Traders and shepherds have traveled through the high passes of the Alps for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the first skiers completed what is now known as the Haute Route: a six-day, 46-mile traverse through the skyscraping peaks between Chamonix, France, and Zermatt, Switzerland, two of the continent’s iconic ski resorts.
Since then, huts have sprung up along the way to offer food and lodging, and the Haute Route has become a rite of passage for adventurous skiers. “People are blown away when they see how big and rugged the terrain is,” says John Race, owner of Northwest Mountain School, which leads trips each year. “And yet the big appeal is it’s all so accessible and you only need to carry a light pack to stay in relative comfort.”
> Getting Started:
Those tackling the Haute Route should be proficient backcountry skiers with experience using ski touring equipment, which includes bindings that allow heels to lift for heading uphill and skins, pieces of fabric with a grain that, when attached to skis, allow forward but not backward motion. Days can include more than 3,000 feet of climbing, so fitness is essential. (Other hut-to-hut routes in the Alps offer shorter, easier options.)
Most Haute Route skiers hire guides and set off for Geneva, the closest airport to Chamonix, in March or April, when avalanches are less frequent. On the first day of a trip, guides lead a warm-up run, starting with a ride up the Aiguille du Midi, a cable that glides 12,000 vertical feet from village to peak in 20 minutes.
From there, the Vallé Blanche, one of the area’s legendary ski runs, meanders gently more than 12 miles over the Mer de Glace glacier, between granite spires, and past a blue-ice cave down to the valley floor.
> High Climb:
On the first day of the Haute Route—one of the most challenging legs—take the tram at the Grand Montets ski area up to 10,762 feet, which, on a clear day, offers a spectacular view of the Chamonix Valley and Mont Blanc. Over more than six hours, climb for some 3,350 feet, descend 3,700 vertical feet, and cross two glaciers to the Trient Hut, with views of a plateau backed by summits.
> Rest and Refuel:
Most days, skiers wake early and ski to the next hut for lunch. “There’s generally a lot of free time in the afternoons—and a significant amount of beer drinking,” says Race. Some guests go out for leisurely ski runs; others play cards on sun-warmed decks, swap stories, and watch the alpenglow fade from the peaks.
Dinner—classic Swiss meat-and-potatoes fare—is served family style. If you’re friendly with the hut warden, you might get a nightcap of homemade génépi, an absinthe-like spirit distilled with Alpine wildflowers, before sacking out in a bunk room.
> Grand Finale:
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On the last day, skiers climb up and down three Alpine passes, dip into Italy, and reach the high Col du Valpelline, which has views of the toothy north face of the Matterhorn, one of the Alps’ most recognizable profiles.
From there, it’s more than a vertical mile of descending to the tony village of Zermatt. “We’re skiing between huge glaciers, icefalls, and massive faces,” says Race. “Very few skiers wouldn’t describe it as the best downhill run of their lives.”
This piece, written by Kate Siber, first appeared in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.