I often get asked lots of questions about the Haute Route and there is a lot to read about it - not all true. If you still have a doubt - just email me.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Haute Route – Chamonix to Zermatt Ski Tour
The Haute Route originally stems from a summer walking route called the “High Level Route”, which was done by members of the London Alpine Club in 1861.
With the development of skiing, it became a famous high mountain ski route and took on the French name of “Haute Route”.
Presently several “haute routes” throughout the Alps and elsewhere, and it is commonly referred to as Chamonix – Zermatt. But when one speaks of THE Haute Route, it is this one that is referred to.
There are several variations of the Haute Route, the longestand most difficult being the “classic route” which is then continued on to Saas – Fee. It traverses 23 glaciers and accounts for over 35,000 vertical feet of climbing and skiing.
The first recorded ski traverse of the Haute Route was done by Dr. Payot and a group of French guides from the village of Argentière in 1903. They followed what is now the traditional route to Zermatt and did this in 4 days !
Now days skiers would never be able to accomplish such long, hard, greueling days.
Why is the Haute Route so (rightly so) popular?
The answer stems from the fact that it is certainly because it traverses some of the most beautiful mountains of the Alps. From the first day when one skis down the Argentière glacier and is confronted with the awe inspiring peaks that surround you to the final day of skiing beneath the famous North Face of the Matterhorn and the arrival into the charming alpine town of Zermatt – one cannot imagine a more picturesque outing.
Most skiers partaking in the Haute Route do so for the absolute pleasure and the extraordinary ambiance of it all. But one should not forget that this tour requires excellent physical condition, tried technique and sound judgment. Overcoming the difficulties is one of the pleasures of the tour.
Getting prepared for the Haute Route
Since the Haute Route takes place at high altitude, it is extremely important to have adequate experience in weather forecasting, avalanche awareness, crevasses, route planning and selection, orienteering, being on steep terrain and what to do in case of an accident. When the group is led by a certified mountain guide, he alone masters all these elements and more. If you are thinking of doing the Haute Route without a guide, several members of the group can share decision making and their experience.
Skiing the Haute Route requires that skiers be able to keep up a constant speed when skiing off-piste, in very different snow conditions. It is not uncommon to be skinning up hard or powder snow and descend corn to slush on the other side of the mountain! One should not underestimate the technical level required, which is made increasingly difficult due to long, hard days, snow that is difficult to ski and a heavy pack that create very harsh physical conditions. Skiers that have good technique will do OK, the others will go through some hard times…
When skiing from Chamonix to Zermatt, one will inevitably encounter the following very dangerous attitudes, which are probably due more to ignorance than carelessness.
- Certain skiers go beneath without reason very dangerous areas of seracs or hanging glaciers and even stop frequently to chat or have a drink!
- Groups of skiers rarely spread out when on dangerous slopes. While no one likes to ski alone, it is completely foolish to place the entire group at risk. The only (relatively) safe manner is to allow one person at a time to be exposed to the eventual danger.
Everyone should be wearing an avalanche transceiver (and know how to use them before it is too late ! ) It is too late to learn once the slope has slid. Everyone should also have their own shovel and probe. (Probe poles never work very well and take too long to set up – prefer a self-righting probe, such as the Black Diamond QuickDraw Probe).
When to go
The Haute Route is ski able all winter long, but in January and February the days are short, it is cold and the crevasses are covered by unpacked snow, not to mention the fact that one is not yet free of the harsh winter blizzards that are not uncommon at this time of the year. The huts are closed but the winter rooms remain open. One can therefore have a roof over one’s head but must bring provisions. The advantage to skiing the Haute Route at this time of the winter is the fact that there are very few people along the way.
Near mid – March, the weather is generally speaking better and the days longer. Most of the snow is packed and the crevasses are easily spotted. It is the start of the ski touring season and the hut keepers go back up to their huts. Conditions are usually quite good until mid – May, the snow turning into spring corn. Thereafter, the skiing on the high glaciers remains excellent, but the lack of snow lower in the valleys requires one to do a lot of walking with the skis on the pack. The hut keepers generally close the huts for a bit of rest until just before the very busy summer climbing season.
Most skiers ski the Haute Route from west to east. Reasons being the best descents:
Val d’Arpette, Evêque pass, Valpelline pass are longer in this direction and have better snow. Also the short, steep passes are climbed on foot rather than descended which is not only quicker but also more enjoyable to ski when going down rather than use a safety line…
From west to east one usually climbs on foot the following passes:
Fenêtre de Saleina and the Mont Brûlé pass.
Finally, using two lifts to gain altitude without further effort makes the trip a tad easier. Again from west to east one takes the Grands Montets cable car and then the Attelas cable car.
Please keep in mind that the maps are metric and one centimeter = 250 meters on the 1/25 000 maps. They are very detailed and of excellent quality. I have recently been using online maps on my cell phone which work extremely well and have pretty much given up on the paper version and my old GPS unit as well...
The following maps cover the Haute Route (classic version):
IGN (French Maps)
- 1/25 000 Chamonix – 3630 OT
Carte Nationale Suisse
- 1326 Rosablanche
- 1346 Chanrion
- 1347 Matterhorn
- 1348 Zermatt
Equipment / Clothing
If one uses huts and is able to obtain precise, certain weather conditions, it is possible to do the Haute Route with a light pack. Being light means being able to move quickly, therefore safely – and with more pleasure. One can do the Haute Route with a pack weighing no more than 10kg. Those carrying a rope will weigh a bit more but a pack should never weigh more than 12/13kg.
The following list indicates the usual basic equipment:
- Gore Tex (or similar breathable shell clothing) bib or pants.
- 2 pairs of socks
- lightweight long underwear
- lightweight fleece jacket
- ski gloves w/ leather palms if possible (gloves not mittens are best – you can’t get a grip on anything with mittens)
- spare pair of lightweight spring gloves
- ski hat
- baseball cap (for the sun)
- glacier glasses
- sun block and lip cream
- insulated bottle (1Liter)
- small headlamp
- harness w/ locking biner
- 2 prussik knots
- 1 long sling
- ice axe (walking axe – but not too long ! 50cm is fine. Black Diamond’s Raven is perfect)
- lightweight crampons (Black Diamond’s Contact model is lightweight and a great choice)
- small 35mm camera
- small toilet kit w/ tooth brush, aspirin, personal stuff.
- skis w/ randonnée or AT bindings. Here is what I use Black Diamond Verdicts
- randonnée skiing boots
- climbing skins
- ski crampons
- ski poles
- avalanche transceiver
- medium sized pack
- ropes 60m of 9mm rope is fine (split it into 2 sections of 30m – easier and lighter for everyone)
- crevasse rescue equipment (a lightweight pulley, ascender, 2 ice screws)
- first aid kit
- repair kit
- altimeter, maps, compass
- a shovel and probe for every skiers
Huts or Cabanes
The huts belong to the Alpine clubs of their respective countries (French, Italian, Swiss) and members obtain a reduced rate. During the ski touring season and the summer they are staffed and dinner and breakfast are served. They are what they are. Bunk style sleeping arrangements that have warm wool blankets (you don’t need a sleeping bag but a sleeping sac) and everyone has dinner at the same time, which is a set meal – usually very delicious. Learn to appreciate what the staff does for you(especially when you come out of a raging blizzard), but don’t expect a five star hotel. Remember you are up in the middle of the high mountains and life is hard enough as it is. Sometimes the folks there are a little cranky – just let in go in ear and out the other BUT DON’T get them mad, you won’t enjoy your stay…
Generally speaking, the following rules must be respected:
- Reserve your space by telephone at least a few weeks in advance.
- Leave your skis outside the hut and crampons and ice axe in the entrance. Use the hut slippers – usually Crocs and don’t walk around inside with you boots on.
- Usually the dorms are closed during the day and the hut keeper gives out the bed space once everyone has arrived. If someone is really tired and absolutely has to lay down, just ask him. No noise after 9 pm – some people (generally climbers) may be getting up very early.
- The hut keeper and his staff (often the family) are the ones that do the cooking. They also need time to rest and eat. If they are in the middle of a meal, come back later. In the French huts you can cook your own food. But NEVER in the dinning room! In the Swiss “cabins” this is not allowed and if you bring your own food you will have to cook it outside or ask the hut keeper to cook it for you. If you have brought your own provisions, don’t forget that the hut keeper makes his living by selling drinks and food and don’t be surprised if you aren’t his favorite customer.
- Most of the huts prefer cash (Euros in France, Swiss francs in Switzerland) but some will accept plastic.
- Dorms are for sleeping – sometimes people seem to forget this. People may or may not be sleeping at the same time as yourself, respect their rest. Take your belongings out of your pack before you get into the room (plastic bags are particularly good at getting people pissed off when they are trying to sleep) sometimes packs are not allowed in the dorms. In the morning fold your blankets before leaving.
- Do NOT go to the bathroom in the snow outside the hut, the snow is melted for water for cooking, so use the toilets.
Follow these pretty simple rules and you are guaranteed a good time
Find out all the details of the Haute Route ski tour here...