Haute Times on the High Route

The skin track quietly disappeared.  Wind and new snow combined to erase our
defined path up the intimidating slope. The Route ascended a smooth ramp defined
by two boundaries, one the edge of a large iceshelf, the other a tumultuous portion
of the glacier filled with house-sized seracs and yawning crevasses. The clouds
swirled around us and gave us moments of confidence-inspiring clarity and others
of claustrophobic whiteout. The loss of the skin track wasn’t inherently a
dealbreaker, but that along with the inconsistent visibility and the fresh foot
(30 cm) of snow increased the odds of finding a crevasse unexpectedly.

 

We were at a bottleneck several hundred vertical meters into
our ascent up a glacial ramp that spills off a large glacial plateau on the
Pigne d’Arolla. It was day six, the crux day of the Verbier variation of the
classic Haute Route, from Chamonix, France (valley of Mont Blanc) to Zermatt,
Switzerland (home of the Matterhorn). Navigating the Pigne d’Arolla requires
ascending the ramp we were on to a traverse across a narrow iceshelf that
threads between cliffbands on one side and a precipitous drop to the glaciers
below on the other.

 

Despite the momentary challenges, our mood was guarded
optimism. We were stocked deep with Swiss chocolate bars, salamis and cheeses. The
Haute (pronounced “oat”) Route is paradise to anyone who has ever carried a
heavy backpack necessary for ski mountaineering or winter camping. On the Route,
each night is spent in a different hut and breakfast and dinner are included.
There is no need to carry shelter, cooking or sleeping gear excepting a
lightweight bed liner required by the huts. We wore a climbing harness over our
ski pants for the entire trip. The gear accompanying us for the Route consisted
of crampons, an ice axe, 70 meter rope, ski crampons, a Black Diamond Whippet
and crevasse self rescue aids. My pack was not as light as a Wasatch ski tour
pack but it wasn’t much heavier either.

The night prior had been spent at the Dix hut, the nicest hut
of the trip. Dix provided a four-course dinner and breakfast consisted of Euro
treats like cured meats, cheeses, muesli and coffee by the bowlful. It was
Easter weekend. Many locals had made the semi-arduous journey from nearby towns.
The hut was full, the guests spirited and loud. Most guests spoke English, the
official unofficial international language. Fine beers and wine were available
and almost reasonably priced, even though the Swiss Franc was at an all time
high against the U.S. dollar. Drinking water at Dix cost more than beer, coming
in at $5 for a 1.5 liter bottle. The same size bottle cost $9 the night before
at a different hut.

 

The Haute (High) Route was established in the nineteenth
century as a summer hike and was first successfully skied in 1911.  Normally skied in seven days, it is above
treeline with few exceptions, ascending over 30,000 feet and crossing 25
major glaciers
. It is part
trek, part ski tour and part cultural adventure. Spring is the optimal time to
ski the Route as the Alps often experience long spells of high pressure and
snow coverage is good. The daily routine is an alpine start and an early finish
at the next hut, thereby avoiding afternoon wet avalanche potential. It is
typically guided, although experienced parties will find the challenges
reasonable.

Back on the Pigne d’Arolla we saw skiers descending towards
us, led by their guide. It was a group of Euros that had departed from the Dix
before us that morning. Then another guided group descended, and yet another,
until we were the high party on the mountain. We were a self-guided party of Americans
in terra incognita in a whiteout high in the Swiss Alps. We paused to ponder
our situation, weighing the variables: several hours below the glacial plateau,
the locals had turned tail, route finding was challenging, the storm was
intensifying … it wasn’t hard to see the trajectory. We peeled climbing skins
and cautiously skied fluffy powder back down the ramp to a broad glacier in the
valley below.

 

Our destination for that night was the Vignette hut. It is
the largest and most popular hut on the Route, with two dinner seatings of 90
each. It is spectacularly situated on a rocky promontory where the northern and
southern branches of the Haute Route merge. By descending we were abandoning
the standard route to the Vignette hut and committing to an alternative route.

 

We followed the broad glacier down valley. To access the
next valley we had to use a via ferrata, literally an “iron road” to overcome a
cliffband separating the two valleys.  A
via ferrata can be fixed cables, ladders, stemples or bridges. The first via
ferratas were installed in the Dolomites in WWI as a way for troops to move
between valleys. This one is a 30 meter steel ladder bolted onto vertical rock
and could accommodate only one person at a time. The parties that preceded us
were slowly ascending the ladder, and people from the other side heading to the
Dix hut were descending it. Most were belayed. We patiently waited our turn
even when a guided party elbowed past us and made a quick ascent with four
people roped together and simulclimbing.

After ascending the via ferrata, we made small talk with the
locals as we transitioned to our ski setups. The locals comprised everyone from
70 year old ladies casually sauntering down the via ferrata unbelayed to the ubiquitous
rando racers. Rando racers are the newest iteration of overland ski racers,
using randonee gear for races involving multiple ski ascents and descents, point
to point races by the quickest means possible. The randonee setups of
yesteryear, heavy downhill boots and clunky touring bindings, have given way to
ultralight packages weighing less than half of modern telemark gear. During
eight days of touring in Switzerland and France we saw only one other group
using telemark gear … Americans from California. All others were on Dynafit
setups or similar. Despite the downside of telemark gear, it made for easier
traversing on the frequent sidehills found on the Route.

 

The rando racers we encountered were practicing for a bi-annual
invitational race the following weekend. They were required to travel in groups
of three, roped up on terrain containing crevasses. They definitely did not fit
the Rocky Mountain image of ski tourers, from their spandex one-piece outfits
to their outlandish Robocop helmets with hinged eye-protection lenses and
backpacks straight from a Milan fashion show. Despite our differences it was
easy to admire their endurance and knowledge of the terrain.

 

Still intent on reaching the Vignette hut, we skied down
valley through intermittent snow squalls, convinced that each new squall was
the last one. Route finding in one squall was particularly challenging as we
approached a lateral moraine that resembled a tsunami about to crest upon us. A
decision was made by all to continue down instead of trying to preserve our
elevation by contouring in search of the alternative skin track up to the hut.

Eventually poma lifts appeared, the type of lift requiring a
steady stance as a flat disc is held between the legs and the riders’ hands
hold onto the pole. The Arolla ski area came into view as a particularly
ferocious squall left little recourse other than to turn our backs into the
wind and wait for it to pass. Finally we had sufficient visibility to locate
the alternate route and saw a few skiers ascending the skin track high above
us.

 

Another decision – ascend the 1,000 meters or more to the
Vignette hut or stay on the piste down to the town of Arolla in the valley
below? In the Alps piste is groomed runs and off piste is everything else. In-bounds
and out of bounds are terms not used as there are no boundaries. The late hour
and the unpredictable weather led to a decision to drop off the Route and head
to Arolla. It turns out that the path of least resistance is an international
concept.

 

Arolla is a small Swiss town at the road’s end. We
recognized several other parties from the Dix hut that also had been rerouted. Our
spacious hotel rooms were a welcome break from the huts that typically slept a
dozen or more in a room, in rows of continuous bunks like sardines or rows on
the floor. A bed in the huts is a narrow mattress, pillow and duvet. Due to the
hut’s cozy sleeping arrangements, earplugs turned out to be the single most
important piece of equipment on the Haute Route. A hearty dinner was required
for the next day’s challenges and that night delivered with buttered steak,
raclette and fine local wine.

By descending to Arolla we were committed to a 2,000-meter
climb the following day past the picturesque Bertol hut, across a large glacial
expanse to one last pass and then a drop of similar elevation past the
Matterhorn into Zermatt. The next morning was sparklingly clear and we had fine
views of the Pigne d’Arolla as we wound up a glacier circling its base. The
peak is massive and castle-like with steep abutments and glaciers nestled on
the crown-shaped summit. Hanging snowfields and icefalls cling to its vertical
walls. Light clouds settled on the highest peaks at midday. By afternoon visibility
diminished to 100 meters. It took seven hours to reach the final pass. Although
it was windswept, the snow below the pass was soft and forgiving. We emerged
out of the cloud ceiling onto a large flat glacier.

 

The Matterhorn, the most famous and recognizable mountain in
the world, was immediately obvious jutting into the sky, its peak slightly
obscured by light clouds. The ten kilometer descent route over 7000 vertical
feet to Zermatt lay before us. The views were astounding and required frequent
pauses to accommodate the nonstop camera clicking. We descended below the Dent
d’Herens with its enormous, blue hanging iceshelves in the shape of a
three-toed heron’s foot. The Matterhorn continued to grow in magnificence as we
approached and skied around its base towards Zermatt. Our concerns about a long
slog across the flat glacier were replaced with excitement as we discovered
that the snow surface was perfect corn. A strong tailwind pushed us easily over
the flats with enough momentum to carry us over small rises without poling.

 

Eventually the smooth, flat glacier narrowed and grew rocky
and broken at its toe. We contoured onto the glacier’s flank looking for a
skiable route into Zermatt, which lay out of sight in the valley below. Old ski
tracks led to sidestepping and Zermatt seemed much farther away than
anticipated. Persistence paid off when we located a return cattrack for the ski
area. The route finding component of the Haute Route was over.

 

Within eyeshot of the piste lay a beautiful restaurant
replete with sheepskin-covered chairs and a waitstaff eager to serve cold beer,
berry pie and Rosti (Swiss skillet omelets). We toasted everything and
everybody and then scooted back onto the cattrack that headed into the old
village of Zermatt. The ski track wound down between ancient wood chalets and
lodges, past barns and stockades smelling of manure, eventually feeding into
the main resort return run until we ran out of snow and found ourselves at the
end of the Haute Route in modern Zermatt.

A night of revelry was followed the next day by riding
Zermatt lifts to access the sidecountry. We rode the highest cable car in
Europe, the Klein Matterhorn, then debarked and walked a 300-meter tunnel into
the Italian resort of Cervinia, circumvented the Breithorn (4,164 meters) and
skied another 7000 vertical back into Switzerland. We descended down a tumbling
glacier, weaving through icefalls to the broad glacier below and a short,
exciting return to Zermatt. The next day the mountain was blanketed in a half-meter
of new snow. I said goodbye to my friends as they headed up for a memorable day
of Swiss powder. It was a wistful departure from Zermatt but a welcome rest. I
took the train down to the Rhone river valley, and the high peaks of the Alps
faded from view.

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