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Ski Touring

The Shining Path

The Haute Route - the most famous backcountry hut-to-hut ski route of the world?

Originally, the Haute Route was a west-east walking traverse between Chamonix, France and Saas Fee, Switzerland. The "original" Haute Route - or High Level Road - was first connected by guided English Alpine Club mountaineers who ambulated across these heavily-glaciated highlands in 1861. Rarely used today, their route has been supplanted by the modern "classic" Haute Route that leaves the top of the Grand Montets lift above Argentiere and neighboring Chamonix, ascends over the Argentiere/ Triente Glaciers, then finishes up through the Walliser Alps to Zermatt. The region between these most famous alpine villages contains a staggering array of huts, peaks and glaciers and in fact any medley of them can be considered "a Haute Route" - there is room for much itinerary improvisation. Our trip was custom guided by Ruedi Beglinger, ran east-west from Zermatt, and was put together to celebrate good friend Philippe Dunoyer's 30th anniversary of his first (and only) traverse of the Haute Route...

...Once we had sorted ourselves out, our group of nine made an ascent of the southern flanks of the 4,000+ metre Breithorn under crystal clear skies. Far to the west we could even see the Mont Blanc near where our journey would end seven days later. Superb late-season turns took off from the Breithorn and down around the Matterhorn onto the Stocklji Glacier. Skiing up-glacier, we reached the Schönbiel hut for our first night. The weather broke that evening, leaving us under heavy gray skies the next morning as we broke camp, skinning and ski-cramponing up towards the Col du Valpelline at the head of the valley. We climbed and skied two moderate peaks before touring across flat neve to the infamous Bertol Cabin. Lashed onto the apex of a teetery rock pinnacle, it can only be reached by an anxiety-inducing traverse across a rock ledge followed by a hand-over-hand sprint up three iron ladders. Once safely at the hut we could finally relax and enjoy the view afforded by this improbable lookout.

We were blessed again by the weather gods on the third day as we headed back east for a short detour directly into a golden sun. We swung south and then west up to a hidden col that provided access to a small summit known as the Tête du Bertol. A small peak on the alpine, this forgotten peak held some of the finest powder skiing of the trip. The descent off the summit left us once again at the small saddle. Now we plunged due west off the ridgeline and into the frozen cold shadows of the valley of the village of Arolla - our destination for the day. Heavy breakable crust transitioned into a smooth, rock-hard glacial crust. Gingerly we made "5.11" slide-slips into the abyss. Falling simply was not an option as the upper part of the descent hung over a 800-foot serac cliff. We scooted around the cliff, skier's right, and then shot-gunned into a joyous, high-speed arcs down the beautiful, undisturbed, low angle slopes that led onto the Arolla Glacier. The sun crested over the ridge we had just escaped and within an hour we were walking the streets of the tiny ski village of Arolla...

We abandoned the Vignettes Hut before dawn on the fifth day and climbed directly to the summit of the Pigne d'Arolla. The Pigne d'Arolla is 3,796-meters high and is one of the most popular high peaks on the Haute Route and separates the Vignettes Hut from the Dix Cabin. Absolutely stellar conditions greeted us atop the summit sastrugi. To the east, across the valley of Arolla, we could see the Matterhorn and the Bertol Cabin area, both blue under morning skies. To the west stood the Grand Combin and the Mont Blanc. To the south all of Italy and to the north, central Switzerland....

...We departed the hut at dawn and headed for Mount Avril and the border. Contouring up and through an undulating high valley, we made quick progress up the peak. Blessed yet again by weather, we snacked on the summit and were able to look back over where we had come. In the distance, the Matterhorn. the skiing off Mount Avril was the best pure skiing on the trip - creamy corn snow set at a steep but not extreme angle. A right turn at the base took us through a pass and into Italy. Thoughts of summer swept over us as we reached the snow's end and began the hour walk down through the meadowy alp to the micro village of Glacier. There the taxi met us and shuttled our group to Courmayeur - the Italian "Chamonix." For our final supper, the Italian hosts at our hotel shared large bottles of wine produced just down the valley and prepared the finest meal of the trip. Good preparations for the next day when we would enter France. Our voyage would end just as it began. Three tram rides lifted us out of the morning shadows of one of the great and historic alpine communities and onto the sunbathed Pont Helbronner station on the French border. Below us lay the Vallée Blanche which is considered the greatest ski run in the world. Surrounded by the peaks of the Mont Blanc range, we were truly in the birthplace of alpinism and ski- mountaineering. Pushing off onto the impenetrable frozen crust of the glacier, we began our final descent into Chamonix under the gaze of the spirits of all the climbers and skiers who had passed through these granite peaks over the last 100 years. 30 year anniversary? I may just be back for mine.

Back Country Magazine no. 22, 2000 By Brian Litz