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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.