First Time On The Haute Route, Part 2

Post by blogger | May 16, 2012      

Robert Suminsby

(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

Sunrise above Arolla

Sunrise above Arolla

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.

The long climb to Bertol Hut

The long climb to Bertol Hut

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.

Emergency repairs

Emergency repairs

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.

The distinctive octagonal Bertol Hut

Perched on a rocky ridgeline, with magnificent views of the Alps in all directions, it’s hard to imagine a better spot to spend a night than the Bertol Hut.

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.

 Damn the cholesterol…full speed ahead!

Damn the cholesterol…full speed ahead!

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.

Looking west towards the Matterhorn (on left) from Bertol Hut

Looking west towards the Matterhorn (on left) from Bertol Hut

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.

The distinctive west face of the Matterhorn

The distinctive west face of the Matterhorn

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.

Summit of Tete Blanche.  The town of Zermatt is in the valley just to the right of the cross

Summit of Tete Blanche. The town of Zermatt is in the valley just to the right of the cross.

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.

Crevasses on the Tiefmattengletscher

Crevasses on the Tiefmattengletscher

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.

A civilized way to end a ski tour:  Prosecco!

A civilized way to end a ski tour: Prosecco!

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?

( 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.)



27 Responses to “First Time On The Haute Route, Part 2”

  1. Lou May 16th, 2012 9:09 am

    Hey all, guide Mark Seaton has a Google Earth file for Haute Route you an download from his website:

  2. onemoreskier May 16th, 2012 9:23 am

    Really envy:) Great photo with the skiers and Matterhorn…

  3. jwolter7 May 16th, 2012 9:35 am

    Not even close to the classic haute route. You were next to (not on) the haute route the whole time… ??

    Amazing who many guides don’t use the classic route anymore.

  4. Lou May 16th, 2012 10:37 am

    Why exactly is that amazing?

  5. Scott Allen May 16th, 2012 11:01 am

    What month did you travel? In general, how is the last week of March for this tour?

  6. Rob May 16th, 2012 12:24 pm

    Scott – we did the route from 23-27 Mar of this year. I think that time frame is the heart of the envelope for the Haute Route….it’s early enough that you are reasonably certain of having snow to ski all the way down to Zermatt (very weather and season dependent, obviously…). The season starts in early March and runs through the end of April. The huts close for a bit and then reopen for the summer hiking season.

  7. dmr May 16th, 2012 2:29 pm

    Great TR, thanks for sharing!

    THere is not one but many “hautes routes”, or a least many variations. For example as far as the first day goes, due to the glaciers receding many guides now use the Col du Passon instead of the Col du Chardonnet (rappel pretty much mandatory now).

  8. Tom Gos May 16th, 2012 3:55 pm

    I was skiing on a different variation of the Haute Route (the so called Verbier version) March 12-18 of this year. All the guides I spoke with said that mid- to late April is prime time for the route as the weather is generally more stable, but I would recommend going in March. The huts were very uncrowded in March, and you don’t have to worry about running out of snow down low in the valleys. My impression is that when the huts are full it would be much less comfortable. Most of the the huts we were in opened about a week before we were there, so you couldn’t plan on going before about March 7 or so. Most of the huts have websites listing their dates of operation.

    I learned that there are many many variations on the Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route. Even following the same path you have options on which huts or villages to stay in or skip. The choices are pretty incredible. I don’t think it’s relevant whether you follow the original “Classic” route or one of the many variations, the point is to travel through spectacular Alps and travel between the two historic mountaineering centers of Chamonix and Zermatt.

  9. Robert Lee May 16th, 2012 4:26 pm

    one day i must do this, nice write up, thanks

  10. Nick May 16th, 2012 4:34 pm

    Great write up and TR!

  11. Tom May 16th, 2012 5:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing, would love to do this trip one day.

  12. Spiros May 17th, 2012 12:31 am

    Rob is it possible to write down some tips and someone else of course who have done it.
    Also some recommedations for the gear that is most appropriate for the route.
    The route does it has dangerous spots or using a guide almost vanish that.
    Iam seriously thinking of doing it next year(that image of matterhorn gets me crazy) and iam wondering if i should take my wife with me because she doesn’t have experience of alpinisme only skiing(for the honeymoon we never had when we got married)

  13. Rob May 17th, 2012 3:30 am

    Sprios – I was surprised to see that a number of people with very limited touring experience tackle the Haute Route. It is not especially demanding, and a good guide will size up the abilities of the group in making specific route decisions, and in deciding when to rope up, for example.

    I would definitely suggest taking your wife out for a few days of day touring first, just to make sure she enjoys it, though!

    I thought about including a gear list, but you can find some pretty good sources just by Googling “Haute Route Gear List”. My $0.02 that I would add: bring earplugs for the hut (someone is bound to snore), bring one pair of heavy socks for relaxing in the hut, and go light on changes of clothing (I recommend one merino wool base layer for during the day, and a clean(er) one to change into once you reach the hut. Personal first aid kit should be very minimal, mostly to deal with cuts or blisters. (The guide should have a complete kit.) Everything should fit into a pack no larger than 35L, and weigh no more than 20-22lbs.

  14. Rob May 17th, 2012 3:36 am

    One other comment….I failed to properly credit my friend Ryan Taylor (on the left in the last photo) 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!

  15. Lou May 17th, 2012 4:32 am

    Rob and all, one of the wonderful things about European backcountry skiing is you see so many levels of ability out in force. While you do see a lot of excellent skiers, you also see quite a few people who are intermediates in terms of their downhill skills. Given they select the correct route and don’t try to prove anything, it all works out fine for those folks. Our ski culture in North America is much more oriented to being an excellent downhill skier.

    Another striking thing about the European backcountry skiing demographic is the number of women participating compared to North America. One day, we were on a peak and there were more women than men! The overall ratio seems to be about 40/60 or better, lots of couples.

  16. Rob May 17th, 2012 6:07 am

    Lou – I would second that. Our group was four men and two women. We had a married couple from London in the group, and when I congratulated the husband on talking his wife into a ski touring vacation, he informed me it was her idea! My impression is that backcountry skiing in the states is perceived by many as means for die-hard skiers to access ever more extreme terrain. In Europe, ski touring is seen much more as a means of escaping the crowds and finding solitude in the mountains.

  17. john doyle May 17th, 2012 6:42 am

    This American stayed at the Bertol hut on a Verbier variation variation. Due to unsettled weather, our time allotted to ski the Haute Route was disappearing. Our Swiss guide suggested this: boarding a helicopter at the top of one of Verbier’s trams – flying to the summit of Pigne d’Arolla – 5000 vertical feet of powder down – then the relatively easy skin to the Bertol. The next day, we followed the same route into Zermatt (as Robert’s group) – over the Tete Blanche and beneath the Matterhorn – unfortunately in a whiteout , so the Matterhorn was not seen.
    The cost of the one-shot heli was more than worth it. I love the Alps

  18. Richard May 17th, 2012 7:06 am

    The other factor on the demographic side is the age of the skiers. It is not a young group for the most part. The pace is slow and steady. Management of temperature, moisture and hydration are always the keys for me. If I’m successful with that, I fare quite well. If I overheat or get down on fluids, it quickly becomes a struggle.
    I’ve done three variations of the Haute Route including the Saas Fee leg and the “classic” route over the shoulder of the Grand Combin. All are wonderful with their own charms and challenges. Go for the experience of traveling on skis through the high alps, not for the downhill skiing. There are ways to get great fresh powder or corn runs all day in the alps but the Haute Route is not one of them.
    If you get the chance, do it. Do not put it off.

  19. Pete Anzalone May 17th, 2012 9:00 am

    Therein lies the difference – “back country skiing” versus “ski touring.” Perhaps not just semantics at work here.

  20. Barry May 17th, 2012 11:04 am

    Rob- We did the Haute Route just after you- left Chamonix on this past March 26-April 1 and had perfect weather and decent snow. We had our own group from Colorado of 5 with Martin Volken and Mike Hattrup as our guides. Took my son who is 21 and just graduated from University of Colorado and was by far the youngest on the trip. I was amazed at how few Americans were in the huts and how few in the hut guest books. The tour is NOT about the skiing but the experience and it did not disappoint. Be sure to spend a few days skiing in Chamonix before though.

  21. David May 18th, 2012 3:59 pm

    Barry – myself and 3 friends from Oregon did it (Verbier variation) about a week after you. We were not so lucky with the weather but we made it in 5 days. It was my third time doing it unguided with friends. If you have mountaineering experience the challenge is not too great and the guides are happy to share their knowledge about the route and its variations. GPS is key for navigation in white outs though. As for cost, $100/day is about right plus travel. I have allways done it in April but this year March was certainly better.

    You can’t beat hut to hut touring in the alps in my opinion! I am planning to return to the italian alps next time.

  22. Scruppo May 23rd, 2012 12:55 pm

    Umm – how do I get Martin and Mike to be my guides??? 🙂

  23. Barry May 23rd, 2012 3:53 pm

    Martin can be reached via:

  24. Tom August 1st, 2012 4:13 pm

    Nice to read.
    You might be interested in our unguided efforts on the Classic Haute Route on my friend’s blog. Original plan had been to avoid the road passage via the Grande Lui but bad weather put paid to that. It’s a fantastic experience all round, and we were ultimately lucky with weather and lack of crowds.
    Also out ski up Mont Blanc last Easter is on there…

  25. Rob August 1st, 2012 8:40 pm

    Tom – Sounds like you had an exciting trip! Your trip blog makes me want to return soon to try another variant. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Barry March 19th, 2013 2:47 pm

    Hello- just a quick link to a Apple book I made about our 2012 Haute Route trip with Martin Volken and Mike Hattrup of Pro Guiding.

    Great experience!

  27. Rob S March 19th, 2013 4:12 pm

    Barry – great trip report. Looking at your photos was a reminder of what a small place Chamonix really is…looks like you visited a lot of the same bakeries and bars that we did!

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