TRAVEL INSPIRATION Off the Beaten (ski) Track – The Haute Route

September 30th, 2011


If you haven’t already booked your northern hemisphere snow-sliding adventure for this coming winter, time to get cracking. Having trouble choosing a destination? The Mountainwatch archives are an inspirational goldmine. These next few weeks we’ll be reaching in and plucking out some of the best of our previous travel adventures…

Here, we revisit Will Clifford’s ultimate alpine adventure, the Haute Route – five days ski touring from Chamonix to Zermatt

TRAVEL | Will Clifford
Images | Courtesy Will Clifford

Being known as the best ski touring route in the world only can mean one thing; The Haute Route is simply amazing. Starting in Chamonix, France and travelling over the Alps to Zermatt, Switzerland, The Haute Route, which began as a walking route in 1861, is a linked series of huts amongst some of the world’s most spectacular mountains. Ski tourers from around the globe come to try the challenge of the five day trip. Nights are spent in the huge 80-person huts, after which the route is named, where meals are provided for the huge numbers of daily arrivals.

On April 10 this year Brett Thomas, Steve Lizard Lyster, Baz Dennis and myself, all Thredbo locals, met up with our guide Geoff from Seven Descents in Chamonix. Over a few beers, Geoff ran us through our planned trip. Our route, equipment and safety were all gone over with a fine tooth comb and we talked about various detours on the way to get some extra turns in.

Day 1: Agentiere to Trient Hut.
By far the biggest day started off with a bang (and luckily a downhill run) – Skiing 680m vertical of light, dry, knee deep powder under sunny skies – luck was definitely on our side. Before we knew it though our climbing skins were on and clothing was coming off in layers – our ascent to the Col du Chardonnet had begun.


Two and a half hours later came our first real reality check when we swapped our skis for boot crampons, ice axes and rope. The six of us were tied to Geoff with strict instructions that came down to “just don’t fall over”. After a short climb we arrived at the top of the Col to see… nothing. The apparently postcard picture perfect view was hidden behind a wall of fog. Our gorgeous sunshine was gone and not even half way through the day, it was time to put our heads down and start following the GPS. Over five hard hours of traversing and one very steep Col, we finally arrived, dripping wet, at our first hut just moments before dinner was served. Our first night in a hut was a learning experience! By the morning I think we had slept eight hours between four of us. Ear plugs are necessary when sleeping in a room with 20 others and sleeping at 3170m in cold temps isn’t easy! After one day of the trip, we were starting to understand why the success rate of the Haute Route is only 40 per cent.


Day 2: Trient Hut to Prafleuri Refuge 2624m
To kick our day off, a very short boot pack got us to one of the best descents of the entire trip. A blue bird day was on the cards, two feet of fresh from a few days prior, 1200m vertical and getting out of the hut early all helped us get some wicked turns in some breathtaking scenery.

We arrived at the small Village of Champex where we jumped in a taxi and shuttled over the Le Charble (base of Verbier). A quick shop for supplies, a relaxing coffee and a one way lift ticket and we arrived in paradise! Which was really known as the Mont fort Refuge. Skins were thrown back on and after another five hours of climbing we decided to keep ascending for another 45 minutes to the top of Rosablanche, at 3336m. Spectacular views were enjoyed before even better knee to waist deep snow on our decent to Prafleuri Refuge. Getting to the hut dry and with plenty of time on our hands was a great feeling and gave us ample drinking time to wake pretty dusty the following morning!


Day 3: Prafleuri Refuge to Cabin des Dix 2928m
“I hope my boots are as dry as my mouth” were the first words we heard. I think all 16 people in the room agreed that it was a great way to wake up! Day three was the shortest and easiest day, and possibly the most fun for all. A cold clear morning saw us skin straight out of the hut to Col des Roux. Here we saw a spectacular feat of engineering – Lake des dix, how you build a dam wall that size there in the middle of the Alps only the Swiss would know!!

We traversed around the lake then skinned another hour or two till we stumbled into the hut before lunch was served. We all agreed that life was pretty good sitting there drinking red wine and eating a massive traditional Rossti. After an afternoon in the sun, Geoff, Baz and myself went for a quick tour to the summit of La Luette, I must thank Baz and Geoff for encouraging me to make the effort after a bottle of red!

“Day three was by far the most fun for me,” Brett said, “just relaxing in the sun watching all the different groups exploring around the terrific hut. With a great group of mates and an even better bottle of wine!!”


Day 4: Cabin des Dix to Cabin des Vignettes 3160m
We knew what was ahead of us, but what we what we had been looking at the previous afternoon and thinking was the summit of Mt Blanc de Cheilon was actually only half way up the 1000m of vertical! The four and a half hour climb is challenging normally and we were hit with some extremely cold weather and very icy conditions on the glacier, three quarters of the way up. With all our clothes on we headed for the summit trying to keep warm, I think the conditions distracted us from the vertical we just climbed. A fast transition got us straight into a few inches of sweet powder, which made everyone very happy after such a long walk. Not far down an unbelievable glacial run we saw the Vignettes hut perched on the side of a cliff. Once again we got there in time for another great lunch, but sadly the weather was coming in rapidly and we were not able to enjoy to beauty of the hut and its unbelievable surroundings.


Day 5: Cabin des Vignettes to Zermatt
The final day, one word explains it “WOW”. On this, the longest travelling day, covering 30km, you cross seven glaciers, climb 1100m, over three cols and descend most of the 2400m on the final decent into Zermatt. An early departure got us on our way towards the Col de L’Eveque.

Less then 10 minutes in our guide Geoff had a slight hiccup and lost a ski! Luckily it only took him 20 minutes to get himself back together. Once we reached the Col de L’Eveque the sun was up and we had a view to challenge any. We were starting to get nervous about the eight day old powder, so we took off hesitantly but with two turns it felt like it had just fallen that morning – another unbelievable decent to the Haute Arolla glacier!


From there it was an easy skin up to the Col du Mt Brule, at the top of the Col we took the view in, which made me feel like ant. So many huge mountains around could only mean one thing, we had to climb one!! So off we went on our last ascent, heading for the Col de Valpelline. Once again the climb was deceptive, two and half hours later all four of us had a huge smile on our faces! Standing right next to one of the most famous mountains in the world, the Matterhorn, knowing that 99 per cent of climbing was over with about 2000m of descending to come and a shower and beer not far away.


We took our last high viewing in and skied off into glacier heaven. Skiing down the glacier, it’s hard to concentrate with bits of ice the size of skyscrapers sticking out everywhere. 1500m lower we were off the glacier on the home stretch. Its quite obvious that 100 years ago we would have skied the glacier all the way to Zermatt, but now we are skiing through the glacial moraines. We eventually hit one of Zermatt’s ski runs! We made it, what an adventure.

If you’re a weekend warrior or a professional skier the Haute Route has to be put on your to do list. What you will see over the five days is unexplainable and mesmerising! It’s not about skiing steep, deep powder as we found out. It’s a ski mountaineering trip; lots of touring, traversing and when you get to a decent you really do appreciate it. If you have a sense of adventure and like the sound of living in huts in the middle of the alps with good food and great people, touring over mountains you will only see in pictures, the Haute Route is a must do! One thing we were lucky with was the fresh snow that we had at the start of the week, without that I think it may have been tough going. All in all and Geoff our guide gave us an experience that we will never forget. Go and do it!!!