April 2000 - the Haute Route
Our second attempt fared better than the first.
Andrew Clark wrote this account
Guide: Peter Allison
Team members: Andrew Clark, Reg Moore, Sue O'Connor, Julian Penrose, Alan Robinson
Day 1 Thursday 6 April Argentiere to the Trient Hut
The day dawned fine and we met at 08:00 at the bottom station of the Lognon cable car. Our early start paid off and we were on the first car up, along with a bunch of eager powder hounds, anxious to put in first tracks into the previous days powder. Unlike last year, the second cable car to the top of the Grands Montets (3233m.) was running from the start of the day and, once again, we were on the first car up.
By 0930 we were skiing in fresh powder down to the Argentiere glacier, traversing right to stay high and minimise the climb up the Col de Chardonnet. We had the mountains to ourselves, although we could see some other skiers emerging from the Argentiere Hut who would be in front of us for the long climb up the Col. Very fortunate, because they would be breaking the trail for us. We all had skins on our skis for the first time by 10:00 and we set of up the Col from an altitude of approximately 2530m. The climb was much easier this year. Because we had set off earlier, the whole of the Col was in shade and so much cooler. As we got nearer the top a cool breeze was blowing which helped to keep our temperature from rising. Peter set some good tracks and we all got on well with the skinning, quickly getting used to the all-too-necessary uphill kick-turns.
We got to the top of the Col (3323m.) at 12:45 and stopped to have some lunch, while watching a group in front of us take to the rope and descend the steep east side. As they went over the lip, because the slope got steeper they disappeared from view. Peter set off down the rope and duly disappeared. He shouted encouragement and we each took it in turn to attach ourselves to the rope and start the side-slip down. A trench, just wider than the length of our skis had been worn through the 8 to 10 inches of fresh snow to the ice below. A good exercise in keeping our edges in. Some way short of the bottom the rope came to an end. Peter had attached one of our ropes to the bottom. However it was impossible to slide our Prussic Loops over the knot so we had no alternative but to stand on our edges on the slope, untie our loops and then slide down the bottom rope by wrapping a loop round our arms. Although not so terrifying the second time of doing it, the whole descent was pretty hairy! At the bottom of the Col we all got sorted much quicker than last time, and the snow was also much better than last year so we had an easy ski across the Saleina Glacier round to the bottom of the approach to the Fenetre de Saleina.
On with the skins again for the second climb of the day. The last 30 metres or so was too steep to skin up so it was off with the skis and we carried them up. Peter kicked in good steps and again, this part seemed easier than last year. When we got to the top at 4 o'clock we were delighted to see that we would be able to ski right off the top, without the climb down the rocks which delayed us so much last year. Our good feelings were soon interrupted by a cacophony coming from below us on the slope. A group of very noisy Americans (soon christened "the septics") were climbing at a spectacular rate. In no time at all they were with us, and the noisiest woman pointed at Reg and exclaimed "that little sucker is going to have someone's eye out!" We were not sure if she was referring to Reg or the tip of his ice axe sticking up above his rucksack. Reg growled back that if she kept her distance she would have nothing to worry about.
Off with the skins again and a delightful, gentle ski across the Plateau de Trient. So much more enjoyable than doing it in the dark last year. The Trient Hut soon came into view, sitting high on its rock buttress. In no time we were below the hut and putting our skins on for the third time to make the short climb up to the hut (3170m.), which we reached, in bright sunshine at 5 o'clock. It had been a good day, with 6 to 10 inches of fresh powder along the entire route.
It was good to be in the hut. We quickly got our gear sorted out and stuck into our first jug of tea. It had been a crystal clear, sunny day and everyone came out of the hut to watch the spectacular mountain sunset. Dinner was soup, salad, bread and Thai chicken curry, washed down with a couple of beers. Although there was no running water the toilet cabin was good and clean and we managed to dry our socks and skins around the stove. We went to bed early, around 9 o'clock, content that we had done so much better than last year.
Day 2 Friday 7 April Trient Hut to Mont Fort Hut
We all got up at before 7 o'clock, woken by other skiers making an early start, still feeling good after our first day and looking forward to an easier second day, in good conditions. The customary breakfast of tea bread and jam followed. We took rather a long time to get ourselves together and our gear sorted but finally set off at 08:15. As soon as we tried to make the first turn we had a nasty shock. Yesterday's powder had turned to hard crust (soon known as crême brulée). We all picked our way gently down the Plateau du Trient, with all but Peter and Jules taking a number of tumbles. At last we reached a large steep bowl with softer snow and we all started to relax.
Before we knew it, we had passed the Robinson Crevasse without incident and were looking across the long steep traverse to the Col de Ecandies (2796m.). The traverse was made without incident, and we were soon climbing in our boots to the top of the Col - once again thankful for Peter's sound steps cut into the snow. We were joined again on the top by the septics but soon managed to shake them off.
We skied down the long and gentle Val d'Arpette in reasonable snow. We joined the ski area near the bottom and reached the road down to Champex at 10 o'clock. Our rendezvous with the cars was not until 11 o'clock so we had coffee at the cafe there and availed ourselves of the toilets, hot water and soap. The ladies arrived, on schedule at 11 o'clock and we had a happy reunion with Sue. It was a lovely sunny day so we decided to eat lunch, outside, at the Relais au Club Alpin in Champex. We were joined there, once again, by the septics, but fortunately they decided to eat inside.
After an excellent and leisurely lunch we took to the cars for the drive round to Le Chable, to gain access to the Verbier lift system. Before taking to the gondolas up we visited the local supermarket to stock up with lunches for the following days and with dinner in the unmanned Prafleuri Hut. We said farewell to the ladies and headed up the mountain. We changed to a cable car in Verbier town and headed up to the resort proper.
At the top we started a long traverse, with a number of steep bits, around the top of the resort to reach the Mont Fort Hut (2459m.). During the day this is a resort restaurant, and when we arrived the large terrace was full of day-skiers.
We had a drink in the sunshine and admired the views over the pistes and to Mont Blanc, just visible in the distance. It was good to have had an easy day's skiing and skinning after the hard first day. We put our skins back on to save time in the morning as we would need them right from the start. Because of its daytime use, the Mont Fort Hut has indoor toilets, mains electricity and running water (cold only). As the day skiers descended and left the hut to us for the night we settled down into the relative luxury - much helped by electric radiators! Once again we were joined by the septics, who although stationed at the opposite end of the hut could be heard discussing the Vignette Hut and it's "awesome crapper". Dinner was soup, spaghetti bolagnese and orange dessert. After a welcome wash and even a shave another early night.
Day 3 Friday 7 April Mont Fort Hut to Prafleuri Hut
Another 08:15 start saw us skinning up the long, perfectly groomed piste towards the Col de la Chaux. Dodging the odd piste-basher we were able to ski almost all the way in a straight line. As we neared the top the first cable car to the top went over our heads and we soon saw day-tripper boarders and skiers traversing above us to the Col.
We reached the Col (2940m.) and the sunshine at 10 o'clock and took our skins off. The 481m climb had been relatively easy, most of it having been up the billiard table pistes of Verbier, and most of it being in the cool early morning shade. Peter and Jules chose a steep powder descent off the top but the rest of us opted for a descending traverse. Before long we were putting the skins on for another climb, over the Col de Momin (3003m.).
Being a Saturday the area was dotted with other parties of skiers, mostly out on day tours. We continued a long gentle climb up the Grand Dsert Glacier towards Rosablanche. We stopped for a leisurely lunch at about 3160m. Other skiers were passing us and climbing towards the top of Rosablanche before putting fresh tracks in the powder back down again. After lunch Sue and Reg decided to take a break while the rest of us set off for the summit.
Near the top we had to take the skis off and, ski poles in hand head for the summit at 3396m. Needless to say, the view was spectacular and we all posed enthusiastically for photos. We had our first sight of the Matterhorn in the distance, as well as still being able to see Mont Blanc behind us. Before long, we had skis on and we were back with Sue and Reg. There followed an easy, straightforward ski down the Glacier de Prafleuri to the Hut.
The Prafleuri hut is a converted workers hostel, built for the workers contracting the nearby Dix Dam. Although now normally manned, it was not for our night there. There is mains electricity and we were soon loading up the meter to get the radiators and stove heated up. There was also a wood burning stove which we soon had fired up. One of the highlights of the whole trip was Prafleuri's "Loo With A View". It was possible to sit here with the door open, overlooked by no one, enjoying the most amazing view. Once again there was no running water, but plenty of snow to melt and we soon had vast quantities heating up. At one point we thought that we would have the hut to ourselves and we had visions of using some of the hot water for shaves and hair washing. It was not to be so. We were soon joined by other skiers who shared our hot water.
It was at the Prafleuri Hut that we all fell victim to the great avalanche. We had all put our boots in the sunshine, on a table outside the back door. The sun was blazing, but unfortunately it heated up the corrugated iron roof of the porch and a wall of snow and ice fell on our boots, filling them to the brim. Fortunately there was plenty of heat inside the hut to get them dry again.
We cooked an excellent dinner of soup followed by gammon, rosti potatoes and leeks and turnips. The hut was filled with delicious aromas and we were getting envious glances from the other visitors.
Day 4 Sunday 9 April Prafleuri Hut to Dix Hut
Sunday dawned overcast and we worried that the good weather was coming to an end. We set off at 08:15 with a very short ski to the bottom of the Col des Roux. A forty-minute skin saw as at the top (2804m.). From here we started a very long and icy traverse all around and high above the Lac de Dix. The lake was surprisingly empty. This served to make the drop down the steep slopes even more daunting. In spite of some decidedly hairy bits we all got round without mishap. At the far end of the lake was a suspension bridge over a river. We passed close to it and then, for the first time, fixed our ski-crampons for a climb up an extremely icy slope.
The weather was very variable, constantly changing from sunny to overcast and very windy. As we made the long climb up the Cheilon Glacier we passed a place where, last year, the other group had had to resort to a snow hole for the night, being unable to locate the Dix Hut in bad weather. We rounded a huge rock outcrop and caught sight of the Dix Hut above us.
To get to it, we had to skirt around the buttress until we were at the bottom of a slope leading to the Hut. We started skinning up, to discover that, as well as being very steep, the slope was very icy. Alan in particular was having trouble with his skins and before long slipped. He slipped a long way down the slope, not being able to slow his slide. When he eventually did stop he had scraped all the skin off one arm. Reg also had problems, but eventually the show was over for the interested spectators on the hut terrace, and we all made it to the hut (2978m.). We reached the hut at 14:30 so had a long leisurely afternoon, drinking numerous jugs of tea and sharing some of Sue's large stock of chocolate.
The Dix hut is large and relatively luxurious. There was a new indoor toilet block with novel "separating wc's". Provided you sat on them the right way round, liquid waste was dealt with in one way and solid waste in another way. Very eco-friendly! Another hearty dinner of Thai chicken curry and another early night to bed.
Day 5 Monday 9 April Dix Hut to Vignette Hut
Day five was to be a long and hard day, and once again it started off overcast. We set off at 07:30 and skied down onto the Cheilon Glacier where we put our skins on. We started a long hard climb up the Tsena Réfien Glacier. There was some tough terrain and a number of difficult kick turns before we reached the top at 3423m. We crossed a relatively flat section and arrived at the bottom of an "improbable" looking Col de la Serpentine. To climb this we put our skis on our packs, roped together and started up using ice axes. It was very cold and once again good steps from Peter minimised the problems on this steep slope. We continued climbing gently, and for the first time I thought that we had a chance of reaching our target of Zermatt.
We went over the Col de Brenay (3639m.) and stopped for a breather near to the Pigne d'Arolla. After a short lunch some of us made the short climb on foot to the summit for photos at 3796m. Although lovely and sunny we could see clouds all round so decided to press on towards the hut. We had just started our descent towards the hut when the cloud surrounded us, cutting visibility to less than 20 metres. At first we started following the tracks of the groups we knew were ahead of us. We soon lost these and out came maps, compasses and GPS receivers. Peter knew that there ice cliffs around so would only proceed very cautiously. He knew that we had to traverse left, but too soon and we would be into an area of vertical ice cliffs. If we descended too far it could mean climbing back up to the hut from below. Julian went ahead scouting for tracks. We heard a helicopter and assumed that it was landing at the hut, but in the cloud we could not see it. Eventually we found some tracks traversing the slope and followed these. We saw some rocks ahead and made for a gap in these. Peter recognised the gap and we then saw a water pipe which we knew must lead to the hut.
A quick descent beneath the ominous ice tracks and we caught our first sight of the Vignette Hut, complete with "awesome crapper" perched at the end of an incredibly steep ridge. The setting for the hut is truly spectacular (3194m.). It is perched on a ledge at the top of a gorge over a drop which must be thousands of feet. We never saw the bottom! The approach to the hut was terrifying, calling for a ski along an 18 inch wide icy ledge with the aforementioned drop to the right and a wall of snow and ice to the left. Eventually, and not without a certain amount of hesitation on some of our parts we all made it and staggered thankfully into the hut. The speed at which we lost our visibility and how difficult it was to navigate in the clouds surprised us all. However we had made it to the hut, and it was time to enjoy the facilities!
A slippery walk along an ice ledge, clinging to safety wires brought me to the "awesome crapper, three cubicles - each with a large rock on the seat cover to stop it flapping in the enormous updraft. Curiosity got the better of me and I lifted the cover - I wish I hadn't. Peering down all I could see was a tremendous drop and rocks on the way down covered in the product of the terrifying approach. Nevertheless, needs must, and I was soon settling down to the business in hand. Looking at the positive, the enormous updraft howling through the cubicle ensured that there was no smell, although it did mean that toilet paper was flying all around the gorge.
Dinner, as was now the norm, was excellent: soup, meat/mashed potatoes/French beans and fresh fruit. We discussed the day ahead, our final day. What ever happened it was going to be a long day if we were to reach Zermatt. A 5 o'clock start was called for. We went to bed all knowing that it would depend on the weather. Each one of us was up at various times in the night, some even risking the icy walk to the "awesome crapper", and Reg nearly losing it as he slipped and his feet went under the wire! In reality I think we were all checking out the weather. It cleared during the night. Day 6 Monday 10 April Vignette Hut to ??? We were all up early, excited at the prospect of reaching Zermatt but nervous at the thought of the hard day ahead.
Over a quick breakfast the various options for the day were discussed but we all agreed to "go for it". Much to our dismay, as we put our skis on the weather started to close in. Although we could see our first col, all around it was low cloud. We returned to the hut to see if the cloud lifted. It did not. Reluctantly we agreed that heading for Zermatt would not be good idea.
We headed down in the opposite direction towards Arolla. Finally setting off just after 7 o'clock, the snow was great and we all enjoyed the first part of the descent, with Peter choosing an excellent line down. As we got lower the snow got more and more crusty and eventually we were skiing in what appeared to be a frozen stream bed. Before we knew it we were on a road. It was 08:30 and it was all over.
When we got back to Argentiere we calculated that we had climbed a total of 3,300 metres or 10,835 feet during our five and a bit day expedition. We all agreed that the reason for doing the last day would have been to enjoy the view as we skied down past the Matterhorn into Zermatt. If the visibility had been poor (and we are sure it was) this would have spoilt the last day, apart from the difficulty of avoiding the crevasses and other hazards. Much better to leave it until next year and pick a nice sunny day to do the descent. A long period of unsettled weather followed our descent to Arolla, and it is doubtful if we would have had a clear day for the descent to Zermatt, even if we had tried to wait out the depression in the Vignette Hut. Until next year!