Skiing the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt
Article & photos by Jean Pavillard
I skied the Haute Route for the first time when I was 14 and at least once or twice every year since. I’ve skied it with perfect snow; I’ve skied it in stormy conditions.
Regardless, every time I am in awe with the beauty of the tour and can’t wait to do it again.
The Haute Route is one of the best known ski tours in the world – a true traverse moving along the spine of the Alps in France, Switzerland and Italy.
Presenting all the challenges of high alpine ski mountaineering, skiing the Haute Route entails crossing glaciers, scrambling peaks and passes, rappelling and crossing hidden crevasses.
History of the Haute Route
The Haute Route starts in Chamonix, the European climbing & skiing Mecca and ends in Zermatt, the most well-known alpine town in the world at the foot of the Matterhorn.
The first ski traverse along the Haute Route was made by a French team in January 1903. The party consisted of Joseph Ravanel, “Le Rouge” Alfred Simon, Dr. Payot, Camille and Jean Ravanel, and Jules Couttet.
Their route took in Col du Chardonnet, Fenetre de Saleinaz, Cabane d’Orny, Orsiere, Val de Bagnes, Cabane de Chanrion, Otemma glacier, Col de L’Eveque and Zermatt (after a detour via les Hauderes due to bad weather).
The Haute Route stretches over 145 km (90 miles), crossing 23 glaciers, with a total ascent and descent of 10,000 vertical m. (33,000 ft).
The entire traverse was completed on skis in 1911. The Haute Route is not the achievement of one person or one team but, the result of many attempts from many different teams.
There are quite few variations: From Orsiere one option goes to Mt. Fort above Verbier, and continues on to Les Dix Hut via Rosa Blanche. Another option goes to Grand Combin, Chanrion Hut, Les Dix. All routes finish via Pigne D’Arolla, Vignette, Col de L’Eveque, Col de Valpelline, Zermatt.
Preparing to Ski the Haute Route
Skiers must have a good fitness level – the average day is 6 to 7 hours long with the longest vertical gain of 3,230 ft. and the longest descent of 6,930 ft.
In order to enjoy this ski tour, good technique is required including:
- Skinning uphill without effort (efficient movement skills) and skinning with ski crampons
- Performing uphill kick turns
- Skiing in variable snow conditions – powder, hard spring snow, crud and everything in between – while under control. An efficient technique is best, with no need for aggressive hop turns, but a smoother convergent step turn (like the good old stem Christie).
- Skiing with a pack carrying basic safety gear (shovel, probe, transceiver on you) crampons (light weight aluminum work well) small ice axe, clothes for ski touring and extra in case of bad weather, a few snacks and a water bottle.
Skiing the Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt
While, as described above, there are numerous variations to the Haute Route, the itinerary for the typical ski tour is:
Day 1: Leave Chamonix to go to Argentière and ascend the Grand Montet by gondola. From the top, ski down, then skin up to the Argentière Hut (2,771 m / 9,089′)
Day 2: Departing from the Argentière Hut, climb the Chardonnet Pass taking in the spectacular views, before skiing to the Trient Hut.
Day 3: This day sports a descent starting in the high mountains and finishing on the Rhone valley floor via Champex. Following a transfer to Verbier, the day ending at the Mt. Fort Hut.
Day 4: The Rosablanche is the high point for the day, followed by a marvelous alpine descent of this snow and glacier clad mountain, finishing at the Prafleuri hut.
Day 5: Traverse from Prafleuri hut to Les Dix hut via the Col des Roux, Lac des Dix and the Pas du Chat (the cat step)
Day 6: The climb to the top of the Pigne d’Arolla provides splendid views and leaves us, after a pleasant descent, perched at the Vignette Hut
Day 7: After ascending the Tête Blanche via Col Brulé and Col de L’Eveque, a final Haute Route descent into Zermatt.
Skiing the Haute Route: Accommodations
The huts along the Haute Route are great. Perched on top of glaciers, they offer great comfort and spectacular views.
Accommodations are dorm style, with dinner and breakfast provided.
Snacks, wine, coffee and treats like “Rosti” with cheese and eggs are also available.
Skiing the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt: Additional photos
All images courtesy of Jean Pavillard.
Jean Pavillard is an accomplished international mountain guide, certified ski instructor & owner of Adventures to the Edge.