by Larry Goldie
Originally published in the Fall '07 edition of MVSTA's Trails Magazine
After 15 years of guiding, I have learned that these words are rarely a good sign.
"I think I forgot my skins at the last hut," said Andrea letting out a heavy sigh. My mind reeled with all of our possible options.
We were three days into a nine-day crossing of the Alps on the legendary high route from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. Normally this would merely involve climbing back up to the hut on foot and retrieving the forgotten skins. At this particular juncture, however, it was not that simple. We had left the Trient hut the morning before, skied over 4,000 vertical feet down into the village of Champex where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch at an outdoor café. We then took a taxi to the village of Bourg Saint Pierre where we spent the night in a small inn. Today started with a 90 minute hike on a trail to reach snowline where we would put on skis and climbing skins to continue the tour. It was at this point Andrea had noticed her missing skins. Climbing back to the hut to retrieve them was not really an option.
The Haute Route is one of the most famous ski traverses in the world. It is attempted each year by hundreds of skiers from around the globe. Steeped in history, the earliest variation of the route was completed on skis in 1903. It was a small group of mountain guides and members of the French Alpine Club from Chamonix that pioneered this high crossing of the Alps. Remarkably, itüÿ was done in January, and before many of the huts skiers now use were in existence. The pioneers skied exceedingly long distances even during the cold, short days of mid winter.
The variation we were attempting, known today as the Classic Haute Route, was not pioneered for another eight years later in January 1911. What thwarted many early attempts was finding the critical passage known as the Plateau du Coulior. This high pass is reached after climbing several thousand feet of steep and avalanche prone slopes below the south face of the Grand Combin. It's hard not to consider the skill and bravery of the pioneers when tackling this slope now with modern ice axes and crampons, and even then, only in good conditions.
Today the route is most commonly done in the spring with April being the most popular month for the tour. The advantages include a consolidated snowpack, crevasses being well-bridged and days that are gloriously long. Springtime can, however, bring a mixture of weather and conditions in the high mountains can range from hot, sun-drenched glaciers to cold, windy, snowstorms. Over the years, I have skied the same glaciers in conditions ranging from thigh deep powder to bulletproof ice with visibility varying from complete whiteouts to blindingly bright sunshine.
The route involves crossing over a dozen glaciers, ascending many high passes and touring through some of the most rugged alpine terrain imaginable. While this sounds like a daunting journey, it is made wonderfully civilized by the presence of fully staffed and catered huts at the end of each day s segment. Many of the huts were built in the early 20th century and are perched in the most unlikely locations, often clinging to the sides of dizzyingly exposed mountainsides.üÿ These huts provide dinner, breakfast and picnic lunches to traveling skiers as well as offering them bunks complete with pillows, blankets and the occasional down comforter! This allows skiers on the trip to cross the Alps encumbered with nothing more than a small daypack on their back.
After considering all of our options, Andrea and I cached our skis behind a large rock and began the walk back down toward Bourg Saint Pierre, while the rest of the group continued with the other guide to the Velan hut. Upon reaching the village, we stopped in a small café to inquire about where exactly we might purchase some climbing skins. In a pantomimed conversation in French, we were told that we would need to travel to another nearby town. A friendly local offered us a ride there. After a half hour's drive to Orsierre, we found the sports shop closed for the afternoon from 1- 3 p.m.
Ski touring in the Alps is not the wilderness experience one can find here in the North Cascades. Due to the accessibility of the mountains in Europe, many more people can be found recreating in what would otherwise be an incredibly rugged and forbidding mountain range. A good example is the Aiguille du Midi. This 12,600 rock spire has a tram that carries visitors over 9,000 vertical feet to its summit in two stages. The second stage is the longest single span cable car in the world rising over 5,000 vertical feet without a single intermediate support tower! This allows skiers, climbers and sightseers unparalleled access to the high mountains. üÿMany skiers begin a trip on the Haute Route with a warm-up day skiing the Vallee Blanche from the top of the Aiguille du Midi. This 9,000-foot, 12 mile, completely downhill run delivers skiers all the way back to the town of Chamonix. The tour is completed by scores of people on most days throughout the winter and spring months.
The accessibility does not temper the fact that these are big and tempestuous mountains. While none of the terrain on the Haute Route is very difficult by resort standards, skiers can expect to encounter a wide variety of snow and weather conditions. Skiers who chose to ski the route unguided should be well versed in whiteout navigation, glacier travel and avalanche forecasting. While the tour can seem like a casual stroll through a giant mountain theme park in perfect weather, it can quickly turn very serious in the event of bad weather or high avalanche hazard.
A typical day on the tour begins quite early. Skiers usually wake between 5 and 6 a.m. for a light breakfast of coffee, bread and jam. During the main ski mountaineering season, the snow conditions are usually best in the morning and early afternoon hours, and therefore, groups are leaving the hut by 6 to 7a.m. The days are spent climbing on skins up glaciers, over cols and down into adjacent valleys toward that day s destination hut. The days usually range in time from 5 to 10 hours depending on the distance and the conditions, though the goal is to reach the hut by early to mid afternoon. This allows skiers time to relax, dry out gear, and enjoy a cold beverage on the deck outside the hut before dinner. Dinners in the huts are usually hearty meals that begin with soup and bread. This helps skiers re-hydrate from the days activity. Drinking water is available at the huts, though typically only in the form of bottled water.üÿ Since it is heavy and needs to be helicoptered in, the water is often almost as expensive per liter as wine. Thus many folks opt for wine instead with dinner. The soup is followed by a filling stew or casserole with meat and vegetables and often a small green salad. Finally a dessert of canned fruit or pudding finishes the meal. Skiers then crawl into the assigned bunkroom and turn in before another day on the route.
After more negotiations in French, our accommodating driver called the shop owner and explained our situation. The owner opened the store and allowed us to shop for a new pair of skins. Unfortunately, they did not have any that would fit Andrea's skis. Wanting to try and help us, the owner called a nearby shop and arranged for that owner to open up for us. Our driver dropped us off at this shop as the grumpy owner begrudgingly let us in. This shop had skins that would work, though they were only sold in bulk and they would need to be cut and trimmed to fit the skis. This was not going to be possible as we had left our skis hours away up in the mountains. This shopkeeper spoke no English whatsoever and I struggled in French to beg him to cut us a few lengths of skin and let us trim them ourselves. He steadfastly refused to do it and once again it seemed we were at a dead end
While there are many spectacular days on the Haute Route, few can compare with the final day skiing into Zermatt. This is one of the longest days on the tour, crossing three cols, seven glaciers and over 19 miles of distance. The beauty of the day is that while skiers will climb over 3,500 vertical feet in reaching the three cols, they are rewarded with descents of over 7,500 vertical feet.üÿ It demands a very early start (usually just before sunrise) and finishes by joining the slopes of the Zermatt ski area by mid afternoon. This is the first time since the beginning of the trip in Bourg St Pierre that skiers will return to the sights and smells of spring flowers and pine trees. Most folks are also quite excited by the prospect of a hot shower as well.
Finally, Andrea begins to weep and pleads with the shopkeeper to sell us the skins. She assures him that being a guide, I am fully capable of trimming them to fit her skis. With a snort, he grumbles under his breath, clips two sections of skins and rings us up. As we turn to leave, anticipating hitchhiking back to the trailhead, the shop keeper orders us to follow him. Curious, we follow him out back and into his car, where he proceeds to drive us all the way back to the trailhead into the mountains. He even had a key to a gate that saved us almost an hour of hiking. We thanked him profusely and headed off to find our skis and catch up with the rest of our group. We wound up trimming her skins with a leatherman tool, and while it was not my best work, the skins worked great. We climbed up toward the Velan hut wondering about the adventure the rest of the group had skiing the slopes of Mt Velan earlier that day. When we arrived at the hut, we still had 20 minutes until dinner and the group had wine waiting for us. As we toasted our reunion and recounted our unlikely adventure in the nearby villages, I couldn t help but think how much I love ski touring in the Alps.