The Haute Route almost killed me

Trip Start Mar 01, 2009
Trip End Nov 01, 2010

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Flag of Switzerland  , Swiss Alps,
Sunday, April 12, 2009

In a nutshell, the Haute Route is an old path used to cross the alps,
and get from town to town, during winter by farmers, traders and any
nutcase who fancied it since 1911.

Nowadays, it's the worlds most coveted ski tour where skiers tour from
5-10 days staying at mountain huts, usually starting in Chamonix,
France and ending in Zermatt, Switzerland.

The Haute Route was the most hellish experience that I'd ever been through. It was also the most satisfying trip I've ever completed.

Half way through last year Nigel (good old college friend) Neil (younger brother) and I signed up with a chamonix guide service to do the Haute Route. That was about all the preperation we did and apparently we should have done quite a lot more.

The tour involves:
1. skiing down glaciers,
2. skinning up glaciers,
3. climbing slushy, near 90 degree slopes (called 'Cols' or 'Couloirs'), to get over ridges with skis strapped to your backpack and
4. climbing vertigo inducing ladders bolted into cliffs while wearing skiboots.
5. Staying in mountain huts along the route

I completely underestimated how hard this ski tour was going to be. In fact I'd been going out pretty late most nights leading up to the start of the trip and could have done with a few extra good nights sleep before it kicked off.

We had booked the trip through a mountaineering agency called "Icicle", they're meant to provide all the basics for the trip - they book the mountain huts, supply a mountain guide and provide some brief training on what to do if you fall down a crevasse in a glacier.

Our mountain guide was constantly smiling and upbeat Italian guy called Stefano, you'd think he'd be one of the guys thats impossible to piss off. His constantly smiling upbeat demeanor was tested many times by the unfit and underprepared Trickett brothers.

The other guys in our group were an English family - Father, Son and Daugter. They were far more prepared and shared the same inexplicable constant upbeat nature as our guide - totally admirable, they never said a single negative thing the entire trip.

On the other hand, Nigel, Neil and I had absolutely no problem complaining like little school girls at any opportunity from half way through day 1 - my boots hurt, I cant feel my toes, can we stop for a break...etc.

We did so much complaining that from day 1 we kicked off the complaining contest between the 3 of us - the person who complained the most bought the first round of beers that night. For the start of the day we were careful not to complain too much but later in the day it was all to easy to forget about the contest and launch into some lengthy series of compliants that would annoyingly put waaaaay out in front... then when that person (usually Neil or I) had finished that complaint-athon the other guys would rub salt in the wound by letting you know that you'd just taken the lead as best complainer of the day...

Day 1 was the longest day. The day was one of those cloudless clear blue sky days, so when you're in the middle of a glacier the surrounding snow and ice works like a mirror and burns you from all directions. You sweat alot, drink alot and get exposure real easy.

We'd skied down from the top of one of the Chamonix cable cars, crossed the Grand Monets glacier and started skinning up the slope on the far side for about 2 hours. We had to climb up to the very top and scramble up a narrow icy chute, the Col, that was about 80 degrees steep.

When we went up the Col we were all roped together, wearing crampons on our boots and our skis were strapped to our backpacks. Going up this thing was tiring as hell and seemed to last forever, and asking Stefano for a break half way up wasn't an option, the longer we stayed on the slope, the more chance there was snow giving way and us lot falling down.

On day 1 we crossed 3 glaciers and ascended 2 Cols. At the top of the second one, Neil firmly stated, "I don't know if I'm up for this". His face was white, he was exhausted, dehydrated and probably had some exposure. For the rest of the day as we crossed the last glacier to the mountain hut, Nigel skied ahead of him and I skied behind him to pick up the pieces in case he wiped out.

We finally made it to the Mountain Hut around 5pm, we should have been there by 3. We all felt wasted as we gulped down our water. The English family traveling with us assured us they found it equally tiring but they accompanied that with phrases like, "that wasn't so bad?"

We got talking to some other travelers at the hut and swapped stories about previous skiing and training we'd done. When we said this was the first time we'd ever done any ski touring they gave us this 'You've got to be kidding me' look. At this point we figured out most people do a few easier tours before doing the Haute Route.

At this point, Nigel then reminded me that when he was booking the trip the first 2 mountaineering tour companies we applied to wouldn't take us because we had no touring experience. The 3rd, Icicle, said that if we couldn't get up the mountains, their mountain guides would pretty much drag us up them...

There's a network of mountain huts dotted all through the alps and they're used year round by skiers and summer hikers to stay in as they tour through the alps and they sleep dozens in a few large dorms and they serve hearty dinners and breakfasts. Each hut stocks the essentials, water, beer, wine, chocolate bars and blister kits.

All this stuff is flow in by helicopter every couple of weeks and it's priced purely on what's demanded the most. As a result, wine and beer is cheaper than bottled water.

Seeing one of these huts was the best thing of every day, it meant the day was over and you could kick back in the sun, relax and have a .... water. We'd have a beer or 2 later.

This process of skiing glaciers, skinning up slopes, climbing Cols and staying in Mountain Huts for a couple days then it got harder.

On day 3, we had to cross a ridge into another valley, but there was no Col to climb, just a long vertical steel ladder bolted into the rock leading up for 100ft. It was about 150ft to get to the top, but after 100ft the first ladder ends and we had to side step a few feet across to another ladder which led up the remaining 50ft.

It already sounds bad by any stretch but we when we were climbing these ladders we were wearing ski boots and had ski strapped to our back packs. Ski boots provide absolutely f**k all traction on ice cold steel ladder rungs, holding on tight took on a new meaning to me as I had to step across the gap from one ladder to the next.

When we got to the top we were all elated. The next day we figured out that this ladder climb was far easier than what we had to do to get into the next hut.

Cabin Bertoli was the final hut that we stayed in. We skinned up from 2000 meters to 3300 meters in really shitty weather to this hut. The hill we went up was steep, covered in a foot of fresh powder, the visibility was pretty low and the wind was blowing a gale.

The hut was perched up on the ridge of the mountain and, it was an absolute bitch to get into.

When we got to the top of the ridge the hut was still a couple hundred feet above us. We left our skis stuck in the snow against some rock outcrop where they'd be safe for the night. To get up to the hut we had to walk over rock ledges and up some ladders and stairs, it went something like this. The first rock ledge we had to walk this ledge that was about 1 foot wide, there was a chain bolted into the rock at waist level to hold onto and there was a 200 to 300 foot drop onto a snow and ice below. My hands were going numb as I was taking off the skis because it was so cold, but after a few meters on the ledge they were fine, I'm pretty sure my body was pumping most of the blood in my body deep into my hands to make my fingers work.

We had to shimmy across this ledge for a few meters, just holding onto the chain and trying not to look down until we got to a ladder that was almost vertical and went up about 80 ft. This was another one of those shitty metal ladders with round cold rungs, bolted into the rock, and again, we were still wearing ski boots so we had no grip.

When you're at the top of a steep ladder, most people would want to step onto something stable and flat. At the top of the ladder we had to step across a a 3 foot gap of nothing (that is a big drop into the valley below) to the next rock ledge. There was a chain to grab onto and a small foothold covered in snow where we could jam in the toe of a ski boot - this started the second rock ledge. The second rock ledge only had a 200ft-ish drop onto the rocks below, the ledge was still covered in snow and there was only another chain bolted into the rock to grab onto.

After the second rock ledge we reached the stairs at the side of the hut. The hut was 3 floors high and the absolute arsehole who designed the place put the front door on the top floor so we had to scale these really steep staircases that circled around the edge of the hut. The stairs were so steep that I could take only one step at a time. At this point my fingers were aching and cramping, and I could only think of how little grip my flat hard plastic soled ski boots had against metal fire stairs. It sucked but we all eventually got to the top.

We got into the hut around 3pm and between 3 and 7 I went back outside 3 times to go back up and down just the stairs that wrapped around the hut so I wouldn't be too nervous the next morning when we had to leave.

The next day we made it out of the hut after a very very very careful, and slow, descend back down to the skis and we got on our way to Zermatt. The whole day I was on a high that the trip was almost over and I'd soon be back in the regular world with no snow, skis, ladders or 300ft cliff drops.

I'd planned to take a few days extra in Chamonix or St Anton to finish off the ski season with a few more relaxing ski days but I had to fly back to Australia quickly for a few days so my current lasting memory of skiing for this last season was not the laid back, relaxed, 'drinking beer and hanging in a deck chair' day that I'd been hoping for - that will be next year.

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paulbirkett on

you must be truly mental are a total mentalist....well done on completing such an amazing challenge....Im surprised you bothered with the boots and skis...try it next year in flip-flops and bordies? Enjoy the rest of the trip Paul

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