First Time On The Haute Route, Part 1


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 15, 2012      

Robert Suminsby

(Editor’s note: This trip report came in a few days ago and we liked the story for those of you who have never done a European hut trip — so here you go.)

Skinning up the Col des Roux

Skinning up the Col des Roux

There I was: four days into a five-day ski tour of the famous Haute Route linking Chamonix and Zermatt. Relaxing in the octagon dining area of the spectacular Bertol Hut, I spent a few minutes thumbing through the Hüttenbuch (the hut’s visitor log), mystified that so few Americans had marked their passage through this amazing spot. Plenty of Swiss, of course, and ample numbers of French, German, and assorted other Euro-types, but the letters “USA” were in short supply. (Colorado, it must be said, had the lion’s share of the few American entries I found.)

With the explosion of interest in backcountry skiing, why had so few of my countrymen made the journey to one of the most famous huts in the Alps? Yes, we have plenty of terrain to explore in the US, and getting oneself and a big pile of gear to the other side of an ocean is a daunting prospect. Still, this is the Alps: the birthplace of alpinism, the ancestral home of ski touring. Surely, there must be lots of Americans dreaming of these distant mountains?

View of Chamonix and Mont Blanc from Les Grand Montets

View of Chamonix and Mont Blanc from Les Grand Montets (click all images to enlarge)

Or maybe not. It occurred to me that perhaps the Haute Route isn’t as well known back home as it is here in Europe. Or worse, Americans may have heard of it but written it off as too much of a logistical hassle, a mysterious Holy Grail of ski touring that would remain forever out of reach.

If all that describes you, then don’t despair. Read on.

Admittedly, getting to the Alps was relatively easy for me since I’ve had the good fortune to spend the past four years living in Germany, within easy striking distance of places like Chamonix. I’ve visited there many times, and it does not take me long to settle in and feel right at home. For those who haven’t yet made the pilgrimage to that mecca of mountain adventures, I hope the tips I pass on here will bring you a step or two closer to tackling this tour.

The first question to confront is whether to sign on with a guided tour, or strike out on your own. Although I’ve been skiing all my life, I only began ski touring last season, and prior to the Haute Route I only had a grand total of six days on skins. So this decision was an easy one for me; I signed up with a UK-based mountaineering guide service.

If you have never done any ski touring in the Alps, I would recommend doing the same, at least for your first trip. Having a guide offers numerous advantages: you’ll be getting the benefit of local knowledge of terrain and weather conditions, you’ll have someone proficient in the art of crevasse rescue, and someone to carry the rope. While you might be able to plan and execute the Haute Route on your own, you’ll definitely be at a disadvantage if weather forces you to change your itinerary, or retreat to a valley along the way.

By hiring a guide, you’re also getting the services of a mountain concierge. The huts will be booked for you. If plans change, the guide will likely have the usual huts programmed into his cell phone. And, you’ll have someone who can negotiate with the hut keeper in at least passable French, German, and Italian. Our tour company had engaged the services of Stephano, a capable and personable Italian, and a veteran of many years of touring in these mountains.

Of course, you’ll need to get yourself to Chamonix, and that’s not as hard as you might think. Fly into Geneva (probably connecting through Paris, London, or one of the other major European hubs). From there you can catch one of several shuttle bus transfers to Chamonix (about an hour and a half, €30 each way). If you haven’t been spending a lot of time in high mountains, treat yourself to an extra day or two in Chamonix on the front end of the trip, to help acclimatize and get over jet lag. You’ll be glad you did. Chamonix is a fun town, with an eclectic mix of all nationalities. English is spoken virtually everywhere, so even a mono-lingual American can get by with ease. The steeps around Chamonix are legendary, and if you come this far, you’ll want some extra time to enjoy them.

The typical itinerary for the Haute Route is five to six days, and the choice of which huts to stay in along the route varies. A tour company for guided groups will probably have several contingency options if you aren’t able to reach your planned destination on a given night, or if you are forced to retreat due to poor weather. Our planned route was the popular “Verbier variation,” which uses the lifts at the Swiss resort to save some time gaining vertical.

Our group consisted of six clients (four Brits and two Americans), plus our guide. None of us, except Stephano, were highly experienced with ski touring, but we had at least some previous exposure. Fitness, as opposed to technical ability, is the primary requirement.

Day 1: Les Grand Montets to Trient Hut

The Haute Route begins, typically, at the Les Grand Montets cable car near the village of Argentiere, just east of Chamonix. This lift is almost always crowded early in the morning, so patience is advised. Tricked out with a full pack, ice axe, and climbing harness, we could at least feel we were a rung or two up the ladder from the rest of the rabble (hint, pack your sharps so you don’t damage someone on the closely packed cable car, and know that reservations are available if you want to not wait in line forever during a crowded time). From the top of the cable car (weather permitting), you’ll be treated to some sweeping views of the Chamonix Valley and Mont Blanc.

After a short descent and crossing of the Argentiere Glacier, you’re on your way, ascending either the Col de Passon or the Col de Chardonnay, depending on snow conditions. This close to Chamonix you can expect a lot of company from skiers out for a day tour.

Bootpack at the Col de Passon

Bootpack at the Col de Passon

We ascended the Col de Passon, bootpacking the last section along with a throng of other skiers.

Fortunately, we soon enjoyed relative solitude as we headed out across the vast expanse of the Glacier du Tour. Throughout the week, you repeat this same experience…reaching a high col and peering down onto yet another isolated valley or enormous glacier.

The feeling you get at moments like this is, fundamentally, the reason why you should do the Haute Route — the chance to travel through some of the most spectacular mountain terrain in the Alps.

Looking east across the Glacier du Tour

Looking east across the Glacier du Tour

The first day’s travel ended with first a long, long traverse of the Plateau du Trient, followed by a soul-crushing 30-minute skin up to our destination, Trient Hut. When you arrive at last, you quickly forget the end-of-day exertion, because the views from the hut are simply stunning.

 The author on the terrace of the Trient Hut

The author on the terrace of the Trient Hut

We dried our bootliners in the sun, enjoyed the view, and sipped expensive bottles of water (10 Swiss Franc for 1.5L! Budget accordingly.) We settled our gear into our bunks, needing only a sleeping bag liner, as the hut provides blankets or duvet covers. Some of the huts can be chilly…there is typically a fire in the central area at dinner, but don’t expect a roaring blaze at 3 PM. Your puffy jacket will be welcome during late afternoons at the huts, and it’s nice to have a bulky pair of socks to throw on as well. All the huts provide Crocs or similar footwear… you don’t want to be the ugly American tromping around in ski boots.

At 7 PM we sat down for the typical hut dinner: three courses of simple but hearty food. Drinks must be purchased. Beer, wine, sodas and water are all available. The wine list at a typical hut isn’t exactly extensive, but the fact there is a choice at all should remind you how amazing it is to have these refuges sprinkled all across the Alps. We relaxed over beers, peppering Stephano with questions.

Day 2: Treint Hut to Praflueri Hut

The next morning, we scarfed down the usual breakfast of cold cereal and coffee or tea (in some cases, cold cuts and cheese as well; always a welcome addition), grabbed our packs, and headed out the door. After all, we had to catch a cab. Well, not a cab, really, but a ski taxi that would be waiting for us in Champex, to whisk us across the already snowless valley to the Le Châble lift station below Verbier. But first, a careful descent down the upper reaches of the Glacier du Trient, and then another steep bootpack (Stephano elected to have us rope up for this) to reach the col at the head of the Val d’ Arpette, a 3 kilometer-long, northeasterly facing valley that served up some of the best snow of the whole trip. We reached the pistes at Champex with big smiles on our faces, and met our taxi right on time.

Enjoying turns in the Val d’ Arpette

Enjoying turns in the Val d’ Arpette

Thirty minutes later we were dropped amidst the hustle and bustle of a Saturday at Verbier, one of Switzerland’s largest and most popular resorts. As luck would have it, that Saturday Verbier was also hosting the Freeride World Tour. After a long wait for the Mont Fort cable car, and snaking our way through an enormous crowd of fans while trying not to impale anyone with an ice axe, we traversed down to a spot just below the steep face where the competition was taking place. While the crowds across the valley watched through binoculars or on the Jumbotron, we had a grandstand seat as we ate a snack and put on our skins.

After a half hour of skinning under a blue sky, we had left the resort behind and were back in the wilds of the Alps. Distances and elevations can be deceiving in this landscape where so much of the ski terrain is above treeline. Cols that seem impossibly distant are soon within reach, only to reveal another distant objective. By mid-afternoon we were nearing the 3000m level for the first time in the tour, topping out onto a huge plateau that sloped gently away to the north, in the direction of the Prafleuri Hut, our destination for the second night.

Descending towards Prafleuri Hut

Descending towards Prafleuri Hut

Unlike the Trient Hut, it was all downhill to Prafleuri, a welcome change from the day before.

 First view of the Prafleuri Hut

First view of the Prafleuri Hut

Sadly, the sun had dropped below the mountaintops before we’d barely had a chance to heave off our packs, so we missed the opportunity to bask in the afternoon sun on the patio.

Day 3: Prafleuri to Arolla

The route east from Prafleuri called for a traverse around a large lake, skirting slopes where the avalanche hazard would rise considerably as the day wore on. So it was an early start, attaching skins by headlamp, and heading up the Col des Roux.

Picking our way through avalanche debris, we began the long traverse, grateful that the hard-packed track allowed us to glide along with only minimal poling. After several kilometers, we left the lake behind, beginning our ascent towards the Dix Hut. Some parties elect to overnight here, but we were pressing on to the next valley. Nonetheless, we voted to make the 20-minute climb up the skin track to the hut to have a cappuccino before continuing. Such luxuries may seem foreign to Americans accustomed to more remote backcountry, but we willingly yielded to temptation.

The Dix Hut

The Dix Hut

Stoked with caffeine, we moved on to the Pas de Chevres, a sheer rock wall with fixed ladders up the face. Several parties had arrived here at once, creating a minor gaggle as everyone jockeyed for position. We could have skipped the coffee and beaten the rush, but no one complained. With fair weather, we were in no hurry.

Ladders at the Pas de Chevres

Ladders at the Pas de Chevres

Atop the Pas de Chevres, we could savor the thought of an 800m descent to the isolated town of Arolla, where we could look forward to a night in a hotel — with hot showers. After just two nights in huts, I have to admit that when I entered our room for the night, which contained two sets of bunk beds and a small sink, the first thought to enter my mind was “Wow….we have running water IN OUR ROOM!”

(WildSnow.com guest blogger Rob Suminsby is a recently retired U.S. Air Force officer who has been skiing for over four decades. When Rob had to give up flying F-15s, he eventually turned to off-piste skiing, and eventually ski touring, to get his thrills. For the past four years he has lived in Germany, and traveled over much of the Alps in search of untracked snow. He will soon be moving to New Mexico with his wife, two sons, and a Basset Hound named Buddy.)

To be continued: part 2 will be posted shortly.



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Comments

21 Responses to “First Time On The Haute Route, Part 1”

  1. Tom Gos May 15th, 2012 10:43 am

    Lou cool to see another Euro TR. I think there are more Americans doing this stuff than we realize, I happened to do the Haute Route a couple weeks before Robert and I ran into a few other Americans along the way. I also know that there was another group of guys from my home area who did the trip a week or so after me. Lou, if you’ll allow the inclusion of the link, and if anyone is interested, I created a sort of video TR from my Haute Route that can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nOJhujO5Mg

    Hopefully by sharing all of these TRs more Americans will be motivated to expierience the fantastic ski touring in the Alps, and perhaps we can get more Euro style huts and touring going on in the US.

  2. Spiros1 May 15th, 2012 11:29 am

    I am jealous!!

    Could you please analyse ?pproximately the cost for all this!!

  3. Tony May 15th, 2012 11:54 am

    The level of jealousy I’m experiencing right now is immense. Great write up and I can’t wait to read the rest.

    Tony

  4. Tom Gos May 15th, 2012 11:55 am

    For me, I think the whole thing – airfare, guide, huts, beer, hotels, a couple days in Cham, a night in Geneve, etc. – was around $4300. Certainly not something I can afford to do every year, but more than worth every penny.

  5. Rob May 15th, 2012 1:06 pm

    My cost for the tour itself (ie, booking through a guide service) was about $1500. Tom’s estimate sounds about right. Like he says, it’s not chump change, but if you can scrape together the cash, you won’t regret it. Given the cost of airfare, it definitely makes sense to try and add on a few extra days. You can actually find some inexpensive hostels in Cham to keep the cost down.

  6. Tom Gos May 15th, 2012 1:56 pm

    For Americans, exchange rates are a problem right now. All of the costs I saw in Euros seemed very reasonable, even less than I would expect to pay for similar service in the US, but you have to add on about 35% for the exchange. Also, when I went in March a convienient airline ticket from Colorado to Geneve was about $1100, on previous trips to Euroland I’ve been able to pay a few hundred less for a ticket. Many people might assume that the guide is a big part of the expense, but if you have 3 or 4 people the guide amounts to less than half of your daily expenses. Although I do all of my BC skiing in CO self-guided, I thought there was terrific value in using a guide in the Alps for all of the reasons that Robert cites.

  7. Alastair Brunton May 15th, 2012 2:15 pm

    Excellent trip report – I did it DIY last year so if you are interested in whats required for DIY read here – http://scoop.simplyexcited.co.uk/2011/05/24/haute-route-doing-it-yourself/

  8. Lisa May 15th, 2012 3:09 pm

    Cost for the Otztal huts were 40-50 euros per person per night which included dinner and breakfast.. Food was excellent, rooms were clean and the huts were charming…a good deal.

  9. Wookie1974 May 15th, 2012 3:50 pm

    Costs can also be reduced by a fair bit by joining one of the Alpine clubs. The DAV (German Alpine Club) and its other national pairs run (I think) about 100 Euros a year. That sounds like a lot, but if you are doing a big euro tour and plan to spend a lot of time in alpine club huts, then you can come out ahead in the end.
    Most huts have reduced rates for members (1/3 to 1/2 off) as well as special meals which are usually really cheap and filling.
    Your money also goes to support the clubs, which is nice too. Joining can be done online, but it may be a hassle trying to pay online from a US bank. Some of the big huts offer membership on-site, and the big cities all have offices where you could stop by before you start.
    If you have membership in one club, then other countries often have reciprocity agreements, although the Austrians only have it with Bavarian Clubs, I believe.

  10. Ed May 15th, 2012 8:34 pm

    Haute Route is all – sigh – spectacular.
    Some good beta at:
    http://www.genuineguidegear.com/life/blog/john/skiing-haute-route-chamonix-zermatt-tips-planning-your-own-trip
    Also, rescue insurance is available thru the Austrian Alpine Club and the American Alpine Club – save BIG bucks if you need air taxi out with pretty Swiss doctor! Heaven forbid!
    Lots of info on guide websites too.

  11. Bob Coleman May 15th, 2012 9:41 pm

    A number of different routes can be taken along the Haute Route. I did this trip in 2011. While they normally all start in Argentiere and end in Zermatt, we see here that Rob’s group pressed on from Verbier, not stopping for the night at the Mont Fort Hut, be continuing on to Praflueri; fit group I’d say. Then they only stopped for a drink at Les Dix. We stayed at both Mont Fort and Les Dix huts. We had climbed down the Ladders at Pas du Chevres to get to the Dix hut. After the Dix hut, we spent one more night at the Vignettes hut for 5 nights total on route.

    I recommend using a guide service. I do know that some groups would be capable of planning and exectuing this out, but…. bad weather, injuries etc, take an experienced hand, I’d say.

    If you can do this under 5k, your not doing it right. I wanted extra days in Chamonix and Zermatt. As a tour prep I skied the Valle Blanche in Zermatt, and glad I did.

  12. Mike Folwell May 15th, 2012 10:03 pm

    A month and half has passed since I completed the Haute Route for the first time and I reminisce about this week long tour daily. Spending a few days in Chamonix before hand is a must as there are excellent day tours ( from both the Italian and French side) to be had and alpinism history to be adsorbed. Water, Wine and Beer do add to the expense, but well worth it.

  13. Rob May 15th, 2012 11:49 pm

    Some excellent web resources mentioned above…if I recall, the G3 site was one that I explored while planning for my trip.

    A lot of parties do stay at the Vignettes hut, but from what I understand, that makes for a fairly long last day. Not a problem if you intend to spend the night in Zermatt, but since we planned to return to Chamonix on that last day (which is about a two hour drive, plus the short train ride from Zermatt down to Täsch), staying at Bertol allowed us to get into Zermatt earlier.

    I suspect many itineraries are built conservatively, to allow some slop if a bad weather puts you behind schedule. Our plans did not have a lot of wiggle room, but thankfully, we had five straight days of beautiful weather!

  14. Mark May 16th, 2012 12:47 pm

    The Austrian Alpine Club has a reciprocal arrangements with all of the European alpine clubs – check out membership and benefits on the website of the British section

    Regarding costs – generally (certainly in Swiss and French huts) only the bed is discounted, it’s full price for all meals. In Austria they do a cheap meal and soft drink for members – but I’m not aware of this happening anywhere else.

    Independent huts (lots of them around) don’t generally give any discounts.

    As far as i remember the Canadian alpine club doesn’t get you anything in Europe.

    Having said all of that – the hut system in the alps is fantastic!!!

  15. Rob May 17th, 2012 3:37 am

    One other comment….I failed to properly credit my friend Ryan Taylor (on the left in the last photo in Part II) for taking a few of the pictures in this blog. He, too, schlepped a bulky DSLR all the way from Chamonix to Zermatt in order to bring back good photos!

  16. F. Felix May 17th, 2012 4:34 am

    Staying at the Dix and Vignettes huts also allows you to ascend the Pigne d’Arolla–a fantastic ski peak and one of the most spectacular days on any of the Haute Route variations.

    The problem is that the Vignettes is now a major bottle neck, with just about all the variations coming together there. It’s getting really hard to get a reservation, hence the all-uphill day from Arolla to Bertol.

    You can also drop into Italy and stay at the Nacamuli hut, which seems to be manned more consistently now. It’s not a harder day to Zermatt than from Vignettes.

  17. Silas Wild May 20th, 2012 10:37 pm

    It’s surprising you saw no other North Americans or their signatures in the Bertol hut book, perhaps because they all do the “classic” HR, staying in Vignettes Hut? Another good source of information about the HR and other Euro hut tours (and guide services) is the Cosley Houston website.

  18. Nick Whitley April 2nd, 2017 11:29 am

    Hi, I did the Haute route last year and it was great but I definitely took too much! The guide literally tipped my bag up before we left the hotel and left it all there! I ended up using a lot less than I thought I would, and it would have definitely mad some of those ascents easier if I didn’t bring as much. No joke, I wore the same base layer mid layer and shell every day through sunshine and blizzard, absolutely perfect.
    Have fun!!

  19. Daniel April 3rd, 2017 1:18 pm

    Never done the Haute Route, but several other similar springtime multi day tours in pretty similar terrain. You barely need any spare clothing. for the usual 4-6 days. Pack as light as you can. Bring thin but resiliant gloves. Never ascend with bare hands. Thin hardshell jackt such as goretex packlite will do. My personal kit: thin long underpants, 2L hardshell pants. long arm skintight base layer, windstopper vest, thin hardshell jacket. additional item is a stretchy fleece jacket with neck that can go underneath the hardshell and doubles as evening hut wear. maybe 2 spare underpants. everybody stinks in euro huts, you will stop noticing. windstopper gloves with leather palm. light over-mittens for grim wheather or in case of loss. Julbo Montebianco w/chameleon lens, great for high altitude glare protection. Another pair of Cat 3/4 sunglasses as spare. Some orange tint goggles for shit wheater. hut wear/spare: one more base layer shirt, one extra pair of ski socks. Ibuprofen. money. Nalgene bottle so you can take the hut tea. no cold drinkable freshwater in some huts! camp xlc390 crampons, light and spot on for ski mountaineering. k2 shaxe, saves weight over seperate items. lightweight harness. no helmet, or a very light one. headlamp with fresh batteries. very light one as bare minimum. a little heavier, BD storm or spot, but then you can kinda ski with these on if need be. skis: 85-95mm seems like the sweet spot, go narrow if you are light. Blister plasters, tape, and most important advice of all: thing wms 40den nylon socks underneath yor ski socks, these are the deal against blisters.

  20. atfred April 3rd, 2017 5:16 pm

    good rule of thumb / goal: keep your pack under 20 lbs.

  21. Daniel April 4th, 2017 12:17 am

    absolutely. light backpacks can contribute to that. don’t bring your abs or similiar to spring hut tours.

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