The Haute Route Traverse – From Chamonix to Zermatt on Skis

Day 1: Argentière to Cabane de Trient

April 1, 2017 – 8:00AM

We’re on the bus from Chamonix to Argentière, which is a few kilometres up the valley from our apartment and the starting point of the Haute Route Traverse.  As we sit on the bus, still half asleep, I reflect on the six days ahead and how far Matt and I have come as backcountry skiers.  To anyone familiar with ski touring, the Haute Route Traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt is one of those iconic routes that every skier dreams of ticking off.  Big terrain, incredible views, scary crevasses, and ski lines as far as the eye can see.  Not to mention comfortable “huts” all along the route to make the whole thing just a little more enjoyable. When we arrived in Chamonix at the beginning of March the traverse was something we definitely wanted to do, but we weren’t really sure if we’d be able to pull it off, due to route finding, complexity of the terrain, etc.  A few years ago, the thought of completing the traverse independently seemed like a bit of a pipe dream.  The cost to do it as part of a guided group was a little prohibitive to our traveller’s budget, so from the get go it was either do it on our own (which seemed like a big undertaking) or don’t do it at all.  I picked up a guide book the day we got here and we started studying it. And then we picked up the maps we needed and started studying those.  And then we made reservations at each of the huts.  And now here we are sitting on the bus about to set off on the longest ski traverse either of us have ever done – no turning back.  Well, I guess we could turn back whenever we want, but that would be kind of lame.

When the bus drops us off at Grands Montets parking lot, we are right on time to catch the first tram up to the top  (the first segment of the traverse uses the Grands Montets lifts to save about 1500 m of climbing to start the day).  We’re both a little nervous I think, so an early start today is key – even with the lifts, it will still be over 1000 m of climbing and a long day to get to Cabane de Trient, across the border in Switzerland.  Plus the forecast is calling for clouds to roll in this afternoon, and navigating across glaciers in a whiteout is not something either of us want to do on Day 1. Or any of the days for that matter.

As we approach the boarding area for the tram, we are kindly notified by the lady at the gate that there are high winds (presumably blowing in all the clouds) at the top, and all the lifts are currently closed.  More information at 10AM.  A great start to the day.

For the next hour and a half, I stare impatiently back and forth at the information board and the skyline to monitor the cloud situation.  From what we can see, the winds are definitely strong.  We are able to ride the tram to the halfway point, but it isn’t until shortly after 10 that they finally open the tram to the top.  Because we were early, we’re able to get on the first tram up.  From the top of Grands Montets, at about 3200 m, we ski down to the Glacier d’Argentière and put our skins on for the first climb of the day.  The winds on the glacier are howling, but fortunately the sun is still shining.

After a couple hours of skinning we’ve climbed over 800 m to the Col du Chardonnet, which also happens to be the border between France and Switzerland (basically all of the traverse is actually done in Switzerland).  At the col, there is a fixed rope dropping into a steep couloir that we use to rappel into Switzerland then side-step out onto the Glacier de Saleina.  From the glacier, it’s another couple hours of touring to get to Cabane de Trient.  By the time we are safely inside the hut, the clouds have rolled in and we have difficulty seeing the other side of the glacier that we just toured across.

The definition of “hut” (or cabane as they are called in Swizterland) is somewhat different than what we have grown accustomed to at home in BC.  In BC, the huts require you to pack everything you could possibly need – sleeping bag, mattress, cooking gear, food, etc.  Most huts may have a wood stove to keep the dampness away, and a loft for everyone to pile onto and sleep wherever there is a spare corner. It can be crowded, smelly, and sleepless.  Sometimes people accidentally try to set the place on fire with errant camp stoves.

The Cabane de Trient (and presumably the other huts along the route) is a little different.  When we walk in the front door, there is shelf full of hut slippers (should have left mine at home) for everyone to change into.  There are wicker baskets to place your wet items in and put on a shelf to dry overnight.  The dormitory-style bedrooms have comfortable mattresses with “nordic-duvets” (only a sleeping bag liner is needed). There is of course the cold-beer and wine menu that is kindly pointed out when we check in (at 8 euros for a tall can of beer the costs can add up fast!) And finally there is the whole half-board deal, where dinner and breakfast are provided and prepared for you.  Tonight’s menu features carrot soup, followed by green salad to start.  Beef stroganoff with mashed potatoes for the main course.  And an apple custard for desert.  Not bad – the bar has been set for the rest of the week.

Day 2: Cabane de Trient to Cabane du Mont Fort

Today’s route doesn’t actually require a lot of skiing.  Just down the glacier du Trient, a short boot pack up to a nearby col, and then a long ski down to the village of Champex – simple.  From there we will transfer to the Verbier ski resort via bus and train.  The Cabane de Mont Fort, where we are staying tonight, is actually within the Verbier ski area boundary.

As we enjoy our hot breakfast and start to get our things organized for the day ahead, daylight starts to pour through the windows.  There is no sign of the sun though.  Apparently the clouds that rolled in yesterday decided to stick around and upon further inspection out the windows, we realize that it is a complete whiteout. Perfect.

The start of the day at the hut is a bit of a zoo as groups seem to jockey for position and get out the front door before each other, and it’s difficult to avoid feeling like we should also be in a rush.  When we finally do get out the front door there are about 15 people lining up to get going ahead of us.

It’s a pretty short ski down the glacier (about 400 m) and despite the whiteout we can hug the rocks on the skier’s right side and make our way easily to the bottom of the bootpack up to Col des Écandies.  We manage to get going up the bootpack before most of the groups in front of us and when we get to the col we can’t tell up from down.  From the col down Champex, our elevation drops about 1300 m, which we manage to navigate with the topo map and GPS.  Although there are no glaciers on the descent there are some cliff bands and other terrain traps so some route finding is required, and with no visibility there are a few signs of ski vertigo.  An hour or so later we emerge unscathed in the Champex ski area and wait for our bus transfer over to Verbier.

The transfer from Champex to Verbier is a bit of a novelty.  Here we are, emerging from a high mountain environment, only to be whisked off by bus and trains (that run precisely on time of course) to another one of the most famous ski resorts in Europe. Only in the Alps.

By the time we get to Verbier it’s only just after lunch time so we pick up a half day lift ticket and meet our friend Guillaume who shows us around the resort for the afternoon.  Even though we still can’t see anything we enjoy ripping up the groomers and get a feel for the scale of the resort.  Especially when we pile onto the “Jumbo” lift – a tram that packs in 150 people and swoops them up to the top of the mountain!  At the end of the afternoon we cruise down one last groomer and retire to the Cabane de Mont Fort for the evening.  The hut doesn’t see as much traffic as others on the Haute Route, and so there are only a dozen or so people spending the night.  To top it all off, the clouds have gone away, setting up for a great weather day tomorrow.

Day 3: Cabane du Mont Fort to Cabane des Dix

Day 3 is our biggest day of the traverse – nearly 1500 m of climbing overall – as we pass over three cols (Col de la Chaux, Col de la Rionde, and Col de Severeu) before eventually climbing to up over 2900 m to Cabane des Dix.

Whatever clouds were lingering at the end of the day yesterday have vanished and the weather is perfect to start the day.  We can clearly see the Mont Blanc massif, with the morning sun hitting the peaks, and can trace our routes from Days 1 and 2.

Shortly after 8:00am we step in to our skis and start our climb up the freshly groomed pistes of Verbier.  I joke to Matt that we should carve bigger switchbacks than usual, just to mess up the fresh groomers for anyone skiing down.  Today also happens to be the last stop of the Freeride World Tour, which is taking place on the big and intimidating face of Bec des Rosses, which we are skinning right below.  As we approach the first col of the day, the competition starts and we get to watch a couple of the first competitors throw themselves down some crazy lines.  Helicopters buzz around capturing it all on video and camera – maybe we’ll be on TV?!

As we move farther and farther east from the resort the noise starts to dissipate and soon we are on our own.  The route we are taking to Cabane des Dix is a little off the main highway, so for a time we are breaking trail.  The weather continues to be perfect and when  we arrive at Col de Severeu we get our first glimpse of the famous Matterhorn – it still looks like a long way away!

From the col we descend several hundred metres on one of the longest runs of the week to Lac des Dix, and then traverse south along the lake before starting one last climb up to the cabane.

After about 8 hours on the trail, and feeling tired and a little dehydrated from the hot sun, we come around the corner to Cabane des Dix.  The sight is unbelievable:  a multi-storey stone structure (built in 1908), sitting on top of a little rock bluff, in the middle of nowhere.  Inside the hut there are pictures of mules hauling materials in during construction!  The cabane has a nice patio which faces west, so we celebrate the mid-way point of the trip outside with a two-eight-euro beer day, and enjoy a stellar sunset.

Day 4: Cabane des Dix to Cabane des Vignettes

We’re back on the main track today, so the morning starts a little busier than yesterday.  The route to Cabane des Vignettes marks the high point of the traverse (3790 m at the summit of Pigne d’Arolla) and also includes one of the more touchy sections on the trip – crossing over “la passage de la serpentine“, a steep glacier with big exposure of cliffs on the far climber’s left side.

The day starts a little more slowly than others, given the many groups on the skin track in front of us.  Being on our own, we’d sort of been expecting to get called out by a guide at some point, for something, and today ends up being the day.  On the way up glacier de la Tséna Refien a guide dragging his three roped up clients up the glacier wonders aloud if we have rope with us or not.  Matt politely points out the obvious blue coil of rope that is readily available on my pack and that we’re comfortable in the current conditions without it.  Not appreciating his next comment of “we’re on a glacier, you know?“, I sarcastically respond that we had no idea it was a glacier.  The guide’s tone seems to change when we tell him we live on the west coast of Canada and have been skiing on this type of stuff for several years.  We carry on our merry way, not too concerned with the little encounter.

When we get to la passage de la serpentine, the snow pack is so thin that crampons and bootpacking are needed to get up the slope.  At certain points there are only a few inches of snow on top of blue glacier ice, so we are kicking hard to get our toe picks nicely into the ice.  Fortunately the slope ends up being less intimidating than it looked in the pictures and soon we are on top of a plateau on the way to Pigne d’Arolla.

The summit of Pigne d’Arolla most closely resembles what we’d expected on the traverse:  lots of people packed onto the summit, some coming, some going, a highway of sorts up to the top.  Despite the crowds, and the clouds that are starting to move in, the views are awesome and the Matterhorn is finally starting to look like a nearby mountain.

From the top it’s a nice long run down towards the cabane, though some deviations are needed to avoid the transport truck-sized crevasses.  We were both pretty impressed with Cabane des Dix yesterday, but the first view of Cabane des Vignettes blows Dix out of the water.

The cabane is literally built on the side of a cliff, and is approached via a very narrow ridgeline – how do people come up with these ideas?!  Despite the difficult access there were no shortcuts taken inside – a full lunch menu, beer and wine, and great dining area.  No running water though – we are really slumming it now!

Day 5: Cabane des Vignettes to Cabane de Bertol

Many people complete the route from Cabane des Vignettes all the way to Zermatt in a day, and for this reason breakfast at Vignettes is served from the freakishly early hours of 5:30 to 6:00.  When we get downstairs there is a fair amount of buzz going on, and there is talk that the morning is shaping up to be another total whiteout, although the afternoon forecast says “clearing up”.  There is an “escape route” that goes immediately down to the valley below and then back up to get to Cabane de Bertol, and avoids the majority of the serious glacier travel, but it’s also a less scenic route.  It seems like many of the guided groups will be heading that way given the uncertainty in the weather.  Not feeling rushed, and hoping for the forecast to live up to expectation, we finish our breakfast and go back to bed.  Even if we don’t leave Vignettes until noon, we should still be able to get to Bertol in good time for dinner.

Shortly before 8 the hut staff poke their head into the room to let us know we have 10 minutes to get our things cleared out of the room so they can start cleaning in advance of the next round of skiers passing through tonight.  By now at least it’s daylight and the whiteout has been confirmed.  The number of people left in the hut starts to dwindle as many parties have decided to head down to the valley.  By 10:00 or so there are 10 of us left, on a day that started with close to 100 people staying in the hut.  There are three German teams, a French pair, and us.  Although we are all talking in different languages, the consensus is the same:  we still can’t see the rock bluff 50 feet outside the front door of the hut.

At this point Matt and I start playing head games with each other to agree on a time at which we will leave, regardless of what the weather does: at 10:45 we’ll have a snack; at 11:00 we’ll put our ski boots on, and by 11:30 we’ll walk out the door – if we still can’t see we’ll go down to the valley.  Shortly after 11 we start getting a little impatient with the weather, but suddenly the first major parting of the clouds appears.  We’re still not convinced that it’s enough to send us up the high route, but the other teams also seem excited and we all start getting our gear on.

Just before 11:30 we step outside and are ready to go.  The clouds have opened up enough that we are comfortable taking the high route across glacier du Mont Collon to Col de l’Evèque.  We decide to rope up together for the glacier crossing as there are quite a few exposed crevasses, some of which could house a school bus or two, and the visibility still isn’t awesome.

From Col de l’Evèque, it’s a long 800 m run down the haut glacier d’Arolla, before an equally long and tiring climb up to Cabane de Bertol. When we get to the col almost all the clouds have dissipated and we’re confident that it will be a bluebird afternoon. Three turn into the run Matt hears and feels a pop in one of his skis and he yells at me to hold up to take a look.  It’s not great:  the heel piece of one of his bindings has blown off his ski and disappeared into the fresh snow we had just started skiing. We spend a few minutes looking for it, but it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack and we have no luck.  Fortunately we have a couple ski straps in the bag, and can use the longer one to strap Matt’s boot in place.  It’s nowhere near as strong as a binding, but as long as he’s not launching off any big cliffs, he should be just fine.  Fortunately it’s the second last day of the traverse, and not the other way around.

The rest of the day to Bertol goes smoothly and we are happy about our decision to wait out the weather and enjoy the great views along the way.  When we get to Col de Bertol the Matterhorn appears to be a stone’s throw away and we can start to feel the finish line.  Although we’ve already climbed 1100 m today, the Swiss decided it would be a good idea to build the hut above the col, and so the last 30 m of the day are spent climbing straight up steel ladders that have been bolted to the rock face.  The beer inside tastes colder and more refreshing than usual and we enjoy an amazing sunset for the last night on the trip.

Day 6: Cabane de Bertol to Zermatt

 We’re up early this morning, excited for our long descent in to Zermatt.  Shortly after 7:00 we are out the door and down-climbing the crazy ladders from yesterday.  The sun is just coming up over the ridge and there are a few light clouds blowing off the top of the Matterhorn, making it look just like a chimney.  The visibility is perfect, and it should be a great finish to the trip.

The day starts with a couple hours of skinning up to the top of Tête Blanche (3710 m), a rounded peak just to the west of the Matterhorn and also the border of Switzerland and Italy.  It is windy and cold at the top, but it feels like we can reach out and touch the Matterhorn.  The view is incredible.

The skins come off the skis for the last time at the summit of Tête Blanche and all that is left to do is point the skis downhill for 1800 m into the ski resort village of Zermatt.  Oh, and navigate through the heavily-crevassed Stockji, Tiefmatten, and Zmutt glaciers.  Fortunately the weather is clear and we can see where to ski and where not to ski – not a place I would want to be stuck in zero visibility.  We waste little time under the giant seracs of the Stockji (there were a few recent falls), but do get to enjoy some fresh tracks in cold snow.  The ski out on the Zmutt glacier goes right under the Matterhorn – an amazing way to finish up.  Before long we are back inside the Zermatt ski area and enjoy a long run down the freshly groomed trails right into the town itself.

When we click the skis off for the last time, there is an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment.  After high fives and big hugs we look back up at the Matterhorn one more time and digest the last few days: over 5000 m of vertical, close to 65 km travelled on skis, between two of the most iconic ski mountaineering centres anywhere, on our own.  Definitely one for the books.

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