Haute Route Part 2: Verbier to Arolla

Miss Part 1? Go back and check out Haute Route: Chamonix to Verbier.

Our fourth day in the Swiss Alps began with an early start from the Prafleuri hut to ski the length of the Lac des Dix before the sun would warm the snow along this exposed traverse.

Taylor reaches the street sign atop the Col de Roux. That way to Zermatt ->

Cresting the Col de Roux after just a short climb from the hut, the Lac stretched out below us as the morning light threw a glow on Mont Blanc de Chelon in the distance. Our next hut lay at its feet, some miles away.

The end of Lac des Dix trailing off into the river that leads up-valley through the Pas de Chat (Cat Pass). Light strikes Mt Blanc de Chelon to the right.

The traverse along the lake was blissfully firm, so we made good time despite being forced to cross an occasional patch of grass and one considerable pile of wet avalanche debris.

Taylor ‘skis the stones’ while traversing above Lac des Dix

At the head of the lake we passed through the Pas de Chat, a sneaky climbing skintrack pass through what looks from a distance to be an impassable river gully. Bright light and tricky skinning prevented us from taking any reasonable photos, but suffice it to say that this portion was exposed and cliffy, and bit more serious than either of our guidebooks made it sound.

Atop Col de Roux, pointing to Mt Blanc de Chelon. This gives a nice sense of the distance of the day.
Taylor, finally back on easy ground after passing through the Pas de Chat

Once through the Pas de Chat, easy terrain led us towards the Dix hut. This, I think, was a favorite of both Taylor and I. It’s position is truly unrivaled.

Cabane de Dix, the author, a beer, and Mt Blanc de Chelon.

The Dix Hut also offers the most extensive menu of any of the huts, including a lengthy beer list of Belgian ales.

The menu at Cabane des Dix offered all of the essentials.

The dinner at Dix also started with a complimentary appero of sparkling wine. We opted for belgian “IPA” with dinner. It was tasty, but I’m increasingly sure that Europeans haven’t yet actually discovered the use of hops.

An appero of sparkling wine, a sleepy skier, and Lupulus, a belgian pseudo-IPA.

Sunset on Mt Blanc de Chelon was incredible. Over a desert of dark chocolate, we planned our next day. The standard route would have us climb over the Pigna d’Arolla, an expansive glacial dome that is the high point of the Verbier Haute Route. But the Foehn wind was forecast to come in off of the Mediterranean sea, with gusts into the 60 mph range forecast for the next day.

Sunset on the seracs of Mt Blanc de Chelon

When we awoke to pink skies, the wind had indeed materialized. We decided that it would be possibly suicidal and certainly deeply unpleasant to traverse the Pigna in such winds, so we opted instead to reach the Vignettes hut by descending towards the town of Arolla using the Pas de Chevres before ascending another valley to the Vignettes hut.

Pink morning skies and endless alps.

Most of the guided groups seemed to have made the same decision, and we left the hut with a few groups in tow. We skinned across the valley quickly to reach the Pas de Chevre ahead of them, hoping to have the pass’s signature ladders to ourselves.

Looking back at Cabane des Dix. There is no way to capture in this photo the staggering winds that were sweeping us at the time.

The pass is gained by a series of ladders and platforms up a rock face that would be utterly safe and enjoyable if one didn’t have skis on one’s back to catch the incredibly strong winds of the morning.

Taylor prepares to follow on the iron ladders of the Pas des Chevres (Pass of the Goats)

I did the honors of climbing the ladders in the blustering wind and then brought up Taylor with a basic belay. The process was complicated only by the Patagonian gusts that stretched my spare rope straight sideways into space.

Stretching out in the sun. The Pas de Chevres is the low point on the skyline. From the Arolla side there’s no indication that the opposite face is a rocky cliff.

Once over the pass, it was back into the sun and the calm, a different world entirely. We basked for a moment near the ski resort in Arolla to regain our warmth before climbing towards the Vignettes hut.

Climbing towards the Vignettes hut.

The valley leading to the Vignettes hut was one of the typical European ski valleys: gently glaciated, apparently not significantly crevassed, and populated by ski tourists of all ages out for a Saturday fitness jaunt.

Taylor climbs  towards the Vignettes hut in blissful calm.

The final two- to three-hundred meters up to the hut put us back into the wind that we’d been so glad to leave that morning. It tried steadily to bow us off our feet as we practically crawled into the door of the precariously perched Vignettes hut.

Looking off the precipice beyond the entrance to the Cabane des Vignettes in breath-stealing wind, hoping for a change.

In the hut, we rewarded ourselves for our effort and our cleverness at not traversing the Pigna with the best of all Swiss foods, the Rosti.

Stalking the beast.  Rosti: A pancake of oversized hashbrowns topped with immoral doses of ham, bacon, cheese, and egg. Wash it all down with some Genepi.

Our planning that night was facilitated by the alpine liquor of choice, Genepi. Still, even with the help we faced a dire forecast of snow overnight and extending into the morning. The committing final day to Zermatt would require crossing two passes. After the second pass, the we’d be committed to descending to Zermatt across complex glacier without much opportunity to bail. With a long day ahead of us, we hoped that the forecast would improve, as we’d need an early start to avoid skiing down glacier in the dark.

Would there be a path through the weather and the glaciers?

As the evening would down, we prepared our gear, rigging our rope for the minor complexities of two-person glacier travel and packing our packs to get an early start. The hut was abuzz was nervousness as the possibility of a weather shutdown.

Prepping our glacier floss in the entryway to Vignettes. The window behind me, whited out at the time, overlooks a stunning drop hundreds of feet to the glacier below.

In the morning, we woke to weather that was worse than forecast. Remaining calm, we ate breakfast slowly, hoping for the weather to break. One by one, the guided groups decided to pull the plug and left to ski through the whiteout to Arolla.

Finally, we found ourselves sitting in the dining room of the Vignettes hut, the only remaining group. A few of the friends that we made on the trip had decided to descend to Arolla and climb yet another valley to the Berthold hut in hopes of better weather the next day. We considered staying in Vignettes an extra night to wait out the weather. We waffled. I wanted to bail, felt ashamed about that feeling, justified it, counter justified, and ran myself in circles while Taylor did the same, looking gloomily out the window into the featureless white.

This was the best that the weather got that day. 30-meter visibility, new snow, and blowing wind made for a fun ski.

Ultimately, we decided not to wait or to try some other workaround. Warm weather and wine tasting awaited us in Burgundy. We skied to Arolla through a whiteout and deepening, heavy snow.

Atop the podium with the Germans. We’re number 1 here, but they took the win the following day.

Arriving in Arolla, we chanced upon our German friends who were getting ready to climb to the Berthold hut. In the wet, heavy snow, I was happy not to be going with them. We wished them luck and parted ways, walking with our skis into town to find the bus.

Dorky Euro-bands and falling snow in Arolla. The end to an amazing trip, and the beginning of our next Haute Route dream.

Arolla is a tiny town. One bar, one ski shop. To memorialize our Euro ski vacation, we bought dorky Euro ski headbands, and sat in the bar drinking Euro water-lager, watching fat flakes falling.  I was filled with a bittersweet kind of success, paired with a touch of relief. Sometimes, it just feels so good to bail.

A magical train trip on the Mt Blanc Express had us back in Chamonix by nightfall. We packed and prepared to leave for wine country the following morning. After a deep sleep, we awoke to perfect weather tinged by a hint of regret. We later learned that after a harrowing climb in wet snow to the Berthold hut, the Germans had made it to Zermatt under blue sky. Bravo gentlemen! As for us, we have reason to return, another excuse to travel these majestic mountains and their cozy refuges.

Support Mountain Lessons and sport the perfect pack that Taylor loved all the way across the alps, the Black Diamond Speed 40.

Category: Adventures, Travel, & WritingSkiing



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