Bookended by Europe’s tallest mountain (4,810m Mont Blanc) and its most charismatic peak (the 4,478m Matterhorn), the Haute Route is the quintessential Alpine backcountry ski tour. The week-long journey threads its way between these fabled summits at altitudes often surpassing 3,000m, navigating a jagged, glaciated landscape where the only signs of civilisation are remote mountain huts operated by the Swiss Alpine Club.
People had known and used routes across the Alps long before Hannibal brought his elephants through in 218BC, but it wasn’t until the golden age of Alpinism that a team of British mountaineers stitched together the first recreational route connecting several of the Alps’ highest passes. The so-called High Level Route, mapped in summer 1861, became an instant classic for walkers and climbers. In the early 1900s, skiers completed a parallel itinerary between Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, ushering in a new wave of cold-weather adventurers.
The Haute Route today is a rite of passage for backcountry skiers from around the globe. It is most heavily travelled between April and mid-May, when spring ski conditions prevail and the Swiss mountain huts are fully operational. Thanks to the huts, skiers here are freed from the need to carry stoves, food, tents and sleeping bags and can focus entirely on the exhilaration of high-altitude exploration, knowing that a hot meal and a comfy bed await nightly at trail’s end. It’s a challenging route, suitable only for very fit, experienced backcountry skiers who are comfortable with altitude, glaciers, steep slopes, unpredictable mountain weather and a wide range of snow conditions. Unless you’re well versed in avalanche safety and wilderness first aid, you’re better off joining a guided trip than travelling on your own.
The adventure unfolds
Most skiers go from west to east, starting in Chamonix in France and ending in Zermatt, Switzerland. Throughout the six-day journey, you’ll find yourself in the shadow of imposing peaks, traversing glaciers, cols and high plateaux, with stretches of sustained climbing punctuated by exhilarating downhill runs. Nights are spent in Swiss Alpine Club huts, windswept oases perched on high ridges that greet travellers with down-quilted beds, beer, wine and hot meals.
On day one, you climb into the mountains, snake across glaciers at the foot of Mont Blanc and cross the French-Swiss border to Cabane du Trient, a mountain hut at 3,170m. Next morning, an invigorating descent through the Val d’Arpette leads to the Swiss village of Champex (1,477m) and transport to Verbier. From Mont Fort Hut outside Verbier, plunge back into the snowy wilderness on day three, crossing the Grand Désert glacier, then climbing over 3,336m Rosablanche to Prafleuri Hut. Day four is largely spent circumnavigating the western edge of Lac des Dix (2,364m), before a mid-afternoon ascent to Dix Hut (2,928m).
Day five involves a strenuous climb to the route’s highest point, the 3,790m summit of Pigne d’Arolla, followed by an overnight at spectacularly sited Vignettes Hut (3,160m), which clings to a lonely spur of rock astride the Vuibé Glacier. The trip’s long final day traverses three more passes along the Swiss-Italian border before reaching the ultimate reward: full-on Matterhorn views and a dizzying descent into Zermatt, a historic mountain resort whose idyllic end-of-the-road location offers a gentle re-entry into “normal” life.
Making it happen
Chamonix is accessible from Geneva airport. From Zermatt, trains run to Zurich and Geneva. You’ll need extreme backcountry gear, including: randonnée or telemark skis fitted with skins; a shovel, probe and beacon for avalanche safety; an ice axe, rope, harness and crampons. Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix (and others) offer Haute Route trips with IFMGA-certified guides. Celebrate the trip’s end at Zermatt’s Hotel Monte Rosa, where the first climbing party to scale the Matterhorn rendezvoused in 1865.
Traversing over a dozen glaciers and skinning to the summits of Rosablanche (3,336m) and Pigne d’Arolla (3,790m).
Sharing stories by the hut fireplace over glasses of wine and platefuls of rösti (the stick-to-your-ribs Swiss staple of crisp-fried grated potatoes).
Testing your backcountry skills on every kind of snow imaginable, from powder to corn.
Listening to the wind whistle through the cables while contemplating the straight vertical drop from the precarious outhouse at Vignettes Hut.
Catching your first mesmerising glimpse of the Matterhorn from Col de Valpelline, then schussing into Zermatt at trip’s end.
Elevation: 1,477m to 3,790m
Location: Chamonix in France to Zermatt, Switzerland.
Ideal time commitment: One week
Best time of year: Mid-March to mid-May
Essential tip: Plan ahead; guided trips and huts can fill up in advance
This is an extract from ‘Great Adventures’, published by Lonely Planet (£29.99). Readers can buy a copy for £25, including UK P&P, by going to shop.lonelyplanet.com and using the code INDEPENDENT