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Haute Route Chamonix-Zermatt

by Barrabes - 0
A guide to the most popular ski touring route in the world

Text: José Carlos Iglesias, UIAGM guide.

Photos: José Carlos Iglesias, Joanne Iglesias, Sergio Dorado, Alfredo Encinar, Joel Arellano, Ryan Leonard and Bill Hillty.


The Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route is, without a doubt, the most popular in the world. The Alps boast a number of grand ski touring routes, from the Bernese Oberland, Italian Haute Route (Spaghetti Tour) to the Silvretta traverse, but the popularity of the Haut Route is indisputable.

The reason is clear. The traverse begins in the French capital of mountaineering: Chamonix and finishes in the Swiss capital of mountaineering: Zermatt. Between the towns lies a huge mass of mountains and peaks, each boasting its own unique character, each a protagonist in the history of world mountaineering: Mont Blanc, Cervino-Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Courtes, Droites, Pigne d´Arolla or Monte Rosa (to name a few). As tourers pass over the cols and skirt the base of each mountain, the views never cease to amaze as they change in form.

Facts and Advice
The Haute Route between Chamonix and Zermatt has a distance of approx. 120km and with 6,000m of combined altitude gain and loss and passes through numerous glaciers and cols. Tourers take approx. 6 to 7 days to complete the route, depending on the route selected.

There are several variants of the route, all worthy of respect. It is important to read up on them in case bad weather or avalanche risk requires you to divert from your original route. Some of these variants require logistical planning in the form of a taxi to take you from one village to another in order to reach the next glacier.

The most popular variant is the Verbier ski resort route. If there is a high avalanche risk, you can choose to access the glaciers from the village of Arolla.

A large part of the Haute Route passes through areas that are very exposed to avalanches, especially after heavy snowfall. If there is a high avalanche risk, these itineraries should be avoided and, if need be, the stage should be altered.

2017/18 was one of the longest winters in history in the Alps. During the first week of April, Chamonix welcomed us with a metre of fresh snow every day and 100km per hour winds above 2000m altitude. With a large group of clients, we had no option other than to change the planned route, especially as the avalanche risk was at 5. For this reason, we set off from Arolla and planned to avoid high risk areas such as the climb to the Chardonnet Col and the stage between the Prafleuri and Dix huts.

Conditions of the terrain during a traverse change from year to year. One year a particular stage may be perfect for skinning, while another may require exchanging your skis for your crampons and ice-axe. The same couloir may be skiable on the descent or require a rappel if it is very steep and there is more ice than snow. For this reason you should always be aware of the weather conditions of previous years and months so that you can plan and enjoy the safest route.

The French and Swiss rescue groups regularly carry out avalanche controls from helicopters with electrical explosive detonations. However, it is still fundamental to be aware of the conditions.

Location of Base Camps

CHAMONIX (1050m)

The capital of mountaineering. Hotels, shops, restaurants, banks, hospitals and gift shops abound. An alpine village with the infrastructure for all your needs.

Chamonix is the perfect base for planning your traverse although hotels can be expensive so a Gite is a good alternative for accommodation. Gites are usually simple but with all the basics. The Alpen Rose Gite is very central, comfortable and serves good food. The price includes breakfast and dinner.

Another interesting and also economical option is to rent a house or apartment between a group of skiers, which gives a bit more independence. The route departs from the Grands Montets ski resort. You can get there by bus, which is usually free from the gite or hotel.

ARGENTIERE (1250m)

More peaceful than Chamonix, this village also has all the essentials; hotels, restaurants and gites. The Grands Montets station is a short bus ride away and this is a good option if you want to leave your car at the hotel.

AROLLA (2000m)

A charming little village surrounded by marvellous mountains, forests and glaciers, Arolla is frequently visited by ski tourers avoiding bad weather at Dix, Vignettes or Bertol. All three huts can be ascended on the long glacier routes from the village.

The village is at the base of Pigne d'Arolla, which, at 3790m, is the highest peak you'll climb on the Chamonix-Zermatt traverse. Arolla has hotels, shops and restaurants as well as a small ski resort with drag lifts that lead to awesome off piste slopes. The best way to reach Arolla is by taxi.

ZERMATT (1600M)

Our destination point and the base camp for the Cervino-Matterhorn. A beautiful alpine village that maintains its own identity in spite of the high level of tourism.

Zermatt is very expensive, but it is worth having a meal on one of its many patios with splendid views of the Cervino-Matterhorn. To get back to Chamonix from Zermatt, you can hire a taxi which takes approx. three hours.

Stages

CHAMONIX-ZERMATT, VERBIER ROUTE

GRAND MONTETS-TRIENT HUT-CHAMPEX/VERBIER-PRAFLEURI HUT-DIX HUT-VIGNETTES HUT-ZERMATT.

STAGE 1. GRAND MONTETS-TRIENT HUT

This stage is fairly moderate but it can be quite tiring if it is your first day of the tour at altitude. Starting from the top of the Grands Montets ski resort, it is advisable to take the first cable car up to 3280m. It is normally full so you may have to be patient and queue. Once at the top, ski down to the Grand Montets col and from there pass under the ropes marking the limit of the ski resort. Try to stay in the centre of the Rognon glacier and aim towards the Argentiere glacier. Do not ski towards the right, because this would take you just below the Aiguille Verte which is exposed to falling seracs and avalanches.

Be careful of the crevasses and seracs at the half way point during the descent. They are usually easy to recognise but heavy snow fall can make it tricky.

After approximately an hour's descent (700m) to the Argentiere glacier, it's time to put on your skins and climb the 780m to the Chardonnet col (2h 30min). The entrance to the couloir is from the right, near the South East spur of the Aiguille d'Argentière. Depending on the snow conditions, you may have to carry your skis and use your crampons to cross the bergschrund.

Once at the col (3323m) you may need to set up a rappel and descend to the north couloir to the Saleina glacier. The rappel starts from a large rock with slings attached, just at the col. The couloir is narrow and you may find it is more practical to remove your skis.

Once at the glacier it's time to begin skinning up towards the Fenetre de Saleina (3261m) until it becomes too vertical and you will need to remove your skis for the final 30 metres. From the col, cross the Plateau du Trient towards the hut. Finally ski up a short 150m slope to the Trient hut (3170m)

Approx. duration from Grands Montets to the Trient Hut: 6-7 hours.

Variant-Option 1. Agentiere Hut


Some groups decide to split the first stage in two and stop for the night at the Agentiere hut (2691m). The hut is strategically located with stunning views of the las Courtes, los Droites, la Verte, etc. From here, you can ski up to areas such as the Col du Tour Noir or Argentière col. This is a good time for practising crevasse rescue techniques, kick turns and acclimatizing.

Ascent to the Col du Tour Noir on the Améthystes glacier
Approx. duration from Grand Montets to Argentiere hut: 1 hour and a half STAGE 2. TRIENT-VERBIER-HUT – PRAFLEURI HUT

Trient hut - Champex

Champex – Prafleuri hut A stunning day's descent of approx. 1300 metres on the Trient glacier to the Ecandies col and from there descend to the village of Champex.

Approx. duration from Trient hut to Champex: 2-4 hours.

From Champex, take a taxi to Verbier ski resort and use the ski lifts to reach the top of Mont Fort (2457m). If the weather is bad, you may want to stay the night here instead of continuing to the Prafleuri hut.

To reach the Prafleuri hut, ascend the Chaux col (2940m.) and the Momin col (3003m). Then cross the Grand Desert Glacier until you reach a height of 3160m. If you want to climb Rosablanche peak (3336m) ascend to the right at 3160m. (an extra hour for the peak).

Approx. duration from Trient hut to Prafleuri hut: 6-8 hours.

Variant-Option 2. Argentiere-Champex Hut


If the group consists of strong, advanced skiers, you can choose to take a direct route from the Argentiere hut or even from the top of the Grands Montets ski resort to the village of Champex, skipping the Trient hut altogether. But bear in mind that this is a long day's touring, and the quality of snow can be very poor when descending the Val de Arpette to Champex.

STAGE 3. PRAFLEURI HUT- DIX HUT

From the hut, ascend to the Roux Col (2804m.) and from there descend to La Barma before crossing the Lac des Dix to the beautiful Dix hut (2928m.)

Dix hut

Approx. duration from Prafleuri hut to Dix hut: 5 hours.

The Lac des Dix is extremely vulnerable to avalanches. If the avalanche risk is high, the itinerary should be modified to avoid this area.

Variant—Option 3a. Mont Fort hut – Dix hut.

The option from Mont Fort to Dix is long but possible in a day and means skipping the Prafleuri hut if for any reason you stay the night at Mont Fort.

Approx. duration from Mont Fort hut to Dix hut: 9-10 hours
Approx. duration from Mont Fort hut to Prafleuri hut: 4-5 hours


The disadvantage of this variant is the risk of avalanches when crossing the Lac des Dix at the worst time of day.

Variant—Option 3b. Arolla village – Dix hut

In bad weather and snow conditions, you can avoid the first three stages by taking a taxi from Chamonix to Arolla. After stages one and two, a taxi can also be taken to Arolla from the village of Champex or Verbier to begin stage three.

This is a very pretty and exciting variant, due to the stunning views of Mont Blanc de Cheilon (3870m) from Pas de Chevre and the 40m climb down a metal ladder to the glacier. Head to the ski resort from the village hostel.

At the Arolla ski resort take a drag lift towards Pas de Chevre. At the end of the lift, put on your skins and climb to the Pas de Chevre (2855m), then attach your skis to your pack and descend the 40m vertical ladder to the Cheilon glacier.

The views from here are spectacular, with the Dix hut in the distance. The ladder is equipped with a cable hand rail. At the end of the ladder crampons are usually required if the snow is hard or icy on the last part of the descent to the glacier.

The rest of the climb to the Dix hut is easy.

The hut is located in a formidable place, just below Mont Blanc de Cheilon. As this is a short route, skiers usually have time to carry out several ascents to the nearby cols and peaks from the hut, or simply relax and enjoy the magnificent views from the terrace.

The hut is comfortable and the food is good

Approx. duration from Arolla to Dix hut: 3-4 hours.

STAGE 4. DIX HUT- VIGNETTES HUT.

Dix-Vignettes
An imposing stage, featuring the ascent to the highest altitude on the tour, Pigne d’Arolla (3790m)

From Dix, the route descends to the Cheilon glacier and crosses the plain before skins are attached for the ascent to the well known and rather complicated Col de la Serpentine (3529m)

Dix hut can be seen in the distance

A final ascent to the glacier seracs takes us to the col. Crampons, ice-axe and rope are usually required for safety, due to the steep final part of the ascent. However, at times, such as last Spring, there's enough snow to allow you to skin up with just your ski crampons.

The Col de Serpentine with the Pigne d’Arolla to the left.
From the Col de Serpentine, head towards the Pigne d'Arolla col with the option of climbing the peak, which is just 10 minutes from the col. The panoramic view of the Alps from the summit are well worth it.

Vignettes hut in the distance
The descent from Pigne d'Arolla to Vignettes hut is highly enjoyable and the snow conditions are usually great.

Just before reaching the hut, there is a high avalanche risk area due to the build up of snow and cornices on the ridges of the Pigne d'Arolle summit. As a safety precaution skiers should leave some distance between each other.

The Vignettes hut (3160m) stands on the very edge of a huge, magnificent cliff. It has been renovated recently and is comfortable and spacious and no longer requires leaving the hut and walking along the cliff edge in the middle of the night, to reach the toilets.

Approx. duration from Dix to Vignettes hut: 5-6 hours

STAGE 5. VIGNETTES HUT-ZERMATT.

This is the queen of the Haute Route stages. Few alpine stages in the world of ski touring come close to this. At 32km, the route is long and includes three cols and a total of seven glaciers. The grand finale of the Haute Route is reaching the beautiful village of Zermatt, from the slopes of the Cervino-Matterhorn

The route from Vignettes hut begins by walking along a ridge to the Vignettes col, where you can attach your skis and descend the Collon glacier. After skinning up to the first pass: Col de l'Eveque (3392m), the route crosses a glacier to the Col du Mont Brule (3218m). The ascent to this pass is long and the last 100m are fairly steep, so ski crampons or removing skis may be necessary.

Ascent to Col du Mont Brule
If you are trapped by bad weather between the two cols, there is an escape route that descends to the Haute Arolla glacier towards the Bouquetins hut (not guarded), or directly to Arolla village.

From the Col du Mont Brule the route descends to the glacier de Haut Tsa de Tsan and then begins a long ascent to the Col Valpelline (3568m). If you have the strength, you can climb the Tete Blance (3710m) or the Tete de Valpelline (3799m) from the col. Descend the col on the Sockji and Zmutt glaciers staying away from the seracs and crevasses.

The descent route is exposed to icefall from towering seracs, so keep an eye on the cornices above. This long descent route leads to the base of the north face of the Cervino-Matterhorn and then on to the first forests and ski resort until it finally reaches the village of Zermatt. Nothing compares to skiing the Cervino-Matterhorn and it is a well earned gift after completing the Alpine tour.

Reaching Zermatt is cause for a celebratory meal with views of the impressive Cervino-Matterhorn. Zermatt village is quite expensive, so if you do not wish to stay at one of its comfortable hotels, you can take a taxi back to Chamonix.

Alfredo Encinar and José C. Iglesias, UIAGM mountain guide, in Zermatt
A long day has tested our ability to handle multiple ski transitions.

Approx. duration from Vignettes hut to Zermatt: 8-10 hours.

Variant-Option 5a. Vignettes Hut-Bertol Hut-Zermatt.

This pretty variant can be done in one long day or be divided into two, adding another day to the Haute Route.

Set off from Vignettes hut to the top of the Col de L'Eveque as mentioned earlier. From the col, enjoy the 6km descent skiing from the Haute Arolla glacier to Plan de Bertol (2550m) (photo 24). Get your breath back at Plan de Bertol to prepare for the long 800m climb of the Bertol glacier.

The climb to Bertol hut (3311m) is long but gradual. The hut is on the top of a ridge of Bertol peak and to reach it, you have to climb a complex metal ladder (photo 26). Your skis should be left at the base of the ladders and attached so that they don't skid off down the couloir.

The hut dining room has stunning 360º views. The toilets, however, are located outside on the edge of a cliff, so be careful!

Approx. duration from Vignettes hut to Bertol hut: 4-5 hours

STAGE 6. BERTOL HUT-ZERMATT.

After climbing back down the metal ladder from the hut, the route crosses the Mont Mine glacier towards the Tete Blanche col (3420m).

The ascent is fairly simple and on open terrain. Once at the col, you have the option of climbing the summit of Tete Blanche (3710m).

Summit of Tete Blanche


From here, it's all downhill to Zermatt. 18Km of skiing below the Cervino-Matterhorn and Dent d'Herens.

Approx. duration from Bertol hut to Zermatt: 4-5 hours.

The variant from the Bertol hut offers a nice alternative to the long direct route from Vignettes to Zermatt by dividing the 10h route into two routes of approx. 5 hours.

LOGISTICS
The Chamonix-Zermatt route requires good planning, good physical condition and technical experience. The days are long and conditions can be tough with the constant climb and descent of glaciers and sharing a large dormitory can result in a bad night's sleep so total rest is not always guaranteed.

Descent

You do not have to be a professional alpine or Nordic skier to get through the route, but it is necessary to be physically fit and have enough skiing experience to handle all kinds of snow conditions, with ease. From deep powder to crud, crust, ice, spring snow, etc.

Descents should never be taken at full speed, but in a controlled, rhythmic manner. Fatigue from the ascent together with a heavy load on your back will demand frequent rests and this will give you time to study the terrain ahead. At times, bad weather and difficult snow conditions will require skiing in survival mode with maximum care and control to prevent ruining the tour. Remember that rescue on this terrain can be slow and complicated.

Ice axe, crampons and rope techniques

Tourers should be prepared to use the French progression technique, both on the ascent as well as the descent, using crampons and ice-axe. It is also important to know how to self-arrest in snow with an ice-axe. On glaciers you may have to rope up as a team on steep slopes and carry out crevasse rescue techniques. It is also important to know how to rappel with your skis on or attached to your pack.

If snow conditions are good, you'll only need to use your rope for the rappel from the Chardonnet Col. However, conditions can change dramatically during the tour so it's essential that you know how to use a rope to get out of unforeseen circumstances.

Transitions

Practice removing and attaching your skins, crampons and skis, to help avoid wasting time. Removing your skins at the col and attaching them again when you reach a glacier, attaching your skis to your pack and putting your crampons on...these transitions are frequent and need to be done smoothly and quickly to stay on time with your already tight schedule.

kick Turns

Kick turns are a basic necessity during an ascent. If you can’t kick turn well, you may find yourself in an insecure situation and hold the group back. Kick turns become harder as the slope becomes steeper to the point of having to remove your skis if you lack confidence on a steep slope. It is therefore important to practice and gain experience.

Before doing the Haute Route, it is a good idea to ski the Valle Blanco in Chamonix, to give yourself a chance to acclimatize and study the snow conditions. It is also a great day's skiing in a stunning location.

Physical Preparation

Tourers need to be physically fit, with strong lungs and legs. This often means training uphill, downhill and on flat terrain months ahead. The best training is to put your skis on and skin up and down slopes at a regular pace, without trying to beat records. During the tour it is important to set a comfortable pace, which you can maintain for hours without getting exhausted. Adequate hydration and food during the tour are also important of course.

Gear

The key to success on the Haute Route, with minimal suffering, is to travel light. From a lightweight pack to a lightweight toothbrush, every gram saved will help you on the tour.

Practice using your gear before you begin the tour to avoid complications. We have put together a list of recommended gear which can be modified to suit your personal preferences.

Ski equipment:



Accessories for ski equipment:



Avalanche rescue equipment:



Walking equipment:



Crevasse rescue kit:



Protection



Backpack and accessories



Lighting



Clothing

  • Glovesmen/women 2 pairs; one warm one fine (Windstopper)
  • Shell jacket men/women lightweight Gore-Tex or 3 layer softshell men/women.Softshells are more breathable than Gore-Tex but less waterproof.
  • Lightweight pant men/women. Again, Softshell men/women is more breathable than Gore-Tex. However Gore-Tex offer greater protection in winter conditions. One option is to take an ultra-light Gore-Tex pant for wearing over your softshell pant in bad weather.
  • A couple of warm, synthetic tights men/womenOne for skiing, the other for the hut.
  • Baselayers: 3 synthetic baselayer shirts men/womenso that you can change into something clean when you reach the hut.
  • Midlayer: fleece men/women or lightweight fiber jacket men/women or vest men/women
  • Socks men/women three pairs.
  • Hat men/women


Hut gear

  • First aid kit.Add bandages and blister care items
  • Wash bag. Apart from the usual items (toothbrush, toothpaste, sun cream, soap, towel, etc) it's advisable to take a small pack of wet wipes for cleansing after a day's skiing. The huts don't have water or towels. Water is sold and some provide water in the morning for washing.
  • Ear plugs for getting rest from snoring companions.
  • Sleeping bag liner. The huts provide blankets but it is convenient to take a silk or synthetic liner for hygiene and comfort.


Huts

  • Tourers need to make a reservation months in advance in order to guarantee availability.
  • The aim of each day is to reach the hut. In the hut you can rest, eat, drink and change your clothes. Alpine huts are located in strategic spots with outstanding views. The food is usually abundant and appetizing – but expensive. Most huts on the Haute Route are located in Switzerland. All accept credit cards and Euros, but it's a good idea to take some Swiss francs so that you don't lose out with the exchange rate. A 1.5L bottle of water costs around 10 euros and a beer 5 euros.

    Dinner and breakfast is included in the price for an overnight stay and extra food can also be bought at the huts. You can also order lunch for the next day (before 5pm) and this costs around 15 euros. It's worth bringing food form Chamonix, such as cheese, ham, and energy bars to save money. Each morning the huts offer free water and tea for filling your water bottles and hydration systems. Some huts even have showers, but they don't usually work during the ski touring season. Mobile phone chargers are available, but a USB cable is required to connect it to the plug.
  • The routine when you reach a hut is simple. First register with the guard and you will be assigned a room and bed. If you have time and strength you can explore outside. If not, change out of your sweaty clothing and put your skins, clothes and boots to dry.

Clothes drier at the Vignettes hut
Huts normally have a place for drying your clothes, either outside or inside the hut. You can then relax and have a drink before dinner (from 18.00). Before going to bed, check when breakfast is served as some huts offer breakfast in different shifts to accommodate specific groups.

Contract a UIAGM mountain guide

Anyone who is prepared can do the Chamonix-Zermatt tour without having to contract a mountain guide. Prepared means having knowledge of the terrain, snow conditions, first aid and self arrest, for example.

However, contracting a UIAGM mountain guide guarantees certain aspects of the tour:

  • A guide will watch out for the safety of the group at all times and study the itinerary to avoid areas exposed to avalanche risk.
  • A guide will study the weather conditions and change the route accordingly
  • A guide will check maps and GPS to guarantee the best itinerary and in adverse weather an escape route will be applied
  • A guide will mark a comfortable pace during the ascent and a safe descent route
  • A guide will study the physical and technical qualities of all of the members of the group and adapt the rhythm to each, so as to ensure their safety
  • If necessary, the guide will belay the skier
  • A guide will try to accomplish the protocol and safety limits, complete the tour and make changes if required
  • A guide will attend to all the logistical issues related to travel from reserving the huts to renting means of transport


Telephone numbers of interest

  • Argentiere hut: 33450531692
  • Trient hut: 41277831438
  • Mont Fort hut: 41277781384
  • Prafleuri hut: 41272811156
  • Dix hut: 41272811523
  • Vignettes hut: 41277831322
  • Bertol hut: 41272831929
  • Grands Montets: 33450540082
  • Hotel Aiguille de la Tza, Arolla: 41272831406
  • Gite Alpen Rose, Chamonix: 33450537792
Tags:
alps  ski touring  Chamonix  Zermatt

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