Exploring the Haute Route huts
January 27, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the second 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.Fan Fan, our guide, met us early at our hotel for the short drive to Italy through the amazing Mont Blanc tunnel. Arriving in Courmayeur you immediately get the change in the vibe. Everyone met at a small caf with a very interesting bathroom before heading up the first stage of the tram, with full avalanche and mountaineering gear in tow. With serious stuff ahead, Stefan decided it was the perfect time to try his first espresso.After riding three stages to the Punta Helbronner summit, we skied down the opposite side of the valley from the Aiguille du Midi and skinned across the upper reaches of the Mer de Glace glacier to the base of the La Tour Ronde. As we took the climbing skins off our skis, put on our crampons and roped up for the steep climb up the couloir, a massive fog bank rolled in. After some mobile calls to other guides and getting a bad weather forecast, an earlier group began down climbing above us. Despite blue skies everywhere in the valley, we were getting shut out of this classic descent, one that requires an abseil into the 40-55 degree upper reaches of the couloir and a long steep drop onto the Brenva glacier back to Courmayeur.So, back down the Valle Blanche to Chamonix. Problem is that our two cars were still back in Italy! After a late lunch in Chamonix and with the vehicle rescue problem seemingly resolved, we set our sights on the next morning and the start of the Haute Route.
Our tour began with a bus ride to the base of the Grands Montets, followed by a two-stage tram ride to the summit. From the summit we skied onto the Glacier d’ Argentiere. Working our way around a myriad of crevasses, we skied down to the Col du Passon, avoiding the heavily trafficked Col du Chardonnet. Our route, though much longer, should avoid the bottlenecks going down the backside of the Chardonnet. At the top of the Col we broke out once again into sunshine, dropped down the backside onto the Glacier du Tour, followed by a long mellow skin across a wide valley to the base of the Col Suprieure du Tour into Switzerland. After a long and steep climb up the Col we dropped onto the massive Antarctica-like Trient Plateau for the long skin across to the Cabane du Trient. One more climb and we arrived at the hut, where our exertionm was forgotten as we took in the spectacular view. Our group was among the very first groups to arrive at the hut, (a pattern that would be repeated all week) which is perched high on a cliff above and facing the full expanse of the plateau. Since the huts are fully stocked and serviced (via helicopter) we ordered a lunch of cold Swiss beer and traditional Swiss Rsti (a large plate of hash browns topped with eggs, ham and cornichons). We let all the gear and ourselves dry out in the sun and relaxed, enjoying the passage of multiple groups of skiers crossing over to the hut late into the afternoon.The huts themselves are set in amazing locations, fully stocked and a fusion of international skiers – English, French, Swiss, German, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Italian, Swedish, Spanish and us, rare Americans – all settled in for a great dinner, wine and an early night packed in like sardines in the huts dorm-style sleeping quarters.
We set off from the Trient Hut around 7 a.m. for the initial descent down the Trient Glacier to the Col des Ecandies. The glacier, while not steep by our standards, was frozen solid with many crevasse holes. Several less-skilled skiers from an English group were roped together on this descent and seemed paralyzed with fear. Arriving at the Col des Ecandies we found the lower couloir devoid of snow and stripped to bare rock. As our guides seemed to have unwavering confidence in our abilities, we headed up with axe and crampons, but did not rope up. Knowing that several people are climbing right behind you, and that one slip means you will plummet down the Col amd take out everyone behind you, tends to focus your concentration to new levels. This is another no-fall zone, for sure under these conditions.At the top we took a brief break before setting off down the Val d’Arpette and then a long descent to the Village of Champex for a needed coffee break at a cafe along the lake and a taxi ride to the valley floor for the first of several trams to Verbier. It was sunny and warm as we arrived in Verbier where we took a two-hour break wandering the village before heading up to the Mont Fort hut for our second night.The Mont Fort hut lies within the Verbier ski area boundary, so we had a few on-piste runs before we settled in at the hut. Once again we were among the first groups to arrive so that meant more beer and Rsti! The hut was fairly deluxe and very well stocked, so we kicked back and enjoyed a great three-course dinner and our own private room. I think we were all asleep moments after our heads hit the pillow.
We awoke early and headed out onto the piste before veering off to begin climbing the Col de Chaux. The sun rose just as we crested the col and another clear and warm day was before us. From the col we traversed a long ridge and dropped down to the base of the valley for a long skin to the Col de Momin. We then encountered a very steep switchback climb that required the first use of our ski crampons and tested our marginal kick turn skills. Arriving at the col we again saw the Matterhorn far in the distance. After a quick water break we climbed to the summit of the nearby Rosablanche Peak at 3,336 meters/10,944 feet, again with axe and crampons and no rope. We headed down the backside of the Rosablanche and skied into a vast valley heading towards the Pra Fleuri Glacier. By now the sun was cooking us and the temperature was in the 60s. Stripped down to just my first base layer and wearing my vintage Vuarnet glacier glasses for the first time since the early 1980s, we skinned, switchbacked and traversed for what seemed like an eternity in the heat till finally the Pra Fleuri hut came into view far below us. At this point Martin, myself and Stefan, who was suffering from a cold he caught the day before, headed straight to the hut while Mike, John, Peter and Hattrup headed further up to ski down a snowfield above us. Built in an old quarry, the Pra Fleuri hut in the center of a huge bowl was a welcome sight. My clothing and boots were soaked with perspiration and it felt great to be relaxing in shorts and a T-shirt as once again we arrived long before the other groups. At this point, while I reclined in a chaise with a beer in hand, I could not help but be amazed at how fate, karma and sheer good fortune united to put me there. Check back next week for the third and final part of this series. Barry Levinson is a longtime resident of the Vail Valley, the founder of Ski Racing Development (www.skiracingdevelopment.com) and part-time private ski instructor at Vail.