January 19, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the first 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.
Expectations can be a powerful thing, especially after 40 years. I was 11 in the early 1970s. I remember, as that is when I began to read ski magazines. Growing up in a small town in New York’s Catskill Mountains, I fixated over every issue, looking at the images of the great ski mountains of the Western USA and awe-inspiring Alps. I knew that my local ski hill, dug into a river gorge, below a highway and opposite a gravel pit, was not going to be my skiing future.
But it was within these magazines, between ads for Humanic and Kneissl, where I learned of the Haute Route. When I pleaded with my parents, who were not skiers, to take me to bigger ski areas, I thought to myself that someday I would take my child everywhere to ski, especially this amazing Haute Route. The details are now fuzzy with time, but the impact remained deep within me and I knew that someday I would fulfill this destiny.
1991:Turn the clock ahead 20 years. I was living in Vail and my son Stefan was moments from being born. I was going to be a father! On that day in January, with my newborn son minutes old, I whispered “when you graduate, we are doing the Haute Route.”
So what is this Haute Route? First successfully completed in 1911, the 110-mile Haute Route (High Road) crosses the highest, most dramatic peaks of the Alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland, connecting the two spiritual homes of mountaineering and most famous peaks: Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. It is the most famous ski-touring route in the world. It requires good weather, snow conditions and a strong physical effort to complete. Because of this, roughly half of the skiers do not complete it. The journey crosses many glaciers and has a strong ski mountaineering component, which is why it usually requires an experienced guide.
With that, another 20 years of waiting began. And what a 20 years it would be: a rollercoaster resulting from divorce and an archaic legal system that allowed my son to be taken from his home in Colorado to a small town in New York. It tested every aspect of life, but I always placed my trust in karma, and despite losing the usual divorce battles, I could still “win” the war, such as it is. It just required patience and fate to run its course. Perhaps my son would look out his window in New York and wonder, like me, that there must be more than this?
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2011: Stefan was attending the University of Colorado and, as fate would have it, had become a strong skier with a love of the mountains. On the other hand, I was now a member of the 50+ Club. Would I be able to handle the physical effort of the tour? Would Stefan, at 21, have the experience and patience for the tour, as few people his age have ever attempted it? Well, we had one year to make sure. The planning began in earnest.
A factor in a successful tour is having your own team of like-minded skiers, otherwise you are at the mercy of the weakest skier in a group. So the call went out to put together our team. First in was former Chamonix resident Perry Johnson. Perry, a French speaker and photographer who lives most of the year divided between Edwards and Siesta Key, Florida, has the distinction of being in the first car through the Mt. Blanc tunnel. After the ISPO Ski Show in Munich, both Perry and I headed to Val Gardena, Italy, to recruit the next member, Boulder architect Mike Folwell, who was living in Grenoble, France, at the time.
Next was John Goss, a Denver-based Master’s ski racer. John is a strong skier who would be making his first trip to the Alps. That left one spot available. With work, family and limited vacation time, many who expressed interest began to pull back. Mike was finally able to recruit Denver-based Kevin Duncan. Now the team was complete, or was it?
A friend of a friend, Rob Leipheimer (brother of cyclist Levi Leipheimer), was scheduled to do the Haute Route in 2011 and recommended his guides, Swiss Martin Volken who, as the cliche goes, “wrote the book on” back country skiing, and Mike Hattrup, star of Greg Stump ski films such as the “Blizzard of Ahhhs.” I had known Hattrup since the mid 1980s when my then company, Club A skiwear, was the supplier to the “Blizzard of Ahhhs” and “License to Thrill.” Hattrup’s first European ski experience was in Chamonix filming “Blizzard,” and he was so taken by the place that he went on to become a guide himself. Would my son have the same experience on his first visit to Chamonix?
After hearing Rob’s rave reviews with Martin and Mike, I quickly booked them for our trip, scheduled for Stefan’s spring break in late March of 2012.
As it turns out, nothing is ever set in stone. Perry notified us that he would not make the trip. His son Andre, a top-ranked tennis player, had a schedule that would make the trip impossible. So we were down to five and it looked like that is where it would stay. As we faced the worst snow year in Colorado history, Europe was set to have its best. Facebook posts coming out of Europe quickly confirmed it was an epic year in the Alps.
2012:I set out to find a guide who would take us to climb and ski some of the classic Chamonix routes. I contacted everyone I knew with a history in Chamonix, including Glen Plake and “Edge of Never” writer-director Bill Kerig; the man to get was unanimous: Get “Fan Fan.”
When you hear about Chamonix’s legendary guides, invariably Stephane “Fan Fan” Dan will pop to the head of the conversation. His resume runs from legend Patrick Vallencant’s Stages Vallencant to appearing in ski movies such as “Steep,” “Deeper,” “Edge of Never” and being James Bond’s double in “The World Is Not Enough.”
Still looking for a sixth member of the team, Martin ran into a former client on the flight to Geneva who, by chance, had all his gear with him. Peter Adamco, from Lake Tahoe, jumped at the opportunity.
Arriving in Chamonix under a sunny spring sky is an awe-inspiring experience. The vertical rise reaches nearly 13,000 feet with jagged peaks, icefalls and glacier walls on both sides of the valley and the massive Mont Blanc looming over all. Getting to our hotel early allowed us to head up the Le Brevent tram, grab lunch and scope out the spectacular views across the valley, our playground during the next two days. Watching Stefan and John react to their first time in Chamonix was priceless.
That night, Stefan, John, Martin and I enjoyed a traditional Savoy Raclette dinner anticipating our meeting with Fan Fan.
The next morning, we walked over to the Aiguille du Midi where Fan Fan was waiting. We then headed up the most spectacular tram in the world to the summit. Gaining access to the famous Vallee Blanche run requires walking down a steep and solid ice arete with exposure dropping nearly 9,000 feet into Chamonix! Fan Fan quickly led our group away from the classic route to ski the way more challenging Grand Envers du Plan. The run is riddled with crevasses, towering seracs and multiple steep pitches, a perfect way to start the trip, well almost perfect. Kevin tweaked the ankle that he broke before Christmas coming down the arete and discovered that skiing heavy snow with a pack on a 40-plus degree face would not help the situation. Kevin toughed it out and we made our way down, and despite the many hundreds of skiers getting off the tram, we saw only two others on our route.
Back in Chamonix we had a quick lunch and then piled into Fan Fan’s car for an afternoon at his home village of Le Tour, to ski the steep backside into Vallorcine. After beers at Les Rhododendrons, we planned the next day’s adventure: going to Courmayeur, Italy, to ski the towering face of La Tour Ronde.
Check back next week to read more.
Barry Levinson is a long-time resident of the Vail Valley, the founder of Ski Racing Development (www.skiracingdevelopment.com) and part-time private ski instructor at Vail.