Over the years on approaches and skin tracks partners on occasion have asked me what I love more, climbing or skiing? It's a question of choice and for me like the one confronting Sofie, an impossible question really. So here I am posting a skiing trip report on a climbing forum because in my world these passions are inseparable. It's about the countless ways I love being in the mountains. Each arriving season marks another activity and installment of time well spent. Whether I'm moving over stone or up and over mountains covered in snow I'm just happy to be there.
I had the opportunity to complete the Haute Route with some of my closest friends over a 5 day tour earlier this month. I've skied and climbed with most of these gents approaching 40 years during which time we often talked about a trip to Europe to ski the much coveted high route across the Western Alps from Chamonix to Zermatt. Our expectations were high just thinking of being in the Alps. The very birthplace of alpinism with its rich historic context and epic tales of heroic triumph and/or catastrophic demise on such famous peaks stirs us all, the place is haunted.
Last year we committed for this spring and debated the notion of a self guided tour. Certainly an unguided adventure has the potential to produce a higher value, I think we can all relate to the sketch above. The decision was debated as epic stories of weather changes in the Alps were recalled. Shuttering at the thought of our team of elders from the user friendly Sierra navigating across heavily crevassed ice fields in white outs, we soon sent off our deposits. We all agreed during the tour with the challenging weather, the terrain and avalanche conditions our decision ended up being money well spent not to mention the ease of logistics with hut reservations etc.
Arriving in Chamonix was amazing for us as skiers/climbers, I suppose like a good Catholic arriving in Rome or Muslim in Mecca. It's a mountain town where many skiers are wearing harnesses with ice screws dangling on gear loops with big famous pointy peaks all around. Dynafit compatible boots on the street are as common as flip-flops in San Diego, its a happy but serious place.
We had hoped to ski the Vallee Blanche from atop the Aiguille du Midi but with unsettled weather and poor visibility we decided to bail and headed up the tram as tourists to check it out. Much to our disbelief in the tunnel a group of French school children were roping up and heading out and down the snow ridge for the Vallee Blanche ski descent in blowing snow. WTF! Why aren't these kids working in their coloring books? No helicopter parents around, these local kids were just doing what you do if you grow up in Chamonix. We had entered a different world then the Tahoe Sierra for sure.
Feeling like wimps we headed down vowing never to speak of the children. We then took the cog train up to the Mer de Glace station to drink beer under the Dru like any self respecting arm chair climber would do. It then struck me how very amusing the whole scene really was; those kids heading down a ridge of consequential terrain to ski as us old men were taking the ride of shame on a train. Certainly one of the few privileges of old age is becoming too old to be embarrassed, we all had a great laugh and I thought it was too funny not to share.
We met up that evening with our guide Dave Hollinger with Alpine Guides Ltd. in Argentiere which is a much mellower town than busy Chamonix down the valley. Another fine chap from London joined our team there at the hotel. We spent the next day at one of the many resort skiing, skinning, practicing rope handling, beacons and crampon use so Dave could assess who had what skills and our general fitness level.
The weather continued to be unsettled with periods of wet snow and wind. It was scary warm with winds coming in from the south off from Mediterranean. There was some question with clouds obscuring the high peaks if we'd even be able to start. The first leg is the tram ride up to the Grand Montets which could continue to be on wind hold. All of us were anxious the night before and then rejoiced when day came with the tram running. We rode up with other teams beginning the tour with few words. I think all of us had various degrees of trepidation regarding the weather moving over the terrain ahead which included two high alpine cols and three glacier crossings.
The tram delivers you on the ridge above the Argentiere Glacier with a full view of the Col de Chardonnet our first major objective. The weather continued to deteriorate that morning so other parties opted for the longer Col du Passon which keeps you further north from the crest. It's a strategy for gaining better visibility. We ended up being one of only two teams that ascended and descended the Col De Chardonnet that day.
We arrived at the col in full conditions with high winds and blowing snow. There's fixed anchors which allowed us to quickly lower off into the cirque below. What a great way to arrive in Switzerland, on the end of a rope. We were stoked to finally be on the route and moving after so much anticipation.
We headed across the glacier and climbed another col which accessed the Trient Glacier which was the last leg before the hut on it's north side. The weather really closed in with poor visibility as we crossed the immense glacier. Crazy conditions in a white room with big cracks in a floor not knowing if you going up or down or even moving for that matter. Dave got us across the glacier and to the base of the final skin track up to the Trient Hut. The other parties coming in from the Col du Passon converged with us as we all headed into the hut in mass.
I wasn't quite prepared for the whole chaotic hut scene with many languages being spoken and the established protocols for guests. However we quickly assimilated into the crowd and made our way to the counter for beers. Pretty cool being there with so many like minded mountain people. While you couldn't necessarily follow the banter the smiles and laughter spoke volumes as to the positive vibe we found in the huts.
It stormed all night so we had great powder conditions for our descent down the glacier to the base of another col with fixed ropes. We strapped crampons on for the ascent and quickly gained the col for the long descent down and out to the French speaking Swiss village of Champex. Ours was the Verbier variation where meet up with a taxi service in town to get on up to another village to take the gondola and tram to the top of Verbier. We were soon back in the high alpine and skinned up and over several passes for the ski down to the Prafleuri Hut, it was a big day.
The weather closed in again late that day with light snow and fog. The next morning was scary warm which would haunt us all day on the way to the Dix Hut. The snow was wet and rotten, we crossed over avalanche debris from the day before and kept spread out for the long skin up to the hut, not being able to see what loomed above us was disconcerting. We arrived at the Dix Hut with relief and opted for a nap after a couple beers.
Awakening in the late afternoon, the clouds had lifted and we were greeted to a spectacular feast of the senses. We finally had an afternoon basking in the sun, everyone was out of the hut enjoying the scene till dusk. Mont Blanc de Cheilon's is front and center with its big north face washed in alpine glow, we were blown away.
Tomorrows forecast for the highest traverses and cols of the tour was favorable, we were stoked. What a amazing day summiting Pigne d Arolla at 3796 meters on our way to the Vegnettes Hut. From it's summit we could see west to the Mount Blanc Massif and the dark north face of the Grand Jorasses, to the east the Matterhorn, to the north the peaks around the Eiger and to the south the Italian Alps. I must admit the scene brought tears, it was overwhelming. I've included a few pictures here that shows the scale of the place if you can spot the skiers on the immense ice fields.
We left the Vegnettes Hut that morning in deteriorating weather with some talk of having to bail out to a ski area down and to the north. The mountain gods however had other plans for us and we were able to get over the three cols before our final long descent into Zermatt with really poor visibility. You end up on the miles of lateral moraines below the north face of the Matterhorn in route to town, we couldn't see a thing. Finally arriving at the ski hill after a short walk on a muddy road we were able take the ski home run right on into town and walked to our hotel.
Zermatt is full of beautiful rich tourists of course and we found it pretty expensive which got me thinking about leaving as soon as we could. That night however it stormed hard with colder temperatures and we had a blue bird powder day of 12 to 18" of fresh skiing the resort. We skied on over to Italy for a great and affordable lunch with beers, the best day ever of course.
Despite the weather and poor visibility we experienced the Haute Route exceeded my high expectations. Honestly, we were fortunate to have completed it given the conditions. Numerous parties bail historically. We owed our success in no small part to the competence of our guide Dave who always maintained a reasonable margin of safety while pushing our team of 6 which varied in fitness and mountaineering skills every hour of each day. Given some of the chatter I heard at nights with the wind howling outside a call for a mutiny wouldn't have surprised me if we had been on our own.
The Haute Route had been on my to do list for a long time. Pulling it off with such great long time friends is as good as it gets. When I reflect back to the 50 + years of hiking, climbing and skiing up, over and around mountains I always think of the many partners I've enjoyed those times with and of course my contemporaries who didn't make it this far.
We draw a card each day and while I've certainly had to play some bad hands I know overall I'm a lucky man in this game. The voice of the boy in me speaks of adventures and places ahead and my heart listens while my 65 year old brain knows there's jokers in the deck. There will come a time when you tie that last figure eight or pull those skins from your skis for the last time. If it were not the truth none of this would be worth anything.