(Editor’s note: The concluding trip report for those of you who have never done a European hut trip. Part one is here.)
Day 4: Arolla to Bertol Hut
In describing day four of our route back in Chamonix, a British guide had confessed, “Well, it’s rubbish, really….no skiing, just uphill all day long.” Uphill, indeed. With the town of Arolla nestled deep in the valley at 2000m, it would be a long climb to the Bertol Hut at 3311m. But despite the lack of turns, it proved to be an enjoyable day. Starting out in the shady glacier-carved valley at about 7:30am, it took an hour before the sun finally peeked over the horizon, a welcome sight.
As we zigzagged up the skin track, I looked back at the looming wall of ice across the valley, and it dawned on me that I’d already lost count of how many glaciers we had crossed. By 10:00am, we had rounded the corner onto the Plans de Bertol, and caught first glimpse of the famous Bertol Hut, still 600m above us.
Today I was plagued with binding issues. My new Dynafit Radicals had worked fine up until now, but as covered previously on WildSnow, I began to experience multiple cases of “auto rotation” of the heel piece, locking me back into ski mode. This became ever more aggravating as the skin track got steeper and icier. I finally resorted to the time tested backcountry remedy, duct tape. The “binding bandages” didn’t look great, but they did the job.
By 2:00pm we had reached the ridge beneath the hut, stashed our skis, and begun climbing the several ladders to the Bertol Hut. To say that this was a great location would be a bit like saying that Glen Plake is a pretty good skier.
With most of the afternoon to kill, we relaxed and enjoyed the breathtaking surroundings. Most of the huts offer a late lunch (for an additional cost), and we treated ourselves to the traditional Swiss Rosti (a heaping plate of hash browns topped with eggs), which was a feast for the eyes and the gullet.
My American colleague and I pressed Stephano into a refresher lesson in crevasse rescue ropework, which he conducted on the steel ladders outside the hut. Enjoying the late afternoon sun on the Matterhorn, it was surely the most amazing “classroom” environment I can ever recall.
Day 5: Bertol Hut to Zermatt
Since we had to meet another taxi that would take us back to Chamonix from Zermatt (train is another option), we were up before dawn on our last day. Descending the ladders in the dark was invigorating, if a just a little bit unnerving. We retrieved our skis and were on our way down onto the glacier by first light. Up until this point, we had been blessed with continuous blue skies and very moderate temperatures, spending a good part of each day wearing only a base layer. While the sky remained clear, the mercury had dropped considerably, and as we skinned across the glacier in the shadow of the Tête Blanche, we confronted true cold for the first time all week, and slogged on diligently with the twin goals of keeping our core temp up and getting into the sunlight as soon as possible. Soon, the iconic summit of the Matterhorn peeked slowly but steadily over the horizon, lifting spirits all around.
We skinned steadily uphill towards the Tete Blanche, the only legitimate summit along our backcountry skiing route, at 3707m (12,162’). Although very rounded and gentle (it’s sort of the anti-Matterhorn), a peak is a peak, and like so many others in the Alps, it is adorned with a cross, an adornment which is guaranteed to make you feel like a mountaineer.
Ripping skins for the final time, we gazed down the valley towards the familiar town of Zermatt, savoring the thought of over 2000m of vertical. Most of us had skied Zermatt on a number of previous occasions, but now we would approach it from a new direction, and with a new sense of accomplishment. The snow near the summit, though well tracked by the many others who had passed this way since the last good storm, was soft and plentiful. As we descended, however, it eventually gave way to an icy crust, occasionally littered with chunks of ice sprayed by falling seracs. Picking our way around yawning crevasses, we eventually settled into a long runout through a glacial valley.
As the valley leveled out, one of our party called out excitedly, “tree!” Since we had left the Arolla valley two days earlier, we had been entirely above the treeline, and this scraggly little specimen meant we were nearing our goal.
We skirted along below the gray band of the lateral moraine, mute testimony that the glacier had once run the entire 10 km length of this valley. The snow ran out at last…we considered ourselves fortunate to have skied so far…and we had to shoulder our skis for about 15 minutes to hike to one of the pistes. Stepping back into our skis on a groomed run, we managed to ski past one or two slopeside bars before finally yielding to temptation. With warm sunshine baking inviting tables and music blaring from behind a bar, we decided it was time to stop and toast our success. This being a cosmopolitan resort, we weren’t limited to a selection of one or two beers, and opted instead for a glass of Italian Prosecco to toast a great week.
So is Chamonix a long way to go to start a ski tour? I’ll wager it’s a good deal farther than your nearest trailhead. And it’s entirely possible that skiing laps at your favorite backyard stash may produce more turns per day than the Haute Route average. But completing the Haute Route is still a worthy trophy for any WildSnow reader ski mountaineer, whether a grizzled old pro or a newcomer like myself. With classic mountain towns on either end, vast expanses of high alpine glaciers surrounded by vertical walls of rock and iconic peaks, and cozy huts that will allow you to travel light for five or six days of touring, what are you waiting for?
(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 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.)