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  • Michelle Riband

Skiing the Haute Route

As is the case in many 20th century European history books, it started with the British. As pioneers of mountaineering in the 19th century, Brits traveled across the Alps to conquer new peaks. In the 1860s, a group of intrepid members of the British Alpine Club traveled with local guides on foot between the historic mountain towns of Chamonix in France and Zermatt in Switzerland. This route was dubbed the "high level route" and later translated into the "Haute Route" in French—a name that stuck.

However, it wasn't until 1911 that the route was successfully completed in the winter by a French doctor from Chamonix named Michel Payot with three guides. Remarkably, they skied on 2-meter long wooden skis with leather boots and a single pole. This was quite the contrast to our ultra-light, high-performance gear with Gore-Tex for waterproofing and a highly technical ski made of a fiberglass frame, a laminated wooden core, and steel edges.

Today, over 2,000 skiers take on the Haute Route every winter, which is approximately 120km long with 6,000m of ascent and descent. The terrain is rugged with moderately steep slopes (up to 30 degrees) and the option to ascend various peaks, the highest of which is the Pigne d'Arolla at 3,796m. Snow conditions vary greatly throughout the route and depending on the time of year, so, in addition to a full ski touring set-up, skiers might have to use ski crampons, boot crampons, or an ice axe for more technical sections.

Along the route are spectacular views of the Swiss Alps—jagged peaks in all directions flanked by immaculate gullies of snow. The majority of ski touring trips are spent with skins on the bottom of your skis, which allow you to glide along and up the snow without sliding backwards. You huff, single file, up switchbacks to the top of a mountain saddle or are roped together as you cross a glacier. Hours of rhythmic cardio are then rewarded with epic descents, hopefully down a powdery bowl, but, more often than not, down a mix of fluff and crunch caused by wind and variable temperatures.

Bertol Hut on the Haute Route between Verbier and Zermatt

But skinning and skiing are only part of the Haute Route experience. After five hours on skis, there is nothing quite like rolling up to a remote alpine hut for a decadent meal of wine and fondue. One of the most famous is the Bertol Hut, precariously perched atop a ridge at 3,311m, requiring you to clamber up a series of vertical ladders affixed to the rock face—Swiss engineering at its finest! The inside of the huts are humble, yet practical. The wooden paneled common area is lined with rows of tables and a central furnace to dry your crusty socks. Here, you enjoy a 7am breakfast before heading out for the day and a hearty afternoon lunch, followed by napping, basking in the sun, and playing cards before 7pm dinner. You then retire to your bedroom with tight bunk beds and fluffy duvets. Usually you're too exhausted to be kept up by the stench of each other's sweat-infused clothes or the gentle purr of your neighbor's snoring. Instead, all of this closeness adds to the sense of community that makes the Haute Route so special.

In April 2021, I was lucky to be able to complete the Haute Route from Verbier to Zermatt with a group of eight friends and two guides. In the middle of our five-day adventure, I even celebrated my birthday—one of my most iconic birthdays yet! Here's a little video montage to get a taste of the trip and maybe inspire you to complete your own Haute Route, either this historic trail or one of the many other "Haute Routes" across Switzerland.

Ski touring the Haute Route from Verbier to Zermatt

1 Comment

Jeanine Riband
Jeanine Riband
Jul 02

Love your stories. Keep them coming❤️

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