Luke Summers / Adventure Medic Editor
Sadly, most of the world’s great winter adventures can’t be attempted in a week’s annual leave. With that in mind, and spurred on by his sister’s boyfriend, Luke headed to the Alps to attempt the Haute Route, a five day ski-touring passage from Chamonix to Zermatt.
Beer always tastes best when it’s well earned. It also tastes great when enjoyed in stunning surroundings. Combine the two and it’s a great pint. These were my thoughts whilst sitting in Zermatt under the shadow of the Matterhorn at the end of the Haute Route.
A century ago some exceptionally brave and intrepid explorers crossed from Chamonix to Zermatt by the Haute Route. Today it is more of a pay-to-play adventure for those with a few skills and adequate fitness, looking for a little more from their ski holiday. The route itself is actually not the original, but the Verbier variation which allows for more skiing down and avoids the notoriously dangerous Plateau de Couloir. The original route is still skiable if desired, for a cost.
I had always wanted to go back to skiing having given it up sixteen years ago, but I had never wanted to miss a day on the board. If any of you have ever tried to “do a season” in Scotland then you know how precious those days on the slopes can be. However, there is nothing like the incentive of forking out a grand to spur on your motivation to learn.
A last minute off-piste lesson was booked in Austria, along with a week’s practice on the slopes. The only other concern I had prior to leaving was my fitness, five days of up-and-down under my own steam seemed like a tall order for a man who had barely broken sweat in the last few months let alone done any endurance training.
On the first day, we met our guide and the rest of the group: a Norwegian, a couple of (total) bankers and a bloke from the Midlands.
Soon, we were being put through our paces to make sure we’d be up to the task. They took us up to the top of the mountain and then brought us down the trickiest, iciest gullies to check our control, and then ran us through avalanche training. In the afternoon, we pointed up hill and this is where I started to become unstuck. It soon became glaringly obvious that this was my first time touring. With a little teasing I managed to demonstrate a passable kick turn and we moved on to the best bit – heading downhill.
Meeting up the next morning, our guide informed us that one of our group had not made the grade and would not be coming with us. Sadly, the bloke from the Midlands had not demonstrated sufficient control on his skis to be deemed ‘safe’ and would be offered an easier trip instead. This gave me a mixed sense of relief and fear. Relief that I had made the grade, I would get to ski the Haute Route, but fear that this wasn’t necessarily the walk in the park I had envisaged.
There was clearly an element of danger here and with my limited skiing experience, had I just bluffed my way into something that I would regret? Looking round the group I was definitely the weakest remaining skier. If something was going to happen it was probably going to happen to me. Just have to suck it up, I guess. Harnessed up, transceivers set to stun and chomping at the bit, we boarded the gondola on the Aguille du Midi to start our little holiday adventure.
We emerged in thick cloud. There were a few groups starting out across the glacier, heads bowed, staring at their GPS screens, taking the first steps of their five day trek.
Our guide wasn’t so keen. Sensibly, she didn’t like the idea of circumnavigating crevasses without being able to see, so we skied to the bottom to get the train, feeling a little dejected that the first day hadn’t gone our way and made our way to a hut in the resort of Verbier.
Day 2 (And A Half)
Clear skies greeted us the next day, and we set off up the first col. Finally we were on our way on the Haute Route. As the sun climbs the heat starts to take its toll and we’re all sweating, even on the downhills. After the second col, it’s a long slogging traverse to the mountain Rosa Blanche.
Feeling slightly under the weather (a mild case of man flu) and being poorly hydrated, I decided to miss the last roped, 20 metre, high-exposure jaunt to the summit. Once the others had returned, we headed down to the second hut on the route.
This downhill was quite possibly the best experience I have had on snow. I was in thigh to chest deep powder of the softest, finest flakes I’ve ever touched. It took us about an hour to descend to the hut. If we’d gone slower, we could have easily stretched it out to at least a couple of hours, but when it’s that good you just can’t bring yourself to stop.
Down in the hut we rewarded ourselves with beer and potato rosti dripping with cheese and bacon. The bankers were moaning as the other groups came in that clearly it was safe enough to have crossed the glacier. Now they would have to return next year, so they could say they had ‘done’ the Haute Route.
Fortunately, they were quickly shot down by the rest of the group, who pointed out that the route they had chosen missed out the dangerous Plateau de Couloir and they just had the best skiing of their lives thanks to our guide’s sensible decision.
Day Three saw us out long before sunrise. There had been plenty of snow and the avalanche risk was substantial. We wanted to get off the hill before it had warmed enough to start slipping. Head torches on, we were straight into the ascent and I got plenty of chances to practice my slowly improving kick turns. These are the turns that end each upward traverse to get you around for the next.
Once up the next col we traversed a reservoir. The steep sided slopes spread out ahead our main cause of avalanche concern. Several kilometres of holding the same uphill edge on the ski caused my calves and ankles to cramp up but I couldn’t stop for fear of losing speed by adjusting my position.
The sun was once again defeated by heavy cloud and the snow was falling thick and fast as we headed off the reservoir. The final ascent to the hut was a steep one: a narrow, icy ladder of trails put down by the group ahead, flanked on one side by a precipitous drop into a ravine of spiky rocks and white water.
The ladder of trails soon gave way to a smooth sheet of ice and it was time to don our ski mounted crampons or ‘cuteau’. My kick turns no longer seemed adequate, each traverse saw me precariously leaning back, balanced on a spike on an icy plane of glass. I had definitely bluffed my way into something way out of my league. I was quite scared now, head down and concentrating hard.
To my huge relief, we eventually emerged onto soft snow. But relief is short-lived. The snow was thick now and it was our turn to bow our heads. We followed our guide, her in turn following an altimeter and compass. We were completely reliant and out of our comfort zone. And then came the rumbles. The first few were quiet and distant but unmistakably the sound of avalanches.
Completely blinded by blizzard, our small parade started hitting the snow nervously with poles. Even my inexpert eye could see a big, heavy, deep layer of snow covering a two day-old firm icy base. This stuff was ready to slip and we could hear it doing just that somewhere out of sight nearby. And then it happened – our entire group dropped about a foot, as a deafeningly quiet ‘whoomp’ came from beneath our feet. Our weight had caused the snow layers to dissociate.
We were luckily on a shallow slope at the time so this was no avalanche, just what’s rather casually referred to as ‘settling’. Somewhat misleadingly casually, we all felt. We wanted off the slope quickly. Our guide’s urgency was effectively conveyed with a ‘shut the fuck up and move, now’ and we all hurried to obey. Thirty minutes of silent skinning passed, until rather abruptly we all walked straight into the hut, which had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Faith in our guide’s navigation skills was confirmed. More beer.
The next day was a straight up and down. The up was tough though. This time all the groups set off together, trudging in each other’s tracks in a single file. There was no stopping. As my legs kept shouting at me to stop, I learned a valuable lesson: they kept going if I ignored them. At least the wheezing and puffing of the bankers stopped their moaning.
At the top, we finally had a clear view of our target, the mighty Matterhorn. It had grown in the last couple of days and now dominated the skyline. The downhill was steep, fast and a whole lot of fun. That night, we heard the tale of one unfortunate, who had strayed too far from the tracks in search of untouched snow and found himself four metres down a crevasse. Fortunately, he had a lucky escape but it was a timely reminder of our vulnerability in this harsh terrain.
Later, I was shaken awake by a guide. A fellow client, who happened to be a consultant anaesthetist, was found wheezing and coughing up pink sputum in our kitchen. Worse still, he was refusing the guides’ suggestions of evacuation. The altitude wasn’t that high, but there was no mistaking the bilateral crackles in his chest as those of pulmonary oedema. He could barely stand or talk. The helicopter was called and he eventually, though begrudgingly, agreed to go quietly.
The noise of the chopper reverberated around our ears as we set off on our last and longest day. I found myself hoping that our unfortunate friend had decent insurance. Three cols to go and the usual skin up the first one was almost routine by this stage. More great downhill, this time not on a glacier so without the crevasse risk we could pick our own lines. Col two sat atop a steep slope, requiring us to use crampons and ice axes for the slow but hugely rewarding climb to the top. Another quick ski down, and then we began the final climb of the trip. We were now in Italy. The sun was blasting down and the hour’s climb saw me reapply sun cream twice but to no avail. My face had come off by the top.
The view that greeted us at the top was gob-smacking. The Matterhorn towered in front of us, below us lay the path to Zermatt. This last ski had it all: steep sections, paths under seracs (to be taken at the greatest possible speed), ice bridges over crevasses (to be taken with the greatest possible care) and the ever changing face of the iconic mountain above.
The final hour and a half of descent levelled off somewhat. We skied in deep tracks without thinking, just staring at the breathtaking views all around. At last, at the top of Zermatt, a short walk and ski saw us on to the gondola, which took us down to that truly awesome beer.
Flights / Geneva to Chamonix with Easyjet
Guiding / Mountain Tracks
Cost / 995 pounds
Season / I went in late March/early April but it varies depending the conditions