Rich Meyer, Shasta Mountain Guide, AIARE Instructor, and Alpenglow Sports ambassador, recently guided the uber-classic Haute Route from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. Rich’s trip, a must-do for any backcountry ski enthusiast, is documented from the perspective of the professional mountain guide. Accordingly, Rich offers great tips for the aspiring Haute Route traveler and gets any ski enthusiast fired up with his amazing photography. Enjoy! For more information on Rich Meyer and his future trips, click here.
Starting in Chamonix, France and ending in Zermatt, Switzerland, the Haute Route is often described as the ultimate European ski tour – and for good reason. It does not disappoint. There are a handful of variations of the route and some serious terrain, but it is VERY accessible for experienced backcountry skiers. The Alps are littered with high elevation mountain huts that allow you to travel from hut to hut with a very light pack. This is NOT backpacking on skis.
Ski touring from one glacier to the next, and from one hut to the next makes the Haute Route a unique experience. Most folks are blown away by the remote alpine beauty and massive terrain that doesn’t ever seem to let up. The tour culminates with a brilliant ski descent down to town of Zermatt, with views of the Matterhorn the entire way.
While it is possible to ski the route own your own, most skiers elect to do the trip with a guide. The benefits of going guided are plentiful. The serious alpine terrain requires expertise in ski mountaineering, route finding, glacier travel & crevasse rescue, avalanche awareness, whiteout navigation, and a host of logistical hurdles. Those logistics alone might be reason enough to hire a guide.
Most guided adventures begin in Chamonix with a classic ski of the Valle Blanche. The Aiguilles du Midi Tram can take you from town to over 12,600 ft in 20 min! If the stunning views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding peaks aren’t enough to blow you away, the heavily glaciated ski run back down to Chamonix will. This day is often used to access skills, acclimatize, and prep guests for the next seven days of ski touring.
After another night in Chamonix most parties begin the Haute route with another tram ride boost up to 10,700 ft at the Grand Montets ski area. Once folks ski out onto the Argentiere Glacier it is a succession of high mountain passes and huts all the way to Zermatt, over 100 miles away.
The Huts all have their own unique character and design. All await your arrival with treats like cold beer and Rosti, both of which are an excellent choice after a day of ski touring. “Rosti” is a Swiss-German dish of potatoes, often served with cheese, onions, bacon/ham, and the occasional fried egg on top!
As you might expect, most days begin early with a basic breakfast and an amazing sunrise, with the goal of moving safely and efficiently thru the day’s objectives. Managing the peaks, passes, glaciers, avalanche hazards, and other dangers requires due diligence.
Some days might cover as much as 10-20 miles and 3000-4000 vertical feet of climbing, others much less. Along the way you might summit a 3rd or 4th class peak like the Rosablanche, or rappel down from the Col du Chardonnet. Each has its own character. The high point of the tour is the summit of Pigne d’Arolla (12,455 ft) on the way to the Vignettes Hut.
After arriving at the hut there is typically plenty of time to hang out with new friends, enjoy a cold beverage, go for a little bonus ski tour, take a nap, or just relax on the sunny deck. The final day of the tour takes you (literally) into the town of Zermatt. Where you could easily hang out for days skiing and relaxing under the watchful eye of the Matterhorn. Don’t worry, your guide has arranged for your bags to be waiting for you.
Sound good? Here are some tips for your Haute Route adventure:
Bring the right gear. This alone can make or break your trip. You will enjoy the trip significantly more if you ditch many of those little extras. Think fast and light! Don’t worry: the huts will provide pillows, blankets, hut shoes, and all the food & drink you need. Keep in mind; it’s perfectly acceptable to hang out in smelly ski clothes. That’s what the guys at the table next to you are doing.
Consider skis 85-95 mm under foot and not too long. To quote a long time ski mountaineering friend, “Of course you can turn a longer/fatter ski, the question is whether you need to?” For this years trip I brought a pair of K2 Sideshow Skis that were 92mm under foot, and only 181cm – a small ski for me. I also used Dynafit bindings and Dynafit ski crampons, which are very light and very durable. Along with C.A.M.P. light aluminum crampons and ice axe.
Practice your ski touring skills. Good skinning technique is learned and comes with a lot mileage… Especially those kick turns!
Be prepared for all conditions. You will inevitability encounter variable snow and weather. Some days will be epic corn and powder, some will not. Be ready for: cold, wind, sun, firm snow, wet snow, whiteout travel, and all sorts of crusts in between. This year I partnered with Dave Miller (Good friend and fully certified IFMGA guide) and we had to divert into a local town so as to avoid a really nasty storm! Having a well-prepared tour plan and the appropriate gear made it a minor inconvenience, instead of an epic.
Get out there and get after it! Photo Credits: Chris Carr