The following article is written by Oliver Chipperfield, who, in March 2015 completed a traverse of the Haute Route. We thought we would share Oliver’s advice and experience with the community, and hope that it may help people with planning their own expedition.
“The trip had been a long time in gestation, so I had plenty of time to think – and probably over think – about it, and a lot of hard work went into planning and getting ready for it. I wanted to write something that would help anyone else planning this sort of trip.”
The Haute Route is a ski mountaineering traverse. The distinction is important, because it involves a lot of mountaineering skills as it is fundamentally about crossing a mountain range, and getting to the top of the accessible peaks whilst doing it. Simply put, the difference between ski touring and mountaineering is a rope. And we used one a lot…
When I set about planning my trip, I decided that the trips I had enjoyed most were the ones I did with friends, so I wanted to put my own team together. As I am in my mid 50s this wasn’t especially easy, as you need mates who you want to do this with and vice-versa. Then they have to have the time, money, permission, skills and also be prepared to achieve fitness. If you are lucky enough to find a group of willing mates, then that is the way I would always go. In the end we settled on 3 of us plus a guide, largely because there were only 3 of us who were prepared to do it. There were others, but once they saw the fitness required their enthusiasm withered. 3 turned out to be a perfectly good number – it means you have enough for emergencies, but you can be slick and fast as a small group. The faffing in the big groups had to be seen to be believed. The only downside is it is more expensive, but with the Swiss Franc the way it is now that was almost a side issue – though remember this isn’t a cheap trip in anyone’s books. There are of course plenty of commercially organised groups who are absolutely fine if you can’t put a trip together yourself.
I like planning my own trips, so I contracted an Italian guide who I had ski toured with in Alagna a few years before. The guide is a crucial part of the trip, not just because you are in his (or her) hands, but also because the group chemistry is really important – just the same as the organised group vs friends part. The guide will set the tone, style, approach and the pace of the trip. I wanted an IFMGA status guide as a pre-requisite. If you hire a guide directly they will do all the accommodation, transfers and so on. You will pay around 300 Euros a day, plus all their expenses – which are at reduced rates for the huts and lifts.
Not surprisingly, most of the guides are Chamonix-based and usually French. Whilst the Haute Route is in France and Switzerland, it does go almost along the Italian border, and the great Italian ski areas of Cervinia, Champoluc, Gressoney and Alagna are very close. This means that the Italian guides from the area know it just as well as anyone else, and our guides – Davide and Stephano (we loosely combined with another group who also had an Italian guide – so we had the benefit of 2 guides for the price of 1) were superb. Incredibly professional, relaxed (once we had got our kick turns up to standard), and impressive mountaineers with fitness levels that were staggering.
We decided to do the Classic ski Route – Argentières, Champex, Prafleuri, Dix, Vignettes and Zermatt. Our plans had to change because of atrocious weather on the first 2 days, which forced us to restart in Arolla, but which we extended at the end to include extra night in the Rifugio di Guida Cervina and onto the Breithorn and Schwartzhorn. We completed approximately the same distance up and down as the classic route, so felt perfectly entitled to buy the T-shirt at the end!
I learnt a lot despite having done plenty of off-piste skiing and touring. One of my fears had been basic winter mountaineering skills, or rather my lack of them, so last winter I spent a week on a winter mountain skills course in Spain to give me a base knowledge and extra confidence which was invaluable. We learnt how to use transceivers and carry out searches, how to use crampons and ice axes, basic rope work including crevasse rescue techniques, setting up snow and ice belays, and snow pack analysis. As a skier I was astonished, embarrassed actually, at how little of this I knew and I cannot recommend doing something like this enough.
The skill I consider most important for such an expedition is the uphill kick turn. Suffice to say we weren’t up to scratch, and after a rather shambolic cross of the Argentières glacier (the weather was atrocious, and all the loose snow had been blown away), and an even more hopeless climb off the glacier, our guide made us spend all afternoon practicing on a steep ice slope – in 120km/hr winds! I can’t say we were perfect after that, but we were proficient. It wasn’t that long before we were very slick. In fact the weather, mostly very strong winds, rising to 140km/hr on our second day, meant that we had to learn and carry out kick turns and transitions from skis to crampons and back again, in very testing conditions. However, that is the time you really need to be able to do them. It is easy in the sun on a gentle slope – it is hell cowering behind a boulder with the threat of everything being blown into the next valley. The other skill is learning to skin efficiently and repetitively for several hours. Rhythm, pace, slick turns and getting the right inclination, as zig-zag traverses are much more energy efficient than going too steep. You also need to make sure you don’t lift the ski as this is energy sapping. Sounds easy? It isn’t. As for ability, I think you need to be a good skier. The powder slopes are the easy bits, the ice and crust are the hard bits. Sometimes you find yourself skiing on a slope where a fall could be very serious, so the ability to be total control at all times is vital.
Moving onto equipment. At the moment there is still some hesitation about pin fit Dynafit style bindings over more traditional bindings like Diamir. I would just say that anyone ski mountaineering on old school bindings and skis must be mad. Modern touring carbon skis, Dynafit bindings and compatible boots are so light that we estimated they save you 10 minutes an hour over older traditional touring set ups. You will have to get compatible boots but if you become hooked, which you will, you will never regret it. Get pin binding compatible boots! The bindings themselves are pretty easy to get the hang of, and we never had a problem – apart from when one got caught by the wind and blew away, so leashes are very important, and not just for if you fall in a crevasse or deep snow. We all favoured adjustable ski poles, especially when you need to strap them on your pack.
As to the other hardware – you have to carry a shovel, probe, transceiver, crampons, ski crampons and skins. I particularly liked my Grivel Haute Route axe, BCA B1 tour shovel and probe system, the Black Diamond Couloir harness, the Camp 350 crampons – all as light as possible, but very functional.
Clothing – the “kit List” seemed to absorb an inordinate amount of mental energy and wallet stretching, but it is vital to get it right, otherwise you will have a very uncomfortable week. The number 1 rule: light is right. What I mean by this is having the ability to recognise that if you don’t need something, don’t take it. Having said that, I might add another: no-one has ever been too cold. You really don’t need that much, and although I found having a spare base layer to change into was a godsend for a full week, there were others who were less fussy (and much more smelly).
The general consensus was:
- Soft-shell touring pants (with really light shell in the pack) or proper Gore-Tex or similar technical unlined shell ski trousers. I used both, because I shredded my technical Gore-Tex with my crampons falling in a hole so switched over on day 2. touring pants run cooler, but aren’t as weatherproof in really bad weather.
- Top and bottom baselayer – because of their different capabilities I mixed synthetic and merino.
- Mid layer – lightweight softshell and/or microfleece.
- Gore-Tex technical shell – 4/6 of us wore Mountain equipment Ogre or Lhotse jackets.
- Down jacket – I bought a Rab Microlight which was my star purchase of the trip. What no-one ever told me was just how cold the dormitories were at night. I slept in mine and probably wore it most of the time in the huts. Though I never needed it outside, even when it was very cold.
- Gloves – we used ropes a lot so leather-palmed ski gloves were essential, and a pair of wind-stopper gloves, which I used more than the ski gloves. There is a lot of fiddling about with leashes, bindings, skins, crampons etc. so you need to able to do that with gloves on. A very thin liner glove is very handy if you need to take your gloves off when it is very cold. Waterproofing is also surprisingly important as using hands in the snow was wetter than I was expecting at that altitude. Other than that, a neck gaitor, sun cap and warm hat made up the rest of our attire.
The final word on equipment – the pack. You will be wearing it all day, everyday for a week. You will skin, abseil, climb ladders and do miles of powder skiing with it on. We all used mountaineering style packs from the Lowe Alpine range with around a 35 – 40 litre capacity and were very happy with them. I’d say go no bigger than that, if you cant fit it all in you are taking too much. One of my co-mountaineers also took a spare base layer like me and fitted everything into a 26L backpack, but he was quite small…
In the run up to the trip we did debate bringing ABS packs and decided not to in the end. As it got closer our wives all became more informed about ABS, and a string of helpful and informative emails started coming our way on the subject of avalanches/death on the Haute Route. In the event we stood by our decision not to use it as they can be quite heavy. If you are obsessing about shaving off 100g here and there and you then whack on another 2.5kg you are missing the point. We had very low avalanche risk at the time, but also the guides will work a route to avoid risk, so I don’t think avalungs and ABS packs are 100% necessary. I should point out, however, that both myself and our guides would always wear an avalanche pack when ski touring, as the lifesaving capability is definitely worth the weight!
Crevasses are a bigger risk, and carrying the right climbing hardware, and knowing what to do with it is much more important. We did debate top loaders versus clam shell packs, and in retrospect I can see the advantage of having something more compartmentalised like the Ortovox Haute Route. The ski carry is important, and we all agreed A-frame over diagonal, as much because of the ease of doing it and that it keeps the skis closer to the body. In terms of skiing I found no issue with the mountaineering style – what makes the difference is the weight, so go light. And that includes the base pack weight.
The only other thing that no-one explained properly was food and drink. You will need at least 1 litre, probably 1.5 or 2 litres of water a day. Food was oddly not so important. We thought we would get packed lunches, but these either didn’t materialise or looked inedible, so in the end we existed on a couple of energy bars a day – “Clif” and “Go” bars were our food of choice, interspersed with jelly babies, dried fruit and nuts. I would definitely just take that in future, and it is easy to carry enough for the week – we took far too much. A thermos flask is a bit of a Marmite choice – for me, a complete waste of time but others loved them.
To the uninitiated the huts take bit of getting used to. They are commercially run by a Guardian and team who take a tenancy from the respective national Alpine club. The system is regimented, and designed to minimise noise, mess and kit around the hut. They are pretty full immediately once they open in March, so booking is essential, and all of them are pretty similar – you leave hardware outside, boots in the boot room, you find a cubby hole for your pack, and you take your hut essentials in a small bag (Exped type stuff bag is perfect) into the dining room where you’ll spend your waking hours. The dormitories are freezing, but perfectly comfortable once snug under the duvet in your liner bag. I am a full strength snorer, so was probably rather unpopular – in case you get someone like me, get the best earplugs you can find, and take spares. 10pm at 3,300m; don’t find out at that they don’t work. I swear by Flents soft foam ones with an NRR of 33 to stop myself waking myself up! There is no running water, so wet wipes are vital, but the loos have by and large been modernised to something that, given the circumstances, is pretty acceptable to a 21st century citizen. There are charging facilities, but the Swiss have a special plug which isn’t the same as the normal Northern European one. A huge upside is there isn’t wi-fi, and the mobile signal if often non existent – marvelous! Take a lightweight (both in grams and in subject matter) book, some cards and an iPhone. If I was going again I might take my mini iPad instead of a book. We were always so exhausted that we went to bed by 9, and were up every day at 5.
Hut food is fine – soup, stew/rice, pudding. All those mouthwatering images of rosti and eggs are usually the lunchtime menu which ends at 3pm. We never got to our huts in time, so be prepared for wall to wall soup and stew – and, if really unlucky, Angel Delight! It generally depends on when the helicopter last arrived. We did have salad on occasions which was almost like getting Michelin star food…
One of the aspects of hut life is needing to be super organised so you will constantly be packing and unpacking. Practice this beforehand as you’ll likely be doing it in the dark and in the mornings – so you learn fast to pack in the right order.
The problem everyone suffers from is painful feet. Ski boots, however well fitted, will hurt at some point. We all got blisters, and I have always found that heat is a major factor. Despite the guide telling me not to, I found the my old army discipline of foot checking really paid off and I am convinced it saved me from much worse blisters. It almost goes without saying you must have your own boots and they must be professionally fitted. During the week before I did the route I took 3 trips to the shop at the end of each day to get them tweaked, and despite being super comfortable one day, they were painful the next, and fine the day after that!
Finally – Fitness. This really focuses everyone, and yes you do need to be fit. From January I ran 5km three times a week, went to the gym for more cardio and weights twice a week and tried to go on a decent bike ride each week. I also walked whenever and wherever I could, and I was absolutely fine on that. What made a big difference was to be able to spend a few days skiing beforehand to get altitude acclimatised, and use those skiing thigh muscles that really hurt on long descents. This gave me a big advantage over my friends who came straight out.
We had an amazing experience in the high alps. It was without a doubt the best and most challenging thing I have done. I am 54, and was able to deal with it just as well as people 1/2 my age. If this inspires you to do – go and do it – the Haute Route is a challenge. Ski holidays will never be the same…