A few days ago I got back from a successful trip on the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt. We left Chamonix on the morning of Monday, April 3rd 2017 and arrived to Zermatt on the afternoon of Sunday, April 9th.
While preparing for the trip, I found some equipment guides but all of them were quite old. In this post, I will lay out exactly what I took on the trip and some commentary that may help future travelers.
The Haute Route is one of the most famous ski mountaineering traverses. For good reason! It was truly incredible.
Backpack – Dakine Poacher 36L (3.1lbs) – This pack was perfect. It was comfortable, the right size, and had all of the features needed for ski touring. Some of the other equipment guides I had read recommended packs as small as 25L which I think is insane. I think I packed fairly well and I can’t imagine going to a pack much smaller than this. Even with a 36L, I still found it easier to strap some stuff on the outside during the trip instead of trying to get it all crammed into the pack on the mountain.
Reservoir – MSR DromLite Bag – I have an old DromLite reservoir that I put into the Poacher. I prefer to have reservoirs than bottles because it is easier to get small sips of water on the trail without waiting for water breaks. Even though the Poacher has an insulated sleeve, the hose and valve are still liable to freeze in cold weather. I forget about the blowback trick until about the third day of the trip! Even so, it doesn’t always work well and sometimes I had a frozen tube. Thankfully, we had a lot of sunshine and that usually took care of things. In general, we would each carry about 1 – 1.5liters of water for the day. The Dromedary was plenty big enough for my needs.
Thermos – S’well Bottle (0.7lbs) – I brought my swell bottle to use as a thermos and it was money. All the huts have some method to fill up a thermos with tea in the morning and the swell bottle kept it piping out through the cold morning/day. Adam (not me) ended up carrying the S’well bottle but we all shared the tea on the trail. I would highly recommend bringing a thermos to share tea among 3-4 people on the trip.
Puffy Jacket – Patagonia Down Sweater Hooded Jacket (15.1oz) – This is a really great jacket! It has 800 fill down and is very warm. Given our weather, I could have gotten away with a lighter weight synthetic jacket but I like to have a little extra warmth available in case of surprise bad weather conditions. I ended up wearing this jacket around the hut at night and in the morning. It was great to have a super warm jacket to throw on. I didn’t end up using it at all on the trail but that’s just because of our weather. Typically, I would throw on a puffy jacket when it is really cold and/or when we are stopped on the mountain.
Hard Shell – Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell Jacket (14.6oz) – We lucked out with 7 days of fantastic weather so this jacket actually didn’t see that much use. I think I put it on twice during the trip. That said, I am still very happy I had it. It worked great during those couple instances and in the more likely case that it rained, snowed or was very windy, this jacket would have come in very handy. The jacket runs a little small so I got a size up which was perfect (I am generally between a M and L for jackets).
Soft Shell – Arc’teryx Gamma MX Hoody (1.25lb) – This is a piece I had in the closet that was purchased 5-10 years ago. It’s pretty good and the new ones are probably even better. I actually don’t think my version is very warm or windproof but it’s what I got! For the majority of the time on the trip, I just wore this and a base layer on top. I wore the hood a lot, primarily as a sun protector.
Base Layer – Icebreaker Oasis LS Half Zip – I wore this every single day of the trip. Yup, seven days straight which included a whole lot of physical activity. Not once did I feel gross in it. I actually had never owned a piece of Icebreaker clothing prior to this trip but it came highly recommended so I went all-in. It was definitely the right decision. I would HIGHLY recommend this piece or a similar one from them to use as a base layer. I run in Patagonia Guide Shorts and those things stink after one use. Polyester is no bueno for this trip!
Base Layer, alternate – Icebreaker Tech Lite LS Crew – I brought a second base layer to use as a ‘hut shirt’ to be worn at night and could double as a backup top in case I wanted a change or the primary piece got dirty/wet. I ended up changing out of the Oasis half-zip and into this crew shirt a couple nights but then I got lazy and just stayed in the Oasis at night. I also bought a heavier base layer but ended up not bringing it on the trip.
Underwear – Icebreaker Anatomica Rib Boxers w/Fly– I brought 2 pairs on the trip but wore one throughout the entire trip. The second was a spare in case the first got dirty/wet or if I wanted to change mid-trip. Again, this merino stuff is incredible and I can’t recommend it enough.
Gaiter/Buff – Outdoor Research Catalyzer Ubertube (1.5oz) – This buff is a blend of merino wool and poly. It was great on the trip to provide a little warmth as well as to block the sun, depending on the situation. I didn’t start wearing it until the third or fourth day but then I couldn’t take it off!
Warm Hat – Uniqlo ‘wool’ Hat – I brought a warm hat but ended up not putting it on once. Instead I used a combination of a hat or helmet and buff and/or hood.
Sun Hat – Patagonia P-6 Trucker Cap – You can see this hat in virtually all of my pictures. It was on my head any time that I wasn’t wearing my helmet, which was virtually all the time. A trucker hat is probably not the best idea since the back has holes but it was just fine for me. Our guide had a bucket hat that he wore and others wore other types of sun hats. On some level, it is style preference. Bringing a hat of some kind is highly suggested.
Ski Helmet – Smith Holt – This was an item of big debate before the trip, to bring or not to bring! All of the gear guides that I could find on the internet did not mention bringing a helmet. Our guide said it was up to us if we wanted to bring one. He didn’t bring one. I ended up bringing my ski helmet but it was on my pack for about 90%+ of the time. I would estimate about 20% of the people we saw on the trail had a helmet.
Light Gloves – Mountain Hardwear Fleece Glove – I wore these 95% of the time on the trip. They served their purposes to shield from the sun and provide some warmth. I already had these so I brought them but I think there is probably a better option on the market now.
Warm Gloves – Marmot Randonnee Gloves – These are really great gloves that I bought for my first mountaineering trip on Rainier. I was glad I had them but didn’t use them a whole bunch except during a couple cold mornings.
Long Underwear Bottom – Uniqlo Heattech Long Underwear – I have some more high tech long underwear but these were clean when I was packing! They worked well and I wore them every day of the trip under my soft shell pants. Some guides say that long underwear bottoms are optional but I disagree. These were great to have on and during any other weather than what we had, I would 100% say long underwear bottoms are mandatory.
Hard Shell Pant – First Ascent – I brought my hard shell pants but never needed them so they stayed in my pack the entire trip.
Soft Shell Pant – Mountain Hardwear – These formed the outer layer of my bottom half for the entire trip. There were a couple of instances when the other guys went to a single layer on the bottom but I kept these on with my long underwear the whole way. It was a little warm at times but opening the zip vents helped and heat was more easily managed by changing layers on top than on bottom.
Socks – SmartWool PhD Ski Medium Sock – I wore these all 7 days on the trip and also brought a second sock of the same type but in the light weight. I opted to wear the medium sock primarily because of boot fit, not warmth. I also brought a pair of Uniqlo synthetic wool socks to wear in the hut. Bringing these ended up being a great idea because I could then hang up my sweaty ski socks to dry (or put them in the sun) without going completely sockless. It was also nice having a pair of warm, dry socks for the hut. I probably didn’t need to bring three pairs of socks but I think bringing at least two pairs was a good idea.
Skis – Scott Cascade 95mm (2.9lbs) – I rented skis, skins, poles, and ski crampons from Ravanel in Chamonix. They are a well-respected outfitter in the area and the rental process went very smoothly. They had a couple of skis to choose from but the rental agent suggested the Scott’s as the best mix of weight and flexibility. In the end, I think they were a great choice (even though Scott is not exactly the first name I think of in touring skis). There is a lot of talk about what is the ideal width for a multi-day ski tour such as the Haute Route on the internet. We also talked about it a lot on the trip. I think this 95mm was great but definitely at the wider end of the spectrum of what is needed. Anything wider is totally unnecessary and is just extra weight to carry up the mountain. Most of the guides I saw on the route were rocking 85mm to 95mm waist widths. Our trip was 90%+ uphill, 5% traverse, and 5% downhill. None of the downhills were in waist deep powder! We had some good snow on a couple sections but any ski above 85mm would have been great. Even if it was snowing like crazy the whole trip, I still don’t think anything above 95mm would have been worth it. The Scott skins that came with the package worked fine. I don’t have much experience with other setups so I can’t comment much on the details.
Bindings – Dynafit Radical 2 ST (1.3lbs)- These were part of the ski package that I rented so I didn’t exactly have many choices. When looking at purchasing bindings prior to the trip, these seemed to be one of the most popular. My experience is that they worked well and I never had any issues. It was easy to flip up or down the heel lift while on the go. On the trail, I saw all kinds of bindings including frame bindings and ultra-minimal tech bindings with no brakes. I wouldn’t suggest either of these if you can help it. Having a brake is worth the extra weight and frame bindings are just a drag.
Boots – Dynafit TLT7 Expedition CR (2.5lbs each) – I bought these boots a couple of weeks before the trip and had a grand total of one day in them before heading out to Chamonix. A bit risky, for sure. I was on the fence as to whether I wanted to buy a complete touring setup or rent. In the end, I decided to buy the boots and rent the rest. We spent A LOT of time in our boots and it was definitely worth it to get my own boots. I tried on at least 5 different pairs at the boot store and the TLT7’s felt the best. The standard insoles didn’t provide any support for my high-arched foot but I fixed that with a new footbed. There was also some pressure on the top of my foot but this was relieved on the mountain when my foot flattened out and the insole packed out a bit. I opted to buy 1 full size larger than my (very tight) alpine boots which provided the right amount of space for extended touring. At first, I felt super wobbly going downhill in the boots but I got used to it and also dialed in the buckle pressure as I skied in them on the trip. In general, I liked these boots a lot. They are very light and have some unique features. The walk mode is excellent and are quickly switched from walk to ski. I never had a problem of accidentally going from one mode to the other. The longevity of the cable system concerns me a little bit but everything worked as expected on the trip. The boots are definitely not super stiff but that’s to be expected from a touring boot on the light side of the spectrum. One thing that I forgot to take into account is how much having a 25lb+ backpack changes the pressure on the boots and skis. My first downhill section in full gear was a big wake-up call! I could put a lot more pressure on my boots and the lighter flex was much more apparent. Again, I got used to it but it is something to think about. Fun fact, our guide also had TLT7s and wore them throughout the trip! One important thing with these boots that I am very glad I caught is that they need an adapter to work with ‘automatic’ crampons. The crampons I own were of this style so I needed this adapter kit to make my new TLT7s work with them. I bought the kit ahead of time but putting them on was not super easy. The hardest part is removing the stiff front wire bail of the crampons which is, at best, a bit treacherous without the right tools and equipment. I would suggest getting the ski shop to do this on their bench or doing it in a workshop that has a vice and a large screwdriver or prying tool. I had neither so I was stuck doing it in the hotel room with a Leatherman.
Insoles – Sole Performance Thin Insoles – I bought these at REI the day I flew out to Geneva. The folks at Ravanel helped me get them cut and fit into my boot once I got to Chamonix. These insoles felt really really good from day 1. I didn’t have any major foot or leg problems on the trip and I didn’t get a single blister! The bottom of the insoles are cork and they both have cracks near the ball of the foot so I am a little worried about longevity but we’ll just have to see.
Crampons – Black Diamond Sabretooths (1lb 15oz per pair) – I had these from previous trips. As I previously mentioned, I had to modify them with the TLT7 Crampon adapter kit. Once installed, they worked fine with my TLT7 boots. We used the crampon’s sparingly on the Haute Route. They were probably on the boots for less than a couple hours total over the entire trip. Some guides say aluminum crampons are fine and others say steel are mandatory. Given how little we used the crampons, I think either would have been fine. I definitely wouldn’t buy special AL crampons just for this trip just to save grams.
Shovel/Ice Axe – BCA Shaxe Speed Shovel (1lb 11.2oz total) – This is a shovel and ice axe set that shares a common shaft to save some weight. I didn’t use the shove (thankfully!) and only used the axe a couple of times. If you really wanted to save some weight, you could probably skip the axe for the trip (assuming some other folks in your group have one) but obviously a shovel is mandatory. I think the Shaxe is a great option because most of the time you can keep it in axe mode and in an emergency, the shovel is there for you. It also packs up much more nicely than a separate axe and shovel set.
Probe – BCA Stealth 240 Carbon Probe (7.6oz) – I found a good deal on this lightweight carbon probe so I bought it.
Beacon – Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Transveiver – (7.4oz) – Our guide gave me this to borrow for the trip. It was on at all times that we were not on hut premises. This was also the one thing that the guide would check each morning to make sure it was on and working properly.
Harness – Black Diamond Harness – I borrowed a basic harness from our guide instead of using my own. I have a Petzl climbing harness but opted to not use it to save a couple of ounces. Any harness would be fine as long as it is in good condition. Note, we always wore a harness and had our beacons on any time we were outside of the hut.
Sleeping Bag Liner – Rab 100% Silk Sleeping Bag Liner (4.8oz) – I already had a cotton sleeping bag liner but I opted to get this 100% silk version in a moment of weakness to save some size/weight. It wasn’t cheap but it was worth it. The silk liner is very comfortable and compared to my cotton one, it is tiny and super light. I got the standard version that is just a rectangle because the mummy was sold out but if I had the option, I would get one with a hood/pillow. Getting a liner of some sort is mandatory for the huts.
Glacier Glasses – Julbo Micropore Glacier Glasses – I like the old school varieties of glacier glasses with the leather side-shields. These have worked out for me on a few trips but then when we got back to Chamonix I spotted some super cool Vuarnets. Those are coming on my next big trip, for sure!
Ski Goggles – Oakley Ski Goggles – I actually never used these once. The other guys busted out there goggles when it was snowing one morning but it was light enough that I didn’t mind using my glacier glasses. It was still a good idea to bring them though because if it was super windy or precipitating hard, ski goggles are a must.
Toothbrush and Toothpaste – I bought a cheap travel toothbrush and a small container of toothpaste for the trip. Alternatively, you could do what a lot of folks do which is to use a regular toothbrush and cut off the extra length of the handle.
Emergency Blanket/Bivy – SOL Emergency Bivy (3.8oz) – I always like to have some form of emergency blanket on me when travelling in the backcountry. This time, I bought an emergency bivy which is basically the same as a space blanket but you can actually get inside of it. It is very small and not too heavy. This can save you or your buddies life so I think it is well worth the extra ounces in the pack.
First-Aid Kit – My first aid kit started life as a off-the-shelf kit that I have added to and subtracted from over the years.
Diamox – This is a prescription drug that helps mitigate the effects of high altitude. After doing trips with and without Diamox, I don’t mess around with not taking it any more.
Cloth Tape – I used simple tape on my feet to prevent blisters. It’s not as good as moleskin or second skin but it is a lot better than nothing. This tape comes with me on all trips and is something I usually keep in my backpack. I also brought moleskin in case I did get a blister on the trip.
Sunscreen – Sawyer Stay-Put System 2 Sunscreen SPF 50 – This stuff was very impressive. I usually would apply sunscreen once in the morning and maybe some reapplication during the day. As I mentioned earlier, we had A LOT of sunshine with a nearly cloudless sky most of the time. It was a big test for this sunscreen and it held up very well. I didn’t get a single bit of sunburn during the trip. I also tried to use clothing to cover my skin, when possible.
Lip Protection – Carmex – I used a tube of Carmex on the trip but also put the Sawyer sunscreen on my lips each day. This was my first mountaineering trip without destroyed lips, despite 7 consecutive days of sunshine! Most of the credit goes to the Sawyer sunscreen, I think.
Camera – Sony A7R II full-frame mirrorless camera and Sony 16-35mm F4 lens – I have been shooting with Canon DSLRs for over 10 years now and over the last couple of years have been itching to get into the mirrorless game. With this trip coming up, I finally bit the bullet and picked up this class-leading Sony. I rented the lens just for the trip. The benefits of this combo is that it is about a pound lighter than my Canon setup and has a lot more tech. The 42.4 MP back-illuminated CMOS sensor is insane and was ideal for the huge landscapes on the trip. I was also very happy with my choices of lenses to bring. I thought about bringing a prime to cut down on some weight but the zoom offered a good amount of flexibility for the mountains. I also saved some weight by choosing the slower F4 version instead of a much bulkier F2.8 version. I never needed more stops on the trip so I don’t think I was at all limited by a lens that only went to F4. It could have been nice to have a portrait lens for the huts but oh well. One of the big complaints about the camera is that the battery life is terrible and it is slow to zoom review and save to the memory card. All of these things are true but that didn’t stop me from taking plenty of photos on the trip. I kept a second, fully charged, battery in my internal chest pocket to keep it warm and in case I needed it. I also was very diligent about not doing too much review on the mountain, in the cold, in order to limit the time that the camera was turned on. There are a lot of dumb UI/UX things about the camera but I wont go into them here. Maybe I will write a full review in a separate post. I also brought a 10,000 mAh external battery to use to charge in the case that I couldn’t get power in the huts. Even though most of the huts had power, I liked using the battery to charge because then I didn’t have to rely on the irregular power situations at the huts and I also didn’t have to leave my very expensive camera in the public eye next to the visible outlets. Instead, I could charge the camera in the security of my bag and if necessary, charge the boring external battery at the hut outlets.
Camera Bag – Mindshift Ultralight Camera Cover 10 – This was a new bag setup for me on the mountain. The camera and lens combo just barely fit in the case but I probably needed the next size up. The case is very simple and has almost no structure to it. It was okay on the mountain but not great. Frankly, I dont think there is a great solution out there and I am tempted to fix that by making something myself! The whole camera setup is a bit much to juggle with the cold, gloves, lens cap, etc. on the mountain but that is part of the fun. It is important that the camera is ready to go quickly and not sitting in the pack. I also attached a very light nylon cord to the camera and clipped it to my pack and harness. This way, it was impossible for me to drop the camera and lose it down the side of the mountain!
Memory Card – SanDisk Extreme 64GB SDXC U3 Card – Given all the commentary about how slow the Sony is to save files, I wanted to make sure I had a suitably fast memory card. From what I read, the U3 designation is very important. This SanDisk card worked very admirably and I think maxed out the bus of the camera.
Tripod – Pedco UltraPod II Lightweight Camera Tripod – One of my weaknesses as a photographer has always been my laziness when it comes to using a tripod. I bought this lightweight travel tripod in the hopes that I might use it on the trip. It came out once or twice and I was able to capture some long exposure night shots which I wouldn’t have been able to get without it. So I guess it was worth it. It also has the functionality to be strapped to a pole but I never tried that method.
Ear Plugs – Military-Style Flange Ear Plugs – Unless you don’t mind sleeping around a bunch of snorers, ear plugs are a must. In my dopp kit, I always carry a pair of military style silicone ear plugs with the flanges that work quite well.
Head Lamp – Petzl Tikka XP2 – Having a headlamp is very useful in the huts and going to the bathroom at night. We didn’t need them on the route but some groups were extra eager and were on the mountain before the sun was up. These days, a simple LED headlamp is very adequate for most mountain activities. The headlamp I have has a red LED which is a nice feature in the huts when you aren’t trying to blind everyone, including yourself, with night-vision killing white light.
Cell Phone – I brought my iPhone on the trip which served a few purposes. I didn’t use the camera since I brought the Sony but a lot of other folks use their cell phone as a camera. Obviously, I liked having a phone for an emergency. I also ended up using the Kindle app to read at the hut. There is quite a bit of downtime so I was very happy to have something to read. There are books in the huts but they were almost all in French, which wasn’t very useful to me.
Knife – I brought a small folding knife but I actually forgot that it was in my pack so I ended up borrowing the other guys’. Bring a knife, just about any knife will do.
Food – The great thing about the Haute Route is that you don’t need to carry a lot of food and water. Generally, you just need to carry some snacks for the day and a lunch. I brought a whole bunch of energy gels (Ginsting by Honey Stinger) but ended up not needing them. I tried one on the 6th day just to see how it was (it was great). Otherwise, I brought some Haribo candies and a couple of Snickers. I refilled my supply of Snickers/Twix at the huts.
Cash – Some huts take credit card and some don’t. You should bring enough cash (Euros for France and CHF for Switzerland) to buy room, board, drinks, and snacks each day. Every day when we got to the hut we would have a round of beers and some food (rosti!). We also always sprung for wine at dinner. When in Europe, right?! I would suggest bringing ~1000 Euro/CHF to cover the seven days. If you purchased a package with a guide company, they may take care of most of these fees but we settled up with the hut after dinner each night.
Things I didn’t Bring
Prusik set, Rope, Cordelettes, or extra Biners – This depends a bit on the guide you go with but we traveled pretty light. Among the four of us, our guide carried a rope and glacier rescue equipment. He also gave an extra ice screw to one of us. Some groups had similar setups and others had each member carry full glacier rescue sets.
Pack Towel – There were a couple of huts that had showers but a towel was included in the cost to use the shower. I didn’t see a need to bring my own towel
Sandals – All of the huts provide Crocs for people to wear in and around the huts. Boots are left in the gear room and liners are taken out to dry. After 7 days in Crocs, I have a new found respect for them!
Kindle – If I didn’t have my phone and Kindle app, I would have been annoyed if I didn’t have something to read.
Ski Strap – I probably should have brought one but I didn’t.
Watch or Altimeter – I liked not having a watch. It’s all part of the disconnecting experience. Having an altimeter is fun but unless I am actually navigating, I find it just makes me count down altitude which makes everything feel a lot more like work.