Haute Route Advice for Skiers
Some sound Haute Route advice for anyone thinking of skiing the world’s most famous ski tour: The Haute Route is well known as one of the all time classic mountain journeys in the world, with good reason. It links two of the most important centers for skiing and alpinism in Europe (the world?!): Chamonix and Zermatt. It has incredible scenery and glacial ski terrain. It passes beneath a host of iconic peaks, starting with the impressive north wall of the Argentiere basin and finishing below the Matterhorn. And finally, of course, it’s an essential tick!
This article provides information on the minimum fitness and experience requirements needed to ski the Haute Route, as well as background info on the route and what to expect each day. Hopefully this should help you decide if the trip is suitable for your current ski touring experience and off-piste ski level.
(Please Note: This article describes the ability and experience required to join a Haute Route ski trip lead by a professional mountain guide. To do it safely on your own, you need a broad range of additional skills including avalanche safety training, navigation skills, crevasse rescue and glacier travel skills, logistics knowledge and good quality ski mountaineering decision making experience).
Are You Ready to Ski It?
The Haute Route is a popular target for competent off-piste skiers looking for an adventure… However, it’s a tough and committing trip, with some long and tiring days plus some steep, exposed terrain in both ascent and descent – requiring both experience and a careful approach. Please use the following guidelines to help you decide if the time is right.
Technical Ski Ability, Fitness and Touring Experience
There are 3 requirements for joining a guided Haute Route trip (or any hut to hut ski tour) – here they are, using Alpine Guides’ ski and fitness levels as benchmarks:
1. Technical Ski Ability – your off-piste ski ability should be at Ski Tech Level 3 (more info here).
2. Physical Fitness – you should be at Ski Fitness Level 3 (more info here).
3. Ski Touring Experience – you should have at least one week’s previous ski touring experience (preferably hut to hut, but a week’s day touring is ok).
However, if you are both a very strong skier (ski level 4+) and very fit (fitness level 4+), then in our experience, you can get away with a shorter period of focussed ski touring skills training beforehand e.g. our Ski Touring Skills Long Weekend.
In any event, the ski touring skills you should have already include:
Familiarity with touring kit – you should be familiar with and know how to use touring boots/bindings/skins/harscheisen and other touring kit.
Skinning skills – you should have efficient skinning technique and must be able to skin safely on a variety of terrain, including icy traverses.
Uphill Kick Turns – you should be able to do safe and efficient uphill kick turns: changing direction in a zigzag track on exposed, steep (up to 35deg) and sometimes icy slopes.
Skiing with a rucsac – you must be able to ski well whilst wearing a heavy rucsac (~8kg) containing safety and overnight gear.
Confidence on steep ground – you need confidence and the ability to boot track up a steep snow slope whilst wearing crampons and being tied onto a rope.
Steep descents – you need to be happy being lowered down steep snow slopes on a rope (either side slipping on skis, or on foot wearing crampons) to get down short, technical descents.
Avalanche Awareness – you need to have worn an avalanche transceiver before and be aware of basic avalanche safety protocols.
Finally, with all this comes the need for some grit and determination – ie you need to be happy living in alpine huts, making early starts and dealing with any bad weather during the week..
Best time to ski the Haute Route
The Haute Route Season runs from mid-March to the end of April – this is when the glacier and snow conditions are generally best for the route and therefore when the mountain huts are open, along with all the uplift and other infrastructure supporting the route.
We are often asked when in the season it’s best to go, so it’s important to understand that the biggest single factor affecting conditions along the Haute Route is the kind of weather you get on the week. This determines everything – and unfortunately there is no reliable seasonal pattern to the weather you get in the Alps at this time of year! It can be equally stable or unsettled throughout the season, with heavy snowfalls occurring at any time, along with the associated avalanche risk, which is the main reason itineraries sometimes have to be modified or changed.
In terms of the skiing conditions – March has colder temperatures and shorter days, so there is more chance of a colder snowpack and skiing on powder. As the days get longer and average temperatures increase through April, the snowpack becomes more transformed, with a greater chance of skiing on spring snow. At the end of the season, the snowpack becomes thinner in the mid-mountain, so there is more chance of having to walk the occasional lower section carrying skis. This is all based on averages of course and each year is different!
In terms of avalanche conditions – windslab risk is more frequent at the start of the season, with a spring snowpack developing as the season progresses (in good weather, this creates stable conditions in the mornings and a daily increasing risk on sun affected slopes). As mentioned however, the weather and temperatures each week create the current avalanche situation, so a storm, wind or change of temperature at any time during the season can increase avalanche risk along sections of the route.
Before the main season, in February, the crevasses on the glacier sections may not be as well filled in with snow and consolidated, days are even shorter and colder and the snowpack can be less stable than later in the season (more chance of persisting windslab risk, due to wind and lower temperatures). It isn’t the best time to ski the route and the huts therefore don’t open until mid March.
However, the conditions can often be suitable in February and a relatively small number of people do ski the route staying in the unguarded ‘winter rooms’ of the huts. Winter rooms have blankets/bunks and cooking gear, but you have to carry and cook your own food – so this means skiing with considerably heavier packs, which is much harder work on the both the climbs and the descents. It can be done, but it’s regarded as a more esoteric/hardcore way of doing the tour for experienced ski mountaineers – and also some luck with the weather and conditions are definitely needed!
In order to increase the chances of reaching Zermatt in less-than-perfect weather conditions, we schedule a spare ‘weather’ day into our itinerary. This can often be used to let poor weather pass through (eg we spend an extra night in a hut, or valley base as necessary) before continuing along the route to Zermatt. Without this spare day, any poor weather during the week can lead to teams having to abandon the route immediately, due to lack of time. During sustained periods of poor weather or increased avalanche risk, there are various work-arounds which allow teams to continue skiing the safest sections of the route, using taxis or public transport to link things together. There are possible joining and escape points at Verbier and Arolla (approximately 1/4 and 3/4 of the way along the route) and we sometimes have to make use of these during longer periods of poor weather.
Our scheduled Haute Route trips run in the main season – starting in mid March and running every week until mid/end April. Before that, we can organise a private guide for you/your team.
What To Expect
The following is a rundown of what to expect on a typical Haute Route trip.
Please Note: There are numerous different combinations of huts and accommodation along the route and we frequently vary our itineraries to make best use of bookings and current weather and snow conditions. For example – if there is a significant fresh snowfall, the guide will often re arrange hut bookings in order to keep the team safe and increase the chances of success.
Day 1 – Training Day
Typically ~400m ascent, 2000m descent ~5-6hrs Before setting off on the Haute Route, we do a warm up and training day, ski touring in the Mont Blanc Massif. The aim is for you to get in a days acclimatisation, enjoy some good skiing and refresh on your touring skills. During the day we will recap on skinning and kick turns, do some transceiver training and either some crampon and ropework, or glacier skiing.
Each day is a little different, as we tailor the training to peoples’ experience levels, strengths and weaknesses in order to ensure that everyone is properly prepared for the trip. NB this is a refresher day, not a complete beginners training day – ie some of the skills may be new to you, but you must already be a good off piste skier and have done some ski touring using skins before joining the trip.
1050m ascent, 1200m descent ~7-8hrs From the top of the Grand Montets cable car, a great 600m descent with stunning views leads down on to the Argentiere Glacier, where skins are donned for the first big climb of the trip.
A choice of routes now presents itself – either the Col du Chardonnet or Col du Passon. Both are the same distance, but in recent years the Col du Passon has become more and more popular, since the Col du Chardonnet dried out in 2003 and is now more often a roped down climb rather than a ski descent.
We follow which ever route is in best condition, as both lead on to either the Swiss border and the Trient Hut, or the Le Tour Glacier and the Albert Premier Hut. This first day is quite long, with 1050m of climb and a couple of sections of roped climbing on foot – however the views and high mountain ambiance are amazing. Hut choice depends on the group, current conditions the best combination of hut bookings for the week.
Day 3 – Val D’Arpette – Verbier – Prafleuri Hut or Mont Fort Hut
700m ascent, 2400m descent ~8-9hrs. The day begins with a few hundred metres of descent down the right bank of the Trient Glacier, followed by a short boot track to reach the Col des Ecandies at the top of the Val D’Arpette.
This deep, north facing valley gives a wonderful long ski run right down to Champex, where we meet a pre arranged minibus to take us the few kilometers down the valley to the Verbier lift system. After lunch on the slopes in Verbier, if heading to the Prafleuri Hut we set off in the afternoon to traverse 3 cols with short descents in between, which leads to the glacier below the Rosablanche and a good north facing decent down to the Prafleuri Hut – this is a long day and we usually arrive at the hut around 5pm.
If staying at the Mont Fort Hut, we can get up a little later and enjoy a quiet descent of the Val D’Arpette before having an afternoon’s off piste skiing around Verbier, as the Mont Fort Hut lies within the Verbier lift system.
Day 4 – Prafleuri (or Mont Fort) to Dix Hut
900m ascent, 600m descent ~5-7hrs From the Prafleuri Hut, an hours skinning leads to the Col des Roux, where the long descending traverse above the Lac de Dix begins. This section of the route is south facing, so in warm weather, must be completed early in the day.
In good conditions with a fast team, various alternatives may be taken here, in order to find some fresh snow. If starting from the Mont Fort Hut, it takes a couple of hours longer to reach the traverse above the Lac de Dix, coming around the North side of the Rosablanche before making a good descent off the Col de Sovereu. Although longer (1400m of ascent to Dix Hut), this route is quieter and offers good skiing.
Either way, at the end of the lake the long climb up to the Dix Hut begins – usually in the afternoon sun. On paper this is quite a short day from the Prafleuri Hut, but the uphill finish in the afternoon heat makes it feel much harder. Luckily the Dix Hut is in a superb position, with a great sunny terrace where you can enjoy the view and a well earned beer before dinner.
Day 5 – Pigne D’Arolla to Vignettes Hut or Nacamuli Hut
950m ascent, 700m descent ~4hrs At 3790m, the Pigne D’Arolla marks the highest point reached on the trip and is a wonderful viewpoint across the whole of the Western Alps.
The ascent from the Dix Hut involves 900m of climb and takes about 3 hours, passing through some steep glacier terrain, including the passage of the Serpentine, which often has to be climbed on foot.
From the summit, it’s a 600m descent down to the Vignettes Hut, which lies perched in a spectacular position on a rocky ridge crest. Here again, in the right conditions it’s sometimes possible to take a different line in order to find fresh snow.
If staying at the Vignettes Hut, this is quite a short day. However, in good weather it’s also possible to continue a further 2.5 hours to the Nacamuli Hut in Italy, which is less well known and makes the last day a couple of hours shorter.
Day 6 – Final Day to Zermatt
750m ascent, 2400m descent ~8-10hrs from the Vignettes (or 650m ascent, 7-8hrs from the Nacamuli) The final day of the Haute Route is always one of the most memorable days out in any ski mountaineers career – crossing three cols and six glaciers, with a final huge descent down to Zermatt under the North Face of the Matterhorn.
An early start is required to make the first climb up the Col de L’Eveque, before a nice descent and second climb up to the Col du Mont Brule. The final section of this is steep and frequently climbed on foot.
From the Col Brule, the Col Valpelline doesn’t look that far away, but it always takes a good two hours to reach. Cresting the final col, the Matterhorn rears up ahead, opening the way to the final 1900m descent down the Stockji and Zmutt Glaciers to Zermatt.
Day 7 – Spare Day
To allow for weather delays. We’ve been guiding the Haute Route for many years now and our guides are well aware that having an extra day in the itinerary greatly increases your chances of completing the route. It makes the trip a little more expensive, but you get 7 days skiing instead of 6 and it’s definitely worth it if you are serious about reaching Zermatt. If we reach Zermatt on Friday, then Saturday morning will be spent skiing in Zermatt, before returning to Chamonix in the afternoon.
OUR BEST HAUTE ROUTE ADVICE
The better your ski level, the more you will enjoy the trip – ie being able to ski comfortably and in control even when tired at the end of a long day, or if snow conditions are challenging.
The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy the ascents – over half the time spent on the mountain each day will be in ascent on skins – and the more energy you will have left to enjoy the descents!
Good personal touring skills mean greater efficiency – this helps with both of the above… More importantly, it also gives you a much-increased margin of personal safety, so you are able to be more independent on the hill. This means the guide can concentrate on the welfare of the whole group and make quicker progress along the route, rather than giving extra help at every little difficulty along the way.
Some good reasons for having an efficient team
- A faster group can utilize small weather windows each day, increasing the likelihood of a successful crossing in mixed weather.
- A faster group can avoid warm afternoon weather, which often leads to poor snow/ski conditions and avalanche danger. Also, arriving at the hut in good time gives more time for beer, rosti and recovery for the following day!
- If you are especially slow, or become injured due to poor technique, you may have to leave the tour early.
- You are a team of like minded people who depend on each other for a successful trip – abandoning the route can be unsafe without a guided escort to the valley and therefore the success of the whole group may be compromised.
If you arrive well prepared, then all you need is a bit of sunshine, some half decent snow and you’ll enjoy skiing one of the most amazing mountain journeys out there – so do it properly, safely and enjoy it!
I simply wanted you to know just how pleased we were with everything from the initial planning phase to finally arriving in Zermatt. Dave Hollinger is an exemplary guide. He was able to assess the skills and abilities of all and make appropriate decisions which resulted in success for the entire team. I can without any hesitation recommend Alpine Guides as a great guide service… I look forward for another opportunity to ski or climb with you, you guys rock! Thank you so much and please extend my best wishes to Dave.