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Alpinist Nick Marmet: Adventures on the Haute Route

Zari Sadri1 Comment
Alpinist Nick Marmet: Adventures on the Haute Route

Alpinist Nick Marmet recently completed the Haute Route, a 7 day ski trek through the Alps from Chamonix to Zermatt. Read his Journal below. 

It’s easy to understand what makes the Haute Route the most iconic ski tour in the Alps. Starting in the shadow of Mont Blanc, in the world mountaineering capital of Chamonix, the 75-mile traverse and 6000-meter climb moves through some of the most mythologized peaks and glaciers of the French and Swiss Alps. Each stage of the trek is distinct, just as each mountain hut where you spend night with fellow ski touring pilgrims has its own character. The week-long tour concludes with a final descent around the backside of the pyramidal colossus of rock and ice that is the Matterhorn and into the Swiss village Zermatt. It was perhaps the most emotionally charged run of my life.

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Growing up, I learned to ski on vacations visiting my grandmother in Zermatt. At a young age, I was first confounded when I saw skiers heading up the mountain, carrying oversized packs with ropes and ice axes lashed on. While riding a gasoline-powered button lift across the glacier, I watched the switchbacks they cut into the untracked slopes and the clean, expressive lines of descent they left behind, and I had my first dreams of touring. In 2011, I hiked the Summer Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt following largely the same arc through the mountains, and I had an immense desire to return on skis. Last season, I finally made the journey, joining a MountainTracks group guided by Tina di Batista and Dave Rudkin.

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We start our first day by taking cable cars from the valley to the summit of Grands Montets (3300m) and leave the resort to ski down and across the Glacier d’Argentière, reaching Refuge d'Argentière (2691m), our first stay of the tour. This is my first hut-to-hut ski tour in the Alps, and I quickly pick up proper winter refuge etiquette: imitation Crocs always on your feet, ice axes by the door, and wet skins hanging to dry by the kitchen. After settling in, we drink beer on the terrace in the sun overlooking the glacier and cheer on other skiers as they arrive throughout the afternoon.

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Early the next morning, after watching the sun’s golden rays strike the jagged, imposing peak of the Aiguille Verte across the glacier, we ski down towards the Col du Passon (3028m), where we rope up and bootpack up our first col. We cross the Glacier du Tour and drop down from the Col du Tour (3288m), skiing and then skating the long traverse across the Plateau du Trient, entering Switzerland and finally arriving at the Cabane du Trient (3170m). Looking out from the hut’s balcony at twilight across the vast lunar-like landscape of pure white and struggling to find the faint traces of our tracks, I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of the mountains we’re navigating and our complete isolation from life in the valley. We depart in the dark the next morning and ski down the Glacier du Trient, as the light turns the expanse of snow and ice a cool blue. We strap our skis to our packs to climb up the Col des Ecandies (2796m), reaching the top just as the sun’s golden rays first hit the upper-most fields of snow we’re about to descend. We cruise down the Val d’Arpette to Champex, and with every 300 meters, the snow changes, from powder to hard-pack to ice to corn.  After transferring to La Chable, where I had been less than a year before to run the Verbier St. Bernard Traversée, we take cable cars to Mont Fort, a temporary return to the traditional ski experience, before slapping our skins back on our skis and ascending the Col de la Chaux (2940m) and Col de Momin (3015m). We fit in an ascent of Rosablanche (3336m) and catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn’s perfect pyramid, the unmistakable marker of our final destination that grows bigger on the horizon as we draw closer each day.

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After another spectacular dawn the next day, we leave Cabane de Prafleuri (2662m) and traverse above Lac Dix on hard chunks of corn snow bonded to frozen grass, a reminder of just how lucky we’ve otherwise been with the quality of snow throughout the tour. We reach Cabane des Dix (2928m) early in the afternoon and order a massive plate of rösti (Swiss hash browns) with the typical accoutrements of fried eggs, cornichons, pickled onions, and an excess of mustard. Fully fueled and awestruck by the splendor surrounding us, a friend and I skin farther up the glacier towards the Col de Cheilon for one last fresh line of the day.

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Morning the next day is especially cold and pink clouds still streak the blue dawn sky as we begin our icy ascent in the shadow of Mont Blanc de Cheilon. As we work our way towards the Col de la Serpentine (3546m), the route becomes steeper and we decide to rope up and attach our ski crampons, while other ski parties simply to take their skis off and bootpack the climb in crampons. After the challenge, the reward is the latest in a series of the route’s most breathtaking views and from the top of Pigne d’Arolla (3796m), I look back to see Mont Blanc, where we began, and in the other direction the Matterhorn, the tour’s terminus. The traditional last stop on the Haute Route is Cabane des Vignettes, but they’re full so we ski into Italy to spend the night at Rifugio Nacamuli (2828m), where the young hut keeper proudly shows us his VHS collection of the best NBA games of the 1990s. The rock outcrop that the hut is perched upon is perfect for baking in the sun like mountain lizards as we sip from cans of Moretti and dream of the final descent into Zermatt the next day.  

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Though you would never believe it during the tour, on the Haute Route the best comes at the end. We begin our last day before daybreak skinning by headlamp up the Col Collon (3074m). A steep ascent up the Col du Mont Brulé (3213) is followed by a traverse across the remote Haut Tsa de Tsan Glacier and then a long and gradual climb up our third and final col of the day, Col de Valpelline (3557m). As we near the top, the Matterhorn comes into clear view. The flat face from this side is different from my childhood image of the view of the mountain from the valley (and the Toblerone graphic, for that matter). The winds are strong at the top, and I’m torn between wanting to stay in this spot taking in this rare view for as long as I can and enjoying the more than 2000m of uninterrupted skiing into the town where I learned to ski. I finally stuff my skins into my pack for the last time of the tour and tighten my boots. Skiing down the Stockji Glacier, my eyes are glued to the Matterhorn, which seems to transform with each second as my angle changes. The Zmutt Glacier brings us even closer to it, and despite having spent a week in the Alps, I’m still awestruck by the immensity of this one mountain. We join a piste at Stefelalp, a restaurant where growing up I would stop with my family for bratwurst and rösti, and then ski down all the way to the village, a familiar valley run whose every turn immediately comes back to me. Walking down Zermatt’s main street feels like returning home, and we have a triumphant burger and beer before catching a train down the valley. Having covered more than 18 miles on skis in a single day, I’m still processing all that we saw and skied throughout our three-hour drive back to Chamonix.  

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Touring forces you to slow down and in doing so gives you the necessary space to absorb the changing details in your surroundings as you move through the mountains. It’s not just working for your turns. There’s satisfaction and pleasure in getting into a methodical rhythmic groove as you skin up a slope or break a new track after fresh snowfall. Touring is an entry into a new world of skiing where opportunities for adventure increase exponentially, and suddenly the whole mountain becomes yours.