Advice on Skiing the Haute Route

The Haute Route ski tour linking Chamonix and Zermatt in the western European Alps is without doubt the most famous ski tour in the World.  First pioneered as a walking route in 1861, it is nowadays most commonly done on skis as a week long hut to hut tour.


 
Maps and Guidebooks
If you are planning on doing the trip unguided, then you need to get all the relevant maps and guidebooks that describe the route.  Two english language guidebooks are available - both are written by professional British Mountain Guides who hold the International IFMGA Mountain Guides Diploma.
 
  • Alpine Ski Mountaineering, Vol 1 – Bill O’Connor, published by Cicerone.  This is a useful guidebook if you plan on doing other tours in the Alps as well as the Haute Route (NB many of the tours described are excellent, but some are focussed more on climbing objectives than skiing. Double check all tour info too, as some of it is now out of date - the Haute Route descriptions are generally Ok).
  • Haute Route Chamonix-Zermatt: Guide for Skiers and Mountain Walkers - Peter Cliff, published by Menasha Ridge Press Inc.  This guidebook is dedicated solely to the Haute Route and describes all the principle routes in detail.
 
In terms of maps, the best ones to buy for skiing the Haute Route are the following:
French Map:  IGN                 1:25000 series,  3630 OT ‘Chamonix’
Swiss Map:     Swisstopo       1:50000 blues series, 283 S ‘Arolla’ 
 
For detailed navigation in Switzerland, you may also choose to buy the Swiss 1:25000 maps that cover the route:
  • 1326 1:25,000 Rosablanche
  • 1345 1:25,000 Orsieres
  • 1346 1:25,000 Chanrion
  • 1347 1:25,000 Matterhorn - Monte Cervino
  • 1366 1:25,000 Mont Velan (for the Plateau du Couloir route)
 
Which Route to Follow
Changing mountain conditions mean that the route has evolved a number of times  over the past 150 years, so there are now several variations, in both summer and winter.
 
The Verbier Route
This is the most popular and recommended route for skiers, as it offers plenty of good skiing along the way, some useful uplift and it's the most reliable way to reach Zermatt on skis.  On day two after skiing down to Champex, you take a short road transfer to Verbier and use the lift system, before skiing on to the Prafleuri Hut.  From here it's a day to the Dix hut, then up and over the Pigne D'Arolla to where the line meets up with the Plateau du Couloir Route for the final day to Zermat.
 
There are several different combinations of huts you can use along the way, but a typical itinerary looks something like this:
 
Day 1              Grand Montets Ski Station, Argentiere - Trient Hut.
Day 2              Trient Hut - Champex - Verbier - Prafleuri Hut.
Day 3              Prafleuri Hut - Dix Hut.
Day 4              Dix Hut - Pigne D'Arolla - Vignettes or Nacamuli Huts.
Day 5              Col de L'Eveque - Col de Mont Brule - Col Valpelline - Zermatt.
 

 
The Plateau du Couloir Route
This is the classic 'ski mountaineers' route, offering more climbing difficulties on the ascent of the Plateau du Couloir above the Valsorey Hut.  It's also more strenuous than the Verbier Route and requires favourable weather and snow conditions in order to cross several key passages.  Again, there are many ways to link up accommodation options  along the way, but a typical itinerary looks like this:
 
Day 1              Grand Montets Ski Station, Argentiere - Trient Hut.
Day 2              Trient Hut - Champex - Bourg St Pierre - Valsorey Hut.
Day 3              Valsorey Hut - Plateau du Couloir - Chanrion Hut.
Day 4              Chanrion Hut - Pigne D'Arolla - Vignettes Hut.
Day 5              Vignettes Hut - Zermatt.
 


The Grand Lui Route
This is the purists route, as it allows you to ski all the way from Chamonix to Zermatt on foot.  The Grand Lui variation takes a couple of days longer than the standard routes and requires higher levels of fitness and ski ability in order to deal with the extra difficulties.  Good stable snow conditions are required on several key passages.  As always there are several ways of completing it, but a typical itinerary is shown below:
 
Day 1              Grand Montets Ski Station, Argentiere - Trient Hut.
Day 2              Trient Hut - Col de Saliena - La Fouly.
Day 3              La Fouly - Fenetre de Ferret - Grand St Bernard Monastery
Day 4              Grand St Bernard - Valsorey Hut
Day 5              Valsorey Hut - Plateau du Couloir - Chanrion Hut.
Day 6              Chanrion Hut - Pigne D'Arolla - Vignettes Hut.
Day 7              Vignettes Hut - Zermatt.

 

How well do I need to ski?
If you are a resort piste skier, then don't think about the Haute Route just yet!  You need to be an experienced and competent off piste skier with some previous ski touring experience in order to do the Haute Route, as it's not a ski tour for beginners.  In terms of ski ability, you need to be able to put down a reasonable set of tracks in most off piste snow conditions and be able to cope with more difficult conditions safely - if not elegantly - without becoming exhausted.
 
How fit do I need to be?
Half an hour watching MTV on the treadmill three times a week just won't cut it  unfortunately - as the Haute Route is a demanding week involving several 8 hour plus days stomping uphill whilst carrying a rucsac at altitude.  With regular training over 3-4 months leading up to the trip, any healthy determined individual can attain this level of fitness - but you can't leave it until a couple of weeks before, or just hope to 'get fit along the way' - as it definitely won't work out that way!
 
The Haute Route Season
Although you can ski the Haute Route earlier in the year by carrying food and fuel and stopping in winter rooms, the main season is dictated by hut opening times  - which in turn are planned for the safest period to ski on the glaciers.  The huts are open with a guardian providing food from late March until early May.

Apart from a general seasonal warming through this period, there appears to be no clear pattern year on year to the weather you can expect - ie some years March is wall to wall sunshine and April very snowy, but other years it's the total opposite, or something completely different.  Earlier on you are more likely to find powder, due to the lower average temperatures, but stable spring snow conditions which may increase your chances of completing the route are more frequent later on. 

Right at the end of season, a few short sections may have started to melt out - such as the last bit down to Champex and the slope above the Lac du Dix - which may involve some carrying.

Top Tip: If you want a quieter trip overall, with less people in the huts - then go from mid week to mid week, as most people start on one weekend and finish on the next.  If you leave a couple of days earlier or later, then you will be away from most other skiers during the week.


 
Using Alpine Huts
Getting hut bookings is one of the key things you need to do for the trip and it must be done well in advance (ie 2-3 months minimum, if you are skiing weekend to weekend in the main season).  You need to phone or email each hut guardian in turn, advising on numbers in your group and any special diets at the time of booking - turning up on the spot is not a possibility!   If you subsequently need to change plans or cancel the booking due to weather or some other reason, then always do this as soon as possible. As long as you cancel at least 24hrs in advance, there is usually no charge - but if you book a hut then don't turn up, you will have to pay for the food etc that has already been cooked for you.  Payment for huts if generally done in cash at the hut, so you need to take along sufficient funds to cover this.  All the huts used are in Switzerland, so Swiss Francs are best (you can pay in Euros too, but it will cost you more). 
 
Rescue Insurance
Having adequate rescue and medical insurance is another essential part of your trip.  Regular ski insurance policies generally exclude ski mountaineering, so you need to take out a specialist policy including ski mountaineering on glaciers, that covers you for accident, rescue and repatriation costs (cancellation and curtailment cover is strongly advised too).  You should also obtain a European Health Insurance Card from you local post office (this is the replacement for the old E111).  The following companies provide appropriate insurance:
 
The British Mountaineering Council    www.thebmc.co.uk                 0870 010 4878
Snowcard                                            www.snowcard.co.uk             01327 262 805
 
If you don’t have a Uk address, then there are other ways of getting insurance - such as joining the Austrian Alpine Club or taking out local French and Swiss rescue insurance to cover you in each country - but you need to check these policies very carefully, as cover limits may be low and you may only be covered for helicopter rescue ie not for any follow on medical treatment.  Evidence of your rescue insurance must be carried with you during the trip.
 
Skis and Equipment
For an appropriate kit list to ski the Haute Route, take a look at our ski mountaineering kit lists page. NB the list shows typical kit needed for a member of a guided ski party, so if you are in a self guided group then you also need to carry all the extra items of safety and emergency kit that a guide would normally be carrying ie:
  • group survival shelter
  • spare skins
  • spare gloves
  • phone/rescue radio
  • spare down jacket (in case of  injured skier)
  • spares and repairs kit (for poles, skis & bindings)
  • gps etc
In terms of which skis to use for the Haute Route, remember you are going to be pushing them up hill a lot, so weight is a big consideration.  80-95mm underfoot is an appropriate width (anything wider will be heavier and offer poorer edge grip on firm spring snow) - so we'd recommend either a dedicated lightweight touring/backcountry ski, or a lighter weight all mountain resort ski.  For boots, a dedicated ski mountaineering boot will always offer more skinning comfort than a freeride boot.  You can get away with the latter, but be prepared to tape up to prevent blisters, as this is a very common problem on the Haute Route - especially with hire boots. 


 
Getting to Chamonix
Several low cost operators fly to Geneva.  From there, an airport transfer to Chamonix is the easiest option.  There are several airport transfer companies in Chamonix – some of the more popular ones include:
ChamExpress  www.chamexpress.com
Alpybus          www.alpybus.com
ATS                 www.a-t-s.net
 
Other alternatives are to drive, or take a bus or train.
 
Accommodation in Chamonix
There is a wealth of accommodation available in the Chamonix valley, varying from Gites and cheaper hotels to high end offerings with prices to match.  A good variety can be found here: www.chamonix.com along with online booking services etc.  Given that the tour actually starts in Argentiere, then this would be a good place to stay - or Chamonix itself is equally convenient as is Les Praz.  All are well connected with regular bus services running up and down the valley.
 
Accommodation in Zermatt
Zermatt has lots of very good accommodation available, but it's all rather expensive.  The preferred option for many ski tourers (and backpackers in the summer) is the reasonably priced Hotel Bahnhoff, which is opposite the train station.  Doubles, Quads and Dormitory rooms are available and it has a fully equipped kitchen for the use of guests downstairs, so you can either self cater or eat in town as you prefer.
 


Returning to Chamonix
It takes 2-3 hours to get back to Chamonix at the end of the tour.  One way is by the train: the last connection to Chamonix leaves Zermatt between 4-5pm.  If you are a larger group or can link up with an other team of skiers however, then the most convenient way to get back is via minibus.  These can be hired on the spot in Zermatt 100m down the road from the railway station.  Taxi Schaller are one reliable local operator, but there are numerous others - including the option to book a Chamonix based company such as Mountain Dropoffs to come and pick you up.  With a group of 6-8 skiers, this often works out cheaper than the train and it's certainly more convenient when you arrive in Chamonix and get dropped off at the door.
 
Ski Guided or Unguided

The big decision now is whether to go it alone, or use a mountain guide to organise and lead the trip.  If you have the necessary experience, technical ability and skills to do the trip independently, then let the adventure begin!
 
However, as most skiers do the Haute Route early in their ski mountaineering careers,  the majority join a group lead by a professional mountain guide.  When skiing with a guide, all the pre trip planning, technical and safety aspects of the tour are taken care off - so you can concentrate on the challenge and enjoy the skiing.   You also stand a far higher chance of skiing all the way to Zermatt, as a guide will make progress in less than ideal conditions and get a team to Zermatt who wouldn't always be able to do it on their own.
 
If you want to ski the Haute Route with a guide, then we recommend you get in touch with our friends at Alpine Guides.  We've known Al and Rich for many years and they have a great team of  professionally qualified IFMGA guides and always give an excellent service.  As well as the Haute Route, they run a broad program of training courses and ski touring holidays in the Alps and other parts of the world.
 
If you've any kit questions about the Haute Route, don't hesitate to ask us for further advice.