Sunday, November 17, 2013

Haute Route Photos ~ March 25-31, 2012

These are photos from the Northwest Mountain School's March 26-31, 2012 Haute Route Ski Trip.  The photos are in chronological order, but not captioned.  At the time Olivia and I were the new parents of a baby girl and it took awhile to get the photos up.

Here is information on upcoming Haute Route Ski Tours led by IFMGA Guides John & Olivia Race and the Northwest Mountain School.  Feel free to give us a call at 509-548-5823 for details.

Haute Route Trip Report ~ April 1-7, 2013

Our April 1-7, 2013 Haute Route Ski Tour was unusual in that it was the first time John and Olivia were able to guide together after a multi-year hiatus surrounding Olivia's knee injury one season and then pregnancy the next. After getting pounded by storms on the first 2 trips of the season we felt primed for some good luck with the weather and we got it. 

Pain, its whats for breakfast in Chamonix, France
We had a great group with overall solid ski skills.  With clear weather we were able to ski the Valle Blanche on Day 1.  On the previous 2 trips we had diverted to Grand Montets due to either high winds or poor visibility on the first day of the trip.  Olivia & John Race guided one group and Pete Keane spearheaded another, smaller group.  We often run like this as having a 3rd guide nearby gives us more options should something go awry.

Jessica getting some powder in the Valle Blanche on Day 1.
The same storm that had forced our second trip of the season to abandon a portion of the final leg from the Vignettes Hut to the Zermatt, had provided this group with perfect skiing for the start of their trip.  This is the constant dilemma with mountain skiing…you need storms to make snow and during the storm your options in the backcountry can quickly become more limited than they would be at a ski area with an aggressive avalanche control program.

Ski tracks in the Valle Blanche, Chamonix, France
We were able to ski one of the more central lines in the Valle Blanche this year.  These skiers are sitting just under the Seracs de Géant.  In many years this area is what closes out and makes the descent unskiable.  Most years, however, this works well into late April. The first day is all about reviewing equipment and systems, making sure everyone is skiing in control, and going over various safety procedures.

Skiers under the Seracs du Géant, Valle Blanche
On day 2 we were up early and caught one of the first trams from Grand Montets.  This year we began consistently using the Col du Passon enroute to the Trient Hut.  This route misses the Col du Chardonnet and Fenêtre de Saleina, and instead crosses the Col du Passon and the Col Superior du Tour to access the Trient Plateau.  The Col du Chardonnet is interesting, but can become a bit of a bottleneck at the lowers, and has slightly more avalanche hazard in certain situations. The Fenêtre de Saleina has been developing a large bergschrund as the glacier pulls back.

IFMGA Guide, Olivia Race climbing over moraine at base of Col du Passon
Once we hit the Argentiére Glacier we dropped down a bit and then climbed over the moraine to access the slopes leading up to the Col du Passon.  The traverse into the Col went very smoothly, but we were happy to be there early in the day. The climb up to the col itself varies in difficulty with the depth of the snowpack.  On this day it was perfect.  Plenty of snow for good footing.

Group traversing to Col du Passon
We almost always rope up for this section, but today decided to work with ice axes and crampons due to the superb footing and soft conditions around the boot track.

Andria nearing the top of the Col du Passon boot pack.
The group moved well and we made it to the Trient Hut in time for a nice late afternoon rest before dinner. The hut is owned by the Swiss Alpine Club and the contract to operate it changed hands a few years back.  The new folks, Mélanie and Olivier, are always cheerful and happy to see us.  On this day we skied across the border of France and Switzerland and began using our Swiss Francs.  The hut keepers speak French, which would be the case all of the way to Zermatt, where things switch to Swiss German.

Hannah, Andria, and Adam at the Trient Hut in front of the wood stove
After this trip, Olivia was headed off to scout our new trip to the Otztal area in Austria, so she was spending many of her evenings working on route plans for that trip.

IFMGA Guides Pete Keane and Olivia Race at the Trient Hut, Switzerland
Per usual the food was great.  I always joke that hut meals usually involve meat, some brown sauce, and something white.  Other foods are generally a small salad, pasta, and there is always desert.  This hut always serves an aperitif, generally a light white wine.

Dinner at the Trient Hut
With the larger group we tended to ski as smaller groups during the day and then come together for meals in the hut. This was nice as we could mix the groups up a bit each day to accommodate folks that wanted to ski more or less, faster or slower.

Other half of our group at dinner in the Trient Hut.
Up early the next morning we continued to have really nice weather.  The weather two days previous had kept the crowds from making the hut, so we still had really good ski conditions for the descent on the Trient Glacier and the Val d'Arpete.

Skiers below the Trient Hut with Aguille du Tour in across the Trient Plateau
When we leave the hut we ski down the glacier, pass skiers right of a significant ice fall, and then boot up and over the Col des Ecandies.  Once again the conditions were ideal, so we were able to get by with crampons and ice axes, but no rope.

Skier with Northwest Mountain School climbing to Col des Ecandies
The Col des Ecandies gives us access to the Val d'Arpette.  The guides often jokingly call this the Val d'Crappette as the feature is so massive and the descent so long that you almost never get to ski it from top to bottom in perfect snow.  The skiing is generally great, but at some point you hit a transition zone where you need to ski through something challenging as the snow density changes from powder to spring snow.  In between you can have just about any snow type.

Adam Kowalski locking in to ski the Val d'Arpette, Trient Plateau in the background.

Ski Conditions were good today.  Things were slightly more skied out than we expected, but the top was nice and it was good to be in the sun.  There must have been a bit of an inversion because we eventually skied down into the fog and out to the town of Champex.
Skiing the Val d'Arpette
We skied down to Champex where we took a taxi to Verbier, Switzerland.  Some folks skied the area and a few relaxed at the hut for the afternoon.  The size of the ski area at Verbier is a bit mind boggling.  Verbier itself is just one of the "4 Valleys" ski area.  The other linked ski resorts are Nendaz, Veysonnaz, La Tzoumaz, and Thyon.  That is 5 ski areas utilizing 4 valleys, and all linked together with a system of gondolas and lifts for a total of 410 km of marked runs (pistes).  As Verbier sits up on a hill we actually catch the tram at Le Châble and ride 800 meters up to the town itself.  The Mont Fort Hut existed before the ski area and the ski area was developed around the hut.

Mont Fort Hut ~ Verbier, Switzerland
Coming out of the Mont Fort Hut the next morning we had good weather.  No new snow overnight, so there would be tracks on Rosa Blanche, but there is always plenty of space to find fresh powder powder up there. We began the day as usual, by skiing up the newly groomed piste for a bit before climbing over the Col du Momin and dropping into the backcountry once again.

Ski tracks under Rosablanche (10,945' ~ 3336M)
We had overall good ski conditions and were able to ski the Rosablanche.  On every tour this year we utilized the back door route for skiing into the Prafleuri Hut due to a deep layer that had been concerning us for the past few weeks.  This alternate route kept us off the worst of the unsupported slopes and still provided really nice skiing.

Jay at the Praflueri Hut ~ One of our favorite photos from this trip
We reached the hut in time for the usual overindulgence in lunch.  The Praflueri is where things were consistently getting interesting during the Spring 2013 trips.  The next section would take us along the Lac du Dix, one of the entirely unglaciated sections of the Haute Route and a spot that had given us very consistent concern about avalanche conditions.  On the previous two trips this season we had been forced to bail twice, once via a circuitous route back and down to Siviez, and the other out a old tunnel to the town of Hérménce.  In both cases we pre-arranged a taxi to take us to Arolla where we either spent the night or ascended back to the Dix Hut.

Skiers going over the Col des Roux 
We got an unusually early start here so as to avoid as much of the heat as possible along the Lac du Dix.  We climbed over the Col des Roux and then made the long descending traverse along the Lac du Dix before climbing up the long valley that leads to the Dix hut.

Pete Keane and his crew with Mont Blanc de Chelion in the background
We arrived at the Dix Hut and were greeted by our friends Pierre-Antoine and Béatrice Sierro, the hut wardens.  Pierre is famous for being a task master and not putting up with any grief from those staying in the huts.  Over time we had sorted out how to keep him happy and always felt well taken care of.  How to keep Pierre, or any hut keeper happy?  Order your picnic lunches on time, bus your table, keep your gear well stowed and neat in the gear room, and above all, don't surprise them with a mid-day cancellation. We were sad to learn that this would be their last season as the caretakers of the hut.

Clear morning at the Dix Hut looking up at the Pigne d'Arolla, our objective for the day
We did manage an afternoon tour on La Luette, the nice peak behind the Dix Hut.  The Dix Hut is always packed and is one of the more fun huts at dinner time.  Many of the folks staying there are doing the Haute Route, but it is also a stopover for people simply up for a night from Arolla and a common lunch stop of people who were dropped by helicopter near the top of the Pigne d'Arolla.

Icefall avalanche on Mont Blanc de Chelion
As we packed up in the morning we were treated to a spectacular avalanche off Mont Blanc de Chelion.  If you look close you can see that the dust cloud passed over the ski track.  This particular slope is less of a concern than the icefall that you must pass under on the glacier itself.  Fortunately this year things were laid back nicely and we felt pretty good on all of our trips under here.

The crux climb up the Serpentine on Pigne d'Arolla
The climb up the Pigne d'Arolla is one of the more sustained on the Haute Route.  This upper section weaves a line that just barely avoids being exposed to the ice cliffs on the left and the steeper slopes on the right.  This is a common place to use ski crampons a rope, and an ice axe.  We have had trips were we took to boots with crampons, but the skin track was nice and wide and there was plenty of soft snow surrounding it, so we were able to make due with just ski crampons.

Detail of skin track on the Serpentine, Pigne d'Arolla
This section generally causes some butterflies for those looking up at it, but as the photo above shows, it was in good shape in early April of 2013.  We have been here several times when things were a bit more firm only to have a helicopter ski group drop in on top of us right when you get into the business portion of the route.
John Race, Pete Keane, and Olivia Race on the Pigne d'Arolla
The climb went well and we were able to summit and ski from the top of the Pigne d'Arolla, which is the high point of most Haute Route ski traverses. Oddly I had considered proposing to Olivia several years earlier on this summit, but opted to wait until we were back home in Washington.

Andria and Hannah on the Pigne d'Arolla w/ Matterhorn in background
We skied off the top and took our time as we often don't ski in the afternoon in preparation for a big day on the last day.  

Skiers ascending to the Vignettes Hut after skiing off the Pigne d'Arolla
We skied a longer line that requires folks to put their skis back on and climb back up to the hut.  This route is just slightly less steep, but has the advantage of giving the guides a chance to preview a key traverse that would need to be descended the following morning.

Vignettes Hut with Dent Blanche in the background.
The Vignettes Hut is one of the more spectacularly situated of the huts we use in the Alps.  It is completely resupplied by helicopter and is perched on a cliff over the Viube Glacier.  The view from the dining room provides a very good preview of the climb to the Col de L'Eveque which we would undertake the next morning.

Skiers in the fog on the final day of the Haute Route
The final day is the longest of the Haute Route.  We generally want really good visibility to undertake this.  On days where things are obscured, but the wind is low we often poke out and see what we can do, knowing that we can either retrace our route or take an alternate descent to Arolla once over the Col  de L'Eveque.  On this day we started in clouds, and were well on our way to the Col du Mont Brule before things cleared slightly. This is stressful guiding as on a previous trip I had made it as far as the Col du Valpelline only to turn around and ski back to Arolla.

Skiers between the Col du Mont Brule and the Col du Valpelline on the Haute Route
Amazingly, when we began the descent from the Col du Mont Brule, we skied into perfectly clear skies and were able to enjoy sunshine for the final climb to the Col du Valpelline and the descent into Zermatt.  The one section of the Haute Route that we will not undertake in white-out is the ski down to Zermatt from this last pass.

We all came together at the Col du Valpelline for the classic photo near the end of the Haute Route.  The big peak in the background in the Matterhorn.  From here we descend over 6000' to Zermatt. In good visibility the descent is relatively straight forward if you pick your lines with care.  In a whiteout it would be very difficult.

Skiers on last leg of Haute Route with Dent d'Herens in the background
The ski down had relatively good snow.  We generally take our time on this one as each stop provides views that are almost too big and impressive to adequately absorb.  The glacier gets skied fairly frequently from a heli drop on the Tête Blanche as well as from motivated folks that come from various huts in the area.

Hannah, Jay, Andria, and Adam following the descent from the Col du Valpelline
This year we were able to ski to Furi and then ski the narrow piste all the way to Zermatt.  The first 9 times we guided the Haute Route we were able to ski all the way to Zermatt, and in the Spring of 2013 were were forced off the main route twice before getting it on our last trip of the season.

Enjoying beers on the sunny deck of the Hotel Bahnhoff, Zermatt
We wrapped up the trip in Zermatt at the Hotel Bahnhoff.  Some folks would stay for the night and ski a bit the next day and others were on trains down valley to catch flights back to the US.  Thanks much to a great group.

Details on upcoming Haute Route Ski Tours