“Respecting the Massif” published in Global Adventure. Surviving the Haute Route, an Alps mountaineering ski tour from Chamonix to Zermatt.
The Haute Route . . . Really?
Every winter for ten years, my friends and I had toyed with off-piste skiing by cutting the corners of black runs. Then someone took a drunk conversation too far and we committed to a hundred kilometer, seven day Haute Route attempt, incorporating 5900m of ascent skiing the Alps between Chamonix and Zermatt.
It began at Christmas when we’d hired a guide, Martin, to take us on some easy, but genuine off-piste couloirs. While waiting for us at the lift, Martin, a distinguished looking British gent, rocked softly on his ski-boots, with his hands clasped behind his back. He reminded me of the wise owl Professor Yaffel from Bagpuss, but once on the snow he looked anything but a wooden bookend come to life.
Lean and fit, he seemed unchallenged by environment and under his wing our confidence blossomed. Dangerously so, as it wasn’t long before Rob – the skiing alpha-male of our gang – mentioned the Haute Route. Martin replied, “I’m your man,” and before you could say “that French lager is too strong,” a date was set in April.
A Fools Parade
April arrived quickly. Was I nervous? Without doubt. When we gathered at the top of the Grand Montets lift, I wondered how each of us would cope. Rob and Pete, both hardy Welshman, lived by the maxim, ‘Let adventure take its course’, and would never surrender. Likewise Andy, a climber. Sean and myself, although less susceptible to summit fever, were equally determined to finish, but at a more gentlemanly pace.
I knelt down, fastened my boots, double-checked my harness, set off and crashed immediately, finding it difficult to control the soft boots, springy skis and heavy rucksack. As I spat out snow it was reassuring to look up and share a conspiritual laugh with Pete and Sean as they also cleaned snow out of their goggles.
We regrouped, fitted our skins and set off in an orderly line up the Col du Chardonnay. I arrived at the top after six hours of scary single-leg balances required by the zigzag turns up the icy face. But we had little time to dally and fitted our crampons for a hundred meter abseil.
After the abseil we had to bootpack and then ski a traverse. I was beginning to wonder bitterly if we would actually do any downhill skiing. I couldn’t believe my ears when we arrived at the Trient Hut and Robin and Pete pointed to a peak and enthusiastically proclaimed, “We’ll have a cup of tea and then bag that.” Martin quickly asserted his authority, “Get in that hut NOW!”
He knew, at 3000m, it was no playground – something we would discover for ourselves a few days later.
The next morning we eagerly launched into the first downhill of the tour. It was great to feel the cut of my edges and, even though the snow wasn’t champagne powder, I enjoyed the challenge.
An Alps Mountaineering Team is Born
During the scorching sunshine of the following two days we continued the pattern of long climbs and thrilling descents. We summited the 3336m Rosablanche and left our signatures on virgin powder – the squiggles weren’t perfect, but when bouncing along, it felt like video material.
As we traveled deeper into the high Alps our appreciation of their immensity grew. In the sweet air, avalanches echoed sublimely off towering cliffs and for miles in every direction, all we could see was mountains. The tour had become a multi-skilled, alps mountaineering challenge, rather than just search for powder. Each col and different type of snow successfully negotiated was a tremendous kick.
Martin helped us with our technique and had changed role from guide to friend. He was beginning to laugh at the sleep starved, guffawing in-jokes we blurted out at breakfast. He was even seeing the funny side of Rob’s ceaseless enthusiasm. A strong sense of camaraderie had developed and we were having fun. . .[The above is an extract]