Luke and Hazel Robertson, RSGS Explorers-in-Residence

High above the bustling valleys and roads, and the packed, groomed ski slopes of the European Alps, there is a more tranquil, albeit challenging way of getting around. Between the two most recognisable summits in Europe, Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, a ski-touring route exists, connecting the historic capitals of mountaineering, Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland.

Originally called the ‘high level route’, it was first charted by the English Alpine Club in the 19th century as a test of summer mountaineering stamina. Winter, however, transforms this landscape from crumbling scree slopes into blankets of pristine snow and chutes of sparkling ice, with seemingly endless exploring and peak-bagging opportunities. Not until 1911 when the tour was first completed on skis was the name translated into the local language. The name stuck, and ‘La Haute Route’ was born.

The multiple itinerary variations of this journey are not only dependent on allocated time, technical difficulty and hut availability, but also safety. Many sections are becoming increasingly dangerous due to rockfall or virtually impassable due to rapidly receding glaciers. And for every image of snow-capped peaks and cosy mountain huts that this trip conjured up, we knew there would be an equal number of steep alpine cols to be ‘boot-packed’ and long exposed traverses to be navigated.

After an equipment check, a crevasse-rescue refresher, and a few hours of packing and repacking, we were ready to go. Taking only what we needed and no more, we left our shoes and general hygiene behind and set off from Chamonix in ski boots! Ahead lay a six day journey that would take us winding through – and up and over – the jagged peaks that dominate the skyline above.

Each morning we departed at sunrise, when the snowpack was at its coldest and most stable, the sharp teeth of our ski crampons crunching satisfyingly into the icy snow. With the steady rhythm of sliding skis (left…right…left…right), moving uphill on gentler gradients was relaxing and almost meditative. Others ascents required a little more attention.

Arriving at the base of the ‘Pas de Chèvres’, we looked overhead to see a series of vertical ladders and platforms clinging to the sheer rock face. With skis strapped to either side of our backpacks, we ascended one rung at a time, trying to recall if ‘ladder climbing’ was in the design specification of our clunky ski boots. Then eventually, peering over the other side, the raw magnificence of the Western Alps laid out as far as the eye could see. Rock strata thrust at unnatural angles all around, offering a reminder of the sheer power of geological forces that built these mountains – it made us feel very, very small.

From valley to col, we made our way further and further east. What were once just names and contour lines on a map now transformed into landscapes, rich with colour and detail, etched to memory. With each changing vista our aim still remained the same: get to a hut by early afternoon to minimise the risk of avalanches. The spring weather brings with it the joy of longer warmer days that make completing La Haute Route feasible, but also the threat of unstable slopes and weak snow-bridges across crevassed glaciers. Precariously perched, the huts – built for the view and not ease of construction – often became visible only during the last few moments of each day’s ski.

Life inside these mountain oases was as much a part of the journey as the hours spent skiing between them. With no roads in or out, a real sense of camaraderie could be felt in the noisy dining room and around the hut with everyone having made a huge physical effort to get there. We were often rewarded with spectacular sunsets from our snug mountain dens; the light on the surrounding mountains dimming and fading into a palette of soft alpenglow. And shortly after, the background chatter would dim too, fading into a chorus of snores.

The final push to Zermatt was set to be the longest and most committing day. With several testing climbs and glacier descents ahead, we left the Vignettes Hut at 5am – well before dawn. Heading into the crisp clear night, the stars sparkled like precious jewels overhead. Our head torches offered no sense of the scale of mountains surrounding us, constraining our vision to only a few metres in front.

Skiing down onto the glacier in these tunnels of light, the sky was now turning pink on the horizon as we worked quickly in the cold wind to put on our climbing skins for the first ascent of the day. Except there would be no ascent towards Zermatt today. A pin had sheared completely off from Luke’s binding. And so instead of one final day in the stillness of the mountains, we were forced to turn around and pick our way down to civilisation, with Luke side-slipping down on only one working ski…!

After a coffee, frustration gave way to reality and relief. In many other locations, the failure of such a small but vital piece of kit could have had far bigger consequences. It’s true that with wilderness touring comes a lack of convenient ski shops when you need them the most. But it’s a trade-off we wouldn’t give up for the world.