Rocky Mountain Way

Ski Touring Europe’s Haute Route
Published in The Listener

From the land that bestowed upon the world the dubious musical gift of bagpipes comes a well-known folk song about two weary travelers walking back to the bonny homeland who are faced with a fork in the road.  The chorus runs; “You take the high road and I’ll take the low road and I’ll be in Scotland before you.”  Trudging up the Glacier de Cheilon heading towards central Switzerland with Scotland receding in the metaphorical rear-view mirror and I can’t for the life of me get that refrain out of my head.  I’m half way along the Haute Route – French for High Road – and as anyone whose mind has wandered while they’ve been hiking, or in my case ski touring, long distances knows the curse of That Song That Won’t Stop Playing In Your Head is a fearful thing.

Fortunately the magnificence that is the European Alps provides ample distraction.  As the light plays across the jagged peaks and rocky aiguilles, or needles, it is plain to see why the Haute Route is the most famous ski tour in the world.  In the course of the 5 or 6 day alpine traverse, 10 of the 12 highest peaks in the Alps rise along the way and the snow itself seems redolent with history, atmosphere and ambience.

Ski touring in winter for Europeans is as natural as tramping is in summer for Kiwis.  With the first snow of the season anyone within a yodel of the Alps packs the lederhosen away and breaks out the skis as paths and passes that made popular walking routes in summer are transformed magically with winters’ white kiss into ski touring routes.

Ski tourers use equipment essentially the same as your common garden skier, except that the specially designed randonee bindings allow the ski tourer to lift the heels and walk, or rather slide the skis uphill.  An artificial fur ‘skin’ is attached to the base of the ski, its unidirectional hairs preventing the skis from sliding backwards as you ascend.  And in the occasional place where the slope gets too steep, the skis are simply shouldered and crampons and an ice axe are employed.

It’s the ‘earn your turns’ school of skiing, but for every upside there’s a down.  And it’s the downs that are the real reward in ski touring.  The skins come off, the bindings are clamped down and the uphill slug breaks free of gravity and metamorphoses into a downhill demon.  It’s a remarkably efficient mode of transport and a reminder that skiing was invented 1000s of years ago not as an excuse for the idle rich to justify owning gas guzzling 4WDs but as just that – a means of transport.

Not that skis have always been used on the Haute Route.  The Route was first pioneered in summer by members of the English Alpine Club, an aristocratic and eccentric group of English gentlemen with predilection for going hard in the hills that bordered on the sadomasochistic.  In their tweed suits and hobnailed boots, carrying thick hawser-laid ropes they forced a path over numerous passes from Chamonix in France, nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc and the spiritual home of alpine climbing, to Zermatt in Switzerland, which lies in the shadow of the perhaps the most recognizable peak of them all – the Matterhorn.  Thus the Haute Route was born.  But the Alpine Club members were purists who harboured a bristling disdain for the then nascent sport of skiing.  As one disgruntled wag wrote in the Alpine Journal of the time; ‘When God made the hills he intended them to be climbed and not used as glorified toboggan runs.”

Whilst the English Alpine Club members were the first to complete the entire trip, the peaks and passes that make up the Haute Route have a human history far older than them.  This is Hannibal country after all and Roman coins found on Theodul Pass indicate that Roman armies passed this way some 2000 years ago.  Since then the passes have had a rich history being frequented variously by a motley assortment of hunters, pilgrims, shepherds, soldiers and smugglers.

It was not until January 1903 that a Dr Payot of Chamonix and a group of friends and guides attempted the Haute Route on skis.  The group made it to Zermatt but they were perhaps lucky.  January in the Alps means cold temperatures and short days.  The snow bridges over the crevasses are thin and the snow is dangerously unconsolidated and avalanche prone.  Today conventional wisdom holds that you attempt the Haute Route between March and May.  Nevertheless their effort paved the way and since then the Haute Route has gone on to become the best know ski tour in the world.

Back on the Glacier de Cheilon however history is the last thing on my mind.  The weather has been unrelentingly average with strong Fohn winds blowing for days.  Yesterday we endured thick cloud and strong winds as we skirted the 3336 metre Mt Rosablanche en route to the Bivouac de Pantelons Blanc (or the White Pants Bivouac as we’d call it).  Today the wind has picked up if anything.  Apparently it is the work of El Nino, the seemingly ubiquitous weather phenomenon that cops the blame for bad weather anywhere at anytime.  Whatever is causing it, an enormous low pressure system extends from North Africa to Scandinavia and wouldn’t you know it, we’re bang in the middle.

Out in front of me old friend and mountain guide, Hugh Barnard, is setting that steady yet unhurried pace that people who spend their lives in the mountains find so effortless.  Barnard is based in Wanaka but spends 2 months of the year guiding clients in the famous peaks around Chamonix and over the Haute Route and despite the weather he makes excellent company.  Unlike many guides who appear cut from the same taciturn, silent granite that they specialise in climbing, Barnard exudes enthusiasm.  Generally this is both infectious and motivating but occasionally it can foster serious feelings of ill will.  Earlier today we had taken a short cut down a perilously steep couloir, an icy ribbon of snow threading a cliff band with swirling clouds that made it uncertain whether we were about to ski off a bluff at any moment.  As the wind sandblasted our face with pellets of snow and we peered into the gloomy void below Barnard turned to me with a grin and said “isn’t this great”.   “Bastard” was all I could think of by way of reply.

Just when I feel a tantrum coming on out of the mist rises the hut we’re aiming for, the Cabane des Dix.  It’s a hut, Jim, but not as you know it.  The Dix is 3 stories of stone, shutters and Swiss flags.  Indeed accommodation in the European Alps lies closer to the hotel end of the shelter spectrum than the tin cans we call huts in the Southern Alps.  As we slog up the last slope, Pierre the hut warden waits on the deck with a thimble of peach schnapps to welcome us in from the storm.  And once we stumble inside we find there’s even a pigtailed blonde named Heidi behind the bar.  It’s all too perfect and if Julie Andrews had burst from the broom cupboard singing ‘The Hills Are Alive…’ I would hardly have been surprised.

Without further adieu we order a bottle of Vin de Pays from the Rhone Valley, which lies just a 1000 metres below us at the mouth of the Cheilon Valley, and peruse the menu.  The hut is packed with ski tourers from all over the world, most of who manage to live up to their respective national stereotypes.  In one corner a group of Italians wave their arms about and shout excitedly as they discuss the day’s adventures and a bottle of grappa disappears with alarming speed.  In another corner a group of precise Germans study the map.  The French are chain-smoking Gitanes in an anteroom while a knot of Americans are calibrating their high tech GPS units and altimeter wristwatches.  Meanwhile the Scandinavians lie about half-cut and reveling in what they apparently consider to be cheap booze.

Barnard and I share a table with a couple of tubby Bavarian physicians who are cheerfully knocking back their third bottle of vin rouge.  It turns out they had spent the day in a blizzard high on Mt Blanc de Cheilon above the hut before being forced back by near hurricane winds.  Not that they minded.  Ski touring they explain is their annual escape from wives, lives and busy hospital jobs.  And being stuck in a comfortable hut with good food, fine wine and no phone is their definition of relaxation at its finest.  I have to admit the good doctors have a point.

The next day it seems the bad weather has settled in for good.  With commitments pressing we don’t have the luxury of waiting it out to complete the last 2 days over the Pigne d’Arolla to Zermatt.  Fortunately there are many variations on the Haute Route, meaning escape is usually just a pass away.  Many of our fellow Haute Routers are of the same mind but the Americans choose to continue, armed with their high tech ensemble of toys.  Cutting through the gloom we escape across the glacier towards the Arolla Valley as an ominous looking lenticular cloud forms over the mountains and the wind settles into a low moan.  The last barrier, a 50 metre cliff, has fortunately been clad with a series of bolted steel ladders – bless their Swiss socks, they think of everything – and soon we’re skiing down into the Arolla where our bus back to outside world waits.  It’s an anticlimactic end to the trip and it means we miss that most stately pile of them all, the Matterhorn.  But it’s been enough to understand why the Haute Route is so famous.  Weather aside, a guy could get used to this sort of thing.

A week later the weather clears and I board the funicular train to the dinky Swiss resort of Zermatt.  If I can’t finish the Route proper I at least want to see what the fuss is all about.  As the train emerges from the last tunnel there it is, the Matterhorn, looking for all the world like the Paramount Pictures logo minus the ring of stars.  It’s a fitting finish to the world’s most famous ski tour, even if I’m not on skis.

Later in a bar sitting in the shadow of the great peak I meet a guide who waited out the same storm with his clients.  It transpires that one of the American group that continued on was blown off the Pigne d’Arolla in 115 km/hour winds, suffering a broken shoulder in the process and forcing an ignominious retreat to the safety and comfort of the Cabane des Dix.  Somehow it’s reassuring to know that even on the High Road nature still rules.  It might be The World’s Most Famous Ski Tour but while you take civilisation to the mountains, you will never civilise them.

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