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  • Anju

Chamonix - Zermatt Ski Haute Route

Skier skiing next to glaciers and Matterhorn
Skier Dan taking some turns on the last day on the Zmutt Glacier with the Matterhorn in the background

We walked out of the café into the rain and I left my old black running shoes at the base of the Gran Montets ski resort. I pulled the hood of my jacket over my head while walking through the mud towards the first gondola with Steph, Dan, and Aki. Since every hut has slippers (aka Crocs), I didn’t need to bring any. Our plan was simply to find a new pair of shoes in Zermatt, some 120 kilometers and 7 days later.

A couple of months ago we planned our ski traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt as two groups of two, an iconic classic in the world of Haute routes (High Altitude routes) in the Alps.

I highly recommend reserving the huts as early as November if it’s important to you at what hut you stay and how much elevation gain you plan each day.

We decided for this itinerary:

Day 1: Gran Montets Resort to Cabane du Argentiere

Day 2: Cabane du Argentiere to Cabane du Trient

Day 3: Cabane du Trient to Champex (drive via bus and train) to Verbier (take gondolas) to Cabane du Mont Fort

Day 4: Cabane de Mont Fort to Cabane du Prafleuri

Day 5: Cabane du Prafleuri to Cabane du Dix

Day 6: Cabane du Dix to Cabane du Vignettes

Day 7: Cabane du Vignettes to Zermatt

We planned with 7 days, but you could do it in fewer days and skip Mont Fort for example. In the end, we did it in 8 days and added a stop in Arolla and stayed at Cabane de Bertol instead of Vignettes because of the bad weather.

Weather is a factor for the success of this route, however, and if you plan a few more days then you have the chance to wait out weather or change to an alternative route. We had 4 stormy days out of the 8 days. As skiers from Montana, we are used to a continental snowpack which implies cold, dry snow with sensitive weak layers all winter. All of us have never skied in the Alps and were surprised by the stable and quick-healing snowpack.

We arrived the day before in Chamonix, which only took us 5 ½ hours by train from Zurich. Chamonix was filled with life in the evening, and we stopped by big gear shops and chocolate stores. The weather wasn’t in our favor and it was raining at the lower elevations.

Once we got to the top of the Gran Montets gondola, the rain transformed into snow and fresh loading. White-out conditions made us re-think our approach to the Argentiere hut and talk about alternatives. In the worst-case scenario, we could start a day later and skip the Argentiere hut and ski directly to Trient. Since all the huts were reserved months in advance, changing every single night at every hut would have been nearly impossible.

After skinning for a couple hundred feet up, we made it to the ridge and waited for an hour at a little gear barn on top of it. Communication and comfort-level were key topics for day 1 in white-out conditions and new loading. Luckily, we could make safe decisions and speak out loud about our comfort-levels and opinions. After crossing and skiing the Glacier de Rognons we joined the Argentiere Glacier and the storm cleared. We had an amazing view of the surrounding rock spires. Despite the poor weather the Argentiere hut was fully occupied. We had soup, chili with rice and a small pudding desert. As it turns out, most huts serve 3-4 course meals and always offer extra portions to make sure everyone gets satisfied. As a vegetarian or vegan you’ll experience hit or mist, but as a carnivore, you might just get a big slab of pork every night!

The next morning was clear, and I felt like I had the best views of the entire trip. Steph and I decided to take the route on Chardonnet Glacier towards the Trient hut. It seemed shorter mileage-wise but more technical to climb the Col du Chardonnet instead of skiing the Glacier du Tour. Even before getting to the col, we had to boot pack 20 mins because the slope got too steep and hard to skin. The col itself had a fun short rocky traverse in boots and crampons with a small drop of maybe 30 feet. At the top, we found a fixed rope on a bolted anchor. Dan and Aki already ski-cut the 10 inch wind slab on top. We just had to rappel 20 feet, side slip, and ski down the short couloir! Luckily, we had no one in front of us or skinning up the slope and our exit was rather quick. Afterward, we just had to navigate Glacier de Saleina and Glacier du Trient. The sun was strong and wearing a protective face covering was helpful to prevent sunburns!

Gear recommendations:

  • The standard equipment for winter backcountry travel and avalanche rescue kits

  • Crevasse rescue kits, 6mm x 30m rad lines, a few lockers, non-lockers, slings, nano traction

  • Ropes can be handy not only for crevasse rescue but for rappelling, lowering, and belaysHut slippers are provided in each hutSleeping bag liners are required

  • Cotton or wool hut clothing to get a break from your synthetic, sweaty ski clothingKindle, book, battery charger, ear plugs, headphones – there’s plenty of opportunity to read and chill

The first couple days of this trip I felt pretty miserable because I must have gotten some infection. My throat was burning, my head got congested and I had a difficult time breathing while hiking or sleeping. For the Trient – Champex tour Aki and Dan radioed us in the morning to join them on the Grand D’Orny couloir. The night before I couldn’t imagine to do anything then the minimum but that morning I was glad we joined them. D’Orny was the best ski descent on this whole trip and very worth the short climb up to it. This couloir alone was a 3000 ft descent on powdery snow with increasingly hard wind slab. Once we were in valley “Val d’Arpette” ski conditions became difficult on thick breakable and icy crust but increased after some feet into ice and later slush.

Short belayed section at the start of the D'Orny couloir

In Champex we took a bus and two trains to get to Verbier, our next part of the Haute route. Even though we spent only two nights in the “backcountry” we enjoyed a good cappuccino and fresh food at the local restaurant “La Fer a Cheval Verbier”. From here we took a few gondolas to the CAS hut Mont Fort, a posh Swiss Alpine Club hut and restaurant in the middle of the ski resort. After the Spritz drinking guests left, we had the terrace to ourselves for incredible sunset views. The next morning Steph and I left the hut at 7 am and skinned over the Col de la Chaux and Col de Momin into the Grand Desert Glacier. Conditions worsened rapidly and once again we found ourselves surrounded by whiteness and constant snowing. For some time, we had a bigger group whose track we followed but decided to leave on to our own journey once we realized they had a slightly different route in mind. We skied a bit roped-up and with skins on our skis in fresh snow. Once we dropped to 9500 ft the visibility got better and we made it to the Prafleuri hut. The same day, Steph, Aki and Dan decided to ski the big face next to “Col du Roux” a steep 700 ft tall face with rocky terrain in it. A rad add-on!

Sunset at Cabane du Mont Fort

Prafleuri – Cabane du Dix was probably the worst day. It wasn’t the most elevation gain or mileage but the traversing nature of this leg got us all sore and tired on one side (right side). The crusty and icy conditions were not favoring the traverse. However, Dix provided some great north-facing ski terrain south of the hut and it was easy to add a 2-hour tour to La Luette after lunch break.

Day 5, Dan skiing close to the Cabane du Dix with Mont Blanc de Cheilon in the background

At Dix we had some Wi-Fi and saw incoming bad weather for the next two days. We changed our plans and instead of going to Vignettes, we prolonged our tour by one day and descended into Arolla. The new plan was to ski in bad weather to Arolla, via pas du Chevres, and the next day to Bertol to have the final day in good visibility for our 7600 ft descent and 20 km tour. Arolla struck us by it’s old charm and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Kurhaus and enjoyed this historical hotel with its tall ceilings and antique furniture. We also indulged in classical Valais cuisine, and we couldn’t have chosen a better place.

We canceled Vignettes and booked a night at Bertol – luckily, they weren’t booked out. In fact, as soon as the weather is bad in the Alps it seems that all the huts empty out. Bertol is this crazy tower hut that is built into a cliff. You can only access it by climbing up a ladder. You can even rock climb into it from one side in multi-pitch style! The feeling is surreal and whenever you get out of the hut you stand on a metal terrace that looks down into the depths of the snowy landscapes. The toilets are on that metal terrace, the whole construction feels like being on a boat.

The incredible Cabane de Bertol

What are the costs on route?

About $100-130/night at each hut, this includes lodging, breakfast, dinner and lunch/ snacks, water is usually around $10 for 1.5L, in most huts water is not potable or non-existent

Lift tickets Grand Montets, Mont Fort about $90Train rides, Zurich-Chamonix $150, Zermatt – Zurich $140, Champex – Verbier $20

Gear shuttle Chamonix-Zurich up to $500 per load, best to split with large group (or just store your gear at your starting / end point)

Lunches & drinks around towns are comparable to prices in San Fransisco and NY

On our last day, we started at 6 am to arrive in Zermatt before noon and catch a train back to Zurich. The light was so beautiful that we thought we should have left at 6 am every day. After the initial skinning up for 2 hours we got to our high point of the day and started the 20km long descent. The weather was again clear and sunny, so we skied through some moon-like glacial slopes with ice sticking out. The last part of our ski journey was skiing the cat tracks of the Zermatt ski resort with the Matterhorn in the background. We arrived in town around 10 am and had plenty of time to get one last authentic Swiss meal.

The Haute traverse Chamonix – Zermatt was a trip of a lifetime for me and I highly recommend it!

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