In January of 2010 a long time friend emailed me asking if I would be interested in joining him and his son Kyle on the Haute Route (High Route) across the Alps from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland the first week the following April. There was a brief description of the rout in the email. I considered for about a minute and emailed back YES, not really knowing what I was getting myself into except that it sounded like a great experience. The original plan was for a group of six to eight including Kyle and his friend and climbing partner Chris acting as group leaders. They are both experienced ski mountaineers and climbers and felt confident they could lead us across the rout even though they had never done it before. I wasn’t concerned about their skiing and climbing ability but was a bit concerned about the possibility of them having to navigate through unfamiliar territory in bad weather. All of us who have been in the back country in winter know how quickly conditions change and how easy it is to get disoriented. After some discussion with them and other members of the group I decided we should be able to manage most situations with some logic and common sense. Besides the rout is very popular and there would be other groups and a well established trail. I gave my final commitment to go. The group would include Kyle, Kyle’s dad Tim Davis, Chris Erickson, Tilden Daniels Mike Inman, Don White, Dave Christie and me.
Kyle and Chris set up some training days so we could all get together and practice essential mountaineering and skiing skills necessary for the trip. There would be three days. Day one would be a test of everyone’s skinning and skiing ability. Day two would be rope and crampon training. Day three would be a twenty mile trek from Silverthorne to Vail via Red Mountain Pass.
I have climbed and skied quite a few summits but I am rather slow on the ascent. Kyle and Chris wanted us to be able to climb at a rate of 1000 ft/hour. I managed to do that on our first training day but it was exhausting for me. I would have to get as much conditioning in as possible. I skinned and skied at least once each weekend. I skinned up resort trails when skiing in bounds and skinned/skied peaks in the Mosquito Range when weather permitted. Running twice a week was also added to the regime. I must say it all helped tremendously and made the trip much more enjoyable for me. The other guys were all doing the same or more.
Well, shortly after the first training day Kyle emailed us all with the news he had blown his knee out skiing at Arapaho Basin. He would most likely not be able to go. After a visit to the doctor a couple weeks later he had to back out. For various reasons Chris, Tim and Tilden also backed out. That left four of us to decide if we wanted to hire a local guide and continue on our own. After some deliberation we decided to go. Reservations were made, plane tickets were bought and the trip was on!
Mike and I were on the same flight to Geneva, Don and Dave each had their own itinerary. We all met up in Geneva on April 8th, took a taxi to the hotel in Chamonix and would meet our guide Nico that evening to discuss gear and get questions answered. April 9th would be our warm up day and a chance for Nico to see how we handled ourselves.
Note: You can follow our track on the Google Earth map above.
We boarded the tram to the top of Aiguilles du Midi (12600 ft) and got out at the tram dock which is perched on top of a rock spire. We walked across a bridge connecting to a tunnel bored into another spire and rode an elevator up through a vertical bore another 150 feet to the observation platform. This is quite a fete of engineering as you’ll see in the photos below. From here we could see the Matterhorn about forty miles away as the crow flies. On our last day we would ski beneath the north face of this mountain.
Looking back at the tram dock and observation platform Aiguilles du Midi
The elevator door at the observation tower with Mont Blanc summit in the background.
Looking down at the tram dock.
The peak farthest in background is the Matterhorn.
Looking south into Italy.
We got back in the elevator and descended to the bridge level and exited through a porthole on to the glacier for a climb to the top of the glacier where we ate lunch sitting on the border between France and Italy, and then a ski down the Vallée Blanche (approx 6800 ft vertical). We skied as far as possible down the glacier (approx 14 miles) and then walked a short way to the Mur de Glace gondola. We rode the gondola up to a train station, boarded the train and rode back down to Chamonix where we would spend another night.
Looking down steep avalanche terrain at a small town in Italy.
Mike eating lunch with one butt cheek in France, the other in Italy.
We took a train to the town of Argentičre and boarded the tram to the top the Col de Grands Montets (10847 ft) where we would start the Haute Route proper. We started by descending approximately 2100 vertical ft. to the Glacier d’ Argentičres, and across the glacier to the base of the Col du Chardonnet. The first section is steep so skis went on our packs and boot crampons were put on. After approximately 1000 vert. the slope eased and we put our skis with skins and ski crampons on. The slope was fairly steep and the snow conditions were icy. We were zig zaging our way up the slope but all of us were having trouble making the kick turns at each turning point. At one such turn Don and I heard some noise behind us and turned to see Mike had slipped and was sliding down the icy slope, a look of desperation on his face. We saw him disappear between two rock outcroppings. When he didn’t re-appear father down where we could see the slope again we knew he had stopped himself. His skis however continued to careen down the icy slope, one stopping a short distance down the slope and the other disappearing over the steeper slope below. Nico quickly removed his ski crampons and skied down to Mike. Mike was ok except he had scraped a few layers of skin off all his fingers and thumbs trying to get a purchase in the icy slope to stop himself. There were drops of blood everywhere and Mike was looking pretty shaken. He had escaped serious injury or death by a hare’s breath. Nico pulled his first aid kit out and bandaged Mike up as best he could. The next task was to recover Mike’s skis, for without them we would have to make our way back to the tram dock at Aiguilles du Midi and go back to Chamonix. Don retrieved the ski closest by and Nico skied down looking for the other. A short while later Nico radioed up saying he had found the ski but with some damage to the binding. When Nico got back up to the group he looked at the binding and with a little French ingenuity and a pocket knife fixed it! It wasn’t 100% but it was usable. Tomorrow we would pass through the town of Verbier where we might be able to make complete repairs to the binding at a ski shop. We were on our way again! A short distance after we had regained the point of Mike’s slip the slope eased enough so that we could remove the ski crampons and continue to the top of the Col du Chardonnet (10932 ft) with skins only. This was a very close call and we all realized how quickly a good time can turn to tragedy. To start the next leg of the day Nico had to belay us about eighty feet down a steep narrow chute from the top of the Col to the Saleina Glacier. Nico would rappell down after belaying us. Don was the first one to go down. Second was Dave. Just about at the bottom of the belay Dave slipped off to the side of the chute into a small crevasse and was hanging upside down on the rope. After some frustrating moments Don was able to extricate him from his predicament. What awaited us next? We were beginning to wonder if the whole trip would be a series of miss haps and trouble. From the bottom of the chute we set off again hugging the top of the Saleina Glacier and skinned and booted our way up to the Fenetre de Saleina a narrow toothy gap at the head of the Saleina glacial basin. From here it was a gentle ski down and across the Plateau du Trient and then a short hike up to the Trient Hut (10389 ft). What a day!
Starting accross the glacier to the foot of the Col du Chardonnet, center of photo.
Dave and Mike climbing the steep lower section of the Col.
After Mike's fall and recovery we skin up the remaining slope to the top of the Col.
Dave is belayed down the +- 50 degree chute.
Day three was relatively easy consisting of a quick descent to the base of the Col des Escandies, a short ascent to the top of the Col and a long ski, as far as the snow would take us down the Val d’ Arpett toward the town of Champex. The snow ended at a small group of summer homes where Nico had arranged to have a taxi pick us up and drive us to Verbier. In Verbier we went to the market and bought bread, sausages and cheese as lunch supplies for the next two days then sat down and proceeded to eat half of it for the day’s lunch. Back into the market went for more. Around one o’clock we boarded the Mont Fort tram and headed up the mountain in order that we could ski down to the Mont Fort Hut (8107 ft) which is situated in the ski area. The building serves as a snack bar and ski patrol station during the day and a hut at night. Since we had a couple hours of daylight left we stopped on the ski slope and did some much needed kick turn training and avalanche beacon rescue review. The kick turn instruction would be very useful in the coming days since there were many more turns to be made. There was running water in the hut and an opportunity to take a shower. The shower sure felt good but there was another four days to go before another could be had.
Getting ready to ski the Val d' Arpette to Chompex. Notice the huge wet slide in front of Dave.
We skied as far as the snow would take us
Another mile or so on the white ribbon.
We woke to overcast skies and very light snow at the hut. After the usual European breakfast of cold cereal or porridge, dry bread with butter and jam and a shot sized glass of orange juice we headed out the door. Europeans are not much for breakfast. We had two Cols to ascend today the first being a short climb to the Col de la Chaux (9673 ft). There were a couple inches of new snow at the top of the Col, a welcome cushion atop the refrozen corn snow. From here we had to ski down a few hundred vert. and begin the climb to the Col de Momin (9920 ft). From the Col we skied a gradually steepening slope beneath the summit of Mont Rosablanche. Snow conditions were very bad with breakable crust and pockets of thin powder. During the night the wind had covered the trail and with the fog conditions it was a slow go toward the Prafleuri Hut (8705 ft). I would not want to be out in conditions such as these without someone well versed in map and GPS travel. It would have been very easy to have gotten lost in this weather. The last few hundred feet to the hut was down a rather steep, icy, boulder strewn slope which required careful navigation and skiing. We were all glad to be down to the hut and unscathed.
Dinners in the huts were great, consisting of soup, salad of some sort, a main dish and desert all served family style and all you could eat. All drinking water at the huts must be purchased at the rate of eight ($8.50 US) Swiss Francs per 1.5 liters. This meant sixteen to twenty four Francs per day for water but you have to have the water so you pay. Not so bad when you consider everything comes in by helicopter.
Glacier melt pond along the way.
Looking back at the Col de la Chaux.
Don, Mike and Dave relaxing in the Prafleuri Hut.
Clear blue skies greeted us again the morning of day five. From the hut we ascended about six hundred vert. to the Col des Roux (9225 ft). From the top of the Col we made a long traverse down the east facing somewhat baron mountain side along the west bank of Lac des Dix (Lake Ten) ending at the top end of the lake. Lac des Dix is a reservoir filled entirely by snow melt and was nearly empty. Many millions of gallons of water will fill it in the next few weeks. At the top end of the lake we began our ascent up a steep ravine and onto the Glacier de Cheilon. We skinned up the west side of the glacier rounded a corner and there perched atop a rocky knoll above us was the Dix Hut.
The day was still young so Nico offered to accompany anyone who wanted to do some skiing on the slopes above the hut. The slopes above this hut reminded me of the south slopes of Mt Sherman here in Colorado, wide open with plenty of ski opportunity. No one wanted to go but me so Nico and I set off up the slope. There were four or five inches of new snow covering the refrozen corn. At about a mile and maybe a thousand feet of vertical I was getting tired so we stopped and got ready to ski down. I didn’t want to exhaust myself since we still had two long days ahead. It was a pleasant ski, not difficult at all but satisfying.
At this hut there was a sort of solar water collector which consisted of a black plastic pipe wired to a cable that stretched from the hut to a rocky outcrop about two hundred feet away where a meager source was. By the time the water made its way from one end of the pipe to the other it was luke warm and available to anyone who wanted to wash up. A sponge bath outside on a sunny deck works wonders for the soul.
After dinner we turned in for a good night’s sleep. Sleeping accommodations in the huts consist of dormitory style rooms which sleep from six to ten people. No sex discrimination here. Whichever room you are assigned is where you sleep. You just have to hope you don’t end up in a room with someone who snores loudly or someone with a bad case of gas. The restroom facilities are rather indiscriminate also with men and women sharing the same restroom. There were doors on the stalls. We Americans are much too modest.
The sun crowns a peak early in the morning.
We navigate some rather sparse snow. Just barely better than walking.
We are headed for the ravine straight ahead.
The Dix Hut sits atop the rock knoll center of the picture.
Mike climbs the last few steps to the Dix Hut.
Skiable slopes near the Dix Hut.
We were about half way back to the hut here. The hut is on the rocky knoll to the right of Nico and up.