The Haute Route – April 1991
By Richard Bott
From BFMC Journal 4, 1992
When I first took up skiing at Glenshee some nine winters ago it was with the intention of being able to traverse mountains on skis, thereby reducing the ‘plod’ element and increasing the fun and excitement. Unfortunately my skiing ability seemed to have stuck at the ‘intermediate’ plateau. However a brochure fluttered to my desk one morning telling me that if I was a competent intermediate skier I would be welcome to join a guided party doing the Haute Route from Argentier to Zermatt. A phone call to Philip Poole, a British Bergfuhrer working with a small Ambleside company, Wilderness Eclipse, confirmed that despite my skiing limitations I would be welcome to join the group. Three weeks later I met up with the group in Argentier on a snowy Saturday evening. The taxi driver who brought me up from Chamonix told me that he had only taken his winter studded tyres off two days previously, and to judge by the way he slithered around I suspect the replacement of his studded tyres would be his first job the next morning.
Our group comprised our guide, Philip, who is an experienced and proficient skier; Keith, who is an aspirant guide based in the Lake District; Bob, from Cairneyhill, Fife; Andrew from Barrhead, Nigel from Catford, London, and myself.
Our first day was spent finding our ski legs on the off-piste slopes of Grandes Montets above Argentier. We were briefed in the use of avalanche transceivers, jump turns and various skills we would require on route, all amidst cloud and superb, deep powder snow. Philip must have longed to break free from the group and sweep down the powder bowls without us and our regular wipe-outs.
Despite an indifferent forecast, we set off on Monday morning under a perfect blue sky. The Chamonix Aiguilles and peaks looked dramatic under their fresh covering of snow. The trip was to take us along the western Penine Alps as far as Zermatt and if possible Saas Fee, and would involve at least six days continuous skiing carrying what we needed. We were advised to ensure that our packs did not exceed 18 lbs. Although this is sensible advice it proved impracticable as my pack weighed 21 lbs without any spare clothes, food, or a share of the common safety gear. It is, however, essential to keep one’s pack weight down, as a heavy pack makes skiing very much harder, especially when one tries skiing upside down in deep soft snow.
The easy bit came first. A cable car took us up to the top of the Grandes Montets at a height of 3297m. From there we had a long descent down the Glacier des Rognons to the Glacier d’Argentiere. We all wore full harnesses but rather than skiing roped up Kevin carried the rope at the back to drop down to anyone unlucky enough to find a crevasse the hard way.
Then the pain started: the 900m ascent to the Col du Chardonnet (3323m) under the unrelenting sun, with packs that grew heavier at each step. Uphill kick turns had to be learnt and practiced as the glacier grew steeper. We all felt the altitude and it was a weary party that reached the Col behind the French guided parties. At this stage the sun made an exit and snow started to fall from the clouds which enveloped us. No excuse now to stop and look at the view and take photographs.
The immediate problem was how to get down the far side of the Col into Switzerland. The problem was not a customs post but the route down the far side, which was down a very steep couloir. A deep, stepped groove six feet wide ran down the center for the first 200 or 300 feet. We now got out the rope and were lowered down wearing our skis for a rope length. One of my skis came off as I went over one of the steps but remained attached to me by my powder leash. A fair bit of time was expended in getting us all down to a safe and moderate slope, but then it was the first day out.
A young lady member of one of the French guided parties that we nicknamed the ‘Blonde Bombshell’ had arrived at the top of the same col and, not appreciating that anyone would consider any other means of descent, had shot down the couloir on skis performing beautiful carved turns.
Our destination for the night was the Caban du Trient at 3170m. We made rapid progress down the gentle traverse line along the Glacier de Saleina before once again putting on our skis and climbing the Col de Saleina. Visibility by now was pretty poor and we were all relieved when the hut loomed up out of the mist.
In order to reduce the weight we carried only breakfast and lunch and ate at the huts. The food at the Trient was the best we had in any hut: it was also the most plentiful, with a second bowl of thick, minestrone-type soup followed by two dishes of chicken curry.
The weather on Tuesday morning proved no better than the night before. More snow had fallen and it was still snowing hard. Philip decided to go on to the Mont Fort hut. After a short, easy descent, we reached the top of a large, avalanche prone bowl above the Glacier du Trient. Defensive skiing was called for as we individually side-slipped down towards the bergschrund and, about 20 feet above it, shot sideways along a traverse line to the Col des Ecandies. We then had perhaps the most enjoyable skiing of the trip, down the Val d’Arpette, ending up skiing amongst trees in fresh snow. Only the absence of the sun and view marred the descent. We reached the road to Chanmipex, which was snow-covered, and continued down it.
All of a sudden as I came round a bend I saw black tarmac in front of me where Philip and Andrew had braked, scraping away the snow. A sickening crunch of gravel and rock on pitex brought the fun to an abrupt end. And my skis had only been out for three days.
The next bit of the Haute Route is done using mechanization. A bus took us from Champex to Orsieree, and two short train journeys took us to Le Chable, from where we took a cable car to Verbier, arriving in time to find all the shops were shut. Having munched the inevitable bread and Laughing Cow we had to wait until the shops reopened so that we would have adequate provisions to keep us sustained on the longest continuous part of our journey.
We were making for the Caban du Mont Fort that night, and the following night we were to stay at the Prafleuri hut, which has no guardian and is, therefore, self-catering. We therefore had fine days’ breakfast and lunches and one evening meal to carry, making our sacks uncomfortably heavy. Fortunately the route to the Caban du Mont Fort involves catching various lifts and finally a jumbo – a 150 person cable car – up to the top of Mont Fort, from where we skied down in murky weather to the hut.
The Mont Fort boasts an untold luxury – an indoor loo and running cold water. The food was good and plentiful here too, with more thick soup, crusty bread and two dishes of spaghetti Bolognese. The hut custodians know what people want after a hard day on the hill. The forecast was not very good for the longer term so we decided that rather than risk getting stuck at the Prafleuri hut without adequate food we would make a longer day of it and head for the Dix hut, thereby saving a day.
We were not to enjoy a long lie-in next day as the alarm woke us at 4:00 a.m. and by 5:00 a.m. we were skiing up the Glacier de la Chaux under a star-speckled sky towards the Col de la Chaux. We reached the col by dawn and found some wonderful powder snow which led us down into a large bowl. Around us the peaks were tinged with the pink sunlight of dawn. It was good to be amongst the mountains. The Grand Combin dominated the skyline to the south. We skinned up to the top of the Col de Momin, which lead us onto what is aptly named on the map as Grand Desert. We were on a large, snow-covered plateau and some 300m above us and about one-and-a-half kilometers away, lay our next target, the Rosablanche.
As Alpine peaks go, the Rosablanche is not outstanding, but at least it provides an easy ski ascent and it did offer wonderful views in every direction. For the first time on the trip we saw the Matterhorn and the other 4000m West Pennine peaks. The Bernese Oberland lay to the north but we were not too good at naming individual peaks there. After the obligatory photocall we departed, sweeping down easy slopes to the top of some interesting-looking couloirs.
For most of us, I suspect, the attrition began here. A very steep gully had to be side-slipped down to a promontory from where a further steep gully had to be side-slipped. More expert skiers than us would no doubt have snaked their ways down, exhilarated by the angles.
We had lunch in the coire at the bottom. It was like a furnace under the midday sun and the contrast with the –12C when we started was remarkable. We gradually made our way by a gentle downward traverse along the western shore of Lac des Dix. As the slopes above us were notorious for avalanching, we spread out and did not stop. Unfortunately the traverse seemed to go uphill far too often and much poling, shuffling and sweating was required to get us to the head of the lake. The subsequent slog up to the Dix hut is best forgotten, except to say we all arrived by 4:00 p.m., hot, tired, sweaty and thirsty.
The views of the north face of Mont Blnc de Cheilon, which I had traversed in 1980, were superb. Some odd clouds around the northern peaks however hinted that the weather would not hold forever.
Next day we were off by 7:00 a.m. to ski to the Vignettes hut over the Pigne d’Arolla (3796m). What I remembered as a fairly broken glacier in summer proved fairly straightforward in its frozen winter covering. The final section onto the Col Brenay was fairly steep and was green ice covered by a six-inch layer of windslab. A party of Swiss soldiers fairly mucked things up for us by skiing down this steep shoulder, demolishing the uphill ruts and especially the kick-turn platforms.
The progress of the party depends, in military parlance, on the speed of the slowest man. For the first few days Nigel was kind enough to provide the rest of us with time to take photographs, eat snacks and adjust clothing. Nigel also tended to require a bit of chivying to get started – at this stage Andrew was provoked into blurting out: "Nigel, your personal admin is in shag order!" as Nigel fumbled with gloves, bindings etc.
Within half-an-hour we joined the human cairn at the top of the Pigne d’Arolla. I had arrived at the summit 10-and-a-half years after I set off. I had previously turned back with my wife and two friends in bad weather, and all because I had left all our food on the table at the Vignettes.
The mountains around us were veiled in a thin, ominous haze, and the big peaks of the Matterhorn, Dent d’Herons and Dent Blanche all sported unfriendly-looking lenticles. We therefore made haste down the east side of Pigne d’Arolla, arriving at the Vignettes by 1:00 p.m. This allowed us all a much-needed siesta. By the time we arrived at the Vignettes hut it was apparent that the weather had broken with a fierce Fohn wind blowing.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about the Vignettes hut is the toilet arrangement. A 20-yard ledge (fortunately with railings) leads to three booths suspended 500m over the Glacier de Vuibe. Billy Connolly would have a field day describing answering the call of nature at night by torchlight whilst trying to prevent his salopettes and pants filling with spindrift and the imminent onset of frostbite on his unmentionables.
By suppertime the hut had filled with skiers sheltering from the bad weather and the usual fug had built up. One table decided to open their window, which faced into the wind, and an amazing billow of cloud rolled into the hut, followed by cheers as each successive table opened their window.
On Friday we didn’t need to look outside to know that we would not be attempting the final long stretch to Zermatt. The wind howled outside and the visibility was minimal. The surprising thing was that there was very little precipitation accompanying the storm, but with the temperature being –12C the chill factor must have been extremely cold. Several parties decided to head down to Arolla. We passed a lazy day playing cards, and eating and drinking.
Not having washed or changed clothes for six days, Saturday was definitely a day to make a break for the civilization of Zermatt. The forecast for the morning was fair, with bad weather coming in by midday. The route was to be long – about 25km and crossing three high mountain passes.
We started off with a fairly gentle 200m descent to the Col de Chermotane, but I still managed one wipe-out before I had gone far. We then skinned for 3km and 400m up under the impressive north face of Petit Mont Collon to the Col d’Eveque. This led us to a fine run down onto the Haute Glacier d’Arolla. The whole basin was surrounded by fine peaks. The massive seracs and ice bulges oozing out of the north face of Mont Brute were particularly memorable and impressive.
A stiff skin up the 200m of 45 degree ice which led up to the Col de Mt Brule tested our abilities to kick-turn on steep ice and it was a relief to see that the descent down the eastern side into the Haut Glacier de Tsa de Tsan was gentle. We had a magnificent view of the rugged glacial features of the Glacier des Grandes Murailles which lay between us and Punta Margherita and the Dent d’Hernes A short run down from the col into Italy soon brought us under the south face of Bouquetins.
Time for lunch and to put on the skins again. We were soon disturbed by the thunderous road of an avalanche down the south face of Bouquetins which was basking in the sun. This was followed by numerous other avalanches down different parts of the face. We were glad to have a few hundred metres of flat, glacial terrain separating us from the face. The slow, steady ascent to the Col de Valpelline was more enjoyable in retrospect than at the time.
As Philip said as he led us along the ski tracks: "The man who made these tracks wasn’t taking any prisoners." By the time we reached the Col the weather had clagged in and we were disappointed not to get the views of the north faces of the Dent d’Herend and the Matterhorn that we were about to ski under.
At last it was all downhill to Zermatt. The first section led down through the heavily crevassed Stockjigletscher. Philip counseled us to ski carefully and not to fall down – always a good way of encouraging a few head plants. Andrew soon obliged with a grand wipe-out a few yards to the side of an obvious crevasse. The rest of the long descent went very smoothly and by 4:00 p.m. we were back amongst the beautiful piste skiers and drinking a well-earned beer. A short run down through the trees brought us to a cable car which landed us in Zermatt and to much-needed showers and clean clothes.
By the time we arrived in Zermatt we were all pretty fit and well acclimatized. The average altitude of the Haute Route is 3000m and we had traveled through some of the grandest mountain scenery in Europe, mainly on glaciers.
On Sunday the prospects of going on to Saas Fee looked poor. The route over the Adlerpass (3789m) goes over wild, featureless glacial scenery and because of its altitude is a serious undertaking in bad weather. We decided to take the cable car up to the Klein Matterhorn and climb up the Breithorn (4164m) from there on skis, descending by one of the glaciers that flow down its north face.
Emerging into the maelstrom at the top of the cable car, it was apparent that our prospects of getting to the top were poor. After a discussion it was decided to give it a crack but turn back if the weather got too bad or the snow too dangerous, for there was a deep layer of fresh snow. We only got a few hundred metres when we met an Italian guide and his party who had just turned back because of the conditions. I can’t say I was too unhappy when we decided to give up, especially as I had already climbed the Breithorn in good conditions.
We had a useful ski lesson on the pistes until we were level with the traverse onto the Triftjigletscher. After some entertaining crevasse rescue work in which the poor aspirant Kevin was repeatedly thrown off an ice precipice and dragged back up by some different form of assisted hoist, we took the hint the weather was giving and sped off down the glacier. The snout gave us some final excitement with a very steep descent onto the last of the spring snows.
Unfortunately, on Monday it was obviously pointless in proceeding to Saas Fee so we teamed up with another party and hired a minibus back to Argentier so that we could hopefully have one final day’s skiing there in better conditions. Ten days previously the railway line to Zermatt from the main Rhone valley had been swept away at one point by a gigantic rockfall. About 1000ft of cliff had toppled off the mountainside and swept down into the valley wiping out many cattle sheds and the railway line, killing a large quantity of livestock. Jagged blocks as big as houses lay piled on top of each other and the whole area, including the chalets, which had narrowly escaped annihilation, was covered in grey dust. Incredibly, the cliff appeared to be smoking, as clouds of grey dust intermittently drifted out from the enormous area of clean rock. We then descended towards Visp and we moved from winter to spring.
Back at Argentier we had an afternoon to spare. Although not particularly well equipped, we decided to spend the afternoon rock climbing at Les Joux. Most of us climbed in trainers, apart from Nigel who decided that his Dynalite boots in the 1991 colours would be the ideal footwear. After we had struggled up grade 3s and 4s the top-rope was ultimately placed above a 6c. When we had all decided it was time for beers and baths, Nigel wanted a shot at the 6c and was duly tied on.
Andrew belayed him and every time Nigel looked as though he was about to chance a move on the small smear holds in his ski boots, Andrew and AN Other would give an almighty heave and Nigel would shoot up another three feet. Eventually, when Nigel was 15 feet off the deck we decided to put our crevasse rescue training into practice.
A quick prussik loop was tied onto the rope and secured to a large boulder using a number of slings. Andrew was then able to escape from the system and he declared it was time to go. Nigel took it in good part, so we released him.
On the final day the weather refused to relent and our skiing in the crud in the Italian Bowl soon convinced Philip that he really couldn’t bring our skiing up to the standards required to make spirited descents of frozen/thawed/rutted snow that looked like avalanche debris, and we therefore spent most of the day in the cloud on piste, having very useful ski lessons.
The trip was a tremendous experience incorporating fantastic scenery, exciting skiing and ascents, the thrill on the unknown – skiing in bad visibility on glaciers – and good company. Although we started off as strangers we quickly built up a team spirit and perhaps Andrew with his ex-army background had a large part to play in this. Who else would describe someone in difficulty as "being in the poo"? Philip was very patient with us and did well to keep us all together, especially at the beginning when the spread of fitness and ability was perhaps most noticeable. I will certainly go back on another Alpine Ski Tour – as soon as I can earn enough domestic brownie points to get away again!