Letter From Switzerland (and France and Italy)

A High Level Route Diary (1989)

Stephen Senn

Sunday 7 May

We (Klaus, Werni, Kobi, Renee, Bernhard, Elmer and I) meet on Basle station to travel to Chamonix. In Martigny we are met by our guide 'Yeti' and travel in his company on the rack and pinion railway across the border and into France. Once at our destination we descend those tricky pistes (pronounce cautiously) the Crepy and the Gamay.

Monday 8 May

Glorious sunshine. In a cable car and a lot of glacier cream we ascend to the Aiguille du Midi, 3824m (12605 ft). Having paused for photographs and the view, which stretches to the Monte-Rosa, we begin the shuffle down the narrow snow ridge carrying our skis to the point at which they can carry us. A superb descent by crevasses, under seracs and in the sparkling scenery of the Vallé Blanche then follows. At the end a steep haul on foot brings us to the Mer de Glace railway and so back to Chamonix. We travel to Argentière where we take the lift to the Aiguille des Grands Montets, 3233m (10607 ft) and ski down to the Rognons Glacier. Half of Renee disappears into a crevass much to the consternation of the other half, which is, however, held firm by Elmer. We put skins on our skis and skis on our feet and begin the short climb to the Argentiere hut, 2772m (9091 ft).

Tuesday 9 May

The weather is still good but I am no longer in top form, Maybe it was the five o'clock start, maybe it was the night in the hut (nine to a bed and a concert of snoring of frightening ferocity), maybe there was one descent too many of the Gamay but the sun is rising fast and I am rising slowly up to the Col de Chardonet, 3323m (10902 ft) and the Swiss border. A steep descent on foot on the far side is followed by a ski down to point 3091m (10141 ft). (I know all these figures are terribly tiresome but reading about these metres or feet is not half as tiresome as climbing them.) Then begins a steep climb with skins in full morning sunshine on a south-east facing slope to the Fenêtre de Saleina, 3261m (10699ft). "Why do I do this?" I ask myself, not for the first time ever and not for the last time on this tour.

The answer awaits us on the other side. We are now at the head of a superb snow bowl known as the Plateau de Trient. We speed on down easy slopes, past the Aiguilles Dorées to a steep basin whose rim we follow to reach the Fenêtre de Chamois, a narrow rocky gap above a steep snow couloir. "Rope up and wear crampons," says my guidebook but although I am dangling on a rope I have skis on my feet. "Don't tie your sticks to your rucksack. Stick them between your back and the sack. You will need them," Yeti had said. He is right. Our two ropes knotted together have a length of 90m. I am at the end of my abseil but not at the end of the couloir and I wish that the ropes stretched 90 metres more. The gulley is still very steep and narrow. I get my sticks off the pack, take a deep breath, and unclip my karabiner. When dead scared I am never too proud to side-slip and this is what I do until my pulse has dropped to twice normal.

Looking back up the couloir

We ski down the beautiful Val d'Arpette to the even more beautiful restaurant at the bottom and beer, lunch and other values of civilisation.

The day's work is not yet done. A bus brings us to Verbier (see the first Letter from Switzerland for a description of the doubtful attractions of this resort) and a gondola lift to Les Ruinettes but this still leaves us with one and a half hours of skin work to get to the Mont Fort hut.

Wednesday 10 May

......and then there were seven (not counting Yeti). We have said goodbye to Klaus who has injured his thumb and is going to return home. It is 3:30 a.m. but there isn't a star in sight. Cloud has crept in during the night and creeping by torchlight is what I am now doing. Ahead lies the Col de la Chaux 2940m (9646 ft) and behind, but not far behind, alas, lies the Mont Fort Cabane 2457m(8061 ft). Beyond the pass we make a gloomy descent to a frozen lake. It now begins to snow.

There is much hard work ahead. We have to climb another 1000ft to the Col de Cleusan on the "Grand Desert", the famous glacier of the Rosablanche, then descend steep ice (and rocks!) before ascending another 600 ft to the Col de Severeu.

At last the col is reached and a long downhill run to the Lac de Dix is in prospect. But well before the reservoir is reached, Yeti begins to traverse in order to gain its end. Steep snow is followed by scree and boulder, which is followed by avalanche debris, which is followed by steep snow. Now skiing, now carrying skis, now sliding, now stumbling I follow him and all the others. Tired, wet and hungry I start thinking of some names to call Yeti: Abominable Snowman comes easily to mind. We reach the side of the Dix. Surely there will be a lunch stop now. It is 11:00 and two and a half hours travel would see us at the hut. Under extreme pressure from me and strong action from Elmer, who despite Yeti's protest has stopped to repair his feet, a quarter of an hour break is granted.

Then off again. The hut lies at 2928m (9606ft) and we are at 2386m(7828ft). There is no rest for those foolish enough to have elected to do the Haute Route. A soon as I reach the hut I stagger upstairs to bed. I doze fitfully and on waking notice that a young lady is sharing the dorm with me and has removed the top half of her clothing. I am too tired to find this interesting.

Thursday 11 May

The group from the Dix Hut

Yesterday's hard work is to be rewarded. We have slept until seven and the sun is shining. The Cabane de Dix is behind us and an ascent of that ski-mountaineering classic, the Pigne d'Arolla, is underway. We pass up through the famous Serpentine icefall with stunning views of the Mont de Blanc de Cheillon, 2870m (12697ft) a mountain which, if my memory serves me well, has been climbed by club-member Bill Jones.

The ascent

However, the ascent is not without its problems. My Tyrolia binding has lost a screw. Yeti (not such a bad chap after all) effects a repair but henceforth I am not able to ski without a lingering fear that my binding will open when I least need it to. We reach the summit of the Pigne, 3796m (12,454ft) just as it starts to snow, but, a steep ice slope notwithstanding, we are soon down at the spectacularly sited Vignettes cabane. Outside the storm is howling; inside we are having a late lunch of fried eggs and Rösti.

Friday 12 May

It is five o'clock in the morning and it has stopped snowing. The weather forecast is bad. The usual morning ritual starts. Put on the sit harness. Strap on the avalanche transceiver and switch it on. Quarter of an hour for breakfast. Collect the thermos flask and set off. We descend in powder snow from our hut 3194m (10479ft) to the Col de Chermontaine 3053m (10016ft) to rejoin the classic Haute Route (yes, I confess it, since Verbier we have been following a lesser variant). On with skins and up amidst breathtaking scenery to the Col de l'Eveque 3392m (11129ft). A beautiful descent in powder snow follows. Within two minutes we have passed into Italy. Two minutes more and we are back in Switzerland. We descend to 2920m( 9580ft). Ahead lies the Col du Mont Brulé.

"Steep snow slope which is usually climbed on foot. Avalanche danger after heavy snowfall," says the guidebook. But we are doing it on skis to save time and energy. A fifty metre gap between each of us is ordered by Yeti. I am second to last. Waiting to start, I watch those ahead of me. Every bend seems to involve a terrific struggle to stay on the slope. I alone, elect to kick turn but have my heart in my mouth as I expect my defective binding to part company with my foot at any moment. It is a long way down and the safety straps have been taken off because of avalanche danger. Whether the ski goes down alone or with me makes little odds: either way, the lost height has to be regained. At last I am at the top, 3213m (1054ft).

We descend into a topmost edge of Italy: the famous glacier du Tsa de Tsan. Now we are really committed. On our left is a sheer wall of rock and to our right an impossibly steep icefall descends thousands of feet into the rest of Italy. The mist has descended, the wind is up and it is snowing heavily and we have 2 miles to cross and one and a half thousand feet to ascend to make the Col de Valpelline, 2568m (11706ft). At last we are there, back in Switzerland. But our troubles are not over. We have a very long descent ahead of us in poor visibility on a heavily crevassed glacier. Yeti ropes himself to two others and leads the way. The rest of us follow unroped. I wonder whether we are in greater or lesser danger but cannot work this out.

THE HOTEL JULEN. Hot baths. Food! Eight mountaineers, unshaven in some cases, but freshly bathed in all, and wearing either ski-socks or inner ski-boots are in the dining room of this excellent hotel descending the Moet et Chandon. There is talk of what we shall do tomorrow. I don't care. I resolve that I shall never do a ski tour again. Cakes and coffee in Zermatt for me tomorrow morning and the train back to Basle just as soon as I have the energy to carry my rucksack.

Saturday 13 May

.....and then there were 6. We have ascended the cable car to the Kleine Matterhorn, 3883m (12740ft) in the company of the skiing tourists. We say goodbye to Bernhard who has had to turn back because of blisters. We put on our skins and head for the Breithorn. The sun is shining and the views are stupendous. "Going well today, Stefan," says Yeti as I reach the summit ridge. "Yeti," I say, "today not only could I climb the Breithorn, I could climb Ben Nevis." "Stephen," I think, "never mind Ben Nevis, you could even manage Driesh." The final ridge is narrow and we carry our skis. On the left it is steep; on the right it is very steep. We all shake hand son the summit, 4164m (13,661 ft). (That's the last spot height, I promise.) Around us glitter the great peaks of Zermatt and Saas-Fee: Castor and Pollux, the Monte Rosa, the Dom and Täschhorn, the Weisshorn, Zinal Rothorn and the Ober Gabelhorn. Only the Matterhorn is hidden in mist, unglimpsed by us since we stood on the Aiguilles du Midi.


On the summit ridge of the Breithorn

"Next year," says Yeti, "I am crossing Norway on skis to the Lofotten Islands". "Nordic skis, I presume," say I. "No," he says, "Alpine skis". "Now that," I think, smiling, "will make the High Level Route seem like a picnic."

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