Every outdoor activity has a few very iconic trips. For those interested in a European ski traverse, the Haute Route is the first trip that pops into most people’s minds. There are dozens of other traverses in the alps that rival the Haute Route in terms of pure downhill skiing (The Berner Oberland), comfortable huts (The Ortler Ski Circuit), wilderness experience (The Ecrins Traverse) and other qualities that make for a good week of skiing, but like running the Grand Canyon in a dory, or climbing El Capitan, the Haute Route stands out as a monkey that most backcountry skiers will eventually want to get off their back. Here are a few tips for putting together a successful Haute Route trip.
WHEN TO SKI THE HAUTE ROUTE
Where I live in WA there are basically no huts, so a winter ski tour is either done in a day, or is a brutish and nasty affair involving winter camping. While the Haute Route can be done at almost any time of year by staying in the unheated winter rooms of huts along the route, this misses the point which is to have someone else cook your food, carry your wine, and provide your bedding while you focus on the task at hand, great skiing in a beautiful setting with a light pack. With this in mind you will want to go when the huts are open and staffed, roughly from the 3rd week of March through mid-May.
Trips taken in late March have a better chance of powder skiing, and consequently also seem to have a higher chance of whiteout conditions and less stable snow. If doing the most common version of the Haute Route, the Verbier Haute Route, most parties take 6 days to ski from Chamonix to Zermatt. We like to leave Chamonix on a Sunday and arrive in Zermatt on a Friday as it gives us the best chance of having quiet huts along the way. If you want solitude and a higher possibility of good snow then look at late March or early April and ski mid-week to avoid the crowds during the trip.
Trips taken from mid-April to early May tend toward spring snow conditions and you are more likely to find full huts and a route to follow between huts. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and we have skied this mid-April in 30 cm of new snow with no track on the route forward.
WHICH HAUTE ROUTE TO SKI?
Most people do not realize that there are multiple versions of the Haute Route. When the Haute Route was first done it was done by members of the Alpine Club in 1861. It was done as a summer route and called “The High Level Route” as Englishmen made the first crossing. The Haute Route was first done as a ski trip in 1911. While travelers as far back as the Romans as well as shepherds, traders, and others crossed through this part of the alps, it is unlikely that anyone bothered to connect the passes leading to the present high level route prior to the English.
THE CLASSIC HAUTE ROUTE
What skiers call the Classic version of the Haute Route follows the path of the 1911 skiers and is often skipped in favor of the Verbier Haute Route because the Classic version requires more mountaineering objectives and you spend less time actually skiing than on the Verbier version. The route has a more alpine feel and gets you closer to the magnificent Grand Combin, but does see less traffic. Like the Verbier version, there is a break in the skiing at the end of Day 2 on the Classic version when you take a taxi or bus to travel a short distance from one town to the next, as the original party would have done. If you want to complete the entire tour on skis, then consider the Grand Lui variation of the Haute Route, and plan on taking 8-9 days from Chamonix to Zermatt.CLASSIC HAUTE ROUTE ITINERARY
Day 1: Argentiere, France - Trient Hut
Day 2: Trient Hut to Bourg-St. Piere
Day 3: Bourg-St. Pierre - Valsorey Hut
Day 4: Valsorey Hut - Chanrion Hut
Day 5: Chanrion Hut - Vignettes Hut
Day 6: Vignettes Hut - Zermatt
THE VERBIER HAUTE ROUTE
This is also called the "skiers version" and this is the route that most people do when skiing the Haute Route today. It differs from the Classic Route by moving to Les Chables, Switzeland on day 2 and then taking a tram to Verbier, and eventually staying at the Mont Fort Hut inside the Verbier ski area. On day 3 you ski to the Prafleuri Hut, and then on Day 4 you ski to the Dix Hut. The two routes come together either at the Vignettes Hut or on top of the Pigne d'Arolla depending on which version of each route you select.VERBIER HAUTE ROUTE ITINERARY
Day 1: Argentiere, France - Trient Hut:
Day 2: Trient Hut - Mont Fort Hut:
Day 3: Mont Fort Hut - Prafleuri Hut:
Day 4: Prafleuri Hut- Dix Hut
Day 5: Dix Hut - Vignettes Hut
Day 6: Vignettes Hut - Zermatt:
The Haute Route Chamonix-Zermatt: A guide for skiers and mountain walkers by Peter Cliff is really good for describing most common variations of the Haute Route.
Alpine Ski Mountaineering: Volume 1, Western Alps by Bill O’Connor is a must if you think that skiing the Haute Route will lead to other European ski tours. This book has sufficient information to allow you to make do without the guide by Peter Cliff, but we chose to buy both.
Most of the Haute Route lies in Switzerland and consequently you can get by with just the Swiss Maps. The large 1:50,000 maps actually include the start of the trip in France, and then the entire Haute Route fits nicely onto 2-1:50,000 maps. These are published by Swisstopo and can be ordered online. They are also widely available in shops in Chamonix and Zermatt as well as other places. The 1:50,000 maps are actually published in a skiers version and have relatively accurate ski route lines printed directly on the map. For very precise navigation you might also consider the 1:25,000 maps, which have a higher level of detail. 1:50,000 maps cost 22.50 CHF each and the 1:25,000 maps cost 13.50 CHF.
REQUIRED 1:50,000 LEVEL MAPS:
282S 1:50,000 Martigny
283S 1:50,000 Arolla
REQUIRED 1:25,000 LEVEL MAPS
1326 1:25,000 Rosablanche
1345 1:25,000 Orsieres
1346 1:25,000 Chanrion
1347 1:25,000 Matterhorn - Monte Cervino
1366 1:25,000 Mont Velan (For Classic Haute Route Only)
GETTING TO/FROM EUROPE FROM NORTH AMERICA
Depending on your plans while in Europe there are many places to consider for departure cities. Geneva (airport code GVA) is the most logical if all you plan to do is the Haute Route. Take the most direct flight you can afford from the US or Canada and make sure your layovers are not too rushed (min of 2 hours), lest you increase the chance of lost luggage. I try to make it all the way in 2 flights and have had good luck with all my gear making it to Europe on time. If you want a bit more of a cultural experience than Geneva, consider flying into Zurich (airport code ZRH) which I personally find to be a more interesting city. The train ride to Chamonix at the start is a bit longer, but the trip to the airport from Zermatt at the end is about the same. I can often find cheaper flights to Zurich and I should admit that I gratly enjoy riding the trains of Europe, so the extra few hours on the train is no problem for me. If I fly into GVA I then take a shuttle to Chamonix. This should be reserved in advance. I have listed a few options here.
If coming into ZRH take the train, but note that after a certain hour no trains run to Chamonix. You can look up the Swiss Train Schedule here.
Swiss Train System
French Train System
You can use a credit or debit card for most things in France and Switzerland. Most credit cards these days charge a foreign transaction fee of 3% of any transaction. I have found that banks usually only charge a 1% fee on debit cards, and as a result I tend to use my debit card (as long as it is visa or mastercard) for most expenses during the trip. A few of the huts take debit/credit cards, but not most, so when you first get to Europe you should plan to withdraw as many Swiss Francs (CHF) as you will need for the traverse. Plan on about 100 CHF per day for huts, wine, etc. It is easy to forget that Chamonix is in France, therefore they use Euros, whereas all the huts are in Switzerland and they use Swiss Francs. As you stumble off the plane well lubricated by free booze, and a bit jet lagged, be sure to remember to raid the ATM at the airport. It also helps to warn your bank that you will be traveling to Europe and ask them to raise your daily withdraw limit so that you can make a large enough withdraw to cover you in one or two transactions. Most banks will shut your card down after a couple hundred dollars each day. You can always use Euros at the hut, but the exchange rate will usually not be in your favor.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHAMONIX
We have stayed in a lot of different places in Chamonix. If budget is not a huge concern then there are infinite nice hotels to be found online. If you like the Apres Ski scene, and the associated noise, the Hotel Gustavia is nice, close to the train station, and you will be near they party. They also have one of the better plat du jour lunch specials in Chamonix. If you want something a bit cheaper, consider a Gite. The Gite D’etape La Tapia has simple shared rooms for 16 Euros per night as well as wi-fi, and cooking facilities. The people running the La Tapia are good folks and the view down valley is better than most of the € 300 places in town. I have stored luggage here while out ski and alpine guiding and had no issues. They also have wi-fi and you can walk there in about 10 mins. from the main train station.
WHERE TO STAY IN ZERMATT
Zermatt wrote the book on hospitality and there is lodging for all budgets, as long as they are all large budgets. One notable exception is a place called the Hotel Bahnhof in Zermatt. They have private rooms for 4 with shower, private rooms for 2 with a shower down the hall, and dorm rooms for up to 8 for about 30 CHF per night. The kitchen is nicer than our home kitchen and the place is clean, very well run, and has secure lockers. Like the La Tapia, there is reliable wi-fi, which has become of staple need for ski guides operating in Europe.
HOW TO GET BACK TO CHAMONIX AT THE END OF THE HAUTE ROUTE
The simple option is to jump on a train and head back to Chamonix that day. It takes about 4 hours and if you are ready to go by 4 or 5 pm you can make it all the way back to Chamonix. I personally prefer to spend a day or two in Zermatt so that I can ski some of the classic lines there and then move along to the next spot. If you are not planning to go back to Chamonix you can have your luggage shipped from Chamonix to Zermatt for about 240 Euros. If you plan things well you can often share the cost with other skiers coming from Chamonix. One reputable taxi-luggage shipper is Taxi Follonier. When we are doing this on the cheap we simply show up in Zermatt with whatever we have in our pack, borrow a pair of loaner shoes from the ski room at the Hotel Bahnhoff, or visit the local Migros grocery store and buy a cheap pair of sandals to wear while in Zermatt. There is some level of freedom in showing up with a credit card, your ski gear, and the clothes on your back.
If you get hurt skiing in Europe and there is decent visibility, you actually have a really good chance of getting picked up by helicopter. Great, right? The catch is that they will also demand proof of insurance or payment at the time of rescue and this will be enforced. It is highly advised to carry skiers rescue insurance when skiing in Europe. The simple solution is to by a single days worth of insurance when you purchase your lift ticket at Grand Montets in Argentiere. This will cost you €3.50 and is called Carre Neige. This will cover you for rescues in France on the day you hold your ticket. By the end of the day you should be in Switzerland at which point you will want insurance purchased for about 30 CHF from REGA, a Swiss company that provides insurance for skiers in Switzerland. If you purchase REGA and are not a Swiss citizen, this will not cover you in France, thus the need for Carre Neige or the Carte Neige, which can be purchased in increments of longer than one day, and may cover your while skiing in France and Switzerland, but will require you to front the money for a rescue occurring outside of France and then be reimbursed by Carte Neige.
WHICH SKIS TO TAKE ON THE HAUTE ROUTE?
A ski like the G3 Spitfire (177 cm - 3.5kg/7/7 lb. - 123/89/111) or the G3 Saint (177 cm - 3.4 kg./7.5 lb. - 126/93/114) is going to to do the best job for you on a tour as varied as the Haute Route. While it is tempting to take a bigger ski, you want something that is reasonably light, has a relatively short turning radius, and is a true backcountry ski rather than a "slack country" tourer. When I go to Europe this spring I will be touring 32 of 35 days consecutively, so it is important that I have a ski that is light enough to lift up for 160,000 feet in just over a month of skiing, but still stout and wide enough to efficiently bust through occasionally burly spring conditions. In the past I have paired this with a Dynafit STS binding, but I am pretty psyched to be on the G3 Onyx for two reasons: 1. The ability to transfer from having my heel locked down in ski mode to tour mode without taking the ski off, as this is huge on terrain that traverses a lot, and 2. I have had a consistent problem with my STS's switching on their own from tour mode to ski mode when I am touring in spring snow conditions. This results in accidentally locking in and then needing to stop, take my ski off, and turn the rear piece with both hands as I need to disengage the brake. I do, by the way, use a brake on my bindings for the Haute Route. A few years back a client lost a ski and I managed to make a diving catch, but the result had I not caught the ski would have likely been a very, very long day. Brakes are worth the weight as a lost ski would be a disaster on the Haute Route. I pair all of my skis with a skin cut wall to wall, my current favorite being the G3 Alpinist Climbing Skin.
SHOULD I GO GUIDED OR UNGUIDED?
I guess it depends on your goals for the trip. With a non-guided group you have the flexibility to change the plan at any point in the trip. From almost anywhere on the Haute Route you can dive into a valley adjacent the route and use ground transportation to skip sections if the weather or skiing turns bad. You are also going to be able to do the trip for less than half of what it costs to go with a guided group. With a guide you generally get to skip the route planning, the guide handles all the logistical details, and it gives your group some structure for decision making. Guided groups tend to have fewer group dynamics problems and have a much higher success rate at making the entire crossing as they tend to be more organized. A good guide should also be able to show you the best line on any given section of haute route and should be able to get folks from Chamonix to Zermatt that might not make it on their own. The guide also can manage avalanche forecasting and snow stability assessments that less frequent backcountry skiers may need. If you do hire a guide, they must be IFMGA certified to work in Europe. Many Canadian and American guides hold this certification, but not all. My wife and I run the Northwest Mountain School, and would be happy to send you details on our ski trips to Europe, or to answer questions related to the planning of your own trip.
My wife, Olivia Cussen and I, have spent the last several years doing the Haute Route a couple of times each spring and at some point on every trip we look at each other and exclaim, "this is ridiculous!" , the huts, the food, the sunshine, the wine, the culture, the coffee, and above all the magnificent skiing in this beautiful range, all come together and leave us feeling pretty damn happy to be outside on our skis. Feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions about the Haute Route.