Writings

Thoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.

Haute Route Part 1: Chamonix to Verbier

Taylor and I in Chamonix, enjoying a final cup of good coffee before hitting the road to Zermatt.

Our plan to ski the haute route was hatched casually. It’s easy to imagine success from half a world away, especially on a route deemed the classic of classic ski tours. In typical style, Taylor and I bought plane tickets and booked a few Airbnbs the better part of nine months in advance of when we would be in Chamonix. Our dates were picked based on the guidebook, aiming for deep snowpack but sunny spring weather. What else could we need?

Just. about. everything. It turns out that there is little to no beta about the haute route on the internet aside from guide’s descriptions of the route (Day 3: We’ll tackle massive glaciers as we cross the spectacular high terrain of the alps!) or mismatched trip reports. There’s no accurate or reliable information about what equipment is reasonable for an experience party. There’s not even a day-by-day mileage or vertical tally. Finally, there are certainly no fewer than six major variations on the route.

Still, ingenuity and perseverance won. We ordered a stack of maps from the Swiss topographic administration. We bought two guidebooks, neither of which turned out to be useful on it’s own but which were passable in combination. We opted to make the Verbier, or ‘skier’s’ variation to the Haute route, in favor of a more reliable and skiable route. I stayed up until 2 am one night to make morning phone calls to the huts that required verbal reservations and relied on a combination of vague memory and Japanese whiskey to eek out reservations in French. At last, we were dialed.

Ultimately, we found the route to be amazing, tremendous, and awe-inspiring. Anticipating two major cruxes (which were there indeed), we also found that almost no day came for free, as the mountains forced us to work and think our way through safely.

What follows are photos in two parts, which will tell the story. In due time, I’m planning on posting the full beta for a self-guided trip, so that others don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Enjoy!

Taylor on glacier.

Day 1 began with skiing from the top of the Grand Montets cable car. We skied perhaps 50 yards of groomed snow before turning right off the piste and onto big glacier, into big alps, and out of the realm of our experience. Here, Taylor traverses steep glacier. Behind her, a lone skier marks the end of a British group whose Haute Route had begun and ended with losing a ski into a crevasse. Sorry chaps.

Taylor skis out onto the Argentiere glacier with some good turns behind her. Weather was fine, I’d only skied over one partially-open crevasse, and we were on our way.

 

Up Col du Chardonnet

The first big climb comes across the valley, up the Col du Chardonnet, named for buttery and poor-quality Californian wine. Anticipation was the emotional tone, as the far side of the col, leading into Switzerland, is a crux descent of the route.

Taylor nears the top of the Col du Chardonnet. We began our day on the far ridgeline, just left of the rightmost rock outcropping, in a small partially-shadowed col.

 

The descent from Col du Chardonnet

Down the backside of the Col du Chardonnet and into Switzerland. This was steeper and gnarlier than any photo on the internet had made it seem. I thought we’d be able to downclimb it, and so had forgone a rope longer than 30 meters. The narrow chute is approaching 60 degrees at the top, and has been scraped smooth and firm by guides lowering side-slipping clients. Thankfully, a rope was fixed on the col, which permitted a reasonable rappel.

Crossing glacier de sienna.

A traverse across the glacier de Sienna made for beautiful views and a moderate respite. From here a ski->boot over the more moderate Col du Sienna lead to the Glacier du Trient, the expansive home of the night’s hut.

The view from the Trient Hut, with tracks leading out back across the mellow glacier. The Aiguille du Tour along the right skyline formed the backdrop of some good-looking ski runs that we were too tired to add on.

 

Swiss huts are something else. Drop your pack, stash your sharp things in the gear room, and pop inside for the tarte of the day and beer to enjoy on the huge stone veranda. Welcome to wonderland.

 

The food wasn’t half bad either. A demi-pension paid for dinner and breakfast. Dinner was usually a soup, salad, main, and desert, and there was always a near-infinite amount to go around.

 

Sunrise strikes the glacier du Trient. Silhouetted is one of the many interesting rabbit-person statues that lurk around this hut.

 

Sunrise silhouettes a group of skiers on the glacier du trient.

 

Descending the Glacier du Trient

Day 2 began with a ski down the glacier du Trient towards the second known crux, the Col des Ecandies. The snow was tracked, but chalky and good, and we raced down in front of most of the guided parties.

About to get mixte, trailing our Petzl RAD line.

At the col, we rested briefly and let a small group go ahead. Difficulties were again greater than expected. As rope-gun, I had the pleasure of 4th-classing up a short mixed step in my ultralight crampons and loaded pack. A few insecure rock moves and some heckling from an American guide kept the spice factor up, but Taylor followed quickly on the rope and we were soon skiing down into the sun towards the small vacation town of Champex and a road transfer to Verbier.

Taylor skis down the road towards Champex, with the Col des Ecandies in the distance.

 

Looking back towards the col, slouching like a goober.

 

Swiss trains. What do we need to get these? A trillion dollar infrastructure plan?

In Champex, I read the wrong half of the bus table, so we missed the only bus to come by for hours and we were enjoying a coffee at a lakeside cafe. Not to be deterred but certainly dismayed, we began marching down the 10-kilometer road to Orseilleres, where we could catch a train to Verbier. Thankfully, for our feet and for our marriage, a pair of skiers picked us up along the way and dropped us at the train station in minutes. The Swiss train system is something else… clockwork efficiency beneath towering stone faces.

Verbier ski resort

In Verbier, we took a series of trams to the top of the ski resort, before skiing down to the Mont Fort hut, which is within the ski area. Sloppy corn was king and the sun was shining hard.

Mont Fort Hut Beers

We enjoyed (more than a few) beers on the sunny deck of the Mont Fort hut, waiting for the daytime skiers to leave. Watching helicopters fly gear into position for the Freeride World Tour Verbier stop made for cheap television.

Leaving Mt Fort hut.

The Mont Fort hut made for a quiet stay, as some parties skip it in favor of plowing on to the next hut, so we actually had a room to ourselves. We made a late start, luxuriating for a good hour and a half extra and leaving after all of the guided parties.

Taylor skis up the road out of Verbier, with the Mont Fort hut behind.

 

Top of the Rosablanche

Perhaps the only “easy” day of the route, we toured across a pair of cols before summiting the Rosablanche as an add-on and skiing the best turns of the trip down a large valley to the Prafleuri hut.

Prafleuri huts, new and old. The defunct brown building in the back used to house quarry workers. The one in front is now a privately operated hut run by a damn charming family.

 

Soaking up the sun on the deck of the Prafleuri hut, making entries in the captains log, and reviewing the guidebook under the influence of Swiss recovery-water.

Hut tea.

 

When we checked into the Prafleuri hut, we were given complimentary tea and told to relax a while on the deck before unpacking. We obliged. The view was not bad. Not bad at all.


It’s not cheap, but it is a 30m rope perfect for the haute route that packs down to nalgene size and weighs half as much as a normal cord. If you’re going to europe, support MountainLessons and hook yourself up with one of these RAD Lines

8 Comments

  • Joseph Menetre on May 26, 2017 Reply

    Great ski tour did it last year

  • Joseph Menetre on May 26, 2017 Reply

    Great write up. Ski toured it last year, amazing

  • Josh Milligan on May 17, 2017 Reply

    Thank you for the write-up. I’m looking at doing this trip in the future and am really looking forward to your advice and lessons for self guided trips.

    • Patrick Fink on May 23, 2017 Reply

      Hi Josh! Hopefully I can get it out by then. If you need specific beta before then, just use the contact tab on the website. I will say, I’m concerned about how much snow there will be in June! Hopefully you’ve considered that. Cheers. Patrick

  • Peter Innes on Apr 27, 2017 Reply

    How were the new F1s?

    • Patrick Fink on May 01, 2017 Reply

      I really like them. They’re beefier than the TLT5P, and so they don’t tour quite quite quite as well, but it’s trivial. On the other hand, they’re beefier, and they ski much better.

      The intuition liner is worlds better than the dynafit palau liner. It’s more comfortable and much warmer in a nice way that’s only bad if it’s downright hot outside.

      The only downer s that it’s a 2 motion change over rather than just one. Trivial for normal ski touring but makes them pretty shitty for crossover racing from time to time. Gonna need a pure race boot.

  • cecilia schefstrom on Apr 27, 2017 Reply

    Thanks Patrick, so thrilling and fun to read the blog and see all the sublime photos. Looking forward to all the rest.

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