WRITTEN by CHRIS & ANNE ENSOLL
The Haute Route is the most famous ski tour in the Alps. It is an amazing journey linking the historic Alpine towns of Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland. There are many variations, giving different options in terms of difficulty and length. The Verbier Haute Route gives better skiing, is less technical and is slightly shorter than the classic Haute Route. It gives the option of missing out the section from Chamonix to Verbier, which currently involves longer days as the Grands Montets lift in Argentiere is closed following a fire last year.
Last week I was working for High Mountain Guides, with a group of five keen skiers from the USA who wanted to do the Verbier Haute Route. This was our original plan:
Day one: taxi to Verbier; ski to the Mont-Fort hut, overnight in the hut
Day two: ski to the Prafleuri hut, overnight in the hut
Day three: ski to the Dix hut, overnight in the hut
Day four: ski to the Vignettes hut overnight in the hut
Day five: ski to Zermatt. Taxi to Chamonix. Celebrate!
We had to modify the plan towards the end – read on to follow our adventure.
Day One: Tuesday 26th March 2019
We took a taxi to from Chamonix to Verbier. Our aim for the day was to get all our kit sorted out, do some coaching on skinning, kick turns and skiing technique, and how to walk in crampons with an ice axe in your hand and your skis on your rucksack. We also aimed to work out our avalanche protocol.
We used the lifts at the Verbier ski area to access the Mont-Fort Hut at 2457m, where we left the spare kit that we wouldn’t be using. We ascended the Mont-Fort (at 3329m, the highest point of the Verbier ski resort) via the boot track, using it as a coaching opportunity, with skis strapped to our packs, crampons on our boots, and using an ice axe. We then looked at descending steep ground in crampons.
Next we did some coaching on kick turns on steep ground and skiing in descent. Finally we talked about avalanche protocol – who should do what in the case of an avalanche, and how to use the transceiver, shovel and probe.
With everything set in place for the next few days, we had a very pleasant dinner in the Mont-Fort hut, showered and into bed, ready for a 6am start the next day.
Day Two: Wednesday 27th March 2019
From the hut we skinned up over the Col de la Choix. After a short ski down we then skinned up the Col de Momin (3003m), giving great views of the Grand Desert and Rosablanche on a clear and beautiful day. We skinned up to just below the summit of Rosablanche, and booted up to the summit at 3336m, which we had all to ourselves to enjoy the spectacular views. Our descent to the Prafleuri hut at 2642m was on good snow with some fresh turns to be had. The team were strong and enjoying the excellent conditions.
Day Three: Thursday 28th March 2019
After a 6am breakfast, we did the short skin up to the Col des Roux at 2804m, then followed the long traverse above the frozen Lac des Dix – this is always a bit of a fight. We made the ascent to the Cabane des Dix (2928m), via the Pas du Chat, with views of the north face of Mont Blanc du Cheilon. We had a bite to eat at the hut and left extra kit there, ascending La Louette (3548m), followed by a great ski back to the hut for a late lunch of rosti and a game of cards.
Day Four: Friday 29th March 2019
After another 6am breakfast we set off from the Cabane des Dix with a short ski down to the glacier where we put on our skins for the long ascent of the Pigne d’Arolla. It was a chilly morning and we were glad to get going uphill. We made our way steadily up, then put our skis on our packs, donned crampons and roped up for the climb over the Serpentine. We then skied up to the col and up to the summit at 3790m – the highest point on the Haute Route. We had a steep ski down, with fantastic views, to the Vignettes hut perched on the col at 3160m.
Day Five: Saturday 30th March 2019
We were all packed the night before, excited about our final day – the main challenge of skiing to Zermatt: 30km, three cols, seven glaciers, 1200m ascent and 2400m descent. A big day! The weather was great, the snow conditions were good, and the skill level within the team was high. But something wasn’t right at breakfast. One of the group had been battling a cold all week, and it had developed into a tight chest and racking cough. Setting off on such a big day with one team member unwell would not have been wise, so with heavy hearts we made the decision to ski down to Arolla and finish there. It was a tough call, but definitely the right choice. We were glad to get down to the valley safely with everyone in the best shape possible.
There are always unexpected challenges in the mountains, but somehow it is easier when the weather is bad or the snow conditions aren’t right. When someone is ill it is really tough for everyone, especially the ill person who feels like they are letting everyone down. We had a very strong team of excellent skiers, conditions were in our favour, and it would have been so easy to press on with the plan, but making difficult choices is just part of being out in the high mountains.
If we’d made it all the way, this is the amazing view we would have towards the Matterhorn on the last day: