: two other Brits, one Slovenian, one Bozemanite, Imran, and I. On Sunday, we skied in Argentiere with the group so the guide could get a sense of what kind of rascals he was dealing with. We were a mess!
Day 1 of Route: On Monday we met at Grand Montets around 8:00am to catch the first cable car to the top – yes the tour started with a lift assist of nearly 2,000 meters: #nothardcore #icangetusedtothis! It was a blue bird day and at the top of the Grand Montets cable car we were greeted with fantastic mountain views – incredible!
At the top, the gentleman from Bozeman was having stomach issues and decided to go down and meet us the next day in Verbier (yes you can do that)… and then there were five participants… After skiing for a few hundred yards on the groomed snow we ventured off onto the Glacier d’ Argentiere and the land of the alps! The pictures speak for themselves!
After crossing the glacier we began our first big climb over the Col du Passon. The climb was around 700 meters or 2,300 feet. There was an initial 200 foot section of boot-packing but Imran and I decided to just boot-pack the whole thing because why not! Plus the skin track was crowded. The climb was physical and HOT! The sun was beating down on us like a sledgehammer and by the top I was in shorts and a t-shirt.
Imran and I did not communicate effectively with our guide (Neil) when we gallivanted forward on our boot-pack and as a result were waiting at the Col du Passon for over an hour until the group joined us, not the best first impression. Well it turns out that the Slovenian could not handle the heat and decided to head back to Argentiere and meet up with us the next day in Verbier. As a result, Neil had to ski down with him to the glacier, watch him cross the glacier safely and then ski back up to the Col du Passon – wowa! And then there were four participants…
After some R&R on the col we headed across the Glacier du Tour, over the Col Superieur du Tour, and stepped foot in Switzerland!
A traverse across the Glacier du Trient and after one final climb we arrived at the Cabane du Trient!
Day 2 started with a quick ski down the Glacier du Trient and then a scramble/boot-pack over the Col des Ecandies. It was 4th-class rock with snow (Kelley: read “technical but you probably won’t fall to your death”) but having 190 cm long skis strapped to your back made things a little awkward. I was quite glad we got an early start to move ahead of all of the guided parties.
From the col, we skied down some varied snow to the town of Champex and then a taxi to Verbier (<—- yes, I said taxi).
Once in Verbier, we met up with the participants that had dropped out the previous day and learned that they were still not feeling 100%, so they dropped out of the entire trip – bummer! From Verbier we took an intricate network of trams (I think four in all, including the largest tram I have ever seen (it was the size of a bus)) to the top of the ski resort. Once there, we skied over the Col de La Chaux. It was a bit cloudier this day, so the climb was not quite as bad as the previous day. Once at the col, we were enveloped in clouds and it was at this juncture that Imran and I (Kelley: and me!) really appreciated having a guide. Great job Neil!
After skiing into the white abyss we eventually made it to the Col de Momin. Imran, Neil, and I were a little ahead of the Brits so we decided to get in a quick lap of a nearby peak. From there we skied down the Glacier de Prafleuri in the famous dense alpine fog to the Prafleuri Hut.
Well that is it for this installment! Stay tuned for Part 2 next week plus a bonus!