Beating the Crowds on the Haute Route

The High Level Route, otherwise known as the Haute Route is possibly the most famous ski tour in the world. It attracts people from all over the world and anyone who is lucky enough to complete the journey from Chamonix to Zermatt will enjoy the memory for the rest of their lives. This the ultimate place for ski holidays.

Being famous it is often busy and unpleasantly hectic in the mountain huts. There are times when I have phoned to make the hut reservations with some trepidation, because I have been worried that they might be full.

The Haute Route.
Poschi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
All alone at the Trient Hut. Poschi – CC BY-SA 3.0

It was therefore with some amazement when I phoned to make the reservations for one trip this year because the Guardian of the Trient Hut, Thierry said, “Sorry, I am closing for the season. Everyone thinks there isn’t enough snow and I have no bookings.”

“But there is plenty of snow and the conditions are good aren’t they?” I asked. “I know that. You know that, but no one else seems to know that. I’ll leave you a box of food, there’s a stove and some wood. How does that sound?” offered Thierry.

When Reuben arrived from Britain, psyched and ready for the rigours of the Haute Route I welcomed him with one of those “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” type of questions.

“The good news is the weather forecast is improving. The bad news is the Huts are un-guarded and we will have to make do with the winter quarters.” I said

Reuben said nothing, which spoke volumes.

“Well, at least it will be quiet.” I said as an attempt to fill the silence.

Just how quiet the trip was to be was something I could not have anticipated.

On our first day which took us over the Col du Chardonnet to the Treint Hut we passed two people. We arrived at the Trient Hut to find our box of food with all sorts of goodies including a very good bottle of red.

Overnight it snowed a little which meant we had a powder descent down the beautiful Arpette Valley to the enchanting village of Champex.

The one unsatisfactory feature about the Haute Route (via the most commonly done variation) is the road break. Fortunately I had persuaded my wife, Jane to shuttle us to Verbier. We arrived to find the town closed. Nothing was open including the cable cars (normally you would take the cable car to reach the snow line).

The lack of cable car was not a problem…

…because Jane was equipped with a “state of the art” Land Rover Defender. With permission, we were able to drive up a track until we reached the snowline. Here we said our goodbyes, put our skis on and skinned up to the Mont Fort Hut. Again we were the only customers although we did find the Guardian doing the end of season cleaning. He was happy to cook us some dinner.

The next morning we woke up to 50 cm of fresh snow. A wonderful sight to downhill skiers but not necessarily that great to ski tourers, especially when there is only you to break trail. The day’s destination was the Prafleuri Hut normally five hours away. It took us eight. The fresh snow covered all the old tracks and we had the sense of the ultimate wilderness. But it was hard work, breaking trail was quite physically demanding.

The next day we decided we needed a rest from melting snow for our brews. We wanted someone else to cook our dinner so we headed for the village of Arolla for a night in a hotel. Even then, what is meant to be an easy day took us nine solid hours. Even at this late stage in the season it was still possible to ski all the way into the village. The only problem was that the village was deserted. No hotels open and no one to ask. Eventually after walking around like a couple of zombies we did find somewhere to stay. Importantly, the hotel had cold beer.

While drinking our beer we counted the number of people we had seen while actually on the mountain since leaving Chamonix.

This was not difficult. Four people in four days on the busiest ski touring route in the world.

So it was with some dismay when we arrived at our final mountain hut, the Bouquetins refuge, that there were people already there. There was a Mountain Guide I knew from Chamonix, his client who was a world famous Heart Surgeon called Marian Ivenesco who invented the artificial heart-valve and who had operated on Reuben’s best friend a few years back.

Marian was a remarkable character because he was still a very keen mountaineer at the age of 73.

We enjoyed a very sociable evening exchanging stories. At about 9.00pm we turned in, in anticipation of the final day to Zermatt.

The next morning was perfect–cold and clear. We breakfasted at 4.00am and were away soon afterwards. We arrived at the top of the final col to be greeted by the view of the Matterhorn and far below us Zermatt town.

All that remained was to ski down the valley under the huge north face of the Matterhorn.

Even though it was now the 16th May it was one of the best ski descents of the season. Every turn reminding us why we love skiing so much.

Eventually the snow ran out and we took our skis off for the last time. We were left with a hot two-hour walk into Zermatt. But this did not matter; we were as good as there. The elusive goal that is the Haute Route was in the bag.

As we walked down the track we started to pass more and more people. Reuben and I must have looked a little odd to these people carrying our skis through summer meadows. But if we looked out of place, the people coming towards us looked like they were from another planet. We passed loads of overweight people seemingly all with video cameras sticking out of their eye sockets, each one asking if we knew where the Matterhorn was. As anyone who is lucky enough to have been to Zermatt knows it is pretty impossible to miss!

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