the Haute Route

We talked about walking the Haute Route the other day, but many of you might already be planning to ski it this year, so here’s some information for you adventurous extreme skiers out there.

For a start you will need to know how to ski on alpine touring skis.

You will also need to have the:

  • Ability to turn comfortably through the fall line in difficult deep, heavy snow, or bad breakable crust.
  • Ability to execute hop parallel turns or pedal-hop turns on 35° firm snow.
  • Ability to ski the fall-line with short-radius, rhythmic parallel turns in deep light snow.
  • Ability to side-slip, both forward and backward, on firm 40° slopes.
  • Ability to skate on level ground.

Although the Tour can be completed in under 24 hours on skies, most skiers take about five days, sleeping in high mountain huts and tailoring their plans to the weather and snow conditions. The huts offer simple dormitory-style accommodation, meals and, if you’re lucky, showers.

But back to the skiing skills that are required to do this trip. Remember, this is an extreme tour which must not be challenged lightly, after all – it is 180 kms from Chamonix to Zermatt with 3,000 m alpine passes and skiing across at least 130 kms of glacial snow and ice.

The Haute Route heads eastwards from the base of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak, and finishes in the unmistakeable shadow of the Matterhorn. In total, it ascends and descends almost 20,000 m, crosses some 20 glaciers and meanders through France, Italy and Switzerland.

One of the myths about this Tour is that there is only one route. This is not correct. There are several choices allowing skiers to lengthen their tour or avoid trails made hazardous by high winds or avalanches.

With the proper gear, careful planning and clear weather, the Haute Route is as safe and achievable as any backcountry skiing trip. It is physically demanding, however – an average day involves 5 hours of skiing carrying a pack and is likely to burn between 4,000 and 6,000 calories.

Skiers need to be comfortable skiing both off piste and down advanced (black diamond-rated) slopes. The reason for this has more to do with the conservation and expenditure of energy over a long day than the absolute technical difficulty of the skiing although there are a few steep sections, such as the descent off the Plateau du Couloir on Day 5 and the descent to the Col des Ecandies on Day 3. However, for the most part the slopes are not overly steep.

The challenge comes in managing poor snow conditions (heavy wet snow, crud or breakable crust) and not losing too much energy in the process. Good skiers look like they are hardly working, and this is in fact the case. If your skiing is not up to par you will spend far, far more energy than a better skier.

Skiers who regularly enjoy black or double black runs in most western American ski areas should do fine. If you like to go off- piste and into the crud, ski the trees, and in general look for the steeper shots, you’ll probably have a great time on this tour. But if you tend to stick to the groomed slopes and find off-piste a bit intimidating this is probably not a good tour for you.

You are likely to encounter many different kinds of snow, from the best to the worst, and you need to have sound energy efficient strategies to cope with them.

A good gauge of your ability is how good are you at mogul skiing? If you are good in the bumps and seek them out, then you probably have the skill, the rhythm and the balance needed for steep or difficult snow.

But it requires more than all the above too. You must be able to ski safely and controlled at all times while wearing a mid-weight backpack (7-10 kg /15 lb-22 lb). You need to be in very good physical and mental condition, ready to be on your feet for about 8 – 10 hrs including steep, continuous uphill climbs of up to 1200 m (4100 ft) on some of the days.

Being on your feet every day for 7 days requires a good deal of stamina.

Going with a guide isn’t required, but if you’re uncomfortable navigating your way through a whiteout or rappelling down a mountainside, a guide is the way to go.

Remember that crampons, ice axes and avalanche beacons are part of the necessary equipment – this is not a Tour for the faint-hearted!

But it is worth it. It is an exhilarating challenge with incomparable views and with the final day bringing an incredible ski descent under the North Face of the mighty Matterhorn down into Zermatt.

Here’s a great video from cxnx condensing 6 days into just under 6 minutes:

I have been asked if it is possible to snowboard the Haute Route. I have looked and looked, but although one place mentions that skiers and snowboarders can do the Tour, I have seen no evidence of snowboarders and fear you might have to revert to your skis. However, if you really don’t want to do that, I suggest you contact one of the many guide companies that offer services and advice on the Haute Route.