The Haute Route ski traverse travels through some of the tallest and most stunning peaks of the Alps. We chose to do the “classic” traverse, starting in Chamonix, France and finishing in Zermatt, Switzerland.
Sunday May 4th: To Refuge d’Argentière
Everything is last minute today!
Marc was working last minute on his thesis this morning, we both few into Germany yesterday, the huts on this route are all closing this week, and this is the last day that the Argentière ski resort is open, with a crucial lift out of the deep valley. We get to Chamonix at about 1:45, meet Andrea and try and find ski crampons, which a store in town claims to have in the size I need. None if the stores open until 2:30, and we run around the beautiful town trying to find some, but no luck. We race up to Argentière to catch the Grand Montet gondola, which closes at 4:00. No line at the bottom, but a big lineup at the midstation and we are all stressed about missing the last gondola. Options in case we miss it are a chairlift and then a big traverse or a bunch more climbing.
But we make it, just catching the 2nd last gondola at 3:45. Gaining 700m on the first lift and then 1300m from the mid station to the top of the grand Montet is an ear-popping ride and quickly takes us from the warm valley bottom to another world. As the gondola enters a band of cloud the world goes all white, then it pops out above the cloud to a roaring end-of-season party at the top station (3275m). We work our way through the dancing crowd with our packs covered in crampons and ice axes and rope, heading for a stairway that descends to a big east-facing glacier where an off-piste ski run drops 600m onto the Glacier d’Argentière. The skiing down is challenging, with frozen tracks and wind crust, and winds down between two heavily crevassed areas. Pretty crazy to be skiing in such crevassed terrain, but the slope is heavily skied and down we go.
The snow at the bottom of the slope is warmer and a little softer, and ski quality improves for a bit before we hit the flat glacier and put on the skins for the quick trip across the valley to Refuge d’Argentière.
Half way across the glacier an avalanche roars down the steep granite wall on our right and explodes in a powder cloud that spreads across the valley and at first appears to threaten to over-run Mel, who is ahead of the rest of us. Mel turns around and skis quickly back down the gentle slope away from the approaching cloud, but there is no problem and the cloud dissipates several 100m before reaching her.
Once across the glacier it’s a quick climb up to the hut, which has funky architecture and is very comfortable, with a dinning area with big windows that over look the stunning valley. Dinner is served at 6:30, rice and chicken and lentils with a soup appetizer.
The cloud has been moving up and down the valley all afternoon, providing beautiful, atmospheric views of the big granite spires that line this stunning valley, and in the evening it clears out and the first stars appear.
Much as I enjoy hanging out with friends inside after dinner, sitting around chatting, the incredible beauty and peacefulness of the evening always compels me to get outside with the camera and capture these stunning places during the “magic hour” of light around sunset.
Despite having only 4 hours sleep last night because of being confused with jet lag, the clear sky forces me to stay up late to take some night photos. I’m hauling a tripod and heavy SLR camera along on this traverse for just these occasions! The sky darkens and the stars come out while the quarter moon, hanging low in the sky over Chamonix, lights up the valley beautifully.
A beautiful, exciting and atmospheric day followed by a stunning, peaceful night – what a fantastic start to our week!
Monday May 5th: Refuge d’Argentière to Champex
Because this is the last week that the huts are open for the season, we are rather pressed for time on this traverse. Today we need to double-up and ski from Refuge d’Argentière past the Cabane du Trient and down to the town of Champex, for a total of about 1000m climb and 640m plus 1730m (!) descent.
The morning starts at 7:30 with a scary hike down from the hut on hard frozen snow, with very slippery, icy steps and a good sized drop below. After that’s over we put on the skis and skitter down the hard snow to the glacier and then head up the Col du Chardonnet. The snow is still hard and icy and the skin track gets quite steep so I take the skis off and put on boot crampons.
The Col du Chardonnet in front of us is beautiful, and the view back across the valley to the big granite wall of Aiguille Verte, now in full sun, is stunning. Skiing with great friends under brilliant blue skies, surrounded by granite spires and glaciers, what a day!
The back side of the Col du Chardonnet is a steep gully, perhaps 60+ degrees, with a rappel anchor at the top. We go down one at a time on our 50m rope, needing to stop at a 2nd anchor, which is just a block slung with some cord and a locking carabiner that someone has left there. Given the popularity of this ski tour I’m surprised that there is not a more permanent anchor here. From the 2nd anchor it’s a short rappel and then down climb the remainder of the gully. Nice soft ski turns from the base of the gully down to the glacier are followed by a long, high-speed traverse left around the Grand Fourche.
Getting all four of us down the two-pitch rappel has taken a long time and now it is noon, the sun is straight overhead. The direct and reflected radiation is intense as we round the corner of the Grand Fourche.
The 2nd climb of the day is approaching, up the Fenêtre de Saleina, which is baking in the sun at the end of a south-facing bowl. We ski perhaps half way up the couloir and then boot pack the remainder as the route becomes too steep to ski. The heat, altitude and weight of the pack combine to just flatten me and I’m reduced to five steps followed by 10 panting breaths by the time we top out at 3267m.
Once through the Fenêtre we head across the large, flat Trient Glacier towards a ridge dropping north from the Petite Pointe d’Orny. It’s a fun high-speed traverse across the glacier before descending 200m of wind slab and refrozen snow (fun?), searching for the couloir on our right that will provide us passage up and over the long ridge of steep spires.
On the traverse to the base of the col we cross some really nice north-aspect powder snow, protected by the shade of a rock wall, but don’t have the time or energy to take a run. Same story as every other col – ski up as far as possible, then put the skis on the pack and kick steps to the top. Upon reaching the top its time for a snack and some water, enjoying the view back towards the broken icefall on the Trient Glacier.
The descent from the col starts with a traverse away from the col followed by a nice fall-line ski down on the best quality show we have had so far, creamy soft on a 30 degree slope. After that is a long, low-angle traversing descent where we all do high speed giant-slalom turns along the edge of the valley on increasingly soft but still creamy snow. We are aiming for the end of the valley, where a road runs through a collection of small farmhouses scattered in a meadow.
As we drop down and the snow gets thinner the game is to find and follow little ribbons of snow as far as possible, to avoid walking, which means occasionally skiing across grass and flowers to hop from one strip of snow to the next.
Once we have skied the last possible metre of snow the skis go on the backpack and we walk through beautiful flowering meadows, past summer farm houses and then down the road through the small ski resort and into the town of Champex. The ski resort is closed for the season and the town is very quiet as we stroll through it, looking for the Au Club Alpin that Andrea booked for us. It feels almost like summer down here as we sit on the patio by the lake, enjoying a beverage in the sun!
Tuesday 6th: Champex to Cabane de Valsorey
We catch a taxi from Champex at 7:00. The drive is stunning, losing perhaps 500m as we drop from the hanging valley into the main valley down a series of steep switchbacks with views into the lush valley far below. Thanks to the late season, our super-helpful taxi driver is able to drive us up a single lane farm road and then a dirt road perhaps 300m above Bourg St Pierre, stopping at the point where a small avalanche has blocked the road. He was willing to back his vehicle down the dirt road (!), but we find a small wide spot in the single-lane road and help him turn around.
We start walking up the road at about 8:15, passing two old farm houses on the way. There are some flowers already poking out of the grass between the snow patches and also a couple of marmots and an Ibix. A cuckoo bird in the valley calls out with it’s famous minor-third interval!
Soon we leave the road for a hiking trail that winds up and around some steep slopes before dropping back down to a creek where we finally put on the skis after over an hour of hiking. The clouds forecast for today are just moving in, which we are happy with as they should keep the snow for getting too hot and soft on the steep slopes up to Valsorey.
Taking the weight of skis off the back is a relief and after a snack and some water we cross the stream and start working our way up a big slope, perhaps 300m high, next to a moraine and steep drainage. There is a bit of wind blown snow filling in the existing ski-track and the fresh snow provides welcome traction on what would otherwise be an icy track. Once again I’m OK without ski crampons, barely! We leave the up track early and move onto the crest of the moraine, realizing at that point that we have climbed perhaps 100m too high. Ski skins come off and we get a good steep run down the side of the moraine on snow that has softened nicely.
Another snack and water break at the bottom by a little creek before putting on the skins for the final push 600m up to the Cabane Valsorey, perched on a rock buttress at 3030m in the middle of big, steep terrain. We scope out a route up to the hut that avoids a large bowl threatened from above and a small gully that is full of wet snow avalanche debris from a day or two ago. Today, the clouds are keeping the sun from heating things up too badly and we are not concerned about wet snow avalanches, but it’s always worth choosing the safer route.
The slog up is strenuous and despite the cloud the sun is now very hot. I’m eating snow and putting snow under my hat to cool down but the final 200m of vertical is a real struggle. Finally reach the hut at 1:30 and collapse on the patio before collecting melt water from the roof and guzzle at least a litre to rehydrate. Next comes a beer, only 5 Swiss francs, a real bargain and we all agree that it’s a critical part of recovering from ski exhaustion!
We have hours to lounge around on the patio under reasonably warm but cloudy skies enjoying the stunning views of the Mt. Blanc massif across the big valley. We study the glaciated north face of Mt. Velán, and identify what looks to be a fantastic 1000m ski run from the summit to the valley.
The clouds that came in today are the beginning of a forecast storm system, and to prepare for the complicated terrain we need to go through tomorrow we spend an hour programming the GPS with waypoints taken from the excellent route map.
Wednesday 7th: Valsorey to Chanrion
We leave Valsorey at 7:00 with very light snow falling on perhaps 2cm of new snow overnight. The route goes straight up behind the Cabane, climbing 600m to the col at Plateau du Couloir. About half the climb is on skis up an existing track, where the new snow provides some good traction. At a steep, exposed point we take the skis off and put crampons on the boots to continue up. The stormy weather mostly obscures the views, but during occasional clear breaks the views are tremendous across to Mt. Velán and neighbours.
The col is high, 3650m, and the last 100m is steep and cold, with strong winds and limited visibility. Getting over the col we take shelter behind a rock for some food and water, and wait for a clearing in the clouds to give us enough visibility to navigate the very big terrain below the Grand Combin. When the sky gifts us with visibility and we can see the terrain around us it is impressive and intimidating, with big, steep glaciated slopes below and the main peak towering above us. The ski quality is good as we carefully descend from the col to a broad plateau during the brief weather window. On the plateau the huge south face of the Grand Combin towers above us as we stop to put the skins back on. The climb to the Col du Sonadon (3505m) is quick and easy, and we take another weather break just over the col to wait for visibility before dropping into more complex, steep, glaciated terrain on the other side.
The snow is good and the visibility not bad as we drop and traverse, following a series of GPS waypoints that we entered last night to guide us around the crevassed areas and avoid cliff bands. One waypoint directs us to turn right above a cliff band, traverse for a kilometre, and then drop on the skiers right of an icefall. The ski quality is quite good, with warm soft snow over a hard sun crust, and we are suckered down, past our waypoint, until suddenly below the rolling slope there appear three large rock buttresses marking the top of a cliff band. All stop! We have to boot pack back up the 30 degree slope and start the correct traverse above the cliffs, whoops.
More big, intimidating terrain in marginal visibility as we traverse steep slopes above the cliffs, but the snow pack is solid and there are no avalanche concerns. We ski around the cliff and down on the right side, traversing around and getting cloudy views back of the big cliffs we just toured around. We wait again at the top of the next big descent for the cloud to clear, then drop down into undulating glacial moraine during the next weather window, a really nice run.
Navigating the moraine is a bit of a challenge, as the terrain tries to pull you down left, into the deep valley, but we need to stay far right and finally climb back up and over a ridge to avoid dropping into the canyon far below.
The GPS waypoints and excellent map are both critical in navigating though this big, complex terrain in today’s stormy weather. The terrain in the valley constantly tries to pull us down into a canyon but we contour and climb up the side to eventually get up and over a ridge for the final, correct, descent to the valley bottom, downstream of the canyon. Here we encounter the first big avalanche debris we have seen, a slide that ran to ground and covered fresh-looking ski tracks. By now we are getting close to today’s low point of 2236m, a big drop from the high point of 3650m, and the snow is very soft and warm.
The days total climb was 930m and decent 1500m, and most of it was good skiing on warm spring snow, with some heavy fresh up high from the storm, all sitting on a solid melt/freeze crust. Good fun despite the mental weight of navigating in the bad weather! Stormy days like today add drama to a trip, and make you really appreciate good weather. They also make you appreciate modern navigation technology! When a brief window opens up in the cloud there’s a feeling of relief and excitement, and challenging weather like this provides a yin/yang balance to a trip.
All that is left now is a brief climb up from the valley to the Cabane Chanrion. There’s a building just ahead, and we are all excited to see how close the cabin appears to be, but upon getting there it turns out to be an inn that is still closed. Further ahead is another small building, but that too is a “false hut”, and the true Chanrion finally appears another 15 minutes up the hill, a beautiful three story stone building from 1938.
The full service hut system here in the Alps is excellent, with good meals, beer, wine, liquor and snacks, comfortable duvet beds, and a decent breakfast, but it’s expensive, at about 75€ per night and some annoying things like 6€ for 1.5l of bottled water and similar for hot tea water. The folks in the this hut are a mixture of Swiss German and French, including a group of 6 who we met in Valsorey.
Thursday 8th: Chanrion to Vignettes
It was storming hard last night when we went to bed, wet snow and strong wind. Wake up at 4:00 for an outhouse trip and notice that the storm is over and the stars are out and brilliant, so I have no choice but to go back inside, put on more clothes, grab the big camera and tripod that have been a brick in my pack for the last four days, and head out into the pre-dawn darkness to take some photos.
The sky is gorgeous, with the Milky Way (La Voi L’actée) shining above the peaks out the front door. Walking around the hut looking for a place to set up I notice that the sky is just starting to show a hint of blue in the east. Shoot two panoramas behind the hut and another in the front as the sky steadily brightens and the stars fade out while the mountains start to glow against the sky. Stunning, and worth losing sleep to experience and capture this magic beauty! Back to bed just after 5:00 and lay awake until 5:30 when everybody is getting up.
We start skiing just after 7:00 and head up behind the hut, working our way over and around rolling terrain, turning right and dropping a bit into a broad valley edged with big lateral moraines. We climb slowly and steadily towards the crux, a large headwall with a big, complex icefall on lookers right and a narrow, fun looking climb up snow gullies zigzagging between rock on the left.
Below the icefall is some debris from serac fall which we give wide clearance to before skiing up a broad fan covered in old wet snow avalanche debris. When that slope gets too steep the skis are once again strapped to the pack and crampons put on the boots and we start hiking. The climbing is comfortable, no more than 45 degrees and involving a short gully of loose rock with a bit of hard ice under the snow. After the gully we traverse right before continuing straight up in boot-deep snow. The icefall in all it’s broken, chaotic complexity makes a stunning backdrop but is far enough away to be of no danger to us.
Above us towers a peak that has been basking in the sun for hours now, and we move as quickly as possible, regularly swapping the lead position, the one who kicks the steps into the snow. Hard work when the snow is knee-deep in places! This continues up the 40 degree slope for about 250m vertical before the slope angle eases off enough that we can put the skis back on. The glacier angle continues to relax as we continue up on skis towards the broad col in the distance. The sun has been on us now since the middle of the boot pack, there is no wind and the heat is quite intense, considering how high we are.
I’m experimenting with breathing techniques to gain some energy as we slowly approach the col, passing 3200 then 3400m. One breath per step becomes three breathes for two steps then two quick breathes per step, which helps pick up the pace a bit. Also try one hard, deep breath per step, which also helps move oxygen from the thinning atmosphere into the blood.
We get to the Col du Brenay at 3639m and then turn gently right towards another col between our destination, Pigne d’Arolla and a rocky ridge farther right. The wind is strong at the final saddle where we drop the packs and ski up hard, wind-packed snow to the summit at 3790m. The views in all directions are tremendous, and once on the summit ridge a tall peak with a famous profile appears on the horizon – the Matterhorn!
We don’t spend long at the summit because of the wind, and after snapping some summit photos we ski back down to the saddle, pick up the packs and then continue east. The route drops down a fantastic 600m slope of heavy, challenging powder with amazing views across the valley of Mt. Collon and the Matterhorn.
We are following tracks that lead down and left, searching for the Cabane des Vignettes, and upon turning left around a rocky shoulder there it is, a large, four story stone building perched magnificently at 3160m on the very edge of a cliff, with a sharp rocky ridge rising behind it, an unbelievable setting! Getting there requires a steep, descending traverse followed by a short boot pack across a narrow ridge spanning the valley.
We are fully exhausted as we stagger through the glass doors and into the bright stone and glass boot and ski storage hallway. Total today: 1360m up and 660m descent. The first Cabane des Vignettes was built here in 1924, a new one built in 1946, and then a major renovation and enlargement took place in 2008. This Cabane, like all the others we have visited, is full service, and has ski, boots and gear storage on the first floor, 2nd floor dining (breakfast and dinner provided, beer and wine available), and 3rd floor sleeping quarters and washrooms. Hut shoes, duvets and pillows are provided, but you need to bring your own sleeping sheet.
Friday 9th: Vignettes to Zermatt
Wake up at 5:00, along with the rest of the hut, for a very good breakfast, served at 5:30: eggs and bacon with bread and jam, plus tea and coffee. Because we are at the very end of ski touring season, the hut is not full, but with everybody on the same schedule the hallways are crowded with people stuffing their packs and getting their boots on and skis ready – it’s madness and I can’t imagine what it would be like with a full hut. We are out the door and skiing by 6:30, into a complete white-out of cloud and a bit of snow. We traverse back the way we came across the narrow ridge and then turn left, skiing across the Col de Charmotane, a broad, gently rolling glacier.
Still in a whiteout, we put on the rope before starting the low-angle climb towards the Col de l’Evêque at 3377m. There are a few rope teams on the glacier, including two guided parties of perhaps 8 people each. Skiing in this crowd of people feels strange to me, and talking to Andrea about it we have been very lucky to have had so few people on the traverse until now. We break our own trail and separate from the line of marching ants to gain the col, and are once again alone in the foggy, white world. We joke that with all these people, it is no wonder that ski mountaineering racing got it’s start here in the Alps!
At the col we again meet up with the herd, but we have gotten there first and start the descent ahead of them, entering Italy as we ski down into the mist. We drop about 450m past the towering SE face of l’Evêque, returning to Switzerland in the process. There are no breaks in the weather, and all around us is pure white as we carefully navigate, around crevasse fields and terrain features we cannot see, using GPS waypoints programmed in last night. Tricky and spooky, and once again the GPS and excellent maps from Swiss Topo are critical to finding our way in the cloud. Note: the two maps needed for this tour are 282S Martigny and 283S Arolla.
There’s finally a break in the cloud as we swing around a ridge into a broad cirque on the north side of Mont Brulé, with glacier tongues flowing off the peak above us. Ahead of us are two cols, and we aim for the left-hand one, the Col du Mont Brulé, a moderate-angle boot pack covered in old avalanche debris. With ski crampons Andrea manages to ski to the top, but the rest of us strap the skis on the pack and walk up. We stop for a quick snack and water break at the top and are met by a group of Spanish guys who have caught up to us.
The weather is good now, and ahead of us we see our route down and across the Glacier de Tsa de Tsan, and then our up a broad slope for the final climb of the trip!
From the Col du Mont Brulé we are back in Italy and the weather is still good, with mostly sun and a few clouds blowing through.
We drop and traverse left down the Haut Glacier de Tsa de Tsan above the edge where the glacier drops into the valley on our right. The view to the south is stunning, with glaciers coming off the long summit ridge of the Punta Margherita and flowing down towards the valley 2000m below. After crossing the flats we start the gradual 2km climb up to our final col of the trip, the Col de Valpelline at 3554m. The sun is out but the wind is quite strong, which is helpful in keeping us from overheating as we climb 450m of left, breath, right, breath, repeat, repeat, repeat up the gentle slope.
Almost two hours later we are approaching the col and a spectacular vista is emerging as the sharp, rocky summits of the Dent d’Hérens and Matterhorn poke above the smooth rounded snow at the pass.
Upon reaching the broad col we enter back into Switzerland and gaze in wonder at the huge, glaciated north face of the Dent d’Hérens, the world-famous profile of the Matterhorn and the other massive peaks towering above the valley. Time for a little celebration of water and chocolate at surmounting the last climb of this amazing traverse before starting the long descent, over 1500m, into Zermatt.
The ski down is fantastic, with challenging snow conditions at first that improve to nice spring snow as we work our way down the glacier, weaving around crevasse fields and cliffs. And the views are truly incredible! Perhaps the most beautiful ski descent of all time.
Once most of the vertical descent is finished we work our way around glacially carved mounds, traversing the lower slopes of a large lateral morraine running along the lower flanks of the Matterhorn, known as Monte Cervino in Italian, now towering some 2200m above us.
As we descend into the valley eventually the snow runs out and we end up walking down a road past a couple very cute hamlets and houses scattered throughout the valley. We are all pretty tired now, with sore feet, and are aiming for the Furi gondola, which will save us several kilometers and 100s of vertical meters of walking down into the main town of Zermatt.
We make it to the gondola and coast down into town, stumbling around in our ski boots looking for the hostel. We find it, check in, dump the packs, get out of the stinky clothes, clean up and go for dinner. Dinner starts with the Swiss specialty of raclette, melted cheese in this case served with pickles and onions on the side.
Walking around the beautiful town is nice way to end the trip. The town is a mixture of new, fancy and expensive condos and hotels with beautiful older hotels and houses. The historic part of town contains farm houses and buildings dating back to the 16th century. The old grain storage buildings are built on very unique rock pedestals, looking like wood and stone mushrooms, a brilliant design to keep rodents out.
We are staying at the Zermatt Youth Hostel, which is clean, well organized, reasonably priced, full of friendly folks, and has an amazing view out the window!
The next day we take the amazing Glacier Express train from Zermatt down to Visp, then change trains a few times to get back to Chamonix to pick up the vehicles.
Thanks for a fantastic trip, Marc and Mel for your hospitality and especially to Andrea, who organized the route and booked the huts for us!
Darren Foltinek, 2014