This summer, as part of our annual Alps trip, we decided to do the Glacier Haute Route or the Classic Haute Route if you prefer, we’d hoped to do it in seven days and then be in Zermatt in time to attempt a route up the Matterhorn. Whether the route, from Chamonix in France to Zermatt in Switzerland, is completed in winter on skis or in the summer on foot, this is one of the very finest glacier tours in the world, a tour not to be mistaken for the low level Haute Trek. The Classic Route spends a lot of time high on glaciers and climbing over snowy and in some cases icy cols and passes up to Scottish grade II; the difficulties faced depends largely on the conditions, though in any conditions the Haute Route is a mental and physical test when carrying all of your equipment, tents and food. Here is a short account of our Haute Route:
Being an experienced winter and Alpine mountaineer, I was filled with excitement and a desire just to get the trip started; I’m sure Rob was feeling slightly more apprehensive. We arrived in Chamonix on the evening of Friday 28th of June, just in time to join the festivities at our hotel bar- a very loud live band was playing and soon the drinks were flowing. We then headed on to a night club…I’d like to write a more in depth account of the night…but I don’t really remember the rest too clearly..something about tequila and French girls.
Day One began with a short-badly hungover-bus ride to Le Tour where a cable car would take us a short way up the hillside, where our route began. The eventual first day destination was the Tour glacier above the Albert 1er hut; after a few hours of rocky paths and snow slopes we were digging in our tent above the hut, we settled in, cooked our meal and took the short walk to the hut to share a few beers before the serious route began the next day.
Photo 1.1- Rob and I making our way, fully laden with food and equipment, to the Tour Glacier.
Day Two began early, we woke up at around 4am, made some delicious (awful) pre-packed dried breakfast, dug out the tent, geared up and made steady progress up the Tour Glacier. Due to starting early, the snow was firm and we were able to make good progress towards the col. We picked our line up towards the col, which we would pass over and onto the Glacier Du Trient.
Photo 1.2 – Me making progress on the Tour Glacier.
We passed over the col in good time only to find that the decent onto the trient glacier was banked out due to the unusually heavy snow for the time of year; usually this section would simply be a snow slope down to the glacier, the conditions we found we’re rather different and required an abseil. We rigged up and I abseiled down onto the glacier (over a very large bergshrund); Michael and Rob followed and we were soon able to make progress across the trient glacier and down towards Champex. The time taken on the abseil had allowed the sun to beat down on the glacier, turning the once firm snow into softer powder, sinking with each step, progress was tiring and we were glad to cross the glacier and get on the traversing rocky path that would eventually lead to Champex. We’d hoped that the cable car would be running, this would make for a much shorter decent into Champex; however, it wasn’t and we had to walk the steep scree hillside and forestry paths all the way down into Champex- A BIG DAY.
Photo 1.3 – Michael and I,relieved after reaching Champex.
Luckily, right at the end of the path into Champex, we found quite a welcoming campsite. This would be the last town we’d pass through before reaching the end, In Zermatt. We pitched our tents, bought some beers and celebrated reaching the end of a very taxing second day- we even went out for a pizza and drank yet more beer, very civilized. Though we knew the meat of the route was yet to come, day three gave us a nice reminder!
Day Three was a monster, 1430m of ascent and some very tough conditions. The day started with a short bus ride to Bourg st Pierre; a bus, incidentally, that I left an ice axe on. So after returning to Champex to collect it, we carried on with the route. We knew today would be short, distance wise, but a lot of ascent. From Bourg st Pierre steep grass slopes and trails headed up the valley before the path came off left, steeply climbing through rocky broken ground and meeting the snowline. The weather had really come in, visibility was down to around 5m and route finding was difficult. We found ourselves on some awkward icy rock scrambling but this lead us to easier ground. Snow slopes continued, endlessly it seemed, to a steep banked out slope of firm snow. We took a few moments below this to check over maps and decided that the hut should be immediately above the slope; we front pointed our way up the steep snow and gladly found the Valsory hut above. The hut was empty and the conditions bleak so we decided we would stay the night at the hut instead of pitching our tent in poor weather, it was late and the wood burning stove and cooker proved very welcome!
Photo 1.4 – Rob and Michael relaxing in the empty Valsory refuge after a long day!
After fixing some dinner, hanging wet kit to dry and chewing over the next day, we got in our sleeping bags hoping that the bad weather would pass over and the next day would be clear.
Day Four began with a weather check, Michael rose from his sleeping bag first and gingerly poked his head out of the refuge door…only to announce that the bad weather was still with us. We decided to have a couple of extra hours in our sleeping bags and see if the weather passed over…it didn’t, so we decided to crack on anyway. Snow slopes lead to the first real obstacle of the route; we read that this section should be an easy snow slope leading to the Platau du coloir but the dump of fresh snow the night before and the unusual conditions the Alps were experiencing changed this into an insecure, unstable and very banked out 700m snow slope. After considering our options, we decided to press on to the Platau Du Coloir assessing the slope as we did so. We found the slope to be stable enough and we made slow progress zig-zagging our way up the slope in near white out conditions, each step was very insecure with our steps crumbling and snow tumbling down the slope.
Photo 1.5 – Micheal heading towards Platau Du Coloir
We continued to make progress towards the Platau, the weather eventually cleared towards the top, revealing what lay ahead. The slope was never very steep; however, we were ever aware of it’s instability, fresh snow had made the slope insecure.
Photo 1.6 – The slope to Platau Du Coloir
We were forced to stay to the far left (out of shot) of the snow slope to avoid the softest and most avalanche-y looking sections before making a long and insecure traverse to top out to the left of the large cornices at the top of the photo above. The traverse we faced lead us from the more solid snow we’d been climbing, through the soft and dangerous middle section of the slope, to the good snow on the extreme right- we made quick progress across here, keen to avoid lingering on the dangerous middle section. Rob fell on the middle section, dragging me off and sending me sliding alarmingly quickly towards the base of the slope. Some swift ice axe arrests from myself and Michael made the situation safe and soon we were hauling ourselves back to the traverse and eventually onto the Platau Du Coloir. The difficulties we found on this section made for extremely slow progress, the day had passed and we were into the hottest part of the day; we decided that we would sleep in a tiny biviouc shelter above the platau du coloir and rest.
Photo 1.8 – Me resting in the tiny Bivoiuc shelter
Photo 1.9 – Rob outside the Bivouic Shelter!
Day Five began very early, a 2am start would hopefully give us good snow conditions to make up lost time on day four. We woke, eager to check the weather- I think a little bit of each of us prayed for clear weather! That’s exactly what we got! After a couple of energy bars and some kitting up we were ready and descending the steep snow slope back down to the Platau Du Coloir. We headed across the platau where we’d descend onto the glacier; the decent was tricky due to fresh snow, we snook a line hugging the rock on the right of the steep snow bank and eventually made our way onto the glacier. We headed straight across towards the small col we’d need to cross; the snow here was very powdery making the slog up to the col very tiring- Michael and I took turns breaking trail at the front and soon we were at the top of the col and looking down the glacier.
Photo 2.0 – Rob and I at the top of the col in the early hours (Rob looking a lot more cherpy than me!)
Some intricate route finding through some steep crevassed ground lead us to easier terrain and easy glacier trotting followed by a rocky path down into a green and rocky valley. We took the chance to make breakfast here, some more horrid porridge! We then continued up the steep rocky trail that lead to the glacial moraine of the Ottema Glacier; by this point I was tired and drained, instead of continuing we decided to pitch our tent at the start of the Glacier and take a longer day to below the Bertol hut the next day. I took double meals to recover whilst we chewed over the plans for the next day, we were aiming to be in Zermatt in just two days and we were really excited by this!
Day Six, more perfect weather greeted us as we woke at 2am. Jovial at the prospect of just two more days and the great weather we’d been given, we dug out the tent, kitted up and more progress up the glacier. We were soon at the junction where we’d take a small glacier up to the col du petit collon; it was good that we were crossing this section early, this section was littered with crevasses and with each step the glacier creaked and groaned- we were glad to get past the creakiest sections!! A steep icy slope separated us from the col du petit collon; somewhere around Scottish grade II/III. We made swift, calf bursting, front point progress up this and soon found ourselves at the col where we continued before climbing further and descending around the back of mont collon and down the glacier. At the end of the glacier we were glad to drink from the glacier run off, remove excess layers and pack away our crampons, axes and ropes- steep rocky paths lay between us and the Bertol hut..or so we thought. Steep rocky paths began, we climbed higher, the day getting longer and our legs tired. The weather came in again and we were in a white out, a little unsure as to where the Bertol hut was; we were soon back on snow slopes that weren’t meant to be there, another sign of the increased snow in the Alps! Taking bearings we were able to zig-zag up snow slope after snow slope until the cloud broke and we were able to see the Bertol Hut towering above us- finally, another big day of over 1200m of ascent at altitude.
Fig 2.1 – The Bertol Hut from below.
Our original plan was to pitch the tent beneath the Bertol Hut; however, the conditions had made the whole route much more difficult/strenuous than it should have been so, fuck it! We stayed at the hut, ate some proper food and drank plenty of beer!
Day Seven, the last day! We woke around 4am to start the last day down into Zermatt; so excited to get down and put our feet up we made swift progress across the glacier before reaching the final col and climb of the Haute route. It felt long and taxing, mainly due to a hangover and the strain of the last week! Once over that we jovially romped down the glacier towards Zermatt, laughing and generally being pleased with ourselves and admiring the views!
Photo 2.3 – Rob heading down towards Zermatt with the Matterhorn in the background!
We reached the glacial moraine beneath the Schonbeil hut in good time, removed excess kit- crampons, axes, ropes etc and began the long rocky descent into Zermatt. We knew that overall this day would be 21km and a long and tiring decent; it seemed to go on for ever and ever. Even when we saw Zermatt below us, it seemed to take an age to arrive; we knew we just had to keep plodding and by early evening we’d be sipping an ice cold beer in Zermatt. I finally took the last few steps into Zermatt where we ordered a beer…it was over, we’d finished in just seven days, despite the conditions! We arranged some accommodation in Zermatt and headed out into town where we bought the largest meal of spicy ribs we could find and proceeded to drink and dance (badly) until 5am before stumbling back to our beds!
We still had a week of our trip left to go, with the Matterhorn in our sights! In the next post I’ll detail what else we got up to!