Trip Report
The Haute Route, Chamonix to Zermatt
Friday April 22, 2016 11:01am
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.

The final two days of the Haute Route, Dix Hut to Zermatt
The final two days of the Haute Route, Dix Hut to Zermatt
Credit: Charlie D.
Yep, I should.....
Yep, I should.....
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Local kids out for a casual ski descent.
Local kids out for a casual ski descent.
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

The Dru
The Dru
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Training day
Training day
Credit: Charlie D.
Scoping the route
Scoping the route
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

The Argentiere Glacier below and Col de Chardonnet above
The Argentiere Glacier below and Col de Chardonnet above
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Dave J.
Dave J.
Credit: Charlie D.
Crossing into Switzerland
Crossing into Switzerland
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Dave J. arrives in Switzerland
Dave J. arrives in Switzerland
Credit: Charlie D.
The final col of the day
The final col of the day
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

The Great Stein
The Great Stein
Credit: Charlie D.
Need calories?
Need calories?
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Ron V. & Dave H. taking a break
Ron V. & Dave H. taking a break
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Credit: Charlie D.
Approaching the Dix Hut
Approaching the Dix Hut
Credit: Charlie D.
Ron V. just happy to be here
Ron V. just happy to be here
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Dix Hut
Dix Hut
Credit: Charlie D.
Mont Blanc de Cheilon
Mont Blanc de Cheilon
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Dave H. & Ron V. summit of Pigne d'Arolla
Dave H. & Ron V. summit of Pigne d'Arolla
Credit: Charlie D.
Credit: Charlie D.
Credit: Charlie D.
Credit: Charlie D.
Credit: Charlie D.
The Vignettes Hut on its perch
The Vignettes Hut on its perch
Credit: Charlie D.
The drying room, Vignettes Hut
The drying room, Vignettes Hut
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Heading to Zermatt
Heading to Zermatt
Credit: Charlie D.
Charlie D., Dave J., Tim, Stein, Dave C. & Ron V. arrive in Zermatt
Charlie D., Dave J., Tim, Stein, Dave C. & Ron V. arrive in Zermatt
Credit: Charlie D.
Victory march to the hotel
Victory march to the hotel
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Powder day Zermatt
Powder day Zermatt
Credit: Charlie D.
The one and only
The one and only
Credit: Charlie D.
The Italian side of the Matterhorn
The Italian side of the Matterhorn
Credit: Charlie D.
Ron V. declares he may be living in the wrong country
Ron V. declares he may be living in the wrong country
Credit: Charlie D.

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.

Berg Heil,

Charlie D.

  Trip Report Views: 5,397
Charlie D.
About the Author
Charlie D. is a trad climber from Western Slope, Tahoe Sierra.

Comments
Marlow

Sport climber
OSLO
  Apr 22, 2016 - 11:42am PT

Very cool share... the bright side of life...
Branscomb

Trad climber
Lander, WY
  Apr 22, 2016 - 11:47am PT
Don Garrett told me you guys were over there when we were in Placerville a couple of weeks ago.

Nice job, men! Who is that Ron V guy?

Brian in SLC

Social climber
Salt Lake City, UT
  Apr 22, 2016 - 12:38pm PT
Nice hand you played there...!

Great TR...that trip is on my list!
norm larson

climber
wilson, wyoming
  Apr 22, 2016 - 12:59pm PT
Well done Charlie. A full life in the mountains must include skiing to become a well rounded mountaineer. Smart move getting a guide too. Local knowledge is priceless. Hope your next adventure, no matter what, is as rewarding. You know it's good when it brings tears to your eyes.
crankster

Trad climber
No. Tahoe
  Apr 22, 2016 - 01:01pm PT
Epic trip. Thanks for posting.
Dave Johnson

Mountain climber
Sacramento, CA
  Apr 22, 2016 - 02:18pm PT
Great trip and report, Charlie. Happy to have joined you for this and the other 4 decades of grand adventures.
feralfae

Boulder climber
Montana, on the Divide and around.
  Apr 22, 2016 - 02:26pm PT
Beautiful and grand! What a superb trip report, and love the photos.
feralfae
The Lisa

Trad climber
Da Bronx, NY
  Apr 22, 2016 - 02:59pm PT
Congratulations on completing the whole route! Gorgeous scenery.
I was in Chamonix for the first time ever this March - we did a couple of day tours, including La Vallee Blanche, and had bluebird skies and deep powder. Their winter started late this year.
After reading your report I want to go back next year and do the Haute Route.
Jan

Mountain climber
Colorado & Nepal
  Apr 22, 2016 - 03:10pm PT
Wonderful trip report of something I've always wanted to do.

I have a question though. From what you saw, would you say the way to do it was from France to Switzerland or would it be about the same, the other way around?
Stewart Johnson

Gym climber
top lake
  Apr 22, 2016 - 03:13pm PT
I must have.
Exellent report!
Dave Johnson

Mountain climber
Sacramento, CA
  Apr 22, 2016 - 03:22pm PT
Jan, you'd be definitely going against the flow...can't recall seeing anyone going in the opposite direction.

This may be why:
The Haute Route in reverse, from Zermatt to Chamonix:

The reverse routing offers a different perspective on the Haute Route. The journey in this direction is considered to be more strenuous than Chamonix to Zermatt and several sections follow a different route. Several of the up-hill sections are long and strenuous, thus in this direction the route typically takes 7 days. Notably, the long descent from the Col de Valpeline is now done in reverse, so an ascent of around 2000m on skins is needed directly out of Zermatt. Due to the length of this ascent a night in the Bertol hut is necessary before reaching the Vignettes.
Rick A

climber
Boulder, Colorado
  Apr 22, 2016 - 03:48pm PT
Great work, Charlie. Have to love it when things go as planned in the mountains!

Loved the TR!
Sierra Ledge Rat

Mountain climber
Old and Broken Down in Appalachia
  Apr 25, 2016 - 06:18pm PT
Know what you mean bro

I identify with being a "climber" but every time I ski it reminds me it's what I love best
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Apr 25, 2016 - 06:40pm PT
Damn, I hope you feel suitably guilty. I'll be there in 3 months but
there won't be no pow-pow left so I guess we'll have to improvise.

Nice TR
Karen

Trad climber
Prescott, AZ ~
  Apr 25, 2016 - 07:08pm PT
Wonderful TR !!! Really enjoyed your pictures and story, super jealous:-) glad you guys had such an amazing trip.
kunlun_shan

Mountain climber
SF, CA
  Apr 25, 2016 - 07:49pm PT
What a great writeup and spectacular photos, Charlie! Sounds like you had good conditions, all things considered. Reminds me how much I'd love to do this route.

Thanks for the ski touring and mountain stoke!
PSP also PP

Trad climber
Berkeley
  Apr 25, 2016 - 09:06pm PT
Very cool !
Delhi Dog

climber
Good Question...
  Apr 25, 2016 - 10:16pm PT
Great adventure!
I'm a big fan of the italian side.

I was in that area the end of March. Looks like the snow got better.
Thanks for the share!
Charlie D.

Trad climber
Western Slope, Tahoe Sierra
Author's Reply  Apr 26, 2016 - 07:04am PT
Jan my buddy Dave is forgetful we did see a team skiing west from the summit of Pigne d'Arolla but as he pointed out the 2000 meter climb up out of Zermatt likely convinces most to go east from the top of a tram back in Chamonix. That team could have been doing a loop out of the Arolla ski area, fact there are plenty of great 2 day tours from various points along the way.

Here's some additional photos from a real camera we just received from Hollinger, the photos above are all from our iPhones.


The California contingent at the beginning....


As for me I'm putting storage wax on my quiver of boards. The blue bellies are out firing off push ups, it's time to climb!!!

Jan

Mountain climber
Colorado & Nepal
  Apr 26, 2016 - 11:51am PT
Charlie and Dave, thanks. I think I might try walking it first.
Charlie D.

Trad climber
Western Slope, Tahoe Sierra
Author's Reply  Apr 26, 2016 - 12:59pm PT
Terry yep we did have some fun powder skiing.....


Although most days looked like this one.....


But hey when it did clear you'd weep!!! The skiers on the glacier below gives you a sense of scale, the place is huge....



wannabe1

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Apr 27, 2016 - 10:11am PT
Hard to top the dismount offered below - I've never done the ski version of the Haute Route only the hike - Keep it up...!!!

"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 72 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."
Rev.

Trad climber
Visalia, California
  May 10, 2016 - 02:21pm PT
What a monumental experience that must have been! John (the great Stein) told me that he had completed it and it didn't quite set in. The photo's and trip report helps put their feat in perspective. Here is a photo of the day that "the Great Stein" hauled my fat but up Snake Dike. Momentous mountain experiences make for great friends!
Mark Force

Trad climber
Ashland, Oregon
  May 10, 2016 - 05:46pm PT
Man oh man! I gotta do that! Thanks!

That is one of the best TRs I've ever read here. Have imagined that trip over the years, but - damn - you really brought a truly wonderful adventure with good friends to life. Your writing and pics are awesome.
Fritz

Social climber
Choss Creek, ID
  May 10, 2016 - 05:32pm PT
Charlie D! Thanks for taking the time to share a great trip report. Despite the allergy I have developed over the last few years for snow-sports, after a lifetime of skiing, your report made me feel a little bad that I have chosen not to go ski the Alps.
johntp

Trad climber
Punter, Little Rock
  May 10, 2016 - 05:39pm PT
Kick ass TR!
Risk

Mountain climber
Marooned, 855 miles from Tuolumne Meadows
  May 10, 2016 - 10:24pm PT
Setting the new standard for classic. Fantastic TR.
Urmas

Social climber
Sierra Eastside
  May 11, 2016 - 04:31pm PT
Way to go Charlie! Thanks for the write-up and pictures.
cornel

climber
Lake Tahoe, Nevada
  May 14, 2016 - 08:39am PT
Congratulations Charlie on a wonderful trip and the wisdom of hiring that guide for the group. Takes the pressure off, especially in borderline weather. Your comments about the kids were hilarious too! I was howling... This trip has been on my bucket list for a few years now... At 66 I better make it real..soon.. Still skiing a lot in the Sierra backcountry but one never knows how many more seasons one has? Do we..? Every time I rope up or slap on those skins I know this could be it. Funny thing too, my bucket list never seems to really shrink even after 45 yrs of climbing and 20 yrs of backcountry skiing...? Keep adding more big walls and ski tours... Follow your heart. It knows the way to heaven..
Gregory Crouch

Social climber
Walnut Creek, California
  May 15, 2016 - 10:34am PT
Fabulous! Green with envy. Great crowd.
roy

Social climber
NZ -> SB,CA -> Zurich
  May 15, 2016 - 11:56am PT
A great trip and a great report. Doing it with friends makes it so much the better.

Cheers, Roy
Gunks Ray

Trad climber
Gunks
  May 16, 2016 - 02:17pm PT

I did the Haute Route back in 06 when I was a sprightly "young" 52 on Tele skis. The photo is of me skiing on the last day of the tour with the last pass to climb up in front of me to be followed by the last descent to Zermat under the shadow of the Matterhorn.

Thanks for bringing back some great memories.
Ed H

Trad climber
Santa Rosa, CA
  May 16, 2016 - 02:47pm PT
Nice one Charlie! TFPU!
mort7777

Trad climber
Santa Barbara
  May 16, 2016 - 07:16pm PT
This is the BEST dang trip report I ever read! The prose you created about the kids was EPIC! I have a question for you which is why I read your report. A guy like you undoubtably would know what the snow conditions are on the Sierra High Route right now. We're from Rhode Island and have memorial week\weekend to do it. Got any beta on snow conditions?
bluering

Trad climber
Santa Clara, CA
  May 16, 2016 - 07:49pm PT
Very cool! I love the Alps. That must be Cervinia at the base of the Matterhorn. I used to ski there as a kid.

Looks the same. That's very good too!
Dave Johnson

Mountain climber
Sacramento, CA
  May 16, 2016 - 08:02pm PT
Gunks Ray, nice photo of the Col de Valpelline. It was stormy when we went over so didn't see the scary stuff on the right.

Mort, I'd contact Alpine Skills in Truckee. They guided it the first week of May and could give you info on snow levels.

http://www.alpineskills.com/spring_shr.html

I did it early May, '01. I think you might be too late, to be honest. The passes that you could ski over early in the season might be talus slogs.
mort7777

Trad climber
Santa Barbara
  May 17, 2016 - 06:09pm PT
Dave, thanks for the tip, I shall investigate.
mike m

Trad climber
black hills
  May 18, 2016 - 09:00am PT
Wow what a great trip. Something I have dreamed of also, but not sure will ever happen. I know you live to ski as much as climb and I can see how being in the center of that alpine paradise could bring a tear to the eye. Hoping to start hitting some spring time Indian Peaks stuff this weekend. I heard they were getting quite a bit of snow last weekend.
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