Old-School Spring Ski Touring From Chamonix To Zermatt

It’s springtime and the snowpack is settling over the bones of the alps. The hut keepers are returning to sweep out the fine dust of ice that has crystalized out of the air in the long cold of winter; and they’re firing up the stoves that will turn lowly potatoes into “haute cuisine”— fuel for the mass migration that occurs in March and April across the high glacial passes of the range. 

Each year I pack for these trips and reflect on the evolution of this sport, just over a hundred years old. When a Chamonix team first completed the ski route to Zermatt in 1903, they made use of the mountain huts that had already begun to spring up in the alps to facilitate the growing sport of alpinism. Their idea was visionary—to combine their climbing acumen with the novel tool they saw in the ski; it was a new form of alpinism, one which played out across vast distances, and in the heart of winter. Their tools and their understanding of the environment needed refinement, but their tenacity and enterprise remain inspiring. It may have been only the dawn of alpine ski touring, but their success can still shed light for a modern skier preparing their first Haute Route. 

If you’re lucky. the glacier won’t chew before it swallows you

The first recorded crevasse fall in ski mountaineering history took place during the team’s first attempt, and it’s worth noting that it was on the Glacier du Chardonnet—far from the biggest or most crevassed glacier on the route. At the time, the theory went that snow bridges would be at their strongest in the January cold; they lacked a full picture of how seasonal snowpack develops and its consequences for glacier travel. These days, most people do the Chamonix-Zermatt in March or April, when the snowpack is near its peak and bridges should be strong. Confidence in your route-finding on glaciers comes first, but it’s foolhardy to head out without the skills and tools to enact a rescue. Modern ropes, carabiners and cordage make for a light kit; something like a Petzl Microtraction is also worth its weight. And, practice, practice, practice.

Tactics For The Route

The team that opened the C-Z relied on the simple huts located along the way, and indeed had to turn tail and spend a second night in the Chanrion due to poor weather. It’s good to plan on being a gracious guest at the deluxe huts that have replaced those rustic shacks. Here are a few of my key tactics:

  • Reserve ahead and always call as soon as conditions force your plans to change—hut guardians have a short season in which to turn a profit from their operation, and they appreciate being kept in the loop. 
     
  • My own preference is to take full advantage of the huts by eating almost every meal in them. Even if lunch comes at 2pm, I don’t find a rösti ever keeps me from enjoying dinner. This way my pack stays light and I get to support the huts.
     
  • While some huts accept credit cards, it’s nice to come equipped with local currency, as it saves the staff considerable time and hassle when everyone lines up to pay after dinner. 
     
  • Don’t forget the earplugs.

Always look on the bright side

Ravanel and Payot finished their epic descent to Zermatt at midnight, exhausted though no doubt satisfied. If you have good weather and plan to stick with the beaten path, a standard sized, lightweight LED lamp should suffice. If you will have variable weather or you are planning on doing big days and exploring some, it may be a good idea to have something a bit more powerful in the mix.  Evaluating glacial features in the dark is much easier with a bright lamp, and there are many  attractive models of modest weight. 

Phone’s ringing, dude

The original party used a taxi from Orsières to le Châble. That’s right, the original Haute Route involved a motor vehicle. I choose to view this as liberating, and a good reminder that notions of purity are usually an illusion when it comes to sports. Carry a cell phone, not only for emergencies but also so that you can get in touch with any taxi you choose to use. It also makes it a snap to cancel reservations, and make new ones when necessary. Pre-load the phone with all the useful numbers you might need, and look forward to stress-free improvisation. While you’re at it, maybe consider a handy translation app to help you through the language barrier. 

A beautiful place to get lost

In 1903 good maps already existed for much of the alps, so the Payot crew had access to detailed, accurate geographic information. In the high mountains, one can quickly be robbed of many of the advantages we have over our predecessors. Batteries die, phones break, the beaten track gets blown in, and in whiteout the world quickly becomes a dead end that would make Jean-Paul Sartre proud. A good map gives me tremendous peace of mind, especially when combine with an altimeter and compass.