Arrive Baseball fans might make a pilgrimage to Fenway Park. Art aficionados would be remiss to leave the Louvre off their Parisian itinerary. Similarly, backcountry skiers want to put a check mark next to the Haute Route on their “must–do–before–I–die” list. The Route weaves an improbable line for roughly 100 rugged kilometres through the Pennine Alps and links the iconic mountain towns of Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland. After a mad morning scramble at the busy Vignettes Hut, we follow a multicultural mix of skiers from Wales, Germany, Spain, Catalonia and Russia as they switchback up a canvas of white to the Col de l’Évêque.
The Mont Blanc Express lurches to a stop in Argentière. Photographer Kari Medig and I shuffle down with our skis and backpacks, shaking off the stupor of a 5 a.m. start back in Verbier. We gaze upward at a ragged stream of wind–whipped snow peeling from the summit of Aiguille du Dru to where the world–famous Haute Route ski traverse awaits us.
Day 01 Go time! After procuring a wedge of Gruyère, a few sticks of landjäger and chocolate for lunch, we’re on our ski traverse. Chamonix is where extreme skiing came of age. The fluted, icy north face of Aiguille Verte has seen numerous ski descents in recent years. From this angle it looks daunting, but thankfully this frozen palisade of rock only serves as a picturesque backdrop to our adventure. The intense sun and altitude sap strength, as my ski legs slowly acclimatize to the challenge of the Col du Chardonnet ascent.
Day 01 After crossing the Fenêtre de Saleina, I scramble down a frosty granite bluff while wind gusts and a blanket of thick, foreboding clouds settles upon Aiguille du Tour above me. A welcome message in the mist: This wooden sign points us toward Cabane du Trient and a well–deserved feast of Swiss rösti (like a cross between a hash brown and a potato pancake) served with eggs, cheese and sausage. Add in a glass or two of wine and a warm bed, and this long day will be a wrap.
Day 01 Swiss mastery of meticulous organization extends to their tidy mountain huts, where everything has its place. In the Cabane du Trient, perched on a rocky knoll above the plateau of Glacier du Trient, skiers holster their ice axes on a rack in the boot room before entering the warmth of the hut. On the first day, Haute Routers are rewarded with a spectacular 700–vertical–metre ski run after dropping in from the Grands Montets. Here, a lone skier, legs burning from the descent, crosses the pancake–flat upper Argentière Glacier, summoning resolve for the Col du Chardonnet.
Day 02 Norwegians Eir Kjørholt, Julie Torsnes and Fredrik Kolsgaard tilt beers and share a laugh inside Dix Hut. Kjørholt, a twentysomething medical student, started skiing just three years earlier. She chose a doozy for her first–ever ski traverse, with her boyfriend, Kolsgaard. “The first day was tough,” she says. “There were a lot of tricky elements, including rappelling and steep switchbacks, and I was pretty shaky on the Col du Chardonnet.”
Day 03 Some families go picnicking at the beach. Ortiz de Zarate and his family, which includes brother, girlfriend, mom and dad, go on epic mountain adventures together. Strong and expert skiers, they were our capable alpine companions, constantly chatting with each other in their native Catalonian. Early April is peak season for the Haute Route and we’re all taking advantage of the stable conditions, fresh powder and clear skies.
Day 04 The Haute Route delivers an epic grand finale in the form of the Matterhorn, with its instantly recognizable 4,478–metre summit clawing at the sky.
Day 05 On the final day, we follow the convoluted Stockji Glacier that wraps around the base of the mountain. And suddenly, just like that, the glacier delivers us to the civilized slopes of Zermatt and a celebratory round of après beers with the on–piste skiers.
Day 05 The evening lights of Zermatt twinkle beneath the Matterhorn, and we’re finally able to stop and stare. In 1966, Zermatt locals showed impressive foresight when they voted to ban internal–combustion engines, partly to preserve the fresh mountain air but also to ensure views of the Matterhorn were not obscured by a haze of vehicle emissions.