Haute Route Trip Report – April 2017

  • May 11, 2017

The trip on the Haute Route is 7 full days from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. It’s one of the most famous touring routes in the world and is on many mountaineer’s bucket list. I found myself on the trip after an old friend of mine mentioned that he was putting a trip together with his friend and a local guide. This was a discussion over drinks about 5 months prior to us leaving.

Initially, we were just talking about our former and future mountain pursuits; there was no talk of me joining the trip. After talking a bit more over the coming weeks, he (another Adam), asked me if I had any interest in coming along. Admittedly, I had actually never heard of the Haute Route, despite its fame, but if anyone describes a trip as one on their bucket list, it is worth further examination. I did a very brief Googling to find out what the trip generally entailed but it didn’t take long for me to agree. I didn’t want to to read too much for fear of scaring myself out of the trip. It’s a full 7 day backcountry skiing trip and I had never done a single day of skinning in my life!

The best part about joining the trip is that I didn’t have to run point. Adam knew the guide from a previous trip to Chamonix and he took care of the major logistics. I just had to gear up and physically prepare myself for the expedition.

I had some gear from my previous mountaineering trips but somehow I still found myself buying a lot of stuff. Of course, I did a lot of this last minute but the hidden benefit was that by the time I got around to buying gear, it was the end of the season and I found some great deals. I had to buy a new shell, backpack, merino base layers, AT boots, and a whole lot of other odds and ends. I ended up buying most of the gear from backcountry.com which was an overall great experience. They carry just about everything and a lot of stuff was on sale. Their service is also amazing. The AT boots I bought from a bootfitter while I was in Whistler a few weeks prior to leaving for Switzerland.

Buying gear for a long backcountry trip like this one is a constant optimization battle: weight vs. price vs. versatility. There are trade-offs with everything! Lorenzo, the other member of the group and the person with the most touring experience, was very keen about having the lightest gear he could get, within reason. I generally don’t care to that level but he kept emailing us with a new piece of gear that saved 3 ounces! In the end, I tried to be reasonable and buy some gear that saved weight (e.g. the Shaxe) but also didn’t re-buy anything that I already owned. I also knew I was probably going to have the heaviest load anyway given that I was adding at least 3lbs for a camera kit. My philosophy is that minimizing pack weight is great but everyone should be conditioned properly to carry significantly more. Things can happen on the mountain, someone in your group could get injured and you may need to carry parts of your friends pack or worse, you may need to carry your friend. I also always bring emergency gear including a blanket/bivy and a first aid kit. If carrying an extra pound or two is going to be the difference between finishing the trip or not, you shouldn’t be doing the trip.

Read my very detailed post about gear here: Haute Route Equipment Guide

The trip was to start on Monday April 3rd from Chamonix. The three of us flew into Geneva on the Friday and Saturday to give us some time to take care of details and settle in. The hotel we stayed in was called Hotel de L’arve and was a great little spot. It seems to be popular with many groups doing the Haute Route because we saw a few other folks coming and going from the Route while we were there.

Chamonix, if you haven’t been, is a really awesome town. You can just feel the vibes the moment you step foot within the city limits. There are gear stores everywhere and well-outfitted people coming and going from their latest adventures. It’s not even remotely strange to see folks wearing a harness or ski boots all around town. Aside from snow sports there are also other sports that are very popular like trail running, paragliding, and cycling. It’s a very active town. It’s also very beautiful. Look up and you can see glaciers climbing up the mountains and jagged peaks in all directions. It is definitely a special place.

On Saturday, our guide, Serge, came to the hotel to say hello and discuss the details for Monday. I actually missed this meeting because I was still on my way to Cham from the Geneva Airport. In what is now part of our trip lore, the only knowledge we gained about the itinerary for the trip was when Serge told us that ‘every day was up and down’.

Once I arrived in town later that night, I met up with the guys who had just sat down to dinner. We ate and drank well throughout the entire trip and it started with the first meal! The red wine was flowing.

Everybody was pumped up to get started. On Sunday, Lorenzo encouraged us to get a few runs in on Brevent to warm up the legs and feel out our gear a bit more. The conditions were poor to say the least but Lorenzo was very keen to try out his new tele boots. I only had a day in my new AT boots so I figured I could benefit the same.

Other than my boots, I rented my ski kit (skis, skins, ski crampons, poles) from a local ski shop, Ravanel, in Chamonix. If you have never been to Chamonix, gear shops are aplenty! A week prior, when I had decided that I wasn’t going to buy a full setup and that I would need to rent in Chamonix, I called around to the local ski shops to secure a pair of suitable AT skis. Ravanel said they would put a pair of lightweight skis aside for me but I would need to go through their website to reserve a pair online with a deposit paid on my credit card.

Picking up the gear was easy enough even though they hadn’t actually put any skis aside like they said they would. Ravanel! However, they had a pair of 175cm Scott Cascades which I had never heard of before but seemed suitable for the trip. They had a pair of Dynafit Radical ST 2 bindings mounted which were perfect. Included with the rental was matching skins, lightweight poles, and ski crampons. You know when you are in a serious place when touring gear automatically comes with ski crampons! I had never even heard of ski crampons before prepping for this trip.

On Sunday, we took the 5 minute bus ride from the hotel to Brevent. Skiing on Brevent was a good idea but the conditions were very poor and the visibility equally as bad. It was just enough to try out our new gear.

Monday morning! It was time to start the trip. The three of us met up with Serge at 8 am with all our gear at the bus stop about 5 mins walk from the hotel. Our destination was the Grands Montet ski area. All of our city clothes we left in storage at the hotel and would pick it up on the way back.

The start of the trip began with a rush to get in line for the cable car at Grands Montet. Apparently the line fills up quickly and can easily put the trip back an hour or two. But that ended up being the only real rush on the trip! Once we were at the top, the pace was normalized.

From the top, the first leg of our journey was skiing down to the Argentière glacier. Getting used to my new boots that were much more flexible and spacious than my old boots took some work. I had also forgot/not realized that wearing a heavy pack would make the boots feel even softer! The Scott skis I had rented were also full rocker which was not what I was used to either. Everything was new! It wasn’t too surprising that I ate it within about 200 yards of leaving on Monday morning. Not a good way to start the trip! As the trip went on, I figured out the new kit but I was not expecting the skiing to be more difficult to adjust to than the touring.

Our Haute Route

We ended up doing a slight variation of the ‘Verbier Route’. As it turns out, there are quite a few variations that can be done depending on preference, weather, hut availability, etc. (The route notes below are from Lorenzo with small tweaks from me).

Day 1:
– Up the Grands Montet gondola and cable car
– Ski down to Argentière Glacier
– Up the Col du Passon
– Through the Glacier du tour
– Night at the Albert Premier hut (2702m)

Day 2:
– Back to the Glacier du tour
– Col Supérieur du Tour
– Down to the town of Champex
– Drive through Orsiere
– Le Chable
– Gondola to Verbier. Short skin up to Mont-Fort.
– Night at the Cabane du Mont-Fort (2457m)

Day 3:
– Col de La Chaux
– Col du Momin (3005m)
– Summit the Rosablanche (3360m)
– Night at Cabane Prafleuri (2657m)

Day 4:
– Up the Col de Roux with ski crampons
– Across la Grande Dixence Dam
– Le Pas du Chat
– Lunch on rock facing Mont Blanc de Cheilon
– Night at Cabane Dix (2957m)

Day 5:
– Ski down to glacier
– Go through serpentine, the steeper part of hike
– Summit the Pigne d’Arolla with views of Matterhorn and Mont Blanc (3796m)
– Ski down to Vignettes Hut (3157m)

Day 6:
– Ski down from Vignettes to 3005m
– Col de l’Evêque (3,386M)
– Ski down through Haute Glacier d’Arolla (2,500m)
– Across the Plans de Bertol
– Skin up Col de Bertol
– Night at Bertol Hut (3,311m)

Day 7:
– Tete Blanche (3710m)
– Ski all the way down the Stockji Glacier to Zermatt
– Ski onto the resort and down for a beer!
– Minibus back to Chamonix

The Huts

Hut life in the Alps is a unique experience that is really special. You have 50 to 150 people from around the world co-lodging in the same small building, all on some kind of adventure. Not everybody is doing the same route but by the huts very nature, everyone that arrives there is an explorer.

The huts themselves are each unique with their own dormitory situation, refectory, and location. The word ‘hut’ is not even a good word for what they really are because these days the ‘huts’ are very well built lodges. They are real commercial buildings that happen to be perched on mountains in the middle of nowhere. As a result of their remoteness, all of them receive their supplies from regular helicopter drops.

The most enjoyable part of the huts is that the views are typically incredible and the food great. Importantly, they have copious supplies of wine and beer. They are fully staffed and have a kitchen that provide meals and snacks. At the end of each day, we would arrive at the hut and order a round of beers and some food, usually rosti. It was amazing!

Bathrooms were a bit hit or miss. All of the huts have bathrooms but they ranged in quality from outhouse style to proper toilets. The one common trait was that there was always a line for the loo in the morning because there weren’t enough stalls. But what about showers you ask?? A couple of the huts we stayed at had showers and I used one once during the trip. A shower costs a few euros and what it got you was 2 minutes of hot water and a towel. You have to take a military style shower where you turn on and off the water else you run out with soap in your hair. It actually worked quite well and the water was hot and had great pressure. I would have been fine with no shower at all. The icebreaker gear did its job! Plus, taking a shower and then getting back into dirty clothes is not so enjoyable to me. To each their own!

One thing that was interesting was the mix of personalities of all the people staying at the huts. Generally, I think the level of people’s conditioning determined if they were going to be amiable or not (and if they were having a good trip). In many cases, people that were poorly trained or completely untrained (insane!) were very surly in the huts (surprise!). More than once did we find ourselves walking on egg shells around some very haggard people. The four of us all managed to have a great time though. We talked to a few folks sitting around us for dinner or in the huts but otherwise we kept to ourselves. Everyone was on their own personal missions.

Typical Day Routine

Each hut would provide a simple breakfast in the morning, usually starting around 6:30am. We would wake up around 6:20 and saunter down to the refectory to eat. Breakfast usually consisted of cereal, milk, bread, jam, butter, coffee and or tea. We may have had eggs one of the days too, I can’t remember. In the dining room, we would also typically pick up our thermos of hot tea that we gave to the staff the night before. All of the huts will fill up your bottle or thermos with tea if you leave it with them overnight. This is a nice service because then you get hot tea on the mountain! The three of us shared one S’well bottle full of tea each day and Serge had his own tea.

After breakfast, we would go back to the rooms and get ready for the day. This meant putting our gear on, packing our backpacks, and making the bed. In our packs we’d be sure to have 1-1.5 liters of water for the day, snacks, and food for lunch. Snacks were usually a couple of Snickers bars or similar. Usually we’d be out the door and on the mountain by 7:30am. Serge would do a quick test to make sure all of our beacons were on and functioning and off we’d go!

After a full day of activity, we’d usually arrive to the hut somewhere between 2:30 and 4pm. At the hut, we’d park our skis outside and leave our skins and boots to sit in the sun to dry out. Ice axes and crampons must be left in the gear room. Also in the gear room were Crocs to wear around the hut.

Once checked in with the staff at the hut, we’d settle in for a round of beers and some food. Each hut has their own menu but rosti was a common attraction. It’s almost as if rosti was created specifically for a late day meal on the mountain!

We’d hang out for a bit and maybe take a light rest before dinner at 6:30. Dinner is a communal affair with everyone eating at group tables. I always thought dinner was excellent, especially given the remoteness of where we were eating. The general format was a soup starter, sometimes a salad course, main course with meat, vegetables and a starch, then a dessert. If you’re a picky eater, you should probably stop being that.

One thing I have learned from all my trips is that the guides always eat a lot, especially at dinner. And they usually aren’t huge people. Eating a lot has never been an issue for me but I make a point of it while on a trip. Being at altitude and working hard can sometimes seriously diminish appetite so it is very important to work through that. When in doubt, eat more! Especially since you don’t have to carry it up the mountain with you. Eating on the trail or before going out is a bit of a different issue because you don’t want to feel super full while doing hard work. Even so, it is important to monitor how much your eating and making sure you get enough calories each day.

After dinner, we’d hang out and chat, usually till 9ish. We’d also take care of our bill and purchase any snacks or water we needed for the next day. By 10pm, we were usually heading to bed and the hut was very quiet. It generally wasn’t the case that there were people hanging out very late. I liked to read at night but fairly quickly I would fall asleep and be ready to start all over again in the morning!

Physical Preparation

The Haute Route is a long trip with a lot of vertical each day. I don’t know exactly what we ended up doing but most trip guides say to be prepared for about 1000m (3-4k feet) of climbing per day. The length of the trip made me nervous and it didn’t help that I had zero experience ski touring. I always like a good challenge though.

The good thing is that I have been on some big mountains and am fairly comfortable with what it takes to climb at altitude. For my training, I borrowed some of my old techniques and augmented them with some new stuff too.

The biggest thing for me was to drop some lbs. I wanted to start my diet earlier but yeah, it didn’t happen until the second week of January. I had less than 3 months to get in shape! The first thing that I did was start on a ketosis diet. I had done this once before for 6 weeks and had been itching to try it again. If you aren’t familiar with ketosis, it is a state where your body transitions from primarily using glucose for energy to ketones. To get into ketosis, one must follow a strict diet that keeps carbohydrates below a certain threshold (20-30 grams per day) and makes up for those calories primarily with fat. It’s a really interesting diet that I’ll write more about in another post.

The diet got me from 191 to 178 lbs which was great at 5’11”ish. Dropping 13lbs is enough to really notice clothes fitting differently. In the last couple of weeks leading up to the trip, I introduced carbs back into my diet in a pseudo CKD style where I had them only on one day of the weekend and then both days. During the trip I was out of ketosis.

At the same time that I changed my diet, I also started training. IMHO, the best thing in the gym to prepare for going up mountains is the StairMaster (this is the one with the rolling stairs, i.e. mini escalator). To make it even more realistic, I wear 5lb ankle weights that represent the boots and skis I wear on the mountain. I have used the StairMaster effectively to train for previous trips and it’s the best. Try it! PLEASE, do not be one of those people that reverse grips the hand rails while locking their arms out to hold their body weight. It’s sad. It also does nothing for your training.

I would spend 20-40 minutes on the StairMaster at a medium pace. If on the short end of that scale, I would accompany it with treadmill intervals. At some point during my training I discovered that my gym has special treadmills called incline trainers that can go to insane pitches (30%!) so I would work those into my routine too. Note, I am in New York City so finding mountains to train on is not so easy. I had to take what I could get!

I also incorporated tricep exercises to help with poling on the slopes. My tris always get really sore after a big ski trip so I wanted to make sure they could keep up with 7 days on the Haute Route. The other thing I did was some focused leg strength exercises like leg extensions and lying leg curls.

I tried to get in the gym at least 3 days a week for 1-1.5 hours and do some kind of activity on the weekend too.

The results were that I felt surprisingly fit on the trip. If my exertion was measured on a scale of 1 to 10, I would say that I was typically cruising around on the Route at a 6. There were some short periods (10 – 20 mins) of higher exertion but I don’t think it was ever a 9 or 10. As a contrast, summit day on Elbrus was a steady 9 for the whole time with spurts at 10. My experience on Mont Blanc, due to much worse conditioning, terrible weather, and altitude sickness, was a steady 8 with extended periods of 10 which eventually did me in. Rainier, my first summit, was probably a 7.5 – 8 but I was well conditioned and we had great weather. So in contrast to my summiting experiences, the Haute Route was very pleasant. I also found that ski touring matches up well with my lazy walking style! Climbing up a mountain with boots and crampons on requires so much more effort, primarily from going up steeper terrain and spending a lot of energy on boot placement in the snow. With ski touring, I found it very consistent and smooth. I didn’t have to worry about foot placement like I do with hiking (note, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most surefooted person). I also took to the movement very well and found myself feeling very comfortable on the mountain, even when it was icy and steep.

One last little trick that I did to prepare for the trip, I went off caffeine. For 2 weeks prior to the trip, I completely detoxed from caffeine with the hopes that I would reset my tolerance to normal levels. That way when I had coffee on the trip, it would give me a little boost. We were only having a cup for breakfast anyway. Aside from the trip, I think it’s always a good idea to detox from caffeine every year.

Cost

The cost of a 7-day backcountry trip such as the Haute Route can be slightly intimidating. Yes, despite eating ‘normal’ food and sleeping in dorms, all the costs add up quite quickly. It should go without saying but the trip was well worth it!

In case any reader is thinking about trying to budget for a similar trip, I would budget about $2500 + gear + flights for everything. You could certainly spend more (staying in expensive hotels on either end) and could definitely spend a lot less (no drinks on the mountain). We always had at least a round of beers on the mountain each day and wine with dinner. How you want to spend your time is up to you but at least this is a good starting point.

  • Roundtrip flight from NYC to Geneva – $700 USD
  • Roundtrip Shuttle for Geneva airport to Chamonix – $80 USD
  • 7 days & 6 nights of huts, half board, drinks, snacks, water and guide fees – $1600 USD
  • 7 days Ski kit rental – $200 USD
  • Grands Montet Lift – $27.5 USD
  • Taxi to Verbier – $16 USD (my share)
  • Verbier Lift – $30 USD
  • Shuttle back from Zermatt to Chamonix – $53 USD (my share)
  • 4 nights hotel (2 nights on each side of trip) – $220 USD (my share)
  • Food, drinks, and snacks in town – $300 USD

Notes:

  1. Expenses were generally paid in Euro or in CHF. I converted all to USD based on the exchange rates at the time (approximately 1.1 USD to Euro and 1.06 USD to CHF). At the moment, the USD is very strong so if that changes, it could dramatically change the cost of the trip for other foreigners.
  2. Guides stay at most huts for free. We covered our guide’s food and drink on the trip which is included in the total cost above.
  3. The other two guys bought alpine club memberships which gave them half off the room fees in most of the huts. Given the cost of the memberships, I think they only broke even so I am not sure it was worth it. I wasn’t smarter, I just got into town too late to pick up a membership!

Overall Experience

Doing the Haute Route was amazing and without question, one of the best trips I have ever been on. We got super lucky with 6.5 of 7 days of perfect, beautiful weather. We had one snowy/hazy morning, boohoo. Our group was small, cohesive and we all had a great time with each other. The scenery on the trip was incredible from the first minute to the very last. It’s hard to truly describe the expanse of the glaciers and the feeling of being on them without any civilization around. I didn’t get sick of the view for one second. And the nice steady pace of touring without the rush to get to a summit made the trip very enjoyable. Capping off each day with beer, wine, and great food at the huts was magical.

Regarding how much skiing we actually did, it wasn’t much. I would categorize the time spent as 90% skinning, 5% skiing downhill, and 5% traversing. We also did some small stints walking in our boots with and without crampons. There were a couple of chances to do an extra lap to get some more skiing in but given the conditions, nobody in our group was keen enough.

The Haute Route is a long trip but a lot of the experience can be had by doing 2-3 day adventures in the area which are very accessible. Our group is already talking about going back next year for more! BRAVO.