Ski Mountaineering

The Haute Route of the European Alps

April 24 - May 9, 1999

Reiner Stenzel

This trip report describes a guided ski mountaineering adventure in which four SMS members, Ken Deemer, Don Ralphs, Don Pies, and myself, participated. Our guide was Ruedi Beglinger, from the Selkirk Mountain Experience-Durrand Glacier Chalet, and his assistant Derek. Our group of about 12 skiers came from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and California. We skied the Haute Route from East to West, i.e., from Zermatt to Chamonix. Ruedi recommended to arrive earlier in Zermatt to acclimatize, so my story starts with some private skiing around the Matterhorn. The trip report is followed by some of my personal observations and experiences which could be of interest to others planning a similar trip.

Trip Description

Sun 4/25 Zuerich to Zermatt

We all made our own flight arrangements. I left Los Angeles on Sat 4/24 to arrive in Zuerich on a grey, rainy Sun morning. Upon earlier arrangement, I was picked up by my brother Juergen who lives in Augsburg/Germany and wanted to ski with me for a weekend in Zermatt. We drove in his VW bus from Zuerich-Kloten to Luzern (Vierwaldstaetter See) where high mountains began to poke out of the clouds. The shortest route went via Andermatt (St Gotthard tunnel) over the Furka Pass, but the latter was still closed due to the heavy snowfall and we had to take a car-train to the upper Rhone valley. There it became sunny and warm and it was a pleasure to drive South of the Berner Oberland below Finsteraarhorn and Aletschorn to Brig and Visp. We saw much damage from previous avalanches which ran down every canyon from the Aletschgletscher. Then one turns into the side valley of the Matter where the road ends at Taesch and one takes a tram to Zermatt. While walking through the town to find our Pension Burgener we ran into Don Pies who had arrived a few hours earlier. We later explored the town together, searched in vain for the Matterhorn in the clouds, then ate dinner at Burgeners, and went to bed early.

Mon 4/26 Zermatt.

After breakfast, Don, Juergen and I walked up to Klein Matterhorn ski lift and took the tram to mid level for some warm-up runs. After a few runs on hard packed snow, we headed up to the cloudy top of Klein Matterhorn to ski powder in poor visibility, then ate lunch in the cozy Gandegghuette, skied till 4 pm and returned to town, where we met Don Ralphs and Ken Deemer. Enjoyed hot showers and a fine dinner at the Pension Burgener.

Tue 4/27 Zermatt.

Sunny weather. After a late breakfast Don P., Juergen and I decided to ski Goernergrat/Stockhorn while Don R. and Ken D. wanted to ski via Klein Matterhorn to Breuil/Cervinia in Italy. The latter turned out to be closed. We took the Goernergrat Bahn to the summit and had a wonderful view of the Matterhorn and the ridge from Breithorn to Monte Rosa. Beautiful weather, excellent slopes, rather empty since this time is considered off-season, we made many practice runs on and off-piste. Then took the cable car to the Stockhorn, skied black-diamond runs down to a tow lift and repeated. We lunched at the Rote Nase with a great view of glaciated mountains (Monte Rosa). Then traversed by tram to Grant, Blauherd and Rothorn. I lost my gloves on a lift, called the operator and got them back 30 min later. We continued to ski in now wet soft snow till 4pm. Enjoyed a rest at Sunegga in an outdoors cafe with great views of mountains in the afternoon sun. Returned via underground cable train (Sunegga metro) to Zermatt where we regrouped for dinner at the Pension.

Wed 4/28 Zermatt

Official start of the trip was at midday. I felt there was too little time to ski in the morning and Juergen had to drive home. We did sightseeing, shopping, picture taking. At 1:30pm met our guide Ruedi and assistant Derek from Revelstoke, BC. We gathered at the porch of the hotel for introduction, planning, and general advice and questions. 14 people showed up for the trip, 10 with randonnee gear, 4 with telemark skis. These were from the SMS Ken Deemer, Don Pies, Don Ralphs, Reiner Stenzel, from Canada (Yukon Territory) Gordon and his wife Catherine, from Oregon Carl and Rich, from Colorado the two Randies, John and his wife JC, and from Washington another Don.

Ruedi inspected our skis and packs and eliminated unnecessary items in order to go light. The rest of the gear was packed up, brought to the train station and sent to our final destination, Chamonix. With nothing but the ski gear left a feeling of no return came up. On the way back from the train station we stopped by at a grocery store to buy three lunches for the first etappe. After a great dinner with plenty of the local Fendant wine we went to bed for an early start next morning.

Thur 4/29 Zermatt to Schoenbielhuette.

7am breakfast, paid our bills, and left at 7:30 to catch the first tram to Klein Matterhorn (3883m). Whiteout and windy on summit. Skied down to a plateau, skinned up and ascended the Breithorn (4164 m). Zero visibility on the narrow ridge. Skied down in soft snow, continued down the piste, then contoured around the Matterhorn on the Theodul glacier and dropped down to the Zmutt glacier. Weather deteriorated and it started to rain! The snow became wet mush, difficult to turn in. We climbed up to the Schoenbielhuette (2694m) which included a final steep ascent up the moraine. Arrived by 2:30pm completely wet. One small stove in the hut was insufficient to dry all of our wet clothes. The living room became a steaming sauna. Talked to group of Japanese skiers with their Swiss guide whom we later met again. Ate a fine dinner at 7pm, then practiced the use of seat harnesses for next days skiing on the glaciers. To bed by 8:30pm.

Fri 4/30 Schoenbielhuette to Cabane de Bertol.

Wake-up call at 4:30am, breakfast at 5am, leaving the hut at 5:30am by flashlight. This will be a long day. Two telemarkers, John and JC, were dismissed and asked to rejoin in Arolla. In foggy weather we descended on slushy snow, then skinned up the Stockji glacier toward the Tete Blanche. Ski crampons were required at the Col d'Herens. Traversed under big icefalls, visibility improved and the impressive Matterhorn came out of clouds. Five skiers ascended the Tete de Valpelline (3799m) while the rest waited at the col. Great view of Matterhorn, Dent d'Herens, Dent Blanche, and Mont Blanc in the distance. We skied down in formation while Ruedi took pictures from below. The entire group continued to ski and climb the Tete Blanche. Then proceeded on the glacier Mt Mine toward the Cabane de Bertol (3311m). It is built on top of a ridge and accessible after a steep climb assisted by a chain and ladders.

Arrived at 2pm, relaxed, had hot tea, lunch, watched avalanches coming down on sunny slopes, clouds moving in and out. Fresh air toilet with straight view down to the glacier. Bedroom assigned for our group was two levels downstairs. Beds are equipped with 2 woollen blankets and a pillow. After use they need to be folded with Swiss accuracy.

Met again the group of Japanese skiers. Two were on telemark gear, they were ski instructors. Fine dinner at 6pm and a beautiful sunset among clouds and mountains.

Sat 5/1 Cabane de Bertol to Arolla

Got up at 5am, tea and bread at 5:30am, climbed down ladders at 5:45am, and skied out at 6am. After ascent of a col using skins and ski crampons, we left the packs at a col and climbed an unnamed peak with great views of Matterhorn, Mt Blanc de Cheillon, Pigne d'Arolla, Grand Combin, Gran Paradiso, and Mt Blanc.

At 7:30am skied down powder slopes to the col, picked up our packs and descended into a valley leading to the Swiss town of Arolla. The upper slopes were crusty and steep, which required careful sideslipping and balanced snowplow turns. Below an icefall a quick descent was required. Then the slopes mellowed and it was a fast run on hard packed snow. Ate a snack on the glacier below the Cabane des Vignettes which was frequented by helicopters.

Continued our run down into Arolla where we arrived by 9:30am. Took a lift up the local piste and had a wonderful run down on corn snow. Then we walked into town to the Hotel de Glacier where we would stay for one night. Washed clothes, showered, ate lunch, relaxed, went food shopping, picture taking with great weather and beautiful scenery. At 6pm all of us had great raclette dinner with plenty of Fendant.

Sun 5/2 Arolla to Cabane des Vignettes

Up at 6:30am, breakfast at 7am to catch first tram at 8:15am. From the end of the tram we contoured without skins on steep frozen slopes. Don from Washington lost one of his skis, it tumbled into valley, he could not catch up with group and was sent out.

The rest of the group skinned up on open slopes toward the Cabane des Vignettes (3160m). At a lunch stop, Ruedi's ski came off which prompted the call "down to Arolla"! We reached the hut by 11:30am, settled down, and after a short break Ruedi and 6 of us (2 Randies, Gordon, Catherine, Reiner, Derek) went off to ascend the Pigne d'Arolla (3796m).

Sunny and warm, soft snow, Ruedi's fast pace got only 4 to the summit. Great views from Matterhorn to Mont Blanc. But a ring around the sun and rising clouds indicated a change in weather. The 2,000' descent on soft snow was a delight. Ruedi took us on a steep route down through an ice fall. Randy's ski came off and tumbled over the edge. He was sure that was the end of his trip but luckily the ski got stuck further down in soft snow between crevasses. Ruedi retrieved it, then we skied down and were back at the hut by 2pm. Hung out, rested, dinner at 6pm, to bed by 8:30pm.

Mon 5/3 Cabane des Vignettes to Cabane des Dix

Typical 5am rise, folding blankets, rye bread with jam and tea for breakfast, filling the bottles with tea, harness and flashlights on for a start by moonlight on crusty snow. With skins and ski crampons we muscled 2000' up to the Pigne d'Arolla, second time for some. Windy and descending clouds covering most peaks. Passed over the col de Brenay and skied toward La Serpentine (3795m) which was climbed in a whiteout and high winds. Continued over the col de la Serpentine, crossed the Glacier de Cheillon and reached the Cabane des Dix (2928m) by 9:45am. Arranged our things, ate, and rested for a while. By 11:30am we started a peak ascent of La Luette (3368m). Skied down its steep slopes in soft snow, even some corn snow. Back at the hut by 2pm for lunch, resting, writing. Met again the group of Japanese skiers from Schoenbiel hut.

Tue 5/4 Cabane des Dix to Cabane de Chanrion

Another 4:30am rise and 5:30am start in near white-out conditions. Rich had breathing difficulties and was advised by Ruedi to return to Arolla ("Zehn kleine Negerlein..."). Skied up the Glacier de Cheilon, over the Col de Cheilon toward La Ruinette. Made first break at the west side of Mt Blanc de Cheilon between two large crevasses.

Ruedi, Derek and 4 participants ascended Mt Blanc de Cheillon (3869m) in total whiteout and high winds while the rest of the group built a snowshelter and waited for their return. Continued to Col Mont Rouge where we were greeted by gale force winds and an overhanging cornice. The guides fixed a pair of skis as deadmen and set up a Munter hitch belay. One after another, we were lowered by rope over the cornice and sideslipped on skis down the pass. Ruedi kickstepped down with skis on snow as anchors. High winds with blowing ice crystals required goggles. Contoured around the Glacier de Lire Rose, traversed over Col de Lire Rose, descended onto Glacier du Brenay where the snow turned into breakable crust, then wet cement, and finally bottomless slush as it started to rain again. Without breaks we continued to ski in wet clothes to the Cabane de Chanrion (2462m) arriving at 12:30pm. The hut was rather cold, there were insufficient lines to dry our wet clothes. Ate lunch, rested, wrote, entertained the young boy living at the hut, and finally ate dinner at 6:30 pm. To bed by 8:30pm, hoping for better weather next day.

Wed 5/5 Cabane de Chanrion to Courmayeur/Italy

Up at 4:30am, breakfast at 5am, ski out at 5:30am by flashlight into a cloudy, humid morning luckily without rain. Down skiing was no fun due to poor visibility and breakable crust. Skinned up on Glacier du Fenetre to climb toward Mt. Avril. Left packs below the summit in the fog. While ascending we broke through the cloud level and stood on summit above the clouds. Fantastic views of peaks rising above the clouds. Stood adjacent to the impressive Grand Combin (4314m) and could follow the classic Haute Route over the steep Plateau du Couloir. Last 100 m of summit were rocks and not skiable, but below it was a great descent in wet powder down to the packs. Everyone in a great mood, but Ruedi cautioned us to slow down safely as the snow turned into grabbing cement. Descended toward the Italian village of Glacier. This included steep descent along a creek and eventually walking on a trail. Gordon, the dogsled racer from the Yukon, and I kept up with Ruedi's pace, the rest of the group got separated and waited elsewhere in the village, leading to a lot of frustration for our guide.

The Maison des Guides was closed and it took a while to call for the cars which eventually would transport our group to Courmayeur. The change from the high snow country to green valleys with flowers, old houses and castles was a delight. It had become a warm sunny spring day. We drove through via Valpelline, Aosta, Courmayeur to our hotel in La Plud, right next to the Mt Blanc Funivie, the tram leading over the Mt Blanc range to Chamonix/France. But Murphy's law struck: The tram was closed for maintenance for three days. Of course, the Mt Blanc Tunnel was also closed due to the earlier fire. While Ruedi made contingency plans we relaxed, took showers, shaved, washed clothes, and had a great lunch in a nearby restaurant. The scenery of the high and steep Aiguilles (needles) of the Mt Blanc massive are impressive. Dining continued at 7:30pm in our hotel with an abundance of excellent Italian food and wine: Prosciuto, salami, anchovies, mushrooms, salad, lasagna, meat, roated potatoes, gelati, capuccino, and plenty of local wine and Chateau Neuf du Pape. The mood was high till late in the evening. The decision was made to drive early in the morning through the Grand St Bernard Tunnel to Argentiere to ascend the Argentiere Glacier.

Thur 5/6 Courmayeur to Refuge d'Argentiere

Got up leisurely at 6:45am to a late breakfast at 7:45am and an even later departure at 8:30am. Drove for 3 hours through Aosta, St Bernard Tunnel, Bourg-St-Pierre, Orsieres, Martigny, Forclaz Pass to Argentiere. Saw a lot of avalanche damage in the villages near Argentiere. Planned to take the tram up to Aiguille des Grandes Montets but it was also closed for maintenance, another strike of Murphy's law. Randy S. and Don R. decided this was the end of the tour and went to Chamonix to play golf. With a stroke of luck a tram repair crew appeared at noon, started the lift to ride up to the mid-station Lognan (1974m) to eat lunch. We could join and ride up at least half of the way. From there we skinned up along a small road leading to the base of the Argentiere glacier. We climbed up the glacier and, at Ruedi's pace, arrived 2 1/2 hours later at the Refuge d'Argentiere (2771m). All along the way the South facing slopes below the Aiguille du Chardonnet and Aiguille d'Argentiere were repeatedly avalanching in the afternoon sun. The Argentiere Glacier is surrounded by an impressive wall of steep mountains with hanging glaciers: Aig. Verte, Les Droites, Les Courtes, Aig. de Triolet, Mt Dolent, Tour Noir, and Aig. d'Argentiere. The Refuge d'Argentiere is located at a ridge above the moraine from where one has an impressive view over the glacier and mountains. To get to the hut we had to ascend along a steep South-facing slope at high speed due to avalanche danger. Indeed, in the later afternoon, the slope released and produced a massive wet snow avalanche. A late skier was about to climb to the hut but escaped certain death by a minute. It proved Ruedi's point that one has to be at the huts before the afternoon, requiring the early starts, a fast pace, and no idling. At 6:30pm it was dinner time, then packing for the next day, and to bed by 8pm for an early rise next day.

Fri 5/7 Refuge d'Argentiere to Chamonix

The routine wake-up call came at 4:30am and an hour later we were on skis. Clear sky and a half moon over the aiguilles. Skiing down the frozen avalanch field was no pleasure. We contoured high along the Argentiere glacier and then ascended with skins and ski crampons the Glacier du Chardonnet to the Col du Chardonnet (3323m). The view of the first sun rays on the summits was great. The descent from the col was steep, the snow still frozen, and there were crevasses at the bottom. Thus, Ruedi set up another belay station, we clipped the rope into our harnesses and sideslipped most of the slope down. Great icefalls coming down from the Aig. d'Argentiere. Back in Italy again! Then we had a great run down on the upper Glacier de Saleina with distant view of the Cabane de Saleina. At a low point we turned North to climb the Fenetre de Saleina (3261m). Although there were good kicksteps, Ruedi put down a fixed rope and we ascended with skis on the back, one hand on the rope, a pole in the other hand. Downclimbed a short section on the other side and then continued to ski to the Col du Tour (3281m).

After a lunch break we had another rope-assisted downclimb over steep rock and snow anto the Glacier du Tour. The ski run down the glacier started out on smooth and frozen slopes perfect for paralleling, then the terrain developed ripples which slowed us down, and as we lost elevation the snow became breakable, soft, slush and finally deep mush as we descended through the willows along creek beds below the glacier. At one point it was necessary to downclimb a ledge without skis and packs which were tossed down into the snow. This caused two casualties: Derek cracked one of his skis, Don P.'s pack took off and tumbled down a creek bed but was later retrieved. Finally, we skied over avalanche debris all the way into the town of Le Tour where we called for a car to be transported to Chamonix to our Hotel Le Manoir. Picked up luggage from the train station, showered and had lunch.

We explored Chamonix which is a charming and lively town with many tourists, mountaineers, skiers from many countries. The view of Mont Blanc, Aiguille du Midi and the many glaciers is awesome. Unfortunately, high clouds began to cover the peaks in the late afternoon and we got concerned about our plan to ski the Vallée Blanche on Sat morning. The rest of the afternoon was spent with sightseeing, shopping, and picture taking. Don P.'s family had joined him. Randy and Don R. rejoined after having spent a day golfing in Chamonix. By 7pm we all gathered to a final dinner to celebrate the completion of the Haute Route. Lots of good food and wine contributed to a great mood. Don R. gave one of his best entertainment shows which cannot be described but must be experienced.

Sat 5/8 Chamonix to Geneve

A predicted bad weather front moved in during the night. High winds, 30cm new snow, and total whiteout in the mountains made it impossible to ski the Vallee Blanche. Thus we packed, said farewell to one another, and headed in the rain to the train station. Don R., Ken D. and myself took the train to Geneve Eaux-Vives, went to our hotels, did sightseeing and shopping. In the evening, Ken and his wife, Don R., Gordon and Catherine and myself had a great dinner in a charming restaurant in Geneva's old town. It was a fine end to two weeks of adventures.

Sun 5/9

Flew back from Geneve via Zuerich and Chicago to Los Angeles.

Experiences and Observations
(Terrain, Peaks Climbed, Weather, Snow Conditions, Skill Requirements)

Terrain: The Western Alps are steep, rugged, and glaciated. Skiing is usually well above the tree line. Distances are often less relevant than the difficulty of the terrain. Icefalls and avalanches are major hazards. Skiing on glaciers requires experience of recognizing hidden crevasses from weak indentations in the snow line. Everyone was wearing harnesses with locking biners. In case of a fall into a crevasse, the guide would lower a rope to clip into to pull the person out. Downhill skiing on glaciers was unroped but strictly limited to skiing in the guides tracks. Rope-assisted downhill sideslipping was a common procedure on steep icy passes. Ice axe and boot crampons were not required, but would be obvious necessities for more serious peak climbs or unguided tours. Ski crampons are an indispensible item for climbing steep slopes on hard snow. They prevent sideslipping on skins when the edges dont bite or the skis are overedged. This can be a life saver when making kickturns on a steep frozen slope. Most peaks were climbed on skis but on occasions, a rock scramble was necessary. Some peaks had glacial ice exposed. Several peaks had narrow ridges with exposed drop offs requiring no fear of heights. Some mountaineering skills were required to climb on rock assisted by chains and ladders. Skiing down 40deg slopes was nothing unusual.

Peaks climbed and skied:

  1. Breithorn (4164m)
  2. Tete de Valpelline (3799m)
  3. Tete Blanche
  4. Pigne d'Arolla, 2X (3796m)
  5. La Serpentine (3795m)
  6. La Luette (3368m)
  7. Mt Blanc de Cheilon (3869m)
  8. Mt Avril (3347m)

Weather: The weather is unpredictable and can change day by day. Whiteouts are common, high winds (>100km/h) have been encountered, the humidity can be very high, skiing in pouring rain is common at lower elevations, when the sun is out it can be surprisingly hot, in the early morning it can be crisp and cold. Minimum clothing required were two layers and a goretex shell, warm hat, gloves, and goggles.

Snow Conditions: Anything from black ice to water. At high elevations powder, crust, glacial ice but also superb hard-packed snow for paralleling, further below often breakable crust, wet and grabbing cement, and at low elevations very wet bottomless slush in which even my fat skis vanished when skied unevenly. By mid morning on a sunny day, there can be wonderful corn snow. However, traversing large avalanche fields early in the morning is a random walk through ice blocks. Descending in a steep creekbeds involves sideslipping over willows, rocks, grass and cowpies.

Skill Requirements: Skiing the Haute Route requires stamina, skiing and mountaineering skills. Ruedi's standards are high: One has to be able to ski in ALL snow conditions, not just Sierra corn or Selkirk powder. Backcountry skiing experience is mandatory, it is not sufficient to be an excellent skier on a groomed piste. The pace of climbing and skiing is fast. Rest stops are rare and at most 15min. A typical day of 6-7 hrs includes at least one peak climb and one or more passes. Ruedi strongly recommends randonnee skis for the Haute Route. On the first day there were four telemarkers in the group, on the last day one. Telemarking takes more effort and skills. Free-heel paralleling and jump turns are a must. My fat tele skis did great in powder and slush, but shattered on icy snow. Since a guide's first priority is the safety of the group, which among other things requires reaching the next hut before avalanche time, speed and uniformity of the group are essential. Ruedi did not hesitate to send weak skiers home (without refund!). He requests cautious snow plow turns on bonebreaking heavy crust and strictly skiing in his tracks on glaciers. He has guided the Haute Route over 40 times. But one is certainly safe when following his advice.

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