Friday, 25 March 2011

The Classic Haute Route, Chamonix to Zermatt - Planning Stages


I have already discussed at length
the enkindling in me of a hitherto latent desire to spend time in the Alps and the consequential motivation for wanting to add Alpinism to my life’s résumé. This formidable high-altitude trek from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland connecting Mont Blanc with the Matterhorn, draws an inspiring and uncompromising line through the nucleus of the Alps. Unlike the Walker’s Haute Route, the decaffeinated version, this traverse requires genuine mountaineering skills. As neophyte mountaineers, and with the Tour du Mont Blanc under our belts, we considered ourselves sufficiently proficient to undertake the Classic Haute Route, but only with services of a guide. This is a route which crosses several elevated and onerous cols and traverses more than a dozen glaciers. Although not a particularly long trek, at 120 kilometres (75 miles), the route involves significant ascent and descent - more than 10,000 metres (33,000 feet) in total - and includes ascents of the Tête Blanche (3421m / 11,224ft) via the Col Superior du Tour, Pointe des Planards (2866m / 3402ft), Pigne d’Arolla (3796m / 12,454ft) and the Tête Blanche (3724m / 12,218ft) from the Mont Mine Glacier.


Why employ a guide? Two very simple reasons. Although we have some experience of alpine walking, and some experience of winter hillwalking and mountaineering, we are still fledgling alpinists. A guide would simultaneously ensure our safety in what is a parlous environment while educating us en route and developing our raw, nascent mastery of alpinism. What we would learn on the CHR, if those skills were properly embedded, would permit us to venture into the Alps alone in future and attempt 4,000m peaks with only ourselves for comfort. We could indeed recklessly amble into this unpredictable dominion alone, and probably survive, but the habits entrenched by this wanton approach would be fatal to our long-term evolution. So we chose to be guided and joined the KE Adventure Travel CHR trek. I like KE Adventure Travel, who have an excellent reputation within the adventure travel and trekking industry, and so they were a good option. Ron Walker MIC, our recent mentor in the Cairngorms, knows our guide and speaks highly of her.


And so the planning begins, although this time much will be done by our hosts. We leave London for Geneva on 21st August 2011 and then head by bus transfer to Argentiére, in the shadow of Mont Blanc herself, and an old friend from last year. There we meet up with our Guide, and the rest of our group, and enjoy a meal before we begin the trek the next day. My plan is to keep my kit to under 7kg, but I'll post on the Pre-Departure Kit Analysis later in 2011. Clearly, as well, be travelling on snow and glaciers, it will be a different proposition to the TMB but similar principles apply - light means fast and that's the name of the game in the Alps. The CHR itinerary, summarised, is as follows:


21st August '11
Fly to Geneva and transfer to Chamonix. Rendezvous at the group's chalet in Argentiére, meet the group and enjoy an evening meal together. Then we have a trip briefing and equipment check.


22nd August '11
We take a cable car from Le Tour, then hike to the Albert Premier Hut, or more properly the Refuge Albert 1er, (2702m) where we can practice our snow and ice skills on the Glacier du Tour. Overnight at the hut.


23rd August '11
We cross into Switzerland via the Col Superior du Tour (3289m). If conditions allow we will make an ascent of the Tete Blanche (3421m) before grabbing lunch at the Cabane du Trient. We then descend via the Glacier d'Orny and overnight at the Cabane d'Orny (2831m).


24th August '11
We descend into the Vallon d'Arpette de Saleina, then traverse the east side of Val Ferret to our hotel in La Fouly.


25th August '11
We climb to the Col du Neve de la Rousse (2752m), with a diversion to ascend the Pointe des Planards (2866m). Apart from great opportunities for spotting alpine wildlife, including marmots, chamois and bouquetins (ibex), there is also a chance to take a swim in the clear waters of a small lake, the Gouille du Draggon. Overnight in Bourg St. Pierre in a Gîte.


26th August '11
A long and easy ascent to the Col de Lane (3033m), then a descent via the old bergeries at Nicliri (2492m) to our overnight stop at the Cabane Brunet (2103m).


27th August '11
We set off to the Cabane FXB-Panossière, via the Col d'Avouillons (2647m).


28th August '11
We climb to the Col des Otanes, then descend the Pierre a Vire to Lac de Mauvoisin, from where we make the steep ascent to the Cabane de Chanrion (2462m).


29th August '11
Today we cross 4 cols to leave behind the greenery of the lower Alps, and to ascend to the rock and ice of the high glaciated environment of the Brennay and Gietro Glaciers: the Col de Tsofeiret, Col de Lire Rose, Col de Mont Rouge (3325m) and the Col de Cheilon, to finally reach the Cabane des Dix (2928m).


30th August '11
An early start to reach the high point of our route, the Pigne d'Arolla (3796m) via the Glacier du Cheilon and the Col de la Serpentine. A short glacial descent takes us to the Cabane des Vignettes (3160m).


31st August '11
We climb beneath the North Face of the Petit Mon Collon on glaciated terrain to the Col de L'Eveque (3386m) and descend onto the Haute Glacier d'Arolla traversing snow and bare glacier. We then  cross the Col de Bertol (3268m) to reach the Cabane de Bertol.


1st September '11
Today, we descend the ladders from the hut, rope up and start the long, gentle ascent of the Mont Mine Glacier, heading for the easy snow peak of the Tete Blanche (3724m / 12,218ft). Then, we descend by way of the complex and heavily crevassed Stockji Glacier to the Schönbielhütte, directly beneath the Matterhorn.


2nd September '11
Finally, a pleasant stroll down to Zermatt, beneath the towering north face of the Matterhorn before finishing off with a big meal in Zermatt.


Much is dependent, as is so often the case in the Alps, on the weather but ascents of four major Alpine peaks seem likely. This will extend us, I hope, and provide us with the experience necessary to progress to self-guided missions and the Alpine 4,000ers.

Alpine Huts and Refuges
As with the TMB, we’ll be staying in huts and refuges but, unlike the TMB, we won’t organise this - KE will have done so ahead of us. This is unnecessary, of course, and it’s not difficult to book one’s own alpine huts a day or so ahead of time. A simple phone call, usually from the hut you’re currently staying in, will suffice and we did this on the TMB a day or two in advance once we knew where we’d be staying as a consequence of the route we'd be taking. You will have ascertained the possible routes you’ll be taking well in advance and have the contact details of each an every potential hut noted. There are copious guidebooks to the various alpine regions and most have hut details. It is, however, part of the package that KE offer so it is one thing not to have to worry about. Where the particular hut has a website of its own, I have linked it, but often the best resource is the CAS or CAF website.



Resources
Switzerland Topographic survey Maps - Bundesamt für Landestopographie 1:50,000. 2 Sheets:
Sheet 1 - Mont Blanc Grand Combin - Sheet no. 5003
Sheet 2 - Matterhorn Mischabel - Sheet no. 5006


Peter Cliff, ‘The Haute Route: Chamonix to Zermatt’, (2003, rev.) Cordee Press
Peter Cliff, ‘Alpinism’, (1998) Cordee Press
Johnston and Adby, 'A Hillwalker’s Guide to Mountaineering', Cicerone Press 2003
Cunningham and Fyffe, 'Winter Skills: Essential Walking and Climbing Techniques', UKMTB 2007


BMC DVD's: 'Alpine Essentials' and 'Winter Essentials', both available through the BMC


Club Alpin Français
Club Alpin Suisse and the Monta-Rosa Section of the CAS
Summit Post
The Swiss Train Timetable website
Alpybus

10 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great trip!
    That many days of glacier travel should set you up well for some alpinism with your mates,just get in some Scottish mixed routes in next winter and some stiffer scrambles/easy rock climbs and you will be sorted.
    It looks like you've already got some route specific maps but a tip for the future when planning to go to Switzerland is to get the ski versions of the 1:50k maps denoted with an S after the sheet number, e.g. I think Arolla is 283S. These are the same high quality as the usual ones but include the normal ascent and descent routes on the glaciers for ski touring,
    these are usually the same lines taken by climbers in summer.
    With regards to pack weight I always managed to get all my kit in/on a 40 litre sac. This will initially be heavy and a little ungainly given all the ironmongery and climbing kit but once you set foot on the ice it all comes off the sac.
    I hope you get good weather for a great holiday.

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  2. It seems clear to me that the CHR will set us up with the core skills which we can improve and develop both in the Alps and in Scotland in winter through mixed routes as you observe. Thanks for your tip regarding the maps and it's something I'll look into (largely because I am a bit of a map fan). Having done the TMB, I can easily do the CHR in under 6.5kg in my OMM Villain. I'll be posting on kit at some point soon, once I have reviewed some new acquisitions. I actually find the Villain, loaded with this sort of weight, to be a very tidy carry and when the heavy metal is out and in use, it's even better. Thanks for the comment Wurz and nice to see you. Thanks for visiting.

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  3. Hi Maz,
    You are certainly going for it, and who could blame you. When i read the post i was part planning it myself.
    You are doing the right thing going guided this time. have a great adventure and like the Mont Blanc trip it will be great to read i am sure.

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  4. Serious stuff. I think hiring a guide is sensible. You keep safe as your skills develop and you learn. Money well spent. I also assume it makes getting into huts and getting a room a bit easier maybe? Have a great trip and like Alan look forward to the trip reports.

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  5. Martin and Alan - thanks. Guiding makes sense as it means we progress our learning as well as exposure to the Alps in a controlled sense. The next trip will be 4000m+ on our own.

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  6. Sounds like a great trip!
    That many days of glacier travel should set you up well for some alpinism with your mates,just get in some Scottish mixed routes in next winter and some stiffer scrambles/easy rock climbs and you will be sorted.
    It looks like you've already got some route specific maps but a tip for the future when planning to go to Switzerland is to get the ski versions of the 1:50k maps denoted with an S after the sheet number, e.g. I think Arolla is 283S. These are the same high quality as the usual ones but include the normal ascent and descent routes on the glaciers for ski touring,
    these are usually the same lines taken by climbers in summer.
    With regards to pack weight I always managed to get all my kit in/on a 40 litre sac. This will initially be heavy and a little ungainly given all the ironmongery and climbing kit but once you set foot on the ice it all comes off the sac.
    I hope you get good weather for a great holiday.

    ReplyDelete
  7. a good plan, look fwd to reading more as it unfolds. Never been to the Alps...looks incredible, also busy - still thinking about the WHR for next year maybe

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  8. The Walkers Haute Route is apparently tougher than the TMB but not quite as picturesque. I find that hard to believe as most alpine routes are beautiful. The Classic Haute Route is a different proposition given the routes involved but I look forward to doing it and also to writing about it. You will love the Alps, Dave - amazing stuff but I think I have conveyed my own feelings about them! I am guessing you'd camp rather than stay in huts, if I know you?

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  9. This sounds like a great plan - and let's hope the weather cooperates. June has been a cool month, which makes for better glacier conditions. And you certainly won't regret going with a guide - a great chance to perfect your glacier navigation and rescue skills etc etc.  Even better if the weather isn't quite perfect - then you'll see how to manage in cruddy conditions. Look forward to reading the write-up here in due course!

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  10. It's late in the season because, as a consequence of work, it's the only time I can go so that's going to be a factor too. We know the guide as Ron (our Cairngorms teacher from Talisman) knows her and speaks highly of her. It's as much about learning as doing and, if the weather does not co-operate over the 13 days (which let's be honest is inevitable), then we'll learn a little quicker...

    ReplyDelete