A dream becomes reality
February 2, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series of three stories about a 2012 father-son trip to the Alps to climb the Haute Route, a 110-mile journey that crosses the highest, most dramatic peaks of the Alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.
Finally a colder and windy day! As we set out from the Pra Fleuri hut we immediately headed straight up the Col des Roux. I have always been one who would rather shiver than sweat and I was now in my element. We flew up the col, passing everyone who left before us and quickly reached the summit. From there we dropped down to above Lac du Dix and traversed across a massive avalanche debris field in still frozen morning conditions. I think we made this traverse in record speed as our group skiing ability enabled us to blow past everyone. This was absolutely brutal conditions but for me, it was one of the most fun parts of the trip thus far. In fact there was a long stretch where all the other groups stopped to put their climbing skins on for crossing the flats while we simply skated and poled by them at full speed, arriving at the next col 40 minutes faster than our guides had ever made it before. There’s a short, steep slope to gain known as the Pas de Chat and we later arrived at the amazing 100-year-old Dix Hut under wonderfully warm sunshine.
After a lunch of, you guessed it – Rösti – Stefan found the hut guitar and set up on the expansive outside deck and played for what seemed like hours as people gathered around him to listen, nap and dry out in the sun. At this point we have had seven-straight days of clear skies. Before the trip we jokingly hoped for one day of nasty weather just to add some drama to the trip. That day was just around the corner.
Morning at the Dix Hut means hot tea, coffee, bread and jam. While the dinners at the huts were awesome, the breakfasts were a little disappointing. I brought a variety of energy bars, gels and blocks, as well as energy powder for my water bottle. Be warned all the supplies for the huts must be helicoptered in and that means heavy bottled water is expensive at 8 to 10 Swiss Francs per 1.5 litre bottle! I also brought many packs of Emergen-C to try and fend off any colds as they spread through the huts like the plague. In most of the huts it was dorm-like sleeping (bring earplugs!). The huts do offer a nice lunch package to take on the trail but they are bulky and expensive. Since we seemed to be making it to the huts around or before lunchtime, a big lunch on the trail seemed like an unneeded indulgence. That being said I regret not stocking up on the amazing charcuterie in Chamonix and Verbier.
As we set out for the Vignettes hut, we got our earlier wish. An almost complete whiteout fog rolled in overnight and with visibility reduced, we relied on our guides route finding ability to lead us through the minefield of crevasses. Almost daily you can find many ways to get killed on the Haute Route. While safety is always the No. 1 priority, accidents do happen every year. It’s quite a sensation traversing along a 40+ degree frozen slope on a 12-inch wide skin track in near zero visibility not knowing if you are on the edge of a massive precipice – only to find out later that you were!
From the Dix Hut we crossed the Glacier de Cheilon, and climbed the Glacier de Tsena Refien, at first steeply then flattening out near the Col de la Serpentine. Another steep climb leads to the slopes near the Col du Brenay, up to the Pigne d’Arolla at 3,796 meters (12,454 feet), the highest point on the trip, and then down to the Vignettes Hut. The variety of snow conditions on the descent towards the hut went from amazing to horrible in the span of two turns. The approach to the Vignettes Hut was something I looked forward too as it is perched on a huge cliff in a seemingly impossible location. After clambering over rocks and glacial ice we finally saw the hut pop out of the fog before us ,no more than 50 feet away; so much for the grand view.
The sun did break out later in the afternoon where we did a crevasse rescue clinic with our guides and finally got to walk out beyond the hut for some pictures of its dramatic location. Later at dinner we celebrated Mike’s 50th birthday with wine, cake and “Happy Birthday” sung in at least eight to 10 different languages! The longest day of the tour would be the following and final day, into Zermatt. It would be the culmination of a lifelong dream about to unfold, right as I was beginning to catch Stefan’s cold.
Few days in alpine ski touring would match this day. This was the longest day of the Route: 30km (19 miles), three cols, seven glaciers and 3,608 feet of ascent, with a pass beneath the north face of the Matterhorn. The 6,500-foot vertical glacier run down from the Col de Valpelline all the way into the town of Zermatt is a dramatic and awesome finish.
Leaving the Vignettes hut before sunrise we skied across the upper plateau via a long traverse by headlamp. I only got a few hours of sleep the night before as my cold kicked in big time and of course Stefan, now past his cold, slept like a rock. Despite this I felt very good on the first two climbs. After a brief “hold your breath” crossing through Italy I looked up to the long and final ascent knowing that at the top of the col nearly 40 years of anticipation will materialize into reality. It’s a very humbling and redemptive feeling that despite so many obstacles, a dream can come true just as imagined. Call it fate, destiny or karma, but I was living the actualization of a dream becoming reality, and I was an emotional wreck as I dragged myself up the final leg to the Col de Valpelline.
Adding to the emotional overload, I was feeling weaker by the second as my cold was hitting me full on. My group was awesome – they set a workable pace and Stefan prodded me along. As we were about to crest the final ridge, the rest of the group dropped back and allowed Stefan and I to cross over together arm in arm as the Matterhorn exploded into view before us. After six days of crossing the Alps both our group and my emotions literally reached the peak and I dropped to my knees shaking and let my emotions and happiness pour out. All that was left now was the awe-inspiring run into Zermatt, down the Stockli glacier in the shadow of the Matterhorn.
Unshaven, sweaty and I am sure quite smelly, we headed to the rather fancy Stafelalp restaurant where we clamored in among the jet-set for a final and well-earned lunch. We toasted the completion of the journey while anticipating a very long and hot shower at the hotel.
That evening, as I walked with Stefan along the streets of Zermatt, I thought about how this trip linked not only the two greatest alpine villages in the Alps, but how it linked me with a dream from my childhood. Now that dream was passed on to my son despite so much that conspired against it. It was a reaffirmation of all the sacrifice made over the past 20 years. I can only now imagine a future grandchild experiencing the same moment.
Barry Levinson is a longtime resident of the Vail Valley, the founder of Ski Racing Development and part-time private ski instructor at Vail.